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I have long had an ambition which, I am slowly realizing, is unlikely to be fulfilled. It is an ambition suggested in this blog’s title: the idea of putting together all the major philosophical traditions of the world into a full synthesis. Ken Wilber’s work has to date been the most valiant attempt anyone has made to fulfill that ambition. But I have argued in many ways that this attempt has failed. It must fail, in the perennialist form Wilber’s work takes: to claim that all the world’s wisdom (or “religious”) traditions are basically saying the same thing. That claim makes the attempt at putting the traditions together much easier. It is also false.

If I ever was a perennialist like Wilber, it would have been a very long time ago, before I started serious study of any traditions. I’ve never thought a synthesis would come that way. A true synthesis would need to be dialectical. But to offer a dialectical synthesis of all traditions seems pretty close to impossible. There is just too much out there. One can certainly love all wisdom, enjoy it, delight in it. But I don’t think one can actually know all wisdom well enough to put it all together in one lifetime. And one lifetime is all any of us has.

I’ve recently been closely studying Alasdair MacIntyre‘s work because I think he’s thought through these questions of comparative method more thoroughly than most. For MacIntyre, one of the reasons we typically fall into incoherence is that we end up with a mishmash of substantive standards of practical rationality, which are derived from particular traditions of moral enquiry and are incommensurable with each other. That is, you can’t find a universal standard by which to measure traditions’ rightness; you can only use the standards internal to a tradition.

What you can do is get to know a small number of traditions in great detail – perhaps even just two. You learn their vocabulary as “second first languages” (ie you don’t have to translate back into a native language to understand). And you learn the history of the problems that have beset that tradition and the continuing attempts to resolve them. With that in mind it then becomes possible for one tradition to supersede another, or even for you to create a new tradition that effectively supersedes both (as he thinks Thomas Aquinas did with Augustinianism and Aristotelianism). Traditions that were incommensurable become commensurable.

The trick is that doing this is really hard. MacIntyre writes about Confucianism, for example, with an admirable modesty; he doesn’t proclaim to have gotten anywhere near this point with that tradition, even in articles that focus on it. To do it with all the world’s traditions would take a lifetime of work. Instead, each of us who is betwixt and between should ultimately “acknowledge in which of these rival modes of moral understanding he or she finds him or herself most adequately explained and accounted for.” (Whose Justice, Which Rationality? 398) The “which”, note, is not “which one“: we may find that there are multiple traditions of inquiry that account for us. But that is when we have to do the really hard work of translation and commensuration, making the incommensurable commensurable. And it would be too hard to do that with every tradition. We must choose – not arbitrarily, but through what appears rationally to us to be the best story so far.

I have come to agree with MacIntyre on much of this: the best account, of oneself or the world, is unlikely to be provided by a combination of all traditions mashed together. I don’t think it’s ideal to pick one tradition and stick with it exclusively, but you need to pick some traditions, and preferably a relatively small number, to think with at a deep and serious level. What you draw from traditions beyond those is only a shopping cart, what Augustine calls spoiling the Egyptians; you evaluate them by the standards of the traditions you have chosen and not these others. There is a coherence to individual traditions as programs of inquiry that is rapidly lost as one’s number of traditions multiplies.

So I have asked myself: which small number of traditions seem to me so far to offer the most persuasive account, of myself and more importantly of ethics or even philosophy in general? At this point one might ask the question of how exactly traditions are to be counted – a question on which MacIntyre provides less guidance than he should. I go back and forth on this, but the number of traditions I might identify myself in seems to vary between two and five.

The five traditions in question would be Theravāda Buddhism, Madhyamaka Buddhism, Aristotelianism, utilitarian empiricism and historicism – springing above all, respectively, from the thought of Buddhaghosa, Śāntideva, Aristotle, David Hume, and G.W.F. Hegel (or even MacIntyre himself). But there is some blending. The standards of the two kinds of Buddhism, especially, overlap considerably. And the particular kinds of Buddhism and Aristotelianism I adopt tend to be at some level modern and historicist, in a way that tempts me to fold empiricism and historicism into them – so that it could come down to Yavanayāna Buddhism vs. a modern historicist Aristotelianism, which in many ways is what MacIntyre’s or Hegel’s thought is.

But I’d be amiss as a philosopher if I didn’t address the big question here: why these? That’s worth discussing for each.

I couldn’t very well call myself a Buddhist without giving Buddhist thinkers some degree of pride of place. I’ve told the story before of how I came to this. After years of study, I am now deeply informed by two kinds of Buddhism: the Pali/Theravāda Buddhism I first discovered in Thailand, and the Madhyamaka Buddhism I learned in my dissertation on Śāntideva. (I realize I haven’t yet told the story of why I came to choose Śāntideva for a topic, but that’s a longer story than I can tell in this post.)

What of the others? Readers may recall that in the past I have seen philosophical truth best found between the Buddha and Hegel. MacIntyre has his disagreements with Hegel, and as I’ve recently studied MacIntyre in more depth, I see ways in which I prefer MacIntyre’s thought to Hegel’s (most notably his epistemological humility, his caution to avoid pretending he knows everything). But MacIntyre and Hegel have something in common, especially the Hegel I know best – that is, the Hegel of James Doull and his students, according to which Hegel is basically attempting to do Aristotelian philosophy after Kant. That is, MacIntyre and Hegel are both historicist Aristotelians. They follow Aristotle, but in a way deeply informed by the German historicist tradition that stresses how beholden we always are to the culture of our time and place (a tradition that, without the countervailing influence of someone like Aristotle, risks veering into a self-refuting relativism). Indeed, when I read MacIntyre elaborating Aristotle’s dialectic in Whose Justice? my first thought was: but this is Hegel! At least, it is Hegel as I know and love him. In a sense, Hegel and MacIntyre have already done some of the work of synthesizing Aristotelianism with historicism. (The underrated work of Scott Meikle shows us how even Karl Marx, whose thought has also played a large role in my life, could be considered a historicist Aristotelian.)

But the Buddhists and historicist Aristotelians are also joined by a thinker I’ve generally written about relatively little so far, namely David Hume. More than any other thinker, I think, Hume provides the philosophical foundations for the views that educated urban English-speakers take to be obvious and common sense. He is the ancestor not only of utilitarianism, but of the empiricism that elevates natural-scientific experiment and observation as the highest form of knowing. I have regularly attacked both of these views, but there is no denying that they still exercise a pull on me – my politics, if not my ethics, retains a strong element of utilitarianism, and the overall power and value of the knowledge gained through scientific method is impossible to deny. Human beings cannot reasonably think the same way after Hume as they did before. Thus Kant said it was Hume who awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber”; after reading Hume, Kant could no longer find it acceptable to reason about the natural world from his armchair. It’s not that Kant then went out to explore the world, of course; notoriously, he never in his life left his hometown of Königsberg. But what he did do was accept Hume’s uncertainty about the natural world, and turn his armchair philosophizing to the underlying conditions that make that empirical knowledge – and knowledge of ethics – possible. I don’t generally buy Kant’s a priori account of what underlies knowledge, but I agree with the basic attempt to at least take up the gauntlet thrown down by Hume.

This, then, is where I see my philosophical project heading, at least for the moment: trying to find a dialectical synthesis between traditions one could roughly identify with Aristotle, the Buddha, Hume and historicism. There are of course many thinkers outside those traditions who matter to me a lot: I’ve learned a great deal from Augustine, from Mencius, from Śaṅkara. But there is a way in which I need to see what I take from them as “spoiling the Egyptians”: if what is in them is incoherent with a Buddhist-historicist-Aristotelian-Humean synthesis, then it is what is in them and not what is in the synthesis that I must reject. The standards of evaluation must come from within the smaller number of systems. For building a coherent Buddhist-historicist-Aristotelian-Humean synthesis, it should scarcely need to be said, is hard enough. Trying to include absolutely everything in a synthesis is almost a guarantee of failure.

I’ll be taking a break from posting for the holidays and will return in early January.