Rafael Capurro

Keynote address at The International Conference on China’s Information Ethics, Renmin University of China, Beijing, October  28-29, 2010 (PowerPoint). See my Chinese homepage. Chinese translation by Junlan Liang (Chinese Academy of Social Science) 2011 Social Sciences Abroad (pdf-version here). See also: Towards an Ontological Foundation of Information Ethics   Ethics & Information Technology, 8, 4, 2006, 175-186. Chinese translation Shanghai Shifan Daxue Xuebao 2006, 05, 24-35.


Direct and indirect speech in the "Far West"
Direct and indirect speech in the "Far East"



This paper deals with the distinction between direct and indirect speech in the “Far East” and the “Far West” following key insights of the French sinologist François Jullien The distinction is not primarily a grammatical or rhetorical but an existential one. It concerns the relation between man and world. It aims at providing a basis for thinking inter-culturally about ethical questions of the information society. My argument is that information moralities and their ethical reflection in the “Far West” stress the principle of direct speech while in the “Far East” the principle of indirect speech builds the basis of human communication. After explaining this distinction in the “Far West” in the first part, I show its relevance and difference in the “Far East” in the second part. Finally I draw some conclusions about the relevance of this distinction for the information society in China and the intercultural dialogue.

(Transl. by Pak-Hang Wong, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics)

China, information ethics, intercultural information ethics, direct speech, indirect speech, information society, dao, communication, Confucius, Laodse.



Information ethics deals with the descriptive analysis and critical evaluation of moral norms and values within as well as between information societies. Although such issues arise today mainly with regard to the digital medium, information ethics can and should be concerned with other media and epochs building the scope of what is being called intercultural information ethics (Capurro 2007).

This paper deals with the distinction between direct and indirect speech in the “Far East” and the “Far West” following key insights by French sinologist François Jullien (Jullien 1995, 2003, 2005). The distinction is not primarily a grammatical or rhetorical but an existential or moral one. It concerns the relation between man and world. It aims at providing a basis for thinking inter-culturally about ethical questions of the information society. My argument is that information moralities and their ethical reflection in the “Far West” stress the principle of direct speech while in the “Far East” the principle of indirect speech builds the basis of human communication. This distinction should not be understood as an opposition. Furthermore, there is a complex tradition of ethical reflection about this distinction. After explaining this distinction in the “Far West” in the first part, I show its relevance and difference in some classic texts of the “Far East,” particularly in the Chinese tradition, in the second part. Finally, I draw some conclusions about the relevance of this distinction for the information society in China..


One source of the idea of freedom of speech in the Western tradition is the Greek concept of ‘parrhesia’ that has been analysed by French philosopher Michel Foucault (Foucault 1983). This political principle built the basis of Greek ‘polis’ together with two other ones, namely equality (‘isegoría’) and participation of all citizens in political decisions (‘isonomía’). What does ‘parrhesía’ exactly mean? According to Foucault, the ‘parrhesiastes’ is the one who says (‘rhema’) the truth to everybody (‘pan’). He – and the use of masculine is important in this context of ancient Greece – wants to speak and communicate his thoughts as clear and engaged as possible within a context that can be risky or even dangerous for him. To tell the truth is not just a mental event, as Descartes believed, but a verbal activity where the speaker is completely sure to own the truth. His courage is a sign of honesty. But how can we be sure that the speaker is a ‘truth speaker’? And how can he be sure that what he believes to be the truth is, in fact, the truth? The first question was important for the ancient Greeks and was answered, according to Foucault, by Plutarch and Galen. The second question is a modern one.

The parrhesiastic speaker risks his life when speaking the truth. This concerns particularly political risky situations. He is not interested in giving some proof but in criticizing his addressee. He is in an inferior position for instance with regard to a tyrant but also in a democratic discussion opposing to the majority. The risk was the exile. In other words, to tell the truth was considered a political duty with the goal of helping others or oneself. It is the opposite of the art of convincing that the Western tradition often conceives as belonging to indirect speech, together with silence and falsity. The Athenian ‘agora’ is the place where this kind of free speech appears for the first time in the “Far West.” There is a difference between this kind of political freedom of speech and the Socratic one that takes place in a face-to-face dialogue and deals with the life (‘bios’) of the person involved. Along epicurean and stoic traditions we find the concept of ‘parrhesia’ in the New Testament in the context of accusations against Jesus because of breaking the mosaic law:

“Then some of the residents of Jerusalem  began to say, ‘Isn’t this the man  they are trying  to kill? Yet here he is, speaking openly (‘parrhesía lalei’), and they are saying nothing to him. Do the rulers really know that this man is the Christ?’” (John 7, 25-26).

Christian ‘parrhesía’ belongs to the spiritual technologies together with confession and spiritual exercises as developed in Modernity for instance by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits (Capurro 1995, 29ff). The secular version of such exercises are, for instance, Cartesian meditations – Descartes having being educated by the Jesuits – where it is basic that nothing should be accepted as true that is not before object of doubt by the cogito.

The tradition of direct speech in the “Far West” is important but not exclusive. The philosopher Leo Strauss has analyzed the distinction between esoteric and exoteric writing (Strauss 1988). This distinction was common in Ancient Greece. But, according to Strauss, there is a difference between pre-modern and modern philosophers. While pre-modern philosophers struggle for the freedom to communicate their thoughts the philosophers of the Enlightenment were interested in a universal right to communicate as a political ideal. They conceived such ideal as the freedom of public discussion as well as the possibility of public education (Strauss 1988, 33). Modern philosophers such as Thomas More were critics of the “indirect approach” (“obliquo ducto”) (More 1964, 50). Nevertheless, Strauss defends pre-modern philosophers whose exoteric writings had not only a general educational purpose but also a more important philosophical one concerning that “which is indicated only between the lines” (Strauss 1988, 36). This was an esoteric message for young philosophers in order to be driven towards pure theory beyond practical and political interests.

In the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity a new structure of European society based on nobility is developed and with it also a new standards of communication based on other moral norms and values. Traditional rhetoric is substituted by the art of conversation which looks for a balance between speech and silence particularly with regard to what could be offensive to other persons. The ‘art du lien’ – a term coined by the French communication scientists Olivier Arifon and Philippe Ricaud (Arifon and Ricaud 2005) – or ‘connecting art’ deals less with opposition or separation than with connection. This is called the style français  which is the language of diplomacy that gives its shape to European nations since the 17th until the 20th centuries.

Although communication morality in the “Far West” is based mainly on the principle of direct speech we should not oversee different kinds of refractions and mutations of this principle along history in order also to avoid a simplistic unilinear cultural evolution. One example of such a mutation is the criticism of censorship with regard to the spread of printed works at the Enlightenment no less than the development of investigative journalism in the 19th and 20th centuries and today’s ideas and ideals concerning freedom of communication in the Internet.


The art of indirect speech pervades China’s politics, economy as well as literary and philosophic traditions. Relations and not individuals build the core of communication where the goal is attaining harmony through negotiation. The art of negotiation in the "Far East" is not based on the idea of mastering the opponent by being basically against him or her preponderant although not exclusive in the "Far West," but of convincing the other. Individuals are then not masters but mediators or negotiators that can be, for a time, at the centre and be the expert or "the king" in order to make harmony possible and not in order to impose his or her will upon the others. Direct speech becomes less important when the goal is to avoid conflicts similar to the style français of French diplomacy and negotiation already mentioned (Arifon and Ricaud 2005, 120-121).

But although the Western tradition acknowledges the role of indirect speech as opposed to the ideology of direct speech, it remains something morally problematic and related to lying, discretion, and hint through disguising and concealing. This tradition goes back to Greek ‘metis’ or ‘cunning’ (Jullien 2000, 44 ff). In poetry, the original place of indirect speech, Chinese culture discovers that the meaning encoded there is of moral and political nature. This is very much the opposite to what happens in Ancient Greece where the meaning is related to the soul and the divine. Jullien writes:

 “Only at Delphos, in connection with Pythia’s tripod one can observe that the indirect style of poetic formulations is related to political interests.” (Jullien 2000, 68, my translation)

But the oscillation, called mantic, of the oracle between caution and truth remains a borderline case in the Greek tradition while in the Chinese culture it is the soul of everyday life. According to Jullien one key difference between China and Greece consists in the fact that monarchy and its surrogates have been the only political system in China (Jullien 2000, 122-123). But China has developed a kind of political practice giving intellectuals a certain kind of legitimacy in order to provide the well functioning of monarchic power, namely the admonition of the sovereign in the name of morality. The different forms of admonition are closely related to indirect speech as well as to ethics of confidentiality. Under the guise of picture puzzle it is possible to express an opinion that can be tolerated by the sovereign similar to the court jester in the Western tradition. What is not good about this compromise between the intellectuals and power is the fact that language distortion is not also regarded as something normal but is even considered a higher value (Jullien 2000, 132). This apparently changes since the beginning of the 20th century.

But, on the other hand, it must be acknowledged that indirect speech plays a positive role in Confucius “Analects” (Confucius 2004). The master addresses the pupil by pointing to what is at stake (Jullien 2000, 195). The goal of teaching, like in most ethics, is not learning but doing. This is the reason why speaking remains on the background:

The Master said, ‘Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue’." (Confucius, 2004, I, 3)

The master’s teaching is open to everybody but indirect speech can only develop itself if the other opens himself or herself to it. The goal is neither the development of a conceptual system nor, as Hegel believed, just a moral sermon (Hegel 1986, 142). Confucius does not develop a moral theory but follows the “logic of the path” that works more by way of hints about possible detours and way outs (Jullien 2000, 211).

It is still an open question whether the renaissance of Confucianism in China today will lead to an information society shaped by this kind of ethics and morality. Since some ten years or so the ideal of a “harmonious society” has been officially announced in contrast to the concept of class struggle (Siemons 2006). The model of a Confucian information society and the predominance of indirect speech serving the power seem to be opposed to the Western model that gives individual freedom the highest value. While libertarian information society tends towards atomization and eventually to chaos, the Confucian model might grow stiff and end suffocated. Confucius wants to regulate social communication with the help of morality the most useful instrument being censorship. In the “Far West” the opposite form of blockage seems to endanger societal development, namely information overload for individuals and corporations as well as some forms of general and open struggle.

A possible way out of both models can be found in the taoist view of indirect speech. At the beginning of Laozi’s “Daodejing” it is said:

“A dao that can be defined.

Is not the eternal dao,

Concepts that can be conceived,

Are not eternal concepts” (Laozi, 2002 , Ch. 1, 1-4)

The Chinese thinker does not separate reality in two different levels as the Greeks did. The “dao” refers indirectly to the beginning of a process of becoming and growing. In contrast to the Aristotelian model, the goal (‘telos’) of this process is not the realization or fulfilment of potentiality (‘dynamis’) but the passing on itself that is in permanent danger of solidifying.

Laozi’s style is based on the principle of giving hints or pointing to something, avoiding one sidedness or partiality in order to keep himself in a kind of “global indifference” (Jullien 2000, 286) since the “greatest forms are without shape” (Laozi 2002, Ch. 41, 17). Instead of a global information morality ruling (digital) communication from a fixed perspective, the Taoist sage would probably prefer to look at it as within the “dao” in order to keep it in movement within a never-ending creative process. This implies not only a criticism of Luhmann’s hypostatization of communication processes but also of the present digital casting of Being that I call digital ontology. If such interpretation of Being turns into a fixed and the only true one, it mutates into metaphysics and, in terms of politics, into ideology (Capurro 2006). Otherwise it can become part of different kinds of assemblages with other media and remain flexible with regard to existential, ecological and social needs and constraints.

While we in the “Far West” use different linguistic tools such as myths and allegories in order to deal with the unspeakable, for Chinese master Chuang Tzu (2001-2009) words are fishing stakes. He says:

“Fishing-stakes are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the stakes. Snares are employed to catch hares, but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are apprehended, men forget the words. Fain would I talk with such a man who has forgot[en] the words!” (Chuang Tzu 26, 11)

The difference between the Western metaphor of the veil and the Taoist fishing stakes is, according to Jullien, that the last one is purely instrumental avoiding a metaphysical separation between appearance and reality. Chuang Tzu’s critique of language does not lead to silence but to a strategy seeking to avoid partiality. It does not only question bias and fixed perspectives but allows also the coexistence of apparently contradictory things. Such kind of relational thinking is different from the dialectic of concepts aiming at bridging the gap between the sensory and the supra-sensory or transcendent. Both are different strategies for relating the biosphere and the digital infosphere into an ecosphere. Otherwise they tend to become separate realities and even degenerate into ideologies.

This problem is similar to the issue concerning the separation of morality from the flow of life as addressed by Lao Tse in his coming together with Confucius (Chuang Tzu 14, 6). A fixed morality is endangered of becoming separate from the “dao”. Lao Tzu brings fresh air into the symbolic sphere. His ethics is a symptom that morality is becoming fixed and autonomous. This issue was newly addressed in the “Far West” by Niklas Luhmann with regard to fixed moral distinctions in different spheres of society (Möller 2002, 316-317). There is a way “beyond happiness” consisting in “vital nourishing” (“yang sheng”) (Chuang Tzu, Chapters 3 and 19; Jullien 2005). Nourishing is the basic verb and norm of life. According to Chinese thinking, life should be long and healthy. By contrast, in the “Far West” eternal life is seen as a goal at the end of a linear process. “Vital nourishing” means learning to give up the will to live as a fixed idea or not to hang on it. Death is not a mistake as Heiner Müller believes (Mayer and Müller 2005). The one who only wants to live (“sheng sheng”) does not live.

Taoist thinking does not teach to look for a fixed centre like Confucius and Aristotle did but to oscillate following a logic of concentration and scattering, by opening ourselves to natural processes and particularly to “heaven” (Jullien 2005, 39 ff). “Heaven” is not a metaphysical dimension no less than a spiritual view of it but a life process (Jullien 2005, 62). It does not mean, like in case of the Aristotelian and Platonic ‘in-formation’ process to materialize a super-sensory form but a process of perennial becoming (Capurro 1978). The perception of this process is the “dao”-centred moral consciousness according to Chuang Tzu consisting in learning to breathe as a medium or communication process between the world, the “dao” and the self (Jullien 2005, 71-75). The leitmotif – not the imperative! – guiding our actions can be formulated as follows: ‘circulate – instead of blocking!’ which is a possible translation of the famous Taoist concept “wuwei” (Wohlfart 2002, 101).

From this perspective we should avoid blocking the digital infosphere, for instance through information overload or censorship, letting information circulate and feed our life. Information management does not mean in this case applying an external strategy but learning to adapting ourselves to different kinds of information flows depending on the context where ‘in-formation’ processes take place. It means also not fixing ourselves on a specific medium, including the digital one, becoming dependent or even addicted to it. In order to become good information managers we must first learn to manage our life nourishing it calmly and cool. Taoism is an anti-stress life technology. It is a permanent exercise in a good mood consisting in getting rid of the imperative to give life meaning. By contrast, the “Far West” is based on direct speech, temporality and meaning.


What is the goal of this kind of analysis for intercultural debates on information ethics? First of all, to learn from each other. Western information societies can learn from Taoism and the spirit of the “Far East” not only on how to deal with blocking processes based on fixed moralities, exacerbating the primacy of direct speech.  Information societies in the “Far East” might learn from direct speech, individual freedom and autonomy as correctives of an idealized harmony that might block social changes. In both cases we should be careful not to oversee the complexity and richness of our traditions including the difference itself between “Far East” and “Far West” that is nothing but a starting point for intercultural information ethics that should be both theoretical and empirical. Makoto Nakada has done and is doing pioneer work in this area (Nakada and Tamura 2005; Nakada and Capurro 2009).

Secondly, the Internet is not, as conceived in its early stages, a kind of hyper-sphere where all cultural and contingent differences disappear and we are all equal (Han 2005). This is a simplistic and outdated perception of a medium that in the meantime pervades the real physical and cultural world in which we live instead of building a separate world. We are in the world with all our linguistic, historical and geographical contingency. The internet as well as all devices connected through this medium are part of such contingency. This is why any cyberethics related to the internet as a whole makes only sense if it is mediated with the specific situations and traditions in which this technology is being used. Consequently, intercultural information ethics should not be identified with a universal code of morality for the global information society as developed by UNESCO (2010), but as a global space of reflection where we can put into question what is morally and ethically given for granted within different cultural backgrounds.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) proclaimed an inclusive information society and the overcoming of the digital divide within and between nations (WSIS 2003). This can be considered, on the one hand, as a Kantian “regulative idea” or a universal ideal for the digital era. But, on the other hand, the history of media and literature provides examples of information and communication ideals both as utopias and dystopias that should be critically analized both in the “Far West” and the “Far East” (Grimm and Capurro 2008).


The author thanks Fernando Elichirigoity (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) for his criticisms and assistance in polishing this text.


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Last update: October  23, 2017


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