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In his talk at the conference this year, SACP president Peimin Ni pushed further on the claim he made last year: the idea of philosophy as a technique. I was fortunate to spend a long and enjoyable lunch discussing the talk and its ideas with him further. (I love the SACP conferences because their format is designed to encourage the emergence of mealtime conversations like this; last year I enjoyed a similarly thoughtful discussion with Ted Slingerland.) The present post recounts the ideas expressed at the lunch, naturally from my own side; I hope I am being fair to Ni’s arguments in what follows.

Ni’s talk focused on the Chinese concept of gongfu 功夫, dating from the early centuries CE and meaning any practical art – it could include calligraphy, sports, cooking, good judgement or statecraft. (Although the word gongfu has long ago passed into English with an alternate spelling, it is probably best to keep using the Pinyin spelling rather than confuse people with a term most associate with goofy movies about roundhouse kicks.)

Gongfu as Ni understands it then bears some resemblance to the Greek concept of technē, or Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of practice, with one crucial difference. Aristotle’s technē involves a telos; it is embedded within a larger determinate framework of human flourishing. With gongfu, on the other hand, Ni agreed with my earlier characterization of the process as a technique. It is open to us to choose our aims; gongfu merely allows us to achieve those aims. There is a gongfu of killing as well as a gongfu of saving. (Ni effectively uses the concept to expand his previous characterization of Mencius into a constructive position.)

Ni urges us to a conception of practical philosophy in which gongfu, thus conceived, takes centre stage. Theoretical philosophy, especially metaphysics, then serves the function not of description but of recommendation. Philosophy is a way of achieving our chosen ends, a set of instructions rather than responsibilities. Philosophies, like other practices, can be evaluated as techniques – on their effectiveness at achieving their aims.

There’s a word for the kind of philosophy Ni is describing, and it’s relativism. Ni’s gongfu is not relativistic with respect to means; a philosophy can be discredited if it fails to achieve its goals. It is, however, entirely relativistic with respect to ends; ultimate ends are up to our decisions and choices, and there is no rational basis on which to criticize them. The value of each gongfu is relative to the incommensurable ends it aims to achieve.

As such, Ni’s approach seems vulnerable to the standard criticisms levelled at relativism. One asks: does this philosophy have any grounds on which to criticize evil actions – of which we might often take Adolf Hitler’s as the paradigm? Ni’s first answer was, to my mind, entirely unsatisfactory: that Hitler’s project failed on its own terms, that he committed suicide and ended his life in misery. This claim is of course true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far. It is not too difficult to imagine a Hitler who succeeded, perhaps by reining in his ambitions a little bit and maintaining the Nazi-Soviet pact. Such a Hitler, maintaining his reign of terror for decades or more, seems worse than the Hitler we know.

Ni then proceeded to offer a strong perspectival defence of sorts: criticism would be part of our own gongfu. We can criticize Hitler from our side, within our own ends; we can and should take this a step further and fight him. Action against Hitler is a part of achieving our aims; it’s just that there’s no objective ground from which to criticize him.

Against such a view, I developed some of the arguments I made in my critique of postmodernism. Relativism privileges the strong. It is no coincidence that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. believed in universal, objective truths; for it was only on such a basis that they could nonviolently shame their oppressors into relenting. Imagine King standing up and proclaiming: “I have a dream that my children will one day live in freedom and justice and brotherhood. But I know that you have a dream of maintaining this world of segregation, and I know that objectively my dream is no better than yours. So I will fight for my dream, and you fight for yours.” If civil rights leaders had all talked that way, even thought that way, it’s easy to imagine the South remaining segregated for centuries.

Moral persuasion works by imagining ideals larger than one person’s given ends. Without it, there is only violent persuasion, persuasion by force – which, by definition, favours the strong. It is no accident that the most powerfully expressed relativist position in Plato’s Republic – the one which ends on a note of “you have your position, Socrates, and I have mine” – is expressed by Thrasymachus, who has argued that justice is merely the interest of the stronger. Without an ability to cross paradigms and argue about ends, the interest of the stronger is what prevails. When the weak prevailed and achieved a more just world, as they did in Gandhi’s and King’s cases, they could only do so because they had on their side a conception of the good beyond their own limited paradigms, one which had a binding authority on everyone.

Knowing this point, those aiming for change could certainly try to lie – to proclaim universal ideals they did not themselves believe in, as itself part of the technique, the gongfu, for achieving their individually derived goals. (I believe that Gayatri Spivak has argued for a “strategic essentialism” that bears a strong resemblance to this approach.) An outsider might refer to such a person as a liar and a hypocrite, but such outside criticisms do not of themselves need to bear any weight on the relativist individual who disregards outsiders’ ends. More important is that such an approach can itself be rather self-defeating – public figures aiming for social change have their words and actions relentlessly dissected and examined. If King or Gandhi had really believed that what they were doing was only best for them and not universal – but proclaimed the opposite – their lies would have stood a good chance of being exposed.

Or, pushing the point further, one might even try hard to believe in a universalist view in order to advance one’s own pragmatic goals. Ni’s interpretation of Mencius (about which I hope to say more) suggested such an approach: rather than deriving one’s ethical or political practice from a metaphysics of the world’s nature, one starts with the practice and employs the metaphysics as a part of it. So one might try to take on a universalist metaphysics in order to advance one’s pragmatic goals, even though one is convinced that there is no such universal metaphysics that transcends each individual’s given ends. I have somewhat more sympathy for this possibility, as I have explored a similar possibility with respect to hedonism. But I concluded there that such an attempt is self-defeating. More generally, from a commonsense point of view, it is bad to believe things one knows to be false; from a philosophical point of view, it is bad to avoid thinking too hard lest one think the wrong things. More specifically, contradictions get in the way of one’s own practice, whether personal or political: when one believes a contradiction, one cannot – pretty much by definition – believe either side of the contradiction wholeheartedly. It is much more difficult to fight for justice (or anything else) when one is already at war with oneself, for such a fight must be fought on two fronts.

Ni made one final reply before the lunch ended: he noted that I was myself arguing merely based on pragmatic effectiveness, not on the grounds of the larger metaphysical truth I hope to proclaim. He was absolutely right about this, I think, but in a way that does not undercut my position. I’ve said a lot here already; this point deserves enough attention that I will save it for another post.