Love of All Wisdom

Defining ascent and descent

by on Apr.27, 2014, under Buddhism, External Goods, Flourishing, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics, Self

In the previous two posts I tried to show how I came to the best definition I could find for ascent and descent. Namely, ascent is an attempt to transcend the particular human condition, in the name of a higher and better universal; descent is the attempt to embrace the particular human condition without regard to such a universal. This time I’m going to try to spell out just what I mean by that.

The universal in question is not merely a universal law of nature, the kind of invariant pattern identified by David Hume and discovered by natural sciences – the kind that can be empirically falsified by a counterexample (“all swans are white”). Ascent’s universal is a metaphysical concept, one closely related to the nature of reality itself, but just as much it is a normative ideal. Ascent traditions regard the universal they speak of as, in some respect, the highest end or aspiration possible for human beings. It is not necessarily that descent traditions see no grand universal – they may identify some sort of universal at the root of reality – but that universal is not then a destination for us. If descent coexists with the transcendent, it cannot then also coexist with transcendence.

The aim towards a metaphysical universal, or lack of such an aim, has concrete ethical applications and implications – especially when one looks at its flipside, the particular human condition. “The particular human condition” includes all of those things that monks and renouncers typically aim to leave behind or move beyond – external goods like money and familial relationships, passions like anger and craving… and death itself, the ultimate limit placed on our individual particularity. By contrast, the various metaphysical universals typically postulated by such renouncers are beyond any of this: God, nirvana, emptiness, the abiding puruṣa self of the Yoga Sūtras.

The logical connection I see between the metaphysics of universal and particular and these ethical consequences is in the nature of our condition as human beings. As individual separate human beings embedded in communities, our condition is one of particularity – the particularity of our inner emotional lives, the particularity of the families and communities in which we are always enmeshed, the particularity of the finite beginning and end of our lives. Metaphysically these things are all particulars. Descent is about embracing them; ascent is about going beyond them to something that can be identified as higher and more universal, however indescribable that universal might be.

So ethically, ascent means transcending the particulars of one’s own situation — one’s own desires as well as one’s own external goods — or refocusing one’s concern away from them and toward something more timeless and lasting, something greater not only than oneself but also than any aggregation of individual selves. As for ethical descent, Martha Nussbaum’s work turns out to be very helpful in illustrating it. While she offers no real definition of ascent and descent, the position she advocates in her Love’s Knowledge is a full-fledged articulation of a descent position as I have expressed it. She advocates a view which she identifies with the literary form of the novel and (controversially) with Aristotle: uncontrolled happenings (external goods) matter to a good life; passions are good and valuable; one should attach a priority to particular individuals and relationships; and the valuable things are incommensurable, which is to say there is no one universal good.

Going back to my own definition: I believe it goes beyond Wilber’s approach in a couple of ways. It states a definition more explicitly, and what’s in that explicit statement is important. In explaining what ascent is I think it’s important to note that transcendence is a genus of which ascent is a species: there can be transcendences that are not ascents, and simply acknowledging the existence of a universal does not itself make for transcendence (and therefore does not necessarily make for asscent). So too, it’s important to draw the link of metaphysical particularity to the ethical self with its determinate characteristics and external goods.

It is my hope that identifying ascent and descent in this way – the transcending or embracing of the particular human condition, relative to a (presumed) higher universal – helps us pick out a general conceptual pattern that recurs throughout much of the history of human philosophy. As with intimacy and integrity, it draws out connections between theoretical philosophy and practical philosophy; it also helps us to identify a distinction within integrity thought (between Jainism and Lockean liberalism, for example) that is simply not captured by the intimacy-integrity distinction.

This particular distinction of ascent and descent is particularly important to me because it is the basic (and unresolved) problematic of my dissertation. I note at the end of the diss that the postulated quarrel between Śāntideva and Nussbaum over external goods is part of a much larger complex of questions – questions that can in many respects be summarized as ascent vs. descent. They matter to me in particular because the most important lessons I have learned from outside my own space and time – that suffering comes from craving, that we can live a good live without politics, that anger is usually bad – are ascent lessons. Many people who turn to premodern philosophy find in it an intimacy worldview, ideas of connectedness – central ideas of Chinese philosophy. For me, though, the most important premodern lessons – so far at least – have been about at least some degree of ascent.

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