What if we started from the idea that the world is too unpredictable and fragmented to control? And that there is no monolithic self, but that life unfolds as a messy concatenation of encounters and relationships. Harvard prof Michael Puett argues that these ideas led Chinese philosophers, a few thousand years ago, to develop a mundane but compelling theory of change. In a series of short, accessible vignettes of Chinese thinkers Puett gives shape and depth to this worldview
Here in the West, we have been stuck in a linear, ‘managerial’ way of thinking. We routinely rely on the assumption that when we push button A, this will have predictable effect B. This is true for us individuals who are diligently working on our project of self-realisation, assuming that there is a stable, authentic core to our personality that is waiting to be liberated. Once we get there, we’ll be fine. It equally applies to the many decision-makers in business, politics and the military who are tackling unsolvable ‘wicked problems’ with all-encompassing masterplans. However, cultivating our dream of personal freedom seems to lead to ever-increasing levels of dissatisfaction, boredom, and depression. And grand plans and orchestrated campaigns have shown the tendency to unravel from the get-go.
Confucius thought that if we can’t hope to solve the big messy problems, then the only thing we can do is to redirect our attention to the minutiae of our daily life. Rituals are highly structured role plays that help us to create pockets of order in an unruly environment. And participating fully in the creation of these ‘as-if worlds’ incrementally reconfigures our relationships with our fellow human beings and the animate and inanimate world. Here again, Puett shows that our mindless adherence to myriads of social norms is more stifling than conscious participation in organised ritual. We are the ones who are at risk of becoming automatons, not people from ‘traditional’ communities taking part in scripted suspensions of the status quo.
Interestingly, Puett connects this to the moral imperative of goodness. However, Confucian goodness is not something that can be defined in the abstract. It’s an emergent property (so to speak) of the ability to respond sensitively to others. Rituals help us to consciously hone our interpersonal skills, and those skills will help us to read a situation in its emotional and structural complexity. This establishes a powerful feedback mechanism. And so Puett concludes the chapter as follows: “Confucius thought we can cultivate goodness only through rituals. Yet it is only once we conduct our lives with goodness that we gain a sense of how to employ rituals and how to alter them. This may sound circular, and it is. This very circularity is part of the profundity of his thought. There is no ethical or moral framework that transcends context and the complexity of human life. All we have is the messy world within which to work and better ourselves. These ordinary as-if rituals are the means by which we imagine new realities and over time construct new worlds. Our lives begin in the everyday and stay in the everyday. Only in the everyday can we begin to create truly great worlds.”
The second chapter, with the philosopher Mencius as a central figure, deepens the discussion on how to develop our ability to be responsive to our environment. Mencius started from a vision of a world in perpetual disorder. Hence, he said, there are no universally applicable rules to guide our behaviour. Again, moral conduct is a matter of developing our ‘Heart-Mind’ that integrates our cognitive and emotional faculties. Training our Heart-Mind means sharpening our capacity for flexible judgment, for seeing the bigger picture and bringing to life and nurturing potential.
The chapter on Laozi brings in the notion of connectedness. Loazi’s ontological starting point was that reality ultimately sprung from an original, undifferentiated state. This is what he meant with ‘Tao’ or ‘The Way’. It also reflects the Greek notion of ‘chaos’ as a state of undifferentiated potential. The distinctions and categorizations that we rely on to shape and navigate our lifeworld are conducting us away from this original state. It is essential to remind ourselves that these dichotomies are ultimately false and nothing more than epistemological crutches to help us through the day. This awareness can help us to be sensitive to patterns that transcend these received categorisations. It is also an embodiment of a ‘weak’ stance that refuses to categorise in order to dominate. But this weakness is simultaneously a source of strength and a powerful basis to effectuate change from the position of ‘servant leadership’.
Here Puett transitions to the question of how we can cultivate Qi or aliveness. The Inward Training, an anonymous collection of self-divination verses from the fourth century BC, has this question as its central theme. Aliveness emerges from the interplay between bodily awareness, intellectual acuity and artistic sensibility. All of these working in sync allow us to respond to the world in richer ways. Puett: “This is a different notion of agency and vitality. Divinities are active by resonating with the world, not by imposing their will on it. They don’t affect the world by doing the things that we tend to think of as active and powerful, but by seeing things with full clarity, behaving flawlessly without falling into patterned responses, and, through small shifts, resonating with everything around them.”
The two final chapters round out this non-interventionist concept of change. The section on Zhuangzi is a variation on earlier reflections on epistemological flexibility and centres on our ability to adopt different worldviews in a world in perpetual transformation (“Am I a human being dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a human being?”). Xunzi’s plea for a wise practice of ‘artifice’ and ‘putting pattern on our world’ weaves a lot of the book’s themes together.
Puett’s final chapter casts a glance ahead to an ‘age of possibility’ that could emerge from our contemporary ‘age of complacency’. He ends with striking a Nietzschean chord:
“These thinkers all had different views about what makes a good life. But they are connected by their opposition to the ideas that there is an unchangeable past that binds us, a unified order in the cosmos to which we should adhere, a set of rational laws we should follow, and ethical doctrines handed down that we should heed. The challenge our philosophers present is this: Think about what your life would be like if you assumed none of those things to be true.”
This book resonated with a lot of the literature on change and transition that I have been reading over the last years. I am particularly thinking of Tim Ingold’s morphogenetic concept of ‘Making’, Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘anthropotechniques’, Hartmut Rosa’s notion of ‘Resonance’, Robert Chia’s ‘Strategy Without Design’, Peter Checkland’s ‘Learning for Action’, Annemarie Mol’s ‘Logic of Care’ and Peter Block’s appreciative approach to Communitydevelopment. Puett’s ‘Path’ also chimes a lot with my personal experience in both the family and professional sphere. My photographer-mentor Lorenzo Castore has shared a lot of lessons that seamlessly match the wisdom of these Chinese philosophers (without him probably being aware of it).
All of these sources bring home the same message, namely that transformative change hides in small things: the click of a shutter button, an understanding glance between a doctor and a patient, the delicate interplay of force and counterforce in shaping artefacts. Yes, we can build cathedrals without a masterplan.