The Double-Edged Sword of Eastern Philosophy

 

Words are very inconsistent in what they mean and try to bound the boundless.
Words are very inconsistent in what they mean and try to bound the boundless.

I was trying to pick arguments to analyze for an assignment in my philosophy class. I came up with four or five candidates, three of which were from Zhuangzi and one of which was from the Spring and Autumn Annals. In picking the arguments, I noticed that most of the eastern ones were arguments by analogy and that they employed figurative language. So, when I’m trying to analyze eastern philosophy, those traits often present some problems.

Arguments by analogy can be hit or miss in one’s use of them and in one’s interpreting them. Since their purpose is to show the argument in a more concrete form, they inherently lose the abstract form’s accuracy due to their deviation from the actual thought or philosophy; and since they incorporate extraneous things into the argument, there’s a sort of sifting that needs to be done to determine what’s relevant to the actual thought.

 

This picture aptly illustrates the costs of using argument by analogy or figurative language.
This picture aptly illustrates the costs of using argument by analogy or figurative language.

Here comes the role of interpretation of these types of arguments. The argument by analogy can be made with inadequate accuracy or superfluous details and can be misinterpreted because of such. But this would apply to an argument by analogy with little diligence invested when the philosopher made it. I would think that analogous philosophy in books have accounted for the problems in making such arguments, and I know that sometimes analogies are the best way to convey thought; but it still leaves room for error on the interpreter’s side. In short, trying to put on paper what exactly is meant by Zhuangzi’s arguments will lead me off the mark– something that Zhuangzi illustrates by his own writing style.

The problem with figurative language lies close with interpretation’s problems, but not in the same sense as before. When I’m reading an excerpt of Zhuangzi or some other philosophy (it doesn’t even have to be eastern philosophy, but eastern philosophy does employ analogies and, more broadly, figurative language more often than western philosophy), there will be instances of apparent synecdoche, but for other times, I’m not so sure. Knowing what is meant, or rather putting into words what is meant, by the words used is crucial in trying to formally analyze arguments, and if what is meant is not known, then no meaningful analyzing can be done. Yet again, Zhuangzi purposefully employs figurative language to illustrate his point of the inconstancy of words’ meanings (I’m sure Confucius, Mozi, Lao Tzu, etc. also are accurate in their argument by analogies).

    On a final note, eastern philosophy can convey what can’t be easily conveyed in words at a cost of losing the apparent argument. And I think it should be said that this was considered in the context of the formal analysis of an argument, with bounds restricting analysis that I and normal people would actually do.

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Locke Ho

I attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and major in philosophy. I'm taoist; having boxed for 6 years, I've been a USA Boxing Certified Coach since 2016; I contribute to taopracticed.wordpress.com and straight2boxing.com.

7 thoughts on “The Double-Edged Sword of Eastern Philosophy”

  1. I have to disagree that Western philosophy doesn’t use analogy nearly as much. Read, for instance, Parmenides’ poem On Nature, Plato’s Republic and Timaeus or Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, where you find copious philosophical arguments made through analogies and metaphors.

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    1. I admit that I have not read much ancient western philosophy. However, I think its still safe to say that most western philosophy doesn’t use argument by analogy and instances of figurative language in western philosophy is mostly used for illustrative purposes. For instance, Descartes’ meditations, Leviathan by Hobbes, Treatise of Human Nature by Hume, Rawls’ Theory of Justice, etc. all employ and rely on abstractions to prove most of their points.

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  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I truly appreciate your visit. There are a lot of posts on my blog about Asian philosophy and East Asian aesthetics, I hope you will look around and find what I have written useful (including the history of philosophy in India, China, Korea, and Japan).

    BTW: It is really, REALLY great to see younger students like yourselves actually trying to engage with Eastern philosophy as an analytical tool rather than the usual lot who just read a couple pages of the Zhuangzi or Kenkou’s writing (Tsurezuregusa), and then name drop them at parties!

    Keep up the great work! 🙂

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