The birth of qualitative individualism


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What is remarkable about the ideal of qualitative individualism is that it is so pervasive yet so rarely thought about in depth. To get a bit more of that depth, I would like to examine next the question of where it comes from.

The idea is modern, I think, though like so many modern ideas it has premodern antecedents. A while ago I breezed a little too easily over the differences between qualitative individualism and Aristotle. I said:

Aristotle – not exactly a great friend of modern liberal freedom – thinks of the best politics in terms of allowing each person to fulfill a highest end or telos, all being the best they can be. Some thinkers would consider this teleology a higher and truer kind of freedom than choice alone. But it seems to me that the freedom of choice is a vital part of the freedom to be what you are. Who would know what you’re meant to be better than you yourself?

I missed something there. If it’s so clear that you’re the person who knows best what you’re meant to be, then why would Aristotle have been “not exactly a great friend” of the political freedom of choice lionized by qualitative individualists today? Continue reading

Naming the “be yourself” ideal


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What name should we give the ethical ideal I spoke of last time, the pervasive idea that you should “be yourself, no matter what they say”? The answer to that question isn’t easy.

I initially started thinking of this ideal simply as “Romantic”. But “Romantic”, with a capital R let alone a small one, refers to a range of ideals considerably wider than this. I asked my friend Andrew Warren, a Romanticism expert, to define Romanticism, and he responded that Romanticism resists definition. (I recall him once having given the stronger answer that “Romanticism is that which resists definition”, though that isn’t his own recollection.) Continue reading

An invisible ideal that we cherish


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When we study non-Western cultures it is difficult to separate out the study of “philosophy” from the study of “religion”. Those of us who study the brilliant arguments of élite men are often told we should pay more attention to the lived culture, to what people there actually say and do. There are advantages and disadvantages to studying other cultures this way. But one of the things we often don’t do is turn that same gaze on our own.

What if, as philosophers in the West, we paid more attention to the ideas that actually underlie our everyday lives and cultures and arguments rather than to prestigious theories? As “religious studies” scholars do, in ways that do not and should not depend on the concept of “religion”? I think that if we approached contemporary Western philosophical culture in this way, we would discover how much of our ethical life is animated by an important ethical ideal that has not had a defender as philosophically rigorous and articulate as a Kant or a Rawls. Continue reading

Are there non-omnipotent gods?


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Several commenters had concerns about my post on not believing in God. This is understandable, since there I take a concept that a large chunk of the world’s population has oriented their lives around for over a thousand years, dismiss it in a couple short paragraphs and spend more than half the post instead discussing why I avoid calling myself an atheist.

That is to say that the topic of disbelief in God deserves more attention than I gave it there. And as most commenters pointed out, it does depend heavily on how you define God. Continue reading

“Indian philosophy” vs. “Buddhist ethics”


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It is not especially controversial to say that ethics is a branch of philosophy. I’ve occasionally heard people dispute that claim, but mostly on the grounds that ethics extends beyond philosophy per se, to narrative and the like; few would say that ethical reflection is in general not a philosophical activity. Likewise it is not controversial at all to say that Buddhism began in India, or that Buddhism played a central role in the development of Indian philosphy.

So why is there so little overlap between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics”? Continue reading

How can traditions be commensurable?


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I closed my previous post on method by noting I am getting increasingly skeptical of MacIntyre’s view that traditions are incommensurable with each other. Christian Hendriks made an excellent comment in response:

What would it look like for philosophical traditions to be more commensurable? It has seemed obvious to me for quite some time that many philosophical traditions are incommensurable; MacIntyre is attractive to me in large part because he addresses this problem (and addresses it as a problem rather than a neutral feature). I don’t mean “it seems obvious” to stand in for an argument here, but I can’t at this moment even imagine what it would look like for traditions to be more commensurable than MacIntyre claims. Can you elaborate on that? [emphasis in original]

It is a great question and one I will probably need to think through more fully. But I’d like to take a first stab at it here. Continue reading

Roots of a project on method


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How should one do philosophy across cultures? This is not an easy question, though too many people treat it as if it is. Mid-twentieth-century answers leaned to a perennialism like Ken Wilber’s, where at some deep level all the traditions are basically the same. That perennialism does not stand up to critical scrutiny: philosophical traditions are quite different from each other, and disagree with each other (and within each other) on crucial points.

But once one acknowledges those differences, one is still left trying to figure out what to do with them. It will not do to take one’s starting standard as given and judge everything that one encounters according to it – an approach characteristic of analytic philosophers, but also taken by Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought. Once one does that, there is scarcely much point left to thinking cross-culturally at all, for one already knows the answers. Given human finitude and fallibility, such confidence seems more like gross arrogance. But no better is the converse approach – typically labelled relativist – which views all the different traditions as equally right. Such an approach is a logical absurdity, since very few traditions themselves hold such a view: by declaring them right it declares them wrong.

What approach then should one take? Continue reading

The psychological case for disengaged Buddhism


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My project on disengaged Buddhism has now been submitted to a journal. It’s undergone several revisions by this point. One of the most important such revisions was suggested unanimously by BU’s magnificent CURA seminar. In an earlier draft I had attempted to emphasize the contemporary constructive significance of disengaged Buddhism by noting how its ideas were corroborated by some contemporary psychological research. The seminar participants thought that discussion of psychology did not strengthen the paper because I didn’t have the space to defend them fully; the paper would stand best discussing disengaged Buddhists’ claims in their historical context and letting those claims stand on their own.

I think they were right, and I removed the psychology discussion from the paper – a little sadly, as I thought the psychological case for disengaged Buddhism was worth making. Fortunately, I have another place to make it: here. Continue reading

Listening to contemporary disengaged voices


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My upcoming paper on disengaged Buddhism focuses on classical Indian texts that engaged Buddhist scholarship has generally silenced. As I read more, though, I come to see that contemporary Asian and Asian-American Buddhists also have politically disengaged tendencies, which modern politically active scholarship – not only Buddhist – also tends to silence.

I first noted this tendency of silencing in Judith Simmer-Brown’s introduction to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the leading engaged Buddhist organization she helped found. The group, she says, “was concerned that Buddhist practice centers and groups had become entirely removed from the social and political issues of the day: some teachers and organizations were even actively discouraging political involvement.” (69) And that’s it for those “teachers and organizations”. Why were they discouraging political involvement? What did they say? What were their names? No answers are forthcoming; they receive no voice. What we hear instead is the story of how Simmer-Brown and her American fellows put together a politically engaged group in defiance of their teachers.

The tendency plays out in a different way in Joseph Cheah‘s Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Continue reading

Disbelieving in God without being an atheist


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In recent years – years since I began writing this blog – I have come to realize that I do not believe in God. This is not a mere agnosticism; I believe that God does not exist. The idea of God once helped us make sense of the physical world in a way that it no longer does; the learned men and women who have studied living organisms have been most successful with a paradigm that has no need for a divine plan. Moreover the suffering of the world gives us active reason to disbelieve in God. It makes the idea of an omnipotent omnibenevolent creator seem almost absurd. There is no particular reason to believe an omnipotent being exists; if he did, he could not be omnibenevolent. He would likely be indifferent at best, evil at worst. Certainly not a being to worship or trust. I have become increasingly sympathetic to the drastic atheism of the Speculative Realist philosophers, who take their metaphors for existence from H.P. Lovecraft.

I have tended to think the non-design-based arguments for God’s existence are not taken seriously enough, and have defended them here in the past. But in the end I do not think they succeed. Continue reading

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