On Stephen Walker’s recommendation, I’ve been turning to the articles of Chris Fraser in order to understand the difficult Daoist thinker Zhuangzi. (Happily, Fraser makes most of his articles available free online.) The Zhuangzi is an intimidating text to attempt to understand for a number of reasons, and it’s helpful to have the guidance of someone like Fraser who has spent a lot more time with it than I have. Continue reading
Over the past little while I have been reading more Confucianism, and becoming more sympathetic to it for a variety of reasons. I’ve hardly converted to Confucianism, which is probably just as well; I sometimes think I’d be the world’s worst Confucian – not having children, living far from my parents, and having grown up regularly challenging their authority. To be fair, my parents – a Marxist and a child of the sixties – effectively encouraged me to challenge their authority. Still, in recent years and months I have come to sympathize with Confucianism a lot more. And it feels like the very least I can do is honour my parents in this forum.
I chose this week to do so because my mother, Dorothy Lele, just celebrated her birthday, and I will start by speaking of her. Continue reading
It’s often said that “individualism” is an invention of the modern West – meaning the approach that defines human beings as independent and autonomous from their social context. The French sociologist Louis Dumont made this claim directly in contrast to India, seeing India as a highly communitarian place where an individual’s community and social status much more. Dumont applied this communitarian view not only to Indian society at large but to its theoretical thought.
Many students of other cultures soon come to see individualism as a Western conceit – a bizarre peculiarity of an eccentric society that went wrong with Descartes. If indeed the modern West is a complete solitary exception to the rule, then there would seem to be something to this view.
I wrestled with it for a while myself. I used to believe Dumont’s classification of India was correct. It certainly resonated with my personal experiences, seeing how much more my Indian family cared about family and community ties. But those experiences, combined with the communitarian stereotype of India found in the likes of Dumont and Max Weber, blinded me to things I read every day in graduate school for years without actually noticing. Continue reading
Ten years ago today, my first wife and I were in the process of moving into our new unfurnished student apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We had rented a moving truck and driven over to the house of a friend, who had generously offered us an old piece of furniture. My wife rang the bell and we waited a minute or two. Then my friend came running down the stairs, slightly flustered and dishevelled. “I’m sorry I took so long,” she said, panting a little. “I was watching the news.”
“The… news?” We looked at each other.
“Oh my God, you haven’t heard! Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. It’s collapsed.”
“Two planes!” I said. “Then it must have been deliberate.”
“Yeah, they think it’s Osama bin Laden.”
“Huh,” I said. “Wow.” I paused for a few seconds, saying “Wow” and “Huh” a few more times. Then I shrugged my shoulders and said “Well, let’s get back to moving.”
This was not, I would soon learn, the way most Americans reacted to the same news. Continue reading
A week ago today, the talented young British R&B/pop singer Amy Winehouse died. I think I can sum up the popular reaction thus: everybody was sad; nobody was surprised. The chorus to Winehouse’s most popular and famous song went: “They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no.” The lifestyle she lived matched her lyrics exactly – as when she was hospitalized for an overdose of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine and alcohol.
It’s a shame that the world lost such a great singer so early. And yet, the same louche excess that killed Winehouse was part of the appeal of her songs. Nobody wants to hear a soulful voice sing “I ate all my vegetables and flossed daily,” even if this idea is put in more poetic cadences.
Blogger Penelope Trunk describes herself as having Asperger’s Syndrome. Her obsessive Aspergian interest seems to be in the nature of her own life – which makes her a dedicated follower of Socrates’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. So while her blog is supposedly about career advice, it often winds up being highly philosophical. Recently, she’s said a fair bit about one of the most enduring philosophical questions: happiness.
Aristotle tells us everyone agrees the purpose of life is eudaimonia. It was once the standard to translate this term as “happiness.” This translation has started to fall out of favour, to be replaced by “flourishing” – and rightly so. For it’s pretty clear that whatever eudaimonia is – and I think Aristotle deliberately makes it hard to pin down – it is not what we usually understand by “happiness.”
Consider: near the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that everyone agrees that eudaimonia is the ultimate purpose of human life; we just don’t agree what constitutes it. But if this eudaimonia were happiness, how would we explain someone like Trunk, who has spent a great deal of time thinking about happiness – only to reject it? “I don’t want to be happy,” she says. “I want idle time to let my mind wander because the unhappy result is so interesting.” Continue reading
Last week I attended an interesting talk by Harvard PhD candidate (and fellow Canuck) Rory Lindsay, through the graduate Workshop in Cross-Cultural Philosophy – a workshop I’m proud to have played a part in founding (and I’m happy to say that its current leaders have made it exponentially more successful than it ever was under my stewardship). Lindsay was exploring the skepticism of the Indian Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti; he compared Candrakīrti to the Hellenistic capital-S Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who held similar views, and examined the arguments made against Sextus by Myles Burnyeat. I want to discuss Lindsay’s talk by first giving some background to it, then recounting it, and finally offering a few of my reflections that came out of it.
Lindsay’s talk – I hope I will be interpreting it correctly – delved far enough into the technical details of Buddhist theoretical debates that some introductory remarks are in order. Those familiar with these debates should feel free to skip down a couple of paragraphs. Buddhist teaching deliberately and thoughtfully attacks certain aspects of common sense and common linguistic usage, and yet nevertheless needs to make some use of that linguistic usage. Continue reading
In examining my previous question on internalism and externalism I’ve been trying to explore a powerful but complex and difficult answer: that this question is expressed in the very history of Western philosophy.
Lately I’ve slowly been making my way through Philosophy and Freedom, a collection of essays by and about the neglected Canadian Hegelian philosopher James Doull (rhymes with towel). Doull, like Socrates or George Herbert Mead, never published a book during his lifetime; his reputation derives almost entirely from being spread by his students and their students, mostly through the classics department at Dalhousie University and the great-books program at its affiliated University of King’s College. (I myself know Doull’s work only because a lifelong friend of mine is one of Doull’s “grand-pupils,” a devoted student of Doull’s students at Dalhousie and King’s.)
Doull’s work is difficult, both in the density of its prose and in the wide range of the texts it expects familiarity with – the chapter on ancient Greece covers not only philosophy but the full range of history, tragedy and comedy, viewing their scope all together through a Hegelian philosophical lens. Moreover, because Doull’s concerns are so wide-ranging, a study of his work does not immediately repay the reader with direct application to particular philosophical questions and problems. If ever there was a big-picture thinker it is this man, at least when it comes to Western philosophical traditions.
And yet studying Doull closely has ultimately paid off for me in thinking about the big question I’ve addressed above. I realize that this question of ethical motivation has, in its way, been central to Western philosophical tradition, not merely in the works of individual thinkers but through its history. Continue reading
I’ve often heard it said, rightly I think, that Buddhism cannot do without a concept of karma; it is too central to Buddhist thought. I don’t see this as a big problem in itself, even for those (like myself) who would wish to do without the supernatural elements in Buddhism. For karma, as Dale Wright has proposed, can be naturalized on Aristotelian grounds: virtue makes our lives better, because it makes us happier on the inside. In that sense, our good and bad actions come back to us as good and bad results, without any supernatural causation being involved. Buddhism may require karma, but we can have karma without rebirth.
The question troubling me now is: can we have Buddhism without rebirth? There’s a basic problem posed here by the First Noble Truth, the classic Buddhist idea that all is dukkha: all is suffering, painful, unsatisfactory, sorrowful, bad. If this is so, why not commit suicide? For a classical Buddhist, rebirth is the answer to this question, and the obvious answer. Suicide makes your dukkha even worse; as a bad, un-dharmic activity, it will trap you in a far worse rebirth, leave you far more sorrowful and suffering than you are.
But if there is no rebirth? Then death starts to look disturbingly like nirvana. Continue reading
My philosophical awakening occurred in Thailand in 1997; but it has been over the past decade, “the ohs,” that I’ve really had the chance to develop my thoughts. As that decade closes, I would like to note how my thoughts were shaped by their time.
I spent almost the entire decade living in the United States, except for two three-month stints in Toronto in 2001 and India in 2005. It was not the ideal decade in which to do this, for the US of this decade was the US of George W. Bush: a man who opposed almost everything I had ever stood for, whether substantively (torture, wars of choice, gutting environmental regulations), procedurally (incompetent patronage appointments for natural disasters, governing unilaterally without respect for other branches of government) or symbolically (insisting on suits and ties in the White House). I had grown up despising Ronald Reagan, but Reagan now looked like a saint compared to W – Reagan at least was competent. And in the face of all this, Americans returned him to office in 2004.
For my many American friends – the vast majority of them left-wingers like me – this decade was a time of powerlessness and rage. But they at least could vote, could contribute to political campaigns, could do something about it. Continue reading