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My previous post discusses the problem that academic philosophy doesn’t do a whole lot to make us better people; its main defence is that it isn’t supposed to. But then what is?

Aaron Stalnaker addresses this point in his book Overcoming Our Evil. It compares Augustine and Xunzi, two thinkers from faraway contexts who share a commonly pessimistic assessment of human nature. I had some serious methodological concerns about Stalnaker’s work in the sixth chapter of my dissertation – basically that the work isn’t as relevant to constructive ethical reflection as it claims to be – but I’ve softened a bit on those concerns since writing the dissertation. While I still don’t think that Stalnaker’s work itself makes the constructive contributions it claims to make, I do think that its categories are helpful for others who do want to make such contributions.

Specifically: what Augustine and Xunzi have in common, according to Stalnaker, is “chastened intellectualism.” While they agree that we can know a great deal of the truth about how we should live, they also agree that knowing the truth is not enough to make us act accordingly – contradicting at least some readings of Plato. Some sort of further practice is required. Pierre Hadot points out that in Roman times such practices were viewed as integral to philosophy. (Jonathan Schofer, on my dissertation committee, kept insisting that I pay greater attention to Śāntideva’s accounts of practices, and now I’m seeing why.)

I’m very sympathetic to such an account, from my personal experience. It was one thing to realize that my own attitudes and behaviours were the big problem in my life. It has been quite another to actually change those attitudes and behaviours.

But then seekers like me face a problem. Augustine and Xunzi recommend practices that are embedded within a particular tradition – Christianity and Confucianism respectively – each of which I find highly problematic. There’s a lot I disagree with in Buddhism as well; I don’t think any tradition has managed to fully grasp truth (though I also certainly don’t claim to have done so myself!) Some traditions of practice (like Goenka’s) claim to be non-sectarian techniques, but nevertheless incorporate a great deal of their tradition’s own teachings. (At the same time, Goenka’s technique didn’t do a lot for me, with one major exception.)

What then are we seekers to do? Should we swallow the practices of an existing tradition whole even while disagreeing with it, as a part of developing a necessary humility? Or should we pick and choose to make our own practice, retaining intellectual integrity but giving ourselves less chance to learn from what’s out there?