Chinese traditional culture’s influence on psychology

By WANG YINAN / 11-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A Chinese teacher imparts Baduanjin exercise to his students in Russia on Nov. 10, 2023. Photo: Hu Xiaofei/PROVIDED TO CSST

When we look back at history, we’ll find that the major cultures of the world have traversed a roughly similar path, transitioning from simple thinking to logical thinking, from figurative thought to abstract thinking, and from common sense thinking to scientific thinking. However, some scholars argue that the three main characteristics of thought in traditional Chinese culture—holistic thinking, dialectical thinking, and intuitive thinking—may have hindered China’s advancement into the realm of modern science. The reasons for this can be summarized as follows:

Firstly, “holistic thinking” views the world from a perspective of universal connection and mutual restriction, striving for a “unity of heaven and humanity,” that seeks to maintain harmony among heaven, earth, people, and the self. Yet, ancient Chinese scholars, while expounding the concept of “unity of heaven and humanity,” mainly employed analogies, often highlighting the conceptual rather than empirical relationships between things. As a result, while this approach is highly conceptual, it poses challenges when it comes to empirical demonstration, which contradicts the principles and methodologies of modern science.

Secondly, “dialectical thinking” emphasizes universal connection and the unity of opposites to pursue harmony, coordination, and unity. Due to this pursuit and the emphasis on the “doctrine of the mean” in Confucian philosophy, dialectical thinking tends to neglect the differences and struggles between contradictory opposites, overemphasizing the unity of contradictions, neglecting their combative nature, and thus easily leading to closed, conservative thinking, impeding innovation and development.

Finally, “intuitive thinking” is a means to identify or understand things without conscious, logical, reasoning-based thinking. Its hallmark is the absence of logical forms like concepts, judgments, or reasoning. It doesn’t require an analysis of external things or the accumulation of experience. Instead, it relies on the subject’s mysterious self-awareness, inspiration, experience, and perception to directly grasp the essence of things in an instant. Therefore, it is believed that China’s traditional emphasis on holistic thinking, while neglecting analytical thinking, its focus on dialectical thinking while neglecting empirical thinking, and its promotion of intuitive thinking while neglecting logical thinking, all contributed to China’s failure to readily join the era of modern science.

Holistic, dialectical, intuitive thinking

Nevertheless, local psychologists believe that the development of psychology in China does not imply a complete departure from the constraints of traditional Chinese cultural thought. Instead, it suggests a need to consider how to draw resources and nourishment from cultural traditions and combine them with the research paradigms of modern psychology. This approach aims to continuously infuse psychology research with wisdom and insights derived from holistic, dialectical, and intuitive thinking, fostering a synthesis between traditional cultural wisdom and the paradigms of modern psychology.

The reliance of holistic thinking on “analogical reasoning” may seem incompatible with the research methods of modern science. However, analogical reasoning is considered an important form of metaphorical cognition by modern scientists. It holds a pivotal position in the entire process of knowledge creation, fostering conceptual innovation and achieving the transformation from implicit knowledge to explicit knowledge (or formal knowledge). In 1956, British physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi first distinguished between the concepts of “implicit knowledge” and “explicit knowledge.” Implicit knowledge refers to that which has not yet been expressed through language or other forms, such as knowledge people possess in their actions. Conversely, explicit knowledge refers to knowledge expressed in written words, diagrams, and mathematical formulas.

More significantly, Polanyi pointed out the primacy of implicit knowledge over explicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge can exist independently of language and other forms of expression. In fact, all knowledge is either implicit knowledge or rooted in implicit knowledge. Thus, implicit knowledge forms the core and content of human knowledge, while explicit knowledge merely serves as a means to articulate and convey this core.

Therefore, analyzing common sense psychological knowledge using analogical reasoning, seeking pathways from common sense psychology to scientific psychology, exploring the impact of life metaphors on people’s psychological life and behavioral orientation, and allowing the interpretative nature of “analogical reasoning” to play a more significant role in the research process of psychology are worthwhile directions for future scientific psychology research.

The English word “intuition,” derived from the Latin “intuitio,” meaning “a gaze” or “to see,” implies the vision of self-evident truth. Essentially, intuition is a mental activity that contrasts with conscious cognitive processing and logical analysis. Its advantage lies in its quick response and independence from the constraints of cognitive resources, yet its downside is its tendency to be fallible.

However, intuition and logic are not necessarily in conflict. The key concern for psychologists is how to balance the relationship between intuition and logic, and between sensibility and rationality. Early keen intuitions of scientists, without being subjected to the analysis, supplementation, and refinement of logical thinking, struggle to develop into valuable research outcomes. The Classic of Changes, in the Book of Documents, states: “If the commendation does not reach to numbers, then it becomes divination; if numbers do not reach to moral virtues, then it becomes a mere historical record.” “Commendation” refers to sensual manifestations, which serve as the initial use and logical starting point in psychological research. “Numbers” represent natural rationality, paving the way for the standardization and formalization of psychological research. “Moral virtues” symbolize humanistic rationality, the ultimate pursuit of psychological research to comprehend the past and present and console the human mind.

Adhering to the path of “initial commendation - natural rationality - moral virtues” will inspire psychological research to transcend the opposition between intuition and reason, achieving a connection between human emotion and academic theory.

Dialectical thinking advocates that everything in the world is universally connected and in a constant state of change and development. This is reflected in the process of psychological research, which often begins with a comprehensive understanding of the contributions of predecessors via literature, and then progresses to identifying gaps or contradictions in existing studies, leading to the formulation of research questions. Subsequently, researchers formulate hypotheses, design the study, collect data, analyze the results, and finally, compose a research report. This cyclic process intricately links each step, emphasizing that no research question or step is isolated. Instead, they are all interconnected within the vast web of previous literature, inspiring future research to delve into deeper dimensions.

Double gyroscope 

In traditional Chinese culture, the balance of the interaction between yin and yang signifies the quantitative stage of “change.” When this equilibrium is disrupted, it leads to the qualitative stage of “transformation,” often following the principle that extremes will eventually reverse. Yin and yang interact, driving changes in phenomena. In Cheng Zhongxin’s words, “the goodness or appropriateness of an action arises from its interrelation and coordination with all the yin and yang in the situation, and the so-called ‘timing’ is related to time, coordinated with time, and in accordance with time.” The concept of “timing” is closely tied to time itself, as it involves being in sync with the natural rhythms and changes, such as the shifting seasons. Only when a subject’s behavior aligns with natural laws can it be considered “in harmony with the time”; only when the subject acts in accordance with the “time” can a reconciliation between subject and object, reason and reality be achieved, reaching the realm of harmonizing yin and yang, the unity of heaven and humanity.

The completion of any psychological study involves decision making on the part of the researcher, which is essentially a series of processes akin to harmonizing yin and yang—juxtaposing differentiation and integration. It involves discerning the nature and limits of specific phenomena or stages of research, constantly weighing the timing and conditions for the transformation or fusion of yin and yang. Ultimately, it employs the “middle” approach to reveal the essence of the “way.”

Therefore, the author attempts to propose a dynamic balance, flexible stability, and self-propelled dual gyroscope model for psychological research, drawing from excellent traditional Chinese cultural ideas while borrowing from the principles of physics that keep a gyroscope spinning.

The “Dual Gyroscope Model” aims to draw an analogy between psychological research and the complex system behaviors of a gyroscope’s rotation, revolution, and oscillation. It seeks to promote self-renewal in the process of psychological research by harmonizing the relationships of mutual generation and restraint among various contradictory elements. The goal is to achieve dynamic balance, robust progress, and harmonious order among different research orientations, stages, and methods, ultimately revealing the essence of psychological phenomena.

The model embodies the concept of unity between subject and object. It consists of two interrelated single gyroscopes—one representing the psychological phenomenon of interest (referred to as the “phenomenon” or “yin”), and the other representing the psychologist’s interpretation and conception of that psychological phenomenon (referred to as the “concept” or “yang”). Both yin and yang are integral components of the essence of psychological phenomena. They depend on each other, interact seamlessly, are inseparable, and together drive the dynamic and balanced development of psychological research.

“Moving with the Times.” The gyroscopic movement involves not only the “rotation” and “revolution” but also a continuous “oscillation,” with the gyro’s free motion limited by the friction coefficient of its supporting surface. Similarly, psychological research should navigate between the mysterious objective laws and the ever-changing practical needs, adapting to the current trends. Only research outcomes that keep pace with the times are likely to achieve widespread influence in contemporary society, making their research value more understandable and applicable to the public.

In conclusion, excellent traditional Chinese culture offers valuable wisdom for ongoing advancements in psychology research. Understanding the vital role of analogical reasoning in the generation of knowledge, grasping the essence of dialectical thinking’s assertion that “the way follows the interaction of yin and yang,” and finding ways to integrate intuitive and logical thinking all contribute to the potential of Chinese cultural psychology. It has the capacity for revitalizing scientific psychology and exploring the path of “commending the obscure - understanding the numerical - reaching the virtuous,” as advocated by the Classic of Changes.

Wang Yinan is a distinguished research fellow at the Department of Psychology at Beijing Normal University.

Edited by WENG RONG