On Transcultural Philosophy: Interview with Jean-Yves Heurtebise

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In his recent book Orientalisme, occidentalisme et universalisme (Paris: MA Éditions-ESKA, 2020), Jean-Yves Heurtebise, who has worked and teached in Taiwan for many years, summarizes the results of his own research on the topic of transcultural philosophy. His understanding of transculturality underlines the need for critical work, in order to challenge many of the prejudices which have become a solid part of several hundreds years of East and West exchanges.

In this interview, we want to ask Heurtebise to define “transcultural philosophy” and answer a series of questions that are particularly relevant to today’s Taiwan: What are the differences between transcultural and comparative philosophy? How can we reconsider the importance of cultural difference from a non-essentialist perspective? And what is the role that a Taiwanese perspective can play in the context of the ongoing philosophical encounter between the East and the West?

After your early research on philosophy of biology and contemporary French philosophy, in the recent years you have been focusing on Chinese-European comparative philosophy as well as on the question of transculturalism; where does your interest in these questions come from?

Actually, my research consists in addressing one single research question: the possibility to define mind categories at the meta-theoretical level of scholarly discourses. Categories not in terms of classifying things and not even concepts but categories of interpretative narratives: the different ways by which we picture reality when we rationalize and put into words our understanding of it. In my PhD I addressed this question by identifying the interpretative metaphors surfacing in contemporary biology and sociology. Thinking analytically means to understand the biological reality in terms of genes and the sociological reality in terms of individualized rationality (homo economicus).Thinking holistically means to understand the biological reality in terms of organism or at least cells, and the sociological reality in terms of society, collectivity. Thinking dialectically means to understand both the biological and sociological reality in terms of struggle, competition. Then the question was: can we apply that not only to epistemological domains but also to cultural fields? And then the first problem comes: what is culture?

But why precisely Chinese culture? What role does your personal experience in Asia play in the way you apply your previous research to the problem of culture?

Well, I guess, in the beginning, some kind of unconscious Orientalism played its part. Reading François Jullien after my PhD dedicated to the identification of ways of thinking operating at the level of scientific narratives, I wondered whether my whole theoretical framework could not be very limited if, as Jullien said, Chinese thinking embodies a totally different way of thinking that could not be inscribed in the “Occidental” regime of thought. Both intrigued and not totally convinced I wanted to go and see by myself. Then I got a European Fellowship leading me to Beiwai first and then Taida to do some research with a following Marie Cure Fellowship with Beida on political-environmental issues. One of the results of my daily life experience and everyday conversation was the realization that culture was indeed a political construct and that postcolonialism had been turned from a theory of critical self-awareness to an ideology of nationalist self-assertiveness. The problem of “culture” and its definition appeared to me as being not simply an epistemological one but also a political one – and, arriving in Taiwan later, not only its political nature but also its geopolitical implications became clearer. The “Chinese radical cultural otherness” claimed by last century sinologists needed to be questioned also from this angle.

You just mentioned how your previous research on epistemological domains could be applied to the “cultural fields”, why?

The notion of different ways of thinking is a necessary follow-up of Foucault’s questioning the notion of truth in human and natural sciences (linguistic, biology and economy) in Les Mots et les choses and of Bruno Latour’s critical inquiry into experimental sciences and laboratory experiments as a space of the social elaboration and not simply the empirical discovery of truths. Looking from the outside, we consider biology as the science disclosing empirical truths about living organisms; we forgot how theoretical discussions between biologists shape the way the scientific work is done: between Dawkins’ conception of the selfish gene and Rensberger’s holistic conception of cells, the question is not about truth and facts but about interpretative frameworks and representations of life. The fact that they both belong to “English-American culture” does not change a thing about their theoretical disagreement. To refer to cultural belongings to classify conceptual differences is both mistaken and misleading: it hinders our understanding of intra-cultural dissensions and the way they can resonate in other cultural settings. Such resonances lead us to hypothesize ways of thinking of a transcultural nature. Culturalism is the belief that intercultural differences are stronger, go deeper and stand higher than intra-cultural ones. Transcultural thinking is the idea that intracultural differences are more important in the specific sense that intracultural dissensions in diverse unrelated cultures share some structural similarities even if their modes of expression differ.

You have also been very critical of comparative philosophy, can you explain the main aspects of your critique? 

If you look at comparative philosophy, the very idea of culture seems to be taken for granted. Chinese culture: from Confucius to Mou Zongsan; European culture: from Plato to Heidegger. Comparative philosophy will be nothing, one usually believes, but assessing in which way the differences between a philosopher belonging to (so-called) ‘Chinese culture’ and a philosopher belonging to (so-called) ‘European culture’ exemplify and demonstrate the differences between the respective cultures they belong to. This way of framing comparative philosophy seems to me ‘pre-Foucaldian’: Foucault developed the idea that different episteme or ways of knowing the world framed European culture at different periods of time. When “comparing” Zhuangzi to Schelling (for example), you are actually comparing two different periods of time and not simply two cultures. Moreover, since the 17th century, European translations of Ruists four books and five classics became available. Any comparison between European and Chinese philosophers after 17th Europe and 19th China is almost self-referential. Finally, from the 19th century on, the issue of culture became extremely political: to claim that “this is Chinese culture” is 90% politics and 10% cultural.

In your critique of comparative philosophy, you often point toward a non-culturalist approach, opposed to cultural-essentialism; what role does it play in you own conceptualization of transcultural philosophy? What are the essential motives and concepts of the latter?

I do believe that only by deconstructing “culture” as a racial, political and narcissistic concept, transcultural philosophy is possible. But let’s be clear:  transcultural philosophy is not one branch or sub-field of philosophy. It should be equated to philosophy itself. By philosophy, I mean, in a Nietzschean way, thinking against yourself. Philosophy is transcultural because the condition of possibility of thinking is overcoming ‘yourself’ (die Selbstüberwindung – Zarathustra II) and, among things defining yourself, your culture is an important element. Philosophy is transcultural also in another way, in the Deleuzian sense of difference as being internal, as being a process of differing not simply from others but first from oneself. This is why also the Heidegger’s notion of “Western metaphysics” seems to me quite culturalist and even rather “essentialist.” It assumes that European philosophy, from Plato to Nietzsche, could be “subsumed” under a single narrative. I will term this ‘belief’ “pre-Deleuzian.” Deleuze & Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus developed an essential idea; there is nothing like European Philosophy because there are two trends: philosophy majeure & philosophy mineure. Major philosophers in Europe can be listed such as: Plato, Aristotle, Saint Thomas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, etc. Minor philosophers can be listed likewise: Heraclitus, Epicurus, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. Of course, names of this list may change according to subsequent interpretations in different historical periods. But that’s not really the point. The point is: 1. what Heidegger terms “Western metaphysics” holds only for major European philosophers (whoever they are); 2. this division between “major” or orthodox (Confucius, Han Yu, Zhu Xi, etc.) and “minor” or heterodox (Zhuangzi, Huiguo, Wang Fuzhi, etc.) thinkers can also be observed in China. Thus, the practical and methodological goal of transcultural philosophy: instead of opposing or comparing European and Chinese philosophy as two distinctive wholes, we should compare philosophers along major/minor transcultural lines.

The trouble with mainstream contemporary comparative philosophy is that it likes very much comparing major European philosophers to heterodox Chinese thinkers in order to present to the reader the spectacle of absolute cultural dichotomy. The postcolonial scholar will add to this “conceptual feast” the supplementary layer of the moral lecturing by opposing “Western dogmatic rigidity” to “Chinese revolutionary flexibility”. This is the second mistake of usual comparative philosophy: not only mixing up periods of time while believing speaking of everlasting cultural differences but also confusing major/minor, orthodox/heterodox lineages of thinking while believing referring to global geopolitical asymmetries. Finally, let me conclude here by a last controversial idea: minor philosophers, generally disregarded in their own culture, have the best potential for transcultural thinking; while major philosophers, generally regarded as perfectly embodying their own culture, are the “provincial” ones.

Many scholars believe that, compared to Western philosophy, Chinese philosophy has a particular tradition characterized by holistic thinking, stressing the concept of qi 氣 or techniques of self-cultivation, etc. But you have also criticized such characterization of Chinese philosophy; what are the main reasons of your critique?

You are right and this is a direct consequence of what I just said. These oppositions between Chinese holism and Western dualism, Chinese qi and Western physics, Chinese self-cultivation and Western logic, etc. are the most overrated statements in the field. It follows the binary logic of culturalist oppositions. Chinese holism & Western dualism? Well, that’s pretty dualist in itself… Chinese qi & Western physics? Look at Anaximenes’ articulation between psyche (soul), pneuma (breath), and Aer (Air) and the role of the notion of ether in Medieval and Renaissance cosmology.  Chinese self-cultivation & Western logic? Hadot, Foucault and others on Pythagorean or Stoics’ meditative exercises have qualified this dichotomy. With regard to Heidegger’s metaphysics, my critic here means that the capacity for a thinker to think “metaphysically”, i.e. in terms of a disconnection between “spirit” and “nature” is not determined by cultural boundaries but by “ways of thinking” (analytical, holistic, dialectic, etc.) that are transcultural. Indeed, the dualist division between Heaven and Earth, Li and Qi exists also in Chinese philosophy: see Zhu Xi or Mou Zongsan.

You just mentioned the notions of major philosophy and minor philosophy, could you give us a concrete example of how they could be applied to a transcultural analysis?

Concretely that means to be aware of the “location” in the conceptual map of thought of the philosophers we are comparing from an intercultural perspective. That means also comparing not philosophers themselves but differences between them. Transcultural philosophy in this sense is a differential mode of comparing – in the mathematical sense of the term. So if we compare Plato and Zhuangzi we compare not only two different cultures but two different ways of being and thinking. Let me note here that the major/minor dichotomy is in itself rather crude – it’s just a starting point not the end of it. The purpose of the major/minor dichotomy is to break up the “Western metaphysics” block. Moreover the major/minor dichotomy is not similar to differences in ways of thinking: major/minor dichotomy refers to a bipolar division while the notion of ways of thinking is multipolar and still need to be defined. Finally, major/minor dichotomy should be understood as the socio-politics of philosophy: major philosophers are the dominant class, the aristocrat, the landowners in the realm of thought while minor philosophers are the dominated, the people, the migrants of the realm of thought.

The fact that a philosopher belongs to the major or minor category is not in itself sufficient to ascribe a specific way of thinking to him or her. The idea that ways of thinking can be categorized means that there are not as many ways of thinking as there are philosophers but only a handful of them. Ultimately, I need also to stress that different ways of thinking can be at play in the work of one single philosopher. So if I go back to Plato and Zhuangzhi: it’s not only the West and China. Such distinction is so simplistic… Plato and Zhuangzhi also means the Orthodox West and the Unorthodox China. And in terms of ways of thinking, it can be expressed as the difference between ontology and flux, stability and change. So if we want to stress cultural differences that will be better to compare either two orthodox or two heterodox philosophers like Zhuangzi and Heraclitus.

But if we want to go transcultural, we need to have a differential understanding of this difference. Thus comparing the difference between Zhuangzi and Heraclitus to the difference between Plato and Mencius and addressing the nature of the conceptual difference between these differences. We are still at the rather macro-level of major/minor dichotomy. Things can become even more fun at the micro-level of ways of thinking, i.e. if we extend this differential mode of comparing to a set of three or even four philosophers expressing three or four different ways of thinking in two different cultural settings – such as Plato/Heraclitus/Epicurus/Gorgias relatively to Mencius/Zhuangzi/Yang Zhu/Gongsun Long: Plato/Mencius = Heraclitus/ Zhuangzi = Epicurus/Yang Zhu = Gorgias / Gongsun Long. Then we can add another cultural layer: China/India/Europe such as Plato/Upanishads to Heraclitus/ Sâmkhya (Garbe 1894). The relation “/” + “=” doesn’t imply any kind of identity but an analogy between differences. Everything here is purely tentative – the main idea is: “Comparative philosophy” could be so more creative than it is now if we introduce into it some transcultural framework.

From your own conceptualization of the question of transcultural philosophy, how do you evaluate Taiwan’s own ways of thinking and transcultural practices? What are the main directions toward which Taiwan’s own transcultural philosophies could develop? Could the concepts of major and minor philosophy be applied to the context of Taiwan?

The very existence of Taiwan as it is today is vital for the practice of transcultural philosophy. If the Taiwan difference one day ceased to be, transcultural philosophy will suffer an almost irreparable lost. To understand that, you need to go back to Heidegger’s concept of Western metaphysics. According to Heidegger, overcoming Western metaphysics was possible only by going back to the Greeks: and by being more Greek than the Greek, one could become truly … German (this conceptual twist being specifically Heideggerian). In the post-1989 context of the PRC nationalist revival of Chinese studies, Heidegger’s aspirations to overcome Western metaphysics was understood as implying going back to China’s intellectual tradition. However post-colonial, post-modern thinkers deconstructing Western metaphysics from China seemed to be “unaware” of the existence of “a Chinese metaphysics” in its own. Western metaphysics in an Heideggerian sense refers to the articulation between thinking and technology: Man forgetting of Being lures him in chasing for Beings and thus in developing technology to dominate Nature. “Chinese metaphysics” corresponds to another logic whose result is not the technological domination of nature but the political domination of men: it is based on the linking between Civilization and Chineseness, between Cultural identity and Political identification. Of course this claim needs an important qualification: as well as Western metaphysics is the discursive product of major, orthodox Western thinkers (the holy triad Plato-Descartes-Kant), Chinese metaphysics is embodied mainly by major, orthodox Chinese thinkers – mainly because the social role played by Confucian literati in Imperial China gave to them an overarching precedence.

Relatively to Taiwan’s transcultural situation, it should be understood historically. After the end of the martial law in ROC, a process of gradual de-Sinicization took place in Taiwan while, at the same time, in PRC, a reverse process of Re-Sinicization occurred. As a consequence, today most Chinese seem to adhere to the “German” concept of nation where nationhood is defined in terms of cultural and linguistic commonality while many Taiwanese are closer today to the “French” concept of nation where nationhood is defined in terms of political intentionality. Then you understand perfectly that, if thinking is thinking against yourself, de-Sinicization is not a threat but the condition of possibility to think Chinese culture from a distance. The very act of de-correlating cultural and political belongings is what makes the overcoming of “Chinese metaphysics” possible.

But please note that I am speaking of a mere possibility: the fact that overcoming Chinese metaphysics is made possible by the very existence of Taiwan as a Sinophone singularity means neither that this possibility is realized by Taiwanese thinkers themselves nor it means that it can’t be achieved by thinkers in the mainland. Thus, regarding the last part of your question, let me precise that “major” and “minor” cannot be reduced to geographical empirical locations: we can surely understand that due to political pressure to align with governmental sayings in PRC, it is more difficult now to develop a kind of philosophy expressing the minor trend of Chinese thought, i.e. one that can deconstruct nationalist narrative about Chineseness and question the articulation between Culture and Empire named “Civilisation”. But still not impossible and in any case even more valuable. About the Formosan context, lastly, can we contemplate this possibility: that the free spirit of Taiwan contemporary society as the unique breeding between Mr. Science & Mr. Democracy via Sinophone bonds on Austronesian soils, given both its local vitality and geopolitical frailty, could be protected by the UNESCO convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage? As a way to anchor such a condition of possibility of transcultural philosophy in international law.

Chinese Version:
Part1 Part2

Edited by Yu-Zhong, Li & Héctor G. Castaño

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