Is the problem in our heads?

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A key idea that I’ve stressed from the Disengaged Buddhists is that the causes of suffering are primarily mental – especially the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots” of craving (rāga), aversion or hostility (dveṣa/dosa) and delusion (moha) – and that therefore changes in material conditions of life will do relatively little to solve them. Engaged Buddhists reject this latter idea, since they take changing the material conditions as essential. What has struck me recently, though, is that they reject the idea in ways that are different, and sometimes even opposite – each of which still, surprisingly to me in some ways, seems to accept that rāga, dveṣa and moha are indeed where the key problems of human existence lie. I see this point especially in comparing the different views expressed by Ron Purser and Sallie King. Continue reading

Rejecting Śāntideva’s ethical revaluation

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The key goal of my dissertation was to understand Śāntideva’s thought as it was and how it could be applied in a contemporary context. Now, for my book, I want to actually apply Śāntideva’s thought, which requires asking where he is right and where he is wrong. And that, it turns out, changes my understanding of some of the dissertation’s key concepts – especially the one in its title.

The dissertation is entitled “Ethical revaluation in the thought of Śāntideva”. In its third chapter, I describe “ethical revaluation” as a consequence of Śāntideva’s ideals of nonattachment (aparigraha) and patient endurance (kṣānti). I explain the idea of ethical revaluation as follows:

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Why philosophy needs history

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After writing my previous post about history and the love of literature, I realized there’s a lot more one could say about the way history can deepen our appreciation of a work of literature – and perhaps even more so of philosophy, where I’ve thought about the question a lot more. I noted Herder’s recognition of the differences between eras, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that. It’s a particularly important point to make within philosophy, since it’s at the heart of the analytic-continental divide: analytic philosophers typically appreciate the truth of philosophical texts but without reference to their historical context, and continental philosophers typically learn about the historical context of texts without reference to their truth.

I am not satisfied with either of these approaches, because I think learning the historical context of a text is directly relevant to assessing its truth. And I think it’s time to unpack what I mean by that a bit more.

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No opposite for the ultimate

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I have considerable sympathies for nondualism and have started in recent years to think that it might be true. But there is an important qualifier to any such view. Namely: I do not think that there could possibly be an omnipotent omnibenevolent God. The problem of suffering is just too intractable.

Many nondualists, especially Sufis, would identify the nondual ultimate with that God. And I cannot accept that view. For similar reasons I am skeptical of a Vedānta view where the ultimate is sat: both being and goodness. There is too much being that is not good.

For this reason I have been inspired by a wonderful passage in Nishida Kitarō’s “The logic of nothingness and the religious worldview”:

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The reasons for nondualism

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I said previously of nondualism, “I’m not sure I can think of any other major philosophical idea that flowered so much in so many different places, more or less independently. I think that gives us prima facie reason to think the nondualists were on to something important.” Nathan reasonably took me to task for this claim in a comment: “Amod seems to overlook that ideas can be successful without being true.”

I don’t think it’s fair to say I overlooked that point: I said the pervasiveness gave us reason prima facie – at first glance – to say think the nondualists were on to something. That doesn’t mean nondualism is true, and I didn’t say that it was. Second glances might reveal something different. And where I think Nathan is right is in asking us to take those second glances. Is nondualism widespread for a reason other than its being true?

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History and the love of literature

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Many years ago, as a master’s student in development sociology, I took a course on nationalism with the late Benedict Anderson, renowned for his idea that the nation is an imagined community. The topic and the professor attracted a cross-disciplinary audience; about half of us students were in programs of sociology and political science, the other half in programs of literature. The distinction between the two, as I recall, became apparent when, from theorists and philosophers of nationalism, our reading turned to a work of literature, the sentimental anti-slavery novel Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. We wrote brief papers articulating our reactions to and thoughts about the work. The social scientists were moved by it; one fellow sociologist said she cried while reading it. But the literary theorists, as I remember, all thought it was (in Anderson’s words) a “dreadful” novel, worthy of study merely as something symptomatic of its historical period, at best. I had taken other classes with several of them, and become friends with some, and it occurred to me that I had never heard one of these literature students express love for any work of literature, with the sole exception of Joyce’s Ulysses.

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Emotions are not primarily judgements

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I was struck by two things when I read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness. On one hand, as I noted previously, I’m excited by Nussbaum’s new, and more Śāntidevan, normative approach to anger; it seems like she and I have moved toward the same position there. On the other, though, I realized that I have moved away from Nussbaum’s general descriptive theory of emotion. Nussbaum articulates this theory at length in Upheavals of Thought, and I don’t think her theory has changed much by the time we get to Anger (she offers a summary of it in the appendix). What has changed, in the roughly fifteen years since I read Upheavals cover to cover, is that I agreed with her theory then, and I no longer do – and reading the short summaries of the position in Anger helped me realize that.

Nussbaum’s theory (derived primarily from the Stoic thinker Chrysippus) is that emotions are fundamentally cognitive judgements of value, with a content directed at an object believed to affect our well-being. So fear, for example, is primarily a judgement that something could be harmful to us in the future; grief is primarily a judgement that something of value has been lost to us. I found this account plausible when I first encountered it. I no longer do.

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In praise of cultural appropriation

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Jay Garfield, Bryan Van Norden, and most of my colleagues on the Indian Philosophy Blog are shamelessly committing massive acts of cultural appropriation. Perhaps I am too. And that’s a wonderful thing.

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Literature as representation and rasa

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Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.

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The Mary Ellen Carter and the secret of happiness

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I originally wrote this week’s post in a handwritten journal at age 21, more than half my life ago, in 1997 – possibly before at least a few of my readers were born. It was a reflection on my travels backpacking around Thailand and Laos, in the middle of the life-changing experience where I was learning to break with utilitarianism and move instead toward Buddhism. I have not made major edits, because I wanted to preserve the in-process nature of my learning at the time, so it retains the somewhat disjointed style of a first draft. I think it gives a very accurate picture of who I was at that time: someone who had discovered some very important things, perhaps even the most important things, but still had a long way to go.

The piece begins by exploring Stan Rogers‘s wonderful song The Mary Ellen Carter. (If you’re not familiar with the song, I would recommend first listening to it or at least reading the lyrics for the post to make sense.) I’ve been delighted to learn that this year’s youth craze – among people who are now the age I was when I wrote this – is sea chanteys and other sea ballads, so this seemed an ideal time to share this long-ago reflection with the world.

Utilitarianism is self-contradicting. The more time you spend trying to “maximize” happiness through sensual pleasure, fame and fortune, the less happy you will eventually be.

I think of this because I was just humming “The Mary Ellen Carter”. A utilitarian would think the narrator crazy: he digs up the boat not in order to be on a boat again (presumably he could get other work fairly easily), but because of a sense of gratitude, to an inanimate object: “She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the gale.” The utilitarian would agree with the owners: “Insurance paid the loss to us, so let her rest below.” The first thing they teach you in management school is to ignore sunk costs. What we have here is literally a sunk cost – and for its sake alone the narrator spends the whole spring diving, catching the bends twice.

And yet the sense of pride, contentment and satisfaction the narrator radiates in his quest is undeniable. This seemingly useless quest gives his life a purpose, brings him to sing some of the most inspiring lines ever written:

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