Wednesday, October 26, 2016

As if

Since I read the slight Chinese bestseller which made Confucius' ideas palatable to contemporary people in the PRC, I thought I might as well check out the slight bestseller that purports to be doing the same for us in the USA. The Path provides an accessible, indeed readers' digest-accessible account of the stuff of a fabled course at Harvard, Michael Puett's "Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory." Thousands of students have taken this course, and many have confirmed Puett's promise that it would "change their lives."

It does this by challenging the view that the good life is the one where you "find yourself" and build a life around it. Chinese philosophers suggest, instead, that we are fragmented and changeable, and will lead better lives if we recognize this and learn to work with it, starting in our most everyday interactions and relationships. From this perspective, the search for your true self, and the ideals of sincerity and authenticity connected to it, are fundamentally misguided. You don't have to be the person you seem to yourself and others to be - break out of the "ruts" of habit, and unthought of possibilities will present themselves. You'll be a more effective change-maker in the world, too, with this approach, since the world also is fragmented and changeable and best engaged by recognizing this and working with it. Confucian ritual and self-cultivation rub shoulders happily here with Daoist strength-through-weakness and the self-divinization which comes from tracing the apparent differentiation of the world to its unified origin.

That makes the argument sound more interesting than it seems in this little book, where it often seems little more than banal if helpful common sense. I imagine that in the course itself Puett must take students deeper. (Doubtless there's more than a few crumbs from the Chinese texts, too.) Maybe hearing these ideas from a world-renowned scholar in an Ivy League lecture hall gives them a different force, or perhaps gives those students permission to engage them. I don't doubt that the arguments supposedly culled from Chinese philosophy speak to brilliant students who have been performing themselves as brilliant students all their lives and don't really know who they are or how to take themselves seriously beyond that. The arguments may also play well with a more general audience of readers living in an age when changes in economy and society have undermined the shallow promises of the ideal that Margaret Urban Walker derides as the "career self."

The book is based on Puett's class but co-written by a journalist (albeit one with a Harvard PhD in East Asian Studies) so it's a little hard to know what's been added. There is a deceptively simple ontological argument playing beneath the surface, and a glib but explosive historical narrative around the edges. The ontological argument is that Chinese philosophers accepted the world as "fragmented" and indeed "capricious," and so understood human action not as responding to some given order or meaning in ourselves or the world ("as is") but as exploring possibilities of order and meaning ("as if") which came closer to realization as people repeat them. (This is the understanding of ritual Puett already contributed to the interesting Ritual and its Consequences, where it's called "ritual and the subjunctive.") I don't know enough of Chinese metaphysics to judge if "fragmented" and "capricious" are appropriate words - they seem sloppy to me - but the result is not far from familiar (and deliberately metaphysically disappointing) American pragmatism. Besides, it doesn't need to be true; it's sufficient to act as if it is!

The historical narrative is Sinocentric in a way which won't be familiar. All of Eurasia was aristocratic until the Axial Age, we read, when thinkers from Confucius to Socrates started thinking what would make a just society. This period gave way to great empires, and then things diverged, at least between Europe and China. Europe fell back into aristocratic barbarity, but China learned from its Axial Age thinkers to use the state, staffed by a meritocratically selected bureaucracy of good men, to continually further human society. Only when Europe brought to East Asia the brutality it had honed in building New World colonial empires on the backs of slaves did everyone, East Asians sadly too, forget what a good thing they had had going there.

Somehow the as if/as is contrast is read on to the asserted civilizational difference, too. (China has encountered as-ism before: Mohism was an Axial Age Chinese as-is philosophy which was found wanting and left behind. But it seems the West never generated its own as if-isms.) While the life changing advice of the Chinese philosophers is nothing new to me (I'm not encountering them for the first time), the ontological/ historical part is, and it gets under my skin. It bothers me because it's so glib, but it might also be because, as with the conclusions of The Silk Roads, it has the ring of truth to it, too. Whaddaya know: The Path is too thin to be a good book, but the argument it breezes amiably through is one that can challenge at the macro as well as the micro level.

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