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Some notes on East Asian cosmology, society, and economy – Part One

By Mark Wegierski
web posted January 11, 2010

One of the most interesting aspects of the history and philosophy of science and technology, is the study of the interrelationships between cosmology, society, and economy. The idea of looking at the links between Eastern religion, quantum theory, and the success of Far Eastern economies is certainly a provocative one.

The beginning point for the serious study of the history and philosophy of science today is probably Thomas Kuhn's well-known work on the evolution of knowledge paradigms, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Thomas Cleary's book, The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy (published by Shambhala) is a book that could be recommended for those looking at the interrelationships between East Asian cosmology, society, and economy.

There is also George Gilder's Microcosm, which takes a stab at interpreting the social and political effects of the microelectronics revolution (which it relates to the emergence of quantum theory). The basic argument is about the obsolescence of the state, and of the command-economy, and the exaltation of the smallest possible units in the global economic system, i.e., individual entrepreneurs. (A good example of Gilder's arguments is when he points out the way in which microelectronics -- as in the once-proposed SDI system -- negated the advantage of a technological "brontosaurus" like the Soviet SS-20 missile.) Another of his books on a similar theme is entitled Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life, where he unpersuasively argues that the current media monopoly will be undermined by the further advance of communications and computer technologies. How much has changed today, with the advent of the Internet? One of his other books is the ominous-sounding Telecosm. It should be pointed out that most of Gilder's output is a frank celebration of technology and the entrepreneur, Gilder being what is in many ways an incredibly facile techno-optimist. (A different side of Gilder, however, is seen in his socially-conservative book on Men and Marriage, an expanded edition of Sexual Suicide.)

There is an unbelievable intensity of global economic competition. In the 1980s and early 1990s, America -- in spite of Gilder's optimism -- appeared to be falling behind. Some books from this period were Lester Thurow's Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe, and America. On what in the 1980s and early 1990s was the Japanese success story, there is, as one of many books on this topic, the work edited by Steve Barnett, The Nissan Report: An Inside Look at How a World-Class Japanese Company Makes Products That Make a Difference. Shintaro Ishihara's famous statement, A Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals, appeared in English translation. For a very hostile analysis of Japan, one could consult the geostrategist Karl Wolferen's work, The Enigma of Japanese Power. On the Far East in general, there was the Winter 1992 [1991-92] edition of New Perspectives Quarterly, put out by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, on the theme "Looking East: The Confucian Challenge to Western Liberalism."

However, there has occurred, in the mid-to-late 1990s, an economic downturn in Asia, especially in Japan. This has to a certain extent confounded those who were looking to the East as an alternative power-center to America. It appeared in the late-1990s that America, despite what some critics had characterized as its "rap, crack, and Big Mac", its vulgar pop-culture and moral decay, had after all triumphed economically.

Another interesting work is Bryan Appleyard's Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, which is a "humanistic" critique of "the scientific enterprise". It points to the emergence of "chaos theory" and "indeterminacy" as a kind of "crisis" of modern science. Two other books in a somewhat similar vein are John Ralston Saul's Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, and Neil Postman's Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

A new, popular work in "chaos theory" itself, is M. Mitchell Waldrop's Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. There is as well John L. Casti's Searching for Certainty: What Scientists Can Know About the Future, dealing with similar scientific issues.
It is fairly clear that there is indeed a link between a given society's cosmology and its social norms, a relationship that, although fundamental at some level, is rarely given the attention it deserves. One can, for example, establish a rather clear correlation between the emergence of the post-Copernican, mechanistic and Newtonian view of the universe, and the subsequent arising of various types of capitalism and liberalism.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.





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