What I Learnt From “How The World Thinks”

We are more alike than we might think. Julian Baggini’s wonderful “How The World Thinks” notes that every nation displays every virtue and every vice. So too in philosophy, all cultures ask roughly the same questions and have the same preoccupations, amongst the most important of which are: theology, insight, logic, reason, pragmatism, tradition, time, naturalism, unity, reductionism, self, harmony, virtue, morality, liberty, transience, partiality, and belonging. Baggini has a sub-chapter for each and every one of these and sets out to prove (rather successfully, by my account) that what we perceive as the contrasting discrepancies between the Western and the Eastern cultures are more differences in emphasis as opposed to anything else (approach, the questions asked, the variety of possible answers and so on).

Since the book deals with a great variety of topics (all the ones mentioned above and a little more), instead of failing at providing a comprehensive overview, I will instead be content to underline some of the most important aspects I discovered and the ones that helped me get a better understanding of philosophy in general, and of the workings of the Western mind in particular.

Of Epistemology

In India, where religion and philosophy intertwine and the secular constitution, as Baggini observes, does not help separate the former and state, the concept of insight is given much importance as a means to understanding ultimate reality. Japan does something similar with the placing of artistic truth above the ‘scholarly’ one. The European mind however, shaped by medieval scholasticism and the Enlightenment, holds the primary of reason (and, in natural theology, of the harmony between reason and faith). Compared to the East, Baggini notes that the West’s separation of theology from philosophy seems more like an exception, rather than a rule; as well as it’s insistance on formal logic. That is not to imply, however, that any other tradition is ‘illogical’ or opposed to reason: what is being brought out here is how the differences in emphasis shape the differences in world view.

With respect to tradition, the Enlightenment push the West past it, turning towards novelty and progress, and considering the Golden Age is ahead (as John C.H. Wu notes), rather than in the past, as is the case of China, for example, where “the real test of truth is human history”.

“[…] difference between ‘truth-seekers’ and ‘way-seekers’. Western philosophy is characteristically truth-seeking. It seeks to describe the basic structure of reality, logic, language, the mind. One example of this is the Western emphasis on science for science’s sake. For truth-seekers, disinterested learning is the best kind, while for way-seekers to be disinterested is as nonsensical as driving a car without caring where you end up. […] Philosophy in the West has always aspired to be more of a science: rigurous, precise, describing reality as it is.  In the East it is more of an art of living.”

Of Ontology

Almost all cultures have a sense of linear time (a past, present, and future), which in the West is associated with progress, on a secular level, and with the eschatology of a final judgement, on a Christian level.

With regards to onotlogy, the Western mind tends to be cosmogonic (the belief that understanding existence requires an explanation of its ‘first principles’) and highly dependent on dualism. One important distinction Baggini makes here is that in Chinese philosophy, the yin and yang are not two distinct things, but “represent two aspects of the same whole”. Another example of our entrenchment in dualism is the tendency to separate the emotions from the cognitive (psychology from philosophy, the affective from the intellect), however research (Antonio Damasio is quoted here) suggests that the division between the two is a false dichotomy (non-coincidentally, this is also the main topic of Mark Mansons’s books and most probably one of the reasons why the became so popular).

Of Identity

One key aspect of Buddhism is its teaching that there is no immutable “enduring, eternally existing” self; much to the way we are used to conceived of it in Western individualism, despite the relatively recent trend here that identity is fuild.

The mainstream Western view on identity and/or soul is what Baggini calls the “atomised self” and he describes it as follows:

“[…] ‘uniform’, ‘indissoluble’, ‘immortal’, ‘divine’ – arguably shaped the Western conception of the self for the millennia that followed. Its impact is most striking on Christianity”

Existentialism’s “existence precedes essence” means that human beings must create a purpose for themselves after coming into being, which implies that they are not born with an “unchanging core”, as some religious views might have suggested. After the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and almost all of what we call ‘modernity’, (and perhaps also in reaction to the violence of communism) the West began an exalting of individuality which leads to “demonstrable mistakes” according to “findings in comparative psychology” (Baggini cites here Owen Flanagan’s “The Geography of Morals”, pp. 230-31).

Of Ways of Life

In regards to social harmony, among many other important aspects, the author takes time to reflect, in his comparison with the Eastern traditions, on the West’s budding distrust of hierarchies and the disbalance that might occur in their absence. It’s worth noting that this is one of the topics that, I believe, contributed the most to Jordan Peterson’s popularity boom, proving that the problem has arisen into public consciousness. A little better than Peterson, Baggini draws attention (without appeal to evolutionary psychology and the lobsters that everyone loves to hate on) that the removal of fair hierarchies, such as the ones based on expertiese and experience, is not desirable.

“Hierarchies become unjust when they are ossified and movement is impossible”

Further Reading:

On Steven Pinker’s theory of the mind: https://negofelix.com/2019/10/08/steven-pinker-how-the-mind-works/

On Mark Manson feeling vs thinking brain and existentialism: https://negofelix.com/2019/10/01/mark-mansons-modern-sagacity/

(Romanian) On Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life”: https://negofelix.com/2019/03/02/jordan-peterson-12-rules-for-life/

(Romanian) On theology and religion: https://negofelix.com/2019/03/30/michel-malherbe-enciclopedia-religiilor-note-si-repere/

(Romanian) On the relationship between modernity and spirituality: https://negofelix.com/2019/09/07/criza-spiritualitatii-moderne/

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