comparison

December 28th, 2008

My dreams are generally a pretty good guide to how my life is going: The more what I dream resembles my everyday life, the more desperately I need to drag myself out of whatever rut I’m in and do something interesting, or at least different. By that standard, life at the moment certainly isn’t boring. Last night brought the most bizarre series of dreams that involved very heated discussion in Wellington, largely but not only between journalists of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (Australian newspapers), who spent a lot of time driving around in Land Rovers, about how ethnocentrism and lexicography were the two big issues the world faces right now. I absolutely can not remember any halfway coherent series of events in this series of dreams, but at one point in this series of dreams some Aussie journalist sitting in a Land Rover at the top of one of the cliff’s along Wellington’s south coast shouted out “Lexicography!” with such force and conviction he woke me up.

Lexicography? Where the hell did that come from? Ethnocentrism, on the other hand, has an obvious source: A book I finished reading this morning. Western Civilization with Chinese Comparisons, by John G. Blair and Jerusha Hull McCormack (Fudan University Press, Shanghai, 2006) is actually intended to be a university course introducing Western civilisation to Chinese students through comparison with Chinese civilisation. I was in Roubaozi’s house and saw the book sitting there, and thought, that sounds interesting. So I asked him, and he said he hadn’t read it, but I could borrow it, so I did.

And it certainly is an interesting idea: That one can learn about another civilisation, and one’s own, through open and honest comparison. But when I finished the book this morning, I found myself thinking I’d definitely have to check out the CD. Oh yeah, it comes with a CD-ROM, but I haven’t yet checked out its contents. I found myself thinking I’d definitely have to check out the CD because the book felt like an extended introduction to the course, and therefore necessarily superficial. Not only that, but certain ideas expressed in the book set the bullshit detectors zinging, leaving me hoping that the contents of the CD not only go into greater depth, but, at the very least, build a more solid argument.

And because the book contains references to material that simply does not appear in the book, I will assume for now that the CD does do that. But for now, I want to rant a little about the book, bearing in mind that it seems to be only an introduction to the material on the CD.

Problem number 1, of course, is the term “Western”. This term irks me because it covers a wide range of countries and cultures, and as one approaches the easterly reaches of Europe, the boundary between West and East starts to look a little fuzzy. But what bugs me most about that word is that many, especially Chinese and Americans, seem to see it as synonymous with “American”. Although the “Western” countries do share a lot in common and do generally trace their civilisation back to classical Greece and Rome, “The West” is still a wide variety of countries, cultures and histories. The word “liberal”, for example, has entirely different, almost opposite meanings on either side of the Atlantic.

The authors also insist that Westerners think in binary terms, in terms of pairs of polar opposites. It’s an assertion I’ve heard before, but I’ve never been convinced by it. They use the history of debate begun in classical Greece to show how we’ve always argued in binary terms, me proving my idea as being superior to yours. But so far as I can tell, there’s always been a plurality of ideas out there. Proving my ideas right may well require rebutting arguments from several other sources.

If we look at systems of government, then it may be true that the USA has a binary system, Republicans vs. Democrats. But New Zealand has now developed a system where minority coalition governments are supported on supply and confidence by third parties. It’s no longer government vs. opposition, but government, opposition, and third parties that allow the government to rule in exchange for policy concessions. The result is that the government has to negotiate with all parties, including the opposition (because the third parties won’t necessarily support all government policy or may find the government’s offered concessions too weak), to get any legislation passed. It’s no longer binary, but plural. My impression is that most Western countries have a similarly pluralistic system, with centre right, centre left, green, traditional left, liberal (in the European sense) capitalist right, certain special interests particular to each country (e.g. New Zealand’s Maori Party), and a smattering of nutjob extremists. Why? Because the “marketplace of ideas” has always been noisy and bustling with a wide variety of “goods” to offer.

Another assertion that bugs me is found on page 146:

0.1.2.4.4 Quick Comparison: Truth (zhi, 知) versus Wisdom (zhi, 智)

Hmmm….. Well, gotta go drag some more books out. Zhang Dainian’s Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy trans. Edmund Ryden, Foreign Languages Press and Yale University Press, 2002) has 知(zhī) as knowledge and 智 (zhì) as wisdom (p 421). My dictionary backs those definitions up. Whence this rendering of 知 as truth? But then they assert that Westerners have always focussed on the search for truth, while Chinese search for wisdom. Terribly sorry, but I find their argument far from convincing.

First up, the word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom”, not “the love of truth”. Secondly, it’s not hard to find “wisdom”, or attempts at it, in Western philosophy. The Christian tradition is strewn with it, from Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings on how we should behave (“turn the other cheek”, for example) right through to the current Pope. The idea of solidarity, that people should stick together and help each other, that, for example, coal miners should form a union to protect their interests, is also less about truth and more about wisdom.

Secondly, the opening line of the Daodejing, “道可道非常道” strikes me as being a statement of truth, not wisdom. Confucius’ idealisation of the Zhou as the epitome of civilisation seems to me to be one of Plato’s ideal forms- again, truth, not wisdom.

In other words, although I do not claim any kind of expertise in philosophy, Chinese or Western, it seems to me that just as Westerners have spent as much time exploring wisdom as have their Chinese counterparts, the Chinese have spent as much time searching for the truth as their Western counterparts.

To their credit, the authors do state on page 149:

[…] what signs of Wisdom appear in Western Civilization and what manifestations worthy to be called Truth occur in Chinese Civilization? It may be that the dichotomy so distinct in theory is less so in practice.

I suspect so.

They do state lower down on page 149 “These constitute the printed book and the first part of its CD-ROM version”, which leaves me wanting to explore the CD-ROM. The book reminds me of an essay I wrote for a test when I was at university: Paragraph after paragraph, I never got beyond the introduction. I was not surprised and not upset when the grades came out and I had scored unusually low, because I knew that despite my vast expenditure of ink, I had not gotten past an introduction. I have many quibbles with this book, but hopefully it really is just an introduction to the CD and the material on the CD goes into far greater depth and presents more tightly reasoned arguments than the book contains.

And how did the word “ethnocentrism”, repeated so often in my dreams last night, lead here? Blair and Hull McCormack expend a fair bit of energy demonstrating the universality of ethnocentrism- and the use of maps published in different countries is a very vivid demonstration of that- and explaining that although it is universal, those wishing to engage in the comparative study of civilisations must be aware of the ethnocentrism of their home culture and do all they can to put that aside and engage with the Other on the most honest, objective terms possible. Considering just how many Westerners I have watched arrogantly and blithely ignorantly swagger their way through China secure in their empty, baseless confidence that their home culture is the best of all possible cultures, and just how many Chinese I have seen with equal but opposite attitudes, the discussion of ethnocentrism is for me the most valuable part of this book.

Now, I’ll admit to being disappointed with this book, but it presents many interesting ideas, and the basic premise- that one can learn more about both one’s own culture and another through open, honest comparison of the two- fascinates me. I look forward to exploring the accompanying CD-ROM.

4 Responses to “comparison”

  1. John G Blair Says:

    Dear Bezdomny: Jerusha McCormack and I as co-authors are delighted to read your blog on WCwCC’s first edition because of your intelligent response to our introductory materials. We would like to engage you as a reader for our next edition. If you are willing, we first of all need to find a way to get into your hands the PDF file for the current one-semester version being taught in Beijing. Hence an email address would be a great help. We share the basic desire to look at China and the West with equal eyes, so please help us do a better job! Good cheer from John G. Blair in Dublin (planning a trip to BJ in May)

  2. wangbo Says:

    An email is on its way to you.

  3. Fergus Says:

    You on twitter?

  4. wangbo Says:

    Sorry, Fergus, no.