I’m back from a trip to see my family in India, and have an Indian wedding ceremony. It was wonderful to see everyone there, and it also got me thinking.
When I wrote recently about my Indian background, I put some emphasis on how having an Indian background could be misleading in trying to understand Indian philosophy. It had taken me longer to see that Indian philosophy has an integrity orientation because after living in modern India, I’d spent a long time thinking of India as having an intimacy orientation.
But in my excitement over that realization, I think I’d forgotten that I’d held an intimacy view of India for a reason. In my post pointing out the anti-family traditions in Indian thought, I noted that the idea of a householder stage of life was not ancient. But it’s not exactly recent, either; it’s been around for over a thousand years. Perhaps more importantly, when ancient renouncers like the first Buddhists issued their strong critique of family life, they did so in a society that had always been deeply family-oriented up to that point.
So too, Indian society at large remained family-centred long after the arrival of the renouncers. Many people in India stayed with the Vedic and dharmaśāstric traditions that predated the renouncers, leaving the renouncers behind. Such an approach persists. For our wedding we used a standard Maharashtrian brahmin wedding ceremony, which referred regularly to the puruṣārthas or aims of life, but only ever mentioned the older three aims (artha or worldly success, kāma or pleasure and dharma or duty); it never mentioned the fourth aim of mokṣa, the liberation sought by Buddhists and Jains.
Even those groups in India who took up the renouncers’ views did not necessarily follow them wholesale. Most Buddhists and Jains have always been householders, and that’s to be expected. While any individual monk may theoretically be expected to be independent of householders’ food contributions, the long-term survival of the monkhood as a social institution does depend on the contributions of the community. As an adult I have frequently admired the fiercely solitary asceticism found in Jain ideals, but I saw none of this in the Jains I knew as a child. I mostly just knew them as Indians who didn’t eat eggs, in the way that I knew Jews as North Americans who didn’t celebrate Christmas.
So the modern India I know through my family has not only an intimacy orientation, but a descent orientation as well. I have tended to write about Chinese and Indian philosophies as opposites in many ways – Indian thought (especially Jain and yogic) as aiming largely at integrity ascent and Chinese (especially Confucian) at intimacy descent. But it’s important not to forget that while India’s greatest philosophers have typically had an integrity ascent orientation or something close to it, the mainstream of Indian society has all that time still looked rather Confucian.
These thoughts have led me to realize a broader point: the majority of societies in human history have had, by and large, an intimacy descent orientation. This is especially true for those which had not developed intellectual work recognizable as philosophy. One of the commonly identified characteristics that distinguishes philosophy as such from other intellectual activity is the presence of rational argument, which is itself in many respects characteristic of an integrity orientation. Of course many philosophers had and have an intimacy orientation; but it is at least arguable that qua philosophers they begin to work in a more integrity-based mode. Chad Hansen claims that this is the key difference between Confucius on the one hand and his followers Mencius and Xunzi on the other: Mencius and Xunzi argue for and defend their claims, whereas Confucius himself simply presents them, as a collection of wise sayings. He adds, moreover, that they were moved to do so because of Mozi, arguably the most integrity-oriented figure in pre-Buddhist Chinese thought.
So I think there’s more than I admittted to the point I had criticized from Joel Kotkin: most human societies do indeed place a high value on the family unit, and work within a broader intimacy orientation that includes this. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s the best orientation. The modern West became the way that it did for a reason. And my previous criticism still stands: individualist and anti-family orientations do arise, and get defended, and endure, outside the modern West as well. One of the reasons I find Kasulis’s intimacy-integrity distinction so helpful is that it goes beyond the common dichotomy between “the West and the rest”, developed by Max Weber and I think reflected in Kotkin’s piece. Integrity may not be the normal way of human being, but isn’t just a modern or Western thing. It’s bigger and more important than that.