On al-Ghazālī and the cultural specificity of philosophy

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Is God an intellect or a will?

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Medieval Christian philosophy (or theology), often referred to as “scholasticism”, is often characterized as being about abstract questions with no relevance to anybody outside the scholastics’ own tradition. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is often taken as an example of their sort of irrelevant question, though as far as I know no medieval philosopher ever actually asked that question. People who characterize medieval Christian thought this way would likely also need to say the same about medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophy if they knew anything about it (which, typically, they don’t).

You will probably have guessed that I do not share this assessment of medieval thought. True, some of their questions presuppose so much that it is hard to imagine it relevant to those outside their tradition – such as the question of whether angels can occupy the same physical space, which they actually did ask. But every tradition depends on assumptions that others may not necessarily share – certainly including analytic philosophy, where so much ethical reflection depends on taken-for-granted “intuitions”. For these reasons I often refer to analytic philosophy as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition.

Yet analytic philosophy does ask questions that are relevant to those who do not share its assumptions, and the same is true of medieval thought – even on questions that might appear irrelevant at first glance. I note this point with reference to one medieval question in particular: Continue reading

The West within the rest

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In the previous post I discussed why academic philosophers have usually focused on the West, and pointed out reasons why some amount of Western focus remains valuable. Above all, I noted: “we are always already formed by some sort of philosophical tradition, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. And a great deal of what forms us is Western.” So exploring Western philosophy is important to understand our own thought better, where we are coming from.

There are at least two important objections to be made to that claim as I have phrased it. Continue reading

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

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