In the span of the history of philosophy, ten years is the blink of an eye. In the span of the blogosphere, however, ten years is an eternity. A lot happens in that time. Ten years ago, Instagram, Snapchat and Lyft did not exist; Uber, Airbnb, the Chrome browser and the Android operating system were less than a year old. There had been no “Arab Spring” protests; Syria was a place one could go for a pleasant holiday seeing ancient historic sites. Barack Obama had just been inaugurated president of the USA a couple months before; Tony Blair had left office only two years before; Benedict XVI was still just halfway through his reign as pope. When I used the term “populism” to describe Thai politics, I was resurrecting an obscure term that had faded from mainstream political discourse, as if I’d been talking about irredentism. As for me, I was not married, did not own a home or a dog, and did not have a permanent job. I not only got a permanent job but got promoted to management; I got married and dealt with my wife’s cancer treatment. And I have kept blogging throughout. (It was essential that I moved to a biweekly schedule – the three posts a week with which I started in 2009 would be unthinkable for me now.)
I’d like to commemorate the occasion here by talking about how my own thought has changed over that course of time – linking back to many of the posts that catalogued those shifts. The most obvious change is that I now call myself a Buddhist, which I did not do when the blog began. But the identification itself, the calling myself a Buddhist, felt minor at the time: it was simply for the pragmatic purpose of deciding what kind of chaplain I would want if I needed one. As it turns out, I think my identification as a Buddhist has come with some significantly bigger shifts, some of which predated the identification, some of which came after. But I think it is fair to sum up my differences from ten years ago in the phrase: I was not a Buddhist then, and now I am.
One aspect of that shift is methodological. When I chose the title “Love of All Wisdom”, I think it carried with it a certain Wilberian optimism about somehow putting together all the philosophical traditions of the world. Thus I had long emphasized what I saw as perennial questions, of which the foremost were Ascent and Descent and intimacy and integrity, in the hopes of reaching a grand synthesis between them. But that project came to hit a wall. The traditions, I came to find, were too far apart in their questions as well as their answers. One can still love all wisdom, and I would like to think that I do. But one must stand apart from, disagree with, a great deal of it. Methodologically I moved from Wilber to MacIntyre; at the heart of that move was the idea that one must inhabit only some traditions, not all of them. One must choose, or better yet be chosen. And if there is one tradition that has intellectually chosen me for sure, it is Buddhism. That means that my difficulties with non-self become an urgent problem for me to address while, say, the Kantian advocacy of unconditional truth-telling fades further from view.
But that methodological shift has come with many substantive shifts: situating myself within Buddhism has come alongside concrete ways that I think my philosophy has, since 2009, become significantly more Buddhist. For one thing, I have largely embraced what I once, following Aaron Stalnaker, used to call chastened intellectualism: a position that “affirms the value of intellectual apprehension and reflection, but it questions the neutrality and absolute sovereignty of thinking.” (Stalnaker, Overcoming Our Evil 275) Likewise akrasia is the basic human condition: simply knowing that something is good is not nearly enough to get us to do it. It is really, really hard to be good. I don’t use the term “chastened intellectualism” nearly as much as I used to, because I feel little need to: at this point it’s obvious to me that human thought is systematically distorted by illusion, as Buddhist texts tell us it is, and the really weird thing is that anyone (like the classical rationalists) would ever have thought that the ego was master in its own house.
Knowing the difficulty of being good, in turn, suggests that practice is essential to getting there – practice that goes beyond simply thinking. So I engage in various Buddhist practices now that I did not when I began this blog, many of which I started during the difficult period of cancer treatment. These can include scriptural reading, but they also include a secularized but still Buddhist-derived mindfulness meditation, and they still include a nightly anuttarapūjā phrased as a prayer to Mañjuśrī. And the fact that I consider Mañjuśrī fictional does not trouble me nearly as much now as it once did: we need all the help we can get, and prayer as an ethically productive work of fiction is a big help.
This need for practices of ethical cultivation has led me to a greater respect for ritual in Buddhism and in general, what Vasudha Narayanan calls the “lentils” rather than “liberation” side of “religion”. I still don’t buy the reason often cited for a “lentil” approach, the populist criterion that something is more worthy of study merely because more people do it. But I have come, much more than I did in the old days, to appreciate “lentil” ritual for my own reasons. And these reasons are not just ethical but aesthetic: I think it’s very important to make room for the spectacular temples that had drawn me to Buddhism in the first place. Those temples seem to open up room for a Buddhism that is not single-minded, that allows room for goals in life beyond than the removal of suffering, just as it allows room for enjoying the story of the Rāmāyana.
All of this leads me to more respect not only for Buddhism as it is lived by everyday Buddhists, but for the lived practices of other traditions as well. And so I still have a high regard for the spiritual benefits of monotheists’ practices. At the same time, I have come to reject much more of monotheists’ theory, their philosophy and theology. Back in 2011 I made a series of posts that suggested we need something like a God, a First Explanation, to make sense of the existence of goodness and badness. So I was willing to describe myself as a “weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist”, as Leah Libresco was before her conversion. I no longer think that God is necessary in this way, and while I’m still a virtue ethicist and still weird, I’m not at all Platonist except through Aristotle – and my Aristotle is increasingly the less Platonist Aristotle of a Duns Scotus, focused on the earthly particulars rather than divine universals. (Which probably makes me now at least somewhat more of a Descender than I was, to use a vocabulary I used to use a lot more frequently.)
I do still think that Buddhists have not thought enough about meta-ethical questions, about what makes dukkha so worthy of avoidance. But I think that the answers to those questions have much more to do with our natures as human beings than with any theological ultimate; value is objective but it’s objectively in us, not in any sort of extra-human reality. My cosmology has become much more Lovecraftian: the uncaring cosmos just is, and our presence in it is accidental. The problem of suffering is just too insurmountable for us to view the world as the work of an omnibenevolent God. I see such a view as also quite Buddhist: the cosmos is the paradigm question that tends not to edification, and we need to start instead with our suffering selves. (Even my interpretation of Aristotle is much less theistic now than it was then – a point that makes a constructive difference since I do consider myself an Aristotelian as well as a Buddhist.)
This is where my philosophical reflections have taken me over these past ten years. If you are reading this, thank you for being a part of them. I don’t know where the next ten years will take me: perhaps I will be still more Buddhist, or perhaps less. But I look forward to finding out, and I invite you to join me on the journey.