INTERVIEW | 22.12.2020

“Freedom is what you find inside”: Yuk Hui on Covid and the East

What is your experience with Covid?

I came to Hong Kong early this year when there was suddenly this outbreak. I have been stuck here since then.

Why do you think some Asian countries did better than most Western countries in dealing with the pandemic?

There are many factors, many reasons. I can only offer speculations. In Germany for example, there are protests against the harsh measures – you probably don't find this in China, in Japan and in Korea. Another reason could be the strong value attributed to the family in East Asian countries, this much stronger sensibility of responsibility, of moral responsibility that is connected to a self-constraining act.

These are social values – is there a philosophical dimension to this that might be connected to traditions of Eastern and Western thinking on the subject of freedom?

This is a very big and very complicated subject. In Confucian or Taoist thinking the concept of freedom as political freedom is not present. This goes back to the social-political structures of the empire and the emperor – the individuals are subjects of the emperor. The notion of freedom refers more to the freedom one finds inside, expressed in art, in poetry, in painting for example or even in food culture.

In Europe on the other hand, you would find freedom not so much within, but externally, freedom as political freedom, a central element since the French Revolution.

This is a key element of modernity. Hegel for example made a very useful distinction between Willkür, the arbitrary, and Wollen, the will – this constitutes a break from the Greek concept of democracy because of the latter’s emphasis on individualism and the preference of the Willkür. This continues until today, that the question of freedom oscillates between a freedom that is made possible by law and the arbitrary that is opposed to law.  

You can only feel free when you understand that what you are doing is nothing significant.

The discourse about the individual is very different in Eastern philosophy?

While you see that there is an elaboration on the concept of freedom in the West and an anticipation of the individualistic society to come as a manifestation of European modernity – in China the question of freedom is not a central political discourse until the contemporary period. You see the difference.

Could you explain how internal freedom is connected to the concept of the world, the outside?

In Confucian culture, freedom means that you don’t feel ashamed. I feel what I say is reasonable. I believe that what I do has a reason. Because I am free from shame. And everything I do is proper to norms.

And in the Taoist tradition?

For the Taoist, the idea of freedom is different because freedom is nothing calculative. You can only feel free when you understand that what you are doing or what you are striving for is nothing significant, in comparison for example to the universe or with nature.

What does this mean for your actions?

When you are trying to pursue something big, there is always something larger than what you are looking for. And what you are looking for is always only relative. You can never arrive at the absolute because if you thought that you can arrive at the absolute, it's only an illusion. The idea to be free is to be free from the illusion. This of course is very different from a Hegelian idea of the search for the absolute.

What is the consequence of these concepts of freedom for society or government or politics?

This question is connected to what is called a good life. In China, if you say you have a good life it means that you have some kind of stability. You have a family, you have a house. And then you can start, you can develop yourself. This again is connected to the history of China with its many wars and changes of dynasties and natural disasters, lack of food and frequent flooding. So freedom in the sense we understand today is not the main concern, but the imagination of a good life.

How is all of that connected to a certain understanding of technology as you describe it in your book about technology in China?

It is important to understand that modernization in China is much faster than Europe. This is particularly true if you look at the speed of technological development, in the development of AI and so on. This process of modernization creates a rupture between what is modern and what is tradition. Of course, there is also a rupture in Europe, but this rupture implies also a continuity because it is produced within itself – for example by the epistemological and methodological changes in the 17th century and as a consequence modern science and industrialization.

And how did this rupture affect China?

The difference is that in China the rupture comes from the outside, from the USA, from the UK, Germany, Western countries. It is a historical process that leads to the domination yet not so much in the invention of technology, but more in the use of technology. In China, you may find farmers selling agricultural products on the street, you don’t pay him in cash, you pay with your smartphone. This is a significant phenomenon. There is a need for speed and a desire for speed in China.

Is the quintessence of what you are saying that the answer to Corona is not so much in science and technology but within oneself?

Science and technology are of course very important. But I think it is also how people value themselves and how people view the relation between people and the virus and the relation between people and people. There is a kind of value and orientation that is already present in the social structure and use of technology.


Yuk Hui is a philosopher living in Berlin and Hong Kong

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