Sunday, February 2, 2014

Can Asians think? Yes, and no

BEIJING - A book published in 2001 entitled 'Can Asians think?' recently surfaced on my desk again after having met its famous author, Kishore Mahbubani, in Beijing in October 2013. Mr. Mahbubani is a Dean, Professor, former diplomat, and author of other East-West books like his latest 'Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World' or, his best known one, 'The New Asian Hemisphere'. The 'Can Asians think?' question is both rhetorical and self-deprecating, if not self-loathing. Asia was believed to be on top of things until small European powers set out to colonize the world. That Asians can think is unquestionable the case since Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, reminded us that he who thinks necessarily exists - Cogito, ergo sum -; yet what Mr. Mahbubani has in mind, I think, is the quality of that Asian thinking.

Leaving the great Western philosophers, inventors, and Nobel Laureates aside, the Western hemisphere for the last 300 years of Western imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism, has been credited with leading humanity not only into bloody wars but also into the Ages of Enlightenment, Sciences and Technologies, Modernity, Globalization, and, finally, the total Westernization of economics, politics, scholarship, education, entertainment, and the arts. Even uniquely Asian originals can only achieve global recognition and credentials - like Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism - if those traditions are studied and understood by the West and leading Western scholars, and it is still the case, as a general rule, that Asians who want to study their own cultures, must do so in the United States or Europe because it's there where they have all the theories.

Mr. Mahbubani argues in this book and his three others that the East, having absorbed and studied the Western theories, is now coming back onto the stage of world history with some sort of peaceful vengeance. What is more, the East was always thinking, Mr. Mahbubani argues, but quite differently from the West and therefore never quite being understood by Western analysts. This line of argument falls well into the well-known East-West discourse which argues that there is some kind of benign, spiritual competition going on between East and West, as ancient as the 'Greeks versus the Persians', that has seen the 'West versus the rest' throughout the centuries competing not only for the better arts and the better theories, but also for world domination. Mr. Mahbubani believes that certain Asian values like hard-working, filial piety, love for learning, patriarchy, and Confucian family values were ill-advisable in the past, but might be just the right formula to success in the 21st century. [Read more on Asian Values here.]

Despite Asia's rise little has been reported on what Asian intellectuals truly think when they are not just thinking about the West. Mr. Mahbubani's education, career, and intellectual output (he writes in beautiful English) are but the products of his westernization.

To keep up to date with news from China you can follow me on TwitterBig Think, or my Website.