Why are Harvard Students Drawn
to Ancient Chinese Philosophy?
because it offers a more plausible view of the universe
than the mechanistic worldview of an older science,
and a more promising possibility for human fulfillment
than the outdated individualism of Western modernity.
a Whiteheadian appreciation
of the work of Professor Michael Puett
Michael Puett, a professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, makes the case for (1) the need for college students to transcend modern western ways of thinking and (2) the relevance of Chinese philosophy to the lives of college students, including Harvard students, by showing how it offers a path beyond the illusions and destructiveness of western modernity. His courses are among the most popular at Harvard.
Process philosophers in China and the West agree with Puett and add that Whitehead's "constructive postmodern" philosophy shows how traditional Chinese philosophy and can be combined with the best of modern science and western, Abrahamic religions. Process philosophers in China speak of the need for Chinese, too, to study Chinese philosophy. See the Institute for Constructive Postmodern China.
Institute for Constructive Postmodern China
If you are interested in process philosophy and Chinese ways of thinking, you will also enjoy:
Michael Puett Addressing Harvard Students
About Michael Puett
Michael Puett on Daoism and Confucianism
Introduction to Confucianism from BBC
Atlantic Monthly Article: Why Harvard Students
are Taking Courses in Chinese Philosophy
under Michael Puett
Five Things We Learn from Michael Puett's Lectures on Daoism and Confucianism
Why are students drawn to ancient Chinese Philosophy?
Introduction to Daoism from BBC
Excerpt from Atlantic Monthly article
Puett aims to open his students’ eyes to a different way to approach everything from relationships to career decisions. He teaches them that:
The smallest actions have the most profound ramifications. Confucius, Mencius, and other Chinese philosophers taught that the most mundane actions can have a ripple effect, and Puett urges his students to become more self-aware, to notice how even the most quotidian acts—holding open the door for someone, smiling at the grocery clerk—change the course of the day by affecting how we feel.
That rush of good feeling that comes after a daily run, the inspiring conversation with a good friend, or the momentary flash of anger that arises when someone cuts in front of us in line—what could they have to do with big life matters? Everything, actually. From a Chinese philosophical point of view, these small daily experiences provide us endless opportunities to understand ourselves. When we notice and understand what makes us tick, react, feel joyful or angry, we develop a better sense of who we are that helps us when approaching new situations. Mencius, a late Confucian thinker (4th century B.C.E.), taught that if you cultivate your better nature in these small ways, you can become an extraordinary person with an incredible influence, altering your own life as well as that of those around you, until finally “you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand.”
Decisions are made from the heart. Americans tend to believe that humans are rational creatures who make decisions logically, using our brains. But in Chinese, the word for “mind” and “heart” are the same. Puett teaches that the heart and the mind are inextricably linked, and that one does not exist without the other. Whenever we make decisions, from the prosaic to the profound (what to make for dinner; which courses to take next semester; what career path to follow; whom to marry), we will make better ones when we intuit how to integrate heart and mind and let our rational and emotional sides blend into one. Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher, taught that we should train ourselves to become “spontaneous” through daily living, rather than closing ourselves off through what we think of as rational decision-making. In the same way that one deliberately practices the piano in order to eventually play it effortlessly, through our everyday activities we train ourselves to become more open to experiences and phenomena so that eventually the right responses and decisions come spontaneously, without angst, from the heart-mind.
Recent research into neuroscience is confirming that the Chinese philosophers are correct: Brain scans reveal that our unconscious awareness of emotions and phenomena around us are actually what drive the decisions we believe we are making with such logical rationality. According to Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale, if we see a happy face for just a fraction of a second (4 milliseconds to be exact), that’s long enough to elicit a mini emotional high. In one study viewers who were flashed a smile—even though it was shown too quickly for them to even realize they had seen it—perceived the things around them more positively.
If the body leads, the mind will follow. Behaving kindly (even when you are not feeling kindly), or smiling at someone (even if you aren’t feeling particularly friendly at the moment) can cause actual differences in how you end up feeling and behaving, even ultimately changing the outcome of a situation.
While all this might sound like hooey-wooey self-help, much of what Puett teaches is previously accepted cultural wisdom that has been lost in the modern age. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do,” a view shared by thinkers such as Confucius, who taught that the importance of rituals lies in how they inculcate a certain sensibility in a person. In research published in Psychological Science, social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues found that when we take a power stance (stand with our legs apart, arms thrust out, taking up space), the pose does not only cause other people to view us as more confident and powerful; it actually causes a hormonal surge that makes us become more confident...more