East-West dichotomy revisited

The East-West dichotomy revisited
The East-West dichotomy revisited

The East-West dichotomy revisited:

Article published in AsiaTimeson Dec 13th, 2011:“The West is deductive, from the universal to the particular; the East is inductive, from the particular to the universal.”
Ji Xianlin, 1996

According to the universal historians Arnold J Toynbee, Samuel P Huntington and Ji Xianlin, the world’s states form 21, 23 or 25 spheres, nine civilizations, and fall into four cultural systems: Arabic/Islam, Confucian, Hindi/Brahmin and Western/Christian, with the former three forming the Oriental cultural system and the latter one the Occidental cultural system. The main difference between the Orient and the Occident, so what people say lies in their different mode of thinking: The East is more inductive, the West is more deductive.

Henceforth, the Orient’s search for universal formulas describing balance, harmony or equilibrium: for example, in Chinese philosophy, the two lines in Chinese meaning is weight and counterpoise. Similarly, we find meaning in equal weight on both sides, representing scales in equilibrium or the yin and the yang meaning two primal opposing but complementary forces.

There is also Japanese Zen and sunyata, (or ’emptiness’), meaning everything is inter-related; in India we find seva-nagri (the universe and I are one and the same) and tat tvam asi (thou art that) meaning that the soul is part of the universal reality.

By means of continuously inducing the universal, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Hinduism and Buddhism – as a rough guide – all ultimately arrive at the universal concept of “the One”, “Oneness of heaven and men”, the “divine law” behind the Vedas, the “merger of Brahman and atma” or “ultimate reality”, the underlying inductive principle being that:

All observed things are connected, therefore all things are one.

In inductive reasoning, one induces the universal “all things are one” from the particular “all things” that are “observed”. The conclusion may be sound, but cannot be certain.

In the Bodhicaryavatar, a key text of Mahayana Buddhism, Santideva (c 650 AD) teaches us that the fate of the individual is linked to the fate of others. In the Abhidarma Sutra (The Higher Teachings of Buddha) of the Tipitaka (c. 100 BC), Lord Buddha’s says there is no “person”, “individual” or “I” in reality – it is all but one “Ultimate Truth”. Nagarjuna (c 200 AD), writer of the Madhyamika-karika, adds: To attain Nirvana is to achieve “absolute emptiness”.

For D T Suzuki (1870-1966) “Zen” is about the “Ultimate Nothingness”. In Hinduism, the great epic Mahabharata (c 600 BC-400 AD) reads: “Yad ihasti tad anyatra yan nehasti na tat kvachit” or “What is found here, can be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere.” In the Bhagavadgita (c 150 BC), Krishna says to Arjuna: “The living entities in this conditional world are My fragmental parts, and they are eternal.”

In the Book of Changes (c 1050 – 256 BC) “One” is the supreme ultimate. In the Dao De Jing (c 600 BC), Laozi says “One gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, three gives birth to all things.”
Confucius, too, discovered the oneness of heaven (tian) and man (ren) and rejoiced: “At fifty I understood the decrees of heaven,” and later: “Heaven produced that virtue in me.” We find similar notions in The Book of Mencius: “If you fully explore your mind, you will know your nature. If you know your nature, you know heaven.”

Dong Zhongshu seems to have concurred: “Heaven and men are a unit, they form the one,” and Laozi again: “Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Tao. The law of the Tao is its being what it is.”

Note the implied universality: In the search for absolute interconnectedness, induction does not rely on categorical (formal) logic, hence the “particular West”, by inductive inference, is included in this universal “oneness”, or, as Nishitani Keiji once nicely put it: “Western modernity is to be overcome by the Eastern religious mind.”

While the vigorously deductive West had to occupy foreign terrain, build churches and spread the Gospel, the inductive East entertained a certain passivity, albeit with a long-term holistic world view:

“We firmly believe, no matter how long it requires, the day will be with us when universal peace and the world of oneness will finally come true.”

The West, on the other hand, separates God and the world. After all, we are not Him, but created by Him: “Then God said, Let us make man in our image; in the image of God he created him.”

Accordingly, in Western classrooms we teach an analytic “concrete reality” based on conditioned textual analysis and interpretation of the world, rather than a holistic “absolute reality”. Some examples of major works of analytical reasoning are Euclid’s Elements (c 300 BC), Kant’s Copernican revolution (1787), Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (1859), Einstein’s Logic of continuity (1905), or Smith’s The Wealth of the Nations (1776), the underlying deductive principle (as old as the Greeks themselves) being that:

“All observed men are unique, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is unique.”

In deductive reasoning, one deduces the particular “Socrates is unique” from universal “all men are unique”, relying on the premises “Socrates is a man” and “All men are unique”. The conclusion view is sound and valid.

A world thus described by deductive reasoning reaches new conclusions from previously known facts ad infinitum. A world by inductive reasoning on the other hand allocates relations to recurring phenomenal patterns. We may call the former a “string of cause and effect”, whereas in the latter we see a “puzzle made of its parts”.

Accordingly, in the same way as some cultures hold belief in one, many, or no gods at all, they also have different ways of perceiving the world and reasoning about it: Western civilization became analysis-based while the Orient became integration-based.

Ancient stereotypes die hard. In La Route de la Soie, Aly Mazaheri quoted this ancient Persian and Arab saying from the Sassanian Dynasty (226-c 640 AD):

“The Greeks never invented anything except some theories. They never taught any art. But the Chinese were different. They did teach all their arts, but indeed had no scientific theories whatever.”

I will not go so far as Mazaheri to say “they” do only this and “we” do only that, nor will I claim that someone is definitely deductive in outlook just because he was born in London. It is not that easy. The making of every civilization’s treasures and contributions towards history is determined by its methodology for explaining the world’s phenomena according to its own experience and mode of rational interpretation: The East became “more” inductive while the West become “more” deductive – this appears to be borne out by all the evidence.

Thorsten Pattberg is a German scholar at the Institute of World Literature of Peking University, and former Research Fellow at The University of Tokyo and Harvard University.

(Copyright 2011 Thorsten Pattberg)

Have a Look at the Latest Posts: