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Crafting a Philosophy for 21st Century Challenges

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Photo Credit: Caitriana Nicholson
When we discussed the nature of philosophy in the East Asian context last summer, Professor John Hyman of Oxford University reminded me of the fact that: “the great philosophers of the twentieth century expressed very different views about the nature of philosophy, and about the relationship between philosophy and science.  On the one hand, Bertrand Russell insisted that ‘philosophy cannot be fruitful if divorced from empirical science’. On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that the desire to imitate science ‘leads philosophers into complete darkness.’ Is philosophy a humanistic discipline? How is it related to the other subjects in the humanities, and to science and mathematics?” From an Asian perspective, great thinkers such as Kang Youwei, Zhang Taiyan, Mao and Gandhi were all great philosophers. So, it is not necessary to limit ourselves to philosophy as a self-contained academic subject. I prefer to rethink the mission of the humanities in its broad sense. 

In China, the humanities sustain a long and rich tradition
 
The humanities and liberal education are the soul of the university. In China, the humanities sustain a long and rich tradition, but they only became part of the programme of a modern university as recently as the twentieth century. Classical learning in China was categorized according to diverse schemes such as the Six Arts, the Seven Epitomes, or the Four Branches. Research and education were carried out in institutions such as schools of classical learning, including the Imperial College and private academies, and in Buddhist temples or vihāra. It was at the end of the nineteenth century and mainly in the twentieth century that the humanities were formally established according to the system of the modern university and its disciplinary principles.
 
From the perspective of history, the humanities have three characteristics:
 
     First, the humanities, as we think of them today, developed during the process of nation-state formation, were deeply influenced by European and American universities, and are closely associated with the self-image of a modern nation-state. 
 
     Second, the humanities came into being as theology/classical learning gradually lost its sacredness and dominance, and they developed post-theological/classical or secular values for human beings. 

     Lastly, the humanities were born in a competition for dominance with the sciences. They were deeply influenced by modern scientific methodology, but at the same time attempted to prove their independent status as different from science in their goals and methods. The humanities and liberal education are the areas where the traditional and the modern can best negotiate with each other, because they aim to understand human experience and develop human values. 
 
The humanities and liberal education are the areas where the traditional and the modern can best negotiate with each other

These three characteristics of the humanities raise the following questions: 
 
1.    Rethinking the humanities in the age of globalization.  How should we analyze the relationship between the humanities and diverse humanistic traditions?
 
2.    Rethinking the humanities in a so-called "post-secular age." Economic globalization has not led to a thorough “disenchantment” of the world, as some modern thinkers claimed it would. On the contrary, as secular life developed, religions and diverse traditions were reinvigorated. Even in China, a country widely regarded as relatively secular, different types of religious revival have occurred. How should the task of the humanities be redefined in this changed context? Is the category of “post-secular age” a proper term to describe and define the phenomena in non-Western cultures? 

Artificial intelligence, genetic technology and ecological science, among others, are impacting every aspect of human society
 
3.    Rethinking the humanities and new developments of science and technology. The status of the modern humanities was established in its relationship with and difference from science. Artificial intelligence, genetic technology and ecological science, among others, are impacting every aspect of human society. How should the relationship between the humanities and sciences be reassessed, in the light of these developments? How can the humanities benefit from these developments in science while remaining critical and reflective?
 
4.    The potentials and limits of the humanities in a digital age.  Trans-lingual, trans-regional and cross-cultural studies have subsequently acquired new spaces. How should the humanities develop in the digital age?
 
5.    The contemporary economic and political crisis is at the same time a crisis of social-political paradigms that have shaped our social-political thinking since nineteenth century. We may argue further that the crisis is a crisis of values. One of the contemporary missions for humanist scholars and intellectuals is inevitably the reconsideration of the basic principles and the development of new interpretation of history and its contemporary changes. 
 
After the collapse of the Socialist Bloc, the War on Terror, religious conflicts, ecological devastation, high-risk society and financial crisis all exposed the deep contradictions within the global capitalist system. Western-style democracy is seeming ever more hollow, while newer democracies wrestle with their own internal conflicts and third world countries struggle to find the right road to democracy. We might say that the crisis of democracy really did not begin until socialism collapsed, but it would be more accurate to say that the crisis of socialism concealed the crisis of democracy. Still, why have both of these twentieth-century socio-economic systems fallen into crisis? What factors account for the changes in the social character of democracy?
 
What factors account for the changes in the social character of democracy?

The formal differences between so-called “(Western)democracy vs (Chinese or other) authoritarian system” are there to some extent(real or exaggerated), but the detachment of the political system from social forms has become the commonality between them. In the contemporary world, the fracture of representativeness has so intensified that it leads to the belief that the type of party politics that flourished in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries has already disappeared, or persists merely in confined areas; it is transforming or has already transformed into a state-party politics, that is, one that serves as a structure of state power or state machine for electing its leaders. Unlike in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is hard to find in contemporary party politics political movements with a clear agenda. When elites complained painfully about the fact that they don’t understand their fellow citizens, why don’t they think further about the relationship between the decline of representation and the phenomena that we label as “populism”? 

We have reached a limit point
 
Current crises point to three dimensions in democratic politics: the crisis of party government (wherein the party becomes coterminous with the state, even worse under the domination of some of big consortium, especially financial groups), the crisis of the public sphere/media (an expanded media sphere uncoupled from public space), and the crisis of the legal system (wherein proceduralism is manipulated by interest groups). In the simplest terms, we have reached a limit point, wherein parties have been turned into instruments of the state, the state acts like a business corporation, the media have been reduced to political parties, politics has become a media circus, and the justice system has become empty. Hence, in discussing the “breakdown of representation,” we have to pose the following questions:

     First: Given the transformation of party politics into state-party politics, are we entering an era of post- (or late) party political democracy “Post-party politics” harks back to certain political models of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Under current conditions, even though these political entities continue to be called political parties, they have different characteristics from those that prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

     Second: How is the “public sphere” to be reconstructed, and how can one set up a new political system on legitimate foundations? A prerequisite for the reconstruction of the public sphere is the interpenetration of media and political power, whereby the media mobilizes public opinion in order to influence politics. To raise the question of the political system is not to deny the importance of forms and procedures, but to search for the political culture that will enable these forms and procedures to work.

     Third: What forces are in a position to create the ideal foundations and moral culture for a new politics of equality? If the crisis of democracy can be understood as a breakdown of representation, and if the state continues to dominate the political sphere for a long time to come, is a “democratic post-democratic politics” possible, and if so, how? 

How is the “public sphere” to be reconstructed?

Let me summarize the arguments laid out above. In the aftermath of the Cold War, democratic political systems did not undergo any significant formal changes, yet democracy at the social level is in crisis everywhere. In China, which still maintains the socialist system, while the system and form of government has also not undergone fundamental change, society has been so powerfully transformed that there is constant discussion about just what kind of society it is. While most commentators (frequently in polemical exchanges) trace the divergences between China and those democracies back to differences in their political systems, I am of the opinion that, at its core, the current political crisis stems from the separation of the political system from the social form. The crisis in political legitimization is a consequence of the breakdown of representation within the political system, that is, the separation of the political and the social.  

All mentioned above remind us of the need for search for new visions. 

Wang Hui  is a professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Tsinghua UniversityBeijing.