Letter from… Hong Kong

Stephen Palmquist reports from where money and philosophy mix

(cc) David Iliff

(cc) David Iliff

Philosophy is hardly the first thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking of Hong Kong. Skyscrapers, big business, and East-West trade are far more likely candidates for justifying the government’s claim that Hong Kong is “Asia’s World City” than any list of its most well-known scholars. Recalling Hong Kong’s past might conjure up images of Kung Fu movies, cheap imitations of just about anything, or gangsters riding rickshaws on their way to the next hit. Those days are swiftly passing away. Yet I have heard more than one local philosophy teacher say philosophy will never be a matter of great public interest here, because in Hong Kong only three things matter: money, money and (of course) more money.

But wait. Those who make such hasty judgements about the Pearl of the Orient might simply be looking in the wrong places for what counts as “philosophy”. In the academic world as much as in business, Hong Kong’s forte is East-West relations, and philosophy is no exception. We have numerous conferences on various topics familiar to Western philosophers, normally with an emphasis on how they relate to one or more (usually classical) Chinese systems of thought. Moreover, with the exception of a five year period of belt-tightening in the wake of the Asian financial crisis that followed shortly on the heels of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, there has been no shortage of money to fund such endeavours. As a result, local universities are able to “attract” many of the top names in philosophy to deliver keynote addresses or one-off lectures. As Sir Robert Walpole famously said, “every man has his price”—and these days in Hong Kong academia the same is obviously true of women! Recent years have seen prominent visits by the likes of Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, and other philosophers of similar stature.

With Hong Kong University ranked just above Stanford as number 18 on Quacquarelli Symonds’ 2007 list of the world’s top 100 universities, Hong Kong’s own academic scene is certainly not without its bright stars. What is less known to the outside world is that we have eight other tertiary institutions, whose high standards in this Mecca of competitive culture are arguably a key factor in the unprecedented recent success of the city’s leading academic light. Most of our tertiary institutions have departments of (or featuring) philosophy, and most of these have more than one widely published and influential philosopher in his or her specific field of expertise. The risk of selecting examples that don’t suit a particular reader’s taste in philosophy or assessment of significance leaves me reluctant to name names.

Another reason for not naming names is that in Hong Kong, perhaps more than most places in the world, philosophy should not be identified with any of its most well known academic representatives. In my 20+ years of experience living, working, and philosophizing here, I have observed that the most interesting and significant philosophy is usually not directly related to work being done in academia. Rather, philosophy is most deeply rooted in the life and thinking of the everyday citizen in a way that is not typical of most Western countries—France being a notable exception. Cultures where philosophy runs in the blood of the populace have less need to externalize the people’s love of wisdom in the whitewashed halls of academia, whereas those cultures wherein the daily life of the average citizen is devoid of philosophical tendencies have a real need to compensate for this lack by enthroning philosophy as queen of the academic court.

In asserting that philosophy flows through the blood of Hong Kong people, I run the risk of utter self-contradiction. After all, I have already named money as the focus of most people’s lives. How can both claims be true? I do not know if I can answer this question persuasively. I could appeal to the influence that the ancient wisdom of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and other Chinese sages have on every schoolchild here, informing his or her unconscious attitudes towards life in ways that may not be outwardly expressed on many occasions but are present and active nonetheless. But is this significantly different from the influence of the ancient Greeks and/or early Christian theologians on typical citizens of Western countries? Yes and no. Perhaps this is the most accurate answer. For Hong Kong is nothing if not a place of contradictions.

To find the deepest philosophical reflection in Hong Kong one must step outside the Academy and look to the areas where the best and brightest minds in Hong Kong tend to gravitate—whatever the reason. The plain fact is that Hong Kong’s best talent can be found in the business and finance sector. While the people running local financial institutions tend to be very good at what they do, few find deep fulfilment in the money side of their work. Instead, surprisingly many look to other sources for inspiration, including philosophy.

In 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese sovereignty and the year The Philosophers’ Magazine published its first issue, I attended the Third International Conference on Philosophical Practice in New York. There I was introduced, among other non-academic applications of philosophy, to the then new phenomenon of the “philosophy café”. The Hong Kong Philosophy Café I founded two years later has grown into a vibrant association of five branches sharing a common mailing list of over five hundred. Coming from all sectors of society, the participants typically include a few academic misfits, while the likes of bank managers, business consultants, government employees and entrepreneurs dominate the landscape.

In the course of attending hundreds of open discussions on just about every imaginable topic of philosophical discussion over the past eight and a half years, I have been privileged to observe numerous embodiments of the differences between typical Western and Chinese ways of thinking. A well known example is the tendency of Chinese culture to favour the community over the individual. An aspect of this tendency that permeates all aspects of Hong Kong society is the association of truth with authority rather than correspondence to reality, logical coherence, or similar Western criteria. To Western eyes, this often seems to lead to a lamentable refusal to question the status quo. The latter is a necessary condition for philosophical reflection, if ever there was one, so how can philosophy thrive in Hong Kong?

Individual respect for authority is not the whole story, for when the community acts together, it can question authority with a force and power rarely equalled in Western cultures. In recent years, hundreds of thousands (or by some counts, a million) took to the streets on 1 July to express their disapproval of government policies. Few public protests in European or North American countries, where individual autonomy supposedly reigns supreme, have come close to the numbers that are almost commonplace in Hong Kong.

While the people in general tend to exhibit the values of traditional Chinese culture, including the identification of truth with position, those educated in the West—i.e., the majority of the society’s leaders in both government and business—also exhibit a tendency to deny the significance of their deepest and arguably, most philosophically significant heritage: the Tao, the name that cannot be named.

Writing in 1934, Lin Yutang (the early twentieth-century Chinese version of G.K. Chesterton) expressed this tendency in words that would be unwise for any non-Chinese, non-British person to utter (With Love and Irony): “All Englishmen love a good liar, and so do the Chinese. We love to call a thing by anything except its right name.” Indeed, to philosophize in Hong Kong requires an appreciation for what Chuang Tzu called “Making All Things Equal”: the recognition of a “this” that is also a “that” and a “that” that is also a “this”.

A poignant example of the paradox of Hong Kong philosophy was once presented to me in a conversation with a local colleague, with whom I had been having an argument about how a particular administrative task should be conducted. At one point he noted that I had just affirmed a statement that contradicted a statement I had made earlier. When I replied that I was aware of this but did not wish to retract either statement since both appeared to be true, he harshly protested: “You are more Chinese than I am!”

The saddest aspect of that exchange was that my Western-educated, Chinese colleague was implicitly denigrating his own philosophical tradition, whereby truth is most assuredly not measured by Aristotelian principles of logical non-contradiction. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” There may be no worse indictment of the negative aspect of the pervasive Western influence on Hong Kong education than the fact that many local philosophers have lost the sense of their own tradition, whereby the Tao is deeper and truer than any “this” or “that” could possibly be.

Stephen Palmquist is professor of religion and philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University

  1. Letter from… Hong Kong ZB BU online - pingback on September 25, 2009 at 7:21 am

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