Why philosophy departments have focused on the West

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Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden have a widely circulated article in a recent New York Times, chastising American philosophy departments for paying insufficient attention to non-Western traditions of thought. It will surprise nobody that I sympathize with them, since I’ve been trying to get non-Western thought a hearing for years. But in part for that reason, I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it hasn’t got that hearing so far. The reasons for this are not all bad ones, and anyone working to change the situation needs to understand what those reasons are. Perhaps most importantly, they need to ask a vital question that I don’t see asked in Garfield and Van Norden’s article: why should we study philosophy? Continue reading

Of “White Buddhism”

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Mindfulness meditation has become so mainstream that it’s not just doctors who prescribe it. A couple weeks ago, Boston University had a workshop on mindfulness for its information-technology staff. Google made a splash for having an in-house mindfulness coach, Chade-Meng Tan, who was recently interviewed in Religion Dispatches.

Tan makes some startling claims in the interview – most notably that American Buddhism is “purer Buddhism” because mindfulness is its “source teaching”, which temples in Asian countries have supposedly moved away from. I have spent plenty of time debunking such an approach in Ken Wilber and others, and there’s no need to say more here. What does need a response is a recent discussion of Tan by Richard K. Payne. Continue reading

Populism vs. technocracy in the United States

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You might remember the political crisis in Thailand that made headlines six years ago as protesters clashed in the streets. At the heart of the crisis was Thaksin Shinawatra, the corrupt and authoritarian but very popular prime minister. His supporters bore the unfortunate name of Red Shirts; his opponents, Yellow Shirts.

I had identified the crisis as one of populism against technocracy: the Red Shirts fighting for the sovereignty of the democratically elected people’s choice who put wealth in the hands of the poor, the Yellow Shirts for effective, transparent government and the rule of law. The Yellow Shirts’ supporters had already dethroned Thaksin in a 2006 military coup; the protests were the Red Shirts demanding the return of democracy. They got it: there was another election in 2010. Thaksin could no longer run because he had now been convicted of many crimes – but his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra did, and won spectacularly. Yingluck was the prime minister until 2014 – when she was turfed by another military coup. The military remains in power in Thailand now. That option remains available to technocratic élites who can’t stand how dumb the masses are: end democracy so that you can ignore their votes.

Back then in 2010 I had already noted how the conflict between populism and technocracy was not limited to Thailand. I had pointed to examples of it in the United States. But my examples then – Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, even Sarah Palin – were comparatively marginal figures.

They are not anymore. Continue reading

On making America great again

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In the early 1960s, my father finished his PhD in political science from Cornell. Under the restrictive and racialized American immigration rules of the day, he needed to work in a neighbouring country for two years before he could come to the US. So he applied for six tenure-track faculty jobs in Canada. He was offered five of them. The sixth, at the relatively low-prestige Memorial University of Newfoundland, turned him down with a curt letter that said “In our competition, you failed to qualify.” He found it amusing that such a lower-tier school would say such a dismissive thing when he had offers from so many places higher in the hierarchy.

This story ceased to amuse me when I received my PhD from Harvard in the late 2000s and began applying for faculty teaching jobs myself. I sent out nearly two hundred job applications, most of them for tenure-track jobs, across Canada and the United States, and a few off the continent. I received not one tenure-track offer anywhere. If Memorial University of Newfoundland had offered me a position, I would have taken it without hesitation and been grateful to have the opportunity. The same applies to most of my generation in academia. To those coming of age in the 21st-century university, my father’s story sounds as implausible as if he had wandered into the White House, said “I’d like a job as President of the United States”, and been offered it on the spot. But it was and is true. His experience was in Canada, but as far as I know, those faculty of his generation with a similarly prestigious degree who could apply for jobs in the United States had a comparably wide range of opportunities.

This intergenerational experience should highlight how the story in the academic humanities and social sciences from the 1960s to the 2010s has been above all a story of decline. Many North American leftists look at the real accomplishments made in areas of race, gender and sexuality and see this period as a time of unalloyed progress. I cannot. Continue reading

An aesthetic of extremes

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Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime might be the most popular book in a Western language ever to deal with Indian aesthetic theory. The book’s official subject is the aesthetics of computer science. Though I am getting a degree in computer science myself, I found myself more interested in Chandra’s lucid comments about the medieval Indian philosophers Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta and their theory of rasa, the emotional “tastes” that an artistic audience can savour.

What is important about Chandra’s work is that he applies the rasa theory. He draws from the best English-language works I know of on Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta: the writings of Daniel Ingalls, Jeffrey Masson and M.V. Patwardhan, especially their translation of Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka with Abhinavagupta’s locana commentary. But Chandra does what Ingalls, Masson and Patwardhan do not: he asks how the theories of Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta could apply to us. Continue reading

Rights are instrumental

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The key reason I have turned to MacIntyrean tradition-based inquiry is to make progress on the ethical inquiries that have proved very difficult to resolve. So far, too many of those inquiries have turned out to be cliffhangers. But by taking the approach I have, of identifying the collection of Aristotle, Buddha, Hume and perhaps historicism as at some level the best story so far, it is now possible for me to move closer to concrete conclusions of at least an early and preliminary kind.

I see this point as I reexamine a particular cliffhanger from last year. I posted a fourpost series on human rights, and yet by the final post I had still not advanced a substantive theory about them. I said we need reasons for rights, but was not willing to say anything about what those reasons are. Continue reading

Belonging rationally to a tradition

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I ended last year pointing out that while one can love all wisdom, it is almost certainly too hard to be able to sift through all the wisdom out there and put it together in the space of a single lifetime. What one can do is get to know a small number of traditions in great detail and attempt to bring them together.

But which? While I think the previous post gave a good account of the process, I have already come to regret its title, “Choosing a few traditions”. The term “choosing” suggests that the process can happen arbitrarily, or at least on the simplest sort of aesthetic grounds – the traditions you happen to like. (“Hmm, I think Ayn Rand, Zhuangzi and Gnosticism are kinda cool. Let me put those together.”) I didn’t mean it that way when I wrote it, but even so, as I’ve been thinking through the issues since then, I find myself noticing that even just thinking of the process in terms of “choice” makes it seem less rational than it is. Continue reading

Of mindfulness meditation, Buddhist and otherwise

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Until I began my 9-to-5 job in 2011, I had only rarely had to get up before 8 or 9 in the morning on a regular basis, which suited me fine since I am a night person. Now I need get up at 6:45, and it is a struggle to get enough sleep – and so I started worrying ever more about how little sleep I was getting, which gave me insomnia.

Fortunately the job has a good health plan (essential in the USA), and I was able to seek treatment for my insomnia at the highly regarded Boston Medical Center. They suggested a number of interventions to deal with the insomnia, several of which slowly came to prove helpful. The most striking moment among these interventions, though, was when they prescribed – mindfulness meditation. Continue reading

On the very idea of Buddhist ethics

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I’ve recently been reading Christopher Gowans’s Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. It is an introductory textbook of a sort that has not previously been attempted, and one that becomes particularly interesting in the light of David Chapman’s critiques of Buddhist ethics. While Gowans and Chapman would surely disagree about the value and usefulness of Buddhist ethics, they actually show remarkable agreement on a proposition that could still be quite controversial: namely, that the term “Buddhist ethics” or “Buddhist moral philosophy” names above all a Yavanayāna phenomenon. That is: the way that Gowans and Chapman use the terms “Buddhist ethics” and “Buddhist moral philosophy”, what they name is a contemporary Western (and primarily academic) activity, even if it is one conducted primarily by professed Buddhists. Continue reading

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