Why this “divide” matters

Prospect magazine has a piece online by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad exploring the “divide” between western and eastern philosophy.

A little over half-way in, Ram-Prasad touches on the political implications of western vs. eastern conceptions of the self:

The east/west divide on the self extends to political individualism. In different ways, both the major eastern traditions conceive of the individual in very particular terms. The responsibilities, entitlements and authority of individuals depend on their specific natures: people are not interchangeable in their rights and duties. If asked whether an individual either can or should do something, the classical Chinese or Indian would answer that it depended on that particular person’s nature. X might be heard in the royal court on account of his birth, personality and status, while Y, in the same official position, would not be accorded the same power.

This contrasts with the western idea of the self, which Ram-Prasad characterizes as “generic” individualism:

Under this notion, individuals are interchangeable; it does not matter who one is in biographical and psychologically specific terms. It is the general idea of the individual that is important, not the particularities of specific people. The rule of law, the formality of political institutions and the claim to universal rights have flown from this paradoxical idea of generic individualism, in which each person is equally like every other.

(Well, not “equally like,” perhaps, but accorded a uniform measure of minimum political power.)

In both classical Chinese and Indian thought, there is a contrasting “microindividualism”: each individual in a sociopolitical collective has specific burdens and freedoms. In China, this led to an organic communitarianism in which each individual, by doing exactly what was specific to themselves, contributed in his or her own special way to a larger entity—the Middle Kingdom. The particularity of each individual was significant to the extent they contributed to the polity as a whole, and therefore each individual was insignificant apart from that whole. In different ways, Confucian and Daoist thinkers subscribed to this idea, and it may help to explain why economic success has not prompted major demands for democracy in modern China. In India, this microindividualism, based on dharma—the nature and duty of each person—was supposed to lead to a social order in which there was clear differentiation of labour and functional expertise. The actual result was an explosion of multiple values evident in Indian democracy today. The implication in Indian and Chinese thought is of an infinite diversity of individualisms, a situation which generates many problems of equality and universality, but also suggests possibilities for political theories on how to live with fundamental difference.

Ram-Prasad doesn’t elaborate on those “possibilities for political theories.” I wish he had. As we plunge toward our common global destiny, Westerners need to have realistic expections for how our political values will be integrated — or not — into non-Western political systems. Otherwise, all we have is cliché. And misunderstanding, which is even worse.

[tags] China, India, politics [/tags]

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