Roger T. Ames' Speech at the 2020 International Confucian Studies Summer Institute Opening Ceremony
2020-09-17 publish

Modernization as Westernization?

Is the equation between modernization and Westernization that marginalizes Confucian culture both within and without China, humanity’s best hope? Or, at our present juncture as we experience the sea change that is occurring in the economic and political order of the world, would we be better off inventorying and taking advantage of all of the cultural resources available, East as well as West?

In a single generation, the ascendency of Asia, and in particularly the rise of China, has dramatically reconfigured the global economic and political order. The Chinese economy grew over the first few decades at sometimes double-digit rates to overtake Japan as the second largest economy in the world, and is predicted to become the world’s largest economy sometime in the 2020s. Up to now, these economic and political changes have been relatively easy to track. But perhaps such a seismic geopolitical shift will have perhaps less visible but also transformative cultural consequences for the human experience.

We might say that we are living in the best, and in the worst of times. We can assert that it is the best of times because of what we humans as a species have become. That is, a fair claim can be made that world hunger is no longer a problem for us. This magnificent animal called the human being has now developed the science and the technology that could enable a global initiative to quickly address the world’s hunger problem in all of its parts. We do not have a problem if we already have its solution. Our present predicament, then, is not a technological one; it is ethical. While we clearly have the science to solve world hunger, we lack the moral resolution to act upon it.

On this score then, it is the best of times. But it is also the worst of times. Our recent and dramatic geopolitical reorientation has remained largely entrained within the troubling dynamics of a “perfect storm:” global warming, pandemics, food and water shortages, environmental degradation, massive species extinction, international terrorism, proxy wars, nuclear proliferation, and the list goes on. Our unprecedented scientific and technological successes are mixed with ever-amplifying environmental, political, and social challenges.

Indeed, this perfect storm has several underlying conditions that might encourage us to view our current predicament as requiring a shift from prioritizing technical solutions for world problems to giving privilege to what is ultimately an ethical dilemma—that is, for us to acknowledge our lack of commitment to do what we know is right. After all, the fundamental difference between problems and a predicament is that where problems are to be “solved,” a predicament can only be “resolved” by effecting a radical change in human intentions, values, and practices. Human beings as a species, if we are to survive, will need to live and to think differently.

There are four defining conditions of our current situation. First, human beings and our ways of being in the world are clearly complicit in the predicament we are facing. We are in some important degree responsible for it. Secondly, this predicament is not constrained by national, cultural, or social boundaries. Crises such as pandemics and climate change have global reach and affect everyone regardless of nationality or status.

Thirdly, an organic relationship obtains among this set of pressing challenges that renders them in large degree zero-sum—we either address them all or we can solve none of them. These challenges cannot be met seriatim by individual players engaging them piecemeal, but must, instead, be addressed by the shared commitment of a world community acting in concert. Lastly, and it is good news: We human beings in sum probably have sufficient cultural resources to identify and activate the changes in values, intentions, and practices we will need to respond immediately and effectively to our current predicament.

The contemporary historian of religion, James P. Carse, provides us with a distinction between “finite” and “infinite” games that might be useful in beginning to think through how Confucian values might make an important difference in a newly emerging cultural order. Carse in formulating this finite and infinite distinction uses “games” as an analogy for the many activities that constitute the human experience broadly—for the many things human beings “do” such as business, sports, politics, military security, international relations, and so on.

The focus with such finite games is on the agency of single actors who engage in a game played over a finite period of time and in accordance with a finite set of rules that will guarantee a specific result—that is, a winner and a loser. Finite games thus have a defined beginning and end, and are played by individual agents with the express purpose of winning.

This understanding of game playing seems most immediately relevant to those competitive human activities that we think of in terms of means and end, and that are directed at the success of one player over another. The pervasiveness of our individualism and the liberal values that attend this self-understanding of who we are as human beings, has made finite games a familiar model of the way in which we are inclined to think about human transactions at every level of scale: as particular persons, as corporations, and as sovereign states.

Infinite games have a different structure and a different desired outcome. There are no beginnings or endings in infinite games. And the focus is on strengthening collaborative relationships within entities to succeed together rather than engaging in a competition among single actors who then play to win. Further, infinite games are played according to rules that can be altered by players as required to serve the purpose of continuing to play the game.

Indeed, with no beginnings and no discernable ends, the goal is quite simply a shared flourishing. The relationship among family members might be a good example of the infinite games we play, where a mother is committed to continuing to strengthen the relationship she has with her son, and son with mother, so that together they can manage effectively whatever increasingly complex problems that they might encounter. In the case of infinite games, the interdependence of relationships means that mother and son either coordinate their efforts and continue to succeed together, or they fail together. Infinite games begin from strengthening relations, and are thus always a win-win or lose-lose proposition.

When we look for the cultural resources necessary to respond to the global and national predicament I have described above as a “perfect storm,” we must anticipate the need for a critical shift in our values, intentions, and practices that takes us from the preponderance of finite games played among self-interested, single actors to a new pattern of infinite games played through the strengthening of those relationships at every level of scale—personal, communal, corporate, and those among nation states as well.

We need to move from finite to infinite games to face and hopefully overcome what are the shared challenges of our day. Priority must be given to those values and practices that will support replacing the familiar competitive pattern of single actors pursing their own self-interest, with the collaboration of players strengthening possibilities for coordinated flourishing across national, ethnic and religious boundaries.

I want to suggest that the Confucian tradition, and particularly, the Confucian conception of relationally-constituted persons as “human becomings,” has an important contribution to make in this effort as we struggle to resolve our current human predicament. We are in urgent need of a more inclusive world cultural order drawing upon all of the resources available to us that can provide the change in our values and practices necessary to guarantee a future for our own children, grandchildren, and for those of generations yet to come.

Roger T· Ames (Roger T.Ames)

Roger T. Ames was born in 1947 in Toronto, Canada. As a professor at the University of Hawaii, an advisor to Nishan Shengyuan Academy, Chairman of the World Association of Confucian Culture Studies and Vice Chairman of the International Confucian Association, he is an internationally famous expert in Sinology. He is a leading figure in Chinese & Western philosophy and is famous in China and abroad for his translation of books such as theAnalects of Confucius,Sun Tzu’s Art of War,Huainan Tzu andTao Te Ching He was the Chief Editor toPhilosophy of the Occident and Orientas well as theInternational Chinese Book Reviewand the author ofConfucian Philosophical Thinking,Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture,Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture,the Art of Rulership: A Study into Chinese Political ThoughtandDemocracy if the Dead: Dewey, Confucius and the Hope for Democracy in China. Roger T. Ames once received the guidance of Liu Dianjue and became proficient in classical Chinese, then to one of the most outstanding modern scholars of Classical Studies. In 2013, he was awarded the "Confucius Culture Award" by the 6th World Confucian Congress. Then he won the second "Huilin Prize Award" in 2016.…
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