East Asian philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G218-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 31, 2023, from

1. Uncommon assumptions, common misconceptions

The prominent French sinologist Jacques Gernet (1985) argues that when the two civilizations of China and Europe, having developed almost entirely independently of each other, first made contact in about 1600, the seeming resistance of the Chinese to embracing Christianity and, more importantly, the philosophic edifice that undergirded it was not simply an uneasy difference in the encounter between disparate intellectual traditions. It was a far more profound difference in mental categories and modes of thought, and particularly, a fundamental difference in the conception of human agency. Much of what Christianity and Western philosophy had to say to the East Asians was, quite literally, nonsense – given their own philosophic commitments, they could not think it. In turn, the Jesuits interpreted this difference in ways of thinking quite specifically as ineptness in reasoning, logic and dialectic.

The West has fared little better in its opportunity to appreciate and to appropriate Sinitic culture. In fact, it has fared so badly that the very word ‘Chinese’ in the English language, found in illustrative expressions from ‘Chinese revenge’ and ‘Chinese puzzle’ to ‘Chinese firedrill’, came to denote ‘confusion’, ‘incomprehensibility’ or ‘impenetrability’, a sense of order inaccessible to the Western mind. The degree of difference between a dominant Western metaphysical sense of order and the historicist ‘aesthetic’ order prevalent in the radial Sinitic world view has plagued the encounter between these antique cultures from the start. When seventeenth-century European savants such as Leibniz and Wolff were looking to corroborate their universal indices in other high cultures – the one true God, impersonal rationality, a universal language – China was idealized as a remarkable and ‘curious land’ requiring the utmost scrutiny. In the course of time, however, reported on by philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, Mill and Emerson, Western esteem for this ‘curious land’ plummeted from such ‘Cathay’ idealizations to the depths of disaffection for the inertia of what, in the context of the Europe-driven industrial revolution, was recast as a moribund, backward-looking and fundamentally stagnant culture.

In classical Chinese there is an expression: ‘We cannot see the true face of Mount Lu because we are standing on top of it.’ Although virtually all cultural traditions and historical epochs are complex and diverse, there are certain fundamental and often unannounced assumptions on which they stand that give them their specific genetic identity and continuities. These assumptions, extraordinarily important as they are for understanding the cultural narrative, are often concealed from the consciousness of the participants in the culture who are inscribed by them, and become obvious only from a perspective external to the particular tradition or epoch. Often a tradition suspends within itself competing and even conflicting elements which, although at odds with one another, still reflect a pattern of importances integral to and constitutive of its cultural identity. These underlying strands are not necessarily or even typically logically coherent or systematic, yet they do have a coherence as the defining fabric of a specific and unique culture.

Looking at and trying to understand elements of the East Asian cultural narrative from the distance of Western traditions, then, embedded as we are within our own pattern of cultural assumptions, has both advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is obvious and inescapable. To the extent that we are unconscious of the difference between our own fundamental assumptions and those that have shaped the emergence of East Asian philosophies, we are sure to impose upon this geographical area our own presuppositions about the nature of the world, making what is exotic familiar and what is distant near. On the other hand, a clear advantage of an external perspective is that we are able to see with greater clarity at least some aspects of ‘the true face of Mount Lu’: we are able to discern, however imperfectly, the common ground on which the Confucian and the Buddhist stand in debating their differences, ground which is in important measure concealed from they themselves by their unconscious assumptions.

Citing this article:
Ames, Roger T.. Uncommon assumptions, common misconceptions. East Asian philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G218-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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