Beyond Practicality

(Study of Asia)

Has our techno-scientific society created problems it can’t solve? Watts says the West excels at amplifying every folly humans are capable of, yet when it comes to answering the big questions we’re like a dog chasing its tail. Perhaps solutions lie not in narrow scholarship, but in re-examining our own premises through imaginative engagement with Asian worldviews. We need protected spaces where scholars can play with concepts freely—not for any practical purpose, but for the sheer joy of ideas, because creative insights arise unpredictably from the useless act of contemplation.



I want first of all to extend a word of thanks to the many listeners who sent in contributions to enable Saburo Hasegawa, the painter, to use an FM radio and have a subscription to KPFA. I know he would want me to extend his very great thanks to you as well. Unfortunately, his sickness is in a very critical stage and he couldn’t possibly thank you in person.


For the past six years I have been involved in an experiment concerned with the introduction of the study of Asia into higher education. During this time, I have been brought into contact with almost every phase of the problem—not only of the study of Asia, but of the special problems of higher education as a whole: everything from raising funds for vital and imaginative but unfamiliar ideas, through the appalling red tape of the academic system, to the intimate personal problems of the vocational counseling of students. But as a result I have begun to have a vision of what the study of Asia might mean for the Western world., though I’m sorry to say that I have a good deal of difficulty in communicating this vision to others concerned with the formal area of Asian studies.


At one end of the problem, I have been faced with those who cling to the utterly discredited notion that scholarly and intellectual pursuits are of no value unless they are, rather platitudinously, obviously practical. And at the other, with the pundits and pedants, for whom the study of Asia means exhaustive research into the manufacture of Chinese writing ink between 1143 and 1252. Somewhere in the middle lies the general impression that Asia constitutes a formidable number of foreigners dropped by modern transportation into the next-door yard—folks with rather odd and backward notions, which we need to understand in order to get along with them.


Yet I’m forced to admit that for me, this whole range of ideas about the study of Asian culture is intolerably boring and unfruitful. I’m very happy and very grateful that I have been born at a time when the problems of human nature and destiny have been peculiarly exaggerated and thrown into sharp relief by an unprecedented development of human power. I feel that the peculiar direction of Western civilization has achieved something fantastically wonderful. It has given human beings the technical means of amplifying and exploiting almost every idiocy of which we are capable, and at the same time of taking the most brutal, hard-boiled, and realistic view of man’s place in the universe. Western science and technology have given us the H-bomb, the TV commercials, and the modern hospital. And they have given us the most rigorous discipline in looking at facts without wishful thinking that the Western world, at least, has ever known.


If I may put it in another way: I feel that Western culture, Western science, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and political theory have raised the basic questions, the fundamental problems of human life, as no one else has ever raised them. And they have raised them unintentionally quite as much as intentionally. This achievement, this—if I may coin a phrase—supreme criticalization of the human situation, this sense of living always in the midst of a cosmological crisis, is the ultimately valuable (if nerve-wracking) contribution of the West to human culture.


Because of Western science, we are seriously able to contemplate the imminent possibility of destroying life upon this planet. We are able to consider problems of human population and ecology, of moral and ethical relativity, of the relation of the individual to society, of the deliberate control of the brain and mind, of the conquest of disease and the lengthening of life, of the displacement of thought and labor by machinery, and of the management of natural resources, and to consider them in a way which has never before been possible. In short, we have the most acute, well-informed, and sensationally telling ways of confronting ourselves with the most radical problems of Man’s relation to his world. Yet, at the same time, this vast extension of human knowledge and power is accompanied by an increased awareness of being out of control, of lacking the wisdom necessary to deal with the enormity of our information and our technical skill.


Now, It would be a rather silly oversimplification to say that the necessary wisdom for this predicament is to be found by looking to the timeless philosophy of the ancient East. This is another approach to the study of Asia, which I have come to feel as nearly unfruitful as the others. It implies that what we need at this time is a sure guide, a sure authority based on centuries of experience. But my feeling is not that we are going to find any solution to these scientifically-highlighted problems by resort to imported philosophies and cultural institutions. However, weighted with the experience of centuries, the point is rather this: that having raised the problems of human life in such an acute and dramatic way, what we need to do first is to examine the premises upon which these problems are based.


To put it in another way: we need to take a clear and critical look at the common sense and nearly unconscious notions upon which Western civilization is founded. We need to ask, for example, whether the survival of human life upon Earth is the basic measure of practical value, whether there is any real meaning in the idea of progressive improvement of the human situation, and whether any actual progress results from the increasing control of ourselves and our environment. We need to take stock of the fundamental goals towards which our natural instincts are supposed to lead, to find out whether what we want is what we want, or what we have been told we want. We need to ask whether we really feel ourselves to be individuals facing an alien environment, or whether it is only through cultural conditioning that we think of ourselves as egos in bags of skin. We need also, I think, to take a good hard look at our actual sensations of those highly marketable dimensions of time and space, and find out if the way we measure them actually corresponds to the way in which we feel them. These may be highly philosophical questions, yet at the same time they are brutally practical, since they form the context and the fundamental incentives of all our technological, commercial, political, and social activities.


Now, I know no better way of approaching these questions, of finding out in the first place what our basic premises actually are, than by studying cultures which have grown up in relative isolation from our own. We do not have to agree with or copy these foreign cultures. We have only to use them to discover our own boundaries and definitions. For all definition is by comparison and contrast, as one knows the shape of a figure by its contrast with a background. Kipling—who said that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”—said also that “he does not know England who only England knows.” Similarly, we do not know what Western civilization, Western culture, is, if we do not know any other. If we do not know what it is, we cannot judge it, we cannot tell whether its supposed progress is in fact progress or regress. But more important still, we are not even aware of the fundamental premises upon which we act until we bring them into relief by contrast with others.


And this, to my mind, is the chief reason for a study of Asia: it is to find out who we are, and whether we want to be that way. And thus it is a study to be undertaken, not as a narrow specialty, but in intimate relation to the frontier problems of Western science, philosophy, and sociology. It is a study to be undertaken not in the exclusive company of professional Orientalists, but in the company of minds representing all the major branches of knowledge. And its purpose is to fructify and challenge these branches of knowledge by bringing their premises into focus so that the economist, the political scientist, the mathematician, the psychologist—and yes, the professor of commerce—can discern more sharply the hidden presuppositions of their crafts.


A striking example of the sort of thing I am driving at is the marvelous study of Chinese science and civilization, which has recently been undertaken by a great English biologist, Joseph Needham. Having achieved some notable research in the field of biology before he was even thirty, Needham devoted some twenty years to the study of China without giving up the pursuit of his interests in Western science. And in the past two months he has published the second of what are to be seven large volumes of his Science and Civilization in China, a book which could never, I think, have been written by someone specializing narrowly in Sinology (Chinese studies). For it took a biologist, a student of Whitehead, to appreciate the real value of Chinese ideas of the organic and non-mechanical order of nature, and thus to write one of the most illuminating essays ever written on the nature of human and natural law, so that even such a professional Orientalist as Arthur Waley has called it not only an epoch-making contribution to the history of technology and general culture, but also the best handbook on Chinese general history and geography that has appeared.


Now, a work of this kind is a real expansion of knowledge, a splendid example of what Asian studies should really be. For just because Chinese science did not at all follow the direction, nor have the obvious success of Western science, for this very reason it illumines the whole character and scope of Western science by contrast. On the other hand, it seems obvious that no such expansion of human knowledge can arise from the sort of area studies or international relations approach to Asia now fashionable in American universities. An approach of this kind might be suitable for extension courses for the benefit of businessmen or consular officials requiring some knowledge of Asia for their political or commercial ends. But to make such matters the main preoccupation of our study of Asia in higher education is to make it an intellectual backwater.


It is, of course, obvious that, for political and economic reasons, we need information and insight about the day-to-day problems of modern Asia, but surely the supplying of such information is the sphere of the competent journalist rather than the scholar. But from the standpoint of the scholar or scientist primarily concerned with the expansion of knowledge and the enrichment of culture, modern Asia (with the possible exception of Japan) presents a rather sad picture—as, I suppose, we should too, had we suffered two hundred years of colonialism. Yet, contemporary India and China, Persia and Arabia are producing little or nothing of the same intellectual interest as the fruits of their great ages in the past. Sad to say, it’s hard to call to mind the single living figure from these parts of the world of the same intellectually creative stature as, say, Jushi, Nagarjuna, or Ibn Sina, or of the men who conceived Angkor Wat, the Temple of Heaven, or the Alhambra. One can but hope that they are present, but of yet unknown to us.


For such reasons, then, contemporary Asian culture contains rather little to stimulate the creative thinker of the West—be he philosopher or physicist, architect or surgeon. On the other hand, what Asia has achieved in the past is, as I think Needham has shown, of far more than merely historical and antiquarian interest. We have already seen the applicability of Japanese concepts of space, of design, or of the use of materials and architecture, and even of the conservation of natural resources. But we might inquire, for example, into the ideas which the Japanese physicist Dr. Kunihiko Hashida acquired from studying the thirteenth-century Buddhist philosopher Dōgen. We might explore the uses of the Chinese language as the best kind of notation for expressing biological and field concepts which involve complex relational situations. We might ask whether the Indian logician Dignāga had anything to tell us about the science of linguistics or semantics. We might ask some questions about the type of experience from which there arose the astounding Islamic art of the arabesque, and whether it has any connection with similar concepts of pattern or lattice which can be produced by lysergic acid, a new drug of considerable interest to psychiatrists. We might look into some Indian and Chinese ideas about the structure of personality, about natural law and social change, and ask whether they do not fit the course of events a little better than our own.


But all this would be nothing more than a beginning. What I really have in mind is a little like an experiment which is, I think, being conducted at MIT to promote inventive thinking. The process is to imagine intelligent creatures with body structure quite different from our own, and then to consider forms of architecture, furniture, technical appliances, and even social institutions that would be appropriate for them—a form of fantasy which produces many new ideas for our use. Similarly, I would take, instead of an imaginary body structure, the basic premises of Asian thought and culture of various types, and then ask: now what would happen if we applied these premises to science and technology rather than our own? Perhaps this is like asking: what would happen if we built a house on water instead of upon solid earth? But the answer would be: a ship!


As a result of this inquiry I would expect to find directions of investigation and types of development and creative activity which we have altogether neglected. I might discover that a number of problems which we are failing to solve by technology are unanswerable because they are, at root, meaningless questions. I would also expect to find out a great deal about the future development of an industrialized Asia. And I can’t imagine anything more conventionally practical than that.


In short, I think it is clear that what is really the matter with our standard approach—not only to the study of Asia, but also to many other lines of historical and cultural investigation—is that it is horribly lacking in imagination. For the scholar has become afraid of fantasy, which is the very root of creative thinking. But our scientists are not afraid of fantasy. When not keeping a cold eye on facts in a lab, they are reading Astounding Science Fiction or Galaxy. They are not afraid of, dare we say it, meditation and the contemplative useless life. At the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, mathematicians may fool around for years with utterly abstract puzzles about n-dimensional spaces, and no results are expected of them. For they have discovered that the human mind is fruitful almost to the precise degree that it is not compulsively trying to get useful results. Useful results are a byproduct of pure play, pure imagination.


On the other hand, the humanities, and some of the new sciences like psychology, are trying to become more respectable by aping the rigor of the mathematicians without the imagination, or the usefulness of engineers without the puttering. Thus, their departments are increasingly populated with drudges who are simply scared to death of not seeming to be academically sound, terrified of publishing anything which is not in form and content as dull as possible and documented to death.


Fortunately, however, there are still a few marvelously unsound people like Northrop and Toynbee, who can produce vast and fascinating speculations like The Meeting of East and West and the Study of History, but they are old men, unafraid of losing the dubious dignity of a good academic reputation. The same with Jung, aged eighty, in psychology.


Of course, all institutions of higher education are increasingly dependent upon the government or upon the great corporations for their financial support, and these gentlemen want results and would like to see professors punching clocks and being productive. But this is ceasing to be quite so much the case as the academic world itself imagines. The Rand Corporation, the brains of the Air Force, has (of all things) philosophers on its staff. Bell Telephone has hired even Gerald Herd as a consultant. And especially in the advertising world, the new type of conference called the brainstorm is spreading like wildfire: the conference where a whole office staff sits around and fantasizes as freely as possible about any technical problem with no realistic criticism allowed. The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. So where government and business are still telling the professors to get results quick, it would seem perhaps that the men in charge are fuddy duddies who, because they have no imagination, will soon be left out of the market.


So—to get back to the study of Asia—what we need on the academic and institutional level are situations like the mathematicians have at Princeton and the behavioral scientists at Stanford. We need places where well-trained scholars and outstanding graduate students can go and play, and forget for a while about being sound and practical. They must not be told to go and play because we feel that this is really the best way of being useful and inventive. This isn’t playing the game. As the Hindus say: that that would be like trying not to think of a monkey while taking medicine—because if you think of a monkey, the medicine doesn’t work. No, they must simply be allowed to play: to be as fantastic, as contemplative, as esoteric, and as useless as they like—with the single proviso: that they be men of proven accomplishment and learning in the first place. Perhaps put in one or two real screwballs to shake them up.


Indeed, this whole principle of the useful as the unsought byproduct of useless contemplation, pursued simply for its own sake, is one of the major themes of Asian thought. Exaggerated indeed in Asia, but a real catalyst for the over-purpose of West. For purposeless action is one possible translation of the Taoist term wú wéi, literally “non-doing” or “not acting out of accord with nature,” of which Lao Tzu said that, “by non-doing, nothing is left undone.” The sense of it is to act without seeking a result, without pursuing a goal in the future, without any self-conscious and affected attempt to be virtuous, useful, sound, and constructive. For superior virtue is not deliberately virtuous, thus it is virtue. Inferior virtue does not let go of the idea of virtue, thus it is not virtue. Superior virtue strives not and has no aim. Inferior virtue strives and has an aim.

Beyond Practicality

Alan Watts

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