Competing Thought Cultures (October 2012)

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Introduction and Outline

Introduction and Outline

This document includes an outline of, and comments on, an account of differences between Western and East Asian thought cultures that was presented in an article by a long term student of Confucian traditions and (in 1976) arguably the first Western analyst to anticipate China's rapid economic advancement, Reg Little .

In brief the suggestions in his article (which is outlined below) were that: 

  • academics have failed to understand the difference between the West's Platonic / rational thought and the Confucian traditions that have been the basis of global power shifts to East Asia;
  • belief in universal values has been fundamental to the Anglo-American global order, but is now counter-productive. Future success requires that others adopt the Confucian educational / thought standard. Rote learning must be emphasised rather than abstraction, rationality and theory - as the latter forces thinking to be very narrow;
  • despite other influences the West has depended critically on its classical Greek intellectual heritage - and viewing this as universal has led to 'intellectual apartheid';
  • this contrasts with the unbroken political character of China's civilization and thought - and rote learning the Chinese classics provides many advantages (eg access to diverse ways of thinking); 
  • mainstream Western academic work takes place in strictly determined frameworks associated with centuries of Anglo-American order, and this is simply incapable of dealing with a world being shaped by superior Chinese approaches to education;
  • while many are aware of the practical consequences of the shift from the dominance of Platonic to Confucian thought, few are aware of the Confucian influence in this.
Outline of 'The poor understanding of two thought cultures' (Little R. Online Opinion, 2/10/12)

Mainstream academics have failed to identify / explain two major mental energies involved in global power shifts (ie dynamic East and SE Asian community led by administrative / commercial elites shaped by Confucian education and thought whose global leadership in education / finance / production and technology is consolidating versus Western communities reliant on Platonic tradition of abstract and rational thought, which is confronting / precipitating the end of the 2 century old Anglo-American global order).

Western assertions of 'universal values' and 'intellectual apartheid' have been fundamental to the Anglo-American global order. This is now counter-productive. Better educated and more strategic Confucian elites now exploit weaknesses in simplistic beliefs. As power shifts to the Confucian world, others must either accept this new educational / thought standard or decline by adherence to Anglo-American beliefs. This will require changing national educational goals quickly, and surrendering Western preoccupation with abstraction, rationality and theory and adoption of Chinese-style rote learning of classical / historical texts.

The economic success of Confucian communities is a cultural challenge that requires attention, but does not get it because of strengths / weaknesses of Platonic thought. Rational abstractions capture the minds / spirits of people. This led to religious dogma, and through Enlightenment to 'universal values' (such as freedom equality, democracy, rule of law and human rights) . This created cultural unity within West that was spread worldwide. The Western tradition of Platonic thought has resulted in educational emphasis on abstract ideas, rational structures, scientific theory and mechanistic understanding. Thought must always travel along predetermined lines, and never in unapproved directions. Platonic thought is hostile to ambiguous nuance, holistic thought, intuitive insight and organic dynamics - and leads to the features of George Orwell's 1984 novel about a future in which thought is dictated by an all-powerful 'big brother'.

The West's fragmented history has disguised its dependence on classical Greek thought (with inputs from Rome and Jerusalem) and maintained the mythology of a unifying transcendent (secular or spiritual) authority. Western Platonic thought has been unable to break out of its abstract and rational certainties (which have been seen to have the same transcendent authority as the Medieval Christian God). This has led to 'intellectual apartheid' - ie a view of anything but Western 'universal values' as inferior and undesirable.

Western Platonic though contrasts with the unbroken political character of Chinese civilization and thought. A continuously recorded history over several millennia has embraced debate / experiment with a focus on practical coherence and administration in human affairs without concern for transcendent authority. Rote learning of the Chinese classics provides advantages in terms of acquiring: (a) knowledge of history and of diverse habits of thought (eg Lunyu, Yijing and Daodejing) - rather than simplistic / limited Western style of thought; (b) knowledge required for mature judgement at an early age; (c) spiritual energy from knowing one's place in the world; (d) inculcating lifetime learning habits; (e) flexibility in approaching real life problems because of study of different ways of thinking; (f) a store of classical wisdom; (g) a reassuring sense of one's place and responsibilities in family and society; (h) an ability to deal with current issues in terms of the fundamentals of human nature; (i) discipline in social behaviour that provides rituals behind which individuality of thought and action can exist; and (j) language that facilitates effective communication.

Other benefits of rote learning (even if not of the Chinse classics) include: joy, intuition, confidence, trust, focus and ritual - which nurture talents that Western educations' emphasis on professionalism neglects.

Mainstream Western academic work takes place in strictly determined frameworks associated with centuries of Anglo-American order. This ignores many issues that have arisen over past 50 years, and the limits the capacity of Western leaders to manage the future. China's civilization has been shaped by a superior approach to education - and now has the world's greatest production capacity, hi-tech work skills and financial reserves. By contrast Western civilization is in crisis - because poorly developed habits of thought have given rise to aggressive economic and political actions that are increasingly counter-productive. There has been a lack of the mental discipline, cultural richness and strategic subtlety that characterises Chinese civilization (and other Asian communities). Western thought lacks the qualities needed for success in the 21st century (eg for economic production without destroying the environment and health). Chinese thought has achieved the first and offers hope for the second. West is characterised by Platonic thought in crisis. It travelled from philosophers of ancient Greece, through doctrines of medieval Roman Catholic Church to 'universal values' of Enlightenment. It is now characterised by abstract rationality that focuses on observing the rules of a declining Anglo-American global order.  The East (except in India) is characterised by pervasive / flexible Confucian thought - some of which predates Confucius. However it reflects continuous record of history that displays the Confucian tradition in action. This has been preserved by an rigorous educational ethos that is without rival - and for decades has been associated with the world's most dynamic economies and often stable polities.

A transition is occurring from Platonic to Confucian thought. However, though many are aware of the consequences, they are unaware of the influence of the Confucian tradition in this. While power and influence fluctuated between Church and State in the West, social and political cohesion / discipline was developed in China before Plato - though correct ritual and behaviour. This was enforced by emphasis on administration by those deeply educated in Confucian tradition.  Eammon Fingleton has criticised the 'selective enforcement of law' - because of the lack of the forms and processes of the West's 'rule of law'. However this overlooks: (a) the distortion of law by corporate / financial power; and (b) Confucian administrators' ability to ensure that corporate energies serve broader community. Also some suggest that 'universal values' may have been developed as a distraction from the West's real political and economic power hidden in financial / corporate entities. This has led to crisis in Western / Platonic thought that is the source of many failings in West - and 'intellectual apartheid' ensures that this remains unknown outside Asia. A Western education can benefit someone with an educational foundation in traditional Chinese thought (eg in gaining understanding of global economic battlefield), but without this foundation, Western education simply leads to rigidity of thought.

Other suggestions about the need to learn from Asia are outlined in Learning From, Rather Than About, Asia?

CPDS Comments

While 'The Poor Understanding of Two Thought Cultures' above seems to be a useful account of features of East Asian thought, it may not be valid to suggest that Confucianism is all that is involved.

Beyond Confucianism: The traditional notion of education in East Asia involves inculcating behaviours in students, rather than enabling them to understand on the basis of the abstract ideas that Western societies inherited from their classical Greek heritage.

Confucius’s contribution was to promote the notion that government (by educated bureaucracy) should have a similar ‘educational’ role (in the sense of inculcating behaviours) in the world of practical social, political and economic affairs. The essence of Confucianism appears to be:

  • a set of traditions for hierarchical interpersonal relationships and the lack of any concept of law; and
  • a hierarchical social order in which an educated elite bureaucracy governs / exerts power (traditionally on behalf of emperors) by acting as teacher and guide to their subordinates by using knowledge / wisdom gained from a study of history to influence the latter’s real-world activities.

Confucianism does not involve centralised decision making on the basis of Western-style rational analysis of abstract concepts, universal values or obligations to those with whom one does not have a relationship or the creation of laws as the basis for independent decision making by citizens or businesses.

However Confucianism was a disaster for China after its exposure to Western societies, because it relied on a study of history (rather than the current environment) as the source of wisdom. Daoism, with its rejection of any notion of any wisdom / truth has a stronger claim as the source of a willingness to take a wider view of what should be regarded as the 'wisdom' that should be inculcated into the behaviour of the community by social elites (eg the markets, technologies and methods of relatively more advanced Western societies).

The present writer first became involved in considering East Asian thought in the mid 1980s, when seeking to 'reverse engineer' the intellectual foundations of Japan's economic 'miracles' (which at that time were considered likely to lead to Japan becoming #1 economically). It appeared that:

In China practices (which parallel those Japan developed and implemented through its bureaucratic elites) have been employed by elite networks in the so-called Communist Party. This could not be openly labelled Confucianism because Confucianism was the main target of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (because he saw it as the source of Chinese people's past oppression) any more than it could be attributed to Japan g, and so was apparently called 'socialism with Chinese characteristics',

A Confucian label may now be being applied in China to give legitimacy / historical stature to what are quite new methods (without acknowledging Japan's role because Chinese people still hold grudges over WWII). 

However it now seems that China’s so-called Communist Party is promoting Confucianism. Confucian Institutes are being established 'everywhere' and the above article indicates that a Confucian foundation for China’s society is being sought by shifting the primary education system towards rote learning of Chinese classics (including those of Confucius and Daoism that seek to eliminate any belief in truth or abstract concepts, and create a just-do-it society by conditioning students to react to information provided by leaders without trying to understand).

Moreover the conclusions that were drawn in the article about relative advantages and disadvantages seem overly simplistic.

For example:

  • progress in science (which has had massive practical implications) is not possible without abstract thought. Similarly cultural traditions that place limited emphasis on abstract thought have great difficulty in calculations of investment profitability - a fact which has had global implications (as suggested in Structural Incompatibility puts Global Growth at Risk, 2003+);
  • Western societies have not simply relied on Platonic systems of abstract thought, as the West's Judeo-Christian heritage was arguably a vital component in facilitating the creation of simplified social environments in which 'rationality' (which tends to fail in dealing with complex systems) could be an effective method for practical problem solving (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength). Widespread Christian adherence allowed a presumption of individual responsibility without moral control by human authorities (a constraint on initiative that appears to characterise all other, including Confucian, traditions);
  • the key feature of Confucian approaches to education is unlikely to be rote learning, but rather the way in which information is translated into students' behaviours, rather than into their abstract understanding. This approach to 'education' is also the way in which social elites (traditionally bureaucracies who are highly educated and perceived as teachers / guides rather than as enforcers of laws) orchestrate just-do-it economic and social change (eg see industry policy); 
  • failure to understand East Asian thought (and attempts to understand the region in terms of Western concepts such as liberal democratic capitalism / socialism) leads to an inability to understand many events and trends that have affected world history in recent decades (eg see Economic and Geo-political Risks from Asia-illiterate Policy Making; What does an Asian Century Imply? and Comments on Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030);
  • economic success across East Asia over the past 50 years that has been associated with adopting variations on Japan's neo-Confucian leadership style has the effect of both:
    • broadening the field from which wisdom is sought in 'educating / guiding' subordinates from the traditional Confucian focus on history to include learning from the current environment (eg more advanced Western societies); and
    • eroding the expectation of moral leadership associated with traditional Confucianism (as the core feature of Daoism involves disbelief in truth / law / and any fundamental difference between right and wrong / good and evil - see Awakening Which Spirit?) - and the latter has apparently becaome a significant source of problems in China;
  • it is arguably possible (eg as suggested in Understanding Asia) to gain the advantages that derive from the intellectual traditions that have been the basis of East Asian economic miracles by Western-style abstract understanding of (rather than by immersion in / adoption of) the East Asian methods . Two key issues are the need to recognise:
  • there is little doubt that the failure to consider these issues has been a growing source of difficulties in Western economic and political performance (eg see Challenges to Australia's Democratic Institutions Defects in Economic Tactics, Strategy and Outcomes (2000) and Fixing Economics). However solutions to those limitations were embodied in: (a) a systems approach to administrative change and economic development that the present writer participated in in Queensland in the 1970s and 1980s respectively; and (b) in the shift by major corporations from strategic 'planning' to strategic 'management' in the 1990s. And those limitations could be further reduced by:
  • the failure of Western societies to seriously consider alternative intellectual traditions (eg those associated with Confucianism) does not simply reflect 'intellectual apartheid' (ie a search for ideas that have universal, rather than particularist, application). It also reflects:
    • the character of East Asian thought - namely its disinterest in expressing abstract / universalist ideas or promoting 'understanding'. For example it is understood that the three traditions of thought that were mentioned (ie Lunyu - Confucius' Analects, Yijing - which (over-simplistically) is a stimulus to lateral thinking and Daodejing - which challenges all certainties) all emphasise fluidity of thought and the avoidance of abstracts and notions of truth ; and
    • traditional 'Art of War' responses to strong outsiders - which feature deception and pretending to be like others; 
  • there is considerable uncertainty about whether rote learning is a superior approach to education. It certainly aids in gaining high test scores (which are one way of assessing educational success), but this may not contribute to problem solving and creativity (see critical comments on China's educational system). Observers of exam success of students in various Scandinavian countries (eg Finland and Sweden), where rote learning in also favoured, have privately commented on students' lack of creativity relative to those in Australia who were said to be expected to learn through discovery / research (a method that is, of course, limited because it does not guarantee that the most important knowledge is acquired);
  • abstract thought does not necessarily travel along pre-determined lines, and is a significant advantage in exploring new / unapproved options because it reduces the need for costly trial and error efforts (see Advantages of Rationality). The ability and freedom of individuals to think 'outside the square' has been the primary driver of centuries of social, economic and political innovation in Western societies, and of periodic paradigm shifts in the sphere of science. In contrast:
    • guiding and limiting what individuals think seems to be a primary feature of traditional Confucian approaches to government (where government is viewed as teacher and guide, rather than as creating a framework for independent thought and initiative) - and this certainly has been seen as a major role of China's Communist Party in recent decades (see China's Bigger Secret);
    • the communal constraints on individual deviations from the norm seem to be a major factor in the relative lack of progress in Muslim dominated societies in recent centuries (see Saving Muslims from Themselves);
  • traditional 'Asian' approaches to education prepare individuals to operate as responsive elements in a social organism that is orchestrated by neo-Confucian social elites to respond as a whole to (say economic) pressures . This has been the basis of decades of economic miracles in East Asia. However:
  • there are reasons to doubt that neo-Confucian communal group-think within whole-of-society social and economic systems will prove superior to Western-style incremental rational adjustment by responsible individuals. For example:
    • in nature there are many systems which are large and many systems which are complex, but there do not seem to be any systems that are both large and complex;
    • there are severe limits to the advantages that can be gained by seeking to take account of increasing numbers of variables in reaching decisions - as demonstrated by the superiority of 'fuzzy logic' in control systems. This involves the use of highly simplified criteria because taking account of more complex criteria takes so long that real-time efforts to control systems tend to be unstable.