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Five years ago, on a language fellowship in India, I had more time to do broad reading in cross-cultural philosophy than grad school usually permitted. I wound up reading a lot of Ken Wilber, and had already been immersed in Martha Nussbaum’s thought for my dissertation. These two thinkers don’t have a whole lot in common, beyond coming out of roughly the same (American baby boom) cultural milieu and having an unusually wide-ranging philosophical outlook. But there is one set of categories that features prominently in both of their work, and I suspect for good reason: ascent and descent.

For Wilber, one of the most fundamental philosophical debates is that between Ascent and Descent: between a spiritual view that aspires to transcendence of the everyday material world, and a materialist view that embraces it. (Like the intimacy-integrity distinction – on which more shortly – the distinction is particularly interesting because it embraces theoretical as well as practical philosophy, metaphysics as well as ethics.) Some of Wilber’s sharpest criticisms are directed against ecological philosophies of interdependence, which suggest that what we ultimately need is to embrace our mutual dependence in the natural world. In Wilber’s eyes, such a view leaves us scarcely better off than the mechanistic individualism it aims to replace, for both views remain squarely within a materialist tradition of “descent,” neglecting the spiritual realm. I have noted before that, while Yavanayāna Buddhists often embrace such views of interdependence, they are wildly at odds with traditional Indian Buddhism, for reasons similar to those noted by Wilber.

Upheavals of Thought, the weighty tome that I would consider Nussbaum’s magnum opus, employs such a distinction through its third, longest and final part – entitled “Ascents of Love.” This part of the book explores a strikingly wide range of Western perspectives on partial love (as opposed to universal compassion), and especially erotic or romantic love – from Spinoza’s Ethics to the Kindertotenlieder songs of Gustav Mahler. They are all “ladders” of love in a certain sense, in that they attempt to reform the way we see love. And they are arranged in a dialectical or phenomenological manner, with each one identified as (in Nussbaum’s eyes) responding to the inadequacies of the view before it, and in that respect providing a more adequate view. Such an attempt at dialectical progress is close to the way Wilber understands his project as well, and to the Chinese Buddhist idea of pan jiao 判教 (classification of the teachings) as I understand it. *

So far Nussbaum’s text sounds itself like a ladder of sorts. However, the order in which Nussbaum ranks these views is unusual for a philosophical ladder. She begins with Plato and Spinoza as the most inadequate positions, going through Augustine, finding herself after a while in Walt Whitman and ultimately in James Joyce. Why? Because Plato tries too hard to ascend above love’s imperfections; his love is too far removed from the world. Joyce’s Ulysses, on the other hand, takes us down the ladder, lovingly embracing the world with all its imperfections. Likewise in her previous work Love’s Knowledge, Nussbaum had described her vision of an ideal transcendence as a “transcending by descent” (379, italics hers). [EDIT, June 17: part of this paragraph was missing when I first made this post yesterday.]

It would be too simple to describe Wilber as an ascent thinker and Nussbaum as descent; both see value in the two different sides and want to incorporate both. (For a pure ascent tradition we might do better with the Yoga Sūtras or the Jains’ Tattvārtha Sūtra; for a pure descent we might look to pragmatism or to Paul and Patricia Churchland.) But I think it’s useful to juxtapose the two because they both use the language of ascent and descent while taking quite different positions on it.

The ascent-descent distinction particularly interests me because of the way it can interact with other distinctions I have used to classify philosophies, especially Thomas Kasulis’s aforementioned distinction between intimacy and integrity. What’s always struck me about the integrity-intimacy distinction is that the integrity side captures something in common between two very different kinds of philosophies: ancient Indian views like the Yoga Sūtras in which the human subject aims to abide in a pure transcendental aloneness, and modern individualist philosophies of which Ayn Rand‘s is perhaps the epitome, in which the rational individual aims for mastery of the material world. There’s even a certain rough correspondence here with the three ways of life classification I’ve employed before: “asceticism” is integrity ascent, “libertinism” is integrity descent, and “traditionalism” is intimacy.

But could the distinction be pushed further, so that intimacy too is divided between ascent and descent? I suspect that it can. As luck would have it, on my way to India where I was to have these thoughts, I was accosted in LAX by a group of airport Hare Krishnas. When I told them (perhaps inadvisably) that I knew Sanskrit, they pushed very hard for me to take a copy of their teacher Prabhupada‘s commentary on the Bhagavad Gītā. I read some of the introduction on the plane, and it stayed with me. As I thought through these categories, I realized: Prabhupada’s thought is the perfect example of intimacy ascent.

Prabhupada follows in the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition of Caitanya, according to which the purpose of human life is to abide in the love of the god Krishna. Prabhupada makes it clear that this love is far superior to any merely human love, which is impermanent and will fade – the ideas of an ascent tradition – while at the same time arguing for a radically dependent view of human beings, according to which human beings can never be viewed as solitary or independent (in the way that Rand and the Yoga Sūtras both do). But rather than depending on each other, as we do in Nussbaum’s thought, we depend on a higher, eternal being. Here intimacy is an ascent. (I suppose Augustine’s view, which Nussbaum also sees as inadequate, is of a very similar kind.) Nussbaum’s thought, on the other hand, takes us to an intimacy by descent – as does Alasdair MacIntyre’s world of “dependent rational animals,” and the relationship-centred world of Confucius.

Two axes, then, to classify philosophies (both theoretical and practical): a vertical axis of ascent and descent, and we might also say a horizontal axis of intimacy and integrity. How robust is it, how well does it work? I’m not sure yet. But it seems like a good start.

* I’m trying to begin learning Chinese characters, and how to produce them online. Please, any readers who know Chinese, correct me when I do this wrongly in this post or any other – as I’m sure will happen along the way.