Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Western Dialectics VS Eastern Dialectics

I read something the other day that got the 'ol noggin thinking again (imagine that!). Anyway, the discussion got me thinking about the difference between western dialectics and eastern dialectics. What is a dialectic? Simply put (and this probably oversimplified) a dialectic is a statement that contains a thesis and an antithesis. For example, "I am a genius" and its antithesis, "I am not a genius." Or, perhaps in a more relevent context, the thesis: "God is love," countered by an antithesis, "God is not love." Ok...perhaps too oversimplified, but you get the idea.

In western dialectics, there is a tendency to blend the thesis and antithesis into a synthesis. What does this mean? Let's go back to my God example: Thesis: "God is love." Antithesis: "God is not love." Synthesis: "Given certain conditions, God might be love." While this way of thinking was certainly popularized by Hegel (and his students), I see a common thread all the way back to Aristotle. We can find strains of this reasoning in T. Aquinas and even Augustine. Why a synthesis? In the western mind, perhaps it's difficult to leave an antithesis an antithesis. Or, even more acutely, maybe the thesis does not reflect reality, or even a truth. So we need an antithesis. But reason shows us that maybe the antithesis doesn't get us any closer to reality, or a truth. So we try to blend these together in a synthesis. We do this in every day conversation. We might call it compromise - if two parties disagree, we try to find a solution that reflects a given from both parties. Though the real-life example is arguably a little different than the philosophy, you can see how we use this form of reason in everyday living.

So what is the Eastern dialectic? Well let me be forthright and admit: I am not an Eastern thinker. I can appreciate Eastern thinking, but I was schooled, nurtured, and raised in Western dialectics. So this is an attempt to flesh out Eastern dialectics. The book I was reading was discussing Buddhist dialectics of life and death of God and no-God. Pretty deep stuff - as I understand it, the Eastern dialectic is formulated with a thesis and an antithesis; however, the difference arises in what is done with these two forms. Where the Western thinker is not comfortable with a thesis and antithesis, the Eastern thinker finds completion in the formulation. Without a synthesis, the Eastern thinker affirms the paradox (did someone say Kierkegaard???). What does this mean? Let me try to be a little more creative:

The Eastern thinker finds a peculiar beauty in paradoxical "conclusions" because they reflect the "true" nature of things. Where the Buddhist finds comfort in the one truth of the universe (that all things change - nothing is static), the Hindu finds comfort in all is Brahmin. Each is an internal paradox - internal because it explains the outside world. The Buddhist says that "all is nothing" and "nothing is all" because it reflects the ever-changing, ever-flux of the universe. The Hindu says that "all is Brahmin" and "Brahmin is all" because the cosmic matrix is ultimately the same, the one, the Brahmin. The thesis and antithesis are strangely not that different. Where Westerners think a thesis and antithesis have to polar in relationship, Eastern thinking exposes the flaw in such argumentation. Eastern thought reflects the beauty, the strange aesthetic, the ultimate one-ness and shatteredness in reality. Eastern thought shows us that we are not necessarily thinking clearly in polar opposites, where if we challenge such thinking (in that the thesis and antithesis are closer in relationship), we can begin to touch that strange aethetic.

Does this translate into Western conceptions of God? Let's do some language games to put it to the test: Thesis: God is an active redeemer. Antithesis: God is not necessarily an active redeemer. The Eastern thinker stops here to analyze. What are we really saying in these two statements? They appear polar, but let's challenget that. Are they really? What are we saying in the antithesis? We're saying that God doesn't have to be an active redeemer in order to be God. Does God retain God-ly characteristics if God doesn't redeem? Does God have to redeem to be God? The Eastern thinker is fine with this analysis (I hope!) because it reflects what might be God in a changing universe: God might be a redeemer, God might not be a redeemer. Perhaps, and this is a guess, this sort of gets at why Buddhism doesn't center on a God - what's the use? Let's go a bit further: is there a way of synthesizing such an argument? Let's attempt it: God can be a redeemer, if God chooses to be, but God does not have to be a redeemer in order to be God. Does this get us any closer to what we might think of "truth"? Maybe so, maybe not.

What do you think? Have I butchered Hegel? Or, have I committed an offense against the Buddha? Or Shiva, or Krishna? Haha...outta this group I only care what Kierkegaard thinks...

5 Comments:

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Looney said...

It is interesting that you see this thread going all the way back to Aristotle, which would imply that the western dialectic isn't necessarily Christian at all. The free-will/predestination disputes being a prime example, which are best just accepted as both being true somehow and moving on, but this isn't possible within the Western Dialectic. Is this becuase of Christianity? Or perhaps because Christian thinkers still had some pre-Christian baggage?

I can remember when this really bugged me, but what cured it was my upper division quantum physics classes. How can it be both a wave and a particle. It made no sense. But then people tried to work out the physics without this and always ended up with equations that said the universe would blow up and had wonderful names like "the ultra-violet catastrophe".

This led me one step further: Not only is what you call the Eastern Dialectic Christian and true, but somehow I think it is necessary that things be this way for the universe to function at all. Thanks for the post.

 
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At 9:40 AM, Anonymous A. Houssney said...

You know there are also other ways of thinking besides the Greek tradition and the Far Eastern way.

The Hebrew mode, the dominant mode of the Bible's writers, and common thinking mode today in the Mideast, Africa and parts of Asia is not polar but multi-positional. Because it draws conclusions inductively, it does not rise or fall on strength of each assumption, but looks at the trends observed in the world. Therefore it can tolerate some tension or paradox.

The Greek approach - linear, and reductive - is like a telephoto lens, bypassing everything on the sides to focus on a small aspect of reality in order to understand it well even if the whole is not understood.
The Hebrew approach - web-like and additive - is more like a fisheye lens, zooming out to try to get everything in the frame, even if the details are a bit distorted.

IF we can practice thinking in both modes we have a powerful understanding of the totality of the gospel. Unfortunately the Church has pursued mainly the Greek stream, and neglected the Hebrew.

 
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