Happily, quite a few threads have emerged in the local blogosphere as a result of the “reading group” Peony and I started on Bell’s East Meets West. Below the fold I have listed them all, starting with the most recent. Show the love!
I’ve been reading Mozi this week (prepping a course I’ll be teaching), and when I started taking notes to the section “Rejection of Destiny” Mozi’s discussion of how to justify or confirm the truth of a belief (or practice) made me think of Daniel Bell’s way of talking about justifying the normative standards within cultures (how many people have reminded me of Bell lately?). I’ll explain below.
I’ve been a bad boy. I jumped ahead and read the last chapter of Bell’s book, where he lays out his own recipe for “Chinese Democracy.” I don’t feel qualified to suggest whether his proposal would work in the contemporary Chinese context, but the idea itself is an interesting one. I am at least certain of one thing: it would have just about every good, down-home, corn-fed anti-intellectualist American (the majority of them) running screaming for the exits.
A week or so ago I was talking to a friend of mine about Bell’s book and some of its arguments. At some point I suggested that some of the claims made, or the way in which the arguments were put, reminded me of a disagreement that John Stuart Mill and A.J. Ayer had over the status of mathematics. Surprisingly, when I got to pg. 128 in the book, Mill’s epistemology is given a positive mention. No surprise there!
At the end of the first part of the Bell’s book East Meets West, there’s a quick discussion of the “rights of the dead.” Perhaps it is the case, as Lo suggests to Demo, that dead people have rights as much as living people do. Most of the people here know that I have a thing for zombie movies – so I already have a pretty healthy respect for the dead (or the undead, as it were). Still, even for me it seems to be an odd idea to suggest that the dead have rights. It caused me to stop and think for a second: what the heck is a human right, after all?
Daniel Bell makes me think of Kierkegaard. Well, actually, I should be honest — everything, including salad croutons, makes me think of Kierkegaard. I’m the Existential version of that kid from the Sixth Sense — I see Kierkegaard (and Existential analogues) everywhere. It’s a strange phenomenological experience to be inside my head. This time I think it’s true, though. Bell’s discussion of “local knowledge” — and I owe this insight to Peony — sounds to me to have a real existential dimension. Well, maybe. I wonder if Bell has visited Copenhagen? Ah — I’ll explain below.
Something caught my eye when I was reading East Meets West. “Lo” — who presumably is the stand in for Daniel Bell’s views — makes a claim that if America wants to shore up its moral authority in the international arena, especially when it comes to the attempt to export its own political and moral values, she will have to learn to say “I’m sorry.” This struck me on a number of levels, not the least of which was my sheer inability to conceive of the American government ever apologizing for anything whatsoever. As Elton John put it, “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But why is it so important in the East/West context? And why is it so hard to say “I’m sorry”?
So far, one hundred pages into East Meets West, it strikes me that the one “drive home” point Bell wants to make is this one: the particular trumps the universal. Many of Bell’s other points about appropriate East-West discourse and human rights advocacy seem to rely on this fundamental principle. If this is indeed the “engine” that drives the car, it makes sense to start here and pop open the hood so we can take a look around (as Ross Perot might say).
If you are not aware, we’re trying to start up a virtual “reading group” on Daniel Bell’s 2000 work, East Meets West. Virtual reading groups are a new thing to me (Peony too) so we’ll see how it goes (well, we hope!). In any case, I’m through the first hundred pages and enjoying the book so far. Hopefully there are some of you out there reading along as well. So let’s get this conversation started! Peony has put up the first post, “East Meets West in Constantinople” at her place, Tang Dynasty Times. See you over there (look for the next post to be put up here in a few days)!