Western philosophy vs. Eastern wisdom | François Jullien

French sinologist François Jullien (via translator Janet Lloyd) helps in considering how presumptions from Western biomedicine (i.e. a dialectic of truth and nontruth) may be contrasted to the foundations under Traditional Chinese Medicine (i.e. the dyadic of ying and yang).

Western philosophy goes back to the ancient Greeks.

Philosophy undoubtedly was fixated on truth. In the first place it was formally tied to it and explicitly attached the highest value to it. But also, once its insistence was recognized, it stayed with truth and never freed itself from it. From then on it never ceased to set its sights on truth, never shifted. It was in the “plain of truth,” where principles and forms lurk, unchanging, that philosophy continued to “graze.”1 There, it proceeded tirelessly to build upon foundations of theory towering constructions from which the truth could be “contemplated”; and there it delved, following the subterranean paths of reflection in search of hidden deposits. Higher and higher it soared to discover the truth, and deeper and deeper it dug for it, never abandoning that objective, never clearing a different path for thought to follow.

1. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Harold North Fowler (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), p. 479 (248b).

But China, it seems, did open up an alternative path, and reminds us of another possibility. Or rather, as seen from China, it is Western philosophy that, moving away from the omnipresent, haloed figure of the legendary sage at the dawn of the great civilizations, appears to branch off from the way of wisdom, bent solely on pursuing the truth. For although Chinese thought encountered the possibility of philosophy as debate developed among different schools it never became altogether committed to it, never fastened exclusively upon the pursuit of truth, never made this a total— global—concept, never turned it into the Truth. Chinese thought was always on the move, always variable. It never came to a complete halt in order to build or to delve. Its aim was not so much to convey knowledge as to promote realization, not so much to discover or prove as to reveal coher- ences (li in Chinese). [p. 803]

Amongst Greek philosophers, Heraclitus stood apart.

Of course this did not happen without exceptions and reservations, as is shown by the example of Heraclitus. He maintained that “all things [even opposites] are one” and was to remain marginalized in the history of philosophy. For instead of separating contraries from each other, he showed that there could not be one without the other: no beauty without ugliness, no justice without injustice, and so on. [pp. 804-805]

In the West, the emergence of reason was in opposition to mythical accounts, and a worldview of “true or false (either being or nonbeing)”.

The Chinese world contains virtually no traces of chaos or cosmogonies. So, given that it never was constituted on a mythical basis, Chinese thought never needed to construct itself philosophically (in the mode of logos). Given that it never drew (dramatic) attention to any ambiguity, it had no need of truth to dissipate any contradictions.

Furthermore, as soon as one steps aside from a perspective that focuses upon the identity of the subject, such as was developed in the West, and instead adopts that of a continuous process, as the Chinese do, the unity and complementarity of contraries, far from being problematic, become notions that constitute the very principle upon which the onward march of things is based. The fact that the one contains the other, that the one is the other, is what makes the whole process possible.

There must always be two, opposed and complementary, poles, yin and yang. We are by now familiar with the formulae that express this process founded upon the interdependence of contraries, the coherence of which China was constantly elucidating: not only does the one engender the other (“what is” engenders “what is not,” and vice versa), but, as the Laozi tells us, the one already is the other.3 [p. 806, editorial paragraphing added]

3. Laozi, para. 2: “Everyone recognizes the beautiful inasmuch as it is beautiful,” so (already), “it is ugly”; “everyone recognizes the good inasmuch as it is good,” so (already) “it is not-good.” See Lao-Tzu’s ‘Te-Tao Ching,’ trans. Robert G. Hendricks (New York, 1989).

Or, “if yin, then yang,” “both yin and yang”: that is the way, or dao, we are told in the Book of Changes.4 Here, again, the same conjunction expresses both the opposition between the one and the other (yin, “but at the same time” yang) and also the transition from the one to the other (the same formula can mean the yin “ending up” as the yang). Because Chinese thought regards contraries as intrinsically, that is to say functionally, complementary, it does not need to resort to the decision of the truth. It has no need to dissipate “mythical” contradiction any more than to exclude “logical” contradiction. [pp. 806-807]

4. I Ching, “Great Commentary,” A, 5. See The I Ching: The Book of Changes, trans. James Legge (1899; New York, 1969).

Jullien proposes that wisdom in Chinese thinking is apart from truth in Western philosophy.

Because Chinese thought regards contraries as intrinsically, that is to say functionally, complementary, it does not need to resort to the decision of the truth. It has no need to dissipate “mythical” contradiction any more than to exclude “logical” contradiction.

This is what restores a logical basis—albeit a different kind of logic, a logic without logos—to wisdom as opposed to philosophy (a basis that wisdom in the West always lacked and, as a result, became no more than a weak kind of philosophy).

Philosophy thinks in terms of exclusion (true/false, being/nonbeing) and then proceeds to its major task of setting up a dialectic between those opposite terms (hence the history of philosophy).

Wisdom, in contrast, thinks along the lines of equal recognition (accepting both the one and the other on an equal footing: not either one or the other, but both at once).

There can be no history of wisdom, for wisdom involves no progress, but progress does have to be made in order to reach that stage of wisdom (and it was through just such a process of apprenticeship that Chinese thought always developed; see the first pronouncement in Confucius’s Analects). Wisdom has no history, but every sage certainly does; a sage (or, rather, whoever has become a sage) is one who has passed beyond contradictions, one who no longer excludes anything.

In its weakest and most banal form this is a concept of which even we have an inkling. For according to the wisdom shared across the world the sage is he who does not choose either the one or the other, but appreciates the one within the other (not because such a person proceeds by reducing everything to an average level but because he knows that overall there can be no one without the other, that both operate together and complement each other).

By reflecting on Chinese thought, we can restore theoretical rigor to this concept. [p. 807]

In the Appendix appears a table that contrasts a Western view of philosophy from a Chinese view of wisdom.

Philosophy Wisdom
1. Becoming attached to an idea 1. Having no particularly valued idea, no definitive position, no particular identity, treating all ideas on the same footing
2. Philosophy is historical 2. Wisdom has no history (it is not possible to write a history of wisdom)
3. Progress is made through explanation (demonstration) 3. Pronouncements vary (wisdom needs to be mulled over, “savored”)
4. Generalization 4. Globalization (every pronouncement of a sage always says every- thing that wisdom can produce, but from a different angle each time)
5. A level of immanence (cutting through chaos) 5. A store of immanence
6. Discourse (definition) 6. Remarks (suggestion)
7. Meaning 7. The manifest
8. Hidden because concealed 8. Hidden because manifest
9. To know 9. To realize: to become aware of what one sees and what one knows
10. Revelation 10. Regulation
11. Saying 11. There is nothing to say
12. Truth 12. Congruence (the congruent is whatever is perfectly fitted to a particular situation)
13. The category of Being and of the subject 13. The category of process (the course of the world, the course of behavior)
14. Freedom 14. Spontaneity (sponte sua)
15. Error 15. Partiality (when blinded by one aspect of things, one no longer sees any other; one only sees one corner, instead of the overall picture)
16. The way leads to Truth 16. The way is viability (the way things go along, the way they are pos- sible).

[pp. 823-834]


Jullien, François. 2002. “Did Philosophers Have to Become Fixated on Truth?” Translated by Janet Lloyd. Critical Inquiry 28 (4): 803–24. https://doi.org/10.1086/341235. [alternate search on Google Scholar]

Creative Commons Licence Contributions to the Open Learning Commons are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Please honor the spirit of collective open learning by citing the author(s) in the context of a dialogue and/or linking back to the original source.