Monday, May 07, 2007

Things I Learned at the New Humanism Conference, Part I

I went to the New Humanism Conference at Harvard two weeks ago, and I've had writers' block about it ever since. I think I've finally figured out why: I've been trying to write something that captures everything I learned, pulling it all together and capping it with a bright red bow.

Not going to happen. Too much. Too big.

The conference was full of stars: novelist Salman Rushdie, biologist E. O. Wilson, singer Dar Williams, Senate candidate Ned Lamont, and some other very important people who I hope are not insulted to be left off that list. Some of the talks launched me into idea-fugues of my own, leaving me unable to say exactly which ideas were theirs and which are mine.

This morning I figured out that I can break the logjam by starting small. One of the talks that got the least buzz at the conference was by Tu Weiming, a professor of Chinese history and philosophy at Harvard. Busting myths about Humanism was a general theme of the conference, and Weiming was part of a panel busting this myth: Humanism is a purely Western phenomenon that we are either exporting to or imposing on the rest of the world. Weiming tackled the subject of Confucian humanism.

My notes are a complete injustice to Weiming's talk. I fugued, but along the way I came to understand something about the East/West divide that I had never grasped before: the difference between Eastern and Western ways of thinking about self. In the West the self is a thing; it has an inside, an outside and a boundary. Sometimes when we're explaining things, we'll draw a little blob to represent ourselves. Other people have their own blobs, and each one has its own unique essence. When I learn and change, something is happening inside the blob that represents me. You could pick that blob up and put it somewhere else without changing its essence.

But when Weiming talked about the Confucian self, it sounded different. "The self is never an isolated individual but a center of relationship." I puzzled over that and similar statements for a while, until a new framing metaphor popped into my head: Weiming was viewing the self not as a blob, but as a point. A point doesn't have the space to contain an inner essence; all it has is a location. It exists on a map. And a person grows in wisdom by getting a ever richer picture of the map, not by developing the interior of the self.

To a Westerner that metaphor sounds, well, empty. If I'm a point, somebody could plunk me down somewhere else and I'd be just like the points that are in that location. If I moved to Detroit and became a lawyer, I'd be just another Detroit lawyer. We think that way because our maps are impoverished compared to the map of a Confucian sage. The sage understands the uniqueness of each location on his multi-dimensional map. I'd be not just another Detroit lawyer, but one who had these parents and went to that school and read those books and was influenced by such-and-such ideas. That would all be represented by my location, my point of view.

Two individuals, in this metaphor, are separated by a distance rather than a wall. The distance is ultimately uncrossable. I can move closer to your point of view, but you have spent your entire life getting where you are. I will never arrive at your location, nor you at mine. In the Confucian model, this -- not some interior essence -- is our individuality.

The Confucian humanist "seeks harmony without conformity by dialog. Dialog is not a way of persuasion; its purpose is to find out what we do not know." Conformity would be an artificial attempt to mask the distance between us, to hide the fact that we are in different locations and view things differently. And yet, despite our distance, we can harmonize our actions to achieve common purposes.

As I experimented with this model -- thinking of myself as a point rather than a blob -- a lot of Eastern (not just Confucian) thought made more sense to me. All the Buddhist talk about "the emptiness of the self" -- a Westerner hears that and pictures a blob with a vacuum inside. But points are empty because they have no interior into which you can put stuff. There is no vacuum, only a recognition that the space you imagined inside yourself is a misconception. Westerners hear about "destroying the Ego" and imagine that it involves achieving some universal point-of-view. If I read this metaphor right, the exact opposite happens: You understand that all you are is a point of view. The Ego is the illusory wall you have built around all the things to which you are attached.

I'm pretty sure Weiming said the stuff in quotes. As for the rest of it, I don't know. It happened somewhere in the space between us.


Joe G. said...

I hope you will post more about your experiences at this Conference and you're able to. I like the bite-size approach so far; that is, describing what you attended and what you thought of it.

kim said...

I love it. I've been saying "point of view" for years. This is great. I hope you'll write about the rest of the conference too.

joshkutchinsky said...

I was there too. I agree with how difficult it was to make sense of it all. I am from across the pond in London, UK. I was tired the morning of Tu Weiming's talk and also irritated and distracted by the lack of Amartya Sen's appearance other than on video. Tu Weiming spoke imediately after the video interview. I have tried to summarise some of my conclusions about the conference at

Anonymous said...

the idea of self, as a dot, reminds me of the eastern concept of time. It seems that eastern concepts are not linear. They reflect a more 3 dimensional (or more dimensions?) perspective. A dot moves in relationship to its surroundings. Those surroundings need not be in linear order. In a similar way, the eastern concept of time which has no beginning and no end, is far more fluid. The concept of time is not linear and neither is the concept of a dot within a matrix.

Jim Farmelant said...

Actually I thought that Tu Weiming's conception of a Confucian humanism as he presented it in his talk at the New Humanism conference sounded very Deweyian to me, which may or may not be an accident, since John Dewey did in fact spend some time teaching in Beijing back in the 1920s. By most accounts he had a very profound influence on the young Chinese intellectuals of that time, so I wouldn't at all be surprised if some people went and reinterpreted Confucius in light of Dewey's pragmatistic humanism

Paul said...

So people at their best are points with maps. Big maps.