Making the case for philosophy

At the Indian Philosophy Blog, Amod Lele has written a post titled “Making the case for non-Western philosophy.” Even though the title is ostensibly the subject of the post — even though the post is, on the surface, a book review about a book making the case for studying non-Western philosophy — Lele’s post really is making a case for studying philosophy at all, non-Western or Western.

As Lele puts it: “We live in an anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual age where philosophy, Western and Asian, needs defending.” As one specific example, he mentions “the awful US Republican debate where three different politicians took it upon themselves to take pot shots at philosophy.” It is worth noting that Donald Trump was not one of the candidates who took potshots at philosophy; this serves as a helpful reminder that the Republican party is riddled with anti-intellectualism.

Nor is anti-intellectualism confined to the Republican party. As a resident of Silicon Valley, I can tell you that Silicon Valley is a hotbed of anti-intellectualism. The only intellectual disciplines that are valued here in the Valley are those disciplines that will make you money; and really only those narrow areas within a discipline that will make money. Silicon Valley residents look down on the flyover states, but when I lived for a year in north central Illinois, an hour west of Chicago, I found more intellectual depth than I find here in Silicon Valley.

In his post, Lele discusses Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “the hermeneutic of faith” — which Lele defines as the willingness “to listen to the great thinkers of the past and take seriously the idea that they might be right — and contrasts that with the “hermeneutic of suspicion … which views previous thought as oppressive dead weight.”* Both the Republican party and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs may be accused of having their own versions of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” — the Republican party has left behind its intellectual past, and now appears to repudiate all serious thinking; Silicon Valley entrepreneurs view whatever predates computers as now hopelessly outdated and worthy only of amused contempt. Nor are Democrats immune from such thinking; too many Democrats worship Silicon Valley, and indeed the Democrats’ unquestioning embrace of neoliberalism and unrestrained capitalism also represents a kind of betrayal of serious thought. Identity politics, which now dominates the Democrats’ social policies, can also be deadly to serious thought: although identitarianism has been useful in deconstructing problematic thought processes, in practice identity politics can also serve as an intellectual bludgeon with which to shut down serious discourse and serious thinking.

Politically, socially, and intellectually, the United States is heading into a dead end. I don’t claim that philosophy is going to save us, or steer us out of the dead end. But I do claim that we need to let go of our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking about more than how to make money, and how to beat our political opponents. This is precisely where both Western and non-Western philosophy might be able to help.

We need look no further than the Confucian Analects, and the concept of rén which may be translated as kindness, forebearance, humaneness. For example, ren is defined as follows in the Analects (6.30): “The person of perfect virtue, wishing to be established, establishes others; wishing to be enlarged, enlarges others.”** This kind of thoughtful selflessness would do much to change both U.S. politics and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

And Confucius even had an answer for someone who wants to know how just thinking about something will affect the real world: “Ren is not far off; the person who seeks for it has already found it.”


* It is significant that the spell checker in Firefox, my Web browser, does not contain the word “hermeneutics”; though you can be assured the spell checker contains every tech buzzword.
** My rewording of Legge’s translation.

“On Being Sixty”

Years ago, I bought a used copy of “A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems” translated by Arthur Waley, and published in 1919. A book plate pasted on the fly-leaf reads “The Vedanta Center Library.” I had never looked at the introduction to this book until today, and there, tucked in next to a page describing Sung dynasty poetics, was an old and yellowed newspaper clipping with this poem:

On Being Sixty
Po Chu-i

Between thirty and forty, one is distracted by the Five Lusts;
Between seventy and eighty, one is prey to a hundred diseases.
But from fifty to sixty one is free from all ill;
Calm and still — the heart enjoys rest.
I have put behind me Love and Green; I have done with Profit and Fame;
I am still short of illness and decay and far from decrepit age.
Strength of limb I still possess to seek the rivers and hills;
Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and strings.
At leisure I open new wine and taste several cups;
Drunken I recall old poems and sing a whole volume.
Meng-te has asked for a poem and herewith I exhort him
Not to complain of three-score, “the time of obedient ears.”

This poem appears on page 233 of the book, and there Waley adds a footnote to the last line: “Confucius said that it was not till sixty that ‘his ears obeyed him.’ This age was therefore called “the time of obedient ears.” As for the Five Lusts, this is a reference to the Buddhist worldview, so “lust” in this context apparently refers to things like an attraction to colors, appearances, etc.

I’m not sure I like this poem. I’m fifty-five, and I know from experience that being fifty-five is different from being, say, thirty. But, in direct contradiction to Po Chu-i, my heart is far from calm and still. This may be because I’ve never had any resonance with the Buddhist worldview in which nirvana, or nothingness, is the ultimate aim. Nor have I found much calmness or stillness in my middle fifties: the world is still screwed up, there is still a great deal of work to be done, and I really see nothing to be calm or still about.

I guess I prefer what Confucius says about the different ages. Here is James Legge’s translation of the Analects, bk. II, ch. 4:

“The Master said, ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.
‘At thirty, I stood firm.
‘At forty, I had no doubts.
‘At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
‘At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
‘At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.'”

The concept of “heaven” for Confucius was not the same as the usual Western Christian conception of Heaven; it’s not some place in the sky that you’ll go when you die, rather it is more like the natural order of things. The Confucian concept of “knowing the decrees of Heaven” reminds me of the ancient Greek concept of phronesis. Aristotle identified phronesis as one of the four types of human wisdom. Aristotle said we attain phronesis, or practical wisdom, at about age fifty, and it is those who have phronesis who are fit to be rulers.

Po Chu-i likes being sixty because his heart is calm and still, his ears are obedient, and he can still get drunk and recite poetry. And when he’s seventy, he’ll be prey to a hundred diseases. Confucius likes being sixty because he knew the decrees of heaven, and his ears were open to the truth. When Confucius got to seventy, he had aligned himself with what was right to so great an extent that what he desired was what was right. I guess I’d rather follow in the footsteps of Confucius.

Rethinking a classic story

“The Picture on the Kitchen Wall,” a story from the classic Sophia Fahs book From Long Ago and Many Lands, has some serious problems: it’s arguably not very Chinese, it contains a number of hidden biases, etc. This story is, in fact, a good example of why we should question everything that Sophia Fahs wrote — even though she remains the most brilliant Unitarian Universalist religious educator we’ve ever seen, she was not by any means perfect.

“The Picture on the Kitchen Wall” purports to tell the back story of the Kitchen God, the minor deity in Chinese popular religion whose image is mounted somewhere near the kitchen stove. Each year, according to most accounts, the Kitchen God leaves the kitchen and reports to a higher deity (sometimes identified in English-language accounts as the Jade Emperor) about the good and bad deeds of the family in whose house he lives. In Fahs’s retelling of the Kitchen God’s story, he was originally a historical figure, a person named Chang Kung.

In tracing Chang Kung, I find him mentioned in a book of maxims attributed to Emperor K’ang-hsi [Kangxi], who ruled China from 1661-1722, an early emperor of the Ch’ing [Qing] dynasty. These maxims appeared in English translation in 1817 as The Sacred Edict, Containing Sixteen Maxims of Emperor Kang-He, Amplified by his Son, the Emperor Yoong-Ching, trans. Rev. William Milne (London: Black, Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allen, 1817), pp. 51-52:

“Formerly, nine generations of Chang-kung-e inhabited the same house; and a Mr. Chin of Keang Chow had seventy persons who all ate together. Those who belong to one family, and are of one surname, should think of their ancestors; rather exceed, than be deficient in respect; rather surpass, than be wanting in kindness. When there is prosperity, rejoice mutually, by an interchange of social affections; when adversity, sympathize mutually, by affording reciprocal aids. In building a family temple to sacrifice to ancestors; in erecting a domestic academy for instructing youth; in purchasing a charity field for the supply of indigent brethren; and in correcting the family calendar, to interweave the names of the more distant relatives — let the same mutual aid be afforded.”

Chang Kung continued to be mentioned by later English-speaking writers as the nineteenth century progressed. A typical example, with an unpleasantly racist conclusion, may be found in Arthur H. Smith D.D., Village Life in China: A Study in Sociology (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., Publishers of Evangelical Literature, 1899), p. 27:

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