Understanding an Aesthetic of the Useful: “Gardening” Sustainable Sustainability Through the Insights from Adam Smith, the Overlooked Moral Philosopher Behind the Overrated “Capitalist” Economist

By Shudong Chen.

Published by The International Journal of Sustainability in Economic, Social and Cultural Context

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Dealing with sustainability-related environmental, cultural, economic, and social justice issues is a challenge. Case in point is a “wealthy eccentric” who bought a house but “cut the whole lot down,” such as the beautiful display of grass, plants, and flowers around the house and a huge old avocado tree that nicely shaded the house, and then “covered the yard with asphalt” simply because “the grass required cutting, the flowers needed tending, and the man wanted more sun.” So what can we do about him, and is the house not “after all … his property?” Thomas Kasulis’s references to a Japanese professor of philosophy in "Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Differences" may suggest solutions to this problem. The professor settles a hard issue by suggesting a rotating mirror installed atop of the skyscraper that blocks the sunlight to a beloved “sunny little park” in the neighborhood, so that the mirror that closely follows the celestial motion brings back to the park not only sunlight but also "life" itself. To solve these problems, we need an engaged but impartial spectator’s sensitivity to "particularity" through sympathy and imagination. This way of thinking is emphasized by Smith personified by the Japanese professor. Only in this way can we truly communicate or “persuade” people to make a good deal. Communication, for Smith, is what really starts and sustains commerce as the secret but “real foundation.” Communication ultimately means the art of deal making -- to create and explore any "common ground" of interests in ways otherwise inconceivable; it also indicates an aesthetic of the useful to promote culture as “common property.” How to handle the “wealthy eccentric” problem then? There should be solutions accordingly.

Keywords: Culture and Commerce, Communication and Community, Adam Smith and Moral Philosophy, Global Visions and Local Sensitivity, Sympathy and Imagination, Engaged but Impartial Spectator

The International Journal of Social Sustainability in Economic, Social and Cultural Context, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp.25-33. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 577.699KB).

Shudong Chen

Professor of Humanites, Department of Humanities, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas, USA

Shudong Chen is Professor of Humanities at Johnson County Community College (JCCC), Overland Park, Kansas, U.S.A. He received both his master’s (1992) and doctorate (1998) in English from the University of Kansas and has been teaching courses in the Humanities at JCCC since 1999. A Chinese native born in Shanghai, he came to the U.S. in 1990. Dr. Chen is the author of Henry James: The Essayist Behind the Novelist (Mellen 2003) and numerous articles on cross-cultural dialogue, such as “Reading Prosodically, Reading Serendipitously: Fine-Tuning for the Unheard Melodies of Dao” (The Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies. New Series Vol. 42. No. 3, 2012) and the forthcoming piece “Considering Asia and Teaching the Daoist Way: How to understand Identity, Community, and Ecology in Connection, Perspective, and Practice” in Dynamics of Cultural Counterpoint in Asian Studies (SUNY Press). For conferences and field studies with grants from National Endowments for the Humanities, Fulbright projects, and his own home institute, he travelled in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and New Zealand in addition to many trips to China since 2000. He was one of five 2003 grants review panelists for The National Endowment for the Humanities. Through his participation in Asian Studies Development Program of East-West Centre, Hawaii, since 2000, Dr. Chen has concentrated his researches on cultural phenomena that reflect subtle but vital differences beneath well-observed similarities and essential but overlooked similarities behind noticeable differences. He initiated and led his college’s study tours to China in the summers of 2005, 2007, 2008, and a trip to Japan in 2009. His 2010 trip included both Japan and China; his 2012 and 2013 trips include a respective visit to Lhasa and the ancient Silk Road.