Philosopher, Partner at Wemean
Culturally, China functions as our opposite: its customs, mental models and rituals are highly compelling to us. To our great benefit, the philosopher François Jullien insists, seeing in Chinese thought a valuable means of decentring ourselves and leaving behind the certainties of Western culture – particularly binarism, a lack of nuance and the constant use of force in the name of logic.1 That in no way means that we must consider this other perspective to be right, but experiencing absolute difference, as the other perspective invites us to do, often allows us to choose new paths for ourselves.
Amongst the most fascinating elements, there is the way in which Chinese society always seems to react ‘as one’: collective expression there is unanimous. Of course, the nature of the political regime and its current toughening stance with regard to the expression of any form of singularity or standing out from the crowd have much to do with it. Nevertheless, China has always represented the polar opposite of individualism and communitarianism, which, in the West, have led to the loss of a sense of public interest.
To picture this collective movement in its entirety, we might think of Hobbes’ Leviathan with the famous image on the frontispiece of the work presenting the body of the king composed of the masses of individuals from the kingdom, who, if we look more closely, have no faces, their being fully turned towards the face of the sovereign. This detail reminds us of the danger of using organic metaphors to talk about societies: they may well claim to mean that if the parts are there for the whole, the whole is also there for the parts; however, often the parts end up cowering before the whole…
A hive or even a murmuration (the natural phenomenon seen with large flocks of birds or schools of fish moving in concert, with each animal seeming to follow some form of choreography laid out in advance, without any individual leading the movement) might also provide, at first glance, images suggestive of the collective movements of which the Chinese are capable. But, of course, we must not linger over such animal analogies; the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss rightly considered them to be the beginning of barbarousness, tantamount as they are to denying the human quality of the other culture.2
Though none of these metaphors depicts a desirable model, the fact remains that this way of functioning ‘as one’ holds up a negative mirror to us: how can we overcome the impasse of the ‘society of individuals’ (Norbert Elias), which characterises a model of Western society where any higher interest seems to have been lost? How can we find something like a collective impulse? What if our individual impulses made us want a collective impulse in the first place?3 Leaving behind individualism does not mean annihilating the individual; it is an invitation to stop looking only at oneself and to move towards shared achievements. Between the West and China, between atomism and holism, a third path is possible.
1 François Jullien, A treatise on efficacy (1996).
2 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (1952).
3 Sophie Chassat has recently released Élan Vital: Antidote philosophique au vague à l’âme contemporain, Calmann-Lévy editions (October 2021).