George Walford: Eastern Ideology

A. C. Graham 1991 Unreason Within Reason: Essays on the Outskirts of Rationality Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. 309 pages. Cloth 0-8126-9166-0 $59.95; Paper 0-8126-9167-9 $19.95. Reviewed by George Walford.

Physical science, high technology, market capitalism and political democracy belong to a syndrome. Although now worldwide, it emerged spontaneously only in western Europe, arriving elsewhere as an imposition although sometimes a welcome one. Responses to it have varied, Japan moving ahead of her instructors at least in technology, Russia trying to maintain parity in science and technology while suppressing the market and political democracy (and failing in the attempt), and some of the former colonies, particularly in Africa, using advanced weaponry in the service of a resurrected feudalism. Systematic ideology traces the explosive growth of this syndrome to an ideological revolution which took place in Europe in the 17th Century, its consequences rumbling on – they are by no means exhausted yet – and hindsight finding its origins in an earlier period. This raises questions: Is this ideological event best understood as a response to peculiarly European conditions? If so, its consequences are likely to remain rootless elsewhere. Or did it result from panhuman tendencies, the conditions of place and time enabling rather than causing it? If so, we can expect present trends to continue, the European example having swept away the barriers blocking development in other areas.

Over the past two centuries the rampant spread of European and American technology, and the thinking that goes with it, has swamped indigenous developments elsewhere. As other countries catch up this is beginning to change, but it remains true that the ideological pedigree of industrial civilisation runs back through western Europe; it was there, in the 17th Century, as physical science became more than a hobby for eccentrics and democracy began to grow, that the ideology of precision first became a significant social influence. This raises a question: Was this emergence a consequence of conditions peculiar to Europe, carried over the rest of the world by the unprecedented material wealth it produced? Or was it a leap forward along a path which thinking tends to follow anyway? In several of the essays included in Unreason Within Reason A.C.Graham (1919-1991, described on the cover of his book as the leading world authority on Chinese thought), presents information helping to answer the question at least for China.

Graham writes without much care for the convenience of reviewers. He shows limited interest in systematisation, and although this enables him to keep close, if not to the facts at least to recorded history, it does sometimes make it difficult to see how his concepts are intended to fit together. He works on a level well above any simple-minded rationalism, recognising that logical thought cannot cope with the raw world of immediate experience; it needs material provided by ‘pre-logical’ thinking. This sometimes seems to mean a willingness to accept unanalysed perceptions; factual knowledge may depend upon ‘pre-logical assimilation right down to the level of perception.’ But then the Golden Rule – distinctly a moral precept, rather than a fact or perception – is offered as an instance of pre-logical thinking; although it collapses under logical analysis (people with different tastes may not be at all pleased to have you do to them what you would like them to do to you) this does not entitle us to disregard a rule respected over two thousand years. ‘Pre-logical’ seems sometimes to be limited to a near-passive acceptance of perceptions, at other times to comprise nearly all mental activities except logical analysis, including high valuation of tradition and the effort to act in a principled way.

Graham introduces Jakobson’s ‘correlative’ thinking, which works mainly with ‘similar / contrasting’ and ‘contiguous / remote,’ the more rigid identity / difference of logical analysis making its entrance only when exact confirmation is needed. In suggesting that correlative thinking is not to be dismissed as mere loose analogising, that the full mutual definability of concepts assumed by logic and mathematics can rarely be achieved, so that we have to think for the most part correlatively, he is implicitly ascribing distinct and complementary functions to the two modes of thought, and this helps to bring theory and practice together. He recognises also a post-logical phase, and I am not clear whether he would include this, too, under correlative thinking. It is tempting to see pre- logical thinking as following that practice unreflectively, while post-logical thought recognises it as a logical necessity, but I cannot confidently ascribe this interpretation to Graham.

For Graham, as for other scholars, one towering figure overshadows early Chinese thinking. Confucius (550-478 BC) lived as sage and scholar, at a time when dynastic rule was temporarily weakening. Presenting himself as transmitter rather than originator, claiming to restore right principles drawn from ancient wisdom, he saw society as an ordinance of heaven with monarchs, fathers, husbands and elder brothers ruling over subjects, sons, wives, and junior brothers, the superiors obliged to set an example of virtue. His formulation of the Golden Rule seems to be the earliest to have come down to us: ‘What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others’ (expressed in a single Chinese character), but no glow of aspiration warms his message, it comes across as prudent rather than inspired. The rulers he advised mostly ignored his counsels, and when one did incline to put his ideas into effect a rival introduced distraction with the gift of a harem. After his death Confucius came to be venerated, joining the pantheon of Great Men.

The approach places little value upon novelty, looking backwards rather than forwards, seeking security rather than progress, order and hierarchy rather than freedom and equality. Accepting war as an instrument of policy, respecting tradition, advocating the imposition of order, adherence to general principles and a firm distinction between ranks, valuing practical good sense above logical consistency, Confucius’ thinking prefigures the syndrome we know as conservatism, and its other features confirm the connection. He offers no enthusiast’s revelation, putting propriety and caution first (the Anglican Church, long a Tory stronghold, requires that things be done decently and in order); it is not surprising that one dynasty after another should have delighted to honour Confucius. In early Chinese thought the ideology of principle and domination bulks fully as large as it has ever done in the West.

Another feature of Chinese thinking brought out in Graham’s book may be more unexpected: the very early date to which the ideology of Precision can be traced back. In the West this has flowered in physical science, a purposeful search for mathematised and experimentally testable laws. This activity hardly developed spontaneously in China (although the response to it when imported rules out any suggestion of lack of ability), and much the same may be said of the political expression of this ideology in liberalism. Yet the difference seems to have been mainly one of speed, the appearance of stagnation in China (and Asia generally) an illusion produced by the suddenness of the scientific revolution in Europe; if we turn from science to the thinking which underlies it, the position changes, China being at least abreast of Europe in its introduction. In the late 5th Century BC (Aristotle worked in the 4th, Euclid in the 3rd) Mo-tzu started to think more sharply, with greater emphasis on specific doctrines and exact definitions, and by 300 BC his followers (the Later Mohists) were urging the value of rational demonstration, trying to ground their ethics in the analysis of moral concepts rather than tradition, and stressing the importance of causality. In their writings on optics, mechanics and economics they confined themselves to strictly testable explanations, ignoring proto-sciences such as medicine. Noting that although they tried to specify the conditions of validity they did not follow Greek and Indian thinkers in abstracting necessary forms like the syllogism, Graham reminds us that this hardly provides ground for criticism since few in the West think in terms of rigorous proof.

Graham cites Needham in refutation of claims that the Chinese language inhibits abstract thought (the conception of it as ideographic, not logographic, is mistaken), and points out that it has presented no more difficulty than other languages for the exposition of Twentieth-Century science. It allows any required degree of exactness, so the vagueness or precision of Chinese thinking must always be attributed to extralinguistic factors; it was not anything in the language which prevented the Mohists achieving the clarification and tightening, of terminology and syntax, which occurred much later when modern science arrived. ‘Given the extra-linguistic conditions for the development of modern science, the Chinese language would presumably have adapted itself much as Seventeenth-Century English allowed itself to be reformed by the Royal Society.’

He likens the precisionist thinking of the Mohists in social affairs to western Utilitarianism, but it did not win a place in the political establishment, the domination of the imperial system suffering little restraint until the importation of Western political ideas in modern times. (Whether the Precision ideology, with its head-counting democracy, became overdeveloped in the West, or remained underdeveloped in the East, depends mainly on the ideology of the speaker). In China ideological development took the religious rather than the political route. Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, Ch’an Buddhism (better known here by its Japanese title of Zen) all use what Graham terms post-logical thinking, displaying a flexibility (and other features) characteristic of Western dialectic. Mohist rationality formed only a brief episode, thinking in China becoming channelled into two streams, on either side as it were of this central point: Confucianism (orthodox, practical, conventional) and Taoism with its successors in Chinese Buddhism (unorthodox, spontaneous, mystical, disreputable).

Although China produced no equivalent of the Scientific Revolution, yet it was extraordinarily fertile in basic inventions; perhaps, until the late Middle Ages, more so than Europe. Printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass all originated in China and spread from there. In distinguishing between the ‘proto-science’ behind these introductions, and full science as it appeared in the West, Graham emphasises the part played by mathematisation, introducing an accuracy which permitted rigorous testing. He discusses Joseph Needham’s suggestion that the emergence of modern science required the concept of a divine legislator, bringing the confidence that the cosmos, ordered by one rational being, will be intelligible to others; no such figure appears in Chinese thought.

In these brief remarks I have not attempted to do more than select, from ten of the fourteen essays in the book, material directly connected with the concerns of IC. Ideological classification applies only loosely to individual people, but when one writes a book a tendency in this or that direction can usually be discerned, and Graham’s method inclines toward the particulate approach of the Precision ideology. He takes a general theme or question and presents relevant material; each item bears upon theme, but it is often hard to say exactly how, and harder than it is with more closely integrated works to summarise the argument without distortion. (That is not a complaint; much of the difficulty arises from the abundance of information presented).

Graham shows that for all the differences between intellectual life in China and in Europe, development has followed much the same general course there as here, and was doing so before the two civilisations made contact. The fact that he does this without having set out to do it, saying the point is to compare and contrast Chinese concepts with our own, not to go looking for our own in other cultures, adds to the force of the demonstration. Chinese civilisation long antedates European, and the major ideologies seem to have first appeared there, although the more sophisticated did not spontaneously take political form as they later did here. This goes to confirm the panhuman presence of ideological influences which follow their own course of development in widely differing circumstances.

Other essays in the book also bear upon ideological issues. Discussing mystics Graham notes the worldwide agreement among them that in the ultimate enlightenment all distinctions fall away, those between the self and God as well as those between self and other, many and one. This is the holism of the reform ideology, and he sees it emerging from a questioning of Western rationalism, a sequence which has been followed also in political history.

A long essay (40 pages) on Marx’s concept of alienation accepts, with reservations, his ascription of the condition to class-divided society. Graham quotes Marx’s question from The German Ideology:

How is it that personal interests always develop, against the will of individuals, into class interests, into common interests which acquire independent existence in relation to the individual persons, and in their independence assume the form of general interests… How is it that in this process of private interests acquiring independent existence as class interests the personal behaviour of the individual is bound to undergo substantiation, alienation, and at the same time exists as a power independent of him and without him, created by intercourse, and becomes transformed into social relations, into a series of powers which determine and subordinate the individual, and which therefore appear in the imagination as ‘holy’ powers?

In discussing this Graham takes account of the main item of extra experience since Marx wrote; state socialism, as in Russia and China, has not brought any noticeable reduction in alienation; its attempt at total politicisation of life may even render it more alienating than capitalism. Capitalism does at least offer flexibility; unlike state socialism it permits expansion of radical activities. But this is objectively a trap; that flexibility, while accomodating any revolt, also stifles it. The sexual liberation of the sixties, for example, released the most personal, direct and unalienating of drives yet found its expression largely by way of commercial entertainment and advertising. ‘The promise of sexuality as pure end was inseparable from its prostitution as a means of marketing.’ Yet although indifferent to radical intentions, the System (Graham’s capital) presents an insuperable barrier only to demands for absolute freedom from alienation; if prepared to accept degrees, and to maintain the eternal vigilance that liberty always has required, we find it offers scope. Substantial improvement of the human condition does not have to await the Revolution. Graham does not mention it but already, in the advanced world, leisure (often in the guise of unemployment) is moving to become the norm, with work as the exception, and this suggests a retreat of the System, ineluctably linked with work, towards the periphery of life.

Following his usual method, Graham presents this advance beyond orthodox Marxism in a down-to-earth way without attempting much theoretical justification, but it seems capable of being supported on that ground too. Marx held class divisions responsible for alienation (as for pretty well everything else he disliked), expecting that when they disappeared in the proletarian revolution it would go with them, people coming to live in harmony with their society. This does not stand up well to examination; although the presence of class divisions doubtless affects the forms in which alienation appears, its roots lie deeper, in individuality itself. Individuals, almost by definition, have diverse intentions, and when multiple purposes interact the outcome is usually something intended by none of the participants. It stands over against them, intended by them all jointly but foreign to each one of them. When individuals come together to form a society alienation arises as an inescapable consequence; what they are alienated from is themselves as a collectivity, society as such, rather than this or that particular version of it. So long as we live in society we have to reckon with alienation.

As usual in social affairs, there’s more to it than that. While alienated from their society the constituent individuals are also identified with it. This holds even for present society, class-divided though it be, its members showing this in their behaviour. When people spend their lives within their socially-allotted space, going out to kill and die when commanded, condemning unheard those claiming to offer a freer, fuller life, it does not make sense to speak of them simply as alienated. The great majority show themselves to be experiencing a mainly positive relationship, only the minority who think like Marx and Graham feeling the negative side to predominate. The majority are alienated, yes, but from the reformers and revolutionaries, rather than from the society. They constitute the society, endowing it with the features that alienate the intellectuals and setting the limits within which these latter have to work.

One way and another, Graham’s book stretches the mind considerably, and the effort is worth while. One complaint: the cover shows a living head, the brain exposed and infested with caterpillars; illustrating both the title and a quotation from Lorca used as an epigraph this is not gratuitous, but have the publishers really looked at it, allowed themselves to experience it? I had to use a paper cover before I could work comfortably with the book.

The back cover of Unreason Within Reason draws attention to the same author’s Disputers of the Tao, 1989 (also published by Open Court), saying it ‘has been acclaimed the best account of Chinese philosophy ever written.’ Not having read all the other accounts I can’t confirm this evaluation, but it does have more substance than many of the claims publishers make for their products.

In Disputers Graham rebuts the suggestion that the Chinese practice of using concrete terms, and instances from everyday life, rather than the abstractions favoured by western intellectuals, indicates a deep difference in thinking. He presents philosophies that cover a range, from a high valuation of convention and ceremony, through pursuit of sharp-edged accuracy, to assertion of individual independence with acceptance of self-contradiction. The discrepancies, between the broad outine of his account and the general pattern presented in systematic ideology, lie mainly in the presence of additional schools, and it seems at least possible that further investigation would show these to be subsidiary, relating to stages in the main sequence in the way Trotskyism relates to communism, or the British Social Democrats to liberalism. In the West the major ideologies have developed as significant social influences (in medicine, production, law and many other fields as well as in politics). In China this has not happened to the same extent; the ideologies there (apart from Expediency – universal – and Domination – responsible for the empire) have remained largely confined to philosophising. Ideas being less refractory than institutions, in this form the various stages tend to show less distinction than when embodied in social affairs. Graham posits, for both Greece and China, an outburst of playfulness as the first response to the introduction of rational discourse, a fascinated exploration of the areas of paradox and absurdity revealed by the delightful new toy. In Greece growing maturity brought concentration upon the productive areas lying within these wild margins, but in China this hardly happened. Thinking beyond Confucianism remained speculative, without the ballast provided by an intimate engagement in social affairs. Two thousand years of social, political, religious and intellectual struggle in the West have not been fruitless; the epistemology of ancient China, even that of Chuang-tzu the Taoist, did not get beyond naive realism.

By the first century BC Chinese philosophy and society were already settling into the equilibrium which was to last until the European intrusion, and this gives Graham little cause to think in terms of intellectual evolution. He rather conceives of the schools as standing, so to speak, side by side.

The ideology of Expediency does not get discussed, and although its presence may seem a reasonable assumption, and evidence for it could doubtless be provided from other sources, the ad hoc quality of such approaches renders them unsatisfying. A little thought solves the problem; this ideology does appear in Graham’s book, in a sort of mirror image. Chinese philosophers, with rare and transient exceptions, failed to get their ideas generally adopted. At least as much as their Western equivalents they lived in combat, largely vain, with the tendency to give convenience and immediate advantage priority over all other requirements; in this way Chinese experience, over the past two thousand years and more, confirms the description of Expediency as the universal ideology providing the base for all later developments. (Its special field of action does receive one fairly explicit mention as: ‘the large area of ordinary life which is too complex and transient to be unravelled by analysis… ‘)

Expediency entails repeated choice between alternatives, and systematic thinking begins with the attempt to ground this on consistent principles with a dualistic classification. Although the familiar symbol presents Yin and Yang as complementary, neither enjoying superiority, a more concrete account produces another impression. From early times Chinese thinking distinguished between heaven and earth, while on earth Yang embraces the active and assertive, ‘doing to’; animals and birds belong here because they run or fly. Yin remains passive and acceptant, ‘done to’; invertebrates and fish fall under this head because they hibernate or hide. The sun rules Yang, the moon gives birth to Yin. The mirror used to start fire belongs to Yang, the square put out at night to collect dew to Yin.

The Domination ideology succeeds Expediency; needing to repress its predecessor it values system and order over the irregular pursuit of convenience and advantage, and Confucius stands as the supreme Chinese representative of this approach. The first of Chinese philosophies, Confucianism emphasises family, hierarchy, convention and custom. Stressing the importance of ceremony, from sacrifice down to the trivialities of etiquette, treating style like an artistic performance, it emphasises the ruler / subject, father / son, past / present and ancestor / descendant relationships. The influence of example rules more effectively than legality and punishment. (That Frenchman who first recognised the obligations carried by nobility had got the idea). Confucianism dominates the philosophical scene: ‘One cannot explore it without being impressed by its success in integrating diverse tendencies so that they become socially cohesive.’ Seeing his culture as declining, and himself as preserver and restorer of it, Confucius recognised the importance of thinking but gave priority to learning, looking to the past for his model rather than presuming to invent anything and valuing the gentleman above the vulgar man.

Recent work, both textual and linguistic, has shown much of the early Chinese thinking to be more rational than it used to appear when seen from the West. Confucius has come to be accepted as philosopher rather than magician, and by 200 BC one school (Graham calls them Sophists) had already managed to attract contempt for its interest in argument about abstractions, some of them (the similar and the different, the limitless and the dimensionless) close to the categories of Greek philosophers. The Mohists (followers of Mo-tzu) also strove after exactness in their thinking, although with a more practical relevance, studying geometry, optics, mechanics and economics together with logical puzzles, morals and government. (Like Einstein and Newton they also asserted the existence of deity).

The rational pursuit of exactness assumes fixity and sharp distinction. Chuang-tzu and other Chinese thinkers, like some of the Greeks, found it leading into paradox, forcing the recognition that everything, while distinct from everything else, is also one with it. Dichotomy somehow always omits something, the sum of the parts does not add up to the whole. These problems find their resolution only in acceptance of fluidity, and at this point occurs one of the rare instances in which Graham seems to recognise these philosophies as forming a sequence in which the former mode is integrated into the greater complexity of the later one. Distinguishing between irrationality (which can ignore reason) and anti-rationality (committed to opposing it) Graham remarks: ‘Like all great anti-rationalists, Chuang-tzu has his reasons for not listening to reason.’ Chang-tzu emphasises the irreducible dynamism of thought: ‘”Already having called us one, did I not say something? One and the saying make two, two and one make three. Proceeding from here even an expert calculator cannot get to the end of it, much less a plain man.”‘ Lao-tzu concurs: ‘”The Way generates the One, the One two, the two three, the three the myriad things.”‘ This approach opens the Taoist part of the spectrum, later developed by Lao-tzu, leading on to the acceptance of paradox and self-contradiction in Zen (Chinese Ch’an) Buddhism, a movement of thought as eidodynamic as anything found among Western revolutonaries. With the concreteness favoured by Chinese thinking the assumption of rigid dividedness, characteristic of the precision ideology, becomes the naming of things. Both Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu go beyond this to advocate ‘abandoning the prescribed courses of conduct which Confucians and others try to formulate in words, unlearning the rigid divisions fixed by names, and training the spontaneous harmonising of… a fluid whole with which we lose touch by dividing ourselves from it by the distinguishing, naming and immobilization of parts.’ For Lao-tzu all is constantly changing. Following his sources, Graham distinguishes two ‘fundamentals of Chinese moral philosophy’: spontaneity and considered knowledge. Without rejecting this, it has to be added that the spontaneity in question has undergone adulteration; as a fundamental of moral philosophy it cannot sensibly be identified with the unconsidered response of a young child. Lao-tzu seeks an adequate formulation by presenting both of a pair of contraries: ‘in preferring to be submissive the sage does not cease to be oriented towards strength, for he recognises that surviving by yielding to a rising power is the road to victory over it when its climax is past.’ As I said earlier, Graham concentrates on presenting his material as it appeared, rather than seeking any underlying principle of development. Yet in the end this forces itself upon him, producing a sentence which confirms in a few words what I have been struggling to bring out: ‘Granted that analytic thinking develops less among Chinese than among Greek philosophers, we find different levels of thinking in philosophy and proto-science very much as in the West.’

from Ideological Commentary Number 60, May 1993.