ascent/descent, Augustine, Confucius, intimacy/integrity, Ken Wilber, Maimonides, Martha Nussbaum, Max Weber, Mozi, Plato, Prabhupada, puruṣārthas, Stephen Walker, Tattvārtha Sūtra, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas P. Kasulis, Yoga Sūtras
I’ve been thinking further about what kind of categories one may best use to classify philosophies and their associated ways of life. I do think my earlier classification of three basic ways of life hits on something quite important; but I also think Stephen Walker’s criticisms of that scheme (addressed here) are on point. Among those who reject traditional ways of life and knowing on non-ascetic grounds, there is more going on than the pleasure-seeking I identify with the concept of “libertinism.” That’s why I toyed in the same post with expanding the conception based on the Sanskrit puruṣārthas, the “four aims” of worldly success, pleasure, traditional duty and liberation. But as I mused at the bottom of that post, the puruṣārtha scheme loses the far-reaching nature of the three-ways-of-life comparison. The differences between asceticism, traditionalism and libertinism are not only differences in ways of living; they reach down to epistemology and ontology, theoretical ways of understanding the world. When the “libertine” mode of living and thinking is formally subdivided into artha and kāma, these two supposedly separate modes no longer look all that distinct from one another.
Instead, I now turn back to a different categorization I didn’t have time to mention in the puruṣārtha post: the intersecting axes of ascent and descent, and intimacy and integrity. These two ways of classifying philosophies seem to me to do more justice to East Asian thought, while still going “all the way down”: extending from theoretical foundations all the way up to life as lived.
The distinction between intimacy and integrity modes of thinking and being, as developed by Thomas P. Kasulis, is identified specifically with East Asian philosophy in mind, as a tradition deeply rooted in the intimacy approach; and it is also intended to cover all realms of philosophical endeavour, whether theoretical or practical. The ascent-descent distinction, developed most by Ken Wilber, brings South Asian concerns of transcendence more explicitly to the fore; and I think it also expresses the combination of theoretical and practical philosophy.
I’ve explored each of those distinctions in the earlier posts. Here I want to say more about their intersection, as a potential fourfold classification of philosophies and lives, which I only began to touch on in the ascent-descent post. Can we fruitfully classify philosophies into ascending integrity, ascending intimacy, descending integrity and descending intimacy? Assuming, again, that the categories are Weberian ideal types between which historical examples are expected to be a middle ground?
The category of ascending integrity is relatively continuous with, if a bit more narrow than, the ascetic way of life as I described it before (and then attributed to the mokṣa puruṣārtha). Epitomized by the Yoga Sūtras and the Jainism of the Tattvārtha Sūtra, one seeks to transcend the everyday world for a higher truth that lies in some respect separate from it, away from the suffering it contains. One seeks to stand alone, metaphysically separate from entanglement in the everyday; epistemologically, breaking things down into component parts is an important step on this path. Plato’s identification of higher truth with a realm of rational and other-worldly Ideas would seem to fit this category as well.
In the opposite corner, the category of descending intimacy comes close to what I have called traditionalism (or the dharma puruṣārtha), with Confucius as the characteristic example. Human beings and human knowledge, on the traditional view, are properly situated within chains of ancestors and descendants who were there long before we arrived and will be there long after we are gone. (The idea of deliberately not having children is highly suspect for a traditionalist.) Epistemology properly comes from two sources: custom or common sense (the knowledge passed on to us indirectly by the ancestors) or the knowledge our ancestors had that recent generations lost (Torah, dharmaśāstra, the Confucian classics). Either way, the right place for us is in this world, immersed amid intimate networks of our fellow human beings. Maimonides, with his worldly Aristotelian view of the Torah, may be a comfortable fit here.
“Descending integrity” may be a better category than either “libertinism” or “artha-kāma” to describe the default position of the modern West, according to which individuals are treated as atomized bearers of rights, reason and experience. Its metaphysics is empiricist – bound to sense experience away from speculation – and atomist, reducing things to their component parts. And the goals of life are similarly worldly: if they go beyond pleasure, it is to flourishing defined in terms of an individual’s capabilities and achievements in this world (something like Nussbaum’s capabilities approach). Mozi then lies somewhere between the two kinds of descent, less intimacy-oriented than Confucius but not going all the way to the integrity orientation of the modern West. Placing him in this middle ground seems to make much more sense than placing him between traditionalism and libertinism, as the old scheme might have had to do, since pleasure per se is of little importance to him.
Each of the three categories above matches roughly but not exactly with the previous schemes (ascetic/traditional/libertine, mokṣa/dharma/artha-kāma). But this scheme adds a fourth: ascending intimacy. I mentioned this possibility briefly before, associating it with Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON (the Hare Krishnas). But I think ascending intimacy goes well beyond Prabhupada and his Gaudīya Vaiṣṇava tradition. The idea of bhakti – loving devotion to a divine being – became very widespread in medieval India, and pervades much of what is now called “Hinduism”; and it is also, in many ways, a characteristically Christian attitude. In ascending intimacy as in descending, relationships are central to a good life; but the relationships with our familial and local intimates on earth are less important than our relationships with a transcendent, eternal deity. Epistemologically, the deity is the source and arbiter of truth, and we are not ourselves the deity. For Kasulis, in intimacy approaches true knowledge is more like knowing a person than knowing a fact (in French, connaître is better than savoir); but where for descending intimacy this true knowledge is of concrete phenomena in the perceptible world (including other people), in ascending intimacy it is of a divine and higher being. Augustine had been a Christian paradigm of my older ascetic category; while he would likely fit in this category with his continued poetic declarations of love for God, he does not exemplify it the way he did asceticism, because his Platonist tendencies pull him closer to the integrity side. Rather, Christian exemplars of ascending intimacy would likely be the female medieval mystics like Teresa of Ávila, overwhelmed by their experience of God.
I’m leery of attempts at schematizing everything into diagrams the way Wilber does, but this classification seems to call out for a summary table, with characteristic examples of each of the four categories:
|Ascending||Prabhupāda, Teresa of Ávila||Yoga Sūtras, Plato|
|Descending||Confucius, Maimonides||Jeremy Bentham, Ayn Rand|
I’m feeling relatively satisfied with this classification scheme; I think it’s the most robust one I’ve come up with so far. I’m particularly pleased that it seems to do more justice to Christianity as well as East Asian thought. But I wouldn’t be surprised if gaping holes remain. What do you think?