In 2013, the summer after graduating from college, I read the Tao Te Ching. In the edition I picked up from the library, the preface began by making a startling claim: between eastern and western philosophies, the latter was simply wrong.
As someone who’d minored in philosophy while in college, this claim rattled my presuppositions, and I hungrily read further. What about Heidegger? Kant? Nietzsche? Aristotle?
As the preface’s author explained, these philosophers had all begun from a shared epistemological premise: that what was real, could be perceived. In other words, they defined reality as the sum total of perceptible qualities.
To flesh out this line of thinking, if a red water bottle was deemed “real,” then western philosophers would agree that its reality was established by those qualities which defined it; for instance, the water bottle occupied a certain volume of space, reflected a certain color (red) back to our eyes, flummoxed our hand when we attempted to pass through it. In all these ways and more, the water bottle imposed itself upon our perceptual sphere.
To eastern philosophers, on the other hand, perceptible qualities testified to a thing’s unreality: to the degree that we saw a water bottle as red, that meant we were excluding other colors no less inherent to the water bottle; to the degree we saw it as occupying discrete space, that meant we ignored the facts that it had moved and soon would move again to other spaces, as well as the more overriding fact that ultimately, the water bottle would not exist at all. In a very real sense, it was just as much a fact that the water bottle did not exist, as that it did, which conferred that any perception of the water bottle’s static “reality” was illusory.
And because this line of thinking both transcended and encompassed western philosophy’s founding principles, my Tao Te Ching edition’s translator insisted that all of western philosophy–indeed, all of western culture–was founded on an error.
When I say the west need not be saved, I do not mean that the people of the west are expendable, or that one should not work to rectify a sick, alienated culture; those statements are senseless. Similarly, I do not mean the death of the west is inevitable, as I think there are routes through which the west can revivify itself and become stronger than ever before. Rather, what I mean by this article’s title is simply this: the very source of the west’s sickness, is this philosophical error which the above author elucidated for my 22-year old mind.
As a result of misidentifying “presence” with identifiable qualities, the west has correlated absence with a lack of identifiable qualities, which means that if we cannot see or touch something, then it does not exist. For this reason, epistemologies which transcend the five senses are equated with mental illness; indeed, many healing and scientific modalities from non-western cultures are thrown to the wastebin for the same reason.
In lieu of these modalities, the west is simultaneously bereft of spirituality, which means that life is extended without reason. In other words, the average western citizen is nihilistic without so realizing. In some cases, heaven is mantled as the salvific force, although this is only one among many ways of eluding the question: rather than granting life intrinsic meaning, life is given meaning by virtue of some event that comes after. Alternately, the western citizen concludes that they must have children in order to achieve meaning, which again simply extends the question: the child can figure out the purpose of life, since the parent themselves bore no answer.
As another consequence of this founding misidentification of presence, the average western citizen needs enemies. If a thing exists because it is perceptible, then it only gains in reality through contrast; for this reason, the heightening of contrast is equated with a heightening of identity, and the number of enemies multiplies. Liberals and conservatives pit themselves against each other, then splitting into smaller and smaller factions; categorizations of race and gender turn into overdetermining matrices. Nation states steel themselves against one another, mutually and exclusively boasting “greatness;” among religious denominations, there is the same level of antagonism.
Beneath all these superficial distinctions, there is a field in which everyone exists equally, because no one exists at all… but that field puzzles the west. Not only that, the west is terrified of such a thought: because nonexistence, is equated with a lack of meaning, the west cannot see that the universe already provides redolent meaning even independent of human perception. As a result, all manner of neurotic behaviors arise, from careerism, to substance abuse, to war, to sexual and other forms of violence, to overconsumption, etc, etc, etc. The founding principles are wrong, and so any solution that stems from them is bound to render an intensification of that problem.
In response to this writing, I think many would be inclined to say I am oversimplifying, that after all the east is in many ways just as “western” as the portrait I paint above. For instance, in its response to Covid, the Chinese government exhibited just as draconian and just as fear-based a policy schema as Europe and the Americas, if not more so: citizens were corralled at gunpoint, media overtly censored, “sick” individuals isolated and forced to die alone.
To this framing, I would say that to the degree the east exhibits western practices, it is not in effect acting as the “east:” I see the true east as that aesthetic expressed in the Tao Te Ching, one of non-forcing, non-dualism, and non-doing. As the Tao Te Ching itself advises, government should “trust [people]” and “leave them alone.”
In a sense, if the west need not be saved, then the east need not be either: nothing need be saved, in order that things can reveal their true form precisely by passing into nonexistence. By virtue of this passing, beauty is revealed: only after something is gone do we realize what it truly was, and in this respect, perhaps neither west nor east has ever fully existed. Rather, all that has existed is itself illusion: glimmering before our eyes as it brilliantly evades understanding.