The Chinese Way of Thinking and Expression

And Its Philosophic Imports[*]




Although the well-known Crocean definition of aesthetics as “the science of expression and general linguistics” is a definition that seems to have been outdated and commands no serious attention nowadays, nevertheless it serves one important purpose for our discussion here:  It suggests an important clue to our understanding of certain characteristics in Chinese and Oriental philosophy in general. The Chinese thinkers are, as a rule, all “expressionists” (in the Crocean sense).  For them the important thing is the formation of “aesthetical” ideas in the mind, not their externalization through language, which they regard as secondary, and what is worse still, inadequate and misleading. This section, therefore, is devoted to an investigation of certain distinctive features in the typical Chinese way of thinking and expression, which can be described at the outset as primarily aesthetical in character, and as such is found to be pervasive throughout every phase of Chinese cultural life. As George Rowley puts it, “The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art.”[1] Early in 1925 Whitehead wrote in Science and the Modern World:

The more we know of Chinese art, of Chinese literature, and of the Chinese philosophy of life, the more we admire the heights to which that civilization attained. For thousands of years, there have been in China acute and learned men patiently devoting their lives to study. Having regard to the span of time, and to the population concerned, China forms the largest volume of civilization which the world has seen? There is no reason to doubt the intrinsic capacity of individual Chinamen for the pursuit of science. And yet Chinese science is practically negligible.[2]

The above passage is quoted here not primarily to show how Chinese art, Chinese literature, and the Chinese philosophy of life are highly appreciated and admired in the West by a great mind like Whitehead. Rather, it is quoted to point out a pertinent question: Is it true that science, and together with it, logic, epistemology, aesthetics (as a science), etc., are the least developed branch of studies among things Chinese?  If so, why? And our answer to this question will help us to see Chinese philosophy in a better light.

 The first part of the question cannot be answered by a simple yes or no.  It still remains an open question, to which both pros and cons can be and have been made. For example, those who agree with Whitehead will naturally tend to believe that “the Chinese science is practically negligible,” while, on the other hand, we have Joseph Needham, the eminent British bio-chemistry scientist, who has presented his monumental research project Science and Civilization in China, in volume after volume ever since 1954, as a best answer to those who think that China has no science and is therefore a scientifically undeveloped or underdeveloped people.  It has been argued that even up to the seventeenth century China had been far ahead of the European world in science, and commanded the admiration of men like Voltaire and Leibniz. Why then was Chinese science left far behind the European countries since the eighteenth century? This is too complicated a question, and is better left for an answer by intellectual historians (Joseph Needham has some explanation on this fact). But Bertrand Russell was positive and optimistic in his assertion early in 1921: “I have no doubt that if the Chinese could get a stable government and sufficient funds, they would, within the next thirty years, begin to produce remarkable works in science.”[3] Let it be not forgot that the world’s tremendous development in space science after World War II was initiated by the seemingly “fantastic” idea of establishing a space-station first advanced by Dr. Qian Xuesen of CIT (California Institute of Technology), Pasadena, CA., even before the 50s.  It then sounded no more than a science-fiction talk show

 Nevertheless, it is still undeniable that what accounts for China’s greatest contribution to the bulk of world civilization is not in the field of science (in spite of her seniority in the invention of much that is important for the discovery of the new world), because her predominant interest lies elsewhere, such as in ethics, politics, philosophy, religion, art, and eminently in what E. A. Burtt calls “the art of living wisely.”  What characterizes the Chinese spirit is that they care for life so much ever since the ancient time, that they have never developed the habit of “knowledge for its own sake”; what they favor is “everything for life’s sake.” On this point, the popular writer Lin Yutang’s humorous witty remark deserves a hearing and serves as a good point of departure for our discussion:

Chinese philosophy may be briefly defined as a preoccupation with the knowledge of life rather than the knowledge of truth. …the Chinese philosophers clutch at life and ask themselves the one and only eternal question:  ‘How shall we live?’ Philosophy in the Western sense seems to the Chinese eminently idle.  In its preoccupation with logic, which concerns itself with the method of arrival at knowledge, and epistemology, which poses the question of the possibility of knowledge, it has forgotten to deal with knowledge of life itself.  That is so much tomfoolery and a kind of frivolity, like wooing and courtship without coming to marriage and the producing of children, … The German philosophers are the most frivolous of all; they court truth like ardent lovers, but seldom propose to marry her.[4]

 It seems that the question why China has not fully developed a science like logic may be answered thus:  either the Chinese are logically impotent, or they are well aware of the impotence of logic itself as the only resort for solving human problems. As to the question why, with all her rich treasures in art and literature, China has not fully developed a science like aesthetics in the Western sense? answer:  The Chinese are too aesthetical to produce an aesthetics as a science.

 To look deep into the matter, we must explain all the phenomena by reference to certain characteristic features in the Chinese mentality and language habits; these two, being inter-conditioning and inter-conditioned, are inseparable one from the other.  For expediency of exposition, let us proceed systematically under the following five headings:  (A) The Will against Clarity and Certainty; (B) The Will against System; (C) Keyserling on Chinese Language; (D) Art and Philosophy; (E) Keyserling and Russell on Eastern and Western Culture.


A. The Will against Clarity and Certainty

What accounts for the essence of science in the Western sense is the tendency for classification, definition, and systematization.  And all these are something that is least appealing to the Chinese mentality and the Chinese way. As the great exponent of Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, has well put it, “The Chinese people are not stargazers.”[5]   Both Fong Youlan and Jin Yuelin agreed that “Chinese philosophers were all of them different grades of Socrates!”[6] Moreover, traditionally, the Chinese people have shown little inclination for the “definite” or the “systematical,” and definitions and systems are the things they care least about, because they, more or less under the spell of their ancient philosophers like Laozi and Zhuangzi, have been disillusioned or rather, “enlightened,” about the inadequacy of words and languages as the tool of thought and the way of communication. 

This is best exhibited in their way of philosophical expression.  Speaking generally, the Chinese philosophers tend to have their thoughts and ideas expressed in the form of insightful aphorisms, fragmentary remarks, or epigrammatic sayings; they seldom have their mature thoughts presented in the form of a systematical treatise, as the western philosophers have done, starting with definitions of concepts, and following them out step by step by way of logical arguments.  In this connection, for the sake of analogy, we may almost say that the typical Chinese way of philosophical expression comes very close to the views adopted by the ancient Pre-Socratic thinkers, and by Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson, Keyserling, and the later Wittgenstein in modern times.  The common feature of all these philosophical writers may be summed up in one word: suggestiveness (instead of definiteness). These writers, as well as their Chinese counterparts, have all cared for the immediate and the qualitative character of concrete life experience; they are so fully aware of the function and limits of human language that, in the main, they prefer to express their thoughts, their ideas, their feelings, their life experiences, by way of concrete images and suggestive metaphors. It is on this account that Plato was said to be of all great philosophers “the least dogmatic and the most suggestive.”[7]  From the Oriental standpoint, suggestiveness is the mark of true greatness for poets, artists, and philosophers alike.

 Recently Joseph S. Wu characterizes the common trend underlying the major currents of Western thought as “the spirit of searching for clarity and certainty,”—a spirit which “was initiated in Greek thought, sharpened by the medieval thinkers, developed rapidly with modern philosophy, and has been reaching its climax in the analytic philosophy of the contemporary world.” On the other hand, what is most typical of Oriental thought, whether Hinduism, Buddhism, or Daoism, or Confucianism, can be characterized as “the spirit of searching for (the depth of) vagueness and uncertainty.”[8]  “While logic is so important to Western philosophy, direct experience is valued in Oriental thought,” thus comments the quoted author.  As a result, the Western attitude turns out to be one of criticalness, and the Oriental, one of tolerance. This is because Oriental philosophers, as a rule, are well aware of the fact that “all philosophical systems are different modes of expressing one’s direct experience of the totality of the vagueness and uncertainty of the universe:

The problems in the mainstream of Western philosophy center around Nature. … The main problems in Oriental philosophy center around Life. The whole history of Chinese philosophy is a history of the philosophy of life, both social and individual. … for Chinese philosophers, metaphysical systems are but a series of footnotes to the philosophy of life.[9]

 Joseph S. Wu’s remarks of what is typical of the Eastern as contrasted with the Western modes of thought are but an explicit way of expressing the contrast between two types of philosophical temperaments, namely, the “simpleminded” type of Russell on the one hand, and the “muddleheaded” type of Whitehead on the other.  Indeed, both of these two types are found to have been existent in Eastern as well as in Western philosophies, though differing in degrees of predominance.  We may roughly say what is an exception for the one proves the rule for the other.  On this issue, we find Professor Thomé H. Fang’s observation quite insightful and stimulating:

Western ontology has been grounded on a formal logic fixed in formulas of static identity.  Plato in later dialogues, especially in The Sophist. Bergson in Creative Evolution, Whitehead in Process and Reality, and Heidegger in Being and Time are exceptions.  These exceptions, however, prove the rule which always applies in Oriental philosophy.[10]


B. The Will against System

 In the light of the above elucidation, another feature we find conspicuously lacking in the Chinese way of thinking and expression is the tendency for theorizing and systematizing.  To borrow Jasper’s phrase, we may say that the Chinese philosophers are distinguished by “the will against system.” For the Chinese, as for the existentialistic philosophers, like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the system is a detour from reality and is, therefore, lies and deception. The will to system, for Nietzsche, is a sign of the impoverishment of mind, and “a lack of honesty.”[11]

In this connection, another strong and eloquent witness for the virtues of the Chinese way of thinking and expression can be found in the writings of Hermann Keyserling.  For example, in Creative Understanding he says, “I do not intend to offer a complete theoretical system, I want to give living impulse.” And the method of his School of Wisdom[12] is modeled after those employed by the sages of ancient Greece, China, or India; It is what he calls the method of “living Improvisation at the right moment.”  Concerning the complex problem of understanding and communication, Keyserling says:

Conversation Is only agreeable with one who by mere allusion knows what is meant.  And this          must be so if communion is to be possible at all. … These considerations inevitably lead to the result that spirits must be able to communicate in some direct way, beyond and, as it were, in spite of the means of utterance. … Plato’s teaching was:  It is not the eyes that see. Bu we see by means of the eyes. … Just so we can understand new ideas although we know only what we possess; Just so, though only knowing our own language, we can get to understand, on the basis of it, a foreign language. …  This never depends on the means of communication as such, it only depends on the person who makes use of them.”[13]

Naturally will one agree with Keyserling on this point if one recalls what Plato said two thousand and four hundred years ago on the cultivation of wisdom of the highest order, philosophical or political, and why he refused Dionysius I’s request to have his thoughts put into a neat system assuming the textbook form:  In his “Seventh Letter” (341d), Plato made his point quite clear:

The acquaintance with it (i.e., wisdom) must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustained.[14]

Indeed, the findings of our modern linguistic psychological research do not add much that is new to this insight of Plato’s; perhaps it is merely the mysterious touch in Plato’s way of expression that is replaced by some scientific or psychological terms, because the main thrust of all these considerations is that communication is ultimately a matter of “intersubjectivity.” The ancient Chinese thinkers— Kongzi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, except perhaps Mozi—are well aware of the character of intersubjectivity in communication. This accounts partly for the fact that generally the Chinese philosophical writings are never so “systematic,” never so “definite,” as compared with the western philosophical style. Yet, they are quite suggestive.

 Nevertheless, it is far from being the case that all the Chinese philosophers emphasize only suggestiveness and even silence, rather than articulateness and speech.  In Tang Junyi’s recent studies Treatise on the Origins of Chinese Philosophy we find there discussed four types of semantical awareness in Chinese philosophy of language in relation to philosophical thought, namely, Daoistic, Moistic, Confucian, and the Legalist schools, each representing a different attitude towards the nature and function of language.[15]

 Let us take only the first three. The Daoistic school, represented by Laozi and Zuangzi being fully aware of the limits and uselessness of words or speech in grasping the Tao, therefore stresses the importance of silence as a means of transcending the limits of language. On the other hand, the Moistic school, represented by Mozi and his followers, from which came the ancient Logical School and the School of Names, recognizing the social function of language, emphasizes the use of language, arguments, and logical thinking, primarily and even exclusively fcr pragmatic purposes, or for social reforms. Hu Shi’s dissertation The Development of the Logical Methods in Ancient China, completed under John Dewey, was devoted to a study of the Moistic method of logic in pragmatic terms.  Both the Daoistic and Moistic schools, as far as their views of the nature and function of language are concerned, are found to be extreme positions; it is the Confucian school, represented by Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi, with a commitment to neither of these two extremes, that takes a middle term position in between, recognizing at once the communicative function of language and its limits as well.  The Confucian position is thus seen to be a higher synthesis of these two.  As the Confucian outlook in general is a relational one, so is its attitude towards language:  always aiming at the inter-complementary character of any two opposing poles, such as speech and silence.  Silence is another form of language, at times more eloquent, more expressive, hence more powerful as a medium of communication.  The function of speech is best manifested against the background of silence, and vice versa. One is completed by the other.  The Confucian criterion for the use of speech or its absence, however, is totally a matter of situational consideration.  It all depends on the situation.  For example, Confucius remarks:

If you have something to say, yet you say it to a wrong person, you miss your words; on the other hand, if to a person whom you can talk with, you keep silent on what you should say to him, you miss the right person. A wise man should miss neither the right words, nor the right person.[16]

 The same idea was also expressed by Xunzi: “Speaking rightly is a sign of wisdom, so is keeping silent at the right moment. To know the art of keeping silent is as important as knowing the art of speech.”[17]  It is to be noted that the spirit of Zen Buddhism is derived from both the Confucian and Daoist method of “living improvisation at the right moment.” In this respect, Zen Buddhism, as D. T. Suzuki has rightly pointed out, is “one of the products of the Chinese mind after its contact with Indian thought.”[18] And it can be developed only in a country like China.


C.  Keyserling on Chinese Language

 Basically, such tendencies in the Chinese way of expression are due to the symbolic character of the Chinese language in writing. It is a well justifiable principle in linguistic anthropology that the language pattern of a certain people and the thought pattern of that people are closely inter-related and inter-conditioned.

Keyserling’s keen observations on the symbolic character of the Chinese language and its relation to Chinese thought are worth quoting at length:

The Chinese method of expression is not objective or exact, but suggestive, and presupposes a sympathetic hearer or listener, in the same way as the figurative method of expression of women.  This is in many ways an inconvenience. . . . This disadvantage expresses itself particularly in philosophy, whose intrinsic problem it is to render clear what everybody may surmise only indistinctly. Accordingly, scientific recognization can only be represented imperfectly in Chinese writing. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to accuse it ... of the feminine method of expression.  For ideograms are means of expression of a different kind from words or from our writing: they are comparable with mathematical formulas.  They may be described as insufficient by the man who is simple enough to demand that they shall define in themselves every particular result whose law they determine:  in reality they are more precise than any version of language could be, and they embrace, moreover, a great deal more besides.[19]

Only people who have never produced a profound thought assert that we know how to say exactly what we mean in all circumstances; the language does not exist which could make this marvel possible. …  What about that which goes beyond all possible forms of expression, and yet is the most real portion of reality—the objects of metaphysical thought and of the innermost religious experience?  These things simply cannot be rendered in our languages.  But they can be represented in Chinese writing.  It is possible to place symbols . . . side by side in such a way that they include, as well as qualify, the infinite, just as an open angle defines infinite space.[20]

One of the direct consequences of the symbolic character of the Chinese language is the Chinese notion of thought as an independent autonomy of essentially symbolic meanings or significance.  To use a Fregean phrase, the Chinese, and the Orientals generally, are more concerned with “Sinn” (sense) than with “Bedeutung” (reference); or to use a Wittgensteinian phrase, the Chinese are more interested in what can only be “shown” than in what can be “said”:  As the Chinese proverb puts it, “One showing is worth a hundred sayings.”[21] Let us consider what Keyserling says about oriental thought:

Oriental thought, as far as it does not coincide with ours, generally does not aim at all at the explanation of an object; it gives immediate expression to a Meaning, independent of the outer world.  We, on the contrary, whatever the problems be that we attack, aim at the grasping of an object in the objective sense. … There is no doubt that one can convey to a person of understanding what one means by an apparent untruth, just as well as or even better under certain circumstances than by an exact and correct statement of the case.  Women and diplomatists know this well enough in the West, and they act accordingly. …  Thus we Westerners even ask the question, which to every Oriental philosopher must appear absurd—whether God has an ‘objective1 existence, .... Thought, for the typical Occidental, has no autonomous meaning.[22]

….Wherever thought in our Western sense is in question, the Orientals are inferior to us.  To them thoughts are independent forms of life of essentially symbolic significance.[23]


D. Art and Philosophy

 In the light of the above observations on the symbolic character of the Chinese language, Keyserling proceeds to comment on the relations of poetry and philosophy, saying, “It is typical of the West that its poets are profounder than its philosophers, even where these must be recognized as deep.”  Because

Poets under every circumstance give immediate expression to the powers which sway them, whereas it is typical that our philosophers penetrate to the inside from without and thus are not able to give immediate expression to things inward. The metaphysical reality is something essentially and purely inward, to be understood from within only. The West has never quite clearly been aware of this.[24]

Here Keyserling is echoing Santayana in Three Philosophical Poets (Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe).  “The philosopher, in his best moments, is a poet,” and Irvin Edman in Arts and the Man concerning the relation of philosophy to poetry in their fundamental aspects.  Take Santayana first:

In philosophy itself investigation and reasoning are only preparatory and servile parts, means to an end. They terminate in insight, or what in the noblest sense of the word may be called theory, qewria—a steady contemplation of all things in their order and worth.  Such contemplation is imaginative. No one can reach it who has not enlarged his mind and tamed his heart. A philosopher who attains it is, for the moment, a poet; and a poet who turns his practiced and passionate imagination on the order of all things, or on anything in the light of the whole, is for that moment a philosopher.[25]

Here Santayana is echoing Matthew Arnold’s often cited dictum on Sophocles, “He saw life steadily and saw it whole.”[26]  Next, we turn to Irwin Edman on the relations of art and philosophy.

The artist when he ceases to be merely a gifted and trifling craftsman turns out to be, in his very choice of themes, in his selection of materials, in his total and residual effect, a commentator on life and existence; in his immediate and imaginative way he is a philosopher.  The philosopher, constructing through the apparatus of definition and demonstration, or of discovery and synthesis, a complete vision of life and existence, is making a canvas of the whole of experience, composing an intellectual symphony, and fabricating a poem, however much his language be prose.  ‘Philosophy,’ Socrates is made to say by Plato, ‘is a finer kind of music,’ and like serious music, however unmoved the mind that went to its making, it is moving.[27]

Josiah Royce’s view that “Artists are often unconscious philosophers, but great philosophers, … are never more than consummate artists”[28] is further elaborated by Edman with a Deweyan overtone:

Latterly thinkers as different as John Dewey and Havelock Ellis have come to conceive of experience itself as an art, and art as simply a generalized name for intelligence.

There are, finally, two senses in which the business of philosophy and that of art in their major conceptions flow into each other. All art is, in the first place, a creation and construction.  So, too, for all its other claims, is philosophy.[29]

The philosopher, like the artist, is at once selective and constructive.[30]

It thus becomes evident that all great philosophers East and West, in their best moments, are great artists or poets.  In this highest sense, Confucius as well as Goethe, Zhuangzi as well as Plato, are at once great philosophers and great poets as well.  Chinese philosophy is primarily a philosophy of vision, and Chinese metaphysics a metaphysics of experience.  Indeed, it is based on a vision of the world through immediate experience; its meaning or significance can only be grasped, in Keyserling’s phrase, “from within,” rather than “from without.” Keyserling’s philosophy of culture, like Cassirer’s, is essentially a philosophy of significance or symbolic meaning.  All great philosophers in East and West have been aware of the importance of “the inward,” yet the Orientals have never been so much engaged, as the Westerners have, in the search for “the outward.” The search for “the outward” and the tendency of “penetrating the inside from without,” turn out to be so typical of Western tradition that the carings for the “inward” remain the business of a silent minority, such as of artists, of religious thinkers, or of mystics.  For the Orientals, on the contrary, the pole of emphasis is just reversed.  This is what we mean by saying that what is only the exception for the West proves to be a rule for the Oriental, and vice versa.  For Oriental thinkers, nothing seems to be further from the truth than the so-called “referential-theory of meaning,” because, from the very beginning, they have a totally different notion of thought.  As regards this different notion of thought in connection with meaning, Keyserling observes:

The Oriental notion of thought doubtless relates to something real.  Now this reality can only be defined in abstract as Meaning, as Sense, as Significance.  Every symbol as such is a material thing, to whatever plane of matter it may belong; for sounds, words, notions and ideas, viewed as formations, are phenomena in exactly the same sense as solid bodies.  But significance in itself cannot be understood within the frame of an empirical category; Significance alone is what we must call spiritual.  This is true of the meaning of a thought in contradistinction to its embodiment, of Significance of a dream, of a myth, of a work of art in contradistinction to its actual facts.  This ‘Significance’ is demonstrably the creator of its expression.  It follows that the Oriental notion of thought as an independent and autonomous power is well founded in principle as well as in fact.[31]


E.  Keyserling and Russell on Eastern and Western Culture

On the basis of the distinction between the Eastern and Western notions of thought, with their emphasis on the “inward” and the “outward,” respectively, Keyserling draws his insight into the distinction of two types of culture:  the Being-culture of the East, and the Ability-culture of the West.  The Western culture, he argues, is a culture of Ability, aiming always at the conquest of Nature, while the Eastern culture is a culture of Being, aiming always at the complete fulfillment of one’s own Being through self-realization.  Consequently, the Western world has created more “civilized savages” than the East.  “If mankind wishes to attain a higher stage of insight,” thus concludes Keyserling, “it must get beyond both the East and the West.”[32]

It is of interest to note that what Keyserling has said about the essential difference between the Eastern and Western types of culture goes in parallel with Russell’s insightful observation on “Chinese and Western Civilization Contrasted” in The Problem of China (1921), though each attacks the same problem from different angles and speaks in different terms.  The Being-type of culture of the East for Keyserling, as developed out of the creative impulses, has been characterized by Russell in terms of “creation without possession; action without assertion; development without domination.” The Ability-type of culture of the West, as developed out of the possessive impulses, is for Russell a colossal example of the blind drive (avidyā) for “possession, assertion, and domination.”

Whereas Keyserling says “If mankind wishes to attain to a higher stage of insight, it must get beyond both the East and the West,” Russell declares:  “In fact, we have quite as much to learn from them as they from us.” and “The distinctive merit of our civilization, I should say, is the scientific method; the distinctive merit of the Chinese is a just conception of the ends of life.  It is these two that one must hope to see gradually uniting.”[33]  Russell even succeeds in trying to sum up in one phrase the main differences between the East and the West by saying that the East, in the main, aims at enjoyment; while the West, at power.  One accounts for the possibility of the Being-type of culture of the East; the other leads to the Ability-type of culture of the West.  And the distinctive merit of the Being-culture is best expressed in the spirit of their art, and above all, in what E. A. Burtt calls “the art of living wisely.” 

The above observation may seem to be unfair to the Westerners, because Lord Russell and Count Keyserling have merely provided us with a sharp contrast between what the latter calls the Unwisdom of the West with what is the Wisdom of the East.  A reversed contrast of course can be made, and was made, for example, by John Dewey’s disciple Hu Shi nearly a century ago (during the May-4th Movement in China, 1919), but that is beyond the scope of this dissertation. To sum up, we may conclude by saying with Russell:  In art, the Chinese aim at being exquisite; in life, they aim at being reasonable; and in the art of living wisely, they aim at being both.


F.  Réumé;  Northrop on Eastern and Western Cultures

In the foregoing discussions, we have started with Whitehead’s statement on the underdevelopment of science in China in contrast to her high achievement in art, in literature, and her philosophy of life; also, we have tried to locate the problem by reference to the Chinese will against clarity and certainty; the will against system; the notion of thought as an independent autonomy of significant meaning; and the mental habit of “grasping the inside from within,” as opposed to the Western tendency of “penetrating the inside from without.” All these are intended to outline the contrast between what Keyserling calls the Being-type of culture of the East and the Ability-type of culture of the West.  In this section, however, we are to sum up the findings of previous discussions, in more specific terms, by reference to Northrop’s observation in The Meeting of East and West: that the Western culture is primarily logico-intellectually oriented, while the Eastern culture is found to be basically intuitive-aesthetically oriented in character. Apparently, this is a too broad and over-generalized distinction, to which objections may well be raised from both sides of East and West.  However, if taken as a general characterization, it proves to be sound and helpful.

 In The Meeting of East and West, Northrop discusses in detail the “Aesthetical Character of Oriental Culture,” taking the “intuitive aesthetic character” as the unity of Oriental culture. For brevity’s sake, we shall concentrate our comments on two points in Northrop’s treatise;  (a) the “character of fluidity” as reflected in Chinese psychology; and (b) the “immediately apprehended aesthetical continuum,” where, according to Northrop, lies the “genius of the East.” Both are due to the peculiar character of Chinese language.


(a)    The Character of “Fluidity” of Chinese Language

       as Reflected in Chinese Psychology

What is of particular interest in Northrop’s book is his account of the relation of Chinese language to Chinese psychology. He speaks of the “superlative degree of fluidity” in the Chinese language which expresses itself in some aspects of Chinese psychology (or mentality):

Each stroke and character having its own independent, purely denotative, immediately experienced referent, and these strokes and their compounded characters being associated merely as direct experience in a given particular instance happens to associate them, the Chinese language gains a superlative degree of fluidity, a capacity to convey the unique particularity, nuance, and precisely refined richness of the specific, individual experience which probably no other mature language in the world today achieves.  This shows itself also in the Chinese psychology.  It is doubtful if any other people have such capacity as have the Chinese, having visited, lived with, and immediately experienced the culture and psychological reactions of another people, to put themselves in the intuitive standpoint of that people.  A Chinese student, after living a brief period upon the Left Bank in Paris, becomes often more French than the French.  In the United States, similarly, he shows a capacity to catch the exact shade of American humour and American slang to a degree which no Englishman, even though he is supposed to speak our language, can ever hope to achieve. But there is more than their linguistic symbolism behind this capacity of the Chinese.  It goes back to, and is supported and sustained by, their ancient philosophical and religious intuitions.[34]

 Northrop’s observation, as quoted above, is generally correct and sound, with the exception perhaps of the present author himself.[35]


(b) The Immediately Apprehended Aesthetical Continuum

 As noted before, “grasping the inside from within” is a mental habit so characteristic of the Chinese way that it finds its expression in the spirit both of Chinese philosophy and Chinese art.  As reflected in art, it represents the Chinese will against verisimilitude. As a rule, all great Chinese artists in their creative activities are motivated by a sort of “expressionist urge.” Typical of this attitude and tendency is the remark made by the famous Painter Ni Zan (1301-1374), one of the four great masters in the Yuan dynasty:  “The bamboos I painted are expressions of the blithe spirit of my life out of the depth of my soul.”[36]  And throughout the whole Chinese art tradition, realism is never favored with enthusiasm,—which accounts partly for the apparent lack of perspective in most of Chinese painting, in which, as with Picasso, there is always a sort of deliberate distortion. As the poet-painter Su Dongpo (1036-1101) puts it, “To judge a painting by its verisimilitude shows the mental level of a child.”[37]  Both George Rowley and Stephen C. Pepper call attention to the use of “moving focus” in Chinese painting in contrast to the “static focus” as distinguishing the Chinese from Western art.[38]

 On the other hand, as reflected in the spirit of Chinese philosophy, this tendency of “grasping from within” expresses itself both in the theory of meaning and the criterion of truth. As has been said before, the Chinese has never favored any “referential theory of meaning.” And the most approximate equivalent to the Chinese view would be Kierkegaard’s “subjectivity criterion of truth.” All these can be explained as ultimately a matter of aesthetical attitude cultivated out of an artistic habit, which, according to Northrop, is the habit of enjoying “the immediately apprehended aesthetical continuum,” and is largely due to the ideographic symbolism of the Chinese language.

… instead of beginning, as does a student of painting in a traditional Western art school, with the laborious copying of the three-dimensional, geometrical casts of Greek statues, and then passing on to the three-dimensional living human figure in the nude, to master the use of perspective which the Western postulationally formulated science of geometrical optics has defined, the Oriental painter starts with the elementary brush strokes used in the writing of countless symbols of the Chinese language.  Since these symbols often merely put on paper in an immediately apprehended form certain characteristics of items of direct experience, it is an easy and natural transition for the painter to pass from the mastery of the strokes used in constructing the symbols of the Chinese language to the painting of the richer, more complete, immediately experienced aesthetic materials which these symbols frequently denote and from which, often, they have been abstracted.[39]

What Northrop has said above about the making of Chinese artists equally applies to the making of Chinese thinkers, because for them, as for the artists, the first thing they must acquire “is the capacity to grasp the immediately apprehended aesthetic factors in the immediately experienced, aesthetic continuum in their purity and all alone.”[40]  The ideographic symbolism of Chinese language in writing has a great fashioning and shaping effect upon the development, unconsciously as it were, of the sensitivity of creative minds.  In this respect, the mentality of Chinese thinkers is shaped essentially in the same way as their artist brethens.  In both cases, there is always the spirit of symbolic expression at work,—in philosophy as well as in art.  In most fundamental aspects, one is indistinguishable from the other.  Though this character of symbolism is something peculiar to the Chinese language, it would be an over-exaggeration to say that this tendency for symbolism is confined to the Chinese alone.  Indeed, symbolism is the mark of all great works of art in all great cultural traditions At best, however, we can say that the writing form of the Chinese language is peculiarly favorable to the development of such a tendency in Chinese artists and thinkers.  Pepper says:

The Orientals are particularly deft with . . . narrative movement of lines.  The flexible brush they habitually use is the most sensitive of all drawing instruments to the movements and emotions of the hand.  It spreads in thickness with the pressure of excitement, thins to a thread at the thought of tenderness. . . . The Chinese and the Japanese have much to teach the West on the use of line.[41]

Taken merely at its face value, the above statement of Pepper’s sounds like a sort of technical advice addressed to students of art alone. But, if we look more deeply into the matter, it tells us a great deal about the secret of Oriental wisdom. In this brief statement is epitomized not only the gist of Northrop’s lengthy discourse on “the aesthetical character of Oriental culture,” but also, what is of direct importance to our study in this dissertation, an enlightening clue to the understanding of the temperamental affinity between the Chinese and Whiteheadean world views.  Interpreted symbolically, each stroke, each line by the brush, in so far as it is immediately apprehended, represents a sense of “vivid value,” and, as with Whitehead, “The habit of art is the habit of enjoying vivid value.” Art in its general sense is “any selection by which the concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realizable by them.” As Whitehead uses it, “the sense of value,” “the sense of importance,” is but another name for “wisdom.” And wisdom is “the fruit of a balanced development of individuality” (of both intellect and intuition), which, in its proper sense, is an “aesthetic growth.”  Yet, to be sure, what is most wanted in modern education is “the appreciation of an infinite variety of values achieved by an organism in its proper environment.” He argues, “When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality.”  In The Aims of Education he argues for “the sense of value” most eloquently:

The ultimate motive power, alike in science, in morality, and in religion, is the sense of value, the sense of importance. It takes the various forms of wonder, of curiosity, of reverence, of worship, of tumultuous desire for merging personality in something beyond itself. This sense of value imposes on life incredible labours, and apart from it life sinks back into the passivity of its lower types. The most penetrating exhibition of this force is the sense of beauty, the aesthetic sense of realized perfection. This thought leads me to ask, whether in our modern education we emphasize sufficiently the function of art.[42]

 To put the matter more explicitly, we may say with Whitehead, that the most penetrating, the most magnificent, and the most sublime exhibition of this force, consists in suggesting a bold, comprehensive world hypothesis, which is the exhibition on a grand scale of one’s sense of value, of beauty, of importance.  Indeed, “Art concerns more than sunset.”[43]  So does philosophy.  This is no less true of Whitehead than of Chinese metaphysics at its core:  In either case, we find a value-centric system of Weltsanschauungen as Lebensanschauungen, viz., as something to live by and for.


[*] Editor’s Note: First presented to the Symposium on “Ways of thinking: East and West,” Society of Asian & Comparative Philosophy in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association, April 22-24, 1993, Chicago, Illinois, U. S. A.  Based on Section 2, Chapter I, of Suncrates’ Dissertation: Chinese Metaphysics and Whitehead, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL. (1971), it is slightly expanded here and revised throughout.




[1] George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting (Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 3.


[2]Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York:  The Free Press, 1969), p. 6.


[3] Bertrand Russell, “Chinese and Western Civilization Conttrasted,” selected in  Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn (eds.), The Baisc Writings of Bertrand Russell (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), pp.  551-552.


[4] Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living (New York:  The John Day Co., 1937), pp. 159-160.


[5] D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1965), p. 1.


[6] Fong Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1962), p. 10.  Jin Yuelin was Professor of Logic at Peking University, among whose eminent students may be mentioned the great logician Hao Wang, Director, Institute  for Computer Science, Harvard.


[7] Gilbert Murray, Humanist Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1964), p. 120.


[8] Joseph S. Wu, “Contemporary Western Philosophy from an Eastern Viewpoint,” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 4 (December, 1968), 491.  Cf. Abraham Kaplan, The New World of Philosophy (New York:  Randon House, 1965), p. 58:  “... more and more philosophers are asking whether clarity and precision are enough and, even more, whether the gain in philosophic knowledge compensates for the loss in philosophic wisdom.”


[9] Wu, “Contemporary western Philosophy  from n Eastern Viewpoint,” 493.


[10] Thomé H. Fang, “The Alienation of Man in Religion Philosophy, and Philosophical Anthropology,” Proceedings of the 5th East and West Philosophers’ Conference, Honolulu, Hawaii, July, 1969; included in Fang, Creativity in Man and Nature: A Collection of Philosophical Essays (Taipei:  Linking Publishing Co., Ltd., 1980), p. 85.


[11]Karl Jaspers, “Existenzphilosophie,” see Walter Kaufmann (ed.), Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Meridian Books, 1968), p. 164.


[12]School of Wisdom” is a term deliberately chosen by Keyserling because of the paradoxical character it implies.  For wisdom, he believes, cannot be taught from without.


[13] Herman Keyserling, Creative Understanding (New York:  Harper & Harpers Publishers, 1929), pp. 4-5.


[14] Plato, “The Seventh Letter,” Plato, the Collected Dialogues, trans. by L. A. Post and ed. By E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964). p. 1589.  Similarly it was said of the great Zen master Huang Po (d. 850) that, when asked by a disciple how to get enlightened in prajñ­ā (wisdom), instead of answering anything, he stood up and went to the rest room. When asked again the sane question, he said, “Even toileting must be done by oneself!”


[15] Tang Junyi, Original Teachings of Chinese Philosophy (Hong Kong: Young Sun Publishing Co., 1966), 2 Volumes, Vol. I, Chapters VII-VIII, pp. 203-277.


[16] Ibid., p. 207.


[17]Tang, op. cit., p. 208; translation, the present author’s.


[18] D. T. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 1.


[19] Hermann Keyserling, The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, trans by J. Holroyd Reece (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925), Vol. II, pp. 32-33.


[20] Ibid., p. 31.

[21] Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), p. 9.


[22] Keyserling, Creative Understanding, pp. 911.


[23] Ibid.,  p. 12.


[24] Ibid., p. 13.


[25] George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (New York: A Doubleday Anchor Book, 1938), pp. 17-18.


[26] Cf. G. T. W. Patrick, Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. Inc., 1928), p. 2.


[27] Irvin Edman, Arts and the Man (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1939), p. 121.


[28] Josiah Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1896), p. 175.


[29] Edman, Arts and the Man, p. 148.


[30] Ibid., 150.

[31] Keyserling, Creative Understanding, p. 19.  The phrase “Being-culture” as used here by Keyserling may sound abstruse; it may, however, be interpreted in terms of what Chung-ying Cheng calls “Intrinsic Humanism,” what Joseph S. Wu calls “Human centrality,” in their recent studies in Chinese philosophy.  See Inquiry, Vol. 14, Nos. 1-2 (Summer, 1971), 8, 130, and what Master Fang calls “miiao xing” (self-fulfillment, self-realization).


[32]Ibid., p. 23.


[33]Russell, “Chinese and Western Civilization Contrasted,” p. 347.


[34] Northrop, The Meeting of East and West, pp. 318-319.


[35] The present author, however, may surprise Northrop by saying that in spite of all his foreign studies and experiences, his forty-five years’ stay in the U. S., he still remains hopelessly a Chinese; he is passionately Chinese just as it was admitted by Russell himself that after all he was passionately English (see B. Russell, Autobiography, III, p. 18).


[36] Fang, The Chinese View of Life, p. 224.


[37] Cf. Lin Yutang, The Chinese Theory of Art (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967), p. 92.


[38] Stephen C. Pepper, “Review on Principles of Chinese Painting by George Rowley,’ 331.


[39] Northrop, The Meeting of East and West, p. 317. 2Ibid.. p. 317.


[40] Ibid., p. 317.


[41] Pepper, Principles of Art Appreciation,  p. 187.

[42] Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), pp. 62-63.


[43] Cf. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp. 198-200.