A few years ago I told what I thought of at the time as the story of my philosophy: how I left a utilitarian worldview and came to discover Buddhism in Thailand at age 21. I realize now that there’s something important missing from that story, and you can see it in the final paragraph of the second piece:
And yet, all the Western philosophy that I’d learned before didn’t just go away. I’d learned important, powerful, beautiful things that seemed true – and often seemed opposite to the Buddhism I’d found myself in. Is there a way to reconcile the two? One way or another, that question has been central to my life ever since.
That was the right ending: since then I have indeed been preoccupied with reconciling Buddhism and the Western philosophy I’d already learned. But if you only read those two pieces, you would come away with the impression that the Western philosophy I had learned, and would try to reconcile, consisted primarily of utilitarianism. And that would be completely wrong. If the Western philosophy I knew had been mostly about utilitarianism, I might well have just jettisoned it, become some sort of moderate Yavanayāna Buddhist, and called it a day.
No, “the Western philosophy that I’d learned before” was something else entirely. In a word: it was Hegel.
The philosophical story I told before was above all a story of practical ethics: learning how to think about living well. I think that’s why I left Hegel out of the story until the end, because frankly that’s not one of his strong points. Utilitarianism and Theravāda Buddhism, whatever their flaws, both give direct and relatively straightforward advice about how one should live. Hegel doesn’t. But that’s really not his point. Hegel is about understanding: understanding the ideas that make up the human world around us, and in many respects constitute us. (In that respect his thought might well be criticized as questions which tend not to edification.) And well before finding Buddhism, I had been aiming at just that sort of understanding.
My undergraduate degree was in the social sciences, specifically sociology and geography. In high school I’d been fascinated with politics, and as an undergrad in Montréal I came to be similarly fascinated with cities and how they worked. But my heart was never in the empirical data collection that characterizes so much social-science research. I was passionate about big ideas. And I got many of them from my father, whose Marxist interpretations helped me make sense of what I was learning.
At the same time, I kept in touch with old friends through an email list – at the time one of those weird newfangled technologies that only young people would use. And my oldest, lifelong friend – we are in our late 30s now but we met in the 1970s – was doing the Foundation Year Programme at King’s College in Halifax, which changed his life. It made him a lifelong devotee of the thought of James Doull, whose influence was everywhere at King’s. The relatively conservative nature of Doull’s ideas rubbed me the wrong way, and our email debates were fiery – but there was much in Doull that was convincing and rubbed off on me.
Marx and Doull are, overall, at far ends of the political spectrum. But they share one thing in common: by far the biggest influence on their thought was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. I could see that the key to figuring out what I was learning was going to be him.
In my final year of undergrad, right before my life-changing journey to Thailand, I looked for Hegel everywhere. I took an exciting course on the philosophical period following Hegel with George di Giovanni; in a tutorial course on the geography of national identity with my favourite professor, Warwick Armstrong, my project was all about Hegel’s views on the subject. And I read through much of Charles Taylor’s excellent and readable introduction to Hegel. (Sadly, even though I was studying at McGill, I never got to study with Taylor himself. Claims that Taylor taught at McGill are greatly exaggerated – as I recall, he taught a total of two courses in the entire four years I was there.)
It would be a considerable exaggeration to say I understood Hegel after all of this. I probably still don’t. He is notoriously difficult. But I did take lessons away from him for understanding the world. Above all he helped me deal with the questions of cultural relativism that were everywhere in the postmodern ’90s: Hegel, like few others, offered a way of reconciling the vast observed diversity of human viewpoints with the logical need for a universal standpoint of truth.
It was that understanding that I brought with me to Thailand. Again, Hegel doesn’t teach you much about how to live. So practically speaking, I was still more or less the utilitarian that I’d always been, though basically by default. And it was that utilitarianism that Buddhism really challenged for me. The explosive idea of the Second Noble Truth, that suffering comes from craving – that was what I needed to set myself on the path to a happy and flourishing life. In practical philosophy, I learned more from the Pali Buddhist texts and their modern expositions than I ever had from the West.
But when it came to theoretical understanding, I was still with Hegel. And it was already clear to me, however little I knew at the time, that Hegel and early Buddhism were in almost every respect opposites. In the terms I’ve used lately, Theravāda Buddhism is a philosophy of integrity ascent, Hegel of intimacy descent. Hegel opposes the monasticism that is central to Theravāda tradition. Theravāda is reductionist, Hegel holist. Hegel argues for a universal subject that encompasses everything; the Pali texts’ central theoretical concern is to deny the very existence of a subjective self.
And yet, as far as I could tell, in the places where it counted they were both right. How could that be? That is the problem that I have spent most of my adult life trying to solve.