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Western philosophy vs Eastern: There is no “vs”

The central premise of an article I recently read is that western philosophy can only teach us so much. Though that seems like a really deep subject and perhaps to some an assault on western philosophy I really only have a couple of things to comment on. In one way the author is right and in another they are wrong. The reason they are wrong is that western philosophy is incredibly strong and deep and I argue that it is a lack of deeper understanding, rather than the philosophy itself, that has the author of this piece wanting.

East and West

I have found during my studies that Eastern philosophy and Western are not so far apart as people often think. They each contain the elements of the other in some way. It really boils down to focus and perspective. I have studied both and for me the commonalities are striking. We tend to talk about them as being so un-alike, but that’s not really the case. In the realm of human understanding we are all on the same playing field using the same tools and so it is natural we come to some of the same conclusions but since we are on different parts of that playing field it’s reasonable to see that some would focus on one thing over the other but that doesn’t mean they have ignored the concept.

Though the author has a PhD they admit that until recently they never studied anything other than classical western philosophy. So I can understand why they haven’t seen the connections. The author mentions that, “Comparative philosophy – study in two or more philosophical traditions – is left almost entirely to people working in anthropology or cultural studies.” Which of course is right. Those who have studied multiple traditions have found what I have found – an underlying thread of connectivity. There are differences of course and the focus of that and how those differences shape a society is very interesting. For me though the interest has always been a rather Joseph Campbell’esque quest for what connects us rather than what divides us.

Of course the article doesn’t take that view. As one would expect it takes the modern cynical view.

The article states, ”

The dominance of linear time fits in with an eschatological worldview in which all of human history is building up to a final judgment. This is perhaps why, over time, it became the common-sense way of viewing time in the largely Christian west. When God created the world, he began a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. As Revelation puts it, while prophesying the end times, Jesus is this epic’s “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last”. But there are other ways of thinking about time.”

Of course there are other ways of thinking about time but that isn’t exclusive to Eastern philosophy. Even in the bible we learn that the earth isn’t the beginning of it all and in Eastern philosophy they still believe in cycles with beginnings and endings. Christian resurrection and Eastern reincarnation are not all that unattached from each other. They each represent a new beginning, a second chance.

The article also states, “Kenny is expressing a popular view, but many see the roots of belief in progress deeper in the Christian eschatological religious worldview. “Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative,” claims John Gray. Secular thinkers, he says, “reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal”, even though “the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning”.

The idea of forward movement and even judgement are both in Eastern philosophy. I would actually argue that they are even more ingrained. Think about the idea of karma which is a judgment and the idea of reincarnation, what you come back as depends on the life you lived previously, each life leading to the next in an effort toward self-perfection.

Sure, Christians believe in judgement and doing good but they have this life to do it in and when they fail, rather than returning over and over and over again until they get it right Christ makes up that imperfection with his own perfection.

Cycles and judgement as well as the perfection of the individual are Eastern and Western philosophical traits.

Though we might look at the culture in China and say it is fundamentally different from in America I don’t agree with that. The focus being on the word “fundamentally”. I think the fundamentals are the same it’s just the details that are different. The slight shifts in perspective are really just different ways of seeing the same basic concepts. Everyone, it doesn’t really matter where they are from, deals with life, death, hardship, chance, and hope. Every culture has to deal with these things and, people being people, they are bound to do so in a similar way. I prefer to look at these similarities than look at the differences. For me, I like to do this because it leads me to universal ideas. I think those are far more important. It’s thinking of life in terms of the grand scheme of things.

In the grand scheme of things what is the real difference between thinking I’m reincarnated vs resurrected? Or to think that I lived in heaven as a spirit before I came here vs I lived life as a different person before this life? These things are similar in nature. I’m not denying that they are also different I am simply choosing to highlight how they lead us back to the same very human problem of life and death of good and evil. Both eastern and western traditions have an idea of continuance, or eternity. It is this eternal perspective that atheists often lack. Though there are some that think of human consciousness as existing after we die many think we just die and that’s it. For me, that’s a much greater difference in philosophy than any that divides classic western and classic eastern thought. It’s why I like to explore the notion of just what it means to be a sentient or conscious being.

Religious people believe in this concept of continuation and clearly, it having existed for as long as we can imagine, it is of value. I believe that those who don’t believe in God can still believe in continuation and thus utilize the vast amount of work humanity has already done on this subject into their own lives.

Religion isn’t a lie.

Saying that a religion isn’t a lie isn’t the same thing as saying it’s true.

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Joseph Campbell said, “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

There is a difference between a religion that contains truth and one that is true.  To the believer this distinction is a very important one. But the non-believer doesn’t care. Even if a person doesn’t take an afterlife to be absolutely true they can understand how thinking that there is shapes one’s living.

My point is simple, we are more alike than we are different and this is because we all have to deal with the same things. It’s like a house. A house in a place of snow will be built differently than one in the desert. However, they are still both houses and their existence stems from the common need for shelter. There is a common need to shelter our bodies and our minds and so the house built by eastern philosophy may look somewhat different from the architecture of the western philosophical house but they exist for the same basic reason.

That shared reason, whatever it may be for each concept, is the thing that remind us that we are kin.

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