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Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking

25 Mar
Written by Soraj Hongladarom, a scholar in Bangkok, Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking is a brief paper arguing that critical thinking is not incompatible with Asian philosophical heritage. To the non-expert, this seems quite strange. So let’s look at the claim a little more.
It is widely considered common knowledge that East Asian school children are less dynamic and creative than their European and North American counterparts. Some scholars argue the script is a major reason for this, while other academics have analyzed East Asians as opposed to Westerns using psychology to draw similar (but distinct) conclusions.  As Hongladarom states in his paper, most Western educators in Asia are aware of these cultural elements which seem to prevent critical thinking, such as “the belief that teachers are superior and always right, that knowledge is not to be made here and now, but exists eternally, so to speak, to be handed down by teachers, that social harmony is to be preferred rather than asking probing questions.” Regardless of how contrary these may seem to the western tradition of liberal education, these cultural beliefs are very strong throughout East Asia.

Hongladarom highlights the traditions of logical and argumentative thinking that were present in both Indian and Chinese thought many centuries ago, and briefly traces how they were supplanted by other schools of thought which emphasized social harmony and/or intuitive insights. This is my main complaint with the paper. Hongladarom claims that China and India have their own traditional logic-based systems of thought: the Mohists in China and the research of Tscherbatsky and Matilal on India. Hongladarom claims that “since the logical traditions are already there in the major Asian cultural traditions, they can and should be reexamined, reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary situation.” But these vanished from the cultures long ago. In the case of the Mohists during the Warring States period, despite their influence in that epoch, they were soundly defeated and have since and little or no influence on subsequent governments, popular cultures, or scholars. Mohism has effectively not existed in China for more than two thousand years!
As a slight defense, Hongladarom offers up the idea that cultures are fluid, and that any cultural decision is not permanent but can change to reflect new circumstances. In a curious allusion, Hongladarom suggests that any culture which refuses to do that would in effect be constructing a wall around itself, “giving nothing the the world and receiving nothing.” Which is precisely what China did for the last period of it’s imperial history, both literally on the northern border, and figuratively by refusing and later severely limiting trade with England and other European powers.
Although only a brief paper of nine pages, there were several interesting ideas embedded in it. If I become more involved in the Needham question in the future, or with education in Asia, I may have to revisit it and do some research along similar lines.