Society for Advancement of American Philosophy

2007 Meeting, March 8-10

University of Southern Carolina 

“Pragmatism and Chinese Philosophy”

Alfred North Whitehead once remarked, “If you want to understand Confucius, read John Dewey. And if you want to understand Dewey, read Confucius.” The comparison was meant to compliment neither Dewey nor Confucius; Whitehead thought that they were both prone to confusion. Since then, scholars have brought Dewey and Confucius together in philosophical engagements that have borne some interesting fruits, for example, Democracy of the Dead: Dewey and the Hope for Democracy in China, Boston Confucianism, Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction, and Unity of Knowledge and Action: Toward a nonrepresentational theory of knowledge. The Journal of Chinese Philosophy is bringing out a special issue on “Chinese Philosophy and American philosophy.” Richard Shusterman also explores the resonance between Pragmatism and East Asian thought in his recent edited volume, The Range of Pragmatism and the Limits of Philosophy; that same volume contains a chapter examining Dewey’s influence in China. Most of the comparative works bringing together Chinese Philosophy and Pragmatism have been better known in Chinese Philosophy than among those working on American Philosophy; it is time to introduce the American Philosophy community to this emerging area of scholarship that has benefited so much from the tools developed in the American philosophical tradition.

John Dewey himself was a world philosopher. His philosophy was influential outside America even during his life time. That influence extends beyond simply application of his thinking. Dewey’s followers in different countries and different cultures transform Pragmatism in the process of putting it into practice in their specific contexts. It is the aim of this panel to show how the encounter between Pragmatism and Chinese Philosophy could be and have been mutually illuminating. It will include a historical paper that examine the impact of Dewey’s Pragmatism just after his visit to China (1919-1921), by exploring the debate between Chinese Pragmatists and their traditionalist opponents, and in the process, elucidating and developing Pragmatist views of tradition and progress, in response to the challenges of those who emphasize the importance of cultural traditions and cultural identity, issues that are once again taking center stage in contemporary philosophical and political discourses.

Two other papers on the panel will employ the conceptual tools of Pragmatism to further our understanding of Chinese Philosophy. One of them challenges an existing scholarly opinion and argues that, Dewey’s account of the relationship between means and ends could reveal something of moral worth in the account of “dao-learning” as exemplified in Cook Ding’s carving of the ox, described in an intriguing passage in the Fourth century (B.C.) text, the Zhuangzi. The pragmatist belief in the continuity of means and ends and the pervasiveness of the moral in human experience is given a new dimension in this exploration of an ancient Chinese text. The third paper brings together Dewey and Wang Yangming, a Confucian who lived between the fourteenth and fifteenth century, and through a comparison of the two philosophies, suggests that an organismic continuum may be a useful metaphor for contemporary scholars seeking to understand the relationships among the brain, the person and the surrounding environment.

The papers in this panel provide an opportunity to assess the encounter between Pragmatism and Chinese Philosophy as well as reflect on the directions in which continued encounters may take, especially its potential for the development of American philosophies as well as Chinese philosophies.


Paper 1 Abstract

Are Chinese Pragmatists Iconoclasts?

The Pragmatic Method in the Encounter between Tradition and Modernization

John Dewey spent more than two years (1919 - 1921) in China during one of the country’s most turbulent periods. Arriving in Shanghai a few days before the student demonstrations that became known as the May Fourth Movement, Dewey’s Pragmatism was very attractive to the New Culture intellectuals who had been arguing that China needed a cultural transformation that would replace its obsolete traditions, especially its Confucian legacy, with science and democracy, which epitomizes modern civilization. The New Culture movement was often iconoclastic in its attack on Chinese traditions. Dewey’s most famous Chinese student, Hu Shih, the foremost advocate of Pragmatism in China and a founder of the New Culture movement, was well known for having insisted on “Complete Westernization” against the cultural conservatives in the debates regarding the appropriate approach to Chinese culture and Western influence. Hu Shih was against any kind of “compromise between past and present, or east and west,” which he saw as obstructing China’s attempt to modernize. Hu saw those who recommended cultural construction on a “Chinese basis” as disguising conservative traditionalism as eclectic compromise. Their resistance of Westernization was obstructing “internationalization” and preventing China from making full use of the “the world’s scientific knowledge and methods.”

The popularity of Pragmatist philosophy among New Culture intellectuals resulted in Dewey being perceived as an iconoclast. There are certainly passages in Dewey’s writings that could be read as iconoclastic. He expressed concern that “a tradition may result in habits that obstruct observation of what is actually going on” (L13.102) and “overemphasis on the past tends to create the closed and dogmatic mind. It tends to make us believe that all information is here and all the evidence known” (L11.573). He recommended that we “get rid of those elements of our heritage from the past which hamper, load down and distort clear and coherent  intellectual articulation of the attitudes, interests and movements which are distinctively modern” (L14.315). However, Dewey distinguished two conception of tradition. As a noun, tradition is something static, “currently accepted in a community which is handed down from generation to generation, being accepted on the authority of its past currency rather than because of any independent examination and verification” (M7.356). As a process, tradition is the term “used to cover the entire operation of transmission by which a society maintains the continuity of its intellectual and moral life” (M7.356). The former often obstructs modernization; the latter ensures that modernization does not destroy human civilization.

Perhaps the anti-tradition aspect of Dewey’s Pragmatism received more attention in Republican China because of the circumstances. Given China’s long history of “revering the ancient,” it was not in need of counsel to respect traditions; instead, given the perceived incompatibility of most of its traditions and modern life, a philosophy recommending a critical attitude towards the past and traditions seemed eminently sensible. According to the translators of his lectures in China, Dewey himself did not recommend complete rejection of their traditional culture to his Chinese audience. While he believed that it would be fatal for the Chinese to isolate herself from the influences of Western culture, Dewey also maintained that “the best in western thought is to be freely adopted – but adapted to Chinese conditions, employed as an instrumentality in building up a rejuvenated Chinese culture” (M13.114). Hu Shih’s own position on Chinese traditional culture is also more nuanced than some of his more notorious claims about “complete Westernization” might indicate. After all, he spent most of his life studying Chinese history, literature, and philosophy, in an effort to “put the national heritage in order (zhengli guogu).” He was not so naïve as to think that a complete rejection of the past, of tradition, was possible; but as a Pragmatist, he did believe that a critical attitude and scientific study of cultural heritage was necessary to use China’s past to transform its future.

This paper will compare Hu Shih’s arguments in the debates regarding Chinese traditional culture and Westernization with Dewey’s views about tradition and social change. Was Hu Shih’s method in these debates pragmatic in a Deweyan sense? The debates elucidate certain complexities and difficulties of social change that must be taken into account in an intelligent approach to cultural tradition, in social experiments that aim to balance tradition and novelty. The paper shall conclude by showing how the encounter between Pragmatism and Chinese thought of the past remains relevant to contemporary debates about the role of traditional culture in China’s modernization.


Paper 2 Abstract


John Dewey and the Moral Defense of Cook Ding’s Dao

Is there anything of moral worth to be found in Zhuangzi’s account of “dao-learning” as exemplified in Cook Ding’s carving of the ox?  Some commentators, most notably Robert Eno, have argued that there is little of moral worth in such episodes and that, in fact, dao-learning in the Zhuangzi is compatible with the performance of evil deeds.  To supplement dao-learning, says Eno, moral theory is required to justify the selection of ends to which dao-learning might be utilized as means.  Without such a theory, according to Eno, dao-learning is morally neutral.  In this paper, I enlist John Dewey in defense of Cook Ding’s dao.  I revisit Dewey’s discussion of “individual method” in Democracy and Education and argue, first, that it is remarkably similar to the dao of Cook Ding.  Next, I argue that Dewey’s advocacy of individual method is made in moral terms: he points out several positive “evils” that result in its absence.  I consider Dewey’s account of the relationship between means and ends and suggest that this too might lend itself to a moral defense of Cook Ding’s dao.  In closing, I consider to what extent Cook Ding’s dao, understood through Dewey, can be regarded as a moral philosophy.

For Dewey, “individual method” means the arrangement of subject matter; never is the method something outside of the subject matter.  In any well-formed, smooth-running function there is no separation between the two.  “Individual method” is ever-focused on the emergent demands of the subject matter and is open to the adjustment of ends accordingly.  Dewey contrasts “individual method” with a more rigid, technical approach that he labels “general method.”  Operative in “general method” is a pan-contextual procedure for approaching subject matter as a general type, clearly-defined in advance of any contact with the subject matter.  I will argue that the description of Cook Ding’s encounter with the Ox possesses many of the same features of what Dewey calls “individual method” and that it too is presented in contrast to approaches similar to what Dewey calls “general method.”  I argue that, as “method” (or meta-hodos; hodos being “path” or “way”), Dewey’s “way” is similar to Cook Ding’s dao and involves similar notions of skill cultivation and cognitive and motor-sensory development.

The moral dimension arises with Dewey’s defense of “individual method” and his warning against an over-emphasis on “general method” in education.  Dewey explains that “individual method” is marked by four distinct traits that ought to be cultivated: directness, open-mindedness, single-mindedness, and responsibility.  Each trait has normative content, and this content will be developed and discussed.  “General method,” on the other hand, involves four distinct dangers: neglect of the concrete, falsity of interest, death of significance, and deadening of activity.  Dewey refers to these as the positive “evils” of general method.  These features also will be developed and discussed. 

Returning to the Chinese side, I use Dewey’s normative claims to develop a moral defense of Cook Ding’s dao.  This will involve understanding the Cook Ding episode in the context of a broader critique of Mohism and Confucianism, schools which, from the Daoist perspective, exhibit the “evils” of what Dewey calls “general method.”  In coming to appreciate the moral of the Cook Ding episode, I reconsider the notion of “nurturing life” (yangsheng) which is presented as the ultimate point of the passage.  To “nurture life” is to preserve an attitude that is “native, spontaneous, and vital in mental reaction” and “whole-hearted” in Dewey’s words; it is to be both unified in purpose and responsive to the consequences of one’s actions, without ulterior motive.  Whether the cultivation of this attitude is sufficient as a stand-alone moral philosophy is a final consideration.  Eno’s charge against Zhuangzi is two-fold: first, that Cook Ding’s dao is commensurate with moral evil; and second, that there is nothing of normative value in his dao that would prevent it from being used as such.  I suggest that Eno’s first critique involves a demand that is too high for any method to satisfy, individual or general.  The best one can do in prescribing a method or dao is to list those features that recommend it.  As for Eno’s second critique, I maintain that, understood through Dewey, there is significant normative content to Cook Ding’s dao and that whole-heartedly embracing it – or aspiring to embrace it - would seem, more often than not, to keep us from performing evil deeds.


Paper 3 abstract

Forming One Body with All Things

In this paper I use Wang Yangming’s famous slogan (chih hsing ho-i) as a jumping off point for revisiting organismic assumptions that are central to John Dewey’s work and that I see as useful for understanding recent work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.  In sum, this paper begins with Wang Yangming, moves to Dewey and ends by suggesting that the notion of an organismic continuum may be a useful metaphor for contemporary scholars seeking to understand relationships among the brain, the person and the surrounding environment.

Wang Yangming’s “Forming one body with all things.”

The Unity of Knowledge and Action: Toward a Nonrepresentational Theory of Knowledge argues that Wang Yangming’s theory of knowledge was dependent in part on an underlying organismic cosmology.  At one point Wang says:

The innate knowledge of man is the same as that of plants and trees, tiles and stones.  Without the innate knowledge inherent in man, there canot be plants and trees, tiles and stones.  This is not true of them only.  Even Heaven and earth cannot exist without the innate knowledge that is inherent in man.  For at bottom Heaven, Earth, the myriad of things and man form one body. The point at which this unity is manifested in its most refined and excellent form is the clear intelligence of the human mind.  Wind, rain dew, thunder, sun and moon, stars, animals and plants, mounts and rivers, earth and stones are essentially of one body with man.  It is for this reason that such things as the grains and animals can nourish man and that such things as medicine and minerals can hela diseases.  Since they share the same material force they enter into one another. (Wang Yangming, 221-22, italics added) 

Scholars have reacted to Wang’s declaration in two ways.  Some have argued that he is pointing to a form of philosophic idealism, one that ultimately reduces all things to expressions of mental activity.  I disagree with this reading.  As I see his situation, Wang couldn’t be a philosophical idealist because philosophical idealism makes sense only when it is set over against a contrasting philosophic materialism (usually of a mechanistic kind).  Wang had no such contrasting interlocutors, and so couldn’t have been developing anything like what we see in Western forms of philosophical idealism.

Instead, as I read him, Wang’s notion that we form one body with all things is a natural extension of the central organismic cosmological assumptions present in ancient Chinese texts like the I-Ching, Chung-Yung, Nei-Yeh, The Analects, The Mengzi etc.).  In short, I believe he means us to take him quite literally when he claims that we already form one body with all things and that it is our task to act so as to extend that body in new and creative ways.  This vision leads to him toward a theory that sees the mind as expression of organic activity, one that aims at successful coordination (harmony) rather than representational accuracy.

John Dewey and One Body

As many have argued, organismic assumptions that were so central to the early pragmatist thinkers, especially John Dewey, have been largely ignored during the latest resurgence of interest in pragmatism.  In part this has been due to the extraordinary influence of Richard Rorty, who has routinely treated that side of Dewey’s and James’ thinking as old-fashioned and “well lost.”  At base, Rorty’s fear has been that Dewey and others smuggle in old-fashioned representational assumptions that undermine his most brilliant ability to dissolve the assumptions that for so long projected upon us an image of a mind that is separated from the known world.  For Rorty, and most others, there is no necessary link between Dewey’s theory of mind and the more extensive metaphysical and cosmological speculations outlined in books like Experience and Nature. 

I disagree with this reading as well, and instead argue that Dewey’s entire theory of mind is an outgrowth of and dependent upon his tendency to see all things as part of a continuous organismic system.  For Dewey, “the difference between organic and intellectual activity lies not in the fact that the latter has something in addition to organic properties, but rather in the way in which those energies are interconnected and operate, evoking different consequences.” (Frisina, p. 112, 2002)

In this way, I cast my lot with philosophers (e.g. David Hall, Roger Ames, Robert Neville, Joseph Grange, James Behuniak, Jr., and Steve Odin) who have been mining the ways this particularly fruitful aspect of pragmatic thinking can be linked with the organicism that is so central to Chinese thinking in general and Confucianism in particular. 

Fleshly Thinking: Organicism and Contemporary Cognitive Theory

Most recently there has been an explosion of interest in the intersections among cognitive theory, cognitive psychology, neuroscience and contemporary theories of mind.  I am particularly interested in that line of inquiry exemplified best in the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, 1999) but also evident in recent work by Alva Noe (Action in Perception, 2nd edition, 2006).  Specifically, I want to argue that these thinkers are engaged in a process that is surfacing the limitations of the traditional metaphoric tools that we have been using to make sense of mental activity and in the process preparing us for a transition to a set of metaphors which are best described as organicism revisited. 

The interesting part of this paper should be the ways in which I begin to draw distinctions between the old organicisms of Confucianism and early pragmatism on the one hand and the new forms that organicism seems to be taking on the other.  This paper will not argue that we ought to go back to the insights of classical Chinese thinkers and classical pragmatists.  Instead, I will be claiming that we can make more and better sense of contemporary data in cognitive psychology and neuro-science if we use organismic assumptions as our metaphorical starting point.  Lakoff and Johnson, as well as others are pointing toward new theories of mind which are inconsistent with much that has been central to Western philosophic cosmology and that is more consistent with the organismic models pointed to above.  If I am right, then the question is how much easier is it to complete the tasks set out for us by philosophers like Lakoff, Johnson, and Noe if we begin not with the standard assumptions they struggle so hard to overcome, but rather with organismic ones?