Saturday, October 9, 2010

Asian Philosophy & Critical Thinking

Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence? by Soraj Hongladarom

The author poses the question as to whether critical thinking culture-specific (e.g. Western). His project is summarized as follows:
In this paper, I attempt to argue that critical thinking is not necessarily incompatible with Asian traditional belief systems. In fact I will show that both India and China do have their own indigenous traditions of logical and argumentative thinking. Since the logical traditions within both Indian and Chinese cultures were perceived to be not conducive to their respective ideals, they were eventually supplanted by the more dominant traditions which did not emphasize criticism or argumentation as much as social harmony or intuitive insights. I will further try to show that, since the logical traditions are already there in the major Asian cultural traditions, they can and should be reexamined, reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary situation. This would be an answer to the Western educators who have found no such tradition in the East.
This immediately raises the question as to the relationship between logic and critical thinking. There are now various schools in the study of critical thinking, not all limited to the baseline enumeration and analysis of logical fallacies. (Note the bibliography.) However, the history of logic is rather peculiar in its ties to metaphysics and theology, and thus there is no need to suppose that logic automatically engenders critical thinking; to the point, critical thinking that challenges a presupposed dogmatic viewpoint. Training in logical argumentation has historically been proven to be good training ground for the production of heretics, an unintentional by-product of fairly rigid institutionalization.

This article responds to this question only indirectly, by adumbrating the reasons for the decline of logical traditions in China and India. In India, the limitation of expertise in logic to a priestly caste rendered it vulnerable to political occlusion under changed conditions. There are different schools of thought as to what happened in China. (Here are summaries of some theories: The Rise of the West.) Given China's high level of development prior to European scientific revolution and age of exploration (conquest), there is no reason to suppose an inherent inferiority of Chinese capabilities. China's ultimate stagnation can be seen as conjunctural, but there are "underdeterminationist" and "overdeterminationist" explanations for divergences between Chinese and European civilizations. Steve Fuller adheres to the underdeterminationist model, according to which progress in science was prevented from occurring by special circumstances.

A word on Joseph Needham, who in this article represents the other viewpoint on Chinese science. Needham became the major Western authority on the history of science and technology in China, and he contributed to addressing the historical addressing of how China, once the scientifically most advanced civilization in the world, fell behind Europe. Needham offered specific historical information about China's scientific achievements and its relation to China's overall development, but he also held philosophical views that overstressed China's organicist philosophical and cultural base, that somehow provides a superior model even though the Chinese blew it. (See for example Needham's multiply reprinted "History and Human Values: a Chinese Perspective for World Science and Technology".) Needham has often been criticized for violating his own empirical research with ideological justificationism. In the 1930s he was a Marxist, part of the British social relations of science movement. His orientalism, a recurrent temptation for Westerners seeking to escape their own alienation, eventually got the better of him. Elsewhere I will take up Needham's fall into philosophical obscurantism.

If scientific progress is associated with critical thinking, then one must look at the cultural paths adopted in the development of various civilizations, including what might have been different had not different philosophies prevailed, had not Confucianism in China and mysticism in India not succeeded in their ascendancy. The dominance of "social harmony" (scare quotes supplied by me) over a culture of argumentation may be an historical route taken, but trajectories can be altered. The author wishes to steer Thailand into the camp of critical thinking.

The author's own historical analytical perspective is weak. General comments taking "culture" and "tradition" as fundamental categories are always suspect, as is the notion that somehow cultures have to develop their potentials from "within" even while radically deviating from or developing against tradition. Critical thinking is going to be developed or not from where people are at now, whether reacting to their own cultural tradition or assimilating a knowledge base and methodology from elsewhere.


Jeff Sherry said...

Mr. Dumain, you maqy be interested in the following link to the Nirmukta blog of Indian (Hindu atheism) if you haven't visited already:

Ralph Dumain said...

I'm very familiar with it, thank you.