Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Science and Chinese Secularism

Wanted to just post a few thoughts on the review of the Joseph Needham biography by Eric Hobsbawm in the London Review of Books. [Caution - I've not read Winchester's book or Needham's Science and Civilisation.]

Much of the review focused on the intellectual richness layered around the natural sciences during Needham's time and place - Cambridge, the 1930s. Not merely "A Man Who Loved China," Hobsbawn seems to say, Needham's project revolved around a dialectical materialism that had melded into materialism proper ("organic Marxism"), and a fascination with the seemingly casual monism of Chinese cosmologies. From the article:

The whole organism, [Needham] argued, could not be fully grasped at any one of the lower levels of increasing size and complexity – the molecular, macromolecular, cells, tissues etc – and new modes of behaviour emerged at each level which could not be interpreted adequately in terms of those below or at all, except in their relations. As he wrote in Order and Life, ‘The hierarchy of relations from the molecular structure of carbon to the equilibrium of the species and the ecological whole, will perhaps be the leading idea of the future.’ Process, hierarchy and interaction were the key to a reality that could be understood only as a complex whole.

And – though one would not discover this from Winchester’s book – thisview drew him towards the country and civilisation to which he devoted the rest of his life. China was the dialectical home of Yin and Yang, of an ‘extreme disinclination to separate spirit and matter’, as Needham put it, of a philosophy which, it has been well said, saw the cosmos as a vast symphony that composed itself and within which other lesser symphonies took shape.

[...] Needham loved and admired China and the Chinese but, oddly, his heart went out to the imperial past rather than to the revolutionary present to which he was committed and which he defended (though he seems to have become a critic of Mao’s policies in the 1970s, even before the death of the Great Helmsman). He felt at home not only with the Chinese view of nature so lovingly reconstructed in Science and Civilisation in China but with a civilisation based on morality without supernaturalism, a great culture where the doctrine of original sin didn’t prevail and a country where no priesthood had ever dominated.

[Above, an image from a chapter in Needham's book on "Civil Engineering and Nautics."]

This brought to mind a few posts I'd seen on one of the many interesting SSRN blogs, "The Immanent Frame" (which largely is an expanding set of commentary revolving around Charles Taylor's The Secular Age. Disenchanting, ey?). Three posts by Richard Madsen (UCSD, Sociology) on Chinese secularism were very interesting , but I wasn't quite sure what to make of them (all drawn from a forthcoming chapter in a SSRN edited volume.) Examples of statements that I didn't feel like I agreed with but didn't have a basis for objecting to: 

Discerning the religious spirit of secular states in Asia
"But the secular form of Asian political institutions often masks a religious spirit. Some examples: Japan has a secular constitution, but many of its government leaders have felt compelled to pray for the spirits of the war dead at the Yasakuni shrine." 

Embedded religion in Asia

"However, this dynamism is of a different kind than that found in the United 

States, and it cannot be explained in terms of the narrative Taylor uses in the North Atlantic world.

 Asian religious developments are often misread by both Western observers and Asian scholars trained in the Western social sciences. When Western scholars have looked for religion in Asian societies, they have often looked for it in the form of private faith. But in most Asian societies, much of religion is neither private nor faith."

Hybrid consciousness or purified religion
"Taiwan’s state has taken a secular turn with democratization, but it still relies on religion to provide public stability and generate international recognition."

My quips probably lie with the analytical categories at play, and their usefulness - measuring degrees of embeddedness also, in some way or another, forces one to gauge the veracity and typology of belief. Embeddedness, in this context, may be a way of expressing what Needham had seen - a tendency not to see "spirit and matter" as radically separated, thus rendering secularism a somewhat sterile concept, a matter of institutions and practices rather than belief. Food for thought, in either case. 

Other articles of interest:
"The Public Sphere, Civil Society, and Moral Community: A Research Agenda for Contemporary China Studies", Modern China 19:10 (April, 1993).

"The Spiritual Crisis of China's Intellectuals" in Ezra Vogel and Deborah Davis, ed. The Social Consequences of the Chinese Reforms (Harvard University, 1991)

Also, I had seen that Du Shu magazine (Readings) had, in their June-August 1995 editions, played out a series of essays under the title "Why Not Collectively Build a Spiritual Homeland?" Perhaps of interest. 

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