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Driesch: Chinese thinking and East-West unity

Hans and Margarete Driesch reflected on the Chinese language and ways of thinking in a Leibnizian vein in their work. They are impressed, for instance, by the logical character of the Chinese language in which, as in modern formal logic, each object is a thing.72 Leibniz was correct in their view to refer to the Chinese writing system in his conception of the universal characteristic with its dyadic yes/not yes, 0/1, structure. This modern logical structure is visible in simple colloquial Chinese expressions such as have/have not (you mei you 'ШШ. W) or good/not good (hao bu hao ^^^).73

Their portrayal of Chinese society highlights its intellectual and religious tolerance. There are multiple forms of Chinese religious life encompassing ancestral and natural spirits, Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, and atheistic beliefs and practices. This diversity makes it impossible to speak of one Chinese national religion or to steer society though religious means or institutions.74 There is accordingly a certain modernity, interpreted as secularization, to Chinese society that is in contrast still undeveloped in the West.

The authors discuss Daoism and Confucianism throughout their book both as religions and as philosophies, differentiating ways in which these are interpreted and practiced in the Chinese environment. To briefly summarize, they maintain that Daoism alone is in an authentic sense a religion. They adopt a typical narrative of the era favoring “philosophical” over “religious” Daoism: Laozi and Zhuangzi are perceived in their account as articulating a pantheistic-mystical philosophy that was reductively flattened out to a religion of spirits in later religious Daoism with its focus on natural and ancestral spirits.75 Confucianism, however, is an ethical system of exceptional depth and purity rather than a religion per se. It is grounded in essential concepts of trust, sincerity, duty, and authority. Confucian philosophy is linked by association with the popular “religion” of the ancestor cult due to its moral and pedagogical value. Confucian moral teachings infuse and structure all of Chinese life, in a way that no Western practical philosophy has achieved, even while Confucian education, philosophy, and temples are predominantly for the elite Mandarins and literati class.76

The final chapter of Fern-Ost als gaste Jungchinas concerns “The Unity of West and East,” based on Hans Driesch’s lecture at the farewell event in Beijing organized by Zhang and his colleagues in honor of his departure from China.77 Driesch commences by stating how he initially undertook his journey to the East in the spirit of Nietzsche’s portrayal of the “good European.” Nietzsche employed this idea in his arguments against German nationalism and patriotism. As a good European, Driesch articulates a critique of Europe, mentioning its destructive tendencies toward global murder and robbery, while praising the mutual understanding evident among its intellectual tradition that embraces, among others, the participation of French, Italian, British, Jewish, and German intellectuals.78 He accordingly expresses his own closer affinity with French pacifists than with German nationalists. Nevertheless, he notes how elite intellectuals cannot be disconnected from vulgar uneducated cultures, as is evident in the historical interconnection between anti-Semitism and the German idealism of Fichte and Hegel.79

Driesch describes how through the international thought-portraits of Keyserling, which are described in the next section below, and his own sojourn in China, he recognized that the perspective of being a “good European” is itself inadequate—not because it is “too wide,” but because it is “too narrow” and still too near to nationalism in restricting its vision to Europe.80 On the one hand, there is narrow nationalism that is inadequate to addressing the other; on the other hand, Driesch notes, there is the superficial romanticism and consumption of the “new,” “foreign,” and “wholly other.” Arabs, Hindus, and Chinese are grasped and reified as “totally other,” and depicted as using completely different concepts or even no concepts at all, and as possessing a special truth and wisdom inaccessible to alienated Western humanity. Neither perspective, neither the nationalist nor the Orientalist, risks genuinely encountering and engaging what that “other truth” might in fact be.81

Driesch next poses the question: is there a difference of essence between East and West? His answer is no: not because the East has now been incorporated into Western modernity, and has adopted the study of the natural sciences, nor because the West is now learning to study the psychoidic and—using argumentation familiarized by Carl Jung—“the psychic unconscious” in all of its forms, including “parapsychology.”82

If there were a real difference in essence between the two, East and West could not encounter and learn from one another, each adopting what is better in the other and rejecting what is worse in themselves; that is, learning in a Confucian way through others’ merits and one’s own faults. The already existing history of intercultural exchange entails that there is no incomprehensible abyss between Eastern and Western forms of thinking and living. If the West is currently asymmetrically in the superior position to the East, it is not due to its nature or essence. Adopting another Confucian teaching, there is no intrinsic superiority between humans by nature; there is only a differentiation of human nature through education and formation (Bildung). The West’s current position is due to its cultivation of education and the critical consciousness unfolded in modern critical philosophy.83

The peoples of the East, notably in China and Japan in Driesch’s account, have realized the nature of the European advantage and are now endeavoring to appropriate Western means and discourses and surpass the West in the formation of a new culture.84 The new emerging culture in China is not only an appropriation of Western theories and practices but also an adaptation and reinterpretation of Chinese traditions, in particular Confucian ethics that is in many ways superior to Western morality. Even if the West has its Kant, who is like Confucius for Driesch as well as Zhang, customary morality and moral reflection are more deeply embedded in the structures of Chinese ethical life.85 This is reflected in Chinese intellectual life: Western intellectuals are primarily militaristic and nationalistic. Chinese intellectuals are more noble, to the point of exaggeration, in their commitments to tolerance, pacifism, and cosmopolitanism. While Western intellectuals theorize, Chinese intellectuals cultivate themselves.86 Echoing Leibniz’s portrayal of an “exchange of light” a few centuries earlier, it is not only the East that can learn and adopt from the West, the West is also in need of recognizing and learning from the East in a new community of mutual exchange, learning, and understanding.87

Addressing the problematic of universalism and particularism in undoubtedly overly optimistic claims, Driesch maintains that nationalism cannot prevent in the end the realization of the unity of humanity—the harmony of the part and the whole—which alone allows each particular to genuinely be itself. Each nation, he concludes, is capable of recognizing and adopting what is best and true from other nations: Kant does not only belong to Germany nor Confucius solely to China.88 The European and Chinese intellectual traditions—the latter with its cosmopolitan elucidation of tolerance, peace, and harmony, which he contrasts with the “religious dogmatism” of the Islamic, Hindu, and Christian worlds— have already helped to prepare the way for a greater human community and, Driesch adds, one unified democratic and pan-ecumenical international state.89

The exchanges between Zhang and Driesch can be interpreted as a suggestive exemplar for intercultural philosophy and hermeneutics. Driesch’s approach to East-West understanding remains suggestive in that it fostered a sense of intercultural encounter, dialogue, and interpretation. Driesch’s language expresses an openness to encountering and learning from the other, despite the fact that it is unfolded in a problematic discourse of unity in his final Beijing lecture and in an overly naive, optimistic, and idealizing way that is shared by other Weimar-era cosmopolitan German intellectuals whose discourse is outlined in the next section.

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