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Exploring non-western philosophies

In this video, Karyn Lai summarise Confucian and Daoist conceptions of a good life, and discusses how they relate to disability.
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MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Exploring non-Western philosophies.
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KARYN LAI: So in order to understand the good life in Chinese philosophy, we probably should start looking at some of its basic assumptions. And here, I’d like to make a contrast between Chinese and Western philosophy. Whereas dominant traditions in Western philosophy, for instance coming from Plato, emphasise the eternal, and the unchanging, and the absolute, in the Chinese philosophical traditions one of their assumptions is that change is imminent and that we live in a plural world. A plural world signifies that we are one in a world of plurality, that there are different beings in it, there are different elements in it.
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So if you look across some of the early Chinese philosophical texts, and by early I mean pre-200 BC, you’re going to find references to agriculture, to winds, to climate changes, to locusts, insects, monkeys, and human beings. And in the classical texts, that plurality comes through that humans are not the only ones around. In Confucianism, change is imminent. And because change is imminent, what we need to do to secure what’s best for us now and in the future is to cultivate relationships. Because after all, if the world is falling apart, what can you rely on? Better cultivate good relationships so that at the end of the day, there are people who look after you.
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It’s not all self-serving, however, because in Confucian philosophy there is this basic assumption that if I want to do well, I can only do well in a context– in a larger social context. So doing well as a person is always explained in terms of how a person does well in relationships, as well as within the context they live in. A good life in Confucianism would consist in nurturing good relationships, effective relationships, and also helping others around you. And so it looks beyond the self. There can be go-getters, but go-getter is not the entire story within Confucianism. A flourishing life is one that is only meaningful within society.
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So it’s very much a question of what you can make do with your given circumstances. Daoism is my favourite Chinese philosophy. And it, more so than Confucianism, it extends the assumption of change and the assumptions of plurality. So in the Zhuangzi, which is a favourite philosophical text of mine, there are monkeys, and there are fish, and there are trees that are gnarled and really ugly. And all this form, for Zhuangzi, the reality– here again in contrast with the Western tradition, which tends to work top-down from ideals, to apply those ideals within society. In the Zhuangzi, it starts with the empirical. That is, it starts with what we have in the here and now.
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And it works with what we have in the world, in the here and now. You look around, and what do you see? Plurality. You don’t see uniformity. So the Zhuangzi within the Daoist tradition is very critical of the move to unify human behaviour. And it extends that even more widely to say, if you try to implement measures that uniformly apply over everyone, it’s destructive not only for individuals, but also for society. Because what’s the point of having this uniformity right throughout society when in fact life manifests as a plurality? So going back to the example of the tree, there’s this lovely story about the tree, which is all gnarled, and it has burls all over.
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And ironically, of course, no carpenter wants to even look at the tree. And because of that, the tree grows to a wonderful old age. And that’s the irony of lovely stories– this is not the only one– lovely stories of how if we do not try to bring things to one uniform standard, we can allow things to flourish. And the tree is flourishing. In the Zhuangzi, yes, there are people who are cripples, there are people who have, you know, they don’t have enough fingers, and there are so on and so forth. And they are celebrated, in fact, within the text. In relation to Western views of the good life, there is a variety of course.
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But there are dominant ones that have come through to us from say the Platonic tradition that tend to be rather static. And what I value, in particular, about the Chinese tradition is this dynamism. Life is never completed. And there is no end goal. There is an openness to life. And secondly, in Chinese philosophy, there is also very much this approach that takes the concrete lived life, the actual life you have, as the very beginning, rather than starting with an ideal. So let’s see what you’ve got. And in some of the classical Chinese texts, this is considered an allotment. It’s what I’ve got– my body and my capacity– so what I’ve got, and likewise for yours.
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And how do you cultivate that? How do you live with that? And, therefore, people with different needs, with different capacities, take it from that very point, from their allotment, so to speak. And it can be taken– that idea of an allotment– can be taken in religious terms. But it can be taken in completely secular terms. It’s what I’ve got here and now. What am I going to do about it? So there’s an openness and there’s a narrative to follow through, rather than a fixed end. I’ve learned much from the Chinese philosophical traditions in terms of what I view as the good life. For me, myself, the good life is a journey. It’s a work in transition.
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It’s a work in progress. It’s never a completed notion. And this stands in contrast say to some of the traditions that have come out from Greece where perhaps philosophy is thought of as a destination. For me, the good life is achieved through cultivating what you’re good at, re-looking at what you’re not so good at, taking those into account, and developing– this might not be the best word for it– a portfolio, so to speak. You know, developing your capacities, and using those capacities to enrich others around you and to enrich your society and context. So what is a good life for me is a different question from what is a good life for you, and for him, and for her.

As we have discussed throughout this course, the concept of “a good life” is a value-laden one. Everyone has a different idea about what is involved in living a good life and these ideas can be strongly influenced by our social, cultural and historical contexts.

In the video in this step, Associate Professor Karyn Lai from UNSW Australia talks about the differences between the Western and Chinese conceptions of a good life. In particular, Karyn emphasises that in Chinese philosophy thinking about a good life means understanding that change is imminent and that we live in a plural world. As Karyn explains, these two factors mean that living a good life from a Confucius perspective is about cultivating relationships and connections to support you through inevitable change.

Karyn also explains how Daoism in particular asks people to find a good life by looking at what they have — their bodies, their capabilities and their materials —- and starting from there to develop a good life. Living a good life, then, is a journey; it is a dynamic process which moves out from each person’s concrete “allotment”. This is in stark contrast to the Western ideas around a good life which start with an ideal, towards which people aspire.

Talking Points

  • What did you find particularly interesting about Karyn’s discussion of a good life?
  • Can you imagine how some of these ideas from Chinese philosophies could be applied to thinking about a good life in the context of disability?
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Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

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