Thought Needs New Ideas and Wild Collisions, Research Time, 01/05/2015

I mentioned a while ago that I finished Barry Allen's book about ancient and medieval Chinese philosophy, Vanishing Into Things. His conclusion was as concise, complex, and modestly ambitious as any of his own major works that I've read.* It reminded me of how lucky I feel to have had him as a supervisor and worked with him so closely for four years. It also reminded me of why we worked so well together.

* Or even just his lecture courses. I thought his closing lecture in the third-level Nietzsche course, for which I was once his teaching assistant a few years ago, was one of the most artful summations of four months of talks as I've ever heard.

Barry started his book with a gripe about how comparative philosophy is usually done in academic settings. I think some of the best writing is in part motivated by gripes, because they create something to push away from. It’s how I treated H. P. Lovecraft in the writing of my own sci-fi debut

But a gripe can’t consume your writing. Otherwise, you stay reactive, making an entirely negative critique without even gestures to an alternative. and the scope of your thinking remains small. It’s a kind of petty, spiteful nihilism in writing. 

Remarkable men from three different civilizations meet
and their conversation will begin a vibrant new
Barry’s gripe with standard comparative philosophy is a different kind of small thinking that he found quite common in the field, according to his introduction. It’s a smallness of ambition in engaging with the philosophical traditions of another culture. Whether through a misplaced post-colonial ceding of space to the other, or a colonial treatment of the examined tradition as a fossilized museum piece, they both do the same thing. 

Chinese philosophy is described and interpreted without genuinely engaging in the conceptual conversations that come when traditions with very different fundamental presumptions have collided throughout history. Such cultural collisions have historically been the most philosophically fertile in our history. Barry describes one such collision as having resulted in Zen Buddhism itself. I think of the centuries-long engagement of Arab philosophy with the Greek classics in the Abbasid Empire as another example.

But the modern manners of comparative philosophy that describes without engagement achieve the same result as the colonial encounter of dominance that makes taxidermy of the tradition: it’s treated without life. Engaging with the Chinese tradition as living philosophy would dialogue with these works to create new philosophical concepts and arguments.

Barry ends Vanishing Into Things by sketching where a living Western engagement with Chinese philosophy can go. The traditions that began in ancient China constitute a 2,000 year heritage of understanding the world as process, primary flux, becoming as prior to being and static identity. 

China’s tradition offers just as many variations on thinking in terms of becoming as the Western tradition does with terms of being. What's more, it's a philosophical tradition of primal becoming that never had to overcome a mainstream that ontologically prioritized being. 

Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, and Gilles Deleuze all developed fascinating and complex philosophies that prioritized becoming as the primary nature of reality. But they all had to set their philosophies as reactions to more than 2,000 years of tradition that understood stability and the static as the essence of what is. 

At many points throughout his book, Barry describes how a given Chinese thinker or school may resemble a famous Western thinker, but how the Western -ism just didn't fit. The character of a Western approach to a process way of thinking had to strain so hard against concepts of the static that it heightened the intensity of arguments that a parallel Chinese thinker would never have had to make. 

No one around the Chinese philosopher would ever have asked the questions that a Westerner would. Only when the traditions came into contact could those questions be posed and the new creative time begin. To understand and engage with such a different way of thinking as a colleague, they'd all have to create a ton of new concepts. And that’s what philosophy is.

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