Philosophical and historical uses together

Tags

, , , ,

Last time I examined Andrew Ollett’s distinction between “decision-oriented” texts like Kant’s Grounding and “capacity-oriented” texts like Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, and the ways in which that distinction might suggest a “philosophical” versus a “historical” approach to those texts. I discussed what I found problematic about that application of the distinction, but noted Andrew’s quote that points beyond it:

Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.

For me, this claim calls our attention to an important point, related to my recent methodological reflection on religious studies: Continue reading

Decision and capacity, philosophical and historical

Tags

, , , ,

Andrew Ollett has recently taken up the point I made earlier this year that Buddhist ethics, in distinction from modern analytical ethics, is not primarily concerned with decision procedure. He identifies Indian non-analytic approaches as “capacity-oriented”: “They maintain that ethical decision-making and action always presuppose being formed as a subject with particular capacities, dispositions, habits, and so on.” That is not quite how I would put it, because for a Buddhist thinker like Buddhaghosa, we are not actually subjects, formed or otherwise; our systematic delusion forms an idea of ourselves as subjects, but this idea is false, and part of the goal of ethics is to un-form or at least de-form it. I do agree, though, that in Buddhist ethics there is an emphasis on the development of beneficial dispositions and habits – virtues – that stands in distinction to the analytical emphasis on a decision procedure. (It seems to me like this might not be the case in Mīmāṃsā, whose legalistic mode of ethical reasoning does seem oriented to a decision procedure, but Andrew knows more about Mīmāṃsā than I do.)

Andrew’s post gets particularly interesting when he maps the decision/capacity distinction onto “disciplinary and methodological differences, or perhaps better, differences of outlook.” I think there is something to this point. I am not entirely in agreement with it, but I’d like to parse out that disagreement, as I think it points to something of deep methodological importance. Continue reading

In memoriam: Claude Vipond

Tags

, , , , , , ,

My maternal grandfather, Claude Vipond, died peacefully last Tuesday. His life was long – he reached 95 years. Claude was a doctor and a World War II veteran, but I knew him entirely as a grandfather – an often larger-than-life figure at family gatherings, delivering corny jokes with an enthusiasm that made them hilarious. At large Christmas gatherings he would read to the grandchildren, not some sentimental Victorian Christmas story but Stephen Leacock‘s marvelously tongue-in-cheek Caroline’s Christmas.

The irreverence of Leacock’s self-subverting story left a strong impression on me as a boy – much like the movie The Princess Bride, which came out when I was the age of its child narratee. In a different way from my father, “Caroline’s Christmas” helped teach me the pleasures of being an outsider, with an ironic detachment expressed in humour – in ways perhaps more profound than I realized at the time. In many ways I think that story really sums up my grandfather’s spirit. Continue reading

Why the study of religion shouldn’t be about studying religion

Tags

, , , ,

My undergraduate degree was in sociology and geography, with a focus on urban studies. That world often seems far away from the cross-cultural philosophy that drives me now – but not always.

Since “urban sociology” existed as a subfield and seemed to be the one I was trying to study, I once did a term-paper project asking the question: what is urban sociology? The answer I found most interesting and compelling was provided by the Australian sociologist Peter Saunders, in his Social Theory and the Urban Question. Continue reading

On al-Ghazālī and the cultural specificity of philosophy

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

A little while ago, responding to Garfield and Van Norden’s call for diversity in philosophy, I argued that we should fight for the inclusion of non-Western thought in philosophy programs on the grounds of its intrinsic worth as philosophy, not merely on the grounds on geographic diversity. Now Fordham’s Nicholas Tampio has made an argument far more diametrically opposed to Garfield and Van Norden’s: philosophy departments should continue in their current habit of not teaching non-Western thought at all. Or at least, they should make no special effort to bring it in. (“Let philosophy departments evolve organically…”) Why not? Because, Tampio says, many of the leading non-Western thinkers we might consider philosophers – such as Confucius – really aren’t.

In my experience, many who take such a position do so from a standpoint of ignorance at best and apathy at worst: they don’t know non-Western philosophy and they don’t care to learn it. Sometimes they will argue for such a position; more often they simply rely on the departmental inertia that allows them to get away with such ignorance and apathy. It is the great virtue of Tampio’s piece that it is no such thing; Tampio writes out of a long engagement with medieval Islamic thought and one of its leading figures. And while it seems pretty obvious to me that medieval Islamic thought should be considered part of Western intellectual tradition, the fact remains that it usually isn’t. Not only does Tampio know at least this one (supposedly) non-Western tradition, he is basing his argument on that tradition and the self-understanding of its own thinkers.

al-ghazaliTampio calls our attention to something very important which is often neglected in debates about philosophy: in medieval Muslim thought, one finds perhaps the most explicit and articulate rejection of philosophy in the intellectual history of the world. Continue reading

Does it matter what we call Buddhist?

Tags

, , , ,

Does it matter whether something is or isn’t Buddhist? Or whether it is “distinctively” Buddhist? I was asked these related questions in two blog discussions from last year, both involving Justin Whitaker. Justin raised the latter question here in response to my replies to David Chapman; Jayarava Attwood raised the former on Justin’s blog.

Regarding what is “distinctively” Buddhist I want to start with what I said to Chapman himself: I don’t think there’s much value in looking for that which is found in Buddhism and nowhere else. Many Buddhist tenets (including the rejection of righteous anger, at issue there) can be found in Jainism too, for example. But that wasn’t what I meant when I had asked, at the beginning of that post, “what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics.”

Rather, I was asking: what difference does it make (within a modern context) that your ethics, or for that matter your way of life, is Buddhist? In Chapman’s context this meant “not already understood by (say) a non-Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Californian.” Suppose you already are a college-educated left-leaning Californian or Bostonian or New Yorker or Vancouverite. Does it then mean anything if you add the descriptor Buddhist? If we describe a person as a Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Bostonian, are we saying anything whatsoever that is different about that person than if we describe the same person as a college-educated left-leaning Bostonian and we leave out the adjective Buddhist? Continue reading

The traditional context of critique

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

It was sixteen years ago, in 2000, that I wrote this week’s post. It was a short paper submitted for Francis Fiorenza‘s class on hermeneutics, on the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I post it (unedited) because it was something of an intellectual milestone for me, moving away from the more radical Marxist-influenced view I had been holding up until that time. I was surprised as I wrote the paper that I found Gadamer’s more traditionalist view more persuasive than Habermas’s quasi-Marxist social-scientific rationalism.

Since it was written for a professor who knows both Habermas and Gadamer well, it assumes some knowledge of the two thinkers (as well as of Hegel, on whom they both draw) and may be tricky for someone unfamiliar with them. References are to articles by Habermas and Gadamer in Gayle Ormiston and Alan Schrift’s anthology The Hermeneutic Tradition (HT), and to the second revised English edition of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (TM).


My sympathies in this debate certainly lie primarily with Habermas. I also find that in many respects Habermas and Gadamer are very close to each other. Nevertheless, overall I find Gadamer’s position the more compelling of the two, because I am convinced by his argument that we cannot ultimately reject tradition.

Authority, tradition, prejudice are certainly unappealing words — although more so, I think, in English than in German, especially in the case of prejudice. (Vorurteil has at least some positive connotations.) Gadamer’s attempt to rehabilitate them feels quite unwelcome to me. Prejudices say that interracial children like me should not exist; authority keeps women in unhappy relationships and out of the workplace; tradition frowns on unconventional sexuality, or in some cases any sexuality at all. What could there be to rehabilitate here?

Gadamer’s answer, of course, is plenty. Continue reading

The trouble with democracy

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

The present American election is worth significant attention from a philosophy blog because it is a philosophically interesting one. (This is very much the sense in which “May you live in interesting times” is a curse – though not actually a Chinese one). Philosophy has already played a significant role in the election. At first philosophy’s role was mere whipping boy. In one single debate in November, three different Republican candidates attacked philosophy: Marco Rubio said “We need more welders and less philosophers”, Ted Cruz disparaged the Federal Reserve by calling them “philosopher-kings”, and John Kasich insisted “philosophy doesn’t work when you run something”.

All three candidates lost, of course, and lost to a man far less philosophical than any of them. But that man’s ascendance has led to significantly more explicit attention to philosophy than is common in ruthlessly pragmatic Anglophone North America. Continue reading

The will of the people and the intellect of the people

Tags

, , , , ,

Last time I discussed how the medieval debate between intellectualism and voluntarism remains around today in the distinction between natural and positive law. But there’s another way it remains around, which I think is more fundamental.

The key question between intellectualism and voluntarism is: what is more fundamental to ethics and politics, the intellect or the will? In the Middle Ages, of course, the intellect and will in question were God’s. Between natural law and positive law, the intellect and will are those of the lawmaker: is law whatever the lawmaker wills it to be, or is there a true law that the lawmaker should be able to discern intellectually from reality and base her decisions on?

Few would want to vest authority in just any lawmaker. In modern politics, especially but not only in the West, we typically place a very high value on the idea of democracy, rule by the people. If we are not sympathetic to the slogan vox populi, vox dei – the voice of the people is the voice of God – it is often because we do not believe in God, and see the voice of the people as higher than God’s.

But if the people should rule, what aspect of the people should rule? Their intellect, or their will? Continue reading

On natural law and positive law

Tags

, , , , , , ,

In the previous discussion of why intellectualism and voluntarism are important, I left out what I think may be the most important aspect of all, one which leaves its mark on our thought today in the modern West. Namely: whether God is an intellect or a will bears directly on the way we think of morality – at least when we understand morality in terms of law, as the Abrahamic traditions all have to some degree.

If God is a will, then that will makes morality: morality is whatever God’s will commands. Continue reading

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline