The following is my keynote speech at CCPEA 2018 (Fourth Conference on Contemporary Philosophy in East Asia). It’s about ways of engaging philosophy from East Asia. In it, I put forward an idea of philosophy as a civic enterprise, which gives an outline of the philosophical tasks I hope to achieve. I thought that it might be a good idea to adapt that speech for my webpage as a way of introducing myself. Here goes.
Previously, I spent most of my research time on the philosophy of mind and language, and cognitive linguistics. Years ago, I picked up political philosophy again, and began to rethink what sort of philosophy I should engage in, or develop, given today’s epistemic and political situation. Let me briefly summarize what I have gradually come to perceive. Taiwan is a young democracy, and has begun to face problems of value conflict and socially divisive political disagreement. One conspicuous problem is that, on public and political issues, people who uphold different values are losing patience over how to reason with one another. There are several reasons that led to this problematic situation. One of the reasons, I think, is philosophical. At the risk of oversimplification, it may briefly be characterized as follows: When people frame the contested issues differently, especially when their viewpoints are radically different from one another, one party’s reason may not count as a reason at all from another party’s point of view, and the barriers to mutual understanding seem insurmountable.
As a philosopher by training, I am in the habit of looking for dilemmas. I hope that I am not the proverbial child with a hammer in hand who sees everything he looks at as a nail. Anyway, let me give you a rough idea of the dilemma I have in mind. In a democracy facing intractable value conflicts and deep political disagreements, people who hold different views may eventually give up reasoning with one another, and engage in manipulative strategies for winning elections or getting political power. But as citizens of a constitutional democracy, we owe each other justifying reasons for political actions. A democratic process that defies the honest practice of giving and asking for reasons is likely to degenerate into power struggles. However, in the case of deep political disagreement, we cannot merely urge people to act on reason, since it is the very practice of giving and asking for reasons that is in danger. Many philosophers, for example, those who embrace the ideal of the Enlightenment, are likely to argue that we appeal to public reason to solve or dissolve the difficult situation. However, instead of solving or dissolving the difficult situation, the use of public reason draws attention away from the serious problems that are likely to arise from it. Put differently, the use of public reason blinds us to the real problems we are supposed to solve. But facing this difficult situation, what else can we do without appealing to public reason?
The problem just described is not unique to Taiwan. It’s become a worldwide phenomenon. So let me try to put it in a broader perspective. The Enlightenment, which has inspired us to fulfil human potential by calling us to think, to explore, and to take up responsibility, was a turning point in philosophy. The Age of Enlightenment, sometimes known as the Age of Reason, is optimistic about human reason. However, we are now in an age of pluralism, in which we have constantly experienced the limit of our thinking and reasoning, particularly regarding questions of ethics and values, like what is important in life and which principles should guide social decision making. One way to put it is this: no matter how deep our insights are, and no matter how rigorous our arguments come to be, it is to be anticipated that someone is out there, holding an opposing viewpoint, which is based on equally deep insights and supported by equally rigorous arguments.
Pluralism is a problematic heritage. On the one hand, pluralism is the fruit of modern democratization, which contrasts with aristocracy, tyranny and dictatorship, for under those systems only a small group of people are empowered to speak and rule. Instead, liberty and equality have become the common goal of democratic societies. And democratic societies are societies in which individuals, regardless of their worth and status, have the right to freedom of opinion and expression. More often than not, they express themselves from different perspectives, and frame their ideas differently. Although, overall, that is good for free societies, it should be noted that sometimes the differences are radical. Now, on the other hand, pluralism is a problem because multiple perspectives may be in tension with each other, and the ways people frame their ideas may eventually lead them into deep disagreements and irresolvable value conflicts despite the ways they frame their ideas may be initially and authentically paved with good intentions. I regard the deep disagreements and irresolvable value conflicts as the core issue of pluralism.
At this point it is worth reminding that philosophers are in the same quagmire, even if they frame their ideas and formulate them in highly elaborate ways. Moreover, philosophy as an academic discipline has been swarming with theories. Any parties involved in deep disagreements, or caught up in some irresolvable value conflicts, can back their positions with reasoned arguments and, like it or not, summon reinforcements from philosophical theories available on the “philosophy market.” Therefore, we philosophers, as a community, have to ask what we are doing when we supply all those theories, and are currently adding more, to the philosophy market.
I proposed a way of doing philosophy, which I called “civic philosophy,” （公民哲學）to tackle the aforementioned difficult problem. In contrast to the Enlightenment aspiration towards the heights of human wisdom, I propose to redefine the goals of philosophy from a civic perspective and to initiate a shift from the idea of philosophy as a human endeavour to the idea of philosophy as a civic enterprise. The proposed shift is by no means a shift to totally abandon the idea of philosophy as a human endeavour. It is, instead, an invitation to a civic negotiation of human values. One important step in the civic negotiation is to highlight the pivotal status of practical wisdom. Theories are important, to be sure, and building a philosophical theory do make a contribution. But the difficult situation we are in is not answerable by adding one more theory to today’s philosophy market. Practical wisdoms, particularly when they are refined and filtered through civic lenses, may give us leverage to improve the situation.
I avail myself of Confucian practical wisdom, particularly that wisdom that has already been embedded in everyday life, and present to you some examples of how one may engage philosophy by redeploying the practical wisdoms in ways that enable one to meet theories that are challenging and important, and to confront the core issue of pluralism. It is not my intention to add one more substantive theory to the philosophy market. Rather, I argue for ways of reframing ideas that pay close attention to pluralism and ways of coming to terms with the predicament of pluralism through the redeployments of practical wisdom.
Let me at this point remind you of the title of my speech, “Envisioning a way of engaging philosophy from East Asia.” The idea that got me to this title was that, initially, philosophy was considered as a way of life, and the wisdom philosophers aspired after was, at bottom, practical wisdom. But somehow philosophy in the West has become an academic discipline with reasoned arguments and theory-building at its core. And we have followed suit. We don’t have to get to the details of how all these things have been happening. The predicament of pluralism we face today is an alarm bell: Now is the time to reframe the way of doing philosophy. My suggestion, which, I admit, is a daring one, is to re-engage the philosophy that embraces reasoned arguments and theory-building at its core from the perspective of civic philosophy briefly described above. In my speech, I wish to show you the first step of how that may be done.
Nonetheless, let us first meet with cognitive scientists who are philosophically minded, and see how they may tackle the limit of human reasoning mentioned above. I do this because I believe that a cognitive science perspective on human reasoning, joined with a critical examination of that very perspective, may give philosophers solid insights into the predicament of pluralism, or help us gain a purchase on what to do with it. I shall limit myself to mentioning two cognitive scientists in my talk.
The first cognitive scientist, also a linguist, is Professor George Lakoff. Professor Lakoff proposes an idea of New Enlightenment, which urges people to acknowledge the cognitive diversity among themselves. In particular, he is concerned with the political divide among American citizens. Based on his cognitive research on how people use prototypical examples and/or metaphors (most of the time, unconsciously) to organize their concepts, frame their reasoning, and build their respective cognitive models that, to an important extent, define their respective ways of seeing the world and feeling the ongoing events in it. Moreover, Lakoff shows, by way of cognitive analysis of everyday and political discourses, how language use, especially metaphoric framing in everyday and political discourses, plays a key part in people’s thinking, feeling, reasoning, and decision making. A simple example that Lakoff used is this: Now, if I ask you “Don’t think of an elephant.” Then, what is in your mind? I bet, you are thinking of an elephant. This is the power of language. If you are an American, you probably also take the hint framed by the figurative use of “elephant” as referring to the Republican Party.
Very, very briefly, and running the risk of oversimplification, Lakoff’s idea can be stated as follows. Most Republicans share Conservative ideals and policies, which are organized around a sophisticated cognitive model in American culture. Lakoff names it the “Strict Father Model.” In this model, the father is a powerful leader, who protects his family, sets strict rules and punishes those who disobey, and, on top of all this, demands self-discipline because at the heart of every successful entrepreneur and responsible citizen is self-discipline. In contrast, most Democrats share Progressive ideals and policies, which are organized around a sophisticated cognitive model in American culture. Lakoff names it the “Nurturant Parent Model.” In this model, parents share the responsibility of raising a family, and they foster hopes, virtues of kindness and caring, and capacities for empathy and mutual understanding.
Seeing the respective distinctive features of the Strict Father Model and the Nurturant Parent Model, I am relying on your discretion to further infer how the policy debates between the Progressives and the Conservatives may have devolved into the political divide in the United States as we have observed today.
Lakoff observes that the Republicans know the importance of family values, frame their discourse in terms of the Strict Father Model, and launch their media strategy accordingly. However, the Democrats still believe in the Enlightenment and rely on the rationality of cost-benefit analysis to get to their voters. Based on his cognitive analysis, Lakoff urges the Democrats to change their discourse strategy: don’t use the Republicans’ language; don’t trap yourselves in their framing. Instead, Democrats should frame their discourse in terms of the Nurturant Parent Model, launch their own media strategy, and fight back.
I am quite sympathetic to Lakoff’s cognitive analysis, but the discourse strategy he proposes, I am sorry to say, is self-defeating, in that his proposal induces an insoluble dilemma: the more the Democrats stop listening to the Republicans, frame the discourse in their own ways, and persistently fight back in that way, the less likely they could consistently demonstrate their progressive core values, such as caring and mutual understanding. In addition to the openly observable discrepancy between their words and actions, that strategy will hurt those people who are already at the bottom of the society and still embrace, probably unconsciously, the Strict Father Model.
It is at this point I wish to remind you of a Confucian practical wisdom: listening to people’s voices, particularly those voices from the bottom of a society. （兼聽則明，下情上達。）I contend that here is an opportunity for us to engage theories through a redeployment of practical wisdom.
The second cognitive scientist, a moral psychologist as well, is Professor Joshua Greene. Professor Greene proposes an evolutionary perspective on human morality. We may start with his remarkable and innovative use of the thought experiment known as the tragedy of the commons. The “tragedy of the commons” is a term used in social science and economics to describe a situation in which shared resources are overly exploited and eventually destroyed by the very people whose livelihoods depend on the shared resources. Greene conjectures that we are the descendants of the tribal peoples who, over an evolutionary time scale, survived the threats of the tragedy of the commons by developing a sense of fairness and ways of getting people to cooperate. From the evolutionary perspective, the tragedy of the commons functions like a filter through which diverse senses of fair cooperation have passed and been built into the neural circuits underlying emotions and feelings, which are the true bases of moralities we find today. Greene enlists the help of another thought experiment, the trolley problem, puts it into an innovative use, and conducts a series of experiments to test his conjecture. I am not a neuroscientist, so let me assume that those experiments, to some extent, corroborate his conjecture, and see what philosophical import Greene draws from his conjecture.
According to Greene, emotions and feelings are apt for relating to people whom we know or are acquainted with. It is not surprising that the moralities based on emotions and feelings are fit for families and local communities. In that sense, they are myopic, and you can see that, because you, as a descendant of a tribal people, know very well the moral difference between (i) seeing a child drowning in a pond you came across and did nothing about it and (ii) hearing children suffering from severe malnutrition in a remote country you had never visited, and you did nothing about it. And the diversity of moralities and their nearsightedness are the root cause of the deep disagreements and irresolvable value conflicts mentioned above.
Given that moralities are myopic and diverse, Greene reminds us of a remarkable invention idea in human history, that is, the utilitarianism invented in the UK in the 18th century. He argues that utilitarianism, or deep pragmatism, which is his revised version of utilitarianism, provides us with ways of thinking through moralities by stepping back from deep disagreements and irresolvable value conflicts, and then coolly calculating the maximum average utility for all. In that sense, deep pragmatism is not one of the moralities, but the metamorality whose cool and rational calculation serves as arbiter of disagreements and conflicts between today’s moral tribes.
It is at this point I wish to mention a Confucian practical wisdom: “The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence” (Mencius, translated by Lau, 2005, p. 38). （惻隱之心，仁之端也。）The feeling and concern for the sufferings of others is not myopic as Greene described. Instead, compassion is a germ, or a sprout, that, figuratively speaking, need watering and cultivating. Or to put it differently, compassion is not the terminus, but the starting point of our moral journey. Greene’s mistake lies in his way of dismissing moral feelings, like compassion, in their initial stages, as if he were plucking them out without having taken into account the importance of moral cultivation. I contend that here is another opportunity for us to engage theories through a redeployment of practical wisdom.
In this speech, I highlight the predicament of pluralism, and try to make sense of it as the crucial turning point from the idea of philosophy as a human endeavour to the idea of philosophy as a civic enterprise. At that turning point, what is needed is not another substantive philosophical theory but a new way of engaging philosophy. Practical wisdoms, particularly when they are already embedded in everyday life and are refined and filtered through civic lenses, may give us leverage to take an initial but critical step of that engagement. This is an ongoing project. I hope that its outlook and the initial step described above may at least look sensible to you.