A scholar explores the strengths, weaknesses, and pertinence of Western philosophy.
Fann, who is well versed in Chinese history and phonology, illuminates the differences between Western and Eastern philosophy in his debut book. European civilization, the author notes, emerged from an oral tradition, one in which the written word was inferior to speech. But in China, script likely preceded speech and was originally used to communicate with “heaven, spirits, or gods.” Fann dissects the implications of this distinction throughout the volume, which is based on a series of five lectures. The second lecture explores “the privilege granted to phonetic language.” European cultures, bound by geographic proximity and similar linguistic traditions, developed a unified mindset that ultimately enabled slavery and ethnocentrism. The author continues to examine Western thought and culture in the final lectures, looking at the work of such figures as Shakespeare, Flaubert, and French philosopher Michel Foucault. According to Foucault, “Modernity…is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the ‘heroic’ aspect of the present moment.” The last lecture addresses how individualism has led to overconsumption and what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard calls “the minor proliferation of vaguely obsessional gadgetry” and “symbolic psychodramas.” Fann also suggests that contemporary art, “filled with the presence of money,” has lost its meaning. The only solution, he argues, is to “unlearn and relearn what we know”—remove ourselves from our existing ways of thinking and start again.
Fann shares many rich, thought-provoking insights in this engrossing book. The first lecture, “Words Are Cheap and Expensive,” includes an intriguing description of abstract Chinese concepts. The term qi, the author writes, means breath, matter, and more: “Chinese regard qi as an objective cosmic entity. Humans are part of it, grounded in the larger scheme.” The term is difficult to comprehend within a Western framework, which speaks to the limitations of language. It’s worth noting that readers who are unfamiliar with European philosophical concepts like “trace” and “signifier-representer” may find the material hard to follow. But the author also deftly draws on rock music, the Bible, and modern technology, making some ideas more accessible. After learning about years of cultural history in the volume’s first four essays, readers may crave more observations about the present day. Quoting Foucault, Fann urges readers “not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are.” Curiously, rather than portray “This Self We Deserve,” the author largely dismisses the self, which he portrays as a construct that has fueled materialism. So how do readers “unlearn” a deeply entrenched, self-absorbed belief system? Developing awareness is a suggestion that people seem to hear over and over again. But Fann’s take is one deeply entrenched in world history. To understand the present, he seems to assert, readers must first expand their scope; only then can they begin to investigate the past.
A dense but worthwhile inquiry into the evolution of Western thought.
Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2020
Page Count: 211
Publisher: Philosophy & Art Collaboratory
Review Posted Online: yesterday