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

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

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