May 24, 2009

A Problem with Russell's Presentation of Daoism in The Problem of China

Oh, dear Russell! Philosophers have spent so much time, even in his lifetime, picking his life's work to pieces. Obviously it's hard to avoid collision with someone as prolific as Russell, but nevertheless I continually note the grossest concepts of his accounts in philosophy of mathematics, epistemology, and philosophy of language having been undone, some by history's greats and Russell's own contemporaries -- Wittgenstein, Gödel, Strawson, and Austin -- and some by those soon to be consumed in philosophy's history -- Kripke, Putnam, and Searle. Of course, I wouldn't dare to define Russell by the sum of his refutations (What is philosophy but a mass grave of ideas buried and unearthed by the few survivors above?), especially not for someone so open to changing his worldview upon meditation on (at least apparently) sounder reasonings provided him.

His 1922 work The Problem of China, as would be expected for numerous reasons, has regular, but forgivable errors. It means, among other things, that yet another of Russell's pursued subtopics, the history of philosophy, is due for some refutation. For now, I'll only attack one misconception, one that struck me as a significant misrepresentation of Chinese philosophy. It deals with his treatment of Daoism, and in particular Laozi's Daoism, a misstep that he takes in the following paragraph:

"The oldest known Chinese sage is Lao-Tze, the founder of Taoism. "Lao Tze" is not really a proper name, but means merely "the old philosopher." He was (according to tradition) an older contemporary of Confucius, and his philosophy is to my mind far more interesting. He held that every person, every animal, and every thing has a certain way or manner of behaving which is natural to him, or her, or it, and that we ought to conform to this way ourselves and encourage others to conform to it (The Problem of China, Chapter 9)."

"We ought to conform to this way ourselves and encourage others to conform to it." Despite Russell issuing a claim inconsistent with its own paragraph, I also find this a problem among Russell and other Western philosophers who would dismiss a text like the Daodejing as one lacking a cohesive argument.

The inconsistency? Well, the natural way of being would be hard to make imperative or obligatory under Laozi's treatment. "Naturalness" (自然) is not something we can be directed to do. For Laozi, this is backwards logic, as evidenced by Chapter 64:

"Therefore the sage desires the undesired, not prizing hard-to-get riches; studying the unstudied, turning back to what everyone passes by; assisting the nature of ten thousand things, yet not daring to act. (是以聖人欲不欲,不貴難得之貨;學不學,復眾人之所過;以輔萬物之自然,而不敢為。)"

"Naturalness," as it is connoted here, means not doing what one is compelled to do by external influences except those that are already of nature. For Laozi, the notion of social pressure and social expectation is wholly "unnatural," a byproduct of a faulty attempt to use popular value judgments to order the world to some infallibly comprehensible and evaluable entity. Because of this, Laozi's own ethics must resort to the firmest ethical naturalism. Laozi, rather than actually trying to get people to act naturally, is instead conveying what results from natural living, which include many things, but in this particular excerpt include walking away from the motives of a collective which asserts either moral authority or economic certainty on another's action (i.e. that claims to know what someone should do or what should should want). As a clear deductive argument will show, using descriptive ethics as a normative system relies on mere assertion fallacy, and for reasons built on logic, can't be trusted as the arbiter of well-reasoned normative ethics.

An Argument Proving that Humans and Sheep Have Different IQ's:

  1. Appealing to the authority of a group without reasoned basis in fact for value means by definition appealing to the common value judgments held by a group of individuals.
  2. Individuals having common value judgments does not imply that they have a common source.
  3. If value judgments do have a common source, that source is the enforcement of a value judgment made by another individual.
  4. If value judgments do not have a common source, then separate individuals arrived at their value judgments independently.
  5. Either one of the sources of value judgments implies that the authority of a value judgment arises from an individual's assertion of value judgment.
  6. Unless a value judgment is based on more than some mere personal insistence of some value judgment, then that value judgment commits a mere assertion fallacy.
  7. Therefore, relying on what someone insists without appealing to some other facts relies solely on the authority that the speaker presumes, which is, regardless of population (ad populum), a mere assertion fallacy.

We can't trust people to tell us what morality is unless the basis for that morality is substantiated by empirical facts or facts of definition that are not established by the authority of the speaker. However, the facts of definition, unless substantiated by non-empirical, but still insurmountable intuitions (like those of mathematics and logic), will only earn their merit by appealing to the most universal, and as a corollary most general empirical truths that can be stated with the great disinterest. In fact, the empirical facts on which Daoist morality lies are so basic and un-insightful that one's mere capability of perception and conception are enough to account for them. The few boring, humdrum, yet most reliable truths of the world are what inspire the very distinct ethics present in the Daodejing. It is naturalistic, but not in any Western sense, since it's clear that non-cognitivist positions can still take root in Laozi's notion of what it means to assert a moral statement. I'll avoid my take on Laozi's metaethics for now, as it is very difficult to judge precisely using the Analytic delineations. The Daodejing in some lines sounds intuitionistic, in others subjectivist, and in others emotivist and morally skeptical.

What is certain, though, is that Laozi is treating his morality as a matter of fact, but not because of his own egotistical presumption of matter-of-factness. It couldn't possibly be natural, not to the whole of nature, anyway, to impose what Laozi poses as Virtue in any way. In fact, Laozi's ethics is so truly consequentialist that it can't be understood in an imperative linguistic mood. Imperatives bring us back to the masses, and thus is more about control (the speech act of influencing behavior) than the truth of Virtue. The authority of Laozi's ethics, in theory, is supposed to be the unspoken intuition of the reality of the whole universe. The natural morality, for Laozi, does not require a language (and in his view, is better off without it), since awareness of morality conceptually isn't necessary for a morality that is truly innate, just like we don't have to talk about vision in order to see colors.

For Laozi and the Daoists, true Virtue is sympathetic in the purely autonomic, anatomical sense, not always in the social sense. The sympathetic Virtue of Laozi's ethics is one that Russell didn't consider in his brief assessment of the Old Master. Russell, though a champion advocate for "looking only and solely at what are the facts," in his short time in China, had not uncovered the facts of Daoism quite so precisely as he had uncovered facts in his other pursuits. His thanks belongs, instead, to the effort of presenting what he believed the facts to be in a straightforward manner, not necessarily to pronate himself to contradiction by other researchers and (Sino)philosophers, but to give a preliminarily fair assessment of a philosophy quite foreign to him and his Analytic tradition. Only in the outline of his errors will a sincere advance to Analytic Sinophilosophy be possible, and so I commit one more error to the earth and stand on the mound for now.

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