Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?

Soraj Hongladarom
Department of Philosophy
Chulalongkorn University



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. In Thailand, many have felt the need to inculcate critical thinking more seriously in educational curricula. Thais have gone so far as to include a clause in the newly promulgated Constitution that a bill on education be passed by Parliament. At the moment the act is being considered by various factors and agencies. The core of the proposed act is the idea that the students be 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 deluged by huge amount of information (Hongladarom 1998b).

This acknowledgement of the value of critical thinking has also reached the countries of Asia, whose cultural traditions are very different from that of the West. 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 (1995) argues that a set of Japanese cultural factors act as a kind of barrier against teaching critical thinking to students. Atkinson (1997) 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 milieux in which it happens to be embedded.

In this paper, 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. Since the logical traditions within both Indian and Chinese cultures were perceived to be not conducive to their respective ideals, they were eventually supplanted by the more dominant traditions which did not emphasize criticism or argumentation as much as social harmony or intuitive insights. I will further try to show that, since the logical traditions are already there in the major Asian cultural traditions, they can and should be reexamined, reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary situation. This would be an answer to the Western educators who have found no such tradition 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 an 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's 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 iillustrates that India is one of the great logical and philosophical civilizations of the world.

There are a number of topics which 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. Here is one example of the five-membered argument cited by Matilal (1990: 5):

1. There is fire on this mountain.
2. For, there is smoke there.
3. Smoke goes with fire always (or, in all cases, or in all places): witness, kitchen.
4. This is also a case of smoke.
5. Therefore, there is fire there (on the mountain).

Logicians will immediately be able to reconstruct this argument in the familiar Aristotelian form as follows:

The place on the mountain is a place where there is smoke.
A place where there is smoke is a place where there is fire.
Therefore, the place on the mountain is a place where there is fire.

Matilal, however, notes that there is at least a dissimilarity between the Indian and the Aristotelian argument forms presented here. For instance, he says that the conclusion of the Indian argument form is in the form of `singular proposition,' (i.e., modified by demonstratives like `this' or `that') whereas that of the Aristotelian syllogism is either universal or particular (i.e., modified by quantifiers like `all' or `some'). But the dissimilarity here could be amended, as indexicals (terms like `this' or `that' which relies on the context of utterance for their full meaning) could be dispensed with by supplying the required information on the context in which they are uttered. Thus it could be safely stated that the Indian logical tradition fully comprehended the essence, so to speak, of logic, which is the concept of validity and the basic valid argument form.

Another of the world's great civilizations, China, also had its own indigenous and independent logical tradition. Two of China's logical school of thought are the Mohists and the Logicians. The former was founded by Mo Ti, who lived between 479 to 381 B.C., during the Warring States period of Chinese history (Ronan 1978: 114). Among the typical Chinese scholars the Mohists are better known for their doctrine of universal love and the condemnation of offensive war rather than their interests and achievements in the physical sciences. In the latter Needham reports that the Mohists went very far toward realizing the thought system which was prerequisite for modern science. Most significantly, the Mohists appeared to be in grasp of the concepts of deduction and induction. They viewed the former as a way of thinking which follows a `mental model,' which guarantees that whoever follows it will never fail to be right in their thinking. Here is an example of reasoning based on following such mental model:

Model-thinking consists in following the methods [of Nature].
What is followed in "model-thinking" are the methods.
Therefore if the methods are truly followed by the "model-thinking" [literally: hit in the middle], the reasoning will be correct.

But if the methods are not truly followed by the "model-thinking," the reasoning will be wrong (Ronan 1978: 119).

On the other hand, the Mohists also recognized the value of `extension' which is a kind of reasoning from the known examples and `extend' it to unknown cases similar to them:

Extension is considering that that which one has not yet received [i.e. a new phenomenon] is identical [fromthe point of view of classification] with those which one has already received, and admitting it (Ronan 1978: 119).

It is clear then that the former is an instance of deductive thinking, while the latter represents the basic idea of inductive thinking.

The two most well known representatives of the Logicians are Hui Shih and Kungsun Lung. The former is known for his paradoxes resembling that of Zeno, and his writings were designed to shock and to illustrate deep logical point. For example, Hui Shih's writing that "The Heavens are as low as the Earth; mountains are on the same level as marshes" (Ronan 1978: 122) could be regarded as a way of illustrating the fact that, viewed from the cosmic perspective, the sentence written by Hui Shih here is actually true. Other pieces of his writings concern what and how we perceive:

Fire is not hot.
Eyes do not see (Ronan 1978: 122).

These are designed to lead one to think that what is hot in fire may well not be in the fire at all, but is located within our tactile perception of it. And the factor that actually does the seeing is not the eyes themselves, but the consciousness or whatever that gives rise to the perception.

Similarly, Kungsun Lung had a system of logical and paradoxical thinking that could well serve as the foundation of modern science, according to Needham. The following excerpts show that Kungsun Lung grasped such concepts as the universality and unlocalizability of number and universals and their contrasts with particulars which are their instances. Most interestingly, Kungsun Lung's discussion of changes in Nature could well point to modern scientific way of thought:

Q Is it permissible to say that a change is not a change?
A It is.
Q Can "right" associating itself [with something] be called change?
A It can.
Q What is it that changes?
A It is "right."
Q If "right" has changed, how can you still call it "right"? And if it has not changed, how can you speak of a change?
A "Two" would have no right if there were no left. Two contains `left-and-right.' A ram added to an ox is not a horse. An ox added to a ram is not a fowl (Ronan 1978: 121-122).

Here one finds a discussion of the unchangeability of universals and their distinction from particulars. One thing, A, located to the right of another thing, B, would form two things, A-and-B. This thing, A-and-B would undergo a change if A happens to move to the left of B. What is changed here is the relation between A and B. However, the Right itself is changeless, even though the particulars forming right or left relation to each other do. Thus, a ram added to an ox would still be two animals, and won't become either a horse or a fowl. The changelessness of universals is a different matter altogether from the mutability of particular things. Kungsun Lung's writing here is reminiscent of Western medieval treatises on logic and the problem of universals, such as those of Abelard or Duns Scotus.

No matter how similar or different these Asian writings on logic and philosophy are from those of Europe, it is certain that both India and China do indeed have rigorous and profound systems of logic and critical thinking, systems which could well form a launching pad for advanced scientific research and innovation that actually took place in the West. Thus Atkinson's argument that critical thinking is culturally specific to the West is clearly not borne out by historical facts and thus is mistaken. However, when we look at the situations in the Asian countries today, especially in Thailand whose cultural tradition is mostly influenced by Buddhism, which originated within the Indian philosophical and religious milieu, Atkinson seems to be right in that there is a felt need for teaching Thai students to be able to think critically. McGuire (1998) argues that there is a need to teach critical thinking and that critical thinking can be taught to Asian students because it does not necessarily go against the grain of local cultures and contains universal elements which any local culture can find acceptable. If critical thinking is already there in these cultural traditions, then why are there concerns for introducing it to them? Something must have happened to these cultural traditions so that there feels a need to bring in the skills and practices of critical thinking from outside. Or is it really the need to reintroduce and to reacquaint these traditions with something which is clearly their own, but is somehow lost?

Needham's Grand Question and Fuller's Interpretation

An adequate investigation into what actually caused the decline of the logical traditions in India or China would comprise one thick book. However, I believe that a glimpse toward an answer could be found if we compare the dominant positions in the two civilizations with the logical traditions. In India, the logical schools, Nyaya, Mimamsa, together with the Buddhist logic and dialectic schools of Dignaga, Dharmakirti and Nagarjuna never gained the ascendancy when compared to the other traditions such as the Vedanta. This may be due to the fact that the teachings and the disputations of the logical schools were limited to the monks or brahmins who practiced them. And when the logical tradition had to compete with other traditions which could garner more popular appeal, it is quite conceivable that the remote logical schools would lose support. Perhaps in India the tradition of logical and critical thinking was limited to the élite educated class in such a way that the general population knew nothing of it, and this could be one explanation, though very sketchy and tentative, as to why modern scientific thinking did not develop in India. For science to develop, there must be a tendency toward a comprehension of all of Nature through a few general laws which could be learned and understood by anyone. The method of learning such laws must be such that no one is excluded from studying except through his own intellectual capabilities.

In China, Needham suggests that the reasons for modern science's lack of development are due to historical, economic, social and cultural factors (Needham 1969: 190-217). Needham rightly dismisses the interpretation of Europe's eventual mastery of modern scientific techniques in geographical or racial determinism. The scientific and mathematical achievements in both India and China during the ancient and medieval periods is so great that it is hardly conceivable at all to think of Europe's success in terms of her `destiny' or `superior level of advancement' as propagated by the Hegelian tradition. On the other hand, Needham seems to believe that it is more a matter of luck that Europe could eventually mastered the arts of modern science and became dominant. Needham writes:

The further I penetrate into the detailed history of the achievements of Chinese science and technology before the time when, like all other ethnic cultural rivers, they flowed into the river of modern science, the more convinced I become that the cause for the break-through occurring only in Europe was connected with the special social, intellectual and economic conditions prevailing there at the Renaissance, and can never be explained by any deficiencies either of the Chinese mind or of the Chinese intellectual and philosophical tradition. In many ways this was much more congruent with modern science than was the world-outlook of Christendom (Needham 1969: 191).

The "special social, intellectual and economic conditions" that explain Europe's success are nowhere necessarily attached to the historical development of Europe. They seem only to be those that Europeans adopted, consciously or not, in response to their historical, social, and mercantile needs. Those needs apparently were not in the minds of Indians or Chinese, whose priorities for their civilization as a whole seemed to be something else. Thus, instead of looking for a unifying theory capable of explaining and predicting natural phenomenon so that men could harness the power of Nature to their own material needs as well as feel a sense of mastery when Nature is thus comprehended, Indians and Chinese chose to put the ideals of their civilizations in another way.

The summum bonum of the Indian philosophical tradition, attainment of Moksha or Liberation, is quite contrary to the ideals and presuppositions of modern scientific thinking. Instead of looking for the way to liberate oneself from the endless cycle of rebirths through strenuous regimens of self discipline, Europeans sought to advance their own self interests which are more inclined to the mundane. In China, the rapid transformation from feudalism to state bureaucratism, coupled with the pervasiveness of the Confucian ethos, while hugely successful in preserving China's cultural identity amidst the great variety of people and localities, nonetheless made it the case that material innovations and proto-scientific and logical theories would be given scant attention. Writings on such matters are relegated to the `Miscellaneous' category by the mandarin scholars who put the highest priority to moralistic, ethical, or historical writings (Ronan 1978: 19)

This interpretation, which is focused on the contingent character of the rise of modern science in Europe, is regarded by Steve Fuller as the "underdeterminist" one. According to Fuller, the reason why China did not develop modern science was that it was not specifically promoted (Fuller 1997: 80-88). He contrasts this with the "overdeterminist" mode--the kind of explanation that seeks to explain the lack of progress of modern science through the idea that it was specifically prevented from occurring. Thus, according to the former outlook, the reason science did not develop in China was because historical, social, economic conditions were such that they were simply incompatible with its rise. This could be due to the Chinese not putting a high priority on things scientific. On the other hand, the overdeterminist would assume that science is part of a culture's destiny which would materialize anyway if the circumstances were favorable. However, in the case of China these circumstances were not favorable, blocking science's potential development. To view the history and development of science in the latter mode would mean that science is a necessary part of a culture's path of development, which is the same for all cultures. A culture in which science successfully develops is thus viewed as more "advanced" than another where the development of science is somehow stinted. On the other hand, the underdeterminist would argue that such a picture of each cultural entity racing along the same path smells too much of teleology and "God's design" to be tenable. Instead of so viewing, each culture should be regarded as having its own path not necessarily shared with others.

Since critical thinking and modern scientific thinking are closely related, discussions of the historical rise of science in various cultures are directly related to our investigation of whether critical thinking is compatible with the major Asian cultural traditions. Discussions on the rise of modern science seems to enable us to see, analogously, how the tradition of critical thinking arose and how they were promoted or discourgated. If the underdeterminist mode of interpretation is accepted, then the lack of critical thinking tradition in Asia could be explained by the fact that somehow members of these traditions decided not to go put critical thinking high on their list of priorities. This despite the fact that critical thinking skills could be found deep within the traditions themselves.

Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?

Hence, the values typically associated with Asian culture such as social harmony and deference to the elders and teachers are thus seen as consequences of the cultures deciding to put a certain set of priorities above others. Social harmony was instrumental in bringing about the cultural cohesiveness which is the most distinctive characteristic of Chinese culture. It is valued above most other types of values because it goes hand in hand with social stability, whose alternative is perceived as chaos and general disruption of social structure. The prioritization of social harmony can also be seen in other Asian cultures such as the Thai one, and results in Thais trying as far as they possibly can to avoid open conflicts and disagreements. In the case of China, since all the elements which could bring about the rise of modern science were in place, it is quite clear that the Chinese culture actually chose not to go along the path taken by the Europeans. The decision made by a culture to adopt a particular system of beliefs and practices certainly did not happen suddenly, as if at one particular moment of history, members of a culture had a meeting and declared their cultures' adoption of this or that set. The decision occurred gradually throughout the historical development of a culture, and can be seen in China adopting Confucianism rather than the more materialistic and scientifically inclined Taoism and Mohism, and in India adopting the more mystical doctrine emphasizing the role of meditation and private insights rather than publicly demonstrable methods of knowing. Reasons for such decision are enormously complicated, but it is hardly conceivable that China was somehow destined to lag behind Europe in the science race due to factors they could not control.

This may be taken to show that critical thinking and Asian thought are divergent. If the Asian cultures chose not to go along the path where critical thinking is one milestone, then both do not seem to go with each other, and Atkinson may be vindicated when he argues that critical thinking is a part of Western culture only. If the Asian cultures prioritize sets of values which are incompatible with critical thinking, and if they freely chose those sets over the set adopted by Europeans for whatever reasons, then it appears that critical thinking would belong to European culture only, and to adopt it to Asian cultures would be tantamount to importing foreign ideas and practices to alien lands. Thus, Atkinson's argument seems prima facie to fit well with the underdeterminist position.

This line of reasoning, however, would be valid only if what a culture decided as its own set of priorities at one time will always remain so for all other times. If the Thai culture, for example, once decided that social harmony should take precedence over critical argumentation and open debates, then critical thinking practices would be forever alien to it if the members of the culture always agree that decisions in the past are not to be amended no matter what. But that is surely a very unreasonable position to take. Cultures, like humans, often make decisions which later are amended or revoked, with new decisions made, when things are not the same any longer. Decisions to prioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone, but even so the stone can be broken down or else taken to a museum or a pedestal where it loses its real meaning. Decisions at one time reflect the circumstances prevailing at that time, and to abide by past decisions with no prospect of adapting or making new decisions in response to changing circumstances would make the culture frozen and unable to participate. Opting not to amend their past decisions, a culture would in effect be telling the world that it is constructing a wall around itself, giving nothing to the world and receiving nothing. However, sociological and economic conditions of the contemporary world do not permit such a scenario from happening. Cultures need to change themselves, not merely to survive, but to prosper and to permit better lives for their members.

Consequently, Asian cultures and critical thinking are divergent only if the former opt not to amend their decisions. But since we are talking only about decisions, then it is not difficult at all to conceive that cultures would make new decisions in response to changing times. Doing so would make the two more convergent. Hence, the divergence and convergence, after all, depend on what decisions a culture makes. There is nothing necessarily attached to a culture's path along history that makes it essentially divergent or convergent from the modern critical thinking tradition, or from any tradition for that matter. Since the philosophy of a culture is but an abstract and theoretical expression and justification of the culture's decision to choose one set of priorities over another, Asian philosophy and critical thinking are neither necessarily divergent nor necessarily convergent.


Any attempt to introduce, or we should say, to bring back critical thinking practices to the cultures of Asia would, therefore, begin within the cultures themselves. This is in line with the underdeterminist idea that each culture has its own peculiar development path which is not necessarily shared with others. The missionary zeal of propagating the "truth" of one culture to another is a misplaced one which, apart from sounding imperialistic and patronizing, is something the contemporary sensibility cannot accept. Thus the first step in such an attempt must consist of a series of arguments designed to show to most members of the culture where critical thinking is to be introduced that critical thinking is really good. But to do that would at least require one full substantial paper, something which is definitely out of scope of this present paper. Besides, to argue that critical thinking is actually a good thing to have is difficult, because it may run counter to the deeply entrenched belief that critical thinking is just a label for the confrontational and disputatious mode of life which the culture finds unpalatable.

Though the task is difficult, I believe that it is unavoidable. As an insider of my own cultural tradition, I am trying to convince the members of my culture of the value of critical thinking and its important role in educating the Thai citizens for the increasingly globalized world of today and tomorrow. An important part of my argument for integrating critical thinking and its corollary belief systems to the Thai culture is the idea that Thais should view the elements of their culture which could present the most serious obstacles to critical thinking as "benign fiction." That is, elements such as reverence of the elders and the belief in social hierarchy and so on should be viewed in the same way as a modern person views his or her own traditional customs and ceremonies. One is in one sense a part of the culture where the ceremonies happen, but in another sense one is detached from it since one knows that they only serve a certain function in one's culture and since one knows about other cultures to be able to detach oneself from one's own customs and ceremonies.

Such an argument would naturally require a lot more space and time than is available here. What I hope to have accomplished in this paper, however, is much more modest. It is, as we have seen, an argument that Asian philosophy and Asian thought in general do not necessarily conflict with critical thinking and its presuppositions. Furthermore, it is the contingent making of decisions throughout the history of each culture itself, which, I believe, is flexible and adaptive enough to effect substantial changes for the future.[2]


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[1]The literature on the nature and definitions of critical thinking are enormous. Probably the most intense debate among critical thinking experts centers around the question whether critical thinking can be a separate, autonomous academic discipline dealing with the general form of thinking to be applied by students in all of their subsequent academic endeavors, or whether it is not autonomous at all, but should always be part of substantial academic disciplines. The chief representative of the latter view, McPeck (1991), is often roundly attacked in the literature, as can be witnessed by attack by Blair and Johnson (1991) on McPeck's view. However, I believe that this line of debate gives us little in terms of how we are to understand we should take critical thinking to be, for critical thinking would be nothing if not applied to real cases, and the study of it would not be totally effective if the skills and theories peculiar to it were not abstracted and studied on their own. The more fruitful line of debate focuses on the nature of critical thinking, or the meaning of `critical thinking' itself. Richard Paul (1993) provides a definition that no one can gainsay: Critical thinking is the kind of thinking one thinks of one's thinking in order to make one's thinking better. Hatcher (1995a; 1995b) calls for the kind of critical thinking that is based on the so-called `epistemological realist' position. This is contrasted by Sutton (1995) and Hostetler (1991), who argue that critical thinking is more amenable to the anti-realist position. I have argued elsewhere that both positions mistake the actual nature of the practice of teaching critical thinking, which presupposes neither realism nor anti-realism (Hongladarom 1998a). [Back].

[2]Research for this paper was partially supported by a grant from the Silver Jubilee Fund, Chulalongkorn University. I would like to thank Prof. Somsak Panyakaew and Dr. Sutthilak Pathumraj for their support.[Back].