EXTENDED ESSAYAsian Philosophies of Critical Thinking: divergent or convergent to westernestablishments?MAY 2003 AbstractThe research question of this extended essay came across at a very earlystage in my life. Having been born and developed from a family with all itsmembers being University instructors and professors, I was often involvedin arguments related to the lack of critical thinking in Asian cultures. AsI got older, having had the chance to emerge in different cultures, Istarted to develop my own viewpoints and answers. I started to wonder aboutthe truth between the real differences of Asian and Western philosophies ofcritical thinking. This extended essay, intended to be a research andinvestigation, bearing the title “Asian Philosophies of Critical Thinking:divergent or convergent to Western establishments?” is in fact howevermerely just a summary of my viewpoints and answers which I have developedthroughout the years.Order now
In the first section of the essay, “Logical Tradition in India and China” Iwill attempt to give evidence of critical thinking in two Asian culturesthat I have chosen; namely India and China. In India, I will argue thatcritical thinking is clearly visible in historical texts such as the Carakaand Nyayasutra. This is presented as the well-known five-membered argument,a system of logical deduction, similar to the Aristotelian syllogism foundin the west. In China I would focus mainly on the two schools of logicalthought, the Mohists and the Logicians. For the Mohists I would argue thatcritical thinking is a vital element in the building of what they call”mental models. ” For the Logicians, I would study deeply the writings ofHui Shih and Kungsun Lung, I would show that in fact both of them developedsystems of logical and paradoxical thinking that could well serve as thefoundations of modern science.
If critical thinking is clearly presentable in these Asian cultures thenwhy are there still concerns for introducing it to them? This is thequestion I intend to answer in the latter section “Needham’s Grand Questionand Fuller’s Interpretation. ” During this section, I would also show thatdiscussions of modern science seem to enable us to see how the tradition ofcritical thinking arose and how they were promoted or discouraged. I wouldcover how Asian historical, economic, social and cultural factors have abig influence on their development of critical thinking. Lastly I wouldshow how the prioritization of a civilization has a devastating effect ondeciding the future road they intend to walk.
In conclusion, I would argue that since the philosophy of a culture is butan abstract and theoretical expression and justification of the culture’sdecision to choose one set of priorities over another, Asian philosophy andcritical thinking are neither necessarily divergentnornecessarilyconvergent to western establishments. Contents|Introduction|4|||||Logical Tradition in India and|4||China||||||Needham’s Grand Question and|7||Fuller’s Interpretation||||||Asian Philosophy and Critical|8||Thinking: Divergence or|||Convergence?||||||Conclusion|9|||||Bibliography|10 |||||References|11 ||||Asian Philosophies of Critical Thinking: divergent or convergent to westernestablishments?By Clement NgIntroductionIt is widely recognized nowadays that critical thinking has become anecessary ingredient in all levels of education. Educators and educationalpolicy makers agree that one of the desirable goals of education is thatstudents are able to think critically. Throughout the past few years, manyhave felt the need to consider critical thinking more seriously ineducational programs. At the moment several different acts are beingconsidered around the world by various factors and agencies. The core ofthese proposed acts is the idea that the students are able to thinkcritically and independently.
Although there are widespread disagreementson what critical thinking actually is,1 there is an agreement that it hasbecome very important in the world overwhelmed by huge amountsofinformation. Some Western educators who teach at schools or universities in a number ofAsian countries have voiced their difficulties and problems they encounterwhile trying to teach critical thinking and other related skills to Asianstudents. Bruce Davidson (1998) argues that a set of Japanese culturalfactors act as a kind of barrier against teaching critical thinking tostudents. Atkinson (1999) goes so far as to argue that critical thinking isculturally specific, and is a part of the social practices of the Westhaving no place within Asian cultures, which do not adopt such practices. What these educators have in common is the feeling that some elements inAsian cultures do prevent the full realization of critical thinking skillsin the students. Most of these elements perceived by Western educators inAsia are quite well known–the beliefs that teachers are superior andalways right, that knowledge is not to be made here and now, but existseternally, so to speak, to be handed down by teachers, that social harmonyis to be preferred rather than asking probing questions–to mention just afew.
Is critical thinking really culture specific? Can the traditional beliefsystems of Asia respond to the challenge of the modern world while stillretaining their distinctive identities? Are Asian philosophy and criticalthinking necessary divergent or possibly convergent? These areverysignificant question not just for Asian cultures, but for understanding howcultures of the world respond to globalization. In addition the questionalso has a bearing on the problematic relation between critical thinkingand the cultural environment in which it happens to be embedded. In this essay, I attempt to argue that critical thinking is not necessarilyincompatible with Asian traditional belief systems. In fact I will showthat both India and China do have their own indigenous traditions oflogical and argumentative thinking; it is just because of certain barriersthat prevent them from further developing such establishments.
I willfurther try to show that these traditions can and should be reexamined,reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary situation. By doing this Iwould seek acknowledgement to the essay question and would provide ananswer to the Western educators who have found no such critical traditionsin the East. Logical Tradition in India and ChinaIt is widely known that India had a highly advanced logical tradition,spanning more than two thousandyears. ThesuccessesofIndianmathematicians and computer programmers are perhaps due to the fact thatlogic and critical thinking have been integral to the Indian way ofthinking since time immemorial. Such integration can also be witnessed inthe fondness of Indians for talking and debating.
Tscherbatsky (1962: 31-34) tells us that in the times of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, two of thegreatest Buddhist logicians, the fate of entire monasteries depended onpublic debates. According to Tscherbatsky, Dignaga won his fame and royalsupport through his defeat of the brahmin Sudurjaya at Nalanda Monastery(31-34). In another vein, Matilal (1990: 1-8) argues that the Indian logicaltradition is entirely home grown, since there is no evidence of India beinginfluenced by Aristotelian ideas. Matilal also shows that many topics,which are of interest by contemporary logicians and philosophers today,were discussed and researched into with sophistication by Indian scholars. Such topics include theory of inference, empty names, reference andexistence, perception, knowledge of theexternalworld,substance,causality, and many others (Matilal 1990).
Moreover, Tscherbatsky’s (1962)work, dealing mainly with the works of Dignaga and Dharmakirti illustratesthat India is one of the great logical and philosophical civilizations ofthe world. There are a number of topics that both traditions discovered independentlyof each other. For example, Matilal notes that the counterpart of theAristotelian syllogism is the “five-membered argument” found in such textsas Caraka and Nyayasutra. Instead of the three propositions found inAristotelian syllogism, the five-membered argument consistsoffivepropositions, the first of which is the conclusion, and the last repeatingwhat is already stated in the first. The remaining three propositions inbetween are the premises. Here is one example of the five-membered argumentcited by Matilal (1990: 5):1.
There is fire on this mountain. 2. For, there is smoke there. 3. Smoke goes with fire always (or, in all cases, or in all places):witness, kitchen.
4. This is also a case of smoke. 5. Therefore, there is fire there (on the mountain). Logicians will immediately be able to reconstruct this argument in thefamiliar Aristotelian form as follows:The place on the mountain is a place where there is smoke. A place where there is smoke is a place where there is fire.
Therefore, the place on the mountain is a place where there is fire. Matilal, however, notes that there is at least some dissimilarity betweenthe Indian and the Aristotelian argument forms presented here. Forinstance, he says that the conclusion of the Indian argument form is in theform of ‘singular proposition,’ (i. e. , modified by demonstratives like’this’ or ‘that’) whereas that of the Aristotelian syllogism is eitheruniversal or particular (i. e.
, modified by quantifiers like ‘all’ or’some’). But the dissimilarity here could be amended, as indexicals (termslike ‘this’ or ‘that’ which relies on the context of utterance for theirfull meaning) could be dispensed with by supplying the required informationon the context in which they are uttered. Thus it could be safely statedthat the Indian logical tradition fully comprehended the essence, so tospeak, of logic, which is the concept of validity and the basic validargument form. Another of the world’s great civilizations, China, also had its ownindigenous and independent logical tradition. Two of China’s logicalschools of thought are the Mohists and the Logicians.
The former wasfounded by Mo Ti, who lived between 479 to 381 B. C. , during the WarringStates period of Chinese history (Ronan 1978: 114). Among the typicalChinese scholars the Mohists are better known for their doctrine ofuniversal love and the condemnation of offensive war rather than theirinterests and achievements in the physical sciences. In the latter Needhamreports that the Mohists went very far towards realizing that the thoughtsystem was in fact a prerequisite for modern science.
Most significantly,the Mohists appeared to be in grasp of the concepts of deduction andinduction. They viewed the former as a way of thinking which follows a’mental model,’ which guarantees that whoever follows it will never fail tobe right in their thinking. Here is an example of reasoning based onfollowing such mental model:Model thinking consists in following the methods of Nature. What are followed in “model-thinking” are the methods. Therefore if the methods are truly followed by the “model-thinking”literally: hit in the middle, the reasoning will be correct.
But if the methods are not truly followed by the “model-thinking,” thereasoning will be wrong (Ronan 1978: 119). On the other hand, the Mohists also recognized the value of ‘extension’which is a kind of reasoning from the known examples and ‘extend’ it tounknown cases similar to them:Extension is considering that that which one has not yet receivedi. e. a new phenomenon is identical from the point of view ofclassification with those which one has already received, andadmitting it (Ronan 1978: 119). It is clear then that the former is an instance of deductive thinking,while the latter represents the basic idea of inductive thinking.
The two most well known representatives of the Logicians are Hui Shih andKungsun Lung. The former is known for his paradoxes resembling that ofZeno, and his writings were designed to shock and to illustrate deeplogical point. For example, Hui Shih’s writing that “The Heavens are as lowas the Earth; mountains are on the same level as marshes” (Ronan 1978: 122)could be regarded as a way of illustrating the fact that, viewed from thecosmic perspective, the sentence written by Hui Shih here is actually true. Other pieces of his writings concern what and how we perceive:Fire is not hot.
Eyes do not see (Ronan 1978: 122). These are designed to lead one to think that what is hot in fire may wellnot be in the fire at all, but is located within our tactile perception ofit. And the factor that actually does the seeing is not the eyesthemselves, but the consciousness or whatever that gives rise to theperception. Similarly, according to Needham, Kungsun Lung had a system of logical andparadoxical thinking that could well serve as the foundation of modernscience.
The following excerpts show that Kungsun Lung grasped suchconcepts as the universality and unlocalizability of number and universalsand their contrasts with particulars that are their instances. Mostinterestingly, Kungsun Lung’s discussion of changes in Nature could wellpoint to modern scientific way of thought:Q: Is it permissible to say that a change is not a change?A: It is. Q: Can “right” associating itself with something be called change?A: It can. Q: What is it that changes?A: It is “right. “.
. . Q: If “right” has changed, how can you still call it “right”? And ifit has not changed, how can you speak of a change?A: “Two” would have no right if there were no left. Two contains `left-and-right. ‘ A ram added to an ox is not a horse.
An ox added to a ramis not a fowl (Ronan 1978: 121-122). Here one finds a discussion of the unchangeability of universals and theirdistinction from particulars. One thing, A, located to the right of anotherthing, B, would form two things, A-and-B. This thing, A-and-B would undergoa change if A happens to move to the left of B. What are changed here arethe relation between A and B.
However, the Right itself is changeless, eventhough the particulars forming right or left relation to each other do. Thus, a ram added to an ox would still be two animals, and won’t becomeeither a horse or a fowl. The changelessness of universals is a differentmatter altogether from the mutability of particular things. Kungsun Lung’swriting here reminds us of Western medieval treatises on logic and theproblem of universals, such as those of Abelard or Duns Scotus.
No matter how similar or different these Asian writings on logic andphilosophy are from those of Europe, it is certain that both India andChina do indeed have rigorous and profound systems of logic and criticalthinking, systems which could well form a launching pad for advancedscientific research and innovation that actually took place in the West. Thus Atkinson’s argument that critical thinking is culturally specific tothe West is clearly not borne out by historical facts and thus is mistaken. However, when we look at the situations in the Asian countries today,especially in Thailand whose cultural tradition is mostly influenced byBuddhism, which originated within the Indian philosophical and religiousmilieu, Atkinson seems to be right in that there is a felt need forteaching Thai students to be able to think critically. McGuire (2000)argues that there is a need to teach critical thinking and that criticalthinking can be taught to Asian students because it does not necessarily goagainst the grain of local cultures and contains universal elements thatany local culture can find acceptable.
If critical thinking is alreadythere in these cultural traditions, then why are there concerns forintroducing it to them? Something must have happened to these culturaltraditions so that there feels a need to bring in the skills and practicesof critical thinking from outside. Or is it really the need to reintroduceand to reestablish these traditions with something which is clearly theirown, but is somehow lost?1901Needham’s Grand Question and Fuller’s InterpretationAn adequate investigation into what actually may have caused the decline ofthe logical traditions in India or China would comprise one thick book. However, I believe that a glimpse toward an answer could be found if wecompare the dominant positions in the two civilizations with the logicaltraditions. In India, the logical schools, Nyaya, Mimamsa, together withthe Buddhist logic and dialectic schools of Dignaga, Dharmakirti andNagarjuna never gained the supreme control when compared to the othertraditions such as the Vedanta. Personally, I think that this may be due tothe fact that the teachings of the logical schools were limited to themonks or brahmins who practiced them. And when the logical tradition had tocompete with other traditions that could garner more popular appeal, it isquite conceivable that the remote logical schools would lose support.
Perhaps in India the tradition of logical and critical thinking was limitedto the highly educated class in such a way that the general population knewnothing of it, and this could be one explanation, as to why modernscientific thinking did not develop in India. For science to develop, theremust be a tendency toward a full understanding of all of Nature through afew general laws that could be learned and understood by anyone. The methodof learning such laws must be such that no one is excluded from studyingexcept through his own intellectual capabilities. In China, Needham suggests that the reasons for modern science’s lack ofdevelopment are due to historical, economic, social and cultural factors(Needham 1969: 190-217). Needham rightly dismisses the interpretation ofEurope’s eventual mastery of modern scientific techniques in geographicalor racial beliefs. The scientific and mathematical achievements in bothIndia and China during the ancient and medieval periods is so great that itis hardly conceivable at all to think of Europe’s success in terms of her’destiny’ or ‘superior level of advancement’ as propagated by the Hegeliantradition.
On the other hand, Needham seems to believe that it is more amatter of luck that Europe could eventually mastered the arts of modernscience and became dominant. Needham writes:The further I penetrate into the detailed history of the achievementsof Chinese science and technology before the time when, like all otherethnic cultural rivers, they flowed into the river of modern science,the more convinced I become that the cause for the break-throughoccurring only in Europe was connected with the special social,intellectual and economic conditions prevailingthereattheRenaissance, and can never be explained by any deficiencies either ofthe Chinese mind or of the Chinese intellectual and philosophicaltradition. In many ways this was much more congruent with modernscience than was the world-outlook of Christendom (Needham 1969: 191). The “special social, intellectual and economic conditions” that explainEurope’s success are nowhere necessarily attached to thehistoricaldevelopment of Europe. They seem only to be those that Europeans adopted,consciously or not, in response to their historical, social, and mercantileneeds. Those needs apparently were not in the minds of Indians or Chinese,whose priorities for their civilization as a whole seemed to be somethingelse.
Thus, instead of looking for a unifying theory capable of explainingand predicting natural phenomenon so that men could harness the power ofNature to their own material needs as well as feel a sense of mastery whenNature is thus comprehended, Indians and Chinese chose to put the ideals oftheir civilizations in another way. The summum bonum of the Indian philosophical tradition, attainment ofMoksha or Liberation, is quite contrary to the ideals and assumptions ofmodern scientific thinking. Instead of looking for the way to free oneselffrom the endless cycle of rebirths throughstrictself-discipline,Europeans sought to advance their own self-interests that are more inclinedto the ordinary. In China, the rapid transformation from feudalism to statebureaucratism, coupled with the influence of the Confucian ethos, whilehugely successful in preserving China’s cultural identity amidst the greatvariety of people and localities, nonetheless made it the case thatmaterial innovations and proto-scientific and logical theories would begiven little attention.
Writings on such matters are referred to the`Miscellaneous’ category by the mandarin scholars who put the highestpriority to moralistic, ethical, or historical writings (Ronan 1978: 19)This interpretation, which is focused on the contingent character of therise of modern science in Europe, is regarded by Steve Fuller as the “underdeterminist” one. According to Fuller, the reason why China did not developmodern science was that it was not specifically promoted (Fuller 1997: 80-88). He contrasts this with the “over determinist” mode–the kind ofexplanation that seeks to explain the lack of progress of modern sciencethrough the idea that it was specifically prevented from occurring. Thus,according to the former outlook, the reason science did not develop inChina was because historical, social, economic conditions were such thatthey were simply incompatible with its rise. I think this could be due tothe Chinese not putting a high priority on things scientific.
On the otherhand, the over determinist would assume that science is part of a culture’sdestiny which would materialize anyway if the circumstances were favorable. However, in the case of China these circumstances were not favorable,blocking science’s potential development. To viewthehistoryanddevelopment of science in the latter mode would mean that science is anecessary part of a culture’s path of development, which is the same forall cultures. A culture in which science successfully develops is thusviewed as more “advanced” than another where the development of science issomehow stinted. On the other hand, the under determinist would argue thatsuch a picture of each cultural entity racing along the same path smellstoo much of teleology and “God’s design” to be tenable.
Instead of soviewing, each culture should be regarded as having its own path notnecessarily shared with others. Since critical thinking and modern scientific thinking are closely related,discussions of the historical rise of science in various cultures aredirectly related to our investigation of whether critical thinking iscompatible with the major Asian cultural traditions. Discussions on therise of modern science seem to enable us to see how the tradition ofcritical thinking arose and how they were promoted or discouraged. If theunder determinist mode of interpretation is accepted, then the lack ofcritical thinking tradition in Asia could be explained by the fact thatsomehow members of these traditions decided not to go put critical thinkinghigh on their list of priorities, despite the fact that critical thinkingskills could be found deep within the traditions themselves.
1034Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?Hence, the values typically associated with Asian culture such as socialharmony and deference to the elders and teachers are thus seen asconsequences of the cultures deciding to put a certain set of prioritiesabove others. Social harmony was instrumental in bringing about thecultural unity that is the most distinctive characteristic of Chineseculture. It is valued above most other types of values because it goes handin hand with social stability, whose alternative is perceived as chaos andgeneral burden of social structure. The prioritization of social harmonycan also be seen in other Asian cultures such as the Thai one, and resultsin Thais trying as far as they possibly can to avoid open conflicts anddisagreements. In the case of China, since all the elements that couldbring about the rise of modern science were in place, it is quite clearthat the Chinese culture actually chose not to go along the path taken bythe Europeans.
The decision made by a culture to adopt a particular systemof beliefs and practices certainly did not happen suddenly, as if at oneparticular moment of history, members of a culture had a meeting anddeclared their cultures’ adoption of this or that set. The decisionoccurred gradually throughout the historical development of a culture, andcan be seen in China adopting Confucianism ratherthanthemorematerialistic and scientifically inclined Taoism and Mohism, and in Indiaadopting the more mystical doctrine emphasizing the role of meditation andprivate insights rather than publicly demonstrable methods of knowing. Ithink that reasons for such decision are enormously complicated, but it ishardly conceivable that China was somehow destined to lag behind Europe inthe science race due to factors they could not control. This may be taken to show that critical thinking and Asian thought aredivergent. If the Asian cultures chose not to go along the path wherecritical thinking is one milestone, then both do not seem to go with eachother, and Atkinson may be vindicated when he argues that critical thinkingis a part of Western culture only.
If the Asian cultures prioritize sets ofvalues which are incompatible with critical thinking, and if they freelychose those sets over the set adopted by Europeans for whatever reasons,then it appears that critical thinking would belong to European cultureonly, and to adopt it to Asian cultures would be the same as to importingforeign ideas and practices to alien lands. Thus, Atkinson’s argument seemsto fit well with the under determinist position. This line of reasoning, however, would be valid only if a culture decidedas its own set of priorities at one time will always remain so for allother times. If the Thai culture, for example, once decided that socialharmony should take precedence over critical argumentation andopendebates, then critical thinking practices would be forever alien to them.
But that is surely a very unreasonable position to take. Cultures, likehumans, often make decisions that later are amended or revoked with newdecisions made; when things are not the same any longer. Decisions toprioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone, but evenso the stone can be broken down or else taken to a museum or a pedestalwhere it loses its real meaning. Decisions at one time reflect thecircumstances normal at that particular time, and to stick onto pastdecisions with no plan of adapting or making new decisions in response tochanging circumstances would make the culture frozen and unabletoparticipate. Opting not to correct their past decisions, a culture would ineffect be telling the world that it is constructing a wall around itself,giving nothing to the world and receiving nothing. However, sociologicaland economic conditions of the current world do not permit such a scenariofrom happening.
Cultures need to change themselves, not merely to survive,but to prosper and to permit better lives for their members. Consequently, Asian cultures and critical thinking are divergent only ifthe former opt not to correct their decisions. But since we are talkingonly about decisions, then it is not difficult at all to suggest thatcultures would make new decisions in response to changing times. Doing sowould make the two more convergent. Hence, the divergence and convergence,after all, depend on what decisions a culture makes. There is nothingnecessarily attached to a culture’s path along history that makes itessentially divergent or convergent from the modern critical thinkingtradition, or from any tradition for that matter.
Since the philosophy of aculture is but an abstract and theoretical expression and justification ofthe culture’s decision to choose one set of priorities over another, Asianphilosophy and critical thinking are neither necessarily divergent nornecessarily convergent. ConclusionAny attempt to introduce, or we should say to bring back critical thinkingpractices to the cultures of Asia would, therefore, begin within thecultures themselves. This is in line with the under determinist idea thateach culture has its own peculiar development path which is not necessarilyshared with others. The mission of spreading the “truth” of one culture toanother is a misplaced.
One that apart from sounding patronizing, issomething the current morality cannot accept. Thus the first step in suchan attempt must consist of a series of arguments designed to show to mostmembers of the culture where critical thinking is to be introduced, thatcritical thinking is really good. However to do that would at least requirelarge amounts of explanations, something that is definitely out of scope ofthis present essay. Besides, to argue that critical thinking is actually agood thing to have is difficult, because it may run counter to the deeplyestablished belief that critical thinking is just a label fortheconfrontational mode of life that the culture finds unpleasantanddifficult to accept.
Though the task is difficult, I believe that it is unavoidable. As aninsider of my own Chinese cultural tradition, I am trying to convince themembers of my culture of the value of critical thinking and its importantrole in educating citizens for the increasingly globalized world of todayand tomorrow. An important part of my argument for combining criticalthinking and its belief systems to the Chinese culture is the idea thatpeople should view the elements of their culture which could present themost serious obstacles to critical thinking as “benign fiction. ” That is,elements such as respect of the elders and the belief in social ranking andso on should be viewed in the same way as a modern person views his or herown traditional customs and ceremonies. One is in a sense a part of theculture where the ceremonies happen, but in another sense detached from it.
This is because he knows himself only to serve a certain function in theculture, and in addition, knowledge of other cultures enables furtherdetachment from his own customs and ceremonies. Such an argument would naturally require a lot more space and time than isavailable here. What I hope to have accomplished in this essay, however, ismuch more modest. It is, as we have seen, an argument that Asian philosophyand Asian thought in general do not necessarily conflict with criticalthinking and its presuppositions. Furthermore, it is the influential makingof decisions throughout the history of each culture itself, which, Ibelieve, is flexible and adaptive enough to effect important changes forthe future.
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References1 The literature on the nature and definitions of critical thinking areenormous. Probably the most intense debate among critical thinking expertscenters on the question whether critical thinking can be a separateautonomous academic disciplines dealing with the general form of thinkingto be applied by students in all of their academic areas. Or whether it isnot autonomous at all, but should always be part of important academicdisciplines. However, I believe that these debates giveuslittleunderstanding of what critical thinking should be.
For critical thinkingwould be nothing if not applied to real cases, and the study of it wouldnot be totally effective if the skills and theories unique to it were notabstracted and studied on their own. The other debates focuses on thenature of critical thinking, or the meaning of “critical thinking” itself. Richard Paul (1993) provides a definition that no one can gainsay: Criticalthinking is the kind of thinking one thinks of one’s thinking in order tomake one’s thinking better. Hatcher (1995a; 1995b) calls for the kind ofcritical thinking that is based on the so-called “epistemological realist”position this is contrasted by Sutton (1995) and Hostetler (1991), whoargue that critical thinking is more amenable to the anti-realist position. Whatever it is, there is still no correct definition concerning the truemeaning of critical thinking.