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This editorial appeared in Volume 7 (1) of the Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Vista from China

by Ersu Ding

With Hegel, the correspondence between nature and mind is self-evident, for what we recognize in the real world is nothing but a gradual realization of the Absolute Idea. It is only too logical to assume that thought can know a content which is from the outset its own thought-content. With Marx, who denies any independent pre-existence of mind, the identity of nature and mind is to be attained not through the premises that already contain their own conclusion, but through human reflection of a world that exists independently of mind.

The conviction of the knowability of reality has come under heavy attack from many 20th-century theorists, especially those of the postmodernist camp, which makes the discussion of postmodernism relevant to philosophical studies in China. It is true that the new dialectics (now called "materialist dialectics") conceives knowledge differently from the way Hegel does, but it still relies on an unjustifiable presupposition that before the appearance of the knowing subject, there already exists a reality with all the different attributes of its own. In other words, the conception of objective attributes inherent in things entails a transcendental non-anthropocentric vantage point which is never humanly possible. It is thus as much a religious residue as Hegel's Absolute Spirit, and therefore belongs to the philosophical discourse of modernity. Lyotard makes the point very clear in the following definition:

I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth (Lyotard, 1989: xxiii-xxiv).

"The dialectics of Spirit" is, of course, an allusion to Hegel, and "the emancipation of the rational or working subject" is a censure of classical Marxist philosophy.

It would be wrong, however, to say that Chinese Marxist theorists are not aware of this problem caused by a simple inversion of Hegelian dialectics. In point of fact, a considerable portion of Marxist theorizing in the past few decades in China was devoted to defending its thesis of the identity of being and thinking. As always, the authority comes from Marx, who includes in his early notebooks a critique of abstract materialism in the name of active human practice:

The chief defect of all materialism up to now (including Feuerbach's) is that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object of contemplation (Anschauung); but not as sensuous human activity, as practice, not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism the active side was developed abstractly by idealism - which of course does not know real sensuous activity as such (Marx, 1978: 156).

Human praxis, according to him, is the point of departure as well as the guarantee of cognition. The world exists independently, but for humanity it attains its qualities and meanings by means of a mediating relationship of human labor. Besides serving as the mediating link between the world and human thinking, praxis also provides a means through which the latter can be measured against the former. As Mao Zedong puts it in one of his philosophical essays:

Marxists hold that man's social practice is the criterion of the truth of his knowledge of the external world. What actually happens is that man's knowledge is verified only when he achieves the anticipated results in the process of social practice (material production, class struggle or scientific experiment). If a man wants to succeed in his work, that is, to achieve the anticipated results, he must bring his ideas into correspondence with the laws of the objective external world; if they do not correspond he will fail in his practice. After he fails, he draws his lessons, corrects his ideas to make them to the laws of the external world, and can thus turn failure into success; this is what is meant by "failure is the mother of success" and "a fall into the pit, a gain in your wit." The dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge places practice in the primary position, holding that human knowledge can in no way be separated from practice and repudiating all the erroneous theories which deny the importance of practice or separate knowledge from practice (Mao, 1971: 67).

Here, true and objective knowledge is defined as that which brings fruits in praxis. Although the "unity of knowing and doing" is but a logical extension of the Marxist line, Mao's position as head of the country further consolidated the theory as the official philosophical voice of contemporary China.

Obviously, the theory of praxis aims at filling the gap between an absolute objective reality and the always historical subject who wants to know that reality as it is. Reflection theory talks about human knowledge as a "copy" or "photograph" of reality, but cannot offer any logical proof that a particular entity which exists in the world can be transferred into our mind without any distortion. The theory of praxis is caught in the same dilemma except that this time they are phrased in a pair of new terms: the purposive activities of the acting subject - monitored in regard to their success - and the objective environment. To bridge the gap between the two, it still has to rely upon an omnipotent subject who is capable of forming right opinions about whether the success of his or her action is not temporary. This, however, is contradictory to the very premise that the theory sets out to defend.

The question then becomes whether it is possible to conceive the relationship between the world and its reflection without having to rely on any ontological presupposition. To this, Jurgen Habermas gives a positive answer. According to him, there are two different approaches to the issue. The first one is taken by both the theory of reflection and the theory of praxis which start from the ontological presupposition of the world as the sum total of what is the case. Such a method confines itself to analyzing the world of existing affairs that an acting subject must satisfy in order to set and realize his/her ends. On this model, the concept of the objectivity of knowledge can be used only in a dogmatic sense, for the standards against which we make the evaluation are never quite accessible, as has been shown above. Yet there is an alternative approach which does not:

simply begin with ontological presupposition of an objective world. The world gains objectivity only through counting as one and the same world for a community of speaking and acting subjects. The abstract concept of the world is a necessary condition if communicatively acting subjects are to reach understanding among themselves about what takes place in the world or to be effected in it. Through this communicative practice they assure themselves at the same time of their common life-relations; of an intersubjectively shared lifeworld. This lifeworld is bounded by the totality of interpretations presupposed by the members as background knowledge (Habermas, 1984: 12-13).

Two concepts in this passage stand out as very different from what has been proposed so far: the lifeworld and communicative practice. As opposed to an objectively existing world, the lifeworld has only an established objectivity which is used as background knowledge for a community. A stable shared world, Habermas argues, is necessary for the members of a community to orient their actions and understand one another. In the form of language and other forms of culture, this background knowledge supplies them with prereflective convictions from which they draw their support in negotiating common situation definitions. It is true that particular segments of the lifeworld relevant to a given situation can sometimes be problematized, but this still has to take place against the background of other unquestioned preunderstandings which are prior to any disagreements. As members of a particular community, people are able to judge each other's statements as true or false, subjective or objective, rational or irrational, depending upon their relations to our commonly shared beliefs. What comes into view in this manner are not the properties of things that preexist human praxis but units of the lifeworld constructed through communication.

The proposition that the lifeworld is constituted through communication is logically linked to the second concept: communicative praxis. In the philosophical discourse of modernity, the concept of labor or praxis does not include linguistic interactions among people. The following exposition of the origin of language, for example, reveals such an exclusion of language exchange from the category of labor.

First labor, after it and then with it, speech - these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which for all its similarity is far larger and more perfect (Marx & Engels, 1986: 361).

Here labor and linguistic exchange are viewed as two separate activities, the latter being added to the first only when there is a need to communicate. What is revealed by research results of modern psychology, however, is a different picture of the human cognitive process. Piaget, for example, has shown through his experiments on the development of human intelligence that, early in a person's life, there gradually emerges a demarcation between the external universe of objects and the internal universe of the subject which leads to the further distinction between physical objects and social objects (other subjects like oneself). The construction of the latter enables the subject to contrast not only his/her own internal world with the external world, but also with the internal worlds of others. Failing to recognize the constructive role of the intersubjective relationship in the cognitive process, the philosophy of modernity cannot but conceive the subject as an isolated individual who is capable of grasping pre-existing essences of things, and pays little attention to the interpersonal relation between members of a speech community through which the lifeworld is intersubjectively produced and reproduced. Even when it does sometimes talk about communication among people, language use is reduced to mere transmission of ready-made information from one person to another.

Contrary to the above view, and following Piaget's theory, Habermas propose a more comprehensive concept of praxis in which the "cognitive-instrumental" aspect may also be incorporated. He calls this the "theory of communicative praxis." One major point he tries to get across in his new theory is that besides the representative function of language, there is also the use of language with an orientation to reaching understanding. "Reaching understanding" means, of course, that at least two speaking and acting subjects understand a linguistic expression in the same way. In speaking, they relate to the world around them (objects, events, people, and their behaviors), and by speaking, they take up a relation to things in the lifeworld. To ensure a successful coordination of actions, a speaker has to relate to the world in certain ways that make it acceptable to the hearer. What typifies a speech situation, then, is the fact that, in coming to an understanding about something with one another, the speaker involved in the communicative action must claim validity against a common world with his statement, and a hearer who rejects a statement is also taking issue with such a claim. Such a model of communicative action in which both the speaker and the hearer are involved in reaching understanding provides for Habermas a way out of the aporia of the philosophy of modernity when the presupposition of an ontological reality can no longer be justified on the level of human experience.

It should be noted that with regard to the mind-matter relationship, Habermas is very different from most other postmodern thinkers. For many theorists, such as Derrida and Lyotard, the fall of the ontological reality tends to lead to a kind of philosophical perspectivism which recognizes all ideas as valid within their own conceptual frameworks. In place of the absolute knowledge provided by Hegel's Absolute Spirit, of which classical Marxism is an inversion, those writers emphasize the local and heterogeneous character of human knowledge. Given the fact that it is impossible for any human to jump beyond his or her always relative perspective, they argue, it is futile to claim that the human mind can achieve any degree of objectivity in reflecting an essentially chaotic reality. Habermas, however, does not agree with this nihilistic stance. In his view, people do not simply express in language whatever they feel about a situation. It is in the nature of reaching understanding that they provide and recognize grounds through which a claim to truth could be redeemed. In order to make himself/herself understood, and thereby come to an understanding with a hearer about something, the speaker must make correct existential presuppositions so that the hearer will accept and share the knowledge of the speaker. Only when a hearer accepts the conditions as valid, does a mutual understanding come about between him/her and the speaker. Thus Habermas adheres to the idea that it is possible to talk rationally about things and events in the lifeworld, but in place of an a priori, well structured reality in itself and an omnipotent individual subject, he proposes the mechanism of communicative praxis where the objectivity or rationality of our knowledge can be intersubjectively achieved. This is an important call for a shift in epistemological paradigm which, in my opinion, the Chinese philosophical circle cannot afford to ignore. As Habermas (1984: 314) himself puts it, "as long as the basic conceptions of the philosophy of consciousness leads us to understand knowledge exclusively as knowledge of something in the objective world, rationality is assessed by how the isolated subject orients himself/herself to representation and propositional contents. Subject-centered reason founds its criteria in standards of truth and success that govern the relationships of knowing and purposively acting subjects to the world of possible objects or states of affairs. By contrast, as soon as we conceive of knowledge as communicatively mediated, rationality is assessed in terms of the capacity of responsible participants in interaction to orient themselves in relation to validity claims geared to intersubjective recognition."

References:
Engels, F. Dialectics of nature. New York, 1973.
Habermas, J. The theory of communicative action. Vol. I. Boston, 1984.
Lyotard. The postmodern condition: A report of knowledge. Minneapolis, 1989.
Mao, Z. Selected readings. Beijing, 1971.
Marx, K. Selected writings. Oxford, 1978.
Marx, K. & F. Engels. Selected works. New York, 1986.
Tucker, R. The Lenin anthology: The three sources and three component parts of Marxism. New York, 1975.


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