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Contextual Quote

"Technology is not anthropologically universal; it is enabled and constrained by particular cosmologies, which go beyond mere functionality or utility. Therefore, there is no one single technology, but rather multiple cosmotechnics."

- Yuk Hui [1]


  • What do you mean by “cosmotechnics”?

"Hui: Because our technological creations are challenging historical limits through climate change, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, it is critical to reexamine the diversity of cosmotechnics, or how technology is infused with a worldview. The modernizers of China during the last 150 years have enthusiastically embraced the Western meaning of technology — tools to establish human dominion over all else. However, in order to go beyond Western modernity and the current mode of global modernization, we have to reflect on how non-European thought and corollary ways of being can affect the development of technology.

This task demands a new interpretation of the history of both Eastern and Western thought in view of current technological development. I have attempted to understand Chinese cosmotechnics through the dynamic relationship between two major categories of traditional Chinese thought: “dao,” or the ethereal life force that circulates all things (commonly referred to as the way), and “qi,” which means tool or utensil. Together, dao and qi — the soul and the machine, so to speak — constitute an inseparable unity.

Throughout Chinese history, the understood unity of dao and qi constituted the morality and form of life proper to each successive epoch. This unity has both motivated and constrained the development of technology in China compared to the West, where technology has been driven by instrumental reason through which tools are fashioned as a means to overcome rather than to harmonize with nature.

One clear manifestation of this that remains today is the difference between traditional Chinese and modern Western medicine. Modern Western medicine heals by applying science to the body mechanistically. Traditional Chinese medicine heals by trying to foster harmony within the body. Traditional Chinese medicine uses the same vocabularies as traditional Chinese cosmology — the yin and yang of complementary opposites, for example, or the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, through which flows the healing energy, known as “ch’i” (or qi, which means energy, but we give the orthography ch’i so that we can distinguish it from the other qi, which means tool)."


Source: from an interview with Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief of Noema.


Chinese thought is fundamentally relational, while Western thought ... is fundamentally about being as substance

"Gardels: So in Daoism and Confucianism, as well as in Japanese Shintoism, there is a relational sense between humans and the cosmos, or natural order — not humans apart from nature or each other but a fundamental unity in all things?

Hui: Yes. At risk of oversimplification, one may say that Chinese thought is fundamentally relational, while Western thought, beginning with the Greeks, is fundamentally about being as substance.

In Western philosophy, there is a tension between the essential and the accidental, which Aristotle announced in “Categories.” For Aristotle, if being is relative (which is also one of the accidents) — and thus being depends on other beings — then we will have difficulty defining its essence or substance.

Taking up this incompatibility, we may say that Eastern thought is rooted more in relationality than in the quest for the absolute or the essential. Indeed, in Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology,” he compares the Western phonogram and the Chinese pictogram, concluding that a phonogram is correlated to substance, while the Chinese pictogram is relational.

The British biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham, in his study of China and technology, translated this relational sensibility (“ganying”) as a “resonance.” This resonance between the subject and the cosmos is the ground of morality; if one doesn’t follow this resonance, then he or she is acting against nature. Here, nature doesn’t mean the environment outside of me but rather the way things are — the natural order. It is dao plus qi rather than either alone.

Some philosophers, notably the contemporary French thinker François Jullien, have argued that there is no ontology, or a metaphysics of the nature of being, in Chinese thought. Consequently, the question of being was never prioritized in the way it has been in the West.

To be sure, every generalization at this scale encounters exceptions. What we can say here is that, in Chinese philosophy, there is no search for being or eternal form that we see, for example, in Plato’s “eidos,” the permanent reality that makes a thing what it is, or Aristotle’s more empirical “morphe,” or form. It is all the relational flux of becoming, not an arrest into a defined form of some essential being.

In the West, we can think of the absolute as some kind of finality or ultimate reality. Accordingly, we can think that our knowledge progresses toward this end, this quasi-divine Hegelian “absolute spirit.” But it is difficult to find any such absolute in Chinese thought. The Daoists think that it makes no sense even to wonder what is the biggest, the smallest, the absolute, the endpoint, because there is always something beyond all this: the dao, the way, the constant creation and re-creation of something larger and smaller than what we can know.

Chinese thought is thus less teleological than Western thought — less teleological in the sense that it is always subject to the change of heaven and earth. It is never something that can be realized as such. The end is in the noumena of the constantly regenerative cosmos, not in the defined phenomenal world that we can discover through our senses."


What would a Chinese cosmotechnics look like?

"Gardels: what would a Chinese cosmotechnics look like? For now, its main manifestations seem to be CRISPR babies and the surveillance state.

Yuk Hui: The reason I have articulated cosmotechnics as the unification of the moral and cosmic order is that it is not purely a technical activity in the sense of the conquest of nature. Technology dwells in a reality that is much larger than it. The ignorance of this reality leads to the total domination of technology, hence the domination of a particular form of life and way of thinking. It is not just about whether China can develop a better algorithm for its social credit system or whether it can develop better 5G technology — both contribute to the mono-technological culture of the present. The more fundamental question is how a cosmotechnics rooted in Chinese thought could develop an entirely new framework for what has been understood in the West as scientific “progress.”

Some have quipped that what I am speaking about is Daoist robots or organic AI … that sounds really exotic. But on the other hand, we can understand these quips as invitations to reflect on how non-European thought can intervene in the technological acceleration that we have today and change course. Will rethinking and rearticulating the concept of technology allow us to develop a new direction? This does not necessarily mean more advanced technologies but discovering and inventing both new epistemologies and epistemes as a response to the crisis of the Anthropocene, not least climate change."


Yuk Hui on a New Axial Age of Technology

Nathan Gardels: Does all this suggest we are entering a new “axial age,” as the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers named that period 2,000 years ago when all the great religions and ethical systems — Confucianism in China, the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, Homer’s Greece and the Hebrew prophets — emerged simultaneously in a de-synchronized and mostly unconnected world?

In history, the accomplishment of convergence yields a new divergence. As we’ve been discussing, the search for a new beginning after the triumph of modernity is now underway. The global conquest of the West and its philosophy has now reached its limits and is fragmenting. The dialectic is turning. The modern Tower of Babel is poised to crumble.

If we are in a “new condition of philosophizing,” what comes next?

Yuk Hui: We are at the beginning of what you call a “new axial age” as a result of this universalization and convergence. The question now is not “what will happen,” but “what can happen?” To philosophize, you need to start with the impossible before the possible.

To explore this, we need to return to the fundamental differences between the Western and Chinese cosmotechnics, which have been forgotten and assimilated to a universal mono-technology in the process of modernization. The consideration of Chinese cosmotechnics in the West has rarely gone beyond comparisons about the advancement of particular technologies in particular points in history.

I am opposed to the complete realization of a unified global system represented by transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel. Rather than converging teleologically toward a quintessentially Western singularity, we need to envision alternative possibilities, bifurcations and fragmentations. The new beginning must have a multiplicity of starting points opened up by fragmentation."


More information

* Book: The Question Concerning Technology in China. Yuk Hui.

"mirrors from a historical Chinese point of engagement the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1954 treatise, “The Question Concerning Technology.”