I’m returning today to the idea of perennial questions: questions that recur throughout the history of philosophy, where both sides of a debate keep getting articulated in many different places. The key feature of these perennial questions, to my mind, is that they are large: they cannot be narrowed down to a single precisely defined question within a single philosophical subfield, of the sort that analytic philosophers aim to ask, but extend their ramifications across multiple fields of theoretical and practical inquiry.
So far I’ve explored two major perennial questions: ascent versus descent and intimacy versus integrity. I have taken these as two different axes along which philosophies can be classified – in their ethics and soteriology as well as their metaphysics and epistemology.
But why should we treat these as exhausting the perennial questions? I think there’s value in limiting the number of questions we treat as perennial – in being prepared to say “those are different aspects of the same question” or “those are different ways of asking the same question” rather than allowing the questions to proliferate randomly. But that’s not to say the number of questions should be limited to merely two – though it’s certainly interesting to consider the two as axes on a single graph.
For there are other questions which are similarly widespread and have similar ramifications. A little while ago I pointed to Mou Zongsan’s distinction between “perfect” and “separation” theories; these map onto the distinction I discussed earlier between ātmanism and encounter, but Mou effectively tries to show that ātmanism-encounter is its own perennial question, distinct from the integrity-ascent and intimacy-descent positions they might seem to map onto.
Other perennial questions are significantly better known than the debates I have discussed above. One of these is human nature: the question that finds its most classic expression in the ancient Confucian debates between Mencius and Xunzi, but is also well expressed in the West in Rousseau and Augustine, among others. So too, I suspect it is at the heart of the changes in Buddhism as it moved from India to Mencian China. At its heart, this is a metaphysical question about what human beings are and what makes them so – a question which is also open to at least some empirical verification or falsification. But it is also an ethical question. If human beings are naturally good, they need far less ethical correction, need to watch themselves or be watched far less, than if they are systematically prone to error and wrongness. It extends into soteriology: a good human nature makes sudden liberation more plausible. And at several points the recent debates over “common sense” extended this question into epistemology. To what extent are human reasoning processes naturally good enough to lead us to the truth, and to what extent are they so prone to error that they need regular and systematic correction?
Then there is the similarly metaphysical question of free will – much less subject to empirical verification. The empirical methods of natural science assume that the world is made of causal processes whose workings can be ascertained; this very assumption begs the metaphysical question at issue. But it too has significant ramifications in ethics and politics. Free will is a fundamental assumption behind the characteristic organizing concepts of modern liberalism: rights, respect, autonomy. The idea that individual choices are to be respected qua choices – as opposed to their being instrumental to other goods like happiness – implies that something about these choices gives them a different status from other phenomena in the universe. So you can’t get even close to a Kantian ethics without free will – but consequentialist ethics can do fine without it. I’m told that Fyodor Dostoevsky even saw this point as the fundamental difference between the worldviews of Protestantism and Catholicism: Protestants sacralize individual autonomous choice even if it leads to overall misery; Catholics want an order that produces general happiness even if it leads to tyranny over individual choice. (Whether his characterization was accurate, let alone whether Eastern Orthodox churches provide the appropriate synthesis he thinks they do, is a separate topic.)
The idea of free will has been particularly important in the West, but it has not been limited to that context. It is important enough to Śāntideva that he spends several difficult verses refuting it. Very much like Nietzsche, Śāntideva believes that the idea of free will is harmful and dangerous because it leads us to blame others: their actions have causes just like a stomach upset does, so we should not get angry at them any more than we get angry at our stomach bile. And I think points of view like Śāntideva’s tend to frame the left-right axis in Canadian politics, and in other countries where God is not a serious political issue. The right believes criminals make free choices, and so deserve their punishment, while the left seeks to reduce the causes of crime; and if people’s fates in society largely come down to their free choices, then the government has less of a duty to help those whose fates turned out poorly.
The questions I’ve listed – ascent/descent, intimacy/integrity, ātmanism/encounter, free will, human nature – hardly exhaust the list of perennial questions either. In future weeks I’m hoping to examine others. But I’m returning to the idea of perennial questions now because I suspect that it may form part of a highly fruitful method in cross-cultural philosophy. Too much cross-cultural philosophy so far has been dominated by the idea of a philosophia perennis, a single universal philosophy shared across cultures. That idea is usually taken to refer to some sort of Advaitic mystical monism, a single cosmic truth that can be known through mystical experience. And while ideas of that sort are indeed present in many cultures, they’re rarely all that widespread. Most people do not believe this so-called perennial philosophy. Moreover, there’s an odd parallel between that sort of perennialism and the view of “common sense” recently advocated on this blog by Thill Raghunath and others. Though Thill describes “common sense” as excluding “religious” ideas (which I suspect includes the “perennial” mystical monism), he shares with the perennialists a common view of human access to truth: all humans, across cultures, share an innate faculty which allows them access to truth, but most humans access this faculty so little that they are enmeshed in delusion. (As I noted above, epistemologically this seems to put both Thill and the perennialists on the side of the human nature debate that stresses our natural goodness.)
What is truly universal to me in philosophy, it seems, are not the answers but the questions; and that is why I think the cross-cultural study of philosophy should devote more time to these questions. To the extent that the answers are universal as well, it seems to me that multiple and contradictory answers are universal: both mystical Ascent and a “common sense” Descent are found across cultures. The student of cross-cultural philosophy should pay attention to both sides.
In August I will be taking some vacation time with my wife and my friends. So there will be no blog post next week; posts may be sporadic for the rest of the month as well.