SINOGRAPH East-West divide starts here By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - We can see it now, every day, China and the West are two worlds apart, right from their way of thinking. Therefore, to begin to bridge the gap between these two worlds, one has to start from that point, and a recent book could provide a very useful instrument with which to do that.
While Chinese philosophy focused on the dynamics of power, Western philosophy was concerned with knowledge. Confucius and Mozi advised princes or states on how to rule their countries and make them powerful; Plato and Aristotle devised efficient strategies for achieving real knowledge of the world.
In the latter case, the discipline was accurately described as
"philosophia", love, pursuit of knowledge; the former were called zi, the writing of the masters, the grand advisers.
They were worlds apart. Western philosophy has only some brief and unsystematic encounters with the theory of power, Plato's Republic being one of them. But after that, one has to wait 17 or 18 centuries to find somebody else who wanted to address power head on: Machiavelli, who advised his prince in a fashion similar to an old Chinese master, or zi.
Why is that in the West the pursuit of perfect knowledge and the analysis of power are unrelated, and what does the later development of capitalism, which has revolutionized our world, have to do with all this?
In a formidable new book, Potere, la dimensione politica dell'azione umana (Power: The Political Dimension of Human Action) (Rubettino, 2013), Lorenzo Infantino possibly for the first time realigns these three elements of the Western tradition.
Through a powerful and extremely erudite cavalcade of the whole history of Western philosophy, Infantino shatters the theoretical basis of the authoritarian state, starting from the very foundation of Western philosophy, the theory of knowledge. He treats Adam Smith and Hayek as philosophers of knowledge.
Infantino shows how the theory and practice of the free market is based on a revolutionary theory of knowledge, one that believes that each individual excels in his own particular field and has more knowledge than anybody else. Then the full power of global knowledge can be harnessed through the freest exchange of all particular knowledge, which enriches each other in the mutual contact.
The free exchange of goods in the market is grounded on this free exchange of knowledge, which works best with the most limited intervention of the state, which has to set the rules of the exchange and check that the rules are respected but should not interfere in the exchange.
In fact, writes Infantino, the state, may have more accumulated knowledge than any single player in the market, but no matter how much knowledge it possesses, it does not have more knowledge of any singular and particular field than the single cobbler or fishmonger in the market.
Any concentration of power, taking power away from the single players in the society, kills the efficiency of the market and ultimately the wealth of nations. States that decide to monopolize knowledge and intervene in the free market may get a short-term boost but ultimately stifle and kill the energies that make a state efficient and rich, similar to what happens with cheap injections of drugs. This philosophical revolution of the theory of knowledge produced the theory behind the capitalist revolution. In fact, Adam Smith considered himself a philosopher, not an economist.
The capitalist revolution, with its liberalization of knowledge and market forces and its redefinition of state power, broke once and for all the old mold of Western philosophy and state power. Before that, the search was for perfect knowledge and a perfect state, both resembling as much as possible godly wisdom and paradise on earth.
After Adam Smith, Infantino argues, knowledge in the Western tradition was never intended to be perfect but perfectible, those in power did not aim for paradise but improved conditions, and the key was the new complex overall efficiency created by the market.
Before the eruption of the market and capitalism in the 19th century, China possibly also had an advantage in its theory of knowledge and statecraft. At two points in history, China skirted a debate on the theory of knowledge, during the pre-Qin period of the 3rd century BC, with the Late Mohists and the School of Names; and around the Tang period, from the 5th to the 8th century AD, with the arrival of the Buddhist logic in China. 
Most times, the Chinese tradition felt it had no major problems with knowing reality - its main concern was with handling it and ruling the state and the world, "all under heaven" (tianxia). This may be due to many elements: the ideographic language rather than the vague alphabet and the non-existence of the even vaguer verb "to be" may have suggested intuitively and immediately a closer approach to reality. Conversely, the very abstract alphabetical language, the close traditional bond with the verb "to be", and the idea of existence and truth all steer the attention to metaphysics.
But there is also a very important political element.
Since the beginning of its philosophical tradition, China concentrated on improving the ruling system by adopting a bureaucratic system with the most capable people ruling the country. Capability was measured in making the state richer, stronger, and more powerful ... almost to Adam Smith's standards in The Wealth of Nations.
The Chinese tradition recognized very early the need to create a pool of talent and knowledge as well as some kind of division of power within the state, with the emperor almost as a modern "chairman of the board", the owner of the assets, and the ultimate embodiment of the general interests of the state; but the management of these assets was thrust on a body of professionals selected on the basis of their special knowledge and used accordingly.
If the emperor started to steal from the state he owned, basically misunderstanding that he owned everything and thus he could not take much, the state would start to disintegrate. If the emperors did not deliver wealth to the state and the people, but only to themselves, they would face a revolution or an invasion.
For centuries, this Chinese bureaucratic system worked much better than the systems in Western states, where power was concentrated in the hands of people who held power thanks not to the efficiency they delivered but to the metaphysical blessings of God. Bumper harvests or famines were largely considered signs from God, not the result of careful or careless policies. In the West, there was no selection of able people who should deliver efficient policies.
However, with the explosion of the capitalist system, and also possibly influenced by Chinese texts translated by Jesuits in the 17th century, which introduced the Chinese bureaucratic system, the situation changed very rapidly.
The market forces created an even greater circulation of talents, and they rapidly dwarfed the efficiency historically reached by the Chinese bureaucratic system. In many ways, the conversion of the whole West to capitalism was also due to it finding Adam Smith and his followers' new theory of knowledge convincing, argues Infantino.
This may have also occurred because the metaphysical tradition spurred a tireless search for true knowledge, even revolutionary compared to its own past. And that could make people believe in the hazy and almost ludicrous concept of an "invisible hand", as Adam Smith described the collective positive results of everybody looking after his own interest.
This did not happen in China, which was almost "burdened" by a relatively efficient system that was not easy to give up after a few minor or major setbacks. But a new theory that stresses the importance of individual knowledge and each individual's contribution while undercutting the contribution of the state, for millennia so important and efficient in China, is difficult to impose, even now that the past 30 years of reforms have proven the efficiency of market and individual initiative.
In fact, China's development was driven basically by only two things: the industriousness of Chinese individuals and the Chinese state giving them free rein and creating a conducive environment. That is, China's development has been driven by enacting a gradual capitalist revolution, which will eventually have to have general political consequences or the whole system will burst open.
But this is not only about a race between states or individuals for wealth. It is mostly about personal happiness, stresses Infantino. An individual living in a society where he is free to exercise his knowledge and abilities will be happy. The personal freedom, controlled and channeled through social norms, is a source of wealth and happiness for everybody, says Infantino.
This would reconcile also two opposite traditions in China: the Confucian and the Taoist. Within the state, Chinese individuals were Confucian, constrained within strict rules of behavior and obligation to family and the state. Privately, Chinese were Taoists, partying and breaking all rules, almost as described in the tormented moral novel Jin Ping Mei. 
This seems indeed no longer to be the case in modern China, where the Chinese have now become less divided between public and private morality and the pursuit of happiness is a social endeavor, in turn affecting the economy, the society and certainly also the general political atmosphere.
1. See also Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 7, Language and Logic in Traditional China by Joseph Needham and Christoph Harbsmeier.
2. See the translation of the novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P'ing Mei, Vol. I: The Gathering by David Tod Roy (Princeton University Press) and his preface explaining its philosophical implications.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org