Saturday, 15 December 2012

Philosophy Lite

  Some of the statistics released this week from the National Census reinforced the widespread preconception that our country is being overrun by immigrants who come here to take our jobs and houses and, instead of being grateful, introduce their foreign cultural mores and upset our established and perfectly honed way of life. Any number of anecdotes can be conjured up to illustrate this story and to confirm the stereotypes associated with it.

But we like stereotypes because they help us make sense of life: they tidy everything - and everybody - into clearly labelled, instantly recognisable pigeonholes. We do like to know precisely which group we belong to and how it differs from others so that we can be confident in our dealings with them. And when something or someone conforms to stereotype, it is comforting to know that we were right all along.

With this in mind I attended a public lecture entitled " Divergence and Convergence: Traditional Chinese and Western Modes of Thinking" given by Dr. Keekok Lee, Professor of Philosophy. I have long been aware that, in some fundamental but esoteric way, the Chinese approach to life is 'different' from ours so I took this opportunity to gain some understanding of how and why.

Although I took my seat feeling smugly pleased with my open-minded attitude, I was inevitably confronted by my own prejudices. To start with, the Professor was not a middle aged, pipe-smoking man but a tiny, grey-haired lady! Then there was the fact that she was Chinese, which obviously accounted for her diminutive physical presence; my observation that she was bizarrely dressed, proving, beyond doubt, that her mind was on a higher plane; the impression that she gave of being slightly batty, which always accords with professorship; and her self-confessed technical incompetence vis-à-vis Powerpoint which, as we all know, is only to be expected of an old-fashioned book-worm. All the boxes were ticked.

And then, with a set of props comprising three projected 'slides', a pair of chopsticks and a glass, half-full or (crucial to the argument) half-empty, she put her case. Here it is in summary:

  • The Chinese started thinking in an organised way 8,000 years ago - long before the West.
  • Chinese logic is based on the principles of Yin-Yang or I-Ching which both assert that reality has variable positions: nothing is simply black or white. This she somehow likened to the movement of chopsticks, one of which is held firm while the other moves against it.
  • Westerners only got started 2,000 years ago when Aristotle popped up. Greek philosophers initiated a system of thought which is binary: something either is or is not. But how do you then describe the glass containing water? It must surely be either one or the other. It cannot be both. Duh!
  • But the Danish Physicist Nils Bohr proved, in the 1940's, that some atoms exist as both particle and wave simultaneously: ie they are neither one nor the other - they are both!
  • Since then the West has been converging towards the Chinese model (which, of course, has been reassuringly correct all along) and has contrived a new name for it - “Fuzzy Logic”.

The enlightenment I seek is elusive: as of now I remain inclined towards the stereotype of the Chinese thought process being evasive and duplicitous. Lacking an appetite for in-depth study, however, the best argument I can muster is the following succinct précis of the development of the Western thought system in recent times:
 "to do is to be" - Kant
"to be is to do" - Nietzsche
 "do be do be do" – Sinatra
which clearly demonstrates divergence as opposed to convergence: or, perhaps, a schizophrenic breakdown suffered as a result of this whole argument.

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