Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Transformation, death, "Chinese" thought, and "Western"

At his blog Intra-Being, Andre Ling raises the question:
At what point does death pass from something inevitable and therefore quite acceptable to something violent and therefore more unacceptable [?]
This question intersected in my mind with a passage I recently encountered in François Jullien's The Silent Transformations. Jullien has seemingly become the Sinologist these days, at least in certain philosophical circles; I do not know what Asian studies departments make of him. His many books translated so far all tend to run the compare-&-contrast ploy: here's what our Western philosophical tradition, inherited from the Greeks, makes of such-&-such a matter; and what does the Chinese tradition say? In The Silent Transformations, the issue is the nature of change, and Jullien argues that Chinese thought tends to regards change as far more gradual and less catastrophic; and this has rendered Chinese philosophy more sensitive not only to small and incremental change, but also to processes that are cumulative and ultimately transformational.
To put it bluntly, there is even an inversion between Greek and Chinese thought in this respect, and the latter opens up an initial breach.... on the one hand Aristotlean nature, the phusis, is conceived as being a subject-agent: it 'wants', 'aims', 'undertakes', is 'ingenious' and sets up 'goals'. The Chinese sage or strategist on the ohter hand displays no ambition other than to 'transform' just as nature does (hua is their master word). (The Silent Transformations, pp 8-9)
I am by disposition suspicious of overarching accounts of "Chinese" or "Japanese" or "Indian thought", just as much as I am of "Greek" or "French" (There is as much difference between Kitaro Nishida and Kukai as there is between Malebranche and Deleuze), so I take all this with a bit of whatever cross-cultural seasoning is appropriate. (I note, e.g., that Jullien refers specifically to Aristotle, but contrasts him with the generic "Chinese sage or strategist.") I hasten to add that I am radically unqualified to question Jullien's scholarship; I merely protest that a culture rich enough to inspire a scholarship of such caliber must have more texture and variation to it that the repetition of what I can't help but consider cliches. After all, the various disputes between rival schools of Confucianism (let alone between Mohists, Buddhists, and so on) were certainly experienced by participants to be substantive disagreements. I raise my eyebrows when I come across a question like this one about the process of human ageing:
Would not this constant and silent passage which constitutes ageing, as undeniable as it is, teach us more about life itself; does it not definitely already let us glimpse what is effective, so widespread and discreet is it that it is ordinarily imperceptible, about all we project and busily construct about the End? But European philosophy has no less placed death as the gleam on the horizon, as a culminating, fascinating and apocalyptic point, towards which everything converges and will be suddenly resolved: the place where, tearing aside the veil, the anticipated Truth is finally to be revealed.... If philosophy had transferred its attention to the transition of ageing, as something which we are nevertheless faced with everywhere and which has always already started, it would undoubtedly have refrained from making death a point of scrutiny which definitively cuts off everything, an invitation, in a great game of double or nothing, to the wager of Faith or rather to the tragic hardening. It would have approached death as the ultimate result--the avatar--of ageing that begins so soon, no longer as a Rupture and a leap into the Indescribable, but in the dependency and continuation of ageing....it would cease to be an enigma and become an epilogue. (pp 58-9)
Suffice it to say that I have my doubts as to whether death is experienced as a non-enigmatic "epilogue" across the whole of Chinese philosophy.

However, these qualms aside, there is something worth examining here. And here, too, is where we intersect again with Andre Ling's question, with which I began. I won't unpack Ling's whole post, which is rather long and worth reading in full. He has recourse to some fruitful work of Tim Morton's which strikes me as interesting, in part, precisely by virtue of grounding a nonviolent ethic in the Harman-inspired trope of 'withdrawal,' i.e., the radical disconnected-ness of all beings (rather than the usual cliche--for which I still have some strong affinity--of pervasive inter-connection). (For a different take on this, look at Amod Lele's early post on Speculative Realism here). Ling takes up this notion and runs with it till he comes to what he sees as the problem:
Morton’s point seems to be that non-violence is the key to existence for any object: an object can only continue to exist if it is able to get along with itself and with others. This means that inconsistencies are not cancelled out but rather multiplied and amplified. It is the proliferation of inconsistencies that permit an expanding co-existence to take place. Violence, it seems to me, becomes a kind of icing on the non-violent cake of being. While non-violence is what makes being possible, that very being itself sustains a variety of violent encounters. In a sense, to the extent that the encounter between two objects is always between a real object and a sensual object – between a subject and a caricature – every encounter contains an inevitable violent dimension. The idea, then, that somehow the ontological necessity of non-violence for being translates into the possibility of perfectly non-violent existence seems to be difficult to uphold. ...How do I avoid merging the recognition that violence is an inevitable feature of the world (it also has an ontological foundation in the caricaturing that goes on in all inter-objective relations) with the idea that, therefore, violence should simply be accepted?
Ling's question is the same one that is made pressing (and left unresolved) by the Bhagavad-Gita.

To conclude, or rather suspend for now, two brief and provisional observations:

First, One might consider the birth of the philosophical mind in the West as the rupture from that participatory consciousness for which (by contrast) there had been a community with the dead, for which "the ancestors" had remained a part of the cultural conversation. Formerly, it had been actually experienced as meaningful to think of death as a transition, and there were even those for whom traffic across this border was considered risky but possible gambit. Is the distinction Ling draws--"beauty is when one object’s ego is dissolved by its encounter with another object. Violence is when an object is reduced to its traces"--pertinent here? Does philosophy begin in the conflation between beauty and violence --i.e., in the characterization of persuasion by beauty as unfree? (I myself want to draw a distinction here between the sublime and the beautiful.)

Second, Jullien contends that China proved somewhat resistant to giving inroads to Christianity in part because of its difference in its conception of time, and of death. But of course, the decisive divergence here is not with "Greek" thought but with "Hebrew"; the Biblical concpetion of time as tending towards an historical telos. And here what seems pertinent is the way the manifest and unmanifest worlds infer or implicate each other. The Chinese "Great Triad" of T'ien, Ti, Jen ("Heaven," "Earth," "Man"), is--despite Rene Guenon's stern words against parallel-mongering in the first chapter of his monograph--closely akin, not indeed to the Christian Trinity, but to the three points Franz Rosenzweig lays out in The Star of Redemption, a philosophical work whose Biblical inspiration I trust needs no belaboring. The difference, however, is that Rosenzweig delineates God, World, and Man insisting upon their confrontation of each other in a kind of ontological bruteness, as it were; he insists upon them as ontologically independent, their relationship unmediated; this is what Rosenzweig means by "smashing the All," in a move as emphatically non-monist as philosophy has seen. For Rosenzweig, God, World and Man are mediated by nothing-- by the Naught. In China, this naught is capable of a sort of paradoxical mediation, for (to quote Guenon, who I recognize is not a standard authority among Sinologists), "the Tao is simultaneously Non-Being and Being, while at the same time not really being anything apart from Non-Being". (The Great Triad, p 19, n.8) I bring in Rosenzweig here not only because he illustrates in a compelling way the philosophical consequences of a sustained encounter with Biblical thinking (and in a way not overdetermined by Christianity), but also precisely because he begins his great book with the subject of Jullien's paragraph above, the question of death.

There is a great deal more to say--on inconsistency, the naught (= the void in Badiou? withrawal in Harman? etc.), decision, and so on.... but enough for now.


  1. Skholiast, please help me. You start criticizing in a very appropriate way oversimplifications (and I cannot but agree with you) and then end up talking about "China" and the "West"? Am I missing an important distinction between the two kinds of simplification (apart from the fact that yours is intriguing)?

  2. Hi Elisa,

    Thanks you for calling me on this-- I see how I confused you. Although the point of the post was not the overgeneralizations, I did want to note them in passing. Insofar as I make use of similar sweeping labels, I did want to put them in quotation marks, so as to underscore that I am subject to correction. I actually do believe (although I do not highlight this in the post) that certain broad characterizations of regional or historical thought are legitimate (albeit necessarily provisional), and after all it seems obvious that there are large-scale differences between, say, Indian and Chinese and Greek philosophy or religion-- but at the same time, there are always parallels and similarities. Sorry if this sounds so painfully obviousas to be almost devoid of meaning. I should also add (as this may not be clear from the post) that I have learned a lot from Jullien, and that I do not think his generalizations deprive his work of any value-- I simply bear in mind that there are (at least as I read it) some generalizations at play; I am always muttering under my breath, "Yes, but..." but that is not the same as muttering "No, not at all!"