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Asian Philosophies of Critical Thinking

It is widely recognized nowadays that critical thinking has become a necessary ingredient in all levels of education. Educators and educational policy makers agree that one of the desirable goals of education is that students are able to think critically. Throughout the past few years, many have felt the need to consider critical thinking more seriously in educational programs. At the moment several different acts are being considered around the world by various factors and agencies. The core of these proposed acts is the idea that the students are able to think critically and independently. Although there are widespread disagreements on what critical thinking actually is,[1] there is an agreement that it has become very important in the world overwhelmed by huge amounts of information.

Some Western educators who teach at schools or universities in a number of Asian countries have voiced their difficulties and problems they encounter while trying to teach critical thinking and other related skills to Asian students. Bruce Davidson (1998) argues that a set of Japanese cultural factors act as a kind of barrier against teaching critical thinking to students.

Atkinson (1999) goes so far as to argue that critical thinking is culturally specific, and is a part of the social practices of the West having no place within Asian cultures, which do not adopt such practices. What these educators have in common is the feeling that some elements in Asian cultures do prevent the full realization of critical thinking skills in the students. Most of these elements perceived by Western educators in Asia are quite well known–the beliefs that teachers are superior and always right, that knowledge is not to be made here and now, but exists eternally, so to speak, to be handed down by teachers, that social harmony is to be preferred rather than asking probing questions–to mention just a few.

Is critical thinking really culture specific? Can the traditional belief systems of Asia respond to the challenge of the modern world while still retaining their distinctive identities? Are Asian philosophy and critical thinking necessary divergent or possibly convergent? These are very significant question not just for Asian cultures, but for understanding how cultures of the world respond to globalization. In addition the question also has a bearing on the problematic relation between critical thinking and the cultural environment in which it happens to be embedded.

In this essay, I attempt to argue that critical thinking is not necessarily incompatible with Asian traditional belief systems. In fact I will show that both India and China do have their own indigenous traditions of logical and argumentative thinking; it is just because of certain barriers that prevent them from further developing such establishments. I will further try to show that these traditions can and should be reexamined, reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary situation. By doing this I would seek acknowledgement to the essay question and would provide an answer to the Western educators who have found no such critical traditions in the East.

Logical Tradition in India and China

It is widely known that India had a highly advanced logical tradition, spanning more than two thousand years. The successes of Indian mathematicians and computer programmers are perhaps due to the fact that logic and critical thinking have been integral to the Indian way of thinking since time immemorial. Such integration can also be witnessed in the fondness of Indians for talking and debating. Tscherbatsky (1962: 31-34) tells us that in the times of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, two of the greatest Buddhist logicians, the fate of entire monasteries depended on public debates. According to Tscherbatsky, Dignaga won his fame and royal support through his defeat of the brahmin Sudurjaya at Nalanda Monastery (31-34).

In another vein, Matilal (1990: 1-8) argues that the Indian logical tradition is entirely home grown, since there is no evidence of India being influenced by Aristotelian ideas. Matilal also shows that many topics, which are of interest by contemporary logicians and philosophers today, were discussed and researched into with sophistication by Indian scholars. Such topics include theory of inference, empty names, reference and existence, perception, knowledge of the external world, substance, causality, and many others (Matilal 1990). Moreover, Tscherbatsky’s (1962) work, dealing mainly with the works of Dignaga and Dharmakirti illustrates that India is one of the great logical and philosophical civilizations of the world.

There are a number of topics that both traditions discovered independently of each other. For example, Matilal notes that the counterpart of the Aristotelian syllogism is the “five-membered argument” found in such texts as Caraka and Nyayasutra. Instead of the three propositions found in Aristotelian syllogism, the five-membered argument consists of five propositions, the first of which is the conclusion, and the last repeating what is already stated in the first. The remaining three propositions in between are the premises.

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