When East Meets West



TODAY the East and West must meet. It Frightened me to read in the morning papers one day that Wendell Willkie was in Chungking last Friday and back in America this Monday — over the week-end, as it were. It was almost like magic. No matter what will be the type of world coöperation, we are sure that the East and the West will be living closely together, and dependent on each other. Somehow after the breaking up of the nineteenth-century political world, a new world must be forged out of the elements of Anglo-Saxon, Russian, and Oriental cultures.

When we come to Chinese civilization, the general impression is that it is a human, rationalistic, and easily understandable type of culture, and that the Chinese temper is humanistic, non-religious and non-mystical. That is true only to a certain extent. I agree entirely on its being humanistic; I disagree on its being non-mystical, for any culture which has a broad and deep spiritual basis must be in a sense mystical. However, if by “non-mystical" is meant the modern servile and shallow worship of mechanistic and materialistic facts, accurately observed and well tabulated, seemingly sufficient unto themselves, which is the prevalent type of thinking today, then I must repudiate that Chinese civilization ever fell so low. The fact is that any branch of knowledge — whether it be the study of rocks and minerals or the study of cosmic rays — strikes mysticism as soon as it reaches any depth.

The nineteenth-century shallow rationalism naïvely believed that the question “What is a blade of grass?" could be answered adequately by considering the blade as a purely mechanical phenomenon. The contemporary scientific attitude is that it cannot. Since Walt Whitman asked that question with his profound mysticism, no one has been able to answer it, and no scientist will presume to answer it today. And let us remember: in that mysticism and distrust of the mechanistic view of the universe, Walt Whitman is peculiarly Chinese. It is my conviction that the progress of contemporary science is forcing modern thought to develop in the direction of depth and of a new synthesis of the mechanical and the spiritual, of matter and spirit.

In reviewing Chinese thought, one is struck by the vast differences both in style and method and in values and objectives. For what is Chinese philosophy? And does China have a philosophy, say, like that of Descartes or Kant, a logically built and cogently reasoned philosophy of knowledge or of reality or of the universe? The answer is proudly “No.” That is the whole point. So far as any systematic epistemology or metaphysics is concerned, China had to import it from India, The temperament tor systematic philosophy simply was not there and will not be there so long as the Chinese remain Chinese. They have too much sense for systematizing. The sea of human life forever laps upon the shores of Chinese thought, and the arrogance and absurdities of the logician, the assumption that “I am exclusively right and you are exclusively wrong,” are not Chinese faults, whatever other faults they may have.

Generally, the reader will find reading Chinese philosophers like reading Emerson. Egon Friedell’s characterization of Emerson’s method and style may serve as a perfect description of a Chinese philosopher: —

His propositions are there, unprepared, indisputable, like sailors’ signals coming out of the misty deep. . . . He is an absolute Impressionist, in his style, his composition, and his thought. He never propounds his ideas in a definite logical or artistic form, but always in a natural and often accidental order which they have in his head. He knows only provisional opinions, momentary truths. He never sacrifices even a single word, sentence, or idea to the architecture of the whole. Things like “order of content,” “introduction,” “ transitions, ” do not exist for him. He begins to develop this or that view, and we think he is going to weave it systematically, elucidate it from all sides and entrench it against all possible attack, but then, suddenly, some alien picture or simile, epigram or aperçu, strikes him full in the middle of his chain of thought, and the theme thenceforward revolves on a quite new axis. He calls his essays “Considerations by the Way,” but everything that he wrote might equally be so entitled.

China’s peculiar contribution to philosophy is therefore the distrust of systematic philosophy. I confess this must distress college sophomores, who are anxious to have systems that have no loopholes in them and are strongly entrenched against all possible attacks. They want to be able to say either that criminals are born and not made, or else that criminals are made and not born, and they want to prove it. The Chinese reply is that there is no such airtight system on earth and has never been any. Such systems do not exist except in the minds of the deluded, logical dunderheads.

Furthermore, the Chinese can ask a counter-question: “Does the West have a philosophy?” The answer is also clearly “No.”We need a philosophy of living and we clearly haven’t got it. The Western man has tons of philosophy written by French, German, English, and American professors, but still he hasn’t a philosophy when he wants it. In fact, he seldom wants it. There are professors of philosophy, but there are no philosophers. When one asks about contemporary philosophy in America, one thinks of Professor Whitehead. But what has the philosophy of Professor Whitehead to do with the common man? The fact is, the vast scientific knowledge of the modern age is disintegrating and falling by its own weight, so that philosophy itself has become a branch of physics or biology or mathematics. And when one reads the heavy volume of papers read before the Conference of Science, Philosophy, and Religion, trying to reunify modern knowledge, but comes upon such words as “objectives,” “instrumentalities,” and “procedures,” and “determinant factors,” and “processes,” one has grave doubts that science, philosophy, and religion will ever be united again.


Our international world is rapidly coming to the end of an era. So is our modern intellectual world. The world of ideas is certainly going to pieces, because our traditional values are gone. That brings us to the second difference between Oriental and Occidental philosophy, a difference in approach and values. It does look as if accurately observed and beautifully tabulated facts are all that we have today; our moral values have disappeared, and they have disappeared in a curious manner that I shall try to explain.

There is a clear difference in approach between Chinese and Western philosophy, the approach of values and the approach of facts. This difference is curiously brought out by the contact of the East and the West. It strikes Western tourists as strange that the Chinese have no sense of accuracy, particularly of facts and figures. It is hopeless to get two Chinese to agree on the mileage between two neighboring towns or the population of either. And the Chinese equally cannot understand why a rough idea is not sufficient. Still more damning is the popular assumption by Western politicians that a question like the second front could be settled by the military leaders who have “all the facts,” and no sense of judgment whatsoever on moral, psychological, and political issues. If the Chinese had suffered from this statistical delusion, they would never have dared to take up arms against Japan.

As showing the Chinese ignorance of facts, there was a Chinese scholar who wrote in all seriousness that the human heart was on the right side of the chest; his technique was execrable — he could not possibly have felt his heart with his own hand. On the other hand, the Chinese can come back and reply, “What difference does it make whether the heart is on the right or on the left? If you cut it up, you are bound to see it anyway, and if you don’t cut it up, you can’t do anything with it. Generally you can’t do anything with it anyhow, even if you do cut it up.” The West will reply, “Ah yes, but we want to be scientific and accurate and find out where the heart is.”And the Chinese will reply again, “It doesn’t matter where you find the heart is; it is much more important to have your heart in the right place.”

That represents briefly the difference between the approach of facts and the approach of values. H. G. Wells is suffering from the modern scientific Fact-Cult when he believes that we can reunify knowledge by his plan of a “world encyclopedia.” He seems to think that the gathering and systematic presentation of data confer upon the scientist a godlike wisdom, that facts are like cold figures, and the human mind is like an adding machine, and that if you put all the facts into the machine, you automatically draw out the correct, infallible answer and the world will then be saved. The folly of this conception is beyond belief. We are suffering not from lack of facts, but from lack of judgment.

Chinese humanism, or Confucianism, concentrates on certain human values. Until we realize the vastness of the difference of approach, it will be found disappointing by Western readers. Confucianism excludes both physics and metaphysics, and concentrates on the values of human relationships. There are not many things we can discover about human relationships, and those few may seem to have little significance. But Confucianism says there is the knowledge of essentials (yili) and the knowledge of externals (shutu); the knowledge of externals is the world of facts, and the knowledge of essentials is the world of human relationships and human behavior. For the knowledge of shutu, Confucianists had only contempt. Confucius says, Be a good son, a good brother, and a good friend, and “if you have any energy left after attending to conduct, then study books.” From the Confucian point of view, the little may be so much, and the much may be so little.

For Chinese humanism in its essence is the study of human relations (jenlun) through a correct appreciation of human values, by the psychology of human motives, to the end that we may behave as reasonable human beings (tsuo jen). That is all. But it may mean a great deal. The Confucian point of view is that politics must be subordinated to morals, that government is a makeshift of temporization, law a superficial instrument of order, and a police force a foolish invention for morally immature individuals. “In presiding over lawsuits, I am as good as anybody; the thing is so to aim that there will be no lawsuits,” says Confucius. And morally mature individuals behaving with dignity and self-respect can be produced only by education and culture and by a sense of moral order through cultivation of rituals and music. The conception of the means of achieving social and political order is poles apart from that of Western students of political science. “Guide the people with governmental measures and control or regulate them by the threat of punishment, and the people will try to keep out of gaol, but will have no sense of honor. Guide the people by morals and regulate them by li (the principle of social relationships), and the people will have a sense of honor and respect.”

At once an antipodal point is set up against the whole fabric of Western social and political philosophy. According to the Confucian standpoint, the final test of a civilization is the human product — whether it produces a good son, a good brother, a good husband, a good friend, and a good individual who is extremely careful not to hurt others’ feelings. Perhaps the production of that individual who is most careful not to hurt others’ feelings is the end of civilization; perhaps not — how can we know? But it is possible that to a man of the twenty-fifth century our social behavior as individuals and as nations may seem extremely uncouth, and some of the world leaders we are worshiping today may appear no more than barbarians with a tribalistic mind, as we think of Hannibal today. 3

But if we said to ourselves that the present disintegration of knowledge and collapse of values call for a restoration of certain human values, we should not know how to begin. The approach, the technique, the philosophical basis for the study of any kind of human values are not there. So long as the mechanistic technique and materialistic method continue to dominate the thinking of our college professors, it is patent that such values cannot be rediscovered. And by materialism I do not mean preoccupation with material progress, which is a popular charge against the Western world. I am all for material progress. I mean, rather, scientific materialism as a method and a technique and a point of view which has hopelessly paralyzed the European humanities and thrown them into utter rout and confusion.

It would be interesting to study how the professors of the humanities started the rout from their moral fortress and fled in fear of any distinction of good and evil or even moral emotions of any kind; how they came to live in mortal terror of taking sides and trained their minds to see all things objectively as mechanical phenomena, to be analyzed and explained and compared; how they ultimately came to be moral bats, disclaiming all judgments of morals and fearing moral platitudes like poison, and eventually had an abhorrence of the human free will and successfully eliminated conscience from their scholarship.

The Dean of the Union Theological Seminary invited a scientific colleague to give a talk at the morning prayers to the students. The scientist declined on the ground that his realm was “ exact knowledge.” Since questions of good and evil cannot in their nature be classified under exact knowledge and God himself shows very little possibility of being reduced to a mathematical formula, good and evil are out of bounds for the professor. What are we to do about a situation like this? Since there is no way of tackling the problems of good and evil by either percentages or statistical charts, the problem must remain unsolved and ignored.

It would be interesting to make a study of the invasion of the humanities by scientific materialism, and of the betrayal of the humanities through the false instinct to ape the technique and paraphernalia of the natural sciences. There can be no conscience in the objective study of rocks and minerals or even of our animal friends, because the nat ural sciences call only for objectivity in an amoral academic attitude. When that scientific method is stolen and applied to the humanities, in the naive belief that we are beginning to make the humanities true sciences, that amoral, objective method is carried over with it.

It happens, however, that disinterestedness, which is a virtue in the natural sciences, is and must be a crime in the human sciences. Humanities built upon this basis must be both untrue and inadequate on account of the different nature of the object and data of study. All human sciences are false sciences, and can be called “sciences” only in a figurative sense. I understand there are not only intelligence tests, dealing with such highly subjective matter as “social consciousness” and “personal charm" and “masculinity” and “femininity” and “force of character,” but there is in a certain institution even a machine which gives you the correct percentage of a man’s intelligence by just slipping the person’s answers into the machine. The machine does everything. This is no more than a hoodlum trick practiced by the professors on the well-meaning endowers of the institution.

Because of the rapid rise in prestige of the natural sciences, about the middle of the nineteenth century all branches of human studies were beginning to call themselves “sciences.” The words “organism,” “natural law,” “origins,” and “evolution” were applied to literary and historical studies. Auguste Comte had started the fashion by calling his new sociology “social physics” and society “an organism.” What he meant when he said, “Society is an organism,” no one has been able to make out. There was a veritable orgy of “fundamental laws” even in literary and social studies. Taine applied them to literary history, Marx applied them to economics, Zola applied them to the novel, and even Sainte-Beuve called his literary and biographical studies “the science of souls.” Taine said in his Preface to the History of English Literature, “Virtue and vice are products like vitriol and sugar.”

But there is no need to go back to history; there are plenty of modern instances. Dr. J. B. Watson one day made the astounding discovery of the possibility of studying the human mind without thinking and feeling, and thought he was on the point of making psychology a true science by eliminating such medieval terms as “consciousness,” “will,” “emotion,” “memory,” and “perception” and confining it to the measurements of mechanical impulses and response. His inspiration clearly came from his study of animal psychology. And as a result of the century of development, one need only think of Theodore Dreiser’s view of man as a chemical compound, a trapped animal moving in the gigantic chaos of blind chance, blind urges and drives and moral irresponsibility. Cowperhead’s inspiration is the squid and the lobster, as Parrington pointed out. We have come to the end of the road.


It can be proved that the world has gone to pieces as a direct result of scientific materialism invading our literature and thought. The professors of the humanities are reduced to the position of finding mechanistic laws governing human activities, and the more rigorous the “natural laws” can be proved to be, and the more freedom of the will is proved to be a chimera, the greater is the professor’s intellectual delight. Hence the economic interpretation of history, conceiving history as a determinist cage and man as a trapped biped moving in the direction of the supply of food. And Marx of course was proud of his “materialism” and his mechanistic view of history. For scientific materialism must spell determinism, and determinism must spell despair. It is therefore not an accident that the most admired spirits of our times, not the greatest but the most in vogue, are pessimists. Our international chaos is founded upon our philosophic despair: the despair of Beaudelaire, the despair of Huysmans, the despair of Hardy, the despair of Dreiser, the despair of T. S. Eliot, the eternal regret of Proust, the mild pessimism of Samuel Butler and Dean Inge and Aldous Huxley, and the violent despair of Picasso and the Cubists and Surrealists, Freudians, psychopaths, and hyperaesthetes.

Only a robust mind like that of Walt Whitman, who was not afflicted with the scientific spirit and who was in close touch with life itself and with the great humanity, could entertain an enormous love for the common man and an enormous faith in him. It is interesting to point out that the flowers of New England culture were so close to the Chinese: Whitman in his mysticism and his love for flesh-and-blood humanity, Thoreau in his pacifism and his rural ideal, and Emerson in his insight and epigrammatic wisdom. That flower can blossom no more because the spirit of industrialism has crushed it.

But such pseudo-scientific naturalism in the humanities must forever remain inadequate and pathetic. The tracing of mother love to ovarian secretions must in the nature of human life be inadequate, and is in fact one of the wickedest lies of such pseudo-science. Old mother rats do recover a spell of mother love when they get an injection of ovarian secretions; human mothers, except in the comparatively short period of nursing, must depend upon something else — the daily associations, perhaps common struggles against poverty, and stores of memories and habits of speech or some incorrigible foibles that endear the mother to the son and the son to the mother. The mother-andson relationship of rats does not have that period. And what about the father, who has no ovarian glands? Science must forever abjure the possibility of demonstrating that the father has any special secretions of any kind, when his wife conceives or has given birth to a baby. In the same way, our value of love has been destroyed by this kind of science, which began by confusing love with sex and ended by interpreting love only in terms of sex. Love has been dethroned from its pedestal. For this we have the Freudians to thank: —

No more privacy
Of mind and body; these students of mental history
Have stripped the fig-leaves, dispelled all mystery,
Sent the naked, shivering soul to the scullery,
And turned the toilet into a public gallery; They’ve dulled the glamor of love, soured the wine of romance,
Plucked the feathers of pride, exposed to naked glance
The Inner Sanctum of sovereign mind, dethroned from its dais,
And crowned the rank-smelling Libido in its place.

Our conception of the nature of man has changed. The bottom has been knocked out of our human universe. The structure can no longer hold; something must break. Out of the shattered fragments of modern knowledge a new world of human values must he built all over again, and the East and the West must build it together.