Thursday, 31 January 2019

How The World Thinks

By Dr Jack Christian

How The World Thinks is the title of a recent (2018) book by Julian Baggini. It probably overstates what the book has to offer because whilst it is a good introduction to the major cultures of the Northern Hemisphere it has little to say about the indigenous cultures and religions of Africa, Australia and South America.  Nevertheless it is a valuable book offering insights into why other cultures might see things differently, something which is overlooked all too frequently in the Western world.

From a personal perspective it fleshed out my knowledge of Buddhist and Chinese thought, widened my knowledge of Hinduism and Islam and spoke to me of Shintoism for the first time in 50 years.  It made plain the interdependence of religion and philosophy in all these cultures and contrasted this (in my eyes) with the analytic atomism of the Western world which had led to their separation.  That however is not to say that religion and philosophy do not underwrite today’s culture in the Western world, they are just studied separately (again in my eyes).

The book is organized into four parts and a short conclusion.  In the first two parts Baggini discusses the epistemology and ontology of the Islamic world and the various cultures across Asia.  In part three he focusses on the nature of self as seen by these cultures.  (As a follower of deep ecology I found this section particularly fascinating.  Baggini speaks of no-self, relational self and atomised self; I believe it is in our understanding of self that causes us to identify with deep or shallow ecology).  Part four considers how the different cultures live, delving into their different ethical choices and positions.  The concluding section is only 19 pages long, I guess Baggini would prefer the reader to form his/her own conclusions.

Interesting lessons for me included the Japanese attitude to technology as an extension of Nature introduced on p140.  Humans are part of Nature, hence so it their technology.  This interplay of human ingenuity and Nature is discussed at some length and it left me wondering if it left any room at all for Nature to express herself, or whether she was just seen as some sort of poor relative who should welcome the changes being thrust on her.  I need to find out more about this.

Another lesson from a Japanese setting on p298 is the understanding that life is transient and thinking about (focusing on) the now is just as important as making rational (logical) deductions that will affect the future or analyse the past.  This underwrites an understanding that feelings are as important as rational thought and allows us to bypass Hume’s is/ought logical fallacy.  Thus we can take something we observe and allow it to influence how we act (naturalism).

This Western subordination of feeling to logic goes a long way to explaining something Baggini discusses earlier on p79, science for science sake.  Only in the west is science and intellectual development valued for its own sake, elsewhere it exists to serve human flourishing.

It might also explain the search for impartial ethical rules or guidelines such as Kant’s imperative or Bentham’s utilitarianism in the West.  This compares with the focus on virtue that can be found in most of the rest of the world.  Chapters 25 and 21 respectively discuss and exemplify these points in detail.

I suspect this critique of science, and logic and language would chime with many post-modern philosophers although I am not sure where they would stand on human flourishing.

Another lesson, this time from a Chinese setting on p224, is the difference between harmony and unity.  By definition to create harmony there must be more than one input, ie there cannot be unity!  This insight is further developed by Baggini on p315 to illustrate how cultures could mix in what he describes as moral pluralism.  I like this idea but I would talk in terms of agonistic pluralism; I suspect we mean the same thing though, a world where we live with different ideas but find ways make space for each other’s ideas.

However I would also heed his warning on p314 that ideas are part of living ecosytems and must be transplanted carefully or they can wither and die.  This reminded me of his earlier comments on p214 about relational versus atomistic selves and how the Western focus on individuality has lost sight of belonging and community.  This has led, he suggests, to considerable misunderstanding and disenchantment amongst many of its citizens.  Disenchantment that, I feel, has led to an antipathy towards other cultures that are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as receiving more attention.

In the final chapter, on p338, he returns to pluralism as part of a world seen through a multitude of perspectives.  This undoubtedly chimes with my view of the world.  We are all on the Way (Dao) but each of us sees it from a different vantage point.  If we can accept this it may help us build a better world.

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