Can “The Path’s” Old Thoughts Give Us New Ways To See Ourselves (less WEIRDly)?
1 “The way we think we’re living our lives isn’t the way we live them“—so startlingly says The Path, a book by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh on often misrepresented Chinese philosophers (whose old thoughts can yield new ways to see ourselves, unWEIRDly).
2.1 “You… should not think of yourself as a single, unified being.” What you think is “you” is a set of patterns you’ve fallen into (just jumbled, usually unchosen habits).
2.2 Likewise, psychology’s “fundamental attribution error,” places “undue emphasis on internal characteristics” over situational factors.
2.3 Believing a “true self” lies ”within us” risks “concretizing destructive emotional habits,” and masks our malleability. But by honing emotional reactions, “you become the fruit of your labor.”
3.1 “The way we think we make decisions isn’t how we make them.” Science is relearning that we evolved to act quickly without “deciding” (via indirect rationality). But influential “rational choice theories” deny abundantly evident imprudence and muddling (feeding “rationalist delusions”).
3.2 Kahneman’s “Feeling is fast thinking” echoes Chinese vocabulary—mind and heart are the same word: xin—“heart-mind is the seat of our emotions… [and] the center of our rationality.”
4.1 Confucius believed “every situation is unique.” Plato, however, sought abstract universalizable, timeless knowledge (preferences embodied deeply in geometry, algebra, and physics, all atomically built on sameness).
4.2 Confucian goodness isn’t “something you can define in the abstract.” Whereas Kant, following Plato, sought universal abstract rules, like, never lie, even to murderers about victim whereabouts.
4.3 Our word “knowing” is overworked, but Hebrew distinguishes knowing abstractly from “da’at”: knowing by concrete particular relationship.
4.4 Supporting Confucius over Kant, Eden’s “tree of knowledge of good and evil” uses da’at.
5. Plato’s pupil Aristotle preferred concreteness and promoted situationally apt virtues. Likewise, The Wuxing’s “Inward Training” teaches dynamically orchestrating virtues, harmonizing contextually, never overemphasizing one element (echoing Aristotle’s every virtue has two related vices—contextual deficiency, or excess).
6. “True spontaneity” takes “years of experience,” as in jazz, only skilled freedom works well.
7. Mindfulness = skilled, responsive engagement (≠ detachment + acceptance).
8.1 Chinese ideas fed Europe’s Enlightenment—Voltaire used 16th century Jesuit China mission accounts to contrast Chinese rationality with “the absurdities of European customs.”
8.2 Hume claimed “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
8.3 Millennia earlier the Wuxing counselled reason to slowly retrain those master passions.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.