Commencement Address by Professor Tian Yu Cao, May 14, 2006

Commencement Address delivered by Professor Tian Yu Cao
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 14, 2006

Congratulations! This is wonderful time for you, for your parents, and for all of us. By now, you have learnt a lot of philosophy, have acquired vast knowledge about philosophers and philosophical systems, and have mastered the skills necessary for philosophizing. You know how to reason, how to argue, how to make a case in a rational and coherent and convincing way, how to reflect and, when it is necessary, how to be critical. Now you are ready to go to the outside world, to start your new life.

Looking at your happy faces, I feel envious. That is, I am envious of your good luck. For it reminds me of the time when I was your age. I was a philosophy major, just as you are. But I never graduated. I received a diploma from the philosophy department of Beijing University many years later, when I was already 38 years old, not because I really graduated, but only as part of “political rehabilitation.” Let me explain.

I began to get interested in philosophy in the mid-1950s, when I got to high school. At that time the official ideology in China was Marxism. But at least before 1957 when the party launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, there was another intellectual tradition, that of the May Fourth New Culture movement started in 1919, which was characterized by the two slogans on its banner: science and democracy. Since it was officially declared that the May Fourth movement was the prelude to the rise of Communist movement in China, the tradition enjoyed some legitimacy after the 1949 takeover.

The May Fourth movement soon split into two branches. One was liberal, and emphasized liberty and individuality, and the other focused on social justice, socialism and communism. Both were manifestations of Western culture, and both vehemently fought against the Chinese traditional culture (Confucianism in particular). They also shared a high respect for science.

Soon after having entered high school, I found by reading a few books by Plato, Descartes and Russell that I had a very strong desire to know the ultimate truths of the world, and believed it was entirely possible. If I could learn and move from ancient Greek philosophy to modern to 20th century philosophy within a few months, then what could prevent me from knowing the ultimate truths of the entire world? But I had to learn mathematics and science first, because Russell frequently referred to mathematics and physics as if no ultimate truths could be known without knowing them.

In my high school years, what intrigued me the most were the questions about infinity, totality and continuity. I could not imagine a finite universe. If it is finite, then what would be outside of its boundary — and something must exist on both sides of a boundary! — would still be part of the universe. But I had heard the name of Einstein, who claimed that the universe was finite. How could that be possible? It was mysterious to me, and I eagerly wished to know. Similarly, I could not imagine any thing that was not divisible, or in any two indivisible points you could not insert something between. That is, I found the idea of continuity irresistible. But I also heard about the idea of discrete quantum, which was said to be the deepest truth of the microscopic world.

There were many other challenges. One was Russell’s set of all sets as its proper subsets, the other was action at a distance. I was defeated by Russell, and found Leibniz’s challenge to Newton’s gravity in terms of comprehensibility, namely intuitive visualizability, interesting. Should truths about the world be visualizable? If the answer is yes, then Newton’s action at a distance and quantum jumps would be in trouble. But if the deepest truths lie only in mathematical formulae without having to be visualizable in space and time, then what is the nature of space and time?

In my senior year at high school, I applied to Beijing University for studying in mathematics and physics. My idea was to know science first, then move on to metaphysics, then to the human world, and then to knowledge of the good and beautiful. To be young is to dream ambitiously! My entrance examination scores were very high, but my application was rejected. I was informed that because of my father’s political history, I was in the category of no-admission. I was immediately thrown into a dark tunnel with no light at the end.

My father was a herbal drug store salesman. He was arrested and sentenced to prison for five years in 1954 because he joined a trade union that had some connection with the Nationalists. I tried hard to accept this treatment by rationalizing the Party’s argument in terms of the class struggle during the civil war. But I simply could not rationalize why I should be treated in a similar way. What was the justification for my fate being determined by a father who joined the “wrong” trade union? I was puzzled, and began to study Marxism systematically, trying to understand what I had encountered in my life.

Marxism in China was a set of dogmas. But by reading Marx’s own works, I learned that Marxism could be very critical in the best sense of the term. From 1959 to 1962, I spent three years studying Marxism. In addition to classical work, I also read in translation articles from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Italy and France. My conclusion was that nothing done in China could be justified by Marxism. During that period, the China-Soviet Union dispute became more and more intensive, and I was completely in sympathy with Khrushchev’s fight against the personality cult and his attempts at reform, and thus took Khrushchev’s side and against Mao.

At the same period, I also studied mathematics and physics. I followed Marx’s suggestion: morning should be for one thing, the afternoon for something else, the evening for still another thing. In my case, roughly, morning was for mathematics, afternoon was for physics, and evening was reserved for Marxism and related German philosophy and political economy.

That was the darkest period for China. Dozens of millions of people were starving to death. We were always in hunger. I had no chance to get to college or find a job. Strangely, it was also a wonderful period for me, since with each day passing away, I felt myself being enriched, knowing more and more what I wished to know.

Then a miracle happened. There was a twist in party’s line in 1962, and I was given a chance to get into the department of philosophy at Beijing University. But three weeks after that, Chairman Mao’s newest policy was announced, and class struggle became the guiding dogma again.

When the party machinery was searching for class struggle everywhere, including university classrooms, I tried to argue against it since I felt it was ridiculous: in socialist China, all class enemies were eliminated already, we did not have capitalists or landlords, we did not have exploiting classes anymore. So what was meant by “class struggle”? I argued with my friends, and argued with teachers. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, my courage was ridiculous. There was no comparison in terms of power and strength. On the one side was the huge party machinery, on the other side were a few freshmen. But at that time, I felt I was powerful enough to argue against and defeat the party line, because I felt that I had ideas and I had arguments. Personality cult was wrong, socialism should be reformed, Marxism is humanism in nature. And so forth etc.

The result was that we were smashed. In the summer of 1964, two years before the cultural revolution, I was openly criticized, detained, arrested, sent to labor camps, and to various jails; sometimes I was placed in a solitary cell, other times in a cage that was specially designed for prisoners with mental problems.

That was a very difficult time. My best friend, a young man from a top family, committed suicide. But I never entertained that solution. I was optimist. I did not think the wrong line would last for long. When the cultural revolution started, I was fascinated and full of hope: it was madness, but at least it was a step to the end.

So I was preparing for the end. It did not come soon. A long time passed. It took ten years for Mao to die; it took another three years for Deng to end Mao’s policies. During that period, I had difficult times, and dangerous moments. But I was never desperate. I had reasoned arguments to convince myself that wrong thing would not last for long. In solitary confinement, I played chess with myself to kill time, I mused over various things, for example over metaphysical views about infinity and continuity, I reviewed mathematics and physics, I even got to start learning English. I memorized words and grammar, I tried to use words to compose sentences with the help of rules. Without having learnt English this way, I would not have been able to apply to Cambridge University’s doctoral program in the philosophy of science in 1982, or to start a new life which ultimately led me to this podium.

The end came in 1979 when I was allowed out of prison. It was wonderful to go out to the street, to see trees and children. So I was right in my conviction that wrong thing would not last for long. But it was still very long, though it could have been yet longer. On further reflection, I decided that I was simply lucky, that it was just an accident that I made it, and indeed that my optimistic conviction was not well founded. So I would not like to give you the false impression that with well reasoned ideas and arguments, you will be able to predict the future and act accordingly with an assured success. No, far from it–although I was convinced to the contrary when I was young!

Some of you may share a view with many people in the street, that philosophy may be wonderful, but is impractical or even irrelevant to real life. Philosophy may or may not be impractical if you are going to be a nurse or an investment banker; it was not even really practical, in the sense of politically effective, in political and ideological disputes like the one I underwent. But it is highly relevant to real life, at least to me. It was philosophy that gave me the courage to face up to and argue against injustice, the endurance for the ordeal, conviction for the future, the pleasure in musing over deep things (such as infinity and continuity or the difference between a veiled reality that is expressible only by mathematics and phenomena that should be visualizable). Philosophy remains a matter of life and death for me even now.

I believe that philosophy will be deeply relevant to your life too if you continue to take it seriously. So let philosophy accompany you as you move on to new things. You will never regret it.

Thank you for your attention.