Don’t exclude ethics from philosophy

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It is commonplace today for scholars of Indian philosophy to focus their attention entirely on theoretical philosophy at the expense of the practical. I think this tendency is a mistake. I see at least two grave problems with it. First: In my 2015 article I argued that (at least in the case of Śāntideva) our understanding of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if we ignore Buddhist metaphysics. I am now beginning to think this issue goes in the other direction as well: that we will misinterpret Buddhist metaphysics if we ignore Buddhist ethics. I will talk about that problem next time. This time, I will address the other problem: it can drop us into the all-too-familiar trap of treating some Indian inquiries as “not philosophical” even when they were engaged in by most of the great philosophers of the West.

Traditional Tibetan portrait of Candrakīrti, taken from Rigpa Wiki.I notice both problems most clearly in the writings of Dan Arnold on Candrakīrti. Continue reading

Incompleteness in knowledge and existence

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Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

A friend read the previous post on ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva and asked (on Google+) what exactly I meant by “incompleteness”. It was a great question and made me realize there was a bit of confusion in my own thinking.

The point of connection I saw between the two different thinkers was above all at the level of understanding the world. Continue reading

ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva on the incompleteness of the world

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Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

I’ve been thinking lately about MacIntyre’s explanation of the Muslim philosopher ibn Sīnā and the ways in which ibn Sīnā’s concept of God requires us to rethink the entire world around us if we accept it:

From [atheists’] standpoint a theist is someone who believes in just one more being than they do and who therefore has the responsibility for justifying her or his belief in this extra entity. But from the standpoint of the theist this is already to have misconceived both God and theistic belief in God. To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything. (God, Philosophy, Universities p. 47)

What’s drawing my attention is that you could write a very similar passage to characterize Buddhism. Continue reading

The methodological MacIntyre and the substantive MacIntyre

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I’ve devoted a lot of attention lately to a writing project focused on Alasdair MacIntyre‘s thought, one I first mentioned in my interview with Skholiast. It began critical of MacIntyre and then turned more sympathetic to him, but has become much bigger than that – because it has become a project articulating my own method for cross-cultural philosophy. The idea started off as a potential blog post (I was going to call it “MacIntyre vs. MacIntyre”) and then grew to the size of an article, but it may well become multiple articles, a book, or even multiple books. I’ve articulated some elements of this methodological position in previous posts and given my current thoughts in a paper for the Prosblogion’s virtual colloquium, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that.

As I come to engage more deeply with MacIntyre, though, I find myself faced with an important distinction: the methodological MacIntyre is not the substantive MacIntyre. I draw a great deal of inspiration from the former, with some modifications; I am more in agreement with him than not. But in the latter I find a great deal to reject – and to reject, moreover, on methodologically MacIntyrean grounds. Continue reading

Paper on methodology up at Prosblogion

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The philosophy-of-religion blog Prosblogion asked me if I would contribute a paper in progress to their “virtual colloquium”. I obliged, and sent them a draft paper that I recently presented at the Metaphysical Society of America (MSA) conference in March. It is on methodology in cross-cultural philosophy – how we might responsibly resolve disagreements across philosophical traditions, whether in metaphysics, ethics or otherwise. It draws heavily from Alasdair MacIntyre’s methodological views, expanding on some of the points I have made about MacIntyre’s thought in recent years. (In this Sunday’s post I will say something about where I disagree with MacIntyre most.) You could describe significant parts of the paper as an attempt to “reverse-engineer” MacIntyre’s proposed methodology – to go to his sources (especially Aristotle and the historicist philosophers of science, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos) in order to expand on those parts of his methodology that he leaves unstated, and hopefully improves on weaknesses in that methodology.

This paper is very much a work in progress; I am not entirely happy with its position and expect that it will be heavily revised before it ever hits publication (which I don’t expect to be for a while). But it is a current and fleshed-out statement of a project I’ve now been working on for over two years, so I thought it deserved to see the light of day somewhere. I’ll probably blog about elements of it in the coming months.

The paper’s abstract is posted directly at the Prosblogion, and you can download the full paper there at the bottom. I would be happy to hear your thoughts.

Disengaged Buddhism in the era of Trump

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Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

Śāntideva’s anti-political views are very commonly missed by Buddhist scholars today, especially constructive or theological ones, who are excited by the Engaged Buddhist embrace of political action. He is hardly alone among classical Indian Buddhists in expressing them. So last September I proposed a presentation to the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS), which I intended to turn into a paper, explaining the importance of these anti-political views and entitled “Disengaged Buddhism”.

I was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the American election. Continue reading

We shouldn’t avoid “should” statements

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Last year my friend Craig Martin made an interesting post on the subject of normativity – what we might, for lack of a better word, call value judgements – in academic religious studies. I disagree with almost all of it, and I think it’s helpful to spell out the reasons for doing so.

Craig situates himself as a poststructuralist who does not accept “the dream of objectivity or objective truth”, but nevertheless deems it “both important and useful to appeal to intersubjective verification (of the sort we see in the work of the American pragmatists)…” The problem is that the “intersubjective verification” described in this post sounds, to my ears, almost exactly like the old-fashioned empiricism that poststructuralists are (rightly) supposed to be rejecting. As it is applied in this particular context, “intersubjective verification” seems to be little more than a fancy way of maintaining the empiricist’s fact-value distinction: “intersubjective verification” is something we can reach about empirically verifiable facts, but not about those silly insubstantial value judgements.

The basic problem with such an approach, for Craig as for the empiricists, is that such a standard of intersubjective verification is itself a value judgement of exactly the kind that it urges we avoid. The problem may be best captured by repeating one of the post’s last statements: “I think we should attempt to avoid using praiseworthy or pejorative evaluative terms, as well as ‘should’ statements about our objects of study.”

Notice something amiss here? Continue reading

The power of a beautiful temple

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We think these days a lot about Buddhist ethics, which often involves some thought about Buddhist politics. We tend to think a lot less about Buddhist aesthetics.

Now there’s an obvious explanation that could be given for this: the Buddhist dhamma teaches that worldly pleasures mire us in suffering. So aesthetics, insofar as it deals with pleasurable phenomena like art, is something Buddhists should avoid. In response I give you this:

Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok

Continue reading

Of superstition and aesthetics

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While I was working in Thailand as a young man, my closest friend there was a pious Christian who had recently converted, as an undergraduate. He took a short vacation in Malaysia and came back deeply admiring the (Muslim) Malay people he met, saying: “They’re so religious!”

I noted, “The Thais are very religious too.” He exclaimed – “But that’s just – superstition!

I was nonplussed by that reaction and didn’t answer it, because it left my secular self a bit confused: I hadn’t really thought there was a difference between religion and superstition. That seemed a potentially inflammatory point to make, so I left it silent. But I certainly didn’t agree with him. I was already admiring the Thai Buddhists I met, and would soon come to learn my most important life lesson from the Buddhism I found in Thailand. I would never want to dismiss it as mere superstition.

Until, perhaps, I recently started reading the works of Justin McDaniel. Continue reading

Rejecting certainty

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I struggle with the Buddhist concept of non-self. I am not sure whether I accept it. But I am confident that Buddhists are able to demolish one of the more influential Western accounts of the self, that of René Descartes.

Descartes, recall, is worried that he cannot be certain of anything. Like Plato before him, he knows his senses are often wrong; he could be dreaming, he could be in the Matrix. Unlike Plato, he is not satisfied to take even mathematics as a certain foundation. It could be that an evil demon (or the creators of the Matrix) had deceived him such that there was no shape or place, and the real world was far stranger. Geometry isn’t certain enough. Arithmetic? Here he comes to real uncertainty:

I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge; so how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square?

I think Descartes’s reasoning is right up to this point (as many Buddhists would not). Continue reading

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