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
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
In my continuing response to Evan Thompson I now turn to another methodological question that Thompson raises: what sources should we be using in a discussion of karma? I claim that my eudaimonist interpretation of Buddhist karma is congruent with existing Buddhist tradition in important ways, so it matters what that existing tradition has to say and how we determine it.
When I had previously said that the traditional core of karma had to do with future results of action – with that basic idea that good actions improve well-being – Thompson had asserted in response that “this idea isn’t the core idea of karma, if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.” To support this claim he linked out to Obeyesekere’s Imagining Karma, which studied the formation of the concept through philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. In his new reply, however, Thompson now says that “exegesis of philosophical texts… isn’t the right method for a concept like karma.”
Here, it seems to me, goalposts may have been moved. In his previous post, when he was first trying to make the claim that the “core” of karma “is to explain why bad things happen to good people”, Thompson was happy to cite, as his only source, Obeyesekere’s study, which relies largely on the exegesis of philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. This was hardly a surprise, given that both of us are self-professed philosophers, and that Thompson himself had said, “my aim is to lay bare the philosophical problems with Buddhist modernism.” Emphasis added. But once I pointed out that Obeyesekere said nothing of the sort, then Thompson declared that the right method for thinking about karma didn’t have to do with philosophical texts but must be in the way they “function psychologically and socially” in everyday people’s lives.Continue reading
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been a struggle for everyone, and some more than others. It has been a heartbreak for those who have lost loved ones, a terror for those who have lost jobs, and a great struggle for those who must suddenly take care of their children full-time while simultaneously trying to do their full-time jobs as well.
I am lucky not to have fallen into any of these three troubled categories – yet, at least. But I have noticed how difficult these times have been even for others who share my relatively lucky position – simply because everything is cancelled. We may not have parties. We may not go out to eat. We may not go to the movies. We may not travel, not without severe quarantine restrictions. We may not play sports; we may not even watch sports. We may not watch, or play, live music. Most of our social interactions must be through a medium where we cannot tell whether others are looking at us or at something else on their screen. Even as we recognize others’ difficulties are considerably greater, this is all still a major loss of the things we love.Continue reading
As a hospital pastoral care provider I minister to patients of all faiths, and I have been impressed at how their faiths shape their own understanding of the virtues and contribute to making their lives admirable. So, if you are a person who finds a belief in rebirth compelling, and if you find that a belief in rebirth inspires you to practice being more compassionate to others, I have no quarrel with you. Please continue. The only statement I am willing to make without hesitation is that a belief in rebirth (let’s just use “rebirth” here as a stand-in for all the parts of Buddhism I happen to disagree with) doesn’t work for me, and I expect it won’t work for the majority of modern Westerners. I don’t want to be imperialistic about my beliefs. My attitude is, “this is what works for me,” and if you are feeling the same kind of dissonance with aspects of the Buddhist tradition, see if it works for you, too. On the other hand, I would never want to tell the Dalai Lama that he is practicing Buddhism wrong.
I do recognize the importance of working with people as they are, especially in a difficult field like pastoral care. Still I am nervous about saying that false ideas – which I do take rebirth to be – constitute “the best model for” any given person. Continue reading
Seth Zuihō Segall wrote a helpful response to my review of his Buddhism and Human Flourishing. Seth’s1 response makes four points, groupable in two categories that correspond to the division of my original post: the first two points, roughly, have to do with endorsing modern Western views, the second two with rejecting them. I will move roughly from (what I take to be) our points of greatest agreement to our points of greatest disagreement.
So I will begin with the fourth and last of Seth’s points, which is the one where I think we agree most. This point is about transcending the constitutive conditions of our humanity: a key point at issue between Śāntideva and Martha Nussbaum. As I noted in my review, I do actually stand with Nussbaum and with Seth against Śāntideva on this question: I do not think we should try to transcend these conditions. My concern was that this point needs to be argued, we can’t simply assume Nussbaum is right – because if she is right, then Śāntideva is wrong, and I think it’s important to be clear about that.Continue reading
I agree with all the arguments you have made, but I think there is one maining major issue that divides you from Evan that transcends all the other issues. That is, as a “lover of all wisdom,” why would you define yourself as a Buddhist as opposed to someone who is informed by many wisdom traditions but holds a special place in his heart for Buddhism—in another words, how is your stance different from a more cosmopolitan one that is Buddhist-friendly, but not, strictly speaking, Buddhist?
I think I have answered this question before, but there is more to say on it. For a long time – including the first six years of writing this blog – I defined myself in just such a way, as Thompson does. Like Thompson, I went so far as to say I don’t identify as a Buddhist.Continue reading