Turi: Today, we’re thrilled to be talking to Julian Baggini. Julian’s a philosopher, journalist and the author of over 20 books of philosophy written for a general audience, including his latest, “The Godless Gospels”.
We are here to talk with him about his penultimate book, “how the world thinks: a global history of philosophy”. It’s an exploration of the very different philosophical traditions outside of the West from China and Japan, through India, Islam, as well as the oral traditions in Africa and elsewhere. And, um, I adored it by showing us how deeply our way of looking at the world is embedded in our own place and time.
Nothing reminds us quite so much as to question our receive wisdom. Um, As, as seeing how deeply our own understanding of the world is tied to where we’re born, the cultures of our parents, the world around us. So, um, Julian, thank you so much for coming to talk to us today.
Julian Baggini: Well, thank you Turi. Thank you for inviting me.
Turi: So to start with, um, Let’s start with this idea, which was once deeply uncontroversial and now is deeply contested that, um, human beings think and act differently around the world that actually ideas do have an impact on the way we behave and that they have an idea, have an impact on history that, um, that philosophies, uh, That the ideas spread around the world have an impact on the society and politics that then breathe, uh, breed up around them. Um, so, so can you, can you help us understand one, what this idea is, and to really give us a little bit of the history around it?
Julian Baggini: Well, there’s a lot to unpack there. I mean, I think there are different ways of understanding that. It’s my view is not a straightforward sort of top-down causal one, that philosophers developed theories and these theories are taken up by people, and that then changes the culture though sometimes that happens. There are some ideas which have passed their way into general culture in that top-down way, but I think what’s much more common and much more interesting is that of course the philosophies of a culture are in a kind of two way dialogue with the culture, they are in a part, a product of the cultures they come from, but they’re also then feeding back and informing, reinforcing, or modifying the cultures. And I think that’s should be, uncontroversial really. Cause it’s, it’s a very sort of holistic view. It’s not saying that there’s this sort of like mysterious hour of causation from ideas to action or something.
It’s saying that within a particular culture ways of. thinking are very deep rooted and therefore they find their expression both in everyday practices, but also in high philosophy. And that those things are often connected. They’re not always exactly the same, but they’re deeply connected. But again, an example of how they’re not all exactly the same.
Let’s take the idea of karma, which is like ubiquitous in most Indian philosophies. So the idea of karma is found in all those traditions. It’s also something which people believe in on a day-to-day basis. I mean, it’s very common in India to believe that things occur because of some kind of karmic payback.
But of course, the way in which karma is theorized, philosophically is diverse and different and often quite complex. It’s not exactly the same as often the sort of everyday person on the street way of thinking, but there is obviously a strong, strong similarity. And the absence of that way of thinking other cultures means that it makes those other cultures importantly different.
Turi: There’s obviously some politics wrapped up in this because what it suggests is that one can say there is an Indian way of thinking. Or, there is a Japanese approach to the world or a Chinese way of seeing the cosmos. And that is politically unfashionable. Now.
Julian Baggini: Well, it’s politically unfashionable. Although I find that it’s, it’s strange in a way, on the one hand, people are very keen to promote diversity. And in promoting diversity often, they are very keen on celebrating the fact that there are these different ways of thinking around the world, but at the same time, Um, there’s also, I think, quite correct, unwillingness to over-generalize and essentially I think that is an important thing to do.
Okay. So when I talk about, if I make any general statements about Indian philosophy or Chinese philosophy or Japanese philosophy, it’s got to be understood that I’m not saying. Oh, Japanese people and philosophers have thought and exactly the same way, generalizations of this kind about what has tended to be prominent and what tends to be in the foreground. Okay. And the same kind of way I take a simple example of generalization is that men are taller than the women. We know that doesn’t mean that if we give him, man is taller than any given woman. That’s simply not true, but we know it’s a kind of a statement about averages in a same kind of way. If we say there’s a way in which the Japanese think we’re saying there was a way of thinking, which is prevalent in Japan and has been, not only do we have to be aware though, that, of course it never applies to everyone in any given place at time.
You also have to accept the fact that things do change over time. As well. And so, you know, continuous, I think the continuity is on nonetheless extraordinary in China. For example, the Confucian way of thinking, which goes back millennia is still very strong. Today. It’s survived violent suppression during the Mao era where they tried to essentially eradicate all traces of Confucianism.
It didn’t work. It was still aware. So although again, things do adapt and change over time. Th the deeper continuity is, are sometimes remarkably striking.
Turi: That’s a very clear way of articulating the difference and allowing for this kind of inquiry. Um, you divide how the world thinks your book into four distinct sections.
Denoting for specific ways in which our fundamental metaphysics, I think is the word that you would use. Differ from each other. Can you, can you explain what firstly, perhaps, um, explain what you mean by the metaphysics part and then, and then talk us through those four different ways in which we engage with the world differently?
Julian Baggini: Well, the fundamental metaphysics, if you’d like is in any kind of way of thinking, and there’s a fundamental understanding about how the world is, you know, what, what kind of things might cut the world? So. For instance in, uh, in, in Indian traditions, the majority of philosophical schools. And again, the majority of people have believed that there is some kind of ultimate reality, which has a unity and a simplicity of which apparent individuals are in reality, merely parts thereof. And that it’s our destiny, ultimately, to return to oneness with that. In the West, in particularly the Christian world, a combination of Christianity and Plato you needed both of them, um, gave us this dualistic worldview in which for centuries people assumed there was both a material realm and a physical realm. And again, that’s sort my almost taken for granted. China on the other hand, again, it’s rather naturalistic tradition. It kind of, uh, is taken, taken for granted. The fact that the fundamental nature of the universe is something which is governed by a kind of a natural order of things. It can be misleading. Cause one of the phrases you used for this is the way of heaven. And because that’s the translation that’s used and because of what we think of as heaven, we assume that to me, there’s some kind of a other worldly order, but it isn’t actually, I think, I think most people would say that the way of heaven in China is more like the order of nature, the fundamental order.
So there are kind of very, very fundamental ways of understanding how the world is constituted. How it works, how principles of cause and effect work, uh, then that changes the whole, the whole view of how you see everything else.
Turi: So that’s how you describe and how we’ll use over the course of this podcast. The idea of our metaphysics, which is sort of the, the macro, um, Landscape, I suppose, the macro perspective that we bring to everything that we engage.
Julian Baggini: Yeah. I think the best way. I mean, if we take metaphysics to mean here that the fundamental conception of the nature of reality. Okay. Um, which is often, obviously in, in everyday life is often implicit rather than explicit. Most people can’t particularly articulate what their metaphysics is. They wouldn’t even know what the word metaphysics means, but they will have a certain assumptions. For example, about people having an immaterial soul, as well as the material body, whatever it might be.
Turi: Gotcha. And that’s very exciting to start to probe because, um, because anything which carries in it an implicit perspective, which is not understood, which is not, has not been verbalized, has not been rendered conscious, um, is, uh, has just such a, such a tremendous impact on the way that we think about the world. Um, and we’re not in a position to argue against ourselves, which is why I think I’m so interested in it. But can I ask you back back to the book? Four key differences in the way in which we, um, we engage, um, one how the world knows, two how the world is three, who we are in the world and four how we live. So the idea of the better life could you, I’m flagging them for you to really open them up for us, those four different ideas.
Julian Baggini: Well, the second is, is what we’ve already talked about. The fundamental metaphysics is how the world is, but in a way, I mean, the order, I did it in, was starting with how the world knows. And I think this is, I think very, very interesting. We believe certain things and certain things we believe with a certainty that we called it knowledge, whether or not we believe it’s beyond all doubt or not. There’s kind of knowledge. It’s more than just opinion and in different. Places. And at different times, people have a very different idea of what is a legitimate way of gaining such knowledge now in the West. In the contemporary West, I think sort of post-enlightenment West. And, but this has its roots going further back. The, the, the routes to knowledge are essentially a combination of reasoned experience. So it’s this, the scientific investigation of the world, and also the application of essentially logical reasoning, uh, to, to, to data. And, and these are the only real things which in the sort of secular world are considered to be legitimate sources of knowledge.
In other places and other times different things count too. So for instance, in India, there’s quite a historical emphasis on the idea of insight, insight into reality, which one doesn’t necessarily gain from just, you know, studying things scientifically or thinking, well, you gain it by developing a certain sensitivity or kind of, it’s a kind of spiritual practices helped with this unit. So practices like meditation, yoga. And so for that, I intended to help us to be able to gain that insight. And one caveat of that is that if insight is indeed a source of knowledge, and it is also the case that certain people are more skilled at having this insight than others, then another legitimate source of knowledge is the testimony of relevant persons.
And so what you find in Indian tradition, which seems very, very alien to the contemporary Western one, is that people will take something to be true on the basis of the testimony of someone who is believed to have a special insight. And that almost sounds, you know, is heretical from a universe. Imagine a British university. If someone was to say that professor X, you know, has got his money because he’s, he’s developed a very keen insight and we trust the insight. He has, and it would be, it would be a, he is in these traditions too, as well, historically. Yes, that is unfortunately the case. Um, there are other things. So again, for example, there are lots of cultures where a very important source of knowledge is what you might call tradition. It’s the wisdom of the ages and the mere fact that something has been held to be the case, particularly when it comes to morals and politics throughout the centuries, by the great Sage is itself a reason to believe things, to have a certain. Uh, whites to have a certain kind of truth. So I think, you know, you can see how once you start unpicking this little scripture as well is scriptural legitimate source annoyed. What’s quite interesting is in Indian tradition. I think there’s more of a systematic kind of exploration of this. I mean, when people talk about the Orthodox and the heterodox schools, Indian philosophy and we’d definitely do to what they are, but yeah, there’s a traditional way of dividing the schools of philosophy in India, which I think is perhaps a little bit simplistic, but it’s better than perhaps nothing. Um, one of the ways in which you standardly distinguished them, Is the different views they take on what the legitimate sources of knowledge are. So the only school of philosophy in the Indian tradition, major school and philosophy, which is entirely materialist, which is the charter school, uh, is, is distinguished by the fact that only allows essentially I think experience are there.
I think the reason comes into it as well as legitimate sources of knowledge. Um, everything else allows for other things.
Turi: That’s fascinating, but I think one of the things which comes across so clearly is that, um, rather than disparaging these peculiar ways of ascertaining truth or ways of gaining knowledge, such as insight or tradition, you point out that actually there’s something very sort of perhaps almost objective rational about trusting in something called insight. It may be that actually are disparaging of insight, sort of, it doesn’t particularly work.
Julian Baggini: Yeah, I think there’s going to be more carefulness interest in Aristotle. Uh, um, uh, I have to say by the way, I’m very about having this very specific sort of memory reciting lines, reciting sources, but Aristotle did say something very striking to the effect of that one should pay careful attention. To the beliefs of people with great experience, because it has a kind of authority, which other things lack. Yeah. So Aristotle did, did recognize that. I think what’s interesting is if we’re going to sort of, I don’t go for the shoulders drugging everywhere. Everything everywhere is equally legitimate. Everyone’s got everything equally. Right? I don’t think that makes sense, but there are always things to be learned. I think when it comes to like insight, we do have to ask ourselves, well, In what areas do we think perhaps that is legitimate. And I think, for example, if you take a certain forms of professional knowledge, medicine’s a very interesting one, particularly the time at which they’re developing computer programs and AI to do diagnosis.
And, you know, maybe these things will turn out to be better than doctors, but all depend on the condition. But what’s quite interesting is that a lot of really good doctors with experience. They kind of have a sense when something isn’t quite right. So they have a kind of sense where something needs further investigation. They’re not infallible, don’t get me wrong, but they can’t always fully put their finger on it and that’s insight. And we don’t think that to be, uh, deeply mysterious in the sense of it requires mumbo jumbo or some kind of insight from the gods or something. We do just accept the fact that with experience comes a kind of sensitivity to things which can’t always be. Articulated in the form of rational arguments or even objective reasons. I think a real test is to ask ourselves well in rich, which kind of domains do we think insights should be allowed and. In which kind of domains, isn’t it? I don’t think, for example, if someone turns around and says, you know, I just have a very strong feeling. This vaccine is the one that’s going to work for COVID we should pay any attention to it at all.
Turi: I don’t know who you’re thinking about. I
Julian Baggini: ha I, if you could see my hand gestures, you know, I have great insight into this. It doesn’t work for things like that, but for some things, for some things it really kind of does. Um, and that’s for the other thing, is that. Insight. Isn’t always in complete opposition to the other, the other things. So I think, for example, in the Western tradition, there’s such an emphasis now on the importance of reason and argument, we don’t really notice that actually some of the most important pieces of philosophy in history of the West have essentially been moments of insight. Uh, so Descartes famously is reported to say, people think is, I think therefore I am, which is a formulation he does use in the discourse on method and in the meditations, it’s not an argument. It’s just the one thing that cannot be doubted is that I am, I exist. Now, if you think about that, there’s not anybody an argument there.
He’s had a moment of insight and you see whether it’s true or not. By attending very carefully to it and thinking, Ooh, Ooh, that’s right. That’s right. It’s not an argument. So some insights in it. It’s not like insights can’t be explained at all. It can’t be demonstrated, but. Sometimes with his insights. It’s more a matter of showing rather than telling, you know, you kind of share your insight with someone and if they are thinking sufficiently well, and the insight is genuine, other people go, Oh, I see that too. But there was some kind of insights, which you can’t expect someone untrained to have. So if the doctor has the insight. That for example, can’t be properly explained, then you can’t expect them just to sort of show this case to a patient or person on the street and they would go, Oh, I see what you mean. So yeah. So some things have been sighted, kind of shareable and others aren’t.
Turi: But that’s a lovely way of reminding us that the tools that we bring to knowledge creation and knowledge verification in the West are also limited. And we’ve got lots to learn from elsewhere. Okay. So that’s one of the four key ways in which we see the world differently, or perhaps two, because we’ve spoken about our fundamental metaphysics. We spoken about how we, um, how we know things to be true. A third is. How we identify ourselves, who we understand ourselves to be in the world.
Julian Baggini: Yeah. I mean, this has been a very long running interest for me. And it’s been, it’s been a journey to use a cliche because you know, my PhD so much my undergraduate dissertation and then also my. Uh, PhD thesis was on the question of personal identity. And I approached that very narrowly. I was basically as a philosopher called Derek Parfitt. Who’s written the most important work on this in the last hundred years probably. And yeah, PhD is like footnotes to parfait. That’s what it was really. Um, after that though, I kind of, I then many years later with ego trick, which was trying to, I think this is such an exciting topic. I wanted to make interesting to other people and I, I brought it to my horizons there. Didn’t just bring you an analytic philosophy. I brought in a lot of experience with people talking and this book was wonderful for me because I got to expand that even more and look about at, I had some idea that there are different ways of thinking across the world, but these were kind of mentioned in passing and briefly in my own book and a bit glossed over.
Now, what I find interesting about this is that very evidently it’s like. Truism that people are people wherever they may come from. And we will human beings. We all the world, we all the people as that cheesy some lint. So how can it be that there were fundamentally different ways of understanding yourself? Well here, I have to say there’s one. I always end up recommending this book, intimacy or integrity by Tom pursue this Thomas pursued. This is really, really interesting. Comparative philosophy works on Japanese thought and he makes this point that the mistake people make, not just in this topic, but in almost always in looking at different ways of thinking around the world is that people are always keen to create these dichotomies in it. So the West is materialistic. India is spiritual. Uh, the West is individualistic. Asia is collectivist living on a bit. So they make these sharp distinctions. And he’s saying it’s never really like that.
It almost invariably, if not, if not absolutely irreparably. We in it, there is a sense in which we all look at things in the same way around the world, but what we put in the foreground and what we put in the background varies incredibly enormously. Now, when it comes to the self, there’s a question about whether or not we have an immaterial soul or not, which I think is essentially one that depends on religious traditions. But apart from that, the two, the two ways of thinking, which are different, but at the same time complimentary on the one hand. The one that’s developed most in the West, which is what we might call the atomistic view. So in this view, an individual is an individual unit first and foremost. So you are your immaterial soul, whatever it might be, the Cartesian ego, the eye, and, you know, society is a collection of these things. And the primacy of the individual is as a unit. Lead source sorts of interesting problems and questions because one of the longest running questions in sort of modern English speaking philosophy is what they call the problem of other minds, which is how can I know that someone else has a mind and that the reason that problem emerges at all is because we take it for granted that what I am is primarily the subjective unit of consciousness. Separated from others. And therefore the problem then arises well, if that’s the case, how can I read, you know, other people have minds at all? How come could they not just be robots? The other way of looking at yourself is generally given the term of the relational aspect of the self. And the idea here is that who you are is never entirely a matter or who you are, any exclusions, everything else, your relations to others.
Oh, it constitutive of who you are, the fact that you are someone’s son, brother, daughter, fellow, citizen, whatever it might be. These relationships constitute who we are. And, and that’s really important because that kind of shows that in a way, it doesn’t even make sense to think of yourself in complete isolation. From others, a self could not emerge in isolation. And this relation to auntie can extend not just to other people, but to the natural world. So I think you find in a lot of the oral traditions of Africa, for example, a sense that our relationality is not just to other people it’s to, to the ancestors and that’s, that’s not necessarily in any kind of, sort of spooky way. It’s just that, you know, we are a product of the traditions we emerged in, but also like for the land, the land is often a very, very important factor in these all traditions. So we have these two ways of thinking now, of course, when you think about it? It’s quite obvious that we do have both of those things in the West. We have the idea of the atomized individual. And yet we also have that famous John Donne line. No, man is an Island entire unto itself. We understand that the human being is a social animal, as Aristotle said, but particularly over the centuries and particularly more recently, the individual aspect has. Been foregrounded in other parts of the world, I think pretty much everywhere else. Apart from the West, to be honest. And even in the West, in the past, the relational aspect has always been hugely important. This is really interesting because it suggests how. We don’t choose, which of these views is right. We choose how much emphasis to put on them. And I think the given so many people are worried that in the West, we have become too atomized, too individualized, and yet people don’t want to give up ideas of Liberty and autonomy that come along with that. The solution is not to just throw that out the window. It’s to say, maybe we just need to put a bit more emphasis on the relational aspect too, to bring these two ways of understanding into a better balance.
Turi: So there’s a couple of things I’d like to pull out of this Julian. The first is that clearly the ways in which we think have an impact on the ways in which we live. And I think you’ve spoken and written elsewhere about how this atomistic understanding of. Of the individual, um, has also had an impact on the kind of social policies that have been played out. Margaret Thatcher famously saying there is no such thing as society, perhaps an acceleration of that atomistic view of the individual, but it’s it’s having a, um, uh, not terribly positive impact on the ways in which we build out our societies can is do you think that’s, do you think that’s fair?
Julian Baggini: Well, I think, I think, I think that I think it is true. I think it is fair. I think they, they, they do have, uh, I think both of you have their strengths and weaknesses. That’s the other important point. So I think a lot of the time people misunderstand the relational understanding of self because they think it implies a kind of collectivism and a kind of uniformity and a sort of a denial of individuality now. That’s not true, but it is true that in societies where that relational aspect is most dominant, those things are greater risks. Yeah. Because, uh, if you do have more emphasis on how we relate to each other and so forth, there was more risks. That’s going to be pushed in the direction of conformity and uniformity and so forth. Same time. The individualistic as a mystic thing has great strengths. I mean the whole emphasis on individual autonomy, liberties.
I mean, these are things which if you’ve grown up in those cultures, as I have, you really don’t want to give those things up at all, but again, it does have its risks and the risks it has, uh, again of just separating people from each other, too much people sort of forgetting and denying how much. They depend upon other people essentially, and how much a harmonious society really requires that we find ways to live together. And so, yeah, and, and, and, and I think what happens is that people will, I mean, in politically, what always happens I think is that people will tap into the dominant ideas to try and push certain agendas and they can do that for ill, or they can do it for good. So in the West, for example, If your top portal institution, who’s trying to be successful. You’re going to be in favor of Liberty and freedom, of course, but sometimes in the name of Liberty and freedom, people promote things which are really not so desirable after all, they might actually be promoting, just, uh, letting the reigns of corporate interests basically take advantage of everybody under the name of Liberty and freedom in the same kind of way under the name of like we’re all in it together. There was a scientist in, in, in other parts of the world, which essentially stamped down on dissent and demand obedience. So the Chinese communist party, I think, is very good at this. You know, the Chinese communist party uses kind of Confucian language and rhetoric, but not really authentically, but it’s a, it’s a rhetorical ploy that appealing to what people would intuitively find appealing, but they’re twisting it just to fit their own agenda.
Turi: So here you’ve got a, um, a beautiful sort of two-part. Description of the ways in which we think having an impact on the ways in which we live. But I also want to surface something else, which is, I remember years ago, reading about the man who discovered contagion, who was, uh, a Muslim doctor called Al-Raasi . And I think in the 13th century. And I remember reading at the time, um, that it was perfectly obvious that the idea of contagion was not going to come out of the West. Because the West’s intellectual culture had at the very heart of it, the idea of the individual’s relationship to God as an individual, whereas somewhere like the middle East, and you talk about, um, Islam sense of community, but that one of the other kind of grounding principles of Islam is the idea of the umaa’, the community of believers, which makes that jump to discovering contagion so much more, so much easier, so much faster. So actually the ways in which we think have an impact on the things that we’re, that we can also see.
Julian Baggini: No, I think, I think that’s true. It’s very interesting that there was this great flourish in the so-called Islamic golden age in which the Islamic world was way ahead of the Western in, in things like mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and so forth. I think in the Western what’s quite interesting is that. And for most, from more recent history it’s, I mean, the West that’s been at the forefront of science and the development of science. And why was that? I mean, there were lots of reasons, but it’s not just wealth. I mean, China was more affluent than the West for many centuries and yet it didn’t make any technological.
Breakthroughs and all these kinds of fundamental scientific ones. What was it about the West, which made a difference now, I really wouldn’t want to come out here and sort of give you this is the truth, but I’m sure that one phone was this kind of. Atomistic way of thinking because natural science, the great progress in natural science, it worked because the fundamental process was to break things down to their smallest constitutive elements, and then to work out how they work from there. And that was enormously successful in the sciences for centuries. And it was, and the West when Henry, so that is coincidence the West, which had this kind of atomized sort of worldview was where that kind of science most developed, but we can rest on our laurels. I think there’s too much of a kind of a thing of, Oh, well of course Western civilization is superior. Isn’t it just look at what it’s achieved. If you look at where the real exciting growth areas in natural science are now, they’re often actually to do with things concerning systems. And I didn’t think that I do wonder, and I’m quite convinced by this, that we’ve reached, we’ve almost gone as far as we can go in understanding the world by chopping it up into the smallest elements and building out from that.
What we’re discovering is that when systems behave in ways, which can’t be predicted. By just looking at those small parts systems, biology, complexity theory, and so forth. They all, they all show this to be the case. And here the most conducive ways of thinking are those ones, which show about the more pattern thinking the interrelated theory, which again is interesting. But what you say about contagion, because of course the idea of contagion is one which emerges more naturally. If you feel fundamental way of looking at things is as interconnected rather than as discrete units.
Turi: Precisely I’m, I’m struck by something you hear very often in the field of natural language process processing, which is that actually Mandarin is a far more easy and far more pliable language to natural language processing than, uh, Latin languages, um, as a, perhaps a metaphor for what you are describing this shift towards systems thinking. Can I ask you just before we move on, because I love the idea for you to explain a little bit the difference between. What you are, what, um, what your colleague describes as intimacy versus integrity and the ways in which society arranges itself.
Julian Baggini: Yeah. Those are the terms Tom consumers use to sort of talk about this fundamental orientation. I thought about it. So atomized and relational, but really, I guess that’s the way it manifests itself, particularly in the, in the arena of personal identity is intimacy and integrity thing was. Integrity is about, uh, actually I think he’s a hippie. I think these terms, the best chosen was to be honest, cause they need explaining, but the idea of integrity is about homeless is about completeness. So it’s the idea that each thing is in an in and of itself complete and entire. So if you visualize this, the way of looking at the world looks like, uh, you know, lots of little circles, those little atoms, all built up together. Um, Integrity, intimacy, intimacy. Sorry as well. The idea that again, Intimacy is about things being connected, deeply connected, fundamentally connected and inseparable. And, and, and that’s, again, leads to this idea of looking at the patterns, the holes interrelations between things. So rather than visualizing the world is. A whole lot of different little circles in connection with each other. It’s like overlapping circles, but not just overlapping. So it was overlapping circles, which don’t even have clearly defined boundaries because everything is so immeshed in each other and he says at time, and again, if you, if you look about, you can see how the there, the intimacy orientations, and there would be integrity, orientations in thinking again. And what’s, what’s really critical here is that. There were times when one way, both ways of thinking do have their role. Do you have that legitimacy? There are times when one way of thinking is more fruitful. There are times when another is more fruitful and the main, the mistake is simply just sort of ignore the resources of one and focus solely on the other.
Turi: Julian, the fourth approach. Well, the fourth area in which you see. Deep deep metaphysical differences in our, in our approaches around the world is how we understand the good life or how to live. Can you help us understand what you mean there?
Julian Baggini: Yeah. I mean, this is both the domains of ethics and politics. I mean, I think these things are inseparable. Actually. It’s quite interesting that they’re taught as separate courses in, in certainly Western universities, but they always get the, how, how we to live. And that comes last because actually I think a lot of how we think about how we want to live. Really rests rest upon our idea of what the fundamental nature of the world is and what the nature of human beings is, you know, uh, how we live really follows from that. So for example, in again, in lots of the Indian schools, the Orthodox Indian schools, um, how we ought to live is rooted in the idea that our ultimate destiny is returned to me, it’s the ultimate problem and the ultimate reality, and that, that affects the way we view the whole purpose of life. Um, so, so it is, it is very important. And I think this is a again, very interesting topic, because once again, we see what Kasulis says, which is the often, sometimes you find an idea which is perhaps completely different. So if you don’t believe in Brahman is the ultimate destiny. Then there are certain things in Indian tradition, which are simply not going to resonate. On your hands often you see things where you go, well, yes, I can see that what’s going on. There is a greater emphasis. And I think the clearest example of this is the idea of harmony, which is this fundamental Confucian value and also a Taoist value. Although I think it has a slightly different character in Taoism. So this is a value for politics and for ethics, it’s saying that really the most important thing. In life is for there to be harmony harmony in society, harmony in our families, harmony in the relations between us harmony. Isn’t simply about, it’s not about not rocking the boat. Keeping your place. Although of course it can lead in that direction. And Confucianism was very, has been very hierarchical. Harmony requires difference. It requires that people have different roles. So even when it’s hierarchical, it’s the very fact that the role of the father and the mother and the son and the eldest son and the daughter, all these, we all have different roles. And therefore there’s a diversity is exactly what’s required for harmony. If everyone tries to be the same, you don’t, you don’t get harmony. And this idea is so important. It’s again, abused by the Chinese communist party because harmony all the classical Chinese texts. Say very clearly harmony requires difference. It requires difference. Doesn’t tolerate it. It demands it. Whereas actually in the name of harmonization, the Chinese communist party today is often bringing them around about a much greater uniformity. Hong Kong is a very interesting example of this. Hong Kong. When it came back under Chinese sovereignty, the principle was one country, two systems. In other words, Hong Kong was part of China, but there were two systems. Actually, I I’m struck by how classically Confucian that way of thinking is it’s about managing difference. It’s about acknowledging the fact that there is difference between Hong Kong and the mainland. But the way to achieve a harmony is somehow to get this balance, we can have one country and two systems, but of course now Chinese communist party is just abandoning that it was one country, one system, but it does. So it under the name of harmonization. If we look in our own culture, harmony is another concept which I find is not taught in. Politics is not taught in ethics. If you think about it for like five seconds though, you can recognize what of course, of course we want a harmonious society because you want harmonious relationships between people. But so why isn’t that? Not in our political theory and ethical lexicon. Because it’s just not part of the tradition. So I think this is something where, you know, we can, we can learn from each other. We can learn about this. I think there’s a place to kind of promote harmony as one of the key objectives of politics. Because after all we know politics is about managing different competing claims and interests is only because society consists of a wide variety of peoples views. Interests and beliefs are not all the same that we need politics. Well, if that’s the case, then. Rather than simply see it being about a democratic process of majority designs, which is actually deeply antagonistic in the end and leads to great polarization as we’re seeing. Why not? Why can’t we learn a bit from this and say, actually, you know, the role here is to try and bring some harmony here is to negotiate those differences in a way that those differences can exist, but not being intention, not being in conflict in what we call harmony.
Turi: Julian, you say in your book that harmony is what is sort of the great surprise for the West, because it’s probably much more universal as a principle than anything else anywhere, um, including our idea of virtue. Do you think is virtue is, is, is virtue what the West brings in you of harmony as an idea.
Julian Baggini: Well, I don’t know about that because I think that the idea of virtue in it, certainly the Greek sense has somewhat been lost actually. Um, it’s very interesting that, you know, when I was starting out as an undergraduate, The dominant mold theories were you to the tail aneurysm or some kind of other, or more broadly speaking consequentialism or so in this view, what is good and what is right is whatever brings out the best consequences. So most famously the utilitarianism, which that talks about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And this is just about, you know, you do what makes things best. It’s as simple as that, it’s very kind of practical view. And the main view on the other side would have been what cold day, ontological theorist, horribly technical word, but it’s basically a kind of ethic of duty and responsibility. And so, and I think this has resonances with the Christian tradition as well. You have a duty to obey. The moral law that the maximum is, which should apply to everyone and to be consistent, would have to apply to run don’t lie, don’t steal, et cetera, et cetera. Chu didn’t really play a big role. Virtue was beginning to come back though and virtue in the of Tinian sense. It’s still about the Christian virtues of, you know, just sort of like. A list of good things to have is the idea that really being good starts with becoming a good person. That’s how you get goodness, a good, and I think this is makes intuitive sense because the people, you know, who you think are most morally admirable. These people I would suggest are not normally ones who have a very clear kind of set of complicated and conferencing, mold theory, or set of principles they follow. They rather just tend to be people who are compassionate, kind. Thoughtful absolutely wise in how they behave generous. You’re describing their character traits, the things about them, which they have developed and enabled them to make good decisions and access good people. That’s what the virtue tradition brings and it lost in the West. But again, that seems to have resonance is all around the world. The similarities between confusion and ascertaining thinking. You’re very, very striking in this regard. I mean, both really thought that the cultivation of character was the most important thing, get that right. And everything else follows. Whereas in the West, I think we’ve moved towards the idea of what are the principles, what are the rules that we need to follow and, and, and when neglected the whole issue of character.
Turi: You frame this nicely by saying that in the West, we try and follow the golden rule. Do unto others. What you would want done to you or negatively do not do unto others, that, which you do not want done to you, whereas elsewhere, the idea is that rather than just following the rules, you might become the kind of person who would, who would naturally perform. Who would naturally behave that way. And there’s a very big gap between those two modes of approach.
Julian Baggini: That’s true because the versions of the, of the golden rule in, in multiple traditions, very struggling again, Confucius had his version of it. There’s the Christian version of it. Kant’s categorical imperative is arguably a version of the golden or more, um, actor. I mean, translate sources, roughly act only on that principle, which you could will to be a universal principle. Um, so you have the golden rule in Confucius, but I say, I think that is the critical difference in Confucius. The idea is that if you work on yourself, this is what a good person will do. So in a way it’s not so much a good person is someone who always has this role in the front of their head and tries to follow it. A good person is a kind of person whose actions you will find. We’ll follow this rule. Of course, it’s good to have a conscious awareness of it because when they were difficult decisions, it might help you to decide which one to which decision to make fundamentally it comes from being a good character. And I think there’s another good thing. Again, there was a, a Zen master who put it really nicely. The thing about rules and principles is that rules and principles absolutely useless. If you don’t initially have the right character, the right rules and principles do not stop a thief from feeling right.
And a good person doesn’t need a rule or principle to tell them not to steal or not to murder, they just don’t do it. So there’s this sort of curious kind of thing that, um, you know, rules and principles by themselves just don’t bring about. Good and right. Action. It’s good people being good is what brings around the right moral action.
Turi: So you’ve talked beautifully just now about. Harmony with diversity, the importance of diversity inside harmony, you flag the problems that we are. You’re across the West with polarization. Ever-increasing sort of radicalization of both sides on the political spectrum. And you have this lovely line and perhaps the reason for your book, which was I’m quoting you by great, by gaining greater knowledge of how others think we can become less certain of the knowledge we think we have. Which is always the first step to greater understanding. So, um, at the very heart of this project is a conviction that by seeing the gaps in our own thought, we open them up and allow for growth. We allow for, um, for, um, we allow ourselves to learn more. Where are we now? We live in a ultra globalized world.
The internet speeds, everything up across, uh, across all cultures. Are we becoming. More uniform or we is thought globalizing. And if it’s not what CA what are the 21st century models going to look like? Is it going to be a mashup of communist party Confucianism and, um, American pragmatic individualism? What, what is, what’s the 21st century metaphysics gonna look like?
Julian Baggini: Really not a clue. I wouldn’t like to guess. My, my, my hunch is that despite the fact that we talk about globalized world, These deep differences in culture are probably going to be more enduring than people might suppose. We do see globalizing affects kind of having, bringing things closer together. But they don’t completely go. So, so you see it in the way people behave in public transport. For example, Japan, superficially in some ways is highly integrated to come, was westernized. It has all this old technology, et cetera, et cetera. The way people behave on public transport is very much about. Being hyper-aware of the relationality, giving other people their space, even when there is no space, even it’s crammed, you give space to others.
You find a way to doing that. The New York subway is characterized by people trying to claim their seats, getting their double seats spreading out their belongings, claiming their own space for themselves because it’s a hyper individualized culture. So I’m really not so sure that things are going to become entirely uniform, but hopefully. If there is, if there is a fruitful kind of learning from each other and we should expect some of the bigger differences to become less. Can you be more about. Cultures toning down their excesses rather than all becoming the same. So, you know, maybe a bit more individualism would be a good thing in places like China and Japan, but not on the price of eroding the real strengths of the relationality.
And again, and maybe a greatest strength of emphasis and relationality in the West would be a good thing, but it doesn’t mean we have to sort of give up entirely our ideas about autonomy. And individuality. So I think this is perhaps the hope of where things will go, whether it will go on, or I don’t know, because there were so many threats. We’ve seen the rise of nationalism in particular, and we could easily see a situation in which people fearful of globalization, sort of like double down on their differences and kind of, instead of like thinking, what can we take from cultures that are different from others? We’ll end up saying, what can we find, which is most distinctive our own tradition and assert to the exclusion of all else.
And there were worrying signs of that. Of course, I think in terms of the West substitute, you know, I’m all over the West. So this is the most interest to me. I think that, you know, thinking about how people think around the world is obviously important for understanding them. But for me personally, the most useful thing is it holds a mirror up to our own society in which we can notice. Know things about ourselves. We didn’t notice cause we took them so much for granted. And I do worry a bit that we’ve stopped doing that by so many things. Sometimes it’s because of a sense of superiority that we really do have nothing to learn. Sometimes it’s the opposite is kind of this. Strange exoticization in which, you know, the West is blamed for everything that’s wrong in the world. And people romanticize cultures in which people are more in harmony with nature, whatever it might be. But, you know, if you do that, you’re really making it impossible to learn. Cause you’re really kind of like acting as though there’s such a it’s night and day the West and not the West. If that’s the case, how can the rest of really learn? We’re not going to become like China or India or whatever it might be. So I do think there’s not enough of this, if any, but that’s why I think the metaphor for grounding background from Tom Kasulis is so important. And I kind of build on that in a way and have this idea of a mixing desk, you know, a mixing desk in a recording studios where you record each instrument.
And what you do is you have to turn up and down the levels. The volume level was of each instrument. So as you get the best mix overall, and I think in a sense all around the world, we’ve all got the same mixing desk. We have these things and they’re labeled things like individualism, relationality rights, harmony, so forth, but we all set these things at different levels. And I think by looking at other coaches, you can go, Oh, I’m actually thinking about it. Seeing how, how many places maybe we could apart. How many bit here maybe we get turned down or individualist a bit here. And that kind of learning from each other and tuning would be good. And it’s also, if you think about it sort of being fairly modest aspiration, you know, so many Clarion calls for change calling for a radical transformation of a kind that’s probably unrealistic. It’s not unrealistic to tweak things here and there a bit more of this, a bit less of that. So maybe we can learn from each other in ways that are fruitful.
Turi: Julian, what a wonderful place to, to halt. I can’t thank you enough for walking us through these ideas. It’s been a huge pleasure. I’m extremely instructive and also quite optimistic. So thank you.
Julian Baggini: Thank you, Turi.