I’ve lately been trying to get a better understanding of Daoist thought, as I believe Daoism to be the major philosophical tradition I have so far understood the least. I have done this by turning to the two texts most widely read in the tradition: the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu), and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) – the latter the name of both text and author. (I use the modern Pinyin spellings which are now most accepted by contemporary scholars, but older Wade-Giles spellings like “Taoism” and “Lao Tzu” may be more familiar to a general audience.) Were I to have free rein to teach a course that involved a component on Daoism, I would almost certainly focus on Laozi and Zhuangzi there as well.
To focus one’s study of Daoism on Laozi and Zhuangzi is very common. It is also controversial. (continue reading…)
A while ago I discussed how Janet Gyatso had objected to my approach of assuming authorial coherence and single authorship in my dissertation on Śāntideva (and in other works). I said there that “there’s an issue here much bigger than the interpretation of any one thinker: should one even try to find the coherent views of an individual author?” I answered yes and I stand by that. I remain firmly in agreement with Thomas Kuhn’s dictum that [w]hen reading the works of an important thinker” one should look for the apparent absurdities and ask how it could make sense that “a sensible person could have written them”. But I didn’t go back to what I implied was the “smaller” issue – which may not in fact be so small.
In the case of Śāntideva, the historical evidence suggests that his most famous work, the Bodhicaryāvatāra, is composite: there is a version of it discovered relatively recently at Dunhuang which seems to be significantly earlier than, and substantially different from, the version known to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It would seem that the text as we know it is the work of at least two composers. And that, in turn, poses a problem for someone wanting to use Kuhn’s approach as he states it: what if this text is not the work of an important thinker or a sensible person, but multiple ones? Are we not then entitled to treat the text as incoherent because of all the different minds that went into it? (continue reading…)
This week I’d like to continue to think through the topic of dialectic, which I began to explore last week in the terms of a double movement transcending and including. In my most detailed previous post on dialectic so far, I got at the transcend-include distinction much more obliquely. I distinguished between dialectical thinking in a broad sense, as a progress through inadequate conceptions which are incorporated and leave their mark on the inquiry, and dialectical argument more strictly, as beginning from the opponent’s point of view and pointing out its inadequacies from within. I would say now that this dialectical argument in a strict sense is the transcending moment of dialectic, whereas the broader progress is the including moment.
In expanding on this point, let me leave aside the including moment for now and start with the transcending. (continue reading…)
In my view, one of the most important, and often unrecognized, distinctions philosophy is between compromise and synthesis. A compromise merely finds a middle ground between two other positions; it can easily be a bad middle ground, one that takes the worst from each of the two extremes. But a synthesis, by definition, takes the best. I’d like to take the next couple weeks clarifying how synthesis is possible.
Compromise is not necessarily bad. It is essential in practical politics – in attempting to achieve positive outcomes when genuine agreement is not possible. But, I would argue, it has no role to play in philosophy, where the goal is truth.
By contrast, I find synthesis crucial to the work of cross-cultural philosophy. There are countless philosophical positions that have been taken, and contrary to perennialist views, they do not all agree. There are many perennial questions that recur throughout the history of human thought. But not only do humans continue to produce different answers to them, those different answers each get revered and enshrined. The immortal soul so essential to Christianity is denied by the Buddhists. I have always been struck by the truths to be found in radically different traditions.
But truth cannot contradict truth. If there is truth to be found everywhere – a controversial premise, I admit – then I submit that some sort of synthesis is necessary. And how may we go about finding it? (continue reading…)
Recently I’ve been carrying around and reading a copy of G.W.F. Hegel’s masterwork, the Phenomenology of Spirit. Carrying a book with such a strange and obscure title, and no cover art, sometimes makes me think: what would I say to a curious onlooker, whether friend or stranger, who asked the deceptively simple question, “What’s that book about?”
To a simple question one wishes to give a simple answer. In the case of the Phenomenology of Spirit I think there is only one good simple answer that one can give to the question “What’s that book about?” It is a one-word answer: everything. (continue reading…)
This week’s post is eleven years old; I wrote it as a short assignment for David Hall‘s course on method and theory in the study of religion in 2002. The assignment was to write a “genealogy” of a key term in religious studies; I chose “ethics”. I like the paper for its historical awareness, its self-aware methodology and its general optimism for the methods of religious studies. As with many older papers, I would not write it quite the same way now, but I post it because I think it stands up well. I have posted two other posts based on course papers before. Unlike those – which were abridged – I post this one in its entirety.
The term “ethics” comes from the Greek ethike, roughly denoting a virtue, and derived from ethos, the general term for “habit” or “custom.” (Aristotle 1947: 1103a) “Moral,” derived from the Latin moralis, initially meant the same thing — Cicero, it is said, invented the term “moralis” to translate the Greek ethikos (MacIntyre 1984: 38). At some point since then — I haven’t been able to pin down the first instance of this increasingly standard usage — “ethics” came to be seen as the “science” of morals (or morality), as the discipline of moral philosophy, so that ethics was the theory and morality the practice.
We find this distinction articulated in many 20th-century encyclopedia entries. (continue reading…)
This post is a followup to last week’s, and is best read in tandem with it. I argued that the difference between modernity and modernism (which is to say, the difference between modern and modernist) really matters. The question for this week: can the same be said of a difference between postmodernity and postmodernism?
It is not disputed that there is a set of ideas, however vaguely specified it may be, which became popular sometime after the mid-1970s and has regularly been referred to by the label of postmodernism. Postmodernism has some points of agreement with modernism, but generally tends to define itself in terms of its differences from modernism. But is there such a thing as postmodernity? (continue reading…)
It can feel pedantic to insist on the distinction between modernity and modernism (as I do in my tag cloud). I’ve seen eyes roll when I do it, and understandably so. Two nouns both deriving from the word modern: surely between them is the ultimate example of a trivial distinction, a hair-splitting, a difference that does not make a difference?
In fact the difference between modernity and modernism can make all the difference in the world. The importance of the distinction may become a little bit clearer when we move from the nouns to their corresponding adjectives. Modernity is simply the noun form of “modern”, as we might expect. But modernism is not. Modernity is merely the state of being modern. Modernism is the state of being modernist. And that is a difference that makes a huge difference. (continue reading…)
I mentioned two weeks ago that there were two reasons I didn’t think my dissertation would become a book. The previous week I focused on the practical and political reason: I believe in free open access, and now that I’m not on the faculty track I can put my money where my mouth is.
The other reason, which is far more interesting to me, has to do with the dissertation’s content. I think back to when I was proposing a first inchoate version of the project, perhaps ten years ago or so now, knowing I wanted it to involve some amount of constructive dialogue between the ideas of Śāntideva and of Martha Nussbaum. Robert Gimello, on my committee at the time, said to me that he didn’t think that this would be an appropriate project for a dissertation. Not because those questions were inappropriate for a scholar to ask; indeed, he approved of them. Rather, he thought, that project seemed like a twenty-year project, much larger than a dissertation. For the dissertation I should buckle down and just try to understand Śāntideva himself.
I didn’t follow Gimello’s advice, and I’m glad I didn’t. (continue reading…)
I’d been doing a bit of tinkering with Love of All Wisdom on the back end, which made the blog tags and categories stop working for about a week. (The tags and categories are the way the blog is organized – labels like “Xunzi” and “Jainism” that attach to every post that addresses a given topic, listed down in the right sidebar. I’ve written in greater detail about that organization before.) I think the problem is fixed and you should be able to find posts by tag and category again. I encourage you to give it a try as a way of exploring the site. If you find anything that doesn’t work, please let me know.