On my recent post about the ascent-descent and intimacy-integrity classifications in philosophy, skholiast asks an important question: “what is the itch in us to make such schematisms?” What is the point of trying to classify philosophies this way? Clearly many philosophers do attempt to so classify them – but is that anything more than the kind of obsessive interest that characterizes Asperger’s syndrome?
I thought of one important answer to this question because of some friends who are interested in Frithjof Schuon and his fellows in the Perennialist or Traditionalist School of thought. The members of this school believed, and continue to believe, in a philosophia perennis, a kind of philosophical wisdom that persists across cultures throughout the ages. Central to this perennial philosophy is the idea of an ultimate Reality distinguishable from the everyday world we perceive with our senses – an ultimate One which Plato, Śaṅkara, and Zhu Xi might all arguably be said to have found, more or less entirely independently of one another. The perennialists tend to believe that the reason so many came to this conclusion in so many places is because it was the truth – it was really there, to be observed or deduced by any human being anywhere if they cared to take a serious look.
As for me, one reason I find classification of philosophies so important is that I’m only willing to meet the perennialists halfway. I am struck by the recurrence of different ideas across philosophical traditions, and I suspect at least some of that is indeed because it is true. What I don’t buy is that the thinkers cited by the perennialists were the ones who found the correct answer. For those thinkers who seek an ultimate Oneness beyond the world of the senses, like Śaṅkara and Plotinus, are basically Ascent thinkers, almost by definition. And yet Descent thinkers, who embrace the material world and its flaws, are just about as common in the history of philosophy – probably more so, since they’re so much closer to that elusive beast called “common sense.” Indeed, as I noted in my post on Asperger’s, many of the greatest ascent philosophers (Plato, Augustine, Śaṅkara) were followed soon enough by a more descent-oriented thinker (Aristotle, Aquinas, Rāmānuja) who tried to harmonize those ascending views with a more everyday understanding of the world – to “save the appearances,” as Aristotle put it. That’s not to mention the thinkers who didn’t bother harmonizing with the ascent tradition and preached a pure descent of sorts – while ubiquitous today, they also have significant historical precedent in thinkers like Mozi.
What I’m getting at is this: the question of ascent and descent – of whether we should ascetically seek a perfect world beyond, or embrace the world of the senses with all its flaws – strikes me as a perennial one, widespread throughout the history of philosophy. But it is the question that is perennial, rather than the answer – or at least, the perennial answers are multiple. Human beings, when they have started to think about questions beyond their immediate survival, have tended to think about the kind of questions that I refer to as ascent and descent – and they have answered these questions both ways. I strongly suspect that whatever truth is out there to be found is going to be somewhere in the middle; and it is by identifying these ideal-typical answers that we can more successfully locate where that middle will be. As many difficulties as I have with Ken Wilber’s thought, this is a reason I keep coming back to him: I think he gets this point, and really tries to harmonize ascent and descent. (The big danger in doing so, one I’m not sure Wilber avoids, is reaching merely a compromise and not a synthesis.)
I’m not quite sure whether the same discussion (mutatis mutandis) would apply to Kasulis’s distinction of intimacy and integrity, but it might. East Asian thought often seems to have embraced the intimacy orientation wholeheartedly; one finds some elements of the integrity orientation in Mozi, but even he doesn’t seem to go all the way. I suspect glimmers of it do keep showing up there, as Daoists and Buddhist monks retreat out of the wider society. But suppose that isn’t so – suppose East Asian thought is basically all intimacy. Then intimacy-integrity is not quite a perennial question in the way that ascent-descent is – it is not a question that is asked everywhere. Even so, it seems like the distinction remains essential for those seeking philosophical truth, because so many great thinkers come out on either side. If one is to do justice to the concerns of humanity’s great thinkers, if one is to really find truth, it seems to me that one must find some sort of synthesis (and not merely compromise) between intimacy and integrity, as between ascent and descent.