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The Axial Age and the European Discovery of Logos: Part II

The Presocratic Discovery of Logos

Part II of this essay goes beyond the quantitative observation that Presocratic Greece on its own produced more original thinkers than the rest of the Axial world combined, by emphasizing the qualitative fact that the Presocratics, and only they, invented a style of thinking capable of producing knowledge and truthfulness. Once this style was inaugurated, there was no end to the ideas Europeans could produce continuously beyond the Axial Age.

The faculty of reason is the generator of knowledge, and the more reason is freed from extra-rational constraints, and is able to rely on its own internally generated principles, axioms, and inferential dynamic, it will inevitably produce novel ideas about nature, man, and society, since there is an infinite number of things to be discovered and learned about. Novel facts engender empirical progress, corroborate existing ideas or call for new explanations. In philosophy generally, reliance on open debate, through reason’s own criteria, for and against, thesis and antithesis, in-through blind alleys and aimless meanderings, produces new ideas and ways of observing reality. This emphasis on reason has also taught Western man, through the dialogics of question and answer, that there are other forms of poetical and artistic knowledge.

There is a key word, which is sometimes defined to mean “the word”, which captures the essence of the Presocratic Revolution: Logos. There is much ambiguity about the meaning of this word due to successive appropriations, misappropriations and disputations, going back to ancient times, but it seems to me that the core meaning of logos is that there is a ratio, a principle, a proportion, a measure in the world that can be accounted for by human reason through the use of words and arguments, for humans can be cogitators of this logos.

Armesto tries to sound profound and cosmopolitan writing about how everyone in the Axial Age was asking ponderous questions about the nature of reality, the divine, the proper form of government, but in reality only the Greeks were rationally arguing about these questions and only they managed to think universally about the nature of things and rise above ideas based on mere assertions, religious authority, feelings, or dogma. I will go over some of the arguments offered by the Presocratics to illustrate this point, comparing them to the diametrically different style of thinking of the Chinese sages.

Logos means to argue with words, and so a key to understanding the European accomplishment in the Axial Age is to bring out standard definitions of the words “argue” or “arguing”, since these words capture what logos is about, and what non-Europeans are not about:

  • give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view
  • to present reasons for or against a thing
  • to contend in oral disagreement; debate
  • to persuade or influence (another), as by presenting reasons
  • to engage in a quarrel; dispute
  • to say or write things in order to change someone’s opinion about what is true, what should be done
Heraclitus: “I thought for myself.”

The Presocratics were a group of men no longer satisfied with the taken-for-granted beliefs of their times, asking, for example, “why should we believe mythical stories about the origins of the universe.” “Do you have good reasons to believe them?” Thales offered reasons about the underlying nature of all things, arguing that water must be the primeval stuff since water is essential for the nourishment of all things living and it is the only naturally occurring substance that can change from solid to liquid to gas. But Anaximander then went on to question Thales, countering that, if we are to find the original source of all things, there must be something which itself has no beginning, which he called the “infinite”, or the “Boundless”. The Boundless “encompasses all things, and “steers all things”. It is not water but the Boundless that is the ultimate source.

But how does the Boundless engender the many individual things we experience in the world? Anaximander offered an answer to this question, unsatisfied with simply stating, in Lao-Tzu’s fashion, “Tao is empty but inexhaustible, bottomless, the ancestor of all”.1 Anaximander argued that the Boundless generates the many through its own vortex motion which results in the lightest objects moving up and the heavy ones down, leading to the ordered arrangement we see around us of fiery stars, airy sky, watery clouds and earthly objects.

Xenophanes explicitly challenged the notion that the gods had “revealed all things from the beginning to mortals”, and the poets’ claim to divine revelation; humans must look for themselves what is true “by seeking”, by asking questions such as: how much can we know? How can we know it? This is epistemology, a branch of philosophy uniquely European. It involves thinking about what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion; it is the study of knowing, of what it means to have knowledge, logos.

Heraclitus in particular uses the term logos to refer to the in-built patterns of change he discerned in the world. He argued that things become through opposing forces and conflict; everything is in a state of continuous becoming; driven by a logos wherein everything that exists results from the opposition of forces, and this is the way things must be — justice — since all things presuppose their opposite; there can be no light without darkness. This endless movement is the basic principle, the logos, the ground of all things. Only the few can apprehend it:

This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is.

Strife and opposition are not evil but part of the order of things. One can apprehend this pattern not with eyes and ears but by looking within oneself, within one’s mind, and discovering therein the logos, which is the truth, and which is common to all things.

But Parmenides, known for his insistence that one must go wherever “reasoning” takes you, even if it contradicts the senses, came to the conclusion that there can be no becoming, no change, no beginnings or endings, since something that is, cannot ceased to be, for that would mean that there is always a point at which it is passing into what it is not, and what is not cannot be thought, reasoned about, for it is nothing; therefore, all things that exist must be “all at once, one and continuous”. The ultimate is present in all things, and it is one, eternal, and indivisible. This led Zeno to propose his famous paradoxes revolving around the idea that motion is impossible because it contains the contradiction that something is and is not simultaneously.

The Chinese mind is trapped/The Western mind is universal but negates itself

Needless to say, these summations are oversimplifications, but my aim is to outline the Presocratic argumentative style rather than the particular theories of the Presocratics, in order thereby to contrast them to the Chinese style of thinking. My estimation is that Chinese civilization produced the greatest thinkers after the West, and so a comparison — albeit very brief — is quite useful in this respect, unlike a comparison, say, with Mayan thinkers.

Discussion on the differences between Western and Asian ways of thinking are not new; one popular account is Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why (2004). Nisbett observed that “East Asian thought tends to be more holistic”, that is, more broad in the way it tries to grasp the “entire field” without making categorical distinctions based on formal logic. East Asians take contradictions as part of the nature of things, and instead of trying to reach a precise definition, a point of certainty, they look for “multiple perspectives, searching for the ‘Middle Way’ between opposing propositions”. In contrast, “Westerners are more analytic”, using rules, including formal logic, to differentiate objects and thereby explain and “predict its behavior”.

The academic world loves this stuff about how holistic other cultures are and how cold blooded and narrow minded Westerners are with their one-track directional mind. The difference, as I see it, is that the Chinese are more embedded to their surrounding, the culture they are a part of, the natural world around them, the norms, rules, and habits of their society, and so their reasoning has less autonomy from the “entire field”. The “multiple perspectives” they express are merely an expression of the multiple norms, circumstances, and bodily impressions surrounding, and unconsciously coalesced, with their reasoning. Their minds have remained lodged in the world. The East Asian self is determined by the flux and fusion of “inside” and “outside” forces. Their minds have remained undifferentiated from the surrounding world.

The Presocratics realized, or made evident in their philosophies, that the soul, as Plato then articulated in The Republic (Book IV) consists of various parts, bodily appetites, emotions, and reasoning; and that the reasoning part can unify the self by self-consciously acting as the legislator and master of the pursuit of knowledge, and in this way, they were able to contrast the “inside” from the “outside” field of forces and disturbances. It is not that Westerners, as the inheritors and developers of the Presocratic discovery of reason, have been unable to see the “entire field”, incapable of appreciating others perspectives.

Searching for a fixed, supratemporal ground, an objective method, a consciousness that is cleansed of any subjective disturbances, has been a singularly Western disposition, but it has not been the only one in its dialogical search for truth. There is a sense in which Westerners came to apprehend reason as the one faculty that can be self-conscious of its own actions and understand the nature and role of other forces and surrounding circumstances. Nevertheless, there have been Western thinkers who have questioned the powers of reason such as Sextus Empiricus (160-210 AD), who questioned the possibility of an ultimate ground by arguing that any first principle always requires a justification, which in turn requires a justification through or by means of another justification, ad infinitum.

It is said that Nisbett’s findings challenged the prevailing assumption among psychologists that the way the human mind works is universal. This is true, but it does not go far enough. The way the European mind works is very rare but it is also the only way to achieve universal knowledge of the cosmos, human nature, and history. It is not surprising that Nisbett is a Westerner. It is always Westerners who tell other Westerners that they have a very limited understanding of other cultures without realizing that, in so saying, they are exhibiting a Western tendency to show a deeper understanding of other cultures. Only Westerners have the peculiar attribute of apprehending things universally, of stepping outside their culture and seeing the other in its own terms.

The promoters of a common history are doing the same in proposing world histories that apprehend the histories of everyone. But as cultural Marxists, even though they are Westerners, their goal is to downplay and do away with the unique tendency of Westerners to think in universal terms by merging their histories and culture with the ways of everyone and claiming that we are all one in our diversity. They thus fall into the trap of cultural relativism. Leftists believe that all cultures have to be seen in their particular historical and traditional contexts, and yet, in so thinking, they don’t realize that they are presuming that all other cultures are also universally capable of seeing different cultures in their own terms.

The higher interest Europeans have shown in understanding other cultures is not an expression of their relativity but of their universalism. Since the Greek invention of ethnography through Julius Caesar’s account of the Germanic tribal ways, Westerners have always been curious about the ways of others, writing extensive travelling accounts, from Marco Polo through Margaret Mead to Napoleon Chagnon, inventing “entire fields” of knowledge, proper methodologies for each subject matter, anthropology and cultural psychology.

But Westerners, instead of appreciating their development of disciplinary techniques to understand the other, have turned against their unique universalism, without fully understanding it, and under the supposition that by intermixing it with the parochial ways of others they will achieve a higher form of universalism. We have a book exemplifying this tendency, dealing exactly with the subject at hand, contrasting the Chinese allusive way of thinking with the “direct” Greek/Western way, titled Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece (2000). This book is authored by the French academic Francois Jullien, who lauds his immersion into Chinese thinking as

a case study through which to contemplate Western thought from the outside, and, in this way, to bring us out of our atavism.2

Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece
Detour and Access by Jullien

He condemns the “ethnocentric prejudices” based “on a colonial relationship” of past accounts of China’s culture.3 He is voicing what hundreds of Westerners have been voicing for a long time without reflecting back on the way his own study exemplifies a uniquely Western disposition to study other cultures and then reflect back on one’s culture. Obviously, some Westerners have made judgments about other cultures without immersing themselves in them. Jullien is rather typical in wishing to relinquish his culture for the sake of others, learning about other ways while condemning his way as incomplete. Meanwhile, the other is barely interested in engaging his culture, except to relish in Jullien’s submissive words that China is becoming “the greatest world power“.

But the main point I want to conclude with is that Jullien does agree that there is a difference between what he calls the “allusive”, “oblique”, “circuitous”, “diffused” Chinese way, and the “straight”, “direct”, “frontal”, “antagonistic” Western way. He observes that the Greeks face-to-face style of infantry warfare found an equivalent in the

agonistic structure…in the organization of the theater [competition for prizes and tragic accounts of conflicts], the tribunal, and the assembly. Indeed, whether in the dramatic, the judicial, or the political realm, the debate manifested itself like a force or against something, in which the upper hand was gained only by the sheer strength and number of arguments either side amassed.4

Jullien does not like this antagonism, and would like Westerners to learn how to be more Chinese. He writes positively about the Chinese style for “detour”, “dodging”, “insinuating”, rather than directly stating their thoughts; we are made to think that this is a more sophisticated way, it allows one to be “craftier”, avoiding an explicit delineation of one’s views, making it possible for one not to “exhaust” one’s views right away. There is something deep in Chinese thought, latent, implicit, “endlessly” filled with alternative meanings. “Inexhaustible.” Many Westerners are indeed thrilled by such aphorisms as: “Tao does nothing, but leaves nothing undone.” Jullien thinks that the Western search for “essences”, for concepts that “represent” or “reproduce the real” is limited, narrow, and would stand to benefit by kneeling before the Chinese:

What if generalizations were not the goal of thought, or speech tended not to define (to build a universality of essences) but to modify itself — to reflect the circumstances? In short, what if consciousness did not strive to reproduce the real in order to ground it in transcendence (of being or of God)? And what if the purpose of speaking about the world, to make it intelligible, were not to arrive at Truth.5

These questions should be answered with a strong sense of the history of Western thinking. First, the West is the one civilization to have “endlessly” originated multiple philosophical outlooks, including styles of reasoning emphasizing the social and historical contents of the structures of the experience of consciousness in an anti-reductionist, anti-Cartesian way, at the same time that it developed an experimental and mathematical method of explaining things leading to continuous innovations and discoveries.

Second, when Westerners set out to propose contextual styles of thinking, such as phenomenological investigations, they did so in full awareness of the importance of the “broader” experiences of consciousness and the limited perspective of the scientific method. It was not that they were falling back to a pre-rational world, absorbed by the world surrounding them, lacking critical distance from it, as was/is the case with the Chinese. As Romantics in the early 1800s were expressing and then the proponents of hermeneutics, and most fully Hans-Georg Gadamer in his book, Truth and Method (1960), there are many truths that pertain to the nature of human experience that cannot be adequately expressed through the methods of the natural sciences; painting, writing poetry and drama have truthfulness, they are forms of knowing; they are not only aesthetic experiences, but their modes of knowing do not meet the exactitude of the sciences, for the reason that they are about other aspects of human experience beyond the powers of abstraction.

Third, and contrariwise, the Chinese style of not facing up to the claims at hand by directly contesting them, proving or disproving them, pushing relentlessly ahead wherever the argument takes you, rather than circumventing the views of others, repeating aphorisms, without judging their claims to veracity, remaining embedded to “circumstances” and not letting reason be the judge, explains why the basic ideas of Axial China remained in place right up until the West shook its world from its circuitous slumber.

While the Axial Age was just the beginning of Western creativity, it was the apex of Oriental creativity. Don’t believe world historians and academics, they are pathologically anti-Western. They employ reason in a rather truncated manner; their concern is not with “what happened in the past” but with teaching a history that justifies the political goal of transforming European nations into race-mixed culture. They cannot be trusted to tell students the truth; we must get rid of them if we are to re-establish our connection with the logos the Presocratics handed to us.

[1] Tao Te Ching, Trans. by Sam Hamill, 2005: 6
[2] Francois Jullien, Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece, 2000: 9
[3] Ibid. 17
[4] Ibid. 44
[5] Ibid. 8
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