What’s eating Michael Pollan?

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One of my greatest passions in life is food, trying out new cuisines and spices in unusual restaurants. In a certain way, a love of food was central to my philosophical development; part of the reason I went to work in Bangkok, where I discovered Buddhism, was my love of Thai food.

So I’m interested in philosophical treatments of food. Recent treatises on the subject, though, have proved disappointing. One of the worst is Leon Kass’s The Hungry Soul, a work that tries to think through just about every aspect of eating except for the pleasures of taste. He mentions them very briefly on pp. 90-91, where he dismisses them as ephemeral, disappearing once enjoyed, and therefore “closed to the permanent or the eternal” – just like music or drama, though this parallel goes curiously unmentioned. Kass admits that he “cooks little” and “has unsophisticated tastes” – basically, it would seem, he doesn’t enjoy food very much. Which makes The Hungry Soul comparable to a treatise on music written by the tone-deaf.

But Kass may be a bit too easy a target. He has already been the target of much ridicule on the Internet for his pompous pronouncements on food etiquette, most notoriously his condemnation of the act of licking an ice cream cone, as “a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.” I know few who take him seriously.

Far more of a hearing is given to Michael Pollan, whose recent work seems to echo Kass’s puritanism in language more acceptable to educated left-wingers. Especially, his work In Defense of Food seems rather to be an attack on it. Continue reading

Karmic punishment is not a good thing

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I’m continuing to examine Justin Whitaker‘s interpretation of Pali Buddhist ethics as Kantian moral law. I argued last time that the concept of dhamma does not serve in these texts as a universal, trans-human moral law. Here I want to take a similar look at the concept of kamma – better known in English as karma.

Justin claims that for Kant “the Moral Law is universal, concerned with all (rational) beings, and is holistic in its conception of morality as a guarantor to a just realm of ends (supported by the moral argument for belief in God).” (47) I think this interpretation of Kant is missing something in that Kant does not view the moral argument as demonstrating that there actually is a guarantee of cosmic justice, only that we must act as if there is (it is a regulative ideal). But I’ll leave that aside here because I want to focus on the comparison to Buddhism. Continue reading

The dhamma is not a transcendent law

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In his interesting recent Buddhism and Political Theory, Matthew Moore sums up current scholarly work on Buddhist ethics noting “There are several major debates ongoing in the field, particularly whether early Buddhist ethics are better understood as consequentialist or a version of virtue ethics (almost no one argues for deontology)…” (113)

My friend and fellow blogger Justin Whitaker is a major part of the “almost”. I once described him as a “voice in the wilderness” for interpreting Buddhist ethics in terms of Kantian deontology. But I was delighted to hear that he has recently completed his dissertation, in a way that should make that voice a little louder. And I was happy to have a chance to read it.

To say that I am delighted that the work exists is not, of course, to say that I agree with it. Continue reading

The significance of ethics to Candrakīrti’s metaphysics

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As I noted last time, I think the disregard of ethics by Indian-philosophy scholars like Dan Arnold is a problem in itself: it’s a misconception of what philosophy is, and one that harmfully shrinks the field of the study of Indian philosophy. But I think this neglect would still be a problem even for people who do decide to restrict their study of Indian philosophy to the theoretical realms of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language. For it seems to me that at least in Arnold’s case, the neglect of ethics leads to a misinterpretation of the metaphysics.

Arnold’s misinterpretation is focused above all around the relationship between the famous Buddhist “two truths”: conventional truth (saṃvṛti) and ultimate truth (paramārtha). Consider Arnold’s description (again in his review of Karen Lang) of the second chapter of Candrakīrti’s Catuḥśatakaṭīkā. “Candrakīrti develops (contra Vasubandhu) a characteristically Mādhyamika point to the effect that the conventional reality of pleasure is not denied, only its being the ‘inherent nature’ of life.” From this description, Candrakīrti’s chapter sounds like it is all about acknowledging pleasure and making room for it. You would not be able to tell that the point of this chapter, very explicitly stated at its beginning, is “rejecting the illusion of regarding the painful as being pleasant” – or that in this chapter, pretty much everything that we would normally consider pleasant turns out to be painful. Continue reading

Don’t exclude ethics from philosophy

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It is commonplace today for scholars of Indian philosophy to focus their attention entirely on theoretical philosophy at the expense of the practical. I think this tendency is a mistake. I see at least two grave problems with it. First: In my 2015 article I argued that (at least in the case of Śāntideva) our understanding of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if we ignore Buddhist metaphysics. I am now beginning to think this issue goes in the other direction as well: that we will misinterpret Buddhist metaphysics if we ignore Buddhist ethics. I will talk about that problem next time. This time, I will address the other problem: it can drop us into the all-too-familiar trap of treating some Indian inquiries as “not philosophical” even when they were engaged in by most of the great philosophers of the West.

Traditional Tibetan portrait of Candrakīrti, taken from Rigpa Wiki.I notice both problems most clearly in the writings of Dan Arnold on Candrakīrti. Continue reading

Incompleteness in knowledge and existence

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Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

A friend read the previous post on ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva and asked (on Google+) what exactly I meant by “incompleteness”. It was a great question and made me realize there was a bit of confusion in my own thinking.

The point of connection I saw between the two different thinkers was above all at the level of understanding the world. Continue reading

ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva on the incompleteness of the world

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Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

I’ve been thinking lately about MacIntyre’s explanation of the Muslim philosopher ibn Sīnā and the ways in which ibn Sīnā’s concept of God requires us to rethink the entire world around us if we accept it:

From [atheists’] standpoint a theist is someone who believes in just one more being than they do and who therefore has the responsibility for justifying her or his belief in this extra entity. But from the standpoint of the theist this is already to have misconceived both God and theistic belief in God. To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything. (God, Philosophy, Universities p. 47)

What’s drawing my attention is that you could write a very similar passage to characterize Buddhism. Continue reading

The methodological MacIntyre and the substantive MacIntyre

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I’ve devoted a lot of attention lately to a writing project focused on Alasdair MacIntyre‘s thought, one I first mentioned in my interview with Skholiast. It began critical of MacIntyre and then turned more sympathetic to him, but has become much bigger than that – because it has become a project articulating my own method for cross-cultural philosophy. The idea started off as a potential blog post (I was going to call it “MacIntyre vs. MacIntyre”) and then grew to the size of an article, but it may well become multiple articles, a book, or even multiple books. I’ve articulated some elements of this methodological position in previous posts and given my current thoughts in a paper for the Prosblogion’s virtual colloquium, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that.

As I come to engage more deeply with MacIntyre, though, I find myself faced with an important distinction: the methodological MacIntyre is not the substantive MacIntyre. I draw a great deal of inspiration from the former, with some modifications; I am more in agreement with him than not. But in the latter I find a great deal to reject – and to reject, moreover, on methodologically MacIntyrean grounds. Continue reading

Paper on methodology up at Prosblogion

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The philosophy-of-religion blog Prosblogion asked me if I would contribute a paper in progress to their “virtual colloquium”. I obliged, and sent them a draft paper that I recently presented at the Metaphysical Society of America (MSA) conference in March. It is on methodology in cross-cultural philosophy – how we might responsibly resolve disagreements across philosophical traditions, whether in metaphysics, ethics or otherwise. It draws heavily from Alasdair MacIntyre’s methodological views, expanding on some of the points I have made about MacIntyre’s thought in recent years. (In this Sunday’s post I will say something about where I disagree with MacIntyre most.) You could describe significant parts of the paper as an attempt to “reverse-engineer” MacIntyre’s proposed methodology – to go to his sources (especially Aristotle and the historicist philosophers of science, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos) in order to expand on those parts of his methodology that he leaves unstated, and hopefully improves on weaknesses in that methodology.

This paper is very much a work in progress; I am not entirely happy with its position and expect that it will be heavily revised before it ever hits publication (which I don’t expect to be for a while). But it is a current and fleshed-out statement of a project I’ve now been working on for over two years, so I thought it deserved to see the light of day somewhere. I’ll probably blog about elements of it in the coming months.

The paper’s abstract is posted directly at the Prosblogion, and you can download the full paper there at the bottom. I would be happy to hear your thoughts.

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