Sunday, December 18, 2011

François Jullien, Zhong Yong, Imprimerie Nationale, 1993

French version

François Jullien gives, by publishing this translation, an important contribution to our understanding of Chinese philosophy and its relationship with our own philosophy.

The goal of Western philosophy is knowledge enriched after Kant by the critic of knowledge [1]. The goal of Chinese philosophy is wisdom, shēng. But the wisdom of the Chinese lies in an articulation of the personality that is strange for us - not because it would not exist by us, but because we do not give him any attention.

Our culture followed two paths to knowledge: at first the truth revealed by Scripture and dogma, and then from the Renaissance Science constructed by combining theory and experimentation. Our intellectual history is marked by the rivalry between these two approaches but the Chinese have followed neither one nor the other.

One of the presentations of their philosophy is the Zhong Yong (pronounce Djong Yong) which, with the Interviews of Confucius, the Mencius and the Great Learning, was used for a thousand years to train Chinese scholars. It is written in the indirect style favored by the Chinese: where we would use definitions and deductions they prefer hint and suggestion. One can hardly understand this text if one does not access to a comment.

Differences between Western thought and Chinese thought

The Chinese do not share our conception of a transcendent God, origin and explanation of the world. Their "religion" is a cult of the process by which nature renews itself and they call fidelity to this process dao (pronounce tao), the "way" [2] . This fidelity is expressed by a simple maxim whose implications are endless "be human". This maxim directs first to compassion, solidarity or humanity ren [3] (pronounce ien), then by concentric circles to solidarity with animals, plants and finally with all of nature. The Wise discovers, deep in his own personality, a universal solidarity that directs beyond the accidents of his individuality.

To the exploration of these immanent depths our theology preferred transcendence, revealed truth and a discipline of thought which is based on dogma. Did it not take the risk to make an idol of ideas? The intimate discovery of God relativizes however any dogma and any statement of truth – and so our theology could, if it was modest (but can it be modest?), hear the lessons of Chinese wisdom.

The scientific approach, based on free discussion and hypothesis testing (or more precisely, says Popper [4], on their "no falsification"), produces practical truths: even in its most theoretical stages it is action-oriented. Practical truth are not asked to be absolute but to respond reasonably to a need, to the demands of a situation. Mathematics itself is a gym that trains the mind to respect the principle of non-contradiction - a principle that experience meets always, albeit in a sometimes confusing manner, but from which  imagination frees often itself.

All scientific work presupposes a prior intention. If the scientific method gives objective results, it is within an area which has been previously chosen. The intentions of the researcher directs his eye to its target.

Coding is essential for every action-oriented thought because the action requires a thoughtful conceptual structuring of experimentation. We can always ask after the fact (1) why it was deemed necessary to encode some aspect of the real world and not another, (2) why that aspect was coded following some classification and not according to another : an infinite number of different classifications were a priori formally possible. The answer to this question requires to use the pertinence criterion, which concerns the adequacy of coding to action and hence links the conceptual structure to a prior intention.

Then the question of truth resolves into that of pertinence of concepts. The issue of pertinence has endless implications, but leads to consider a problem which, being practical, is at our level: does it exist a process that would promote the accuracy of our action, the pertinence of our judgment?

Priorities of the Chinese Wise

The Chinese Wise knows that before a world which is entirely open to us, but whose key we do not possess, our eyes can be affected by prejudice, presumption and the blinders of specialization. He thinks that we can maintain a living relationship with the world, and act usefully on it, if we are enough open-minded in order to collect and interpret the signals it emits so we can orient our action favorably while respecting the spontaneous tendency of things (shì).

He seeks to be able of producing an appropriate response in front of each situation. He favors a middle position (dàn), not by taste of golden mean or mediocrity but in order to mobilize conveniently, according to the necessities of the situation, each of the extremes of thought and action. It will thus be, according to the situation, violent, submissive, active, lazy, etc.

The Chinese are rarely interested in concepts: they are more sensitive to the intention from which the conceptual structure results, a structure of which they believe mind must be free to avoid freeze. Any person who is aware of this crucial intentional step can adhere to their wisdom. It is difficult for us to understand them because we are accustomed to mingle the practice of abstraction with the abstract which is necessarily cast in the mold of formal rigor. We want under the pretense of "rigor" ignore the informal preliminary stages, fed by intuition and association of ideas, where we forge intentions without the strength of which neither perseverance nor concentration required by research would have been possible.

(See also "Le coeur théologique").

[1] Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781

[2] Lǎo Zǐ (fourth century BC) (pronounce Lao Dze), Dao De Jing (pronounce Tao Te Djing), The Book of the Way and Virtue. The comment of Claude Larre is useful (Desclée de Brouwer, 1977), but he translates shēngrén as "holy" and not as "wise".

[3] This ideogram symbolizes otherness by associating the word man (ren) at number two.

[4] Karl Popper (1902-1994), Logik der Forschung, Julius Springer Verlag, Wien 1935

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