The Great Convergence

Every great philosopher has a single thought, Martin Heidegger asserted. However questionable this claim might be, it applies without qualification to Mou Zongsan, China’s greatest modern philosopher (and perhaps also the world’s).

While the breadth of Mou’s scholarship is intimidating, it was made possible only by conformity to a methodical life-long study schedule, organized by a single idea. His one thought, which he translated into the language of Western Philosophy as ‘intellectual intuition’ (νοῦς, intellektuelle Anschauung), integrates not only his own thinking, but also — he consistently maintains — the entire Chinese philosophical tradition, of which it is the cap-stone, or guiding thread. Each of China’s three teachings (三教), Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist, tends to a principle of intellectual intuition in which it finds consummation as a “perfect teaching” and through which it adheres by inner necessity (rather than extrinsic cultural and historical accident) to the integral Chinese canon.

If any single concept has a density of significance sufficient to define the essence of a vast and highly-ramified world culture, it can be expected to resist casual comprehension. To understand it, as Mou painstakingly demonstrates, is not a preparatory step to thinking within the tradition, but the ultimate cultural task posed by the tradition, in each of its main constitutive strands. If Chinese culture shares an initiatory insight, it is not a readily concluded realization, but an integrative aspiration, which orients its various parts towards the same destination, or final achievement. Cognitive resolution is subordinated to practical development, through self-cultivation.

In the West, intellectual intuition is notoriously a difficult concept, to such an extent that it is widely dismissed as an example of philosophical extravagance, beyond all possibility of rigorous formulation, or theoretical use. Designating the direct self-apprehension of intelligence, it was associated from the earliest times with the process of divine mind. Aristotle’s God, whose self-contemplative thought is the turning of the highest action upon the highest object, epitomized the notion.

Kant determined intellectual intuition to lie beyond any possible human understanding, strictly exiling it to the outer sphere of divine intelligences. Henceforth, appeals to the concept would be the mark of romantic or ‘mystical’ philosophical undertakings (represented primarily by the thinkers of German ‘Objective Idealism’ and those influenced by them). As techno-scientific rationality incrementally supplanted speculative metaphysics, and divinities shriveled to implausible hypotheses, the significance of intellectual intuition contracted towards a vanishing point — whether discreditable eccentricity, or historical curiosity. In Mou Zongsan’s terms, Western philosophy, in keeping with its own cultural fatality, had become almost perfectly non-Chinese.

The ‘Great Divergence‘ familiar from discussions of world economic history, therefore, had a rigorously-determinable high-cultural counterpart, which explains why, when East and West experienced their hard encounter within modernity, they would be bound together through profound mutual estrangement. The idea identified by Mou Zongsan as the basic principle of Oriental Intelligence, through which — alone — Chinese culture makes sense, had been shelved by the Occident centuries before, as an oddity of speculative theology, and now lay buried in dust, barely recollected, let alone even tentatively understood.

If the idea of directly self-apprehending intelligence were to remain the preserve of 19th century German metaphysics, it is scarcely imaginable that the gulf between East and West — as Mou Zongsan understands it — could ever be more than tenuously bridged. Either the East would remain entirely inscrutable to all West, excepting only a cultural fringe of Orientalists, devoted to the pursuit of radical exoticism, or the East would depart fundamentally from its own cultural path, Westernizing itself until commensurable thinking was reached. Both of these prospects were explicitly deplored in the influential text “A Manifesto for a Re-appraisal of Sinology and Reconstruction of Chinese Culture” (为中国文化敬告世界人士宣言), signed by Mou Zongsan and three other ‘New Confucian’ students of Xiong Shili (Zhang Junmai, Tang Junyi, and Xu Fuguan), originally published in 1958.

That the tide of the economic and geostrategic Great Divergence turned in the final decades of the last century is a matter of indisputable fact, confirmed by a deluge of quantitative performance indicators. The cultural aspect of this reversal is necessarily more complicated, and contentious. In the West, there are no doubt very many who would account for the transition in terms of Chinese Westernization, beginning with the adoption of European ‘scientific socialism’ in the late 1940s, and maturing through liberalization — or economic-technological globalization — until reaching the moon.

A very different narrative, and one in which the emerging status of Mou Zongsan could be far more positively limned — would adhere tightly to the problem of intellectual intuition, or self-apprehending intelligence. The most significant reference would be I J Good, and his path-breaking essay ‘Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine’, composed in the early 1960s and first published in 1965. In this paper, Good writes:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind … Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. It is curious that this point is made so seldom outside of science fiction. It is sometimes worthwhile to take science fiction seriously.

The techno-scientific horizon is described by a reflexive intelligence, practically apprehending itself, and in doing so marking the final human purpose. This is quite evidently ‘intellectual intuition’ as it emerges at the outer-edge of modernity, rather than among the jumbled curiosities of its philosophical ancestry. If it corresponds to the Chinese cultural core — as Mou Zongsan doggedly maintains — it is as an anticipated destination, rather than an abandoned legacy. Advanced modernization heads towards it.

While, superficially, the tale of Chinese modernity might be construed as the replacement of Confucius by robotics, careful attention to the problem of intellectual intuition suggests something very different. Self-cultivation or self-improving intelligence — what sort of choice is that?

3 thoughts on “The Great Convergence

  1. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » The Great Convergence

  2. That great polish writer Stanislaw Lem in his Summa Technologiae gave us much the same.
    Summa is not for the faint-hearted. Starting with a title that pastiches Thomas Aquinas’s 13th-century Summa Theologiae, Lem sets out to replace god with reason. Zylinska’s introduction lays out the map. Is the phenomenon that is humanity typical or exceptional in the universe? Does plagiarising nature count as fraud? Do we need consciousness for human agency? Should we trust our thoughts or perceptions? Are we controlling technology – or vice versa?

    It is amazing how much Lem got right, or even predicted. This ranges across artificial intelligence, the theory of search engines (he called it “ariadnology”), bionics, virtual reality (“phantomatics”), technological singularity and nanotechnology.

    But Lem’s philosophical ambition is the real meat. Zylinska quotes an essay by biophysicist Peter Butko, who describes Summa as an “all-encompassing… discourse on evolution: not only… of science and technology… but also evolution of life, humanity, consciousness, culture, and civilization”.

    All of which would be pretty indigestible without the mix of intellectual brio, asides, ironies and jokey interludes for which Lem’s novels have prepared us.

    Take what happens halfway through: suddenly, in a section on chaos and order, Lem recasts the universe as a boarding house inhabited by a bank clerk called Mr Smith, his puritanical aunt, and a female lodger. The house has a glass wall, and all the greats of science have to peer through and draw truths about the universe from what they observe.

    Lem’s version of Claudius Ptolemy notes how, when the aunt goes to the cellar to fetch some vegetables, Mr Smith kisses the lodger. Ptolemy develops a purely descriptive theory, so “one can know in advance which position will be taken by the two upper bodies when the lower one finds itself in the lowest position”.

    Isaac Newton enters, declaring that “the bodies’ behaviour depends on their mutual attraction”. And so it goes on. Werner Heisenberg notices indeterminacy in their behaviour: “For instance, in the state of kissing, Mr Smith’s arms do not always occupy the same position.” Mathematics comes unstuck in the ensuing complexity, whereby “a neural equivalent of an act of sneezing would be a volume whose cover would have to be lifted with a crane”.

    So, science is steadily pushing us into a cul-de-sac where, the more accurate our theory, the closer it comes to the phenomenon itself, in all its indeterminacy. Lem asks where we go from here, and comes to a startling and mordant conclusion: analysis must be abandoned in favour of creative activity – of “imitological practice”, as he would have it.

    Intelligence carries conscious beings to a point where their theories are no longer useful to them, where hard-won objectivity drowns in a glut of complexity, and where the only way forward is for the beings to “grow” into the fabric of the world. Why examine the world further when we know enough to rebuild it in our own image? So creative work displaces analysis, and science becomes performative and playful.

    What would a civilisation that made this choice and took this path look like? Lem’s answer is: look at the rocks. Intelligence is a stepping stone on a circular path back to mere brute being. How’s that for a cosmic irony? We expend all that effort, just to return to the clay from which we emerged in the first place!

  3. You make an irresistible case for adding this work to my already-colossal ‘has to be checked out’ list. [sigh]

    That ‘circular path’ you reach at the end sounds as if it could work in a number of different ways. Exploratory spirals can look a lot like meta-static cycles when they’re examined casually, or not fully understood.

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