Leopold Kohr and Process Philosophy in China

New European, London  – Autumn/Winter 2009/10

China, Process Philosophy and Leopold Kohr


by Michael Breisky



“For many centuries, the Silk Road saw exchanges between the East and the West: Chinese silk, porcelain and jade travelled westwards, while precious stones, spices and political philosophies were brought the other way.“ (Display at the National HistoricMuseum of Xian, the ancient capital of China and starting-pointof the Silk Road)


First, a Word of caution: I am not a China-expert, not even by diplomatic standards. These lines are speculations, based on impressions I gained during a brief lecturing tour to China in spring 2008. There I tried to introduce the philosophy of Leopold Kohr, the Austrian born preacher of Human Scale (1909 -1993), to five top universities and other institutions [1]. During these lectures, discussions and interviews I was in contact with some 600 students and 20 professors; furthermore, I had the chance to speak to 40 journalists and teachers at the leading Chinese institution for environmental education „Beijing Global Village“; where I also had a long interview with its founder/director Sheri Liao (more about her to be found by Google). In the most populous country on earth all these contacts may have been insignificant for matters of quantity, but the high level ofconsistency and spontaneity I found in their various reactions gave me a base firm enough to develop these speculations. And the baseis the many parallels and equations between the teachings of Kohr at one hand and Laotse and Taoism at the other. This, I think, merits a follow-up, to which the following reflections might be useful:

More than ever, China is in search of harmony

Taoism as China’s traditional natural philosophy has always favoured a spiritual harmony between man, heaven and earth. In China as well as in the rest of the world, this harmony is seriously disturbed today by the triumph of Rationalism/Reductionism, unrestrained consumerism and the destruction of the natural environment. Philosophically, this development is typically „Western“ and last not least a consequence of Enlightenment (according to Sheri Liao,  the first split withnatural philosophy was already done by Plato). The current disharmony with its imbalances challenges already the cohesion of China and makes it necessary to underline China’s cultural identity as shaped by Taoism and 5000 years of national continuity. To a foreign visitor, this ardent search for harmony becomes crystal clear.

I met a good number of respected Chinese scholars, who think that a new phase of Enlightenment might solve most of these disharmonies; a “Second Phase of Enlightenment” would introduce or strengthen some values and scopes up till now not sufficiently recognized byEnlightenment, while leaving most if not all of its leading principles untouched. Instead of an open rupture with the many unquestionable achievements of Enlightenment’s “First Phase”, this would allow for an  volutionary approach, eventually reconciling “harmoniously” China’s traditional philosophical values and views with the needs of today’s globalised world. In a similar way these scholars show high esteem for “Post-Modernism”, where it rejects the comprehensive explanatory power of a single “central idea”, like nationalism, capitalism or socialism (however, the de-constructive notion of Post-Modernism, as it is understood today in most parts of Europe, seems not to be shared by these Chinese circles)[2]


 The bridge-building role of Process Philosophy

Alfred Whitehead’s philosophy, where everything is “in process”, seems to be the ideal tool to advance this new thinking, and so it comes that there are now over a dozen Centres for Process Studies at Chinese Universities, with one or two new additional centres established every year.[3]Although I am not an expert on Process Philosophy either, this school of thought seems to be able to soften also Hegel’s conflict-oriented Dialectic – thephilosophical basis of Marxism – thus giving the Chinese brand of Marxism the more pragmatic and harmonious connotation needed today. In particular, this philosophy helps to overcome the neglect and contempt held by science and rational cognition with regard to religion, cultural tradition and aesthetics – i.e. the values many Chinese believe to be essential today.

And so it was neither mere chance that my own lecture tour was organised by the China Project at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California; nor that all the scholars I met in China were familiar at least with the basics of Process Philosophy. In view of this experience, how could one not assume that China’s political leadership is looking favourable at a “Second Phase” of Enlightenment and the bridgebuilding force of Process Philosophy?


Leopold Kohr’s appeal

From this perspective it is interesting to note the points of Kohr’s philosophy that were particularly popular with my Chinese audience:

  1. His emphasis on human nature and nature in general, and how this

relates to society;

  1. His disapproval of “great central ideas”, in particular where they claim comprehensive supremacy on the basis of abstractions and linear projections (in this sense, the quote by the great medical doctor Paracelsus, often used by Kohr, was well understood: “basically, all medicine is poison –what makes the difference, however, is the dosage”);
  2. His respect for religion and his high regard for cultural tradition,

aesthetics and harmony;

  1. His support for self-help and small social entities; apparently, this is seen not only as an endorsement for a more or less autonomous economic development of sub-national regions, in particular of rural areas (as an antidote to the migration from the Chinese hinterland to the industrialised seaboard!); but also as a backing of traditional Chinese family-networks („Guanxi“);
  2. With regard to China’s international position, Kohr was lauded for his supra-national views, in particular where he ridiculed the many instances of Western hybris; naturally, his very positive remarks about Mao’s policy of rural communes and China in general were very welcome, and so was his disrespect for democracy and free trade in early phases of economic development (all of this in Kohr’s “Development without Aid”).


Kohr’s analysis of societies that have grown in size beyond the “criticalpoint” seems to have met mixed reactions: full approval for his thesisabout the unproductive extra-costs resulting from over-size andincreasing turn-over-velocity of people and goods (as it is happening inmodern China); but reluctance, for obvious political reasons, to accept Kohr’s medication to such problems, i.e. his advice to follow nature and split-up these over-sized entities into smaller bodies. Apparently, it will take some time for this part of Kohr’s philosophy to “sink in”. The immediate follow-up to my lecture-tour was an invitation to present a paper on “Leopold Kohr and Agriculture” at a Conference on “Post-Modern Agriculture in China”, organised under the auspices of the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences and to be held November 2-3, 2009, in Changsha, Hunan province.


In conclusionI would like to make two points:

– The parallels with Taoism (now re-discovered also by official China) and the total absence of any Western arrogance in his work makeLeopold Kohr’s philosophy very accessible to Chinese scholars; inorder to gain access also beyond the academic world, it would benecessary, however, to have Kohr’s main work translated into Chinese(obviously accompanied by some explanatory notes) .

– In order to make Kohr’s philosophy walk in Chinese shoes, Process Philosophy seems to be the best shoehorn. Both philosophies limit the arrogance and costly errors of “great central ideas” and subject them to the Human Scale: Whitehead does this by pointing to the all-changing element of time, Kohr by showing so vividly the limits of size. Maybe they will both join the ranks of Marx, Lenin and other Western political philosophers that made a great career in China.


 Michael Breisky,a retired Austrian Ambassador, is a member of

the scientific board of Leopold-Kohr-Academy in Salzburg, Austria.

[1] For details, see www.breisky.at/English/Publications/LeopoldKohr in China


[2] see also Zhihe Wang, “Postmodernization and the Second Enlightenment”

[3] see www.ctr4process.org/projects/china/china_eng.shtml