On A Way To Syntext: A Methodology For The Understanding Of Cultures (An abstract)


By Zhao Tingyang

Professor of Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

1. The Ecologicalized Understanding of Culture

When I started writing “One Problem Or All Problems” in 1995, what I imagined is a kind of methodology of philosophy, which, as anticipated, might be an active way to reshape the conception of cultural problems and the fundamental problems in humanities and social sciences. One of the basic assumptions is as follows: at least in terms of culture, everything is nothing but a factum (a thing that has been done), and a factum is made in an action with values, therefore, everything in cultural life is an open problem. So when considering a culture problem, if reasonable is the assumption that everything is a problem , we have to confront the problem formula of “one or all”. That is to say, when trying to solve a single problem, we have to put all problems into consideration because of all things relating to a thing in the context being actually problematic. On the other hand, due to the fact that we are always forced to continuously consider one problem by another, we have to understand all kinds of problem as a synthesized total in order to avoid the loss of anything important . This problem formula is more or less paradoxical, which means that it is impossible to obtain the universal or necessary knowledge of culture or society, because any object in consideration is always a problem, and so is our way of thinking in use. Therefore it leads us to recognize, at least in terms of humanity knowledge, there could never be a way for us to surpass skepticism.

With the inspirations from the skepticism of Socrates and Wittgenstein, and from the flexible interpretation theory of Laozi. I am led to discover that the culture problems should be interpreted aesthetically because of the skeptical result in epistemology. This is a post-epistemological interpretation, specially emphasizing that our failure , in seeking the universal and necessary knowledge of society and life to determine what is right and wrong , does not mean that the cultures could be entitled to be successfully but unbridly determined by political, economical and military powers, but does mean that the cultures could have their values and rights through an aesthetic interpretation. Perhaps it should be mentioned that the aesthetic interpretation is not so relative as commonly held -though of course impossible to be definitive-but could be an interpretation for us to re-obtain the reliable grounds.1

There is fairly the practical acquiesce in the interpretation of culture by power,. Foucault had provided us with the best description of the interactive relation of knowledge/power.2 We could observe that in today’s globalization movement, the power interpretation on culture further becomes an obvious fact of cultural hegemony, and in much an extent an American cultural strategy. For example, Joseph S. Nye has even wanted America to consolidate it,3 he claims that soft power (culture and ideology) has become a most important force, although America has done not too bad on that-“Europeans and Asians want to watch American films and TV” because of “American cultural and ideological appeal”-but it is not enough, for “American is bigger than all the other players overall, but it does not possess overwhelming superiority in all key areas.” Even let aside the different countries’ political and cultural interests, Nye’s viewpoint, which represents today many people’s weak wisdom in the sense of aesthetics or the virtue of culture, is unacceptable from a pure theoretical perspective . Whatever culture we belong to, whether or not it is strong, do we want our culture lose its vitality and creativity because of the dullness by mono-culture? The reduction of cultures to only one is cultural-ecologically nearsighted, for the ecological reciprocity must also be a law for the survival of all cultures.

It is shown there has already been the dangerous tendency of dullness and meaningless in today’s cultures, from mass culture to academic studies. It is the tendency of normalization of the problems of life and feelings 4 and reduction of our sensitivity and unique experience-while arises a question: are the normalization and institutionalization necessarily bad things? Isn’t the American mass culture, for instance, the most attractive? This question is a little bit silly, however, still important, for the meaning of a thing in culture is nothing but “attractiveness”, and it seems that we have difficulty in finding a better interpretation. But I would very much like to point out that the normalization’s basic fault lies in that it will numb the mind bit by bit , in a relative long time, till the last bit of passion and make a dead mind.5 Normalizing the life problems and our feelings is actually to establish a form of inner bureaucracy, and make peoples lose the aesthetic meaning or the virtue of culture of their minds and tired of themselves.

The virtue of culture or aesthetic virtue of culture should be accounted as the key word in understanding culture, just like truth is made to be a key word in understanding knowledge (in a sense, truth might be the virtue of knowledge). As the epistemological expectation, truth is believed to be the best or only valid explanation of the world while make other alternative explanations to appear to be incorrect, that is, the more it looks epistemologically like an unique answer , the more it appears to be a truth.6However, it is quite different in the case of culture. Every culture is pursuing it’s own aesthetic virtue. The “aesthetic virtue” here means the irreducible imaginations and touching ways in a culture. It requires at least two things: 1) the ability to provide enigmatic and irreducible experiences or imaginations; and 2) the ability to produce the acts with autotelic goodness.7 The varities or diversity of cultural virtues is the ecological condition of cultures. Every culture interacts with other cultures .When in a case without concern over the political and economical interests, other culture or the exotic is apparently the inspiration and attraction that could activate the local culture itself. The dialogue among cultures and their dialectical interactions should not mainly be scientific , but aesthetic, that is, the experience from the others becomes the inspirational resources for new experience. Meanwhile, the self-reflection stimulated by new experiences makes the original fresh experience and inspiration in a culture itself, this is always an important condition for a creative development in culture.8 Marcus and Fischer’s theory of defamiliarization has well explained the importance of cultural interaction and reflection.9 Le Pichon’s emphasis of the conception of trans-cultures is calling further for very much opened exchange of experiences among cultures. Furthermore, the importance of trans-cultural dialogue is not only obtaining for both sides the inspirations, but could also be understood as “reciprocal-verification in values”, that is, the value of a culture could be enhanced when it is made to be a function of the ecosystem of human cultures. If there is only one culture with only one language, one system of representation or one system of concepts in the world, its aesthetic life would gradually lose its originality then finally become a routine.

One of the obvious changes brought by globalization is the centralization of culture problem-the globalization of economy, technology, commerce and communication is no problem, while culture is the final problem. However, seeing this final problem as cultural or political conflicts is an unimaginative though practical viewpoint. As I have been trying to explain above, to resolve conflicts through cultural hegemony and formulate a unified model for culture would hurt the creativity in any cultural development, for the worst, there would finally be the ecocide of cultures. We hold the reasons to see the surviving of cultures as a global ecological problem (similar to that of the natural environment). Culture is structured biologically rather than physically or logically. Only culture is seen as an organism that we could understand the-cannot-be-reduced and the-cannot-be-said by which we are moved.10 Culture-cide is homicide. Especially, culture is an ecosystem, which is needed in the same way like the natural environment-we could not live for lack of a sound natural environment whereas our life would be meaningless for lack of a sound cultural environment. The variety is rightly the ecological requirement of culture, and is the condition for a culture to keep its creativity and produce the ways of moving.

Seeing intercultural relations as cultural or political wars looks like a complex as a sign of cultural psychological immaturity. This abnormal complex prevents us from going deep in understanding culture. It actually needs nothing but the most honest intuition and reasoning, and we could find out that the fundamental expectation of human being toward life is an aesthetic one, because good life requires the ability to provide a lot of moving things, especially those unexpected. We might say, to be is to be moved. The real metaphysics of culture must be true to the meaning of life. But today’s culture is losing many intuitions to life, especially is being alienated to be the commercial, technological and bureaucratic institutions far from a meaningful life. Culture is becoming de-cultured, hence must be re-cultured. In a simple way, we need 1) to establish an aesthetic understanding and understand human behavior as acts qua arts, or to be aware of that acts are arts in order to re-understand their rich variety and all kinds of irreducible details in culture; and if-and-only-if 2)to establish intercultural ethical relations based on the principle of Levinas’ theory of the Other as You.11 In a sense, this would be a rewriting of the conception of the human rights, in which the right and value of the Other mind would be put first in the series of rights.12

2. Syntext

The concept syntext is prepared for a methodology of meta-cultural critique, by which we could turn our way of understanding that is based on the logical system of ideas to an aesthetic one that is based on the ecological system of ideas. As stated above, the aesthetic way is best favorable for understanding the advantages or virtues of different cultures, and this is the basis for any culture to develop creatively. Apparently people would accept a theory of nature considered to be true. However, it is equally apparent that people would not accept a theory of society because it is said to be true (of course, in fact, almost no social knowledge is truth). People accept a cultural idea mainly because it has , after all, the aesthetic virtue as an appeal to their minds. “Truth” means less in the case of cultural things, and people pursue beauty or some aesthetic values instead.13

We have been too used to using logical system of ideas in a reductive way to analyze-anatomy in a sense-the culture, especially the other cultures, as the pieces of propositions, that is, to analyze a whole story into plot pieces that break the meaning as a whole , then to reassemble them to form the so-called logical meaning.14 The logical interpretation of things is a very common and normal academic work in the disciplines of social sciences. It is very useful when constructing a theory, but we have to be on alert against it , and must grasp things through aesthetic or ecological ways of understanding and then keep in mind what things really are when we use logic to form a distortion of things, otherwise a thing will be logically reduced to nothing.15Here, I am not objecting to logic but requiring correct practical use of logic. It should not be a surprise that we are inclined to anatomy other cultures logically , for the Other’s minds or cultures are always strange, and out of the alert to strangers, we cannot help breaking a strange other cultures into pieces in order to overcome the feeling of strangeness. In that way, we always conclude that they are nothing but such and such, as we logically describe/destruct it. And we lose the source of creativity in others’ minds in the epistemological analysis of “nothing but such and such”. What needs to be specially mentioned here is that my theory is not a Saidian criticism of the western cultural hegemony.16 Quite like what is the case when some western countries politically treat the oriental cultures, many criticism against western cultural hegemony carry too much political concern . Political emotion is narrow-minded, but unfortunately the so-called cultural conflict is a fact and a problem that we have to face. But for whatever reason, the political approach should neither be used in a very long-term, nor it is one with theoretical merit. We are forced to consider the political problem of the cultural conflict, but we should not expect the conflict to exist forever (to expect that way might be a little bit wicked-minded or narrow-minded). Cultural criticism today is very popular. It is important under the political background, but its political attitude and narrow theoretical basis might be a long-term worry.

So I would like to put forward a new way of understanding culture that is generous to different cultures. It is an aesthetic way that would treat any culture without interests. And it would satisfy Levinas’ ethic principle of meeting you as You in absolute respect -what is aesthetic and what is moral finally would become one thing , Wittgenstein has pointed out this.17 An aesthetic-or artistic18-perspective/horizon would help us to surpass many thinking barriers or limitations, especially to overcome the fear and resist due to the sense of strange when confronting with Other cultures, and to actively find and accept creative ideas from different cultures and traditions , because an aesthetic perspective/horizon is the way in which we are always addicted to discover beauty and free of interest burden, and the discovery of Other’s beauty would reshape our culture itself. This might be said a thinking way that bears least moral drawbacks—the aesthetic is much more generous and justice than the ethic , for the ethic norms care for interests after all whereas the aesthetic is so pure that it could be the real ethic . So it could be an explanation of why the aesthetic and the ethic are one thing.

There are two principles that should be taken into account: 1) to be true to mind. At many times epistemology is applied to value and culture problems, such as in the case of trying to find the truth of mind, but quite unexpectedly, the so-called truth of mind is not true to mind. The aesthetic way of understanding is the most open, most generous and most sensitive , hence the most sincere understanding of mind; 2) to be fair to minds. People seem to have such a narcissistic feeling of their own minds that the Others’ minds could not be treated fairly, and as a result , every mind including the minds of their own, would not be treated fairly. Here we would find the absoluteness of Levinas’ principle of I-You (Levinas’ principle can be seen as a new golden rule19).

Syntext is a practical project under the above principle. My conception of syntext is based on many thinkers’ inspiration, such as from Geertz (thick description)20, Marcus and Fischer (anthropology as cultural critique), Le Pichon (trans-cultures), Wang Mingming (historical anthropology)21, and especially the philosophical methodology of Socrates, Freud and Wittgenstein. To construct a syntext, as I suppose, should have the considerations as follows:

(1)A culture is or must be a whole story. A culture has its inner net of ideas and way of connecting to form a clue of its own , any understanding as anatomy would separate the whole into ridicules pieces of ideas. For example, the Chinese traditional culture is often interpreted as a Confucian culture system, as if all of the Chinese mainly rely on such a few simple, hollow and funny Confucian concepts to lead their lives and formulate the social institutions. The broken story lacking multi-disciplinary understandings is very much unreal.22 And it is specially needed to be noticed that the values in a culture is in an order (sometimes the order is subject to specific situation), rather than some scattered factors that can be considered separately. The ignorance of the order would lead us to misunderstandings. There is a manifestation called “Global Ethic” 23which tried to explain such moral norms as “no killing, no theft, no lying and no adultery” as the most basic norms by the reason that every culture has such norms, and therefore argued that they must be the global norms. Indeed, all cultures have such norms, while the problem is, as in the Chinese traditional culture, these norms are not always the basic or the top priority according to the order. Although people have the right to misread a culture, but it would be a failure to read a culture with no aesthetic sense of a culture as a whole story. Given that x, y have the relation R, in xRy it should not be taken for granted that x (or y) is pre-defined in itself, we should see that any each of them is to be defined by the relation R, that is to say, relation R is of priority.

(2)Therefore, syntext must also be a live story. We have emphasized that the relations between ideas or things are of priority, and we need further be aware of that all of the relations are live (those universal and necessary logical relations are dead , and they are universal and necessary because they are dead, they are the relations of propositions in logical expression, not the live relations among ideas24). Live relations mean that at many times they seem to be abnormal and absurdum, while become actually reasonable in the flow. That is to say, the reasons of a culture have often to wait for their forming in the next step, in other words, our conducts create the uncertain relations that allow the rules to be in the future. Hence the reasons in the culture are unpredictable yet designed, similar to the creation of a work of art. Syntext, on one hand, is an interpretation of the culture, on the other hand, a work in the culture. This self-reflexivity of syntext make it be expected to be vanguard in thinking, and thus make it a story de avangarde.

The emphasis of syntext as the live story de avangarde is to require it open to all of the humanities and social sciences and all ways of thinking and their co-operations in artistic ways, with the especial focuses on the possible problems in the future. This expects a change in our academic thinking that leads to, instead of the logical descriptions and interpretations of facts, an experimental art of ideas to make an enticing situation of facts vis-a-vis fictions. To a great extent, a meaningful thought always exemplify itself in the format “is-upon-ifs”, in other words, a thinking format of “facts with the absurdum” to explore possible lives, it is often the case at least in philosophy. For the culture, do we really need truth? No, what we need is story. Since relation is to be explained in verbs, not by nouns, we need the thinking-in-verbs, as different from the traditional theoretical thinking-in-nouns.25 That is to think in “an act means…”more rather than “a thing is…” (the difference might also be considered the difference between artistic thinking and logic thinking. Here I am apparently inspired by the working ways of artists).

(3)To make a syntext is to detect the sub-ideas26 and sub-problems in a culture, a mind or a system of ideas. The reason to do so is that except the instinctive subconscious that influences people’s attitude and choice secretly as Freud discovered, there are many ideas pretending to be secrets but consciously guiding people’s actual choice. That means, people’s high-sounding values and judgements are to a great extent nothing but wordings and excuses (diplomacy is a typical example, and the American “politically right” is another). Of course, those wordings or excuses do influence us a great deal, but far from sufficient, and they need final explanations by sub-ideas. The out-spoken ideas or arguments are forever the fake and incomplete stories, never the full versions, and always the narcissistic confessions that evade the crucial, and do for the private in disguise of public. This is why we do not believe the self-manifestation by others on the grounds of others, and others do not believe our interpretations on the grounds of ours. Thus we need to try our best to reveal the sub-ideas and sub-problems in order to be clear about the cards of the ideas in hand and the possibilities for self-defending. We could find out that the our cards in mind are not only a lot, but also a chaotic mass, anything included (all kinds of private balancing , absurd fantasy and imaginations, bigotry ideals, lovely or ugly faults and human relations and class bias, etc.). All of them are going to be the reasons or causes of choices or actions. As what people usually expressed is not true to their minds, according to the principle of “to be true to mind”, it is apparently necessary to re-integrate the whole story of mind. Now that underlying our high-sounding theories or statements there are so many ridiculous ideas and never answered problems, I would like to say: absurdum ut intelligas.27

It is not difficult to see that re-integration is designed to compensate the loss caused by reduction as the general methodology of science and logic.28 In a sense, Freud, Wittgenstein, Braudel and many anthropologists are aware of the problem in different perspectives. What I want to specially point out is that “to be true to mind” also means equally aware of the equally important functions of minds, or equally important aspects of culture. Usually some functions or factors are thought to be more important than the others and focused by us more. For example, the rational function of mind is often believed to be the most important, all of the other aspects are nothing but trivial borders. Of course, since Freud, people have known the importance of subconscious whereas many other aspects remain to be ignored, such as body sensation, feelings, day-dreams and fancy or imagination, etc. All kinds of absurd ideas, such as day-dreams and imaginations, are equally fighting for their rights, for every aspect of our mind is full of desires and requires wonderful stories. Only if all aspects of mind are allowed to own wonderful and important stories, the meaning of life can possibly be found.

There are many operations that can reveal sub-ideas and sub-problems. From the point of view of philosophy, it might be especially important to go back to natural/everyday language to re-discover problems.29 As we know, it is impossible to find a language that is more basic than natural/everyday language. So the cultural and thought problems will finally expressed in a subtle way in natural/everyday language. Whether it is western masters or eastern masters of ancient times had all told the most vital wisdom in natural/everyday language. Socrates’ dialectic requestioning and Wittgenstein’s analysis30 are all best examples. However, to me, the main reason to rewrite the analysis of mind or culture into a whole story through the finding of sub-ideas and sub-problems is for establishing a syntext as an aesthetic understanding, not for obtaining propositions as knowledge. I believe that this is a better effort. Although both Socrates and Wittgenstein have realized the profound dilemma of epistemology, they would not forget the epistemological pursuit (which should be the typical thought path of the West). Wittgenstein had expressed the paradox that Socrates had met in Meno: How do I know that I have found that which I was looking for?31 In my opinion, this is the final question of epistemology, and the turning point where I started to turn to post-epistemological understanding.

1 In fact, the cultural expressions as arts always make the seemingly smooth transcultural understanding and even with more mutual senses.
2 Cf. Foucault: Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1971, London, and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1977, London.
3 J. Nye: Boston Globe, Aug. 6, 1999 and New York Times, Jan. 3, 2000.
4 The standard modern mass culture seems to establish a model of happy life, somewhat like soap drama, while a Chinese expression “happiness of fool” may well describe it.
5 Wang Shuo, a writer, has a saying about mass culture and good art, “mass culture does nothing but taking everything away from your mind, whereas good art always puts something into your mind”.
6 The understanding of truth here is quite western, at least in Chinese thoughts, truth seems not having such requirement, but mainly requiring “effectiveness”, that is, the best choice that could reach the goal in very specific situation. Obviously, this conception of truth does not require universality and necessity, not the extravagant expectation of being true in all possible worlds.
7 Cf. My book On Possible Lives, 1995, SDX Joint, Beijing.
8 The history seems to have proved that the culture’s creative developments always have something to do with the stimulation and inspiration from different experiences with different cultures. For example, the Greek civilization with the inspiration from Egypt and Babylon, Renaissance with the inspiration of the rediscovery of the Greek, and the Warring States Period in China with the diversified interaction, Buddhism’s reshape of Chinese culture and the modern western culture’s coming into China, etc. However, today’s globalization movement is not the creative interaction between cultures, but mainly the replacement of other cultures with the American version and its mass culture.
9 Cf. George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer: Anthropology as Cultural Critique, 1986, Univ. of Chicago Press.
10 In Wittgensteinian sense, cf. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1958, London. In 4.1212: what can be shown cannot be said. And in 6.522: there is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.
11 Cf. Levinas: Totality and Infinity, 1979, Martinus Nijhoff.
12 The current concept of human rights mainly focuses on private property, individual freedom and political rights, which are of course important , but if the Other mind’s thoughts and cultural values are not respected first, then life still lacks its fundamental significance. We should consider Rorty’s idea of the problem “who are we”. Cf. R. Rorty: “Who Are We?”, in Diogenes, No. 173, 1996.
13 Modern aesthetics, especially since Kant, has been understood as a theory of aesthetic attitude or feeling. This is an incorrect space that epistemology has left to aesthetics. In fact, aesthetic way of understanding is a way of thinking and an objective structure of culture.
14 The analytic philosophy likes to exaggerate the importance of logical analysis. In fact, something completely logically meaningful might be a completely nonsense, especially in the case of culture. However, Derrida’s deconstruction is another exaggeration in literature. In a sense, analytic philosophy can be said a destruction of the real life story.
15 There might a simple and not so strict example, The word “Ge’er Men’er” (buddy or pal, literally means brother-like) in Beijing dialect needs a local understanding and is difficult to understand logically. It neither mean “friend”, for friend in Chinese may carry more serious sense of responsibility, nor “close as brothers”, for it is too close, nor “allies”, for that would be to somewhat snobbish. It, of course, conforms the friendly but casual style of Beijing local life. Even this explanation is not subtle enough.
16 Cf. Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1978, Penguin.
17 Cf. Witttgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.421.
18 cf. My book: One Or All Problems, 1998, Jiangxi Education Press, China, in which I tried to develop the artistic horizon into a meta-ideology.
19 To follow Levinas’ principle of I-You, the golden rule seems to be reinterpreted, under the principle of the Otherness instead of that of X-Scanned: By Symantec Anti-Virus Scan Engine
Subjectivity, as “Never do to others whatever others would not like you to do to them”, instead of “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you” in Matthew.
20 Cf. Geertz: The interpretation of Cultures, 1973, New York.
21 Cf. Wang Mingming: The Past Prosperity of a Port, 1999, Zhijiang People’s Press.
22 Qin Hui has a better explanation on No. 55, 2000, Book Review Weekly, where he pointed out that the Legalists decides more on behavior and institution. In addition, F. Jullien’s Le Detour et L’Access has excellent analysis to Chinese way of thinking.
23 Cf. Hans Kung and Karl-Josef Kuschel: A Global Ethic: the Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1993, the Continuum Pub.
24 Such logical relations as ∧,∨ etc., are very abstract, not able to express all of the relations in the real life, such as affinity, contrastive, interactive, circulating, ranking, priority, coordinate, associative, hostile, complex and friendly, etc.
25 Cf. my book: One Or All Problems. In which give an idea of “to be is to do” instead of “to be is to be a thing”.
26 The concept of sub-ideas was inspired by Freud’s concept of sub-conscious, and sub-ideas are rational whereas subconscious is irrational.
27 Cf. Tertullian’s expression of “Credo quia absurdum est” and St. Augustine’s expression of “Credo ut intelligas”.
28 The analytical philosophy’s logical reduction pursues accuracy and Husserl’s transcendantal reduction pursues pureness, both would lose many that are necessarily worth of consideration.
29 The everyday language analytical philosophers at Oxford, such as Ryle and Austin have made wonderful efforts on that, but in my opinion, none are as deep as what Wittgenstein had found.
30 Wittgenstein’s anti-private language argument is one of the best analyses. Cf. Philosophical Investigations, 1967, Basil Blackwell. And also the ethical argument. Cf. “A Lecture on Ethics”, in Philosophical Review, 74/1965.
31 Wittgenstein: Philosophical Remarks, 1975, Basil Blackwell, cf. Plato: Meno, 80D.