Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Now I'm in Hawaii

I get back from China and only have a week to spend with my family before I am on the road again. Now I'm in Hawaii at an NEH summer institute on Chinese history and philosophy. I've got a lot of stuff I need to accomplish here. Right now, though, I just want to blog the opening lecture, to process it for myself and because some people have mentioned that they liked conference blogging.

So the head of the show here is Roger Ames, a leading scholar of Confucian thought, head of the East West center, editor of Philosophy East and West, etc. One of the central conceptions of all his work is that Chinese philosophy, and Chinese culture in general, is radically alien to the west in ways we can learn from. On one level, I appreciate this a lot. I've seen other talks, mostly by analytic philosophers, who seek to "legitimate" Chinese thought by trying to show that it is just like modern western thought. "Look, here's an argument for consequentialism that looks just like one in Mill." The problem with this mode of legitimation of any alien tradition is that it immediately makes whatever it "legitimates" completely boring. I always want to know "what can this culture offer me that is new.

Ames's work runs into the reverse problem: an exaggerated, sometimes pointless exoticizing. A lot of that was on display in his lecture this morning. The talk wasn't always well organized. He began by saying he was going to present a philosophical argument, but about halfway through, he said "I guess we won't get to my thesis until tomorrow." I can basically parse what he said into three sections, though: (1) a general argument for studying Chinese culture today, (2) a basic framework for understanding language as a force that shapes culture (3) a bunch of really big claims about how Chinese culture and language is different than Indo-European culture and language. I'm basically on board with him until (3).

The motivation for (1) is the fact that everyone talks about today when they talk about China: the explosion of growth. Ames framed this discussion with the question "what does China want?" which I pretty much loathe. I mean, feminists have finally managed to get people to stop saying "what do women want?" You think we'd be able to drop attributions of intention for similarly large groups.

He did well with the annoying framing question, though. We saw some of the usual stories of colossal growth: in the 80s there were no skyscrapers in Shanghai, now there 58 billion skyscrapers, etc. We also saw the statistics on the downside of growth that I have grown familiar with. Six thousand people die a year in mining accidents.* Sixteen of the 20 most polluted cities on Earth are in China. By the government's own admission, there are 76,000 riots over land expropriation a year.

The question Ames asked was basically: what do the Chinese hope to buy with this growth. He was emphatic to assert that the Chinese do not want to become America, and said this specifically in reference to American liberal democracy. [Hey, you know who I'd really like to see become an American style liberal democracy? America.] What China wants from this growth is expressed in the traditional Chinese slogan "hexie shehui": harmonious society.

So far so good. So how do we understand the cultural differences between China and the US? Ames's orientation came out in his point (2): a culture's attitudes, right down to popular understandings of ontology and ethics, are encoded in ordinary language. I'm ok with this, if it is taken more in the sense of Orwell in "Politics and the English Language" than in some radical Sapir-Warf way. Ames discussed how this has both syntactic and semantic elements. The grammar of a language encodes a logic and a metaphysic, and here he quotes Nietzsche approvingly. Important categories like person come out in the semantics of a language.

Ok, so far so good. But finally we get a sequence of claims about what makes the Chinese language unique, and I find a lot of these to actually be kinda empty. For instance, Ames places a great deal of emphasis on the idea that the Chinese have a process metaphysics. Everyone there is really A.N. Whitehead. As a result, Chinese philosophical terms should be translated with gerunds. We don't have human beings, but human becommings. We shouldn't talk of virtuous character, but virtuosity in action. I worry that this is a distinction without a difference. I recall in graduate school hearing about "feature placing languages," languages which instead of talking about objects would describe features taking place in the world. "Oh, there is some telephoning going on by the restrooms." The thing is, these gerunds play the same role in the language games as nouns. Whether you order tofu or a process of tofuing, the same thing comes to your table. So what's the big deal? (Waiter, I distinctly ordered undetached rabbit parts!)

Ok, so I had questions at the end of the talk that I didn't get to ask, so I'm posting them here.

1. You draw some comparisons between Confucian ethics and care ethics, specifically with regard to the emphasis on family and the relational notion of the self. Does this mean that the problems that care ethics faces transfer over to Confucianism? Specially, I'm thinking of the need for an ethic of strangers and the problem of justice in the family. The need for an ethic of strangers is fairly straightforward. Care ethics says I should be partial to my own family. But do we even need an ethic to do this? I don't need philosophy to tell me to love my children. I do need ethicists to teach me to love the children of strangers far away though, because they are deserving of care, yet I have no inclination to care for them. Isn't it really going to be impartial reason that helps me see that children far away are just like my own? The need for justice within the family is even more troublesome for care ethics. Care ethics is supposed to be feminist. It is supposed to challenge the patriarchy. But if we are simply standing by our families, we have no grounds to challenge their patriarchal structure. Really, it is liberal notions of equality that let us say no to male domination.

Oof, that was a long question, good thing I didn't ask it in class. Ok here is a shorter one:

In your translation of the Zhongyong, you make a big deal about saying that "cheng" should be translated as "creativity" rather than "sincerity" or "integrity" as it has traditionally been translated. Part of your argument for this is based on the fact that the Zhongyong is expanding the meaning of cheng in radical ways. But doesn't this actually mean that you should continue to use the older meanings reflected in the traditional translations? Consider an analogy: Plato introduced the idea that knowledge is recollection. The word he used for knowledge is episteme. Suppose a translator, seeing Plato's doctrine of recollection, decided that "episteme" should be translated "remembering." Wouldn't this make hash of Plato's argument? Socrates is now trying to convince an incredulous Meno that "remembering" is "recollecting." How could Meno not agree? The substance of Plato's point has been removed. So aren't you doing the same thing?

*checking this number lead me to this interesting page, which tries to minimize Chinese mining deaths by measuring them in deaths per person hour worked, in which case they are only 41% higher than the US. A better measure of safety and efficiency, though is deaths per million tonnes extracted. The US death rate is .15 per Mt. The page I linked to gives the chinese rate as 2.9 per Mt. Smil in this book says the number is closer to 5 per Mt.

No comments: