Different Cultures, Same Humanity

A Study of Western Versus Eastern Philosophy

Mei Ke
Mei Ke
Aug 12, 2019 · 15 min read
Image Caption: 9 game pieces in a light blue room. 8 of the pieces are red and one piece is black. The black piece is separated from the other pieces.

With growing globalization, one of the biggest challenges facing individuals today is how to adapt to a world culture rather than a localized one. One aspect of this change is the perceived deep divide between what is considered Western versus Eastern thinking. The two cultures are incredibly unique, and are motivated by very distinctive philosophies. Many believe that in order to form a global community both sides will have to come to understand, and possibly even compromise, their identities. Although the world has broken down barriers to individual identity, the question remains if both philosophies will keep their distinctiveness in a universal culture, or whether they will dissolve into one worldwide identity. Although Easterners are making efforts to learn about and integrate into Western cultures, there is not the same motivation in the West to do the same. There is not enough interest in Eastern culture to motivate an exploration of philosophy from Westerners. Furthermore, many Westerners believe that their philosophy is the greatest in the world, further dividing the effort to join the two cultures. Even if an individual makes an effort to understand or even integrate into another philosophy, it is almost impossible to abandon their original perceptions. By comparing traditional Western philosophies to Chinese ones, I argue that, although Western people may never fully understand the complexities of cultures different to their own, all cultures and philosophies still deserve respect and acceptance on the greater world stage.

Western philosophy is truly motivated by one question: what? This fundamental urge to know influenced early philosophers on a journey of examination to understand the world around them in a truly unique way. They wanted to know what things were and why they worked the way they did. The goal of philosophy in Western origins was the “search for wisdom” (“Western Philosophy — Britannica Academic”). Some of the original philosophers that motivated this change in thought are still studied today for their wisdom and insightful theories. Their ideas sparked a change in the way their societies looked at the world.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were all men who pushed philosophy to think outside of the box and evolve to new heights. They glorified logical and scientific teaching as hallmarks of true understanding of the universe, and these values are still considered the building blocks of modern Western society. Socrates was especially fond of the idea of the ultimate forms of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. He quested whether these perfect forms could ever be achieved on human terms if humans weren’t even able to define them with their limited vocabulary. Plato also emphasized moral responsibility, following his teacher’s footsteps in holding others accountable to their word. Aristotle pioneered the philosophy in the way of the natural sciences, asserting that rationality should always be a key component of logical ideas. Later in Western philosophical development, thinkers like Augustine questioned God’s power and how humans should relate to such a creator.

The West began to develop a philosophy based in logic and reasoning, accepting science as well as religion as an aide to its ideas. It became vital to the philosophy that beliefs be tested and stand true, rather than simply being accepted outright. Western philosophy truly grew up with its culture, changing very slowly, but surely over time. It was never truly separated from society, as bits and pieces of its concepts were borrowed for religion and science alike. Western philosophy is very integrated into modern Western culture, even though many may not realize it, and because of its insistence on a logical pattern for thought it is very difficult for many Westerners to understand other ideas in philosophy. Westerners are taught to dissect ideas rationally and not simply accept new concepts.

Image Caption: Alcibiades being taught by Socrates. Socrates is in a blue and orange robe and has a long white beard. Alcibiades is in traditional roam officer armor. Image Source

Whenever discussing the greats of Western philosophy, Socrates and Plato immediately come to the forefront. Although there were influencers that came earlier than these two philosophers, Socrates and Plato were the real groundbreakers of Western thought. They invented the tradition of rational thought, using dialectical questioning to understand and explain different concepts. Socrates especially pushed the idea of living up to one’s own standards and understanding one’s role in a society. Socrates believed that “nobody who really knows what is good and right could act against it” (“Western Philosophy — Britannica Academic”). His true forms of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty were standards he held his community to, even though he believed without a change in societal structure, the forms would not be realized. He believed that if someone is striving for goodness they could not help but reach for the ultimate forms. Using logical arguments, he would debate with members of his community about the ultimate good of society in order to educate others about his ideas. The student of Socrates, Plato took the philosopher’s ideas about perfect forms and infused them with an emphasis of moral responsibility. He insisted, “all of the things that people perceive with their senses are but very imperfect copies of the eternal Forms” (“Western Philosophy — Britannica Academic”). He insisted that all people had a responsibility to live up to the perfect forms in order to form a more just society. Philosophy was to be used to uncover the true forms and understand their meaning. By teaching other chosen students, Plato could then educate them on how to find the true forms, and thus understanding of the greatest heights of human achievement.

Aristotle carried on the work of Socrates and Plato. He was also influenced by logic, but added empiricism and ethics to the Greek’s ideas. He thought that the ultimate goal of life was to be happy and find total fulfillment in life. However, he concluded that not all people could reach the same relative level as others. He explained, “not all individuals reach the same degree of relative perfection. Many of them die before reaching it; others are retarded or crippled or maimed in various ways in the process” (“Western Philosophy — Britannica Academic”). Because of these problems in his system of perfection, Aristotle insisted it was necessary for all humans to find their own individual state of perfection. In this way he modified the idea of the perfect forms to fit a much broader narrative. To further his work, he took the original idea of the forms and modified it into a pyramid-structured hierarchy. He believed “people can lead satisfactory lives only on the basis of a division of labor and distribution of functions. They will be happy and will make their best possible contribution to the life of the community only if they are permitted to follow this inclination” (“Western Philosophy — Britannica Academic”). Aristotle was thinking in much bigger terms than Socrates and Plato. He was considering a system that included a multitude of people that would all need a certain role in society in order to push his society in to his perfect form. His ideas on empiricism still influence Western society today, from the way businesses are structured to how our politics are organized. However, without the work of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle may have had a much harder time creating his rational system.

Image Caption: Kierkegaard sits at a desk looking at the paper he holds in his hands. He is reading over the material while holding a quill in his right hand. Image Source

Western philosophical ideas have evolved greatly since Aristotle, sometimes to involve religion with Augustine, and sometimes to reject it with Kierkegaard. Despite all of these changes, the basic building blocks have remained the same. Logical reasoning is still considered the ultimate way to understand the world and human life itself. Western societal structure is still influenced by empirical systems, and rational thinking is a traditional Western hallmark. Because of the influence of these thinkers, there is a strong inclination for Westerners to stick to a formula of questions to understand the world around them. They are not trained to let certain things remain mysteries, and instead feel it necessary to explain every phenomenon they find around them. When Westerners are unable to understand without dissecting ideas, it becomes difficult to learn to accept or even understand Chinese philosophy. The philosophy of the West does not often encourage thinking outside of the box.

Daoism is an influential philosophy in China that has impacts in the law system, family interaction, and life in general. It was originally based in a rejection of Confucian thought because followers of Dao didn’t like emphasis on subjects such as moral judgments, political idealism, and rituals. The primary thinkers of the philosophy are Laozi and Zhuangzi, who laid down the foundation of the belief system in books like the Daodejing. As asserted, “Dao means ‘way’ and in Daoist philosophy takes on additional meanings such as ‘cosmic pattern,’ ‘cosmic principle,’ ‘nature,’ and ‘ultimate’ or ‘transcendent’” (Komjathy, Louis). According to the Daoist philosophy, the world is ever changing, and humans have to learn to accept that fact. Daoism is about becoming a perfect person by accepting the change and being at peace with loss and death. As elaborated, “the perfect mind acts like a mirror, accepting all and responding in a natural way” (Rybak et al.). Daoists believe that those who are one with the Dao learn to accept all change, even death, into their lives and let it flow through, but not influence them. They need to learn to let go of things that happen in life so that they do not become too attached to a less real version of reality.

Image Caption: A traditional Daoist painting, there are several grassy hillsides with scant trees on top of them. There is a caption and title in traditional Chinese characters on the right hand side. Image Source

When humans are not one with the Dao and resisting the connectedness of nature and the self, they are going to feel suffering. However, in order to avoid this suffering, humans can transcend the needs of the self and achieve harmony with nature. To join with Dao, one has to practice wuwei, or effortless action. It is a method of responding to the environment by letting go of all worries, and thus gaining control. In further explanation, Daoism can be broken into three main ideas: “preserving oneself by skillful adaptation to circumstances and avoidance of unnecessary risks…the way of natural things in their spontaneity and naturalness… conviction that language and conceptual thought cannot grasp the deepest truth of reality” (Koller, Koller). By using these three strategies, followers of the Dao are able to realize their potential and become one with Dao. In that way they can transcend the normal into an enlightened state of perfection.

There are some similarities with Western thought within Daoist philosophy, however the majority of the ideas seem almost alien in comparison to Western beliefs. Much of Daoist philosophy relies on simply ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ that is only achieved when one becomes connected with the Dao. Many Westerners may feel that this cannot be a solid philosophical idea because it relies too much on belief and a claimed understanding. Because of the very different background of the two philosophies, there are many conflicts in trying to reconcile each with the other.

Another prominent Chinese philosophy other than Daoism is Buddhism. Buddhism is said to have originated by a man searching for the meanings of death and suffering. Buddhist philosophy centers on the questions of life, rebirth, and whether suffering can ever be brought to an end. The idea also concentrates of the idea of a ‘real’ reality, and the physical reality. According to the philosophy, there is a purer form of the self, and the person that humans believe themselves to be are just fake images. In Buddhist belief, “any notion of owning a permanent self with well-defined boundaries not only is an illusion, but also is the main source of unhappiness” (Joshanloo). Buddhists believe that there is an ultimate form, but humans are too ignorant to discover it. They must learn to understand they themselves are an illusion, and then look past that illusion to find the ultimate energy and set themselves free from suffering. Mature Buddhists are ones that deny the self to find ultimate compassion and love.

Image Caption: There is a Buddhist monk in a bright orange robe sitting on a brick lay outcrop meditating. Image Source

According to the Buddhist tradition, a primary barrier to happiness is the craving of possessions and materiality. When Buddhist are obsessed with possessions they are unable to look past their projected reality into the next. Things are transitory goods that are not helpful to realizing enlightenment for Buddhists. Along with this basic principle, The Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold path both give instructions on how to achieve true connection to the universe. As described,

“The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are as follows: 1) being alive is to experience suffering, 2) craving causes suffering, 3) the removal of craving eliminates suffering (Nirvana), and, 4) craving can be eliminated and the state of Nirvana reached by following the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path includes: 1) right understanding, 2) right thought, 3) right speech, 4) right conduct, 5) right livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration” (Rybak et al.)

The main focus of Buddhism is to remove suffering and the cause of suffering and to change one’s mannerisms to better reflect the guidelines above. By doing this, Buddhists can become enlightened ones, and lead others on the path to become Buddhas themselves. Buddhists must learn to control their actions in order to be more in line with the true reality rather than the false one. As elaborated, “the immediate conditions that produce suffering are thoughts, words, and actions” (Koller, Koller). If a Buddhist is following Buddhist philosophy but is not controlling their thoughts of actions, they would continue to suffer from the weight of the false reality. The Buddha stressed that suffering cannot be simply lessened; it needs to be completely eliminated for one to achieve enlightenment. Once one has learned to control their thoughts and continue to align themselves with the ultimate reality, they can achieve the enlightenment they are searching for.

Even more foreign to Westerners, Buddhism stretches the imagination much further than Daoism. The idea of higher realities and fake realities can certainly be confusing to Westerners, although science explores the field of reality every day. For Westerners it is a strange idea that suffering can be completely eliminated from life, especially since their philosophy deals mainly with the physical world and not one beyond. Again, there are some similarities, but it is understandable that many Westerners feel like they are unable to understand Eastern philosophies. Their immediate reaction is to stay in their safe zone of what they understand and know, however that is not conductive to making connections with other countries. Besides the total alien like nature of these philosophies to each other, there are other problems involved in their intermingling.

As proven, all of these philosophies are incredibly unique and individual, each coming from long histories. Although on the surface there may be some similarities, underneath there are extreme differences that influence the way each philosophy interacts with the others. Eastern philosophies and attitudes tend to focus on values such as “harmony, tolerance, non-competitiveness, patience, courtesy, filial piety, and ‘protecting one’s face’” (Rybak et al.). Especially in China, the idea of the greater good for society is more stressed than the needs of the individual. Furthermore, Western concepts focus on the individual or self while Eastern traditions primarily focus on collectivism and the idea of a greater cosmos (Joshanloo). These different worldviews are incredibly influential in relations between members of two different societies, especially in politics or business. With more of a focus on collectivism, and a focus on the group, Easterners are naturally more likely to seek a harmony in relations, celebrating tolerance. Western societies praise individuality and competitiveness, creating more of an atmosphere of challenging authority.

Even more divisive, Western traditions tend to focus on conquering nature and breaking ideas into parts, while Eastern traditions find the idea of mastering nature completely foreign (Joshanloo). Eastern philosophies emphasize more of a harmony with nature and a connection with the world, which deeply influences their interactions with their environment. As expanded on, “[Eastern] perspectives value self-transcendence, interdependence, softness, flexibility, and adjustment to the environment rather than autonomy and independence” (Joshanloo). Western philosophies are intent of finding out the ‘what,’ and in order to do that will take apart nature to discover the science behind a phenomenon. Chinese philosophy might say the drive to know destroys the original beauty of nature itself, ruining the object of its significance. Chinese philosophy has a deep-rooted connection to nature that Western ideas truly lack.

Image Caption: A street with cars rushing past. On either side are signs in Mandarin in bright red letters with lanterns hanging above.

Additionally, Western societies complete happiness is seen as the ultimate aim of life, and something to be strived for. Eastern traditions feel that although happiness is good, it is also necessary to experience the bad. In that way, life has a balance of both the good and the bad, so that one would appreciate the good more. As explained,

“in Taoism, failing to accept unhappiness together with happiness is believed to lead to a subjective sense of suffering. Similarly, Buddhist psychology posits that ‘happiness is a relative quality that co-dependently originates with unhappiness and that therefore it cannot possibly exist in an absolute sense or in isolation’” (Joshanloo).

It is incredibly important for Easterners to experience bad things because that also influences them to search for a solution to suffering. If Easterners chase happiness all of the time they will be unable to concentrate on transcendence and will most likely concentrate on material reality. Unlike Western cultures who have an emphasis on material pleasure in a material reality, Eastern philosophies look beyond those ideas and accept the dual sided nature of life.

These are all very real differences, but the situation becomes even more complicated when language comes into the equation. One of the major problems with philosophical understanding is linguistic relativity. Also known as a language barrier, it prevents real translation of concepts. Although a word may be translated, it may not make sense in another language, or may not fully explain the concept. Languages have different concepts that sometimes cannot be fully translated, which is why there is a language barrier when discussing higher-level philosophical concepts. Furthermore, there is incommensurability in language translations. This occurs when translation loses the true meaning of a word. Because there is never a direct translation of a concept, the idea can only be described in translation through different ideas of the concept. Similar to the idea of describing something by using only synonyms, the word may not be completely understood by outsiders who can never truly grasp its meaning.

Adding to this problem is indeterminacy in translation. Because there are infinite variations of translation, none are completely correct. A word can be translated differently in an infinite variety of way depending on that person’s background and a host of other factors. There is no true way to get a single, ultimate translation. Lastly in translation issues, there is the concept of Otherness. There are always unconscious stereotypes that are inherent and create bias towards a subject. If something is considered foreign it is immediately set in the category of ‘otherness,’ changing the inherent perception of it. This creates a metaphorical wall between the person translating and the actual concept. All of these different translation barriers can seriously hinder any type of connection between Western and Eastern philosophy. With all of the complications involved in understanding each other, it is impressive that the cultures have tried at all to understand each other. However, with the gap between cultures closing each day, there may someday be far less of a barrier between the West and the East, which may change the way that cultures interact with each other.

Image Caption: A street at a red light. There are taxies and cars stopped at the next light. On either side are tall skyscrapers.

Although there is an effort to understand different philosophies, because each culture is so distinctive, it is difficult to truly bridge the gap. Even within each group there are many different sects that each have their own ideas. There is too much individuality in each philosophy for an outsider to truly understand all the concepts. Despite all of these factors, that in no way means that there should not be an effort put forth to try to understand other philosophies. Even though there can never be complete understanding, that does not mean that an education on different ideas is not beneficial for all involved. Besides creating a better understanding of different cultures, it also allows individuals to think outside of their primary identities to tackle problems and accept other ideas. Moreover, as the world continues to merge identities together, many may the need to take ideas from other philosophies and may combine them with their own, creating a mesh of different identifications and ideas. There can be a world culture, but it is not necessary for everyone in that culture to have the same views or philosophies. It is much more realistic to encourage a global focused world with many unique people that also recognize their greater identity as a citizen of earth.

Works Cited

Joshanloo, Mohsen. “Eastern Conceptualizations of Happiness: Fundamental Differences with Western Views.” Journal of Happiness Studies 15.2 (2013): 475–493. link.springer.com.ezproxy.baylor.edu. Web.

Koller, John M., Patricia Joyce. Koller, and John M. Koller. Asian Philosophies. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. Print.

Koller, John M., and Patricia Joyce. Koller. A Sourcebook in Asian Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1991. Print.

Komjathy, Louis, and Komjathy. “Daoism.” Encyclopedia of Global Religions, Wade Roof, and Mark Juergensmeyer, Sage Publications, 2011. Accessed 27 Jul 2016.

“Philosophy, Western — Oxford Reference.” N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.

Rybak, Christopher J. et al. “Bridging Eastern & Western Philosophies and Models.” International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling 24.1 (2002): 43–56. ProQuest. Web.

“Western Philosophy — Britannica Academic.” N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.

Mei Ke

Written by

Mei Ke

They/Them Pronouns. 中文名字: 柯梅. Currently in process of Masters of International Affairs. Working in civilian military consultation, security, and intelligence.

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