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Skholiast makes a key point in response to my post on perennial questions. Regarding the categories I have drawn in the history of philosophy – ascent and descent, intimacy and integrity – he notes that these categories need to be viewed as dialectical, such that different thinkers do not merely oppose each other but supersede each other. I have noted before that the categories are intended as ideal types, so real thinkers will rarely if ever fall on one side or the other; that most thinkers land somewhere in the middle is a feature of the scheme, not a bug. But Skholiast goes further. It is not merely that all of history’s great thinkers have some element of both these sides – that they are in the middle – but that they try in some respect to put them together. They aim, that is, at synthesis and not merely compromise. I addressed this point in the earlier (perennial questions) post, but wrote the post as if it’s only modern comparative philosophers like Ken Wilber who try to do this. Skholiast rightly notes that this sort of attempt to put together opposites dialectically is to be found in the West as early as Plato, and possibly before. On a question as big as ascent and descent, everyone tries to put the opposing views together to some extent.

This is a broadly Hegelian account of the history of philosophy. Judging by his use of the term Aufhebung, Skholiast has intended it to be such. My own sympathies with G.W.F. Hegel are no secret, given my influence by James Doull and his school. But while expressing my admiration for Hegel before, I also expressed my biggest concern about his system: that it fails to do justice to Asian thought.

Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy argue that philosophy proper begins with the Greeks and only develops in the world that they influenced. Much of this comes out of an idiosyncratic definition of philosophy, one that ties it closely to the individual political freedom that the Greek citizens had. I’ll admit I don’t understand Hegel well enough to understand why he defines philosophy this way, but it seems highly suspect to me – especially given that he is perfectly content to consider feudal Christian thought philosophy, at a time where there was little political freedom to express wide individual differences in thought, and when Greek democracy had disappeared.

Probably more important than mere definition is the question of timing. Hegel places Asian thought at the start of philosophy, in a way that presumes Asian systems of thought to be static. In Hegel’s defence, the project of translation was only beginning; Hegel had little access to Asian thought beyond the classics. If one hadn’t read any Western philosophical texts dating from the common era, it might look static too. With only the Asian classics available, it might be easy to characterize Asian systems as lost in one side of the truth: the Chinese lost in the particular and pragmatic details of statecraft and etiquette, the Indians lost in the abstract universals of metaphysics and logic. And so in neither one do you get something that Hegel (more plausibly) takes as central to philosophy: a universal principle that is nevertheless expressed in the particulars of reality. I’ll admit some of my own generalizations might sound like they support Hegel’s claims here – but that is because they are generalizations, and therefore by their nature must leave out some significant details.

For once one explores the later development of both Indian and Chinese thought, one can find major thinkers who take the particulars of the world as real expressions of universal principles, in the Aristotelian way that Hegel takes as so crucial – and what’s more, they do so in a way that could not have happened if not for the centuries of philosophical development that preceded them. I think here of Rāmānuja in India and Zhu Xi in China. Rāmānuja articulated an understanding of the world’s particulars as the real expression of a divine unity, refuting Śaṅkara’s view of those particulars as an illusion. But Rāmānuja was also building on Śaṅkara’s exposition of the nature of that unitary universal (braḥman); and both of them developed their views with the tools of logical argument first developed by Buddhists. All of this happened well after the classical era that Hegel’s books refer to. So too, Zhu Xi saw the particulars of the world as expressing a universal principle or pattern, li 理 – but he got that term from Chinese Buddhists who had equated this li principle with the emptiness of all things (a rather un-Hegelian view). It was his Confucian commitments, his desire to synthesize Buddhism and Confucianism, that led him to develop the idea of li as expressing a pattern in real, concrete things. And the idea of li among Buddhists had itself been a new Chinese development beyond the Indian schools it had derived from. In both places there is an active working out of philosophical positions in history – and one which leads, at one major medieval point, to a synthesizing view that puts together universal and particular in a way that Hegel should be able to respect.

If all of this is the case, it implies that there is a recognizably Hegelian development taking place in three different and parallel philosophical traditions, not merely in one. But this fact complicates any Hegelian story of philosophy’s history, because Hegel characterizes the history of philosophy as a single story with a single telos, a single development. The Marxist geographer David Harvey said perceptively about Marx’s thought that it is “strong with respect to time and weak with respect to space.” This insight, I think, was the foundation of Harvey’s project to turn Marx’s historical materialism into a historical-geographical materialism. I wonder whether one could take what Harvey did with Marx in social theory, and do it with Marx’s mentor in philosophy.