Three-ness: Healing world politics with epistemic compassion

Published date01 February 2019
Date01 February 2019
Subject MatterSpecial Section Articles
/tmp/tmp-18Q14aLsNW2z9s/input 783351POL0010.1177/0263395718783351PoliticsLing
Special Section Article
2019, Vol. 39(1) 35 –49
Three-ness: Healing world
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
politics with epistemic
DOI: 10.1177/0263395718783351
LHM Ling†
The New School, USA
Epistemic compassion can help to heal world politics. It mitigates almost six centuries of Eurocentric
‘epistemic violence’ and ‘epistemicide’ with a trialectical epistemology that bridges even seemingly
irreconcilable opposites. Buddhists call this process Interbeing. I draw on Daoist yin/yang dynamics
for epistemology and the ancient Silk Roads as an exemplar. Subsequently, I apply this analysis to a
watershed development in our contemporary political economy: China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’
(BRI). A $1 trillion investment scheme to link China with Europe and Russia through Central Asia,
Africa, and the Indian Ocean, the BRI provokes charges of reproducing Europe’s 19th-century’s
Great Game on a 21st-century scale. A trialectical epistemology offers another mode and model
of global interaction for the BRI. It highlights the possibility of local agency and global responsibility
for the BRI. I ask: Can epistemic compassion turn this 5.0 version of Asian Capitalism into a 2.0
version of the Silk Road Ethos? The potential exists, I argue.
daoism, epistemic compassion, interbeing, local agency and responsibility, Silk Roads, trialectics,
ying-yang theory
Received: 21st October 2017; Revised version received: 29th January 2018; Accepted: 20th May 2018
As this Special Issue indicates, a dilemma confronts Global International Relations (IR),
that is, how to respect difference (pluralities) without being trapped by it (fragmentation)?
Epistemic compassion, I propose, offers a way out. It engages opposites or contradic-
tions (like pluralities and fragmentation) such that a ‘trialectical-third’ emerges, reconcil-
ing the two even while acknowledging their conflicts and contradictions. More than a
method and a process, epistemic compassion entails a specific spirituality. By spirituality,
I do not mean religion, per se (Masuzawa, 2005). Rather, I forward a simpler notion, that
is, an open mind and heart when encountering Difference. Over time, epistemic
Corresponding author:
LHM Ling, Julien J. Studley Graduate Program in International Relations, The New School, 72 Fifth Avenue,
New York, NY 10011, USA.

Politics 39(1)
compassion leads to a recognition of mutuality between selves and others, that is, ‘you are
in me just as I am in you’ (ni zhong you wo, wo zhong you ni).
In this way, we can heal the field of IR. Long dominated by Eurocentric theorizing in
the name of Westphalia, conventional IR presumes world politics to occupy that space
in-between states as full of anarchy, competition, self-interest, and murder (Amin, 2009;
Hobson, 2012; Vitalis, 2015). Its legacy of violence may have started with Cortés’ execu-
tion of Montezuma in 1520 for the Catholic Empire (Quijano, 2007) but includes, as well,
‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak, 1988) that amounts to an ‘epistemicide’ (Santos, 2014).
Such violence abates with epistemic compassion. Learning about Difference no longer
stops at the water’s edge as a technicality only, where crossing epistemic borders makes
no dent on relations between – and within – Self and Other.1 Nor will epistemic compas-
sion allow states to continue rationalizing militarized power plays and their brutal reper-
cussions as simply ‘world politics’ (Ferguson, 1994; Scott, 1998).
Perhaps the best analogy for epistemic compassion comes from the bodhisattva
Guanyin. A Buddhist deity, she dispenses mercy to the world’s needy with a ‘thousand
arms and eyes’ yet all stemming from the same celestial body. As the Zen master Wansong
(1166–1246) instructs, ‘[the bodhisattva’s] hands and eyes are not something attached to
her body, which would make them separate entities, but rather [they convey] the totality
of her being’ (Loori, 2009: xxxiii). Likewise, epistemic compassion embraces a ‘thou-
sand’ ways of knowing and being but still affirms our world-of-worlds as a totality.2
This article proceeds in three parts. It opens with trialectics as a process. I draw on
Daoist yin/yang theory and its premise of ontological parity to explain how epistemic
compassion can arise. Next, I refer to an ethos from the ancient Silk Roads (2nd century
BCE-15th century CE) as an early exemplar. Let me clarify, I am not examining the Silk
Roads as history but as epistemology. Certainly, kings, khans, sultans, and emperors
fought over the Silk Roads (Beckwith, 2009). But even if victorious, they left the Roads
alone since each depended on trade and commerce to feed their troops. Accordingly, the
Roads experienced epistemic compassion on a sustained basis (more below). Finally, I
turn to Asian Capitalism as a contemporary example of epistemic border-crossings but
without compassion – until now. Could we use China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI)
as an opportunity to insert compassion into global development, thereby turning the latest
phase of Asian Capitalism into a second-generation version of the Silk Road Ethos? The
potential exists, I suggest.
An alert before proceeding: this article itself requires epistemic compassion. We cross
multiple epistemic borders: from the familiar (Eurocentrism, Westphalianism) to the less
so (Daoism, yin/yang theory), dialectics to trialectics; the normative-cultural Silk Road
Ethos) to the strategic-economic (Asian Capitalism); Buddhism to Islam; and Latin
America to Africa to Asia. The reader, I hope, will undertake this journey with an open
mind and heart. Only in this way can the joys and beauty, not just challenges, of epistemic
compassion shine through. Let’s begin.
Three-ness in action
Pre-Westphalians have always valued epistemic compassion. These include the follow-
ing: Buddhism’s pratītyasamutpāda (co-dependent arising), Hinduism’s darśana ( ‘aus-
picious sight’), Confucianism’s ren (‘mutual sociality’), ancient Greece’s poiesis (‘poetic

inspiration’), Nguni Bantu’s ubuntu (‘human kindness’), the Lakota’s cosmology of
‘hoop’ or circle (‘all is related’), and Andeanism’s pachamama (‘earth/time mother’), and
just to name a few.
Each teaches epistemic compassion through inter-subjectivity. It begins with an
acceptance of the Other in the Self, thereby leading to reverberations or resonances
between them that ultimately define both. Such recognition may induce fears, struggles,
ambivalences, and/or rejection (Muppidi, 2016). Nevertheless, over time, epistemic com-
passion enables systematic, cumulative learning across epistemic borders such that the
alien becomes familiar. Hybridities make this transition possible; otherwise, the original
principals remain statically opposed or they begin to annihilate each other.
Here, I need to distinguish the Daoist conception of trialectics from Edward Soja’s
(1996) use of the term in political geography and urban theory. Soja refers to trialectics as
a ‘third space’ where hybrid-making takes place. A city, for instance, mixes various popu-
lations and their cultures, thereby producing hybrid identities and their spinoffs. Hybrid-
making thus comes after the establishment of the original, different principals. In contrast,
Daoism treats trialectics as a totality of the dao or the Way: its hybrids exist and operate
in tandem with the principals. Accordingly, Daoist hybrid-making serves as a premise,
not consequence, of interaction between the principals. I elaborate further below. But
first, another comparison requires clarification.
Trialectics differ significantly from dialectics. In his classic model of dialectics, Hegel
never recognized hybrid-making inside his principals. Neither the master could exist
within the slave nor the slave within the master. Masters and slaves can only contradict
each other, not entwine (Brincat and Ling, 2014). Hegelian dialectics (and Marxian pro-
grammes of revolution) thus tend to reinforce Eurocentric-Westphalian IR’s atomistic,
competitive, and violent Self. A profound cultural delusion follows doubly: (1) the revo-
lutionary Self thinks it can destroy the conservative Other without redounding the vio-
lence back onto itself;3 equally damaging, (2) the revolutionary Self thinks it can help the
victimized Other without considering the possibility of its own, intimately produced
negative effects.4 Daoist yin/yang theory dismantles such Self-delusions.
Daoist Yin/Yang Theory. A dyad of opposites – yin (the female principle) and yang (the
male principle) – begins Daoist theory. Laozi, the mythical founder of Daoism, did not
discriminate between the two. ‘The meekest in the world’, declares the Daodejing (Clas-
sic of the Way
, c. 4 BCE), ‘[can] [p]enetrat[e] the strongest in the world … Nothing in the
world can match it’ (Laozi quoted in Thompson, 1998: 17). Similarly, a small and invis-
ible thing, like neutrons, does not suffer inferiority to a big and visible one, like the gal-
axy. Each connects to the other, creating a whole larger in meaning and impact than its
parts. Accordingly, no part warrants greater attention or privilege than another part or a
whole; likewise, no whole commands higher priority than any whole or part. Indeed,...

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