Logic vs Intuition, Round 2

In My Country and My People, 林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng) contrasts Chinese and Western thinking this way: Westerners are more inclined to logic, reason, the scientific method, and analysis; the Chinese are more inclined to intuition, reasonableness, and common sense. Here he gives a historical example of what happens when you apply an intuitive approach to, say, human biology and comparative religion.

…the logic of common sense can only be applied to human affairs and actions; it cannot be applied to the solution of the riddles of the universe. One can use reasonableness to settle a dispute but not to locate the relative positions of the heart and liver or determine the function of the pancreatic juice. Hence in divining nature’s mysteries and the secrets of the human body, the Chinese have to resort largely to intuition. Strangely enough they have intuitively felt the heart to be on the right and the liver to be on the left side of the human chest. An erudite Chinese scholar, whose voluminous Notebooks are widely read, came across a copy of Human Anatomy translated by the Jesuits Jacobus Rho, James Terrence, and Nicolaus Longobardi, and finding that in the book the heart is placed on the left and the liver on the right, decided that Westerners have different internal organs from the Chinese, and deduced therefrom the important conclusion that since their internal organs are different, therefore their religion must also be different — this deduction is in itself a perfect example of intuitive reasoning — and hence only Chinese whose internal organs are imperfect could possibly become Christian converts. The erudite scholar slyly remarked that if the Jesuits only knew this fact they would not be interested in preaching Christianity in China and in making converts of half-normal beings.

Such assertions are made in perfect seriousness and in fact are typical of Chinese “intuition” in the realms of natural science and human physiology. One begins to believe there is something after all in the scientific method … He could have at least felt the palpitation of his heart by his own hand, but evidently the Chinese scholar never descended to manual labour.

Thus free from the stupid drudgery in the use of his eye and his hands, and having a naive faith in the power of his “intuition,” the Chinese scholar goes about explaining the mysteries of the human body and the universe to his own satisfaction.

[from pages 90-91 in my 2002 edition.]

6 thoughts on “Logic vs Intuition, Round 2”

  1. ha, maybe we should have a sense of impending doom or something, like every step we gain in the language is one step closer to banging my head against a very large, very hard wall of cultural differences. but, you know, Intercultural Studies degrees… supposedly we’re prepared for this ;)

    this kind of stuff often reminds me of the Babelfish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the little fish you put in your ear that lets you instantly and perfectly understand what people from other cultures are really saying. They credit the Babelfish for causing more wars than any other single thing in the universe. “If we really understood each other…?”

  2. The reference to the Babelfish reminds me of the ancient story … something about the very merciful — but powerfully annoying — intervention that created this situation in the first place! The anachronistic echoes of John Lennon’s “Imagine” echo eerily down the corridors of time, don’t they! You’d think that after a few millennia people would get the idea and quit writing cheesy songs about it … ;-)

  3. If you’re interested, Joel, three years ago I wrote a small booklet regarding My Country and My People, and published it on my blog.

    That book has got to be one of the best “life-changing” books I have ever read, especially when it comes to understanding this country.

  4. Thanks Ben. I’ll get after that once I finish the book. While there’s plenty in it to quibble with, of everything I’ve read so far I have the least hesitations putting this one on a “required reading” list for foreigners coming to China. It has the right combination or readability, length, perspective, and sassyness to make an enjoyable and informative read, and you don’t need a masters degree to access it.

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