Op-Ed Contributors

Absurd transcendental pretense

By Chung-Yue Chang (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-30 07:51
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Editor's note: It is arrogant and absurd for the West to play the "transcendental pretense" card, believing that there is one universal code that can be implemented by the whole world.

Today, many in the West believe that understanding China, though not easy, is not problematic. The West is perceived to be a bastion of universal rationality. Yet there are voices that "the West does not understand China". Why?

At a press conference in Beijing on March 7, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi addressed this puzzlement metaphorically: "I like Western oil paintings and Chinese ink-and-brush paintings both. If people apply the criteria to appreciate oil paintings to appreciate ink-and-brush paintings then there will be mistakes."

The West understands China mainly through the "oil painting" mode, which is deemed universal and everyone is expected to conform to it. Unfortunately, given the country's cultural uniqueness, the "China" so understood is necessarily mistaken.

Actions based on mistaken views of China beget mistakes. A glaring mistake of the West is the unilateral imposition of the so-called universal values on China for self-serving political, economic, and cultural purposes. The intent of this imposition is clear, because China, in addition to her traditional mode, operates in the Western mode as well.

Yang's metaphor underscores the fact that China's and the West's are two distinct cultures. Accordingly, their thinking modes are different, too. The good news is that the two modes can co-exist and complement each other to great benefits, as is shown by how well they have fused for China today. Perhaps the West can achieve its own cultural fusion in the future.

Generally, Western thinking mode assumes a single fixed, ultimately static and transcendent world order of "entities", the propositional account of which results in clear and distinct judgment of "yes" or "no".

The Chinese mode, on the other hand, presumes an open, incessantly dynamic, immanent multiple world order of organic net-like "field", the descriptive account of which results in "yes", "no", and "yes and no".

Traditional China and the West have different logical schemes. Aristotle's "Square of Opposition" diagrams shows how the four basic categorical propositions can be opposed as "true" or "false". No middle ground is allowed. The Aristotelian logic is designed for a dynamic world made static.

In contrast, China's circular yin-yang diagram shows the moving fields of yin and yang spread out to build each other up toward a new unity of dynamic harmony. This is possible because within the yin there is a trace of yang, and within the yang there is a trace of yin. Chinese logic is designed for a dynamic world that moves creatively toward harmony. Today, yin-yang is not a part of common locution, but its mindset is very much in practice.

These different modes of thinking find cultural reflection in art, politics, commerce, military affairs, financial affairs, diplomacy, history, religion, philosophy, science, technology, architecture, mathematics, medicine, food, music, literature; the list can go on.

Take a closer look at mathematics and medicine. Ancient Chinese mathematics, as found in the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art (Jiuzhang Suanshu), was devoted entirely to finding an algorithm, without employing axioms or definitions, to solve complex practical problems in land surveying, civil engineering, calendar, taxation, fair distribution of goods, and so on. On the contrary, ancient Greek mathematics, found in Euclid's Elements, was given entirely to the theoretical formation of theorems by axioms.

Yet China and the West independently arrived at the Pythagorean Theorem (or Gorgu Theorem) and Pascal's Triangle (or Yang's Triangle). The two radically different mathematical thinking can independently reach the same universal conclusions. Today, Chinese mathematicians are distinguished in Western mathematics, yet the indigenous pragmatic spirit prevails.

Western medicine is based on the non-functioning organs of cadavers. Chinese medicine is based on the functioning acupunctural points found only in the living body. The Western medical thinking is a static analysis. For China, it is a dynamic synthesis.

Theoretically and practically, the two medicines cannot be more different. Yet in today's China, they provide complementary therapeutic benefits to patients, often at the same hospital.

Despite these obvious differences, Foreign Minister Yang noticed that there are people in the world who do not "appreciate China's uniqueness and its real national circumstances", yet insist on seeing China through colored glasses, stereotype perceptions and ideological bias. Why?

There are at least two explanations. The first is the West's cultural arrogance, traceable to the beginning of the 19th century, known also as "cultural imperialism". Today, it is called "transcendental pretense". The second is that some in the West use this "pretense" as a tool for political, economic, and cultural control of the world.

American philosopher Robert C. Solomon has said: "The transcendental pretense is the unwarranted assumption that there is universality and necessity in the fundamental modes of human experience. It is not mere provincialism, that is, the ignorance or the lack of appreciation of alternative cultures and states of mind. It is an aggressive and sometimes arrogant effort to prove that there are no such (valid) possible alternatives. In its application the transcendental pretense becomes the priori assertion that the structures of one's own mind, culture, and personality are in some sense necessary and universal for all human kind, perhaps 'for all rational creatures'."

Today, when Western leaders appeal to universal principles to advance their global agenda they play the "transcendental pretense" card. This kind of talk is essentially extraneous and empty.

First, in the case of China, universals can be obtained differently, as Chinese mathematics shows. Second, a universal principle, however derived, must be implemented for particular people within particular historical and cultural contexts. For the US, racial and gender equality, affirmed at the very beginning, took 200 years to implement de jure, yet today it is still not quite complete de facto. Universal principles are ultimately meaningless unless they are brought to full fruition.

It is clear that Yang Jiechi's painting metaphor must be appreciated in the context of the "perniciousness of transcendental pretense".

The author teaches philosophy in the United States.

(China Daily 03/30/2010 page9)