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The poor understanding of two thought cultures

By Reg Little - posted Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Mainstream academics and intellectuals have failed to identify and explain the two major mental energies involved in global power shifts over the past half century. First, there is a dynamic East and South East Asian community, led by administrative and commercial elites shaped by a Confucian tradition of education and thought. This is consolidating its leadership in global education, finance, production and technology. Then, there is a Western community, defined and confined by a Platonic tradition of abstract and rational thought. This is confronting, and precipitating, the end of two centuries of Anglo-American global order.

The Western assertion of a set of "universal values", with Platonic transcendental authority reinforced by the practice of "intellectual apartheid", was fundamental in building an Anglo-American global order. These practices have, however, become counter-productive. Better educated and more strategic Confucian elites now exploit weaknesses in simplistic Anglo-American intellectual beliefs.

As power shifts rapidly to the over 2 billion people in this Confucian world, where the pace of change is increasingly set by China, other members of the global community confront an unprecedented challenge. If they continue within the framework of the Anglo-American beliefs of the past two centuries they will find themselves in various forms of continuing decline. The alternative is to accept that new educational and thought standards derived from the Confucian tradition are shaping the future and that, however difficult, these have to shape their own national education goals as quickly as possible.


This will involve surrendering the Western preoccupation with abstraction, rationality and theory in education and the substantial adoption of Chinese style rote learning of classical and historical texts from an early age. This will pose many language, educational, creative and political challenges and will confront serious shortages of qualified educationalists inside and outside China. Serious commitment to such educational standards will, nevertheless, reward early movers generously.

The Crisis in Western, or Platonic, Thought

As someone from a Western cultural and political tradition and from a nation situated geographically almost as part of Asia it seems to me that the economic success of Confucian communities represents a cultural challenge that should command the attention of my fellow Australians. But, it does not. Indeed many Australians would regard the above words as a form of heresy.

How can this be so? It is a reflection of the strength and weakness of Platonic thought. As the Medieval Roman Church demonstrated, the rational abstractions of Neo-platonic thought could be utilised to define forms of doctrine and dogma and capture the minds and spirit of people. These created a form of religious and cultural unity across Europe. The European Enlightenment utilised similar strategies to develop doctrines and dogmas around "universal values", such as freedom, equality, democracy, rule of law and human rights, again to capture the minds and spirit of people. This time these were used to create a form of political and cultural unity throughout the West, and later in efforts to extend that unity to people in the most distant parts of the world.

The Western tradition of Platonic thought has produced an emphasis and focus in education on abstract ideas, rational structures, scientific theory and mechanistic understanding. These might all be caricatured as contributing to a form of railway line thinking, which ensures that people's thought must always travel along pre-determined railway lines and can never stray in unapproved directions. Underlying assumptions, right or wrong, form steel tracks in the mind. The mainstream Platonic tradition of thought is particularly hostile to ambiguous nuance, holistic thought, intuitive insight and organic dynamics. Indeed, the values, doctrines and dogmas of contemporary Platonic thought have many qualities in common with the brainwashing caricatured by George Orwell in his novel 1984 about a tyrannical, totalitarian future, where all thought is dictated by an all powerful "Big Brother".

The West has a fragmented history, with various nation states taking dominant roles and developing distinctive thought characteristics at different times. This has disguised and confused the fact that the broad influence of classical Greek thought, with inputs from Rome and Jerusalem, has maintained a mythology of some form of unifying transcendent authority, either spiritual or secular.


Western Platonic thought has been unable to break out of its abstract and rational certainties, all blessed in one sense with the same transcendent authority as the Medieval Christian God. It has failed to identify and address the qualities that have informed Confucian economic success. A particular obstacle has been a practice of "intellectual apartheid", identified by John Hobson in his "The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation". By marginalising and mocking other than Western "universal values" as inferior and undesirable, this has made it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone with a Western education to evaluate seriously the qualities of alternative traditions. While some Asian intellectuals have been trapped and emasculated by this attitude, Asian leaders and administrators have largely deferred to it formally while using its blind-spots to great strategic advantage practically.

Benefits of Rote Learning the Chinese Classics.

Western habits of Platonic thought contrast with the thought customs derived from the unbroken political character of Chinese civilisation and thought. A continuous recorded history over several millennia has embraced much debate and political experiment, but always with a focus on practical coherence and administration in human communities, largely untroubled by transcendent authority.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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