Love of All Wisdom

Searching for ascent and descent (1)

by on Mar.30, 2014, under Flourishing, Metaphilosophy, South Asia

A couple years ago on this blog, after exploring a number of ways of classifying world philosophical traditions cross-culturally, I found the most robust and satisfying to be a 2×2 grid: we may classify philosophies as intimacy or integrity, and we may classify them as ascent or descent. (Methodologically, I find it best to treat each of these four as an ideal type.)

What I didn’t do was spell out with much care what each of these terms really meant. Last fall I tried to articulate more precisely what I meant by intimacy and integrity, and am currently in the process of writing an article on the topic. But what about ascent and descent?

Articulating the nature of intimacy and integrity is easier, because Thomas Kasulis wrote a whole book about it. My debate with Kasulis to date has been about how the categories are applied: he miscategorizes Indian philosophy, and I also think he takes the two as more incommensurable than they are. (More on the latter topic another time.) But as far as I can tell,l Kasulis’s articulation of the nature of the two categories – his ideal-typical construct of the conceptual relationships within and between them – itself is well drawn and seems to stand up quite well.

The same cannot be said for ascent and descent. I derived these categories from the writings of Martha Nussbaum — primarily Love’s Knowledge and Upheavals of Thought — and especially Ken Wilber, as spelled out in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and to some extent Grace and Grit and A Brief History of Everything. But one would search these books in vain for a clear explanation of the terms. There is no book- or chapter-length fleshing out of their meaning the way there is in Kasulis. There isn’t so much of a paragraph in either saying “Ascent is…” or “Descent is…” I realized soon enough that if I wanted a detailed Weberian articulation of these ideal types, I would have to do it myself. And that’s what this blog post, and the next two, are about.

For I did want a detailed articulation of these types. I have found it difficult to think cross-culturally without them. Most importantly: I have noted repeatedly that Kasulis’s intimacy-integrity dichotomy gives strong expression to the difference between modern Western and East Asian thought, but not to the difference between modern Western and South Asian thought. In Kasulis’s terms, Jainism, Yoga and even Theravāda come out very much as integrity traditions, just as do modern physics or Lockean liberalism or twentieth-century analytic philosophy. But the differences between these premodern Indian philosophies and these modern Western ones are also quite stark. How can we do justice to them? It is that difference, above all, that I have wanted to characterize with the ascent-descent distinction. That distinction, in concert with intimacy-integrity, seemed to capture the most basic differences among philosophical traditions more effectively than the alternatives I tried: the puruṣārthas, or asceticism and libertinism.

In particular, perhaps the most powerful feature of the intimacy/integrity distinction is that it goes “all the way down”. That is, it addresses theoretical philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology) as well as practical philosophy (ethics, politics, aesthetics, soteriology); it captures philosophies’ conceptual relationships in their fullness. My hope for ascent and descent was that it could do the same – but I have not yet spelled out how, and this is a significant gap.

Since I got the terms from Nussbaum and Wilber, I turned there first. It turns out that Nussbaum does not actually juxtapose the terms ascent and descent, let alone define them. The long concluding section of Upheavals of Thought is about “ascents of love”: “This tradition centrally uses the metaphor of an ‘ascent,’ in which the aspiring lover climbs a ladder from the quotidian love from which she began, with all its difficulties, to an allegedly higher and more truly fulfilling love.” (469) The first such “ascender” is Plato, whom Nussbaum finds least adequate, and she progresses to ascents that she finds more adequate (a progress that is phenomenological but not dialectical). She ends up as follows:

Thus our sequence of chapters began as, itself, a ladder, as each ascent tradition moved beyond the previous one, supplying something essential about love that the previous one had lacked. But that upward movement itself encountered dfificult, since we encounteed more than one vital and attractive ideal (especially Dante, Mahler, Whitman), and since each attractive ideal that we encountered proved, itself, flawed and imperfect, unable to contain everything that the structure asked for in an account of love. The upside-down ladder of Ulysses reminded us that imperfection is just what we ought to expect of our human ideals, and people. It asked us to climb the ladder and yet, at times, to turn it over, looking at a real person in bed or on the chamber pot. (Upheavals 712-13)

The end here is an “upside-down ladder”, but it is not actually referred to as a “descent”. The term “descent” appears in an entirely different work, Love’s Knowledge:

There is so much to do in this area of human transcending (which I imagine also as a transcending by descent, delving more deeply into oneself and one’s humanity, and becoming deeper and more spacious as a result) that if one really pursued that aim well and fully I suspect that there would be little time left to look about for any other sort. (379)

Here, descent is merely in a parenthetical aside – and one not clearly opposed to ascent. I think there is a strong implicit current juxtaposing ascent and descent in these works of Nussbaum’s, but I realized that I was drawing the language of ascent and descent not from her but from Wilber. I will discuss his approach next time.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Carl

    “The history of mankind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in people and nations. But they may be thought of as taking place simultaneously or rather, beyond time, and then they form an ontological description of human nature.”

    — R. H. Blyth, Haiku

    I once tried to classify philosophers as either escaping the world (like Plato) or focusing on it (like Aristotle), but the scheme was perhaps a bit too rigid. Still, I’m eager to read the next installment of your typology.

    • Amod Lele

      Thank you for this, Carl. I do think the escaping/focusing dichotomy captures something in the same spirit as ascent and descent, but my hope has been to make a more precise articulation of what’s involved – in the spirit of the ideal-type method, which is intended to avoid rigidity.

      There will be several installments on this topic, as I found that even defining ascent and descent in these senses was tricky – the next two will both be on the definition and coming to it. I expect there will be more after that – probably one on different degrees of ascent. (Aristotle himself is very much an ascender when compared to Hume or Derrida or even Nussbaum; but he’s a descender when compared to Plato.)

  • Achilles

    After all that, I don’t think I really understand what’s being said with ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ here. I had always thought of Plato as a classic DEscender: the Good is what’s really real; the question, ultimately, is how anything else can be, or how other things can be properly connected to it. With Aristotle, by contrast, there’s no doubt about the ontological status of sensible stuff; the whole movement is then an ascent, from the most basic material things to the principle.

    • Amod Lele

      … Welcome!

      That’s a good point. I think what’s going on here is you’re understanding ascent and descent in demonstrative terms – i.e. the direction you need to move in once you’re already IN the philosopher’s philosophy. I’m understanding them in dialectical terms, i.e. the direction you need to move in to get TO the philosopher’s philosophy, from the standpoint of an ordinary not-particularly-philosophical schlep. You need to do a lot of ascending to get to the Platonic Good from unreflective everyday life; the descent into the phainomena only happens once you’ve already made that first step.

  • Ben

    Totally unrelated topic, but someday I’d like to hear your thoughts on this approach to so-called “philosophy of religion”:

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