Chinese and Western modes of thinking

David Hall and Roger Ames [tooltip content= “Chinese philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Routledge, 1998) Source:”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] Any attempt to survey an intellectual tradition which encompasses more than four thousand years would be a daunting task even if it could be presumed that the reader shares, at least tacitly, many of the assumptions underlying that tradition. However, no such commonalities can be assumed in attempting to introduce Asian thinking to Western readers. Until the first Jesuit incursions in the late sixteenth century, China had developed in virtual independence of the Indo-European cultural experience and China and the Western world remained in almost complete ignorance of one another.

The dramatic contrast between Chinese and Western modes of philosophic thinking may be illustrated by the fact that the tendency of European philosophers to seek out the being of things, the essential reality lying behind appearances, would meet with little sympathy among Chinese thinkers, whose principal interests lie in the establishment and cultivation of harmonious relationships within their social ambiance. Contrasted with Anglo-European philosophic traditions, the thinking of the Chinese is far more concrete, this-worldly and, above all, practical.

One reason for this difference is suggested by the fact that cosmogonic and cosmological myths played such a minor role in the development of Chinese intellectual culture and that, as a consequence, Chinese eyes were focused not upon issues of cosmic order but upon more mundane questions of how to achieve communal harmony within a relatively small social nexus. The rather profound linguistic and ethnic localism of what Pliny the Elder described as a ‘stay-at-home’ China, reinforced by a relative freedom from intercultural contact, generated traditional radial communities in which moral, aesthetic and spiritual values could remain relatively implicit and unarticulated. By contrast, in the West these norms had to be abstracted and raised to the level of consciousness to adjudicate conflicts occasioned by the complex ethnic and linguistic interactions associated with the development of a civilization rooted almost from the beginning in the confluence of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin civilizations.