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Philosophy - Historical Overview and Recent Developments - Philosophy West And East

century asia relativism absolutism

If there is a single word that best captures the spirit of twentieth-century philosophy, it would be relativism. Nietzsche prefigured the new century in the 1880s with his doctrine of "perspectivism," the idea that there is no singular truth and no "God's eye" view of the world. Albert Einstein (1879–1955) defended relativity in physics at the same time that Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was displaying it in the new art of "cubism." Not that every thinker of the twentieth century was a relativist, of course. Some fought bitterly against relativism: Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), for instance. But if the perennial struggle had been primarily between the this-worldly and the otherworldly, the new tension in philosophy was between relativism and one or another form of absolutism, whether it was the residue absolutism of religion (as in contemporary America) or by way of fascism, which gained a frightening foothold in Europe mid-century. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this struggle has by no means been resolved. If anything, it has intensified, as absolutism takes the form of religious fundamentalism and relativism finds new stylistic expression in the writings and sometimes the ravings of the postmodernists.

But this broad-brush sketch leaves out most of the world. As noble as the philosophical traditions of the West may be, they should be humble in comparison to the much longer-standing traditions of Asia. The first philosophical scriptures were the Vedas, produced in India some thirty-five hundred years ago. Indian philosophy progressed through scholarly commentary and argument by way of Vedanta and the great literature of the Mahabharata and through the breakaway philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhism migrated north and east through Tibet and southeast Asia to China, where it joined with the indigenous Chinese philosophies of Daoism and Confucianism, and on to Japan where it transformed the local spirit-worship called Shintoism and gave rise to the dramatic philosophy of Zen, captivating the Samurai class who ruled the country. But the fate of philosophy in Asia displayed some dramatic differences from the fate of philosophy in the West. In Asia there was never so much of an opposition between philosophy and religion, nor for that matter were the various philosophy-religions so antagonistic. Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism had more of a mix-and-match relation to each other, and they were treated more as a spiritual smorgasbord than as competing occasions for a "leap of faith." Beneath the Eastern emphasis on spirituality is that thread familiar to us from the ancient Greeks, the ultimate ideal of living a good life, philosophically. And, ironically, the Asians pursued this ideal in what is supposed to be the prototypical American fashion—pragmatically.

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