Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: The Path

The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh

The Path is based on an introductory course at Harvard. As such it's, well, introductory. That's appropriate for me because I know next to nothing about Chinese philosophy. However, The Path is maybe a little too introductory.

To begin with, in its eagerness to draw a contrast with Western philosophy, it oversimplifies. Puett and Gross-Loh make a bunch of grand historical generalizations ("the West is/was . . . " this, that, or the other). Many of these are, at best, hard to substantiate. Some of them struck me as kind of dumb. For example: it may be true that the emergence of philosophical writing occurred at roughly the same time in China and Greece, and that war epics emerged at about that time in both regions, but it's a stretch to suppose a causal connection between the epics and the philosophy. Rather, the connection is literacy: there are no war epics from 8th-century-BC Britain because there's no written literature from 8th-century-BC Britain.

The same is true of the book's take on philosophy itself. The Path claims to draw contrasts between the Chinese and occidental philosophical traditions, but it mainly talks about the latter in terms of pop psychology straw-man arguments. It doesn't really engage with European thinkers at all. Take this summation of one Chinese tradition:
Living in a capricious world means accepting that we do not live within a stable moral cosmos that will always reward people for what they do . . . We should always expect to be surprised and learn to work with whatever befalls us. If we can continue this work, even when tragedies come our way, we can begin to accept the world as unpredictable and impossible to determine perfectly . . . We can go into each situation resolved to be the best human being we can be, not for what we'll get out to it, but simply to affect others around us for the better, regardless of the outcome.
OK, great. Only . . . doesn't it sound kind of similar to this?
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth.
The second one isn't a Chinese sage talking. No, that's Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and one of the last great Stoic philosophers. Other "revolutionary" concepts in The Path sound a lot like Epicureanism, or even like classical skepticism (which is a little different from the modern understanding).

Finally, to the extent that The Path accurately represents Chinese philosophy, I don't like Chinese philosophy. It's empirically true that, for example, brain scans show that we make a lot of so-called "rational" choices based on intuition, prejudice, emotion, and sloppy thinking. It does not follow that we should therefore embrace intuition, prejudice, emotion, and sloppy thinking. On the contrary: these facts make it a positive moral duty to strive to become better, more rational decision makers. That's my interpretation of, for instance, this:
A monkey trainer was handing out nuts, saying, "You get three in the morning, and four at night." The monkeys were enraged. So he said, "All right, then, you get four in the morning and three at night." The monkeys were thrilled.
This is meant to argue that it's better to adjust your way of thinking than to make yourself unhappy. That's nice. As a Westerner, though, I believe in the power of reason. It is better to have the trainer's rational understanding than the monkeys' non-rational sentiments. 

Being non-rational isn't hard. There are many people who, like the philosopher Zuangzhi, have "trained [them]selves to become 'spontaneous' through daily living, rather than closing [them]selves off through what we think of as rational decision-making". A lot of them end up spontaneously launching pogroms, overdosing on heroin, committing vandalism, and voting for demagogues. 


  1. Sounds like I would enjoy the book more if its actual sub-title was "What Cheese Philosophers Can Tell Us About The Gouda Life"