One of the key debates in Indian philosophy is what counts as a pramāṇa: an instrument of knowledge, a “reliable warrant”, a means of knowledge reliable enough that one can be reasonably confident to take its conclusions as true. What counts as a pramāṇa? Many Indian philosophers will provide a numbered list of them.
In the empiricist tradition that remains popular in the West, boosted by the discoveries of natural science, only experience is admitted as a pramāṇa: to a full-blown empiricist, nothing counts as knowledge if it doesn’t ultimately have its roots in experience, based in some sort of direct perception. (Ken Wilber’s thought has come to take this position more and more over the years, to its detriment.) The debate over pramāṇas in modern Western philosophy is often framed as one between empiricism and rationalism. That is, where empiricists admit only experience as a pramāṇa, rationalists also allow reasoning an independent validity: some things can be rationally known a priori, independently of sense experience.
Some Indian philosophers have agreed with these views. (continue reading…)
There followed a discussion back and forth between Justin and myself. The discussion has moved away from anything to do with trans* issues, which is fine with me because my point, and I think Justin’s too, was about something bigger: the role of justice and activism in Buddhist tradition. I won’t try to recap the discussion here because the link is available for those who haven’t seen it. I’ll just refresh your memory by quoting Justin’s most recent comment: (continue reading…)
Jonardon Ganeri, the renowned scholar of Indian philosophy, has recently posted an online blueprint for an “Institute for Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Culturally Polycentric World”. He suggests an institute with autonomy from the traditional academy’s disciplinary and area-studies boundaries, structured as a network spanning different cultural locations.
Ganeri is reflecting on what sort of institution would best encapsulate the ambitions and promise of the cross-cultural approach in philosophy, and is openly seeking discussion – whether privately (his email address is on the blueprint), or publicly in a blog forum like this one. I’m posting it here to spread the word; he and I would both like to hear your thoughts.
On his American Buddhist Perspective blog, my friend Justin Whitaker recently posted an interesting interview on the experience of trans* people in American Buddhism. Justin uses “trans*” as a shorthand for “transgender”, “transsexual”, “transvestite” and similar terms – to denote people who have become or attempted to become, in some respect, a gender different from the one associated with their biology at birth. It is clear to me that trans* people in the US face various forms of unjust discrimination. Where the tricky questions get raised is when the struggle against that injustice intersects with Buddhism – as, for that matter, when the struggle against any injustice intersects with Buddhism. Justin and I began a conversation about this in the comments to that post, and I’d like to continue that conversation in more detail here. (continue reading…)
I have recently welcomed the corrective force of books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, which remind us that modern appropriations of Indian tradition have their own continuity with the evolving past tradition. I now find myself regularly reminded just how much such a corrective is needed. I have noted plenty of examples before, as with respect to Gregory Schopen and Donald Lopez. But I recently found perhaps the most striking example in the works of the contemporary Sanskrit scholar Herman Tull. (continue reading…)
I have juxtaposed the works of Ken Wilber and Alasdair MacIntyre against each other more than once here. They are at odds in many respects, and MacIntyre often has the best illustration of Wilber’s weak points. MacIntyre’s anti-modernism is the most potent antidote to the ever-increasing modernist tendency of Wilber’s thought. So too, MacIntyre effectively skewers what was perhaps always the weakest point in Wilber’s work, his “worldcentric” ethics. Finally, the uses they have made of non-Western thought are in drastically different directions, related closely to the content of their thought, such that MacIntyre’s intimacy orientation leads him to China and not India, and Wilber’s occasional interest in ascent leads him to India and not China.
(Wilber refers to refers to MacIntyre’s After Virtue once in a passing footnote to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (684n21), but not in a way that comes to terms with MacIntyre’s challenge to Wilber.)
But there are at least two influences the two thinkers have in common. One is Hegel: especially in his earlier work, Wilber has often cited Hegel as an influence for his project of synthesis (although he doesn’t really get Hegel’s dialectical approach), while MacIntyre takes himself in After Virtue to be doing philosophical history in a sense deriving from Hegel. The second influence, which I want to talk about here, is Thomas S. Kuhn. (continue reading…)
There are two different ways to apply the distinction between dialectical and demonstrative argument, and it’s important to be aware of the difference. I draw the terms dialectical and demonstrative argument from Alasdair MacIntyre in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (pages 88-9), who in turn takes the distinction from Boethius‘s De topicis differentiis and ultimately from Aristotle’s Topics. The key point is that dialectical argument argues to first principles, and demonstrative argument from first principles.
But what are those first principles? Are they first principles for knowledge in general, or merely first principles within a single paradigm? (continue reading…)
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a groundbreaking work that changed the way the world thinks about natural science. Kuhn claims that science works not as a steady, additive accretion of knowledge, but as through periods of specialized knowledge accumulation within one paradigm that (every so often) is displaced by a genuinely novel revolution that overthrows the existing paradigm.
It has sometimes been noted that social scientists and philosophers are much more likely to read Kuhn than natural scientists are. I don’t think this is necessarily because natural scientists are less likely to believe Kuhn’s historical account, but because they are less likely to see the history of their discipline as relevant to their current activity. For my part, I do not (yet) know the history of natural science well enough to know how accurately Kuhn’s description fits it. But it’s worth thinking about how Kuhn’s description applies outside the natural sciences he studied, to the humanities and social sciences. (continue reading…)
A little while ago on the Indian Philosophy Blog, Matthew Dasti provided a fascinating glimpse into the recent, 20th-century history of “Indian philosophy” – not the doing of it but the studying of it, the history of “secondary work” into Indian philosophy. Since Westerners have been studying Indian philosophy for literally hundreds of years now, there is a significant history there. And it is hardly new to take this second-order focus. It is old news that the way we (Indians as well as Westerners) now think about Indian traditions in general has been deeply, perhaps irrevocably, shaped by the 19th-century Orientalists. But where Matthew’s comment goes deeper is to look specifically at the discipline of philosophy – and at the 20th century, not the 19th. (continue reading…)
Consider this dialogue:
A: “All fish breathe through gills rather than lungs.”
B: “But whales are fish, and they breathe through their lungs.”
A: “Whales may look and seem like fish, but they aren’t truly fish because they breathe through their lungs.”
To anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of biology, A’s reasoning here must seem sound. Yet among some philosophers with a scientific bent, the structure of the reasoning A employs is often criticized as a logical fallacy. (continue reading…)