I mentioned two weeks ago that there were two reasons I didn’t think my dissertation would become a book. The previous week I focused on the practical and political reason: I believe in free open access, and now that I’m not on the faculty track I can put my money where my mouth is.
The other reason, which is far more interesting to me, has to do with the dissertation’s content. I think back to when I was proposing a first inchoate version of the project, perhaps ten years ago or so now, knowing I wanted it to involve some amount of constructive dialogue between the ideas of Śāntideva and of Martha Nussbaum. Robert Gimello, on my committee at the time, said to me that he didn’t think that this would be an appropriate project for a dissertation. Not because those questions were inappropriate for a scholar to ask; indeed, he approved of them. Rather, he thought, that project seemed like a twenty-year project, much larger than a dissertation. For the dissertation I should buckle down and just try to understand Śāntideva himself.
I didn’t follow Gimello’s advice, and I’m glad I didn’t. A dissertation that focused only on the thinker himself and not on some amount of contemporary application would not have been nearly as interesting to me; I suspect I might never have finished it. But in a certain way he was right. By the time I was finished the dissertation, it looked increasingly like two different books, which, if they were to have been published, would have been better to publish separately. The first (found in the first through fifth chapters) was an analysis of Śāntideva’s own thought, which did have some interesting implications for Engaged Buddhism; I’ve discussed its methods here and its conclusions here. If I were still on the academic treadmill, I could have expanded these chapters into a full book, but now there’s no need; I’ve said my piece on the matter in the diss, and pursuing it further interests me far less than striding out into new and uncharted terrain.
The second book’s arguments (chapters 6 through 8) depended on the first, but were much more interesting to me. These were the ones that put Śāntideva into dialogue with Nussbaum, on the question of external goods. In these chapters I examined how Nussbaum defended the importance of external goods in a good life, against the arguments of Plato and the Stoics. I showed how her arguments, whether or not they were effective against Plato and the Stoics, were not effective against Śāntideva, who was suspicious of external goods for very different reasons.
But once I got to the end of this project, I saw how Gimello had in an important respect been right. For in a sense this second project really wasn’t finished. I had said something useful, I hoped, about the relationship between Śāntideva’s and Nussbaum’s ideas. But what I hadn’t done was the bigger project I really aspired to, the one to which these inquiries were a prelude: getting at the truth of the matter, finding a synthesis between the two thinkers, or at least a compelling set of reasons why one was right and the other wrong.
That part, it has turned out, looks a lot like a twenty-year project. A friend once described the end of the dissertation as a “cliffhanger”. In its concluding chapter I identify potential directions where the comparison would need to go, in order to lead to a synthesis: consider metaphysics as well as ethics; incorporate the views of other thinkers. But both of these are huge projects in their own right. And working through them has, in many respects, animated my posts on Love of All Wisdom to date.
What Śāntideva is presenting, I saw in researching the dissertation, is primarily an integrity ascent worldview – not as strongly so, perhaps, as the Jains or Yogins who share his historical context, but an integrity ascent worldview nonetheless. (Plato and perhaps even the Stoics could have been said to be doing the same.) Nussbaum is putting forth the opposite, a worldview of intimacy descent. Both approaches have a power and an appeal, but they are very much in contrast; this is the key reason I spend a lot of time pointing out how classical Buddhism does not affirm intimacy or “interdependence”. Over the three years I’ve been writing here, possibly the blog’s most enduring concern has been the contrasting worldviews of ascent/descent and intimacy/integrity. I have tried to understand their contrasts fully so that any integration between them can be a synthesis and not merely a compromise – one of the key methodological points that arose at the dissertation’s end. I think the dissertation did a lot to help me spell out this problématique – this set of interrelated questions that animates my blog’s inquiries.
So have I figured out any sort of answer or result to those questions? Hell, no. But ask me again in another ten years.