Saturday, October 30, 2010

Howard L. Parsons: East meets West = New Age + Stalinism (1)

The 20th century was replete with the literature of the meeting of the East and West, in respectable philosophical literature, in pop philosophy, New Age thought, and popular culture. As the ideological trend of postmodernism gained ascendancy in the 1980s, the older literature gave way to a whole new basis for combining the most obscurantist currents in Western and Asian thought. Under the postmodern dispensation, it is easy to forget what the older literature looked like.

The entire East-West paradigm formed the basis for the suppression of Marxism as an analytical approach, and Marxism gave the lie to the ahistorical metaphysics underlying the concepts of East and West. While individuals might embrace elements of both, disciplined intellectual inquiry never did so. As bad an influence as Soviet Marxism was, it was not ethnocentric in limiting its purview to Western philosophy. Marxism has a long history of engagement with Indian and Chinese philosophy, for example, and from an entirely different perspective than East-meets-West literature.

I have always been averse to Marxist philosophers who were part of or gravitated to the Soviet camp. In the 1970s and 1980s the Amsterdam publisher B.R. Grüner was a major outlet for their writings. Examination of their output reveals both highs and abysmal lows. Over the years I largely passed by the American philosopher Howard L. Parsons, both in print and in person. Recently, however, picking up one of those old Grüner volumes I had perused several times before, I found something by Parsons I found worthwhile:

"Theories of Knowledge: A Dialectical, Historical Critique" by Howard L. Parsons

I wrote the following on 23 October:
I was surprised to find Berkeley getting credit for something, not to say that pleases me much, but Parsons is dealing with philosophical reactions to the inadequacies of contemporaneous thought, not just for the obscurantism of the alternatives. I find especially interesting his take on mysticism, which he probably polished in his other writings on Eastern philosophies (e.g. Man East and West), which I've passed over until now, but now I think I'll return to them. The weaknesses of bootlickers of the USSR are all too evident to me (and I used to see several of them in action in person), but this essay showed that in certain respects, some of them do have something to offer. B.R. Grüner published all these people, and their offerings were mighty uneven, but still there is some salvageable material. I should also say that material like this provides a perspective that the American atheist/humanist movement has entirely excluded, and which Marxist literature such as this implicitly criticizes.
Then I came across this book, which had been lying about for years, unread:

Parsons, Howard L. Man East and West: Essays in East-West Philosophy. Amsterdam: B.R.Grüner, 1975. xi, 211 pp. (Philosophical Currents; v. 8)

While this took me back in time, I don't recall reading anything on this theme quite like this book. Neither New Age literature nor various Marxist analyses of religion produced this sort of thing in my experience. It reads like a fusion of historical materialism and metaphysical typology, or Stalinism and New Age.

Actually, Parsons' writing style is quite vivid, and this is a plus. There are a number of oddities in the book, though. For example, Parsons deploys Sheldon's physiognomic typology (ectomorph-mesomorph-endomorph, certebrotic-somatotonic-viscerotonic), a peculiar scheme I've not seen promoted since the days of Aldous Huxley. Mao is alleged to possession feminine facial features. Socialism is victorious in the East, which presumably is a plus for the Eastern mindset.

Parsons is not an unqualified partisan of Eastern philosophy; his perspective is congruent with the popular notion of the complementarity of East and West, akin to that of female and male, that both supply qualities the other lacks. Unlike New Agers or other advocates of East-Meets-West, Parsons is critical of the authoritarian, hierarchical, feudal social institutional and ideological dimension of Eastern thought. This deficiency is incorporated into his complementarity model. In other ways, Parsons fails to be critical of the metaphysical conceptions of Indian and Chinese thought he incorporates into his framework.

Parsons provides some detailed analyses of the development of Indian religion and Chinese thought. Oddly, he relates Lao Tzu to social class and revolution (95-97), in contrast to the patriarchal, hierarchical disposition of Confucianism. Incredibly, Parsons relates Sheldon's body typology to differentials between Eastern and Western civilizations (98). (Mesomorphy is Western?) The book is like this, painting a vivid picture in which sociohistorical analysis is fused with pseudoscience and metaphysical fragments.

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