Asian Philosophies of Critical Thinking: divergent or convergent to western
The research question of this extended essay came across at a very early
stage in my life. Having been born and developed from a family with all its
members being University instructors and professors, I was often involved
in arguments related to the lack of critical thinking in Asian cultures. As
I got older, having had the chance to emerge in different cultures, I
started to develop my own viewpoints and answers. I started to wonder about
the truth between the real differences of Asian and Western philosophies of
critical thinking. This extended essay, intended to be a research and
investigation, bearing the title “Asian Philosophies of Critical Thinking:
divergent or convergent to Western establishments?” is in fact however
merely just a summary of my viewpoints and answers which I have developed
throughout the years.
In the first section of the essay, “Logical Tradition in India and China” I
will attempt to give evidence of critical thinking in two Asian cultures
that I have chosen; namely India and China. In India, I will argue that
critical thinking is clearly visible in historical texts such as the Caraka
and Nyayasutra. This is presented as the well-known five-membered argument,
a system of logical deduction, similar to the Aristotelian syllogism found
in the west. In China I would focus mainly on the two schools of logical
thought, the Mohists and the Logicians. For the Mohists I would argue that
critical thinking is a vital element in the building of what they call
“mental models.” For the Logicians, I would study deeply the writings of
Hui Shih and Kungsun Lung, I would show that in fact both of them developed
systems of logical and paradoxical thinking that could well serve as the
foundations of modern science.
If critical thinking is clearly presentable in these Asian cultures then
why are there still concerns for introducing it to them? This is the
question I intend to answer in the latter section “Needham’s Grand Question
and Fuller’s Interpretation.” During this section, I would also show that
discussions of modern science seem to enable us to see how the tradition of
critical thinking arose and how they were promoted or discouraged. I would
cover how Asian historical, economic, social and cultural factors have a
big influence on their development of critical thinking. Lastly I would
show how the prioritization of a civilization has a devastating effect on
deciding the future road they intend to walk.
In conclusion, I would argue that since the philosophy of a culture is but
an abstract and theoretical expression and justification of the culture’s
decision to choose one set of priorities over another, Asian philosophy and
critical thinking are neither necessarily divergentnornecessarily
convergent to western establishments.
|Logical Tradition in India and|4|
|Needham’s Grand Question and|7|
|Asian Philosophy and Critical|8|
|Thinking: Divergence or||
Asian Philosophies of Critical Thinking: divergent or convergent to western
By Clement Ng
It is widely recognized nowadays that critical thinking has become a
necessary ingredient in all levels of education. Educators and educational
policy makers agree that one of the desirable goals of education is that
students are able to think critically. Throughout the past few years, many
have felt the need to consider critical thinking more seriously in
educational programs. At the moment several different acts are being
considered around the world by various factors and agencies. The core of
these proposed acts is the idea that the students are able to think
critically and independently. Although there are widespread disagreements
on what critical thinking actually is,1 there is an agreement that it has
become very important in the world overwhelmed by huge amountsof
Some Western educators who teach at schools or universities in a number of
Asian countries have voiced their difficulties and problems they encounter
while trying to teach critical thinking and other related skills to Asian
students. Bruce Davidson (1998) argues that a set of Japanese cultural
factors act as a kind of barrier against teaching critical thinking to
students. Atkinson (1999) goes so far as to argue that critical thinking is
culturally specific, and is a part of the social practices of the West
having no place within Asian cultures, which do not adopt such practices.
What these educators have in common is the feeling that some elements in
Asian cultures do prevent the full realization of critical thinking skills
in the students. Most of these elements perceived by Western educators in
Asia are quite well known–the beliefs that teachers are superior and
always right, that knowledge is not to be made here and now, but exists
eternally, so to speak, to be handed down by teachers, that social harmony
is to be preferred rather than asking probing questions–to mention just a
Is critical thinking really culture specific? Can the traditional belief
systems of Asia respond to the challenge of the modern world while still
retaining their distinctive identities? Are Asian philosophy and critical
thinking necessary divergent or possibly convergent? These arevery
significant question not just for Asian cultures, but for understanding how
cultures of the world respond to globalization. In addition the question
also has a bearing on the problematic relation between critical thinking
and the cultural environment in which it happens to be embedded.
In this essay, I attempt to argue that critical thinking is not necessarily
incompatible with Asian traditional belief systems. In fact I will show
that both India and China do have their own indigenous traditions of
logical and argumentative thinking; it is just because of certain barriers
that prevent them from further developing such establishments. I will
further try to show that these traditions can and should be reexamined,
reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary situation. By doing this I
would seek acknowledgement to the essay question and would provide an
answer to the Western educators who have found no such critical traditions
in the East.
Logical Tradition in India and China
It is widely known that India had a highly advanced logical tradition,
spanning more than two thousandyears.ThesuccessesofIndian
mathematicians and computer programmers are perhaps due to the fact that
logic and critical thinking have been integral to the Indian way of
thinking since time immemorial. Such integration can also be witnessed in
the fondness of Indians for talking and debating. Tscherbatsky (1962: 31-
34) tells us that in the times of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, two of the
greatest Buddhist logicians, the fate of entire monasteries depended on
public debates. According to Tscherbatsky, Dignaga won his fame and royal
support through his defeat of the brahmin Sudurjaya at Nalanda Monastery
In another vein, Matilal (1990: 1-8) argues that the Indian logical
tradition is entirely home grown, since there is no evidence of India being
influenced by Aristotelian ideas. Matilal also shows that many topics,
which are of interest by contemporary logicians and philosophers today,
were discussed and researched into with sophistication by Indian scholars.
Such topics include theory of inference, empty names, reference and
existence, perception, knowledge of theexternalworld,substance,
causality, and many others (Matilal 1990). Moreover, Tscherbatsky’s (1962)
work, dealing mainly with the works of Dignaga and Dharmakirti illustrates
that India is one of the great logical and philosophical civilizations of
There are a number of topics that both traditions discovered independently
of each other. For example, Matilal notes that the counterpart of the
Aristotelian syllogism is the “five-membered argument” found in such texts
as Caraka and Nyayasutra. Instead of the three propositions found in
Aristotelian syllogism, the five-membered argument consistsoffive
propositions, the first of which is the conclusion, and the last repeating
what is already stated in the first. The remaining three propositions in
between are the premises. Here is one example of the five-membered argument
cited by Matilal (1990: 5):
1. There is fire on this mountain.
2. For, there is smoke there.
3. Smoke goes with fire always (or, in all cases, or in all places):
4. This is also a case of smoke.
5. Therefore, there is fire there (on the mountain).
Logicians will immediately be able to reconstruct this argument in the
familiar Aristotelian form as follows:
The place on the mountain is a place where there is smoke.
A place where there is smoke is a place where there is fire.
Therefore, the place on the mountain is a place where there is fire.
Matilal, however, notes that there is at least some dissimilarity between
the Indian and the Aristotelian argument forms presented here.For
instance, he says that the conclusion of the Indian argument form is in the
form of ‘singular proposition,’ (i.e., modified by demonstratives like
‘this’ or ‘that’) whereas that of the Aristotelian syllogism is either
universal or particular (i.e., modified by quantifiers like ‘all’ or
‘some’). But the dissimilarity here could be amended, as indexicals (terms
like ‘this’ or ‘that’ which relies on the context of utterance for their
full meaning) could be dispensed with by supplying the required information
on the context in which they are uttered. Thus it could be safely stated
that the Indian logical tradition fully comprehended the essence, so to
speak, of logic, which is the concept of validity and the basic valid
Another of the world’s great civilizations, China, also had its own
indigenous and independent logical tradition. Two of China’s logical
schools of thought are the Mohists and the Logicians. The former was
founded by Mo Ti, who lived between 479 to 381 B.C., during the Warring
States period of Chinese history (Ronan 1978: 114). Among the typical
Chinese scholars the Mohists are better known for their doctrine of
universal love and the condemnation of offensive war rather than their
interests and achievements in the physical sciences. In the latter Needham
reports that the Mohists went very far towards realizing that the thought
system was in fact a prerequisite for modern science. Most significantly,
the Mohists appeared to be in grasp of the concepts of deduction and
induction. They viewed the former as a way of thinking which follows a
‘mental model,’ which guarantees that whoever follows it will never fail to
be right in their thinking. Here is an example of reasoning based on
following such mental model:
Model thinking consists in following the methods of Nature.
What are followed in “model-thinking” are the methods.
Therefore if the methods are truly followed by the “model-thinking”
literally: hit in the middle, the reasoning will be correct.
But if the methods are not truly followed by the “model-thinking,” the
reasoning will be wrong (Ronan 1978: 119).
On the other hand, the Mohists also recognized the value of ‘extension’
which is a kind of reasoning from the known examples and ‘extend’ it to
unknown cases similar to them:
Extension is considering that that which one has not yet received
i.e. a new phenomenon is identical from the point of view of
classification with those which one has already received, and
admitting it (Ronan 1978: 119).
It is clear then that the former is an instance of deductive thinking,
while the latter represents the basic idea of inductive thinking.
The two most well known representatives of the Logicians are Hui Shih and
Kungsun Lung. The former is known for his paradoxes resembling that of
Zeno, and his writings were designed to shock and to illustrate deep
logical point. For example, Hui Shih’s writing that “The Heavens are as low
as the Earth; mountains are on the same level as marshes” (Ronan 1978: 122)
could be regarded as a way of illustrating the fact that, viewed from the
cosmic perspective, the sentence written by Hui Shih here is actually true.
Other pieces of his writings concern what and how we perceive:
Fire is not hot.
Eyes do not see (Ronan 1978: 122).
These are designed to lead one to think that what is hot in fire may well
not be in the fire at all, but is located within our tactile perception of
it. And the factor that actually does the seeing is not the eyes
themselves, but the consciousness or whatever that gives rise to the
Similarly, according to Needham, Kungsun Lung had a system of logical and
paradoxical thinking that could well serve as the foundation of modern
science. The following excerpts show that Kungsun Lung grasped such
concepts as the universality and unlocalizability of number and universals
and their contrasts with particulars that are their instances. Most
interestingly, Kungsun Lung’s discussion of changes in Nature could well
point to modern scientific way of thought:
Q: Is it permissible to say that a change is not a change?
A: It is.
Q: Can “right” associating itself with something be called change?
A: It can.
Q: What is it that changes?
A: It is “right.”…
Q: If “right” has changed, how can you still call it “right”? And if
it has not changed, how can you speak of a change?
A: “Two” would have no right if there were no left. Two contains `left-
and-right.’ A ram added to an ox is not a horse. An ox added to a ram
is not a fowl (Ronan 1978: 121-122).
Here one finds a discussion of the unchangeability of universals and their
distinction from particulars. One thing, A, located to the right of another
thing, B, would form two things, A-and-B. This thing, A-and-B would undergo
a change if A happens to move to the left of B. What are changed here are
the relation between A and B. However, the Right itself is changeless, even
though the particulars forming right or left relation to each other do.
Thus, a ram added to an ox would still be two animals, and won’t become
either a horse or a fowl. The changelessness of universals is a different
matter altogether from the mutability of particular things. Kungsun Lung’s
writing here reminds us of Western medieval treatises on logic and the
problem of universals, such as those of Abelard or Duns Scotus.
No matter how similar or different these Asian writings on logic and
philosophy are from those of Europe, it is certain that both India and
China do indeed have rigorous and profound systems of logic and critical
thinking, systems which could well form a launching pad for advanced
scientific research and innovation that actually took place in the West.
Thus Atkinson’s argument that critical thinking is culturally specific to
the West is clearly not borne out by historical facts and thus is mistaken.
However, when we look at the situations in the Asian countries today,
especially in Thailand whose cultural tradition is mostly influenced by
Buddhism, which originated within the Indian philosophical and religious
milieu, Atkinson seems to be right in that there is a felt need for
teaching Thai students to be able to think critically. McGuire (2000)
argues that there is a need to teach critical thinking and that critical
thinking can be taught to Asian students because it does not necessarily go
against the grain of local cultures and contains universal elements that
any local culture can find acceptable. If critical thinking is already
there in these cultural traditions, then why are there concerns for
introducing it to them? Something must have happened to these cultural
traditions so that there feels a need to bring in the skills and practices
of critical thinking from outside. Or is it really the need to reintroduce
and to reestablish these traditions with something which is clearly their
own, but is somehow lost?
Needham’s Grand Question and Fuller’s Interpretation
An adequate investigation into what actually may have caused the decline of
the logical traditions in India or China would comprise one thick book.
However, I believe that a glimpse toward an answer could be found if we
compare the dominant positions in the two civilizations with the logical
traditions. In India, the logical schools, Nyaya, Mimamsa, together with
the Buddhist logic and dialectic schools of Dignaga, Dharmakirti and
Nagarjuna never gained the supreme control when compared to the other
traditions such as the Vedanta. Personally, I think that this may be due to
the fact that the teachings of the logical schools were limited to the
monks or brahmins who practiced them. And when the logical tradition had to
compete with other traditions that could garner more popular appeal, it is
quite conceivable that the remote logical schools would lose support.
Perhaps in India the tradition of logical and critical thinking was limited
to the highly educated class in such a way that the general population knew
nothing of it, and this could be one explanation, as to why modern
scientific thinking did not develop in India. For science to develop, there
must be a tendency toward a full understanding of all of Nature through a
few general laws that could be learned and understood by anyone. The method
of learning such laws must be such that no one is excluded from studying
except through his own intellectual capabilities.
In China, Needham suggests that the reasons for modern science’s lack of
development are due to historical, economic, social and cultural factors
(Needham 1969: 190-217). Needham rightly dismisses the interpretation of
Europe’s eventual mastery of modern scientific techniques in geographical
or racial beliefs. The scientific and mathematical achievements in both
India and China during the ancient and medieval periods is so great that it
is hardly conceivable at all to think of Europe’s success in terms of her
‘destiny’ or ‘superior level of advancement’ as propagated by the Hegelian
tradition. On the other hand, Needham seems to believe that it is more a
matter of luck that Europe could eventually mastered the arts of modern
science and became dominant. Needham writes:
The further I penetrate into the detailed history of the achievements
of Chinese science and technology before the time when, like all other
ethnic cultural rivers, they flowed into the river of modern science,
the more convinced I become that the cause for the break-through
occurring only in Europe was connected with the special social,
intellectual and economic conditions prevailingthereatthe
Renaissance, and can never be explained by any deficiencies either of
the Chinese mind or of the Chinese intellectual and philosophical
tradition. In many ways this was much more congruent with modern
science than was the world-outlook of Christendom (Needham 1969: 191).
The “special social, intellectual and economic conditions” that explain
Europe’s success are nowhere necessarily attached to thehistorical
development of Europe. They seem only to be those that Europeans adopted,
consciously or not, in response to their historical, social, and mercantile
needs. Those needs apparently were not in the minds of Indians or Chinese,
whose priorities for their civilization as a whole seemed to be something
else. Thus, instead of looking for a unifying theory capable of explaining
and predicting natural phenomenon so that men could harness the power of
Nature to their own material needs as well as feel a sense of mastery when
Nature is thus comprehended, Indians and Chinese chose to put the ideals of
their civilizations in another way.
The summum bonum of the Indian philosophical tradition, attainment of
Moksha or Liberation, is quite contrary to the ideals and assumptions of
modern scientific thinking. Instead of looking for the way to free oneself
from the endless cycle of rebirths throughstrictself-discipline,
Europeans sought to advance their own self-interests that are more inclined
to the ordinary. In China, the rapid transformation from feudalism to state
bureaucratism, coupled with the influence of the Confucian ethos, while
hugely successful in preserving China’s cultural identity amidst the great
variety of people and localities, nonetheless made it the case that
material innovations and proto-scientific and logical theories would be
given little attention. Writings on such matters are referred to the
`Miscellaneous’ category by the mandarin scholars who put the highest
priority to moralistic, ethical, or historical writings (Ronan 1978: 19)
This interpretation, which is focused on the contingent character of the
rise of modern science in Europe, is regarded by Steve Fuller as the “under
determinist” one. According to Fuller, the reason why China did not develop
modern science was that it was not specifically promoted (Fuller 1997: 80-
88). He contrasts this with the “over determinist” mode–the kind of
explanation that seeks to explain the lack of progress of modern science
through the idea that it was specifically prevented from occurring. Thus,
according to the former outlook, the reason science did not develop in
China was because historical, social, economic conditions were such that
they were simply incompatible with its rise. I think this could be due to
the Chinese not putting a high priority on things scientific. On the other
hand, the over determinist would assume that science is part of a culture’s
destiny which would materialize anyway if the circumstances were favorable.
However, in the case of China these circumstances were not favorable,
blocking science’s potential development. To viewthehistoryand
development of science in the latter mode would mean that science is a
necessary part of a culture’s path of development, which is the same for
all cultures. A culture in which science successfully develops is thus
viewed as more “advanced” than another where the development of science is
somehow stinted. On the other hand, the under determinist would argue that
such a picture of each cultural entity racing along the same path smells
too much of teleology and “God’s design” to be tenable. Instead of so
viewing, each culture should be regarded as having its own path not
necessarily shared with others.
Since critical thinking and modern scientific thinking are closely related,
discussions of the historical rise of science in various cultures are
directly related to our investigation of whether critical thinking is
compatible with the major Asian cultural traditions. Discussions on the
rise of modern science seem to enable us to see how the tradition of
critical thinking arose and how they were promoted or discouraged. If the
under determinist mode of interpretation is accepted, then the lack of
critical thinking tradition in Asia could be explained by the fact that
somehow members of these traditions decided not to go put critical thinking
high on their list of priorities, despite the fact that critical thinking
skills could be found deep within the traditions themselves.
Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?
Hence, the values typically associated with Asian culture such as social
harmony and deference to the elders and teachers are thus seen as
consequences of the cultures deciding to put a certain set of priorities
above others. Social harmony was instrumental in bringing about the
cultural unity that is the most distinctive characteristic of Chinese
culture. It is valued above most other types of values because it goes hand
in hand with social stability, whose alternative is perceived as chaos and
general burden of social structure. The prioritization of social harmony
can also be seen in other Asian cultures such as the Thai one, and results
in Thais trying as far as they possibly can to avoid open conflicts and
disagreements. In the case of China, since all the elements that could
bring about the rise of modern science were in place, it is quite clear
that the Chinese culture actually chose not to go along the path taken by
the Europeans. The decision made by a culture to adopt a particular system
of beliefs and practices certainly did not happen suddenly, as if at one
particular moment of history, members of a culture had a meeting and
declared their cultures’ adoption of this or that set. The decision
occurred gradually throughout the historical development of a culture, and
can be seen in China adopting Confucianism ratherthanthemore
materialistic and scientifically inclined Taoism and Mohism, and in India
adopting the more mystical doctrine emphasizing the role of meditation and
private insights rather than publicly demonstrable methods of knowing. I
think that reasons for such decision are enormously complicated, but it is
hardly conceivable that China was somehow destined to lag behind Europe in
the science race due to factors they could not control.
This may be taken to show that critical thinking and Asian thought are
divergent. If the Asian cultures chose not to go along the path where
critical thinking is one milestone, then both do not seem to go with each
other, and Atkinson may be vindicated when he argues that critical thinking
is a part of Western culture only. If the Asian cultures prioritize sets of
values which are incompatible with critical thinking, and if they freely
chose those sets over the set adopted by Europeans for whatever reasons,
then it appears that critical thinking would belong to European culture
only, and to adopt it to Asian cultures would be the same as to importing
foreign ideas and practices to alien lands. Thus, Atkinson’s argument seems
to fit well with the under determinist position.
This line of reasoning, however, would be valid only if a culture decided
as its own set of priorities at one time will always remain so for all
other times. If the Thai culture, for example, once decided that social
harmony should take precedence over critical argumentation andopen
debates, then critical thinking practices would be forever alien to them.
But that is surely a very unreasonable position to take. Cultures, like
humans, often make decisions that later are amended or revoked with new
decisions made; when things are not the same any longer. Decisions to
prioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone, but even
so the stone can be broken down or else taken to a museum or a pedestal
where it loses its real meaning. Decisions at one time reflect the
circumstances normal at that particular time, and to stick onto past
decisions with no plan of adapting or making new decisions in response to
changing circumstances would make the culture frozen and unableto
participate. Opting not to correct their past decisions, a culture would in
effect be telling the world that it is constructing a wall around itself,
giving nothing to the world and receiving nothing. However, sociological
and economic conditions of the current world do not permit such a scenario
from happening. Cultures need to change themselves, not merely to survive,
but to prosper and to permit better lives for their members.
Consequently, Asian cultures and critical thinking are divergent only if
the former opt not to correct their decisions. But since we are talking
only about decisions, then it is not difficult at all to suggest that
cultures would make new decisions in response to changing times. Doing so
would make the two more convergent. Hence, the divergence and convergence,
after all, depend on what decisions a culture makes. There is nothing
necessarily attached to a culture’s path along history that makes it
essentially divergent or convergent from the modern critical thinking
tradition, or from any tradition for that matter. Since the philosophy of a
culture is but an abstract and theoretical expression and justification of
the culture’s decision to choose one set of priorities over another, Asian
philosophy and critical thinking are neither necessarily divergent nor
Any attempt to introduce, or we should say to bring back critical thinking
practices to the cultures of Asia would, therefore, begin within the
cultures themselves. This is in line with the under determinist idea that
each culture has its own peculiar development path which is not necessarily
shared with others. The mission of spreading the “truth” of one culture to
another is a misplaced. One that apart from sounding patronizing, is
something the current morality cannot accept. Thus the first step in such
an attempt must consist of a series of arguments designed to show to most
members of the culture where critical thinking is to be introduced, that
critical thinking is really good. However to do that would at least require
large amounts of explanations, something that is definitely out of scope of
this present essay. Besides, to argue that critical thinking is actually a
good thing to have is difficult, because it may run counter to the deeply
established belief that critical thinking is just a label forthe
confrontational mode of life that the culture finds unpleasantand
difficult to accept.
Though the task is difficult, I believe that it is unavoidable. As an
insider of my own Chinese cultural tradition, I am trying to convince the
members of my culture of the value of critical thinking and its important
role in educating citizens for the increasingly globalized world of today
and tomorrow. An important part of my argument for combining critical
thinking and its belief systems to the Chinese culture is the idea that
people should view the elements of their culture which could present the
most serious obstacles to critical thinking as “benign fiction.” That is,
elements such as respect of the elders and the belief in social ranking and
so on should be viewed in the same way as a modern person views his or her
own traditional customs and ceremonies. One is in a sense a part of the
culture where the ceremonies happen, but in another sense detached from it.
This is because he knows himself only to serve a certain function in the
culture, and in addition, knowledge of other cultures enables further
detachment from his own customs and ceremonies.
Such an argument would naturally require a lot more space and time than is
available here. What I hope to have accomplished in this essay, however, is
much more modest. It is, as we have seen, an argument that Asian philosophy
and Asian thought in general do not necessarily conflict with critical
thinking and its presuppositions. Furthermore, it is the influential making
of decisions throughout the history of each culture itself, which, I
believe, is flexible and adaptive enough to effect important changes for
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1 The literature on the nature and definitions of critical thinking are
enormous. Probably the most intense debate among critical thinking experts
centers on the question whether critical thinking can be a separate
autonomous academic disciplines dealing with the general form of thinking
to be applied by students in all of their academic areas. Or whether it is
not autonomous at all, but should always be part of important academic
disciplines. However, I believe that these debates giveuslittle
understanding of what critical thinking should be. For critical thinking
would be nothing if not applied to real cases, and the study of it would
not be totally effective if the skills and theories unique to it were not
abstracted and studied on their own. The other debates focuses on the
nature of critical thinking, or the meaning of “critical thinking” itself.
Richard Paul (1993) provides a definition that no one can gainsay: Critical
thinking is the kind of thinking one thinks of one’s thinking in order to
make one’s thinking better. Hatcher (1995a; 1995b) calls for the kind of
critical thinking that is based on the so-called “epistemological realist”
position this is contrasted by Sutton (1995) and Hostetler (1991), who
argue that critical thinking is more amenable to the anti-realist position.
Whatever it is, there is still no correct definition concerning the true
meaning of critical thinking.