By Nathan Eckstrand
The APA Blog’s coverage of the Eastern thus far has focused on two of the major speeches, but there were many other fascinating panels that took place throughout the conference. While it is beyond our ability to cover them all, I would like to use this post and the next to highlight some of the other work that was presented in Baltimore.
It is not surprising that the events of 2016 were on the minds of many at the conference—in particular, the anger seen in politics and the continuing neoliberal assault on the values of the humanities. The concerns about what consequences Brexit, Trump, Putin, and the Syrian crisis would have for our world came through in numerous presentations, as speakers emphasized the wealth of resources philosophy has to offer. Of the presentations I attended, three made this connection explicit: the talk by National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman William Adams, and two of the three papers given at the International Society for Comparative Studies of Chinese and Western Philosophy panel (I was unable to stay for the third).
NEH Chairman Adams spoke about the role of democracy and philosophy in America, stating at the beginning that his speech was informed by the recent election. Since he doesn’t himself work with students, Adam was eager to hear from the audience about how they encourage democratic citizenship in their classes. For this is the key question that the humanities must now wrestle with: how can they illuminate public life and inform about the nature of democracy?
The events of the last year indicate that there is much work left to be done. In particular, Adams emphasized the need to amplify our teachings about democratic values, to communicate better with the public, and to embrace the spectrum of political difference. At the same time, we must remember that a good political education includes discussions about fundamental elements of American history, an acquaintance with constitutional liberal democracy as well as its institutions, cultural literacy, and the studying of media.
This education is being undermined, leading to what Adams called—citing Danielle Allen—a decline in “participation readiness.” The seductive siren song of STEM fields, combined with the focus on vocational education and the push for more tests, are marginalizing the liberal arts. The results of this can be seen in the events of the last 6 months, including the dominance of new forms of communication (social media), the fragmentation of worldviews, the epistemological questions raised by ‘false news,’ the increasing solipsism as well as incivility, and the resurgence of old forms of political community (nationalism, nativism, and authoritarianism).
The lesson that philosophers must take from this is that they need to get more involved in public affairs. This can mean many things, but in particular Adams mentioned that we must reinvent the curriculum to emphasize citizenship education, restore a commitment to educating the whole person, prioritize the concept of citizenship in public institutions, think about how humanists of all types can engage other disciplines, expand our investigations into civility, find theoretical frameworks for student to engage their own political lives, and use the classroom as a place to model citizenship. Ultimately, Adams concluded, democracy must become a project for democracy.
The Chinese-Western Philosophy panel started with a paper by Kathleen Wright, who emphasized many of the same concerns—notably, the anger of many in the populace and the inability of STEM fields to adequately address this. To properly tackle these problems, she said, we must learn to appreciate different types of knowledge. Aristotle, for instance, developed a whole typology of knowledge that included not just scientific knowledge but also skills (techne) and practical wisdom. Similarly, the Chinese appreciated not just intellectual virtues, but an embodied and intuitive understanding of the world. While it is difficult to fit the Chinese understanding of embodied knowledge onto Aristotle’s typography (some say it is a form of practical wisdom, others a form of art), all agree that Chinese philosophy—like Aristotle—gives a broader account of knowledge than we do today.
The value of this broader account is that it can teach us how to engage the world in ways that will help us to better organize our lives. Western scientific knowledge doesn’t teach much about the soul, but the Chinese interest in looking for embodied knowledge can help us do this. Wright gave an example drawn from Chinese literature about how, during war, knowledge of enemy activities can come from observing the movement of the dust. Similarly, bodily gestures can indicate when an opponent is going to attack. One of the reasons for the problems of 2016 is that politicians were so focused on scientific and statistical knowledge that they “didn’t pay attention to the dust,” or to the intense feeling of hostility that many in society had to politics as usual. We can better care for others, and create a more harmonious society, if we move beyond statistics and polls to a more embodied knowledge. Wright concluded by advocating the heuristic of reciprocity given by Chinese philosophy: namely, we should not wish for others that which we don’t want for ourselves.
The second paper used Foucault’s notion of dispositif to explore how the Western encounter with China influenced the development of laissez-faire economics. Author Paul Boshears began by describing the origins of the free market system. It came from the concept of political economy, which is one of the factors that undermined sovereignty in the 17th and 18th Century. People started believing that political power, like goods, must be controlled and circulated according to the dictates of the market. What is notable about this development is how much it came from Europe’s encounter with China. One of the physiocrats who proposed the theory of laissez-faire economics was heavily influenced by China, as indicated by his desire to be called the ‘Confucius of Europe.’
The narrative that developed through the encounter with China is that a society works best when it is in accordance with nature. This tenet is found in many schools of Chinese philosophy, and was taken up by reformers in Europe, who argued that government was an impediment to the proper circulation of goods. Supporting this claim was the vision of China held by Europeans at the time as the most civilized place on the planet, which had mastered the relationship between human affairs and nature. It was this discourse that made the free market argument so convincing in the early Modern era, and which contributed to the undermining of sovereign power.
Boshears emphasizes that the concepts the physiocrats picked up from China were overly simplified and emptied of meaning when removed from the Chinese context. The Chinese idea was about how an appreciation of things as they are can increase one’s standard of living, not an argument against human intervention. The Chinese were concerned with studying how human actions affected, and were affected by, a universal flux. Neoliberalism, rather than studying this interaction, submits to it completely. Perhaps by recognizing this, we can begin to transcend the neoliberal system.
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