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Fundamental operations of mind, Western & Chinese

This article is excerpted from Western Civilization with Chinese Comparisons, by Professor John G. Blair and Professor Jerusha Hull McCormack(2003), Fudan University Press.

Below in condensed and abstract form are fundamental presumptions which are likely to guide intellectual operations. In the Western case, these were first made explicit by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE. In the Chinese case, there was little felt need to conceptualize the “what” of intellectual operations. Hence the very existence of such a comparison in the context of WCwCC is itself a manifestation of Western civilization.

Western presumptions

1. Law of Identity

This law holds that if anything is true, then it is true; thus, A equals A. In other words, everything must be identical with itself. Gottfried Leibniz(1646-1716) expressed this idea as “everything is what it is.”
By implication, then, each thing has a unitary identity, its”essence”, and an unambiguous name [always a noun]. If something appears not a unified entity, it should be analyzed into its parts [its elements, constituents, or components] which themselves should be analyzable [broken down] into unitary entities.

2. Law of Non-contradiciton

This law declares that no statement can be both true and false; thus, A cannot equal not-A. For example, “a bird is not a non-bird” is an expression of the law of non-contradiction because “bird” and “non-bird” are contradictory; hence, they cannot both be true. Another common expression of the law is that “contradictory statements [e.g., A is B, A is not B] cannot both be true” or that “ it is impossible for the same thing to be both true and false at the same time.” Aristotle declared the law of non-contradiction to be the first and most certain principle of logic.
This rule lies at the basis of Western “categories,” that is , conceptual boxes into which things must be seen to fit unambiguously in order to produce consistent and “true” statement.

3. Law of the Excluded Middle

Aristotle said that “between the two members of a contradiction, there is no middle term.” This law expresses the rule that any statement is either true or false; thus, something is A or B, and not A and B. A common expression of this law of the excluded middle is “A is either B or not- B.” For example, “a person must either be a student or a non-student” because “student” and “non-student” are mutually contradictory and complementary so that anybody must belong to one and only one of these two categories. Another expression of the law of the excluded middle says that “of two contradictory judgments [A-is-B OR A-is-not-B] the one must be true, the other false.”
This presumption leads to strong and often inflexible differences being drawn between opposing categories, for example, “good” and “evil”. “Versus” often marks binary oppositions.

Chinese presumptions

1.Principle of Change

This principle holds that reality is a process. It does not stand still but is in constant flux. According to Chinese folk belief, everything is what it is only temporarily. Inconsistency in reasoning is not a grievous fault, because changing one’s mind may be the wisest thing to do at one time or another. Because life is constantly becoming something else, “reality” is dynamic and flexible; the concepts that reflect such a reality must also be changeable and interactive rather than being objective, fixed, and identifiable entities.

2. Principle of Contradiction

This principle states that reality is not precise or cut-and-dried but is full of contradictions. Because change is constant, contradiction is constant. Old and new, good and bad, strong and weak, and so on coexist in everything. One of the oldest mandatory books for literate Chinese was the Yijin, in which the principle of contradiction is clearly fundamental. Yang and yin shift and interact in ways which are difficult to predict but which always involve both as complementary opposites. For example, one’s back is classified as yang when one’s front is seen as yin; but one’s chest is yang as compared with one’s abdomen.
In short, no thing is what it is by essence but only in relation to some other thing in immediate comparison to it. Chinese thinking is situational.

3. Principle of Holism

This principle could be said to constitute the essence of Chinese thinking. As a consequence of the principles of change and contradiction, it holds that nothing is isolated and independent, but all is connected. If we really want to know something fully, we must know all of its relations- how it affects and is affected by everything else - the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Anything regarded in isolation is distorted because parts are meaningful only in their relations to the whole, like individual musical notes embedded in a melody.
Human individuals in a holistic world cannot be understood as individuals. They always exist in relation to others, for example, in the family: all are seniors or juniors, even among their peers (elder or younger among sons or daughters).
Differences, then, are perceived in function of the larger contexts through which all elements are related.

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Taoism and Western Culture

DeTao Masters Academy