Introducing the discussion to follow of Leah Kalmanson’s Cross-Cultural Existentialism is my privilege, as Leah is a dear friend and colleague. To orient my introduction, I begin with a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses: “He [John Grady Cole] felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.”1
Though the context of the above-quoted passage is hardly philosophical, much in it lies at the heart of what Kalmanson sees as wrong with Western philosophy. Western philosophy, particularly modern Western philosophy, thirsts for the intellectual vision of a single flower called truth. Though the blood of multitudes has not been shed by practitioners of the Western philosophical tradition, Kalmanson makes it clear that Western philosophy has within it the potential for justifying such bloodshed. In commenting on the West’s tendency to distinguish between subjective reality and objective truth, she writes: “Whereas matters of personal taste are not debatable, questions of objective truth do have right and wrong answers. Ultimately, the foodie cannot fault the fast food junkie for liking what she likes, but the saint can indeed tell the sinner to go to hell” (21).2 The reason why a saint can tell a sinner to go to hell is because the saint as such believes in some kind of objective reality (the monotheistic God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, predominantly in the West). Armed with such a belief, the saint has attached herself to something independent of how she prefers or thinks things are. God’s revelation of how things are gives her the license to pronounce judgment on all those who fail to pay proper homage to her objective reality, metaphorically if not literally, to shed the blood of multitudes for her vision of God, the single flower for whom the saint strives.
Kalmanson’s argument can be stated as follows: Western dualities—mind and body, objective truth and subjective experience—set the stage for the West’s self-perpetuating sense of superiority to that which is not Western, whether it is philosophy, religion, or political life that is under discussion. We must chuck these binaries to make way for non-Western philosophies for which such binaries are not a problem. In the place of such binaries, we ought to consider versions of Asian philosophy in the Ruist, Daoist, and Buddhist traditions, which emphasize qi as interpenetrating both the inner and outer world, giving meaning to both without seeing one as better or worse than the other.
In the symposium that follows, Kalmanson is joined by colleagues who work at the intersection of Eastern and Western Philosophy: Sokthan Yeng, Tom Sparrow, Carolyn Jones Medine, and Bin Song.
Yeng sees existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s principle that existence precedes essence as providing a helpful point of departure for consideration of qi as providing methods by which one’s inner life can be related to the outer world. If there are no essences to which humans must conform, then the dualism of subject and object becomes less apparently a burning philosophical concern.
Sparrow takes up the discussion by articulating tensions that he feels in reading Kalmanson’s work. Sparrow teaches predominantly Western philosophy and so is attuned to just critiques of the enterprises contained within the traditions thereof. He is interested in thinking through the complexities involved in the relation of individual creativity to the larger world and that larger worlds impingement on the inner experience of the individual.
Carolyn Jones Medine offers a fascinating point of departure by considering Kalmanson’s work in relation to two streams with which she identifies: the Catholic notion of merit and African American Buddhism. Both these streams may very well be regarded as methods by which one can free oneself from the ever-present intrusion of the self in its less than admirable forms into daily life. Both the Catholic notion of merit and African American Buddhism provide means by which one can center oneself for the real good of others and thereby undergo the kinds of self-transformations required also by the Ruist, Daoist, and Buddhist traditions Kalmanson seeks to illumine.
Finally, Bin Song enters the discussion by way of praise and critique. Song recognizes the value of Kalmanson’s project in situating the discussions of transformative philosophical practice in a non-Western direction. A prominent critique in his discussion is of Kalmanson’s admission that she writes “as a reporter, not a practitioner” (130). Song finds this puzzling, as he believes that proper appreciation of transformative philosophy can be had only by those who engage in its recommended disciplines/practices.
The following symposium provides an intellectual feast, raising fundamental questions. What is philosophy? How should we practice it? Must Western Philosophy be finally consigned to history as a failed attempt to transform us? As a practitioner of Western philosophy myself, my hope is that there are ways in which we might be able to keep what is best in the Western tradition while recognizing its failings. The discussion to follow should hearten anyone for whom these questions are real, and Kalmanson should be thanked for providing a thoughtful way in which some of these questions can be fruitfully addressed.