New blog theme

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Longtime readers may recall a review of this blog that expressed dismay at my white-on-black visual theme. My commenters generally agreed and I had intended to change it. (It looked great to me because I grew up with DOS, but I’d rather not limit the blog’s appeal to people who share my technological quirks.) In the intervening time I tried a number of times to find an alternate theme, but never quite found one I was happy with.

Today, my friend Craig Martin also mentioned he found the theme hard to read, and I offered the usual excuses of why I hadn’t changed it yet. I then realized with some embarrassment that it’s been five years since I originally said I’d change the theme.

So I decided it was time to do it. My apologies to those who have had trouble reading the old theme over the years through my delays, but I think an apology is less important than fixing the damn problem. The new theme of the blog is called Château. There are some things about it I’m still not happy with – but le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. Better to have it out there and leave the possibility of another change at a later date. The various features of the old theme should work, except for the old blogroll, which was getting way out of date anyway. Besides the white on black, the most obvious change should be something I’d always wanted as part of a new theme: the banner with a picture of very different philosophers, from very different times and places, all of whom I admire. (I’ll leave it to commenters to say who they are!)

My Buddhist practices

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Buddhist practice of various sorts has helped me greatly in trying to deal with the frustrations of cancer care. I wrote already of the role of prayer to Mañjuśrī and Buddhist reading. Now I’d like to say more about what I learned from that reading – and how these practices all fit together. Continue reading

The practice of reading

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Calling myself a Buddhist, it turns out, was only the beginning. Buddhism was there for me in this dark time, not only as a way of focusing prayer, and certainly not merely as the resource for a hypothetical chaplain. The Buddhist ideas that taught me so much before were still there and a great comfort. And there was more still: I have now begun to practise Buddhism as I see it, on a far deeper level than I ever had before. Continue reading

Praying to something you don’t believe in, redux

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I mentioned last time that in dealing with my wife’s cancer, I had started praying to Mañjuśrī, just as I had done (and written about here) five years ago in another period of my life that involved emotional difficulties – though considerably less difficult than this.

But that previous time had posed me an intellectual challenge as well, for I didn’t believe Mañjuśrī existed, as a sentient being capable of answering prayers. And while I may be calling myself a Buddhist now, what I said then still holds true: “I don’t think there is actually somebody out there who accumulated enough good karma to become a celestial being who redirects good karma down to the rest of us for our benefit.” Can it make any sense to pray to something you don’t believe in?

As it turned out, the question bothers me a lot less now than it once had. Continue reading

I am a Buddhist

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Last fall in my house we had some serious bad news: my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. (There have been a number of ways in which I have hoped to emulate Ken Wilber, but this sure wasn’t one of them.) The good news is it was not a particularly severe variety as cancers go; with proper treatment it would not be life-threatening. But those treatments have been rough, with an extended recovery period.

It has, as you may imagine, been a difficult time for both of us. I am happy to say that things are much better than they were, but the hard times are not yet over. My wife’s story is hers to tell, and she has told it magnificently. On my side, something major has happened that I did not expect: for the first time, I have come to consider myself a Buddhist. Continue reading

In which I am interviewed

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The always interesting skholiast, whose ideas have figured strongly in quite a few of my posts here over the years, took what I consider the enormously flattering step of interviewing me about my philosophy, in both oral and written form. He is posting the interview on his blog in two parts; the first of these is up now. I think the dialogue form is helpful for philosophical thought, and if you’re interested in my ideas I would highly encourage you to read it.

The blurry boundary between premodern and modern

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two excellent books on very different topics, both of which I’ve written about at Love of All Wisdom before: Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and Brian Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights.

The idea of human or natural rights has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Michel Villey, shows us it is not that. Villey takes the work of William of Ockham as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of rights, which brings in a very different metaphysics where rights now play an important role. The brilliance of Tierney’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Ockham to the world after him. It preserves Villey’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined.

The idea of Hinduism has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Wilhelm Halbfass and Heinrich von Stietencron, shows us it is not that. Halbfass takes the work of Rammohun Roy as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of Hinduism, which brings in a very different metaphysics where Hinduism now plays an important role. The brilliance of Nicholson’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Roy to the world after him. It preserves Halbfass’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined. Continue reading

Reasons for rights

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We have seen over the past few posts that while the idea of individual rights is not just a modern invention, it also is far from a universal one. Rights are not obvious or commonsensical. Contra the American Declaration of Independence, they are not self-evident.

Rather, rights need reasons. If one wants to get to the truth of the matter (and not merely to achieve an expedient political deal), it is never good enough to say something should be done for, or not done to, a person “because he has a right to it”. The right itself requires a justification. Sometimes one’s interlocutor already agrees that the person has this right, but in many cases – the most important cases – they do not in fact agree.

This point is easy to lose sight of, perhaps especially in the contemporary United States where the opposing political sides rarely speak to each other. Each side insists it is defending rights: the employee’s right to contraception, Hobby Lobby‘s right to refuse to provide contraception on religious grounds, the fetus’s right to life, the woman’s right to an abortion. But what is in question here – assuming we acknowledge the existence of rights in the first place – is who has which rights. And then we need to provide reasons.

On Leif Wenar’s modern definition, a right is an entitlement. Historically, when William of Ockham articulated a concept of rights that would get increasingly taken up in the years following, it was a potesta licitas: a legal power, a power of licence. Key to a right is an entitlement or licence that implies an obligation of others to respect it.

But who grants the licence, the entitlement, the permission? Continue reading

The history of rights (II)

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Last time I began exploring the history of the concept of rights (as in human or civil rights), through the works of Michel Villey and Brian Tierney. I noted that the concept as we now understand it has its roots in Latin ius, which had a meaning more like law and one’s proper share than like rights. How did this concept become the concept of individual rights that we now have today?

Villey lays the blame (and for him it is blame) on one key thinker, William of Ockham (or Occam). Continue reading

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