Anticipating Chaos Concepts With Kongzi, Research Time, 06/04/2015

I always read two books at the same time. One is a more serious, technically intense piece of work. It’s usually central to whatever major philosophical project I’m working on, and I’ll always have a notebook next to me so that I can take down specific ideas and page references for later. 

It may not even be an openly technical book, like The Road to Serfdom, but I'm reading it with more detailed, intense scrutiny. Right now, that book is Understanding Social Networks by Charles Kadushin. It’s an introductory text for technical social network theory and analysis, which I'm reading to familiarize myself with the core concepts of a science that I plan to use in my communications career. 

God tells Bender that Her method is to act so subtly that,
when you're most successful, no one sees that you've
done anything at all. Futurama's God is a Daoist.
But the book I'm reading in a more relaxed mode is the latest book by my old supervisor, Barry Allen. Vanishing Into Things is a fascinating book about the history of Chinese philosophy, concentrating on uncovering that tradition’s conceptions of knowledge. It’s written with Barry’s usual flair for very understated, direct language that explains concepts very clearly and quickly.

As someone who doesn't know much beyond a few general and vague descriptions of the ideas, his book is remarkably illuminating about ancient Chinese philosophy. The book covers the tradition up to the time of China’s contact with the modern Western powers in the 1500s, and I'm still in the early sections about the early Confucian period.

I had always known about the pragmatic focus of Chinese conceptions of knowledge, which Barry confirms. Knowledge in the Confucian paradigm is about practical action, the ability to make the best decision of how to act and do so with maximum efficiency. It originates the concept that would become the centre of Daoism, wu wei, movement without effort, accomplishing much with virtually nothing. 

Before reading Barry’s book, I had no idea about how precisely one went about this, doing much by almost nothing. There's nothing mystical about this knowledge, despite how the phrase sounds profoundly self-contradictory to our ears.* It’s a matter of perception.

* I believe that no statement is inevitably nonsense. Any grammatically reasonable arrangement of words can be meaningful if listeners decide to work hard enough to give it meaning. “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” is now a deeply meaningful term, if only for its significance as a reference to Noam Chomsky's linguistic ideas.

I haven't seen the biopic of Kongzi
starring Chow Yun Fat, but I have not
heard good things.
You have to understand the small differences in the initial conditions of a process that will constitute its major characteristics. Knowing this, you can make changes in a process' genesis that can radically change its unfolding, long before it becomes so large and powerful that it's impossible for humans to contain or control at all. Making the right change means making it benevolent to you instead of hostile or dangerous.

Kongzi’s thought anticipates insights about the world that ecological science codified empirically and mathematically: bodies relate to each other through catalyzing, augmenting, or disrupting their constituent processes, and small changes in a process’ initial conditions can radically alter how it will develop in maturity. The earliest genuine forerunner of these ideas in the Western tradition is Spinoza with his concept of common notions.

In the ontological aspects of his thinking, Kongzi seems to have been the first to develop a metaphysics of the world as a dynamic ecology. Dynamism and becoming were primary organizing concepts of Chinese philosophy from the earliest written records, in contrast with the Greek/Western focus on stability and the eternal ever since Parmenides. 

So the Chinese tradition strikes me, at this first glance, as having a superior grounding to translate the scientific concepts of dynamism into broader philosophies of life. The current era's version of the clockwork metaphor of the Newtonian cultural influence in the Enlightenment. No idea how this would play out.

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