I argued before that categories like ascent-descent and intimacy-integrity are important because they help us identify perennial questions, questions that appear (together with their usually opposing answers) throughout the history of philosophy. The debate between ascent and descent is a debate between the Chinese Buddhists and the Confucians as much as it is between Plato and Aristotle. The identification of such universal questions seems to me an important part of metaphilosophy: the study of philosophy itself, and not merely of philosophy’s varied subject matter.
The attempt to identify such universal categories, I think, is central to the work of analytic philosophy. It drives the characteristically analytic attempt to classify Buddhist ethics according to the categories of 20th-century ethics: is Buddhist ethics consequentialism or virtue ethics? For that matter, is Śāntideva a determinist or a compatibilist? The problem with such attempts, in my book, is that they take it for granted that the questions of 20th-century ethics (consequentialism, deontology or virtue?) are the most important ones to ask. Such an approach, it seems to me, strongly limits one’s ability to learn anything of substance from other traditions. Foreign traditions (and this includes the Greeks and the medieval Christians as much as the Confucians or Vedāntins) can teach us different questions to ask, not merely different answers to those questions. That’s why it’s important to me that when we do think in more universal categories, we try to involve categories (like ascent-descent) that are derived from the study of multiple traditions.
Part of the point of thinking across traditions in this way, to me, is that metaphilosophy shouldn’t only be about universals, but about particulars – specifically, historical particulars. I have no problem in saying that philosophy aims at universal truth; but it does so only through the eyes of individual philosophers, who are all finite, particular and historically limited human beings, shaped greatly by their historical context. And for any given philosophy – including one’s own – that context is an essential reason why it is the way it is.
For me, what makes any kind of history exciting is the window it opens on the present, the ability to see why things are the way they are because one can see when they became the way they are. For this reason, Canadian history became a lot more interesting to me in the past year after I learned about the Seven Years’ War, which created the English-dominated bilingual society that is contemporary Canada. (Schools in Québec and Massachusetts both teach this as a fundamental event in the creation of their worlds, which it was; schools in Ontario do not teach it, though it was just as important. Our history classes began with 1867, when Canada had long already had more or less the shape it has now; and so it’s no wonder I learned to regard Canadian history as really, really boring.) I generally didn’t care about history at all until, sometime during my undergraduate degree, I would start to see past philosophers appear in the present – and not just present philosophers. I would hear other students argue moral issues – outside of philosophy classes – and I would think “they’re getting this from Kant, whether they realize it or not.” Perhaps more fundamentally, I looked at the epistemological empiricism I myself held at the time, and realized that it came from David Hume. My own philosophy, even though it aspired to a universal truth, was still rooted in a particular time and place.
Philosophy is always instantiated in the views of particular philosophers – and I had come to see just how much those views, including my own, were historically conditioned. This point, I think, is central to Martin Heidegger‘s philosophical activity: he wanted to get us over what he saw as the mistakes of the Western philosophical tradition, but he knew that we would keep repeating those mistakes unless we knew that tradition very well. Thus he kept turning back to the first Western philosophers, the pre-Socratics.
Now it is crucial here not to make a mere circumstantial ad hominem fallacy: to say that a given philosophical view is wrong because it can be explained by its historical context. Such a view leads past relativism to nihilism, since one could make such explanations of any philosophy, and therefore “refute” all of them. That’s not what Heidegger is up to, of course; he is trying to get at a real truth of some sort, he’s just convinced that most of the Western tradition has missed it, and that he has missed it as well insofar as he is still under the influence of that tradition.
I think that this attention to the history of philosophy is generally shared in some such respect by those on the “continental” side of the contemporary divide. It certainly seems true of postmodernists like Jacques Derrida who, following Heidegger, seek to overthrow the Western philosophical tradition. But it is also true of those who value that tradition and seek to sustain and advance it – among whom the key figure is G.W.F. Hegel.
I have kept returning to Hegel throughout my philosophical career, not merely for this blog, because of his powerful attempt to blend these two approaches to metaphilosophy: to link the search for universal truths and the understanding of historical particularity, put them all together. Hegel’s own discussion of the history of philosophy is manifestly inadequate, for he treats South and East Asian philosophies as being without any inner development, merely the starting point for Western tradition. One can refute him on that score with a relatively cursory knowledge of those traditions. Yet for those who see the power and truth behind both kinds of metaphilosophy – recognizing that one needs to look for universal truth, but also recognizing that historical particularity is a part of every philosophy at a very deep level – Hegel’s project remains an essential starting point.