Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.Continue reading
Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, published in 2019, has already become a minor academic sensation – being reviewed in the New Yorker and Guardian as well as being the subject of a day-long conference at Harvard. I recently had a chance to read the book. There is much that I disagree with in it, but I see what all the fuss is about. I think the book is worthy of several posts, and will examine it in detail in the coming weeks.
I will begin with what I appreciate about the book. Above all, I appreciate that Hägglund is a philosopher in the true sense: he is a genuine lover of wisdom, and a seeker of it. Hägglund is asking questions that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle asked, about what a good human life is. I am not sure how much wisdom he has actually found, but just seeking it is rare enough in this age of technical specialization. It is a sad but unsurprising irony that this most deeply philosophical author – like the subjects of Examined Life – teaches in a department of literature and not philosophy. This Life is not a work of analytic philosophy, and I do not think it could have been. Hägglund’s arguments are not perfectly rigorous, nor are his definitions exactingly precise; one could find logical holes in them, and many will. But it seems to me that these lacks are necessary for a book like Hägglund’s, which is so wide-ranging in scope. Analytic philosophers typically make careful, exacting refutations of their foes – who tend to be other analytic philosophers. Hägglund, by contrast, is engaging with a wide swath of the Western philosophical tradition, from Augustine to Adorno, and he reads the philosophers of the tradition in careful depth, trying to understand them in their own terms even when he disagrees.Continue reading
Anton Wilhelm Amo, Arius Didymus, Augustine, Hebrew Bible, ibn Khaldun, ibn Rushd, ibn Ṭufayl, John McDowell, Juli McGruder, Kwasi Wiredu, Maimonides, Philo of Alexandria, Placide Tempels, Plotinus, René Descartes, Tertullian, Zera Yacob
For the most part, the study of non-Western philosophy has tended to focus on the continent of Asia. There are many good reasons for this. More than half of humanity lives in Asia. And Asia has long, rich traditions of philosophical reflection that have survived and left their works to us – unlike the thought of Mesoamerican traditions, where so much was pillaged and destroyed by the barbarian Spanish invaders. Asia is not even one single context; I would argue that South Asian philosophy is in many respects more like Western philosophy than it is like East Asian. In particular I see no problem in maintaining an Asian focus in my own work, since it is the philosophies of Asia – especially Buddhism – that have left by far the biggest influence on me. One can love all wisdom, but one cannot inhabit all of it.
Still, when we do aspire to love all wisdom, it’s worth taking a look beyond both Asia and the West – at least what we usually think of as the West. There is considerably more to the world. The continent of Africa, in particular, may well overtake Asia in population by the end of this century. So perhaps it is particularly worth thinking about African philosophy.Continue reading
A while ago I was contacted by an academic publisher asking me to review a new introductory textbook on philosophy of religion. I didn’t do so, even though the publisher offered me a stipend. The main reason was just that I didn’t have the time for it. But the more interesting reason was my objections to the work’s entire project.
The book’s proposed table of contents spoke of a work devoted entirely to God: the concept of God, and arguments for and against his existence. That is not an idiosyncratic approach; there are many existing textbooks in “philosophy of religion” that take the same approach. So there was nothing especially or unusually outrageous about this textbook and its other. And that is exactly the problem.Continue reading
The world picture of the Buddhist Pali Canon is a mythical world picture. The world is made up of 31 planes of existence, divided into a formless realm, a fine material realm and a sensory realm. In the formless realm dwell purely mental beings; in the fine material realm dwell most of the devas (gods, angels). Some devas also inhabit the higher planes of the sensory realm; we humans live in the middle planes; and in the lower planes we find the hungry ghosts (pretas) and hell dwellers. Life is a cosmic cycle of death and rebirth between these planes, with movement upward and downward determined by the good or bad nature of one’s actions within each plane. The results of these actions affect not only the circumstances of our new birth, but also our actions and mental states in the new life, which reflect the previous ones. All of this takes place on a cyclical time scale of endless recurrence, of decline followed by renewal and more decline: once upon a time human beings lived for 80 000 years, and their lack of virtue slowly reduced this, so that now their lifespan is merely a hundred, and it will eventually decline to ten.
All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be traced to the contemporary mythology of Jainism and the Upaniṣads. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Buddhist proclamation is faced with the question of whether, when it invites faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the Pali Canon’s proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of Buddhist theology to demythologize the Buddhist proclamation.
The words above are not mine. I have pulled these two paragraphs directly from the beginning of New Testament and Mythology, by the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and simply replaced what is specifically Christian with Buddhist concepts. But I think Bultmann’s argument stands just as well when it is transposed into a Buddhist key.Continue reading
For some time now I have realized: it is time for me to write a book. It’s time to take ideas that I have circulated in blog-post form and develop them into a more systematic, coherent constructive argument. It has now been about seventeen years since Robert Gimello told me that the project that I had wanted to do for my dissertation was a twenty-year project, and as it turns out, I have spent much of those ensuing years working toward exactly that.
The questions that drove my dissertation – the ethics of emotion around attachment, anger and external goods – have continued to drive my thoughts over the thirteen years since I finished it, through twists and turns like declaring myself Buddhist. The dissertation could not resolve them; it ended on a cliffhanger. Śāntideva had good reasons for his views; Martha Nussbaum had good reasons for hers; where do we go from here? By 2013 I’d been thinking here about ways to resolve that cliffhanger, but I now think the approach I took at that time was exactly the wrong one: I had tried to generalize Śāntideva’s and Nussbaum’s views, viewing them as exemplars of integrity ascent and intimacy descent worldviews respectively. As I said at the time, that approach helped me spell out my problématique – but it still didn’t bring me any closer to resolving it.Continue reading
I will close out this latest round of replies to Evan Thompson with a recap: It is simply not the case that karma “is fundamentally about” why bad things happen to good people (or vice versa). To try to portray karma in that way, it seems to me, requires more cherry-picking and selective quoting of sources than does portraying it as a form of eudaimonism. Obeyesekere’s study of the concept’s origins, which Thompson originally cited as his source, shows that its formation is in something quite different. The passages that Thompson quotes from Śāntideva do nothing to establish that karma for him is about why bad things happen to good people. The sociological studies that he now cites do not even claim to establish any such thing, and their evidence does not imply it either – so they would not establish this claim even if they had been studies of Buddhists, which they are not. Going by Thompson’s own sources – historical, philosophical and sociological – we see absolutely no reason to believe that the question of theodicy is or ever was at “the beating heart” of the karma concept, for Buddhists or anybody else. Actual anthropological studies of karma beliefs in context establish its core as something very different, just as Obeyesekere’s study itself does.
Why then does Thompson continue to insist that bad things happening to good people and vice versa – the core problem of Christian theodicy – is also the core problem of traditional Buddhist karma, when it has turned out multiple times that even his own sources provide no reason to believe this claim? Thompson himself is clearly deeply bothered by the fact that bad things happen to good people, which he calls “shocking and disturbing”, a “cosmic affront to our human sense of fairness”. It is hardly unreasonable to be bothered by this fact in this way, and Thompson is entitled to be so. What is not acceptable is to then reread this preoccupation back onto traditional Buddhist sources.Continue reading
Having discussed the broader context of Śāntideva’s work, I think it is instructive to turn now to the two passages that Evan Thompson quotes from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra as supposed examples of the way that Śāntideva’s “philosophical arguments fall apart” without rebirth. These respectively say (in the Wallace and Wallace translation he cites), first, “In the past, I too have inflicted such pain on sentient beings; therefore, I, who have caused harm to sentient beings, deserve that in return./Both his weapon and my body are causes of suffering. He has obtained a weapon, and I have obtained a body. With what should I be angry?” (BCA VI.42-43) And second, “since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort.” (VI.107)Continue reading
I have argued against Evan Thompson that philosophical texts are the proper source for philosophers, so let me now turn our discussion there: specifically to Śāntideva, whom both of us cite.
First let us be clear about two points on which I think Thompson and I agree. The first of these points is that Śāntideva himself believes in rebirth, and this concept deeply suffuses his philosophy; Thompson and I agree about that. The second is that Śāntideva is wrong in this belief: though Ian Stevenson’s kind of work does present a potential anomaly, the best evidence we have in psychology still shows us that human consciousness is tied ineluctably to human bodies, and when that body dies, the consciousness dies with it. As far as I can tell, Thompson accepts this latter proposition. If he does believe human consciousness is reborn at death, my apologies: in that case we are having a very different conversation, and I would be genuinely intrigued to hear his reasons for such a belief. Thompson has not said anything of the sort in the conversation to date, however, so I will proceed in the present discussion on the assumption that he does not.
The question then is how a contemporary Buddhist who accepts both of these points should read Śāntideva’s work. It was specifically in answer to this question that I first turned to a naturalized theory of karma: I did so because I wanted to take Śāntideva as seriously as possible. My dissertation was all about understanding Śāntideva’s reasoning at a deep level, so I looked in detail at the kinds of arguments and reasons Śāntideva offers for acting or feeling one way and not another – what Thompson calls their “warrant and motivation”. As the dissertation discusses, these reasons for action generally fell into three categories, not always separable from each other: the pleasant and unpleasant mental states the actions generate; metaphysical insight into the nature of things, especially their emptiness (which I explored in more detail in a later article; and good or bad karma. Only the last of these three is closely tied to rebirth. The latter terms “good and bad karma” are specifically my translations of puṇya and pāpa, terms ubiquitous in Śāntideva’s work; for him it is puṇya and pāpa, rather than karmaphala or karmavipāka, that most describe the process by which good and bad actions lead to good and bad results.Continue reading