Yuk Hui, who divides his time between Hong Kong and Berlin, is one of the few philosophers today steeped both in Chinese and Western philosophy. His major work, which is the point of departure for this discussion, is “The Question Concerning Technology in China,” which mirrors from a historical Chinese point of engagement the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1954 treatise, “The Question Concerning Technology.”
Hui recently sat down with Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief of Noema, in Los Angeles to explore new paths of reflection on contrasting philosophies of technology.
I. Cosmotechnics, East And West
Gardels: You emphasize in your work that different civilizations arose and are shaped by foundational cosmologies. What do you mean by “cosmotechnics”?
Hui: Because our technological creations are challenging historical limits through climate change, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, it is critical to reexamine the diversity of cosmotechnics, or how technology is infused with a worldview. The modernizers of China during the last 150 years have enthusiastically embraced the Western meaning of technology — tools to establish human dominion over all else. However, in order to go beyond Western modernity and the current mode of global modernization, we have to reflect on how non-European thought and corollary ways of being can affect the development of technology.
This task demands a new interpretation of the history of both Eastern and Western thought in view of current technological development. I have attempted to understand Chinese cosmotechnics through the dynamic relationship between two major categories of traditional Chinese thought: “dao,” or the ethereal life force that circulates all things (commonly referred to as the way), and “qi,” which means tool or utensil. Together, dao and qi — the soul and the machine, so to speak — constitute an inseparable unity.
Throughout Chinese history, the understood unity of dao and qi constituted the morality and form of life proper to each successive epoch. This unity has both motivated and constrained the development of technology in China compared to the West, where technology has been driven by instrumental reason through which tools are fashioned as a means to overcome rather than to harmonize with nature.
One clear manifestation of this that remains today is the difference between traditional Chinese and modern Western medicine. Modern Western medicine heals by applying science to the body mechanistically. Traditional Chinese medicine heals by trying to foster harmony within the body. Traditional Chinese medicine uses the same vocabularies as traditional Chinese cosmology — the yin and yang of complementary opposites, for example, or the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, through which flows the healing energy, known as “ch’i” (or qi, which means energy, but we give the orthography ch’i so that we can distinguish it from the other qi, which means tool).
Gardels: When we hear the word “morality,” it implies a just and righteous code for how to live. Would you give me some concrete examples of what you mean by the morality that results from the unity of dao and qi?
Hui: What the ancient Chinese called morality wasn’t the obligation to follow rules governing behavior. For the ancients, morality — or in Chinese, “de” (virtue) in harmony with dao — means the affirmation and appreciation of the kindness of heaven and earth.
This is evident in the “Book of Changes,” where heaven and earth, or “qian” and “kun,” both condition and model a great personality. One way of interpreting the beginning of the “Book of Changes” is: “The Heavens are in motion ceaselessly, the enlightened exert themselves constantly. While the Earth is supportive and natural, only the virtuous can bear the utmost.”
For Confucians, to be a sage is to recognize the mandate of heaven because, despite heaven’s constant changes, the enlightened sage is able to interpret its moral connotations and thus recognize its mandate. Daoists affirm this creative antinomy as dao and de, which, for them, actually bespeaks innocence, as in the status of a newborn baby who has a kind of uncontaminated openness.
Dao is neither nothing nor being, but rather the principle according to which an oppositional continuity is maintained. It is a recursive movement that maintains the continuity between a set of oppositional pairs: in cosmology, the continuity between “wu” (nothing) and “you” (being/having); in metaphysics, that between “ti” (body) and “yong” (use); in the philosophy of life, that between “tian” (heaven) and “ren” (human); and in social and political life and cosmotechnics, that between dao and qi.
Like the Chinese, the ancient Greeks also saw these oppositions in existence. The fundamental difference, however, which still echoes all these centuries later, is that the Greeks saw a discontinuity or contradiction instead of continuity or harmony in these forces.
II. The Relational Flux Of Becoming
Gardels: So in Daoism and Confucianism, as well as in Japanese Shintoism, there is a relational sense between humans and the cosmos, or natural order — not humans apart from nature or each other but a fundamental unity in all things?
Hui: Yes. At risk of oversimplification, one may say that Chinese thought is fundamentally relational, while Western thought, beginning with the Greeks, is fundamentally about being as substance.
In Western philosophy, there is a tension between the essential and the accidental, which Aristotle announced in “Categories.” For Aristotle, if being is relative (which is also one of the accidents) — and thus being depends on other beings — then we will have difficulty defining its essence or substance.
Taking up this incompatibility, we may say that Eastern thought is rooted more in relationality than in the quest for the absolute or the essential. Indeed, in Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology,” he compares the Western phonogram and the Chinese pictogram, concluding that a phonogram is correlated to substance, while the Chinese pictogram is relational.
The British biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham, in his study of China and technology, translated this relational sensibility (“ganying”) as a “resonance.” This resonance between the subject and the cosmos is the ground of morality; if one doesn’t follow this resonance, then he or she is acting against nature. Here, nature doesn’t mean the environment outside of me but rather the way things are — the natural order. It is dao plus qi rather than either alone.
Some philosophers, notably the contemporary French thinker François Jullien, have argued that there is no ontology, or a metaphysics of the nature of being, in Chinese thought. Consequently, the question of being was never prioritized in the way it has been in the West.
To be sure, every generalization at this scale encounters exceptions. What we can say here is that, in Chinese philosophy, there is no search for being or eternal form that we see, for example, in Plato’s “eidos,” the permanent reality that makes a thing what it is, or Aristotle’s more empirical “morphe,” or form. It is all the relational flux of becoming, not an arrest into a defined form of some essential being.
In the West, we can think of the absolute as some kind of finality or ultimate reality. Accordingly, we can think that our knowledge progresses toward this end, this quasi-divine Hegelian “absolute spirit.” But it is difficult to find any such absolute in Chinese thought. The Daoists think that it makes no sense even to wonder what is the biggest, the smallest, the absolute, the endpoint, because there is always something beyond all this: the dao, the way, the constant creation and re-creation of something larger and smaller than what we can know.
Chinese thought is thus less teleological than Western thought — less teleological in the sense that it is always subject to the change of heaven and earth. It is never something that can be realized as such. The end is in the noumena of the constantly regenerative cosmos, not in the defined phenomenal world that we can discover through our senses.
III. The End Of The Enlightenment
Gardels: Heidegger talked about cybernetics as the end of Western metaphysics because, through feedback loops within a system, the organism and the machine, the objective and the subjective, were able to integrate. Henry Kissinger more recently argued that the advent of AI marks the “end of the Enlightenment,” of human-centered philosophy since, like humans, machines can now adapt to their environment by incorporating, through learning from experience, the unexpected events of contingency.
Now, Kissinger argues, instead of the Enlightenment philosophy giving birth to the technological domination of the West, AI is propelling the search for a new philosophy.
Where do you agree or disagree with these conclusions?
Hui: Because Heidegger read the works of [the American philosopher and mathematician] Norbert Wiener and other cybernetic thinkers, he understood the profound implications of uniting the organic mind with the machine through regenerative feedback loops. In this way, an ostensibly Western thinker may be seen to approach a Chinese cosmotechnics. When Heidegger talked about the end of metaphysics, he meant the end of Western philosophy as it has passed from Plato and Aristotle through Christianity to Hegel.
In his famous interview with “Der Spiegel” in 1966, “Only a God Can Save Us,” he was asked, what comes after philosophy? His answer: “Cybernetics.” In German, the word “end” can also be translated as “accomplishment,” “fulfillment” or “completion.” So for Heidegger, the modern technology of cybernetics was the fulfillment of Western metaphysics.
Technological prowess — ultimately manifested in cybernetics and later AI, which, through feedback loops and learning algorithms, can adapt to the environment like organisms — emerged from this metaphysics and overcame it by sublating the organism and the machine into each other as one.
The French philosopher Henri Bergson opposed mechanism with his notion of the “élan vital,” or vital impetus. Wiener’s cybernetics announced that this opposition is a false one, since cybernetic machines overcome this opposition. Or to put it another way, whereas modern philosophy used to rely on an organic, vitalist notion to position man’s capacity for thought against machines, the claim of cybernetics was to have overcome this dichotomy.
Why did cybernetics make such a difference and not the early automated machines that Karl Marx spoke of? For Heidegger, cybernetics was a more advanced, organic or organismic form for understanding being, one that represented the technological and mechanist triumph of modernity over nature. In this way, modern technology is the fulfillment of the history of metaphysics.
The recursivity of cybernetics and the learning loops of AI in fact represent this transcendence of metaphysics. Recursivity is not the mere mechanical repetition of Marx’s automation machines that he observed in the factories in Manchester; it is characterized by the looping movement of returning to itself in order to determine itself, while every movement is open to contingency, which in turn determines its uniqueness.
This idea of recursivity corresponds to what we have understood as the soul. The soul has the capacity of coming back to itself in order to know itself and determine itself. Every time it departs from itself through a new encounter, it actualizes itself in the traces we call memory. New information — contingency — triggers the process of individuation. As the anthropologist Gregory Bateson put it, information is “the difference which makes a difference.” That is why he spoke of “an ecology of the mind.” The uniqueness of every being is constituted by this play of recursivity and contingency.
Gardels: Speaking of contingency, I can’t help but mention here our present experience of the global coronavirus pandemic. It has put not only individuals but entire societies on a different trajectory, setting in motion a whole new set of recursive loops, from daily habits to the way we look at microbes.
Hui: Certainly, that is true. But to return to Kissinger, apart from understanding his statement from a geopolitical point of view, we can also look at it from the perspective of history of technology and thought. The Enlightenment is the age of mechanism, fueled by the Encyclopedists’ optimism of progress, which is reassured by the belief in the possibility of infinite improvement of mechanical tools. We are no longer in an age of mechanistic machines described by the Encyclopedists of the Enlightenment, or of the thermodynamic machines later described by Marx, but rather in a new machine age. Where mechanism presupposes a linear causality, with the “becoming organism” of cybernetics and AI, the end of every beginning is the beginning of another beginning.
Gardels: As Western metaphysics transcends itself, it would seem to grow distinctly Daoist. This suggests that the new beginning Heidegger was searching for already appeared in the East, where he did not want to look, planting his project in the earliest tradition of European thought.
Along with this pre-Socratic search, however, Heidegger’s thinking about an inner truth from the 1930s continued to echo in the 1960s. “Everything essential and of great magnitude,” he told his “Der Spiegel” interviewer, “has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition.”
This further suggests that the inner truth of being-as-such and being-in-totality can only be constituted, echoing [the German philosopher] Johann Gottfried Herder, within the context of the “heimat” (homeland) and “volksgeist” (spirit of a nation’s people). This corresponds with your idea of a diverse cosmotechnics and the Daoist cosmology from which it springs.
Hui: Yes. This is also why I wanted to associate Heidegger’s project with what I call cosmotechnics, especially when he wants to rearticulate the meaning of technē in ancient Greece as the unconcealment of being, which the Greeks call truth, “aletheia.” Thinking rooted in the earthy virtue of place is the motor of cosmotechnics. However, for me, this discourse on locality doesn’t mean a refusal of change and of progress, or any kind of homecoming or return to traditionalism; rather, it aims at a re-appropriation of technology from the perspective of the local and a new understanding of history.
IV. A New Axial Age
Gardels: Does all this suggest we are entering a new “axial age,” as the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers named that period 2,000 years ago when all the great religions and ethical systems — Confucianism in China, the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, Homer’s Greece and the Hebrew prophets — emerged simultaneously in a de-synchronized and mostly unconnected world?
In history, the accomplishment of convergence yields a new divergence. As we’ve been discussing, the search for a new beginning after the triumph of modernity is now underway. The global conquest of the West and its philosophy has now reached its limits and is fragmenting. The dialectic is turning. The modern Tower of Babel is poised to crumble.
If we are in a “new condition of philosophizing,” what comes next?
Hui: We are at the beginning of what you call a “new axial age” as a result of this universalization and convergence. The question now is not “what will happen,” but “what can happen?” To philosophize, you need to start with the impossible before the possible.
To explore this, we need to return to the fundamental differences between the Western and Chinese cosmotechnics, which have been forgotten and assimilated to a universal mono-technology in the process of modernization. The consideration of Chinese cosmotechnics in the West has rarely gone beyond comparisons about the advancement of particular technologies in particular points in history.
I am opposed to the complete realization of a unified global system represented by transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel. Rather than converging teleologically toward a quintessentially Western singularity, we need to envision alternative possibilities, bifurcations and fragmentations. The new beginning must have a multiplicity of starting points opened up by fragmentation.
Gardels: So instead of an accelerated competition to achieve the universalization of singularity, you see resistance to it as the only possibility of a new beginning? But what would a Chinese cosmotechnics look like? For now, its main manifestations seem to be CRISPR babies and the surveillance state.
Hui: The reason I have articulated cosmotechnics as the unification of the moral and cosmic order is that it is not purely a technical activity in the sense of the conquest of nature. Technology dwells in a reality that is much larger than it. The ignorance of this reality leads to the total domination of technology, hence the domination of a particular form of life and way of thinking. It is not just about whether China can develop a better algorithm for its social credit system or whether it can develop better 5G technology — both contribute to the mono-technological culture of the present. The more fundamental question is how a cosmotechnics rooted in Chinese thought could develop an entirely new framework for what has been understood in the West as scientific “progress.”
Some have quipped that what I am speaking about is Daoist robots or organic AI … that sounds really exotic. But on the other hand, we can understand these quips as invitations to reflect on how non-European thought can intervene in the technological acceleration that we have today and change course. Will rethinking and rearticulating the concept of technology allow us to develop a new direction? This does not necessarily mean more advanced technologies but discovering and inventing both new epistemologies and epistemes as a response to the crisis of the Anthropocene, not least climate change.
Gardels: Any summary comments?
Hui: Let us conclude by going back to the Enlightenment. As the Enlightenment demonstrated, philosophy is fundamental to revolutions since it changes the basic principles of politics, society, morality, education, religion, international relations and law.
Such a notion of philosophy has to be turned toward the possibility of a new world history. Maybe we should aim for a goal that is the opposite of that of Enlightenment philosophy: to fragment the world according to difference instead of universalizing through a presumed absolute. A new world history has to emerge in the face of the meltdown of modernity.