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
Following from his distinction between freedom and necessity, Martin Hägglund tells us that “The rational aim, then, is to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom.” (223) The rational aim of politics, perhaps. But the Disengaged Buddhists remind us how many of life’s problems politics cannot solve. And these problems go right to Hägglund’s own core concepts of freedom and necessity.
Hägglund misses the point expressed in Ashleigh Brilliant’s wonderful epigram: freedom is not the goal, but you need freedom before you can decide what the goal is. Freedom itself, as the simple ability to do what one finds fulfilling, is empty of content. The most important thing is not merely to have room to pursue our ends, but to actually pursue them, which requires we think about which ends are really ours, which are really worth pursuing – and then actually do so. Free time is not the end, it is a means to the end. Alessandro Ferrara puts the point well in his Reflective Authenticity. Ferrara articulates the distinction that I have referred to as quantitative versus qualitative individualism, referring to each as autonomy and authenticity respectively – and he makes the key point that “authenticity presupposes autonomy.” (6, emphasis his) Without the ability to self-determine, a Hägglundian freedom, we cannot be our true selves. But that freedom is only a necessary condition for true self-expression, not a sufficient one!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
Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.Continue reading
Tomorrow is the winter solstice: the shortest, darkest day of the year. After that, everything will slowly start getting lighter and brighter. And never in my lifetime has that felt like more of a perfect metaphor.
Christmas is perhaps the festival that most obviously commemorates the light in the darkness at this time of year, but it is not the only festival to acknowledge the darkest days and prepare for the light. Hanukkah is a smaller part of the Jewish ritual year than North Americans typically make it out to be – it is not nearly as important as Passover – but it is a real Jewish festival of light at the darkest time of the year. So too, Westerners mark a new year beginning just as the old year is at its darkest.
All these events happen every year. But this is a year like no other.Continue reading
One of the more pressing questions in political philosophy is how to prevent the arbitrary use of power. I think Thomas Hobbes and Xunzi were sadly right to diagnose an abiding darkness in human nature: left to our own devices, human beings can easily degenerate into disastrous crimes. Primatology suggests a confirmation: among our closest (or nearly closest) living relatives, the chimpanzees, a jockeying for power and status can lead to vicious rivalries and even murder – even in the idyllic situation where all their material needs are provided for. The evidence of existing human history does nothing to suggest that language or other human capacities have made us better than that.
But Hobbes, as far as I can tell, offers the worst possible solution to this problem: to concentrate power in a single sovereign person. Then that one person becomes able to tyrannize everyone else in a way completely unrestrained, just as he pleases. (It is rarely a she.) The twentieth century gives us too many chilling examples of mass murder and terror from a sovereign given arbitrary power.
A more reasonable approach to the problem asks how we can contain the dark impulses of all people – and of the sovereign leader most of all. It is likely no mystery why I’m asking this question living in 2020 in the United States.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
Fallibilism is one of the most important modern ideas. By fallibilism I mean the idea that no idea is in principle immune to revision. It is among the most important methodological principles for natural science. As Ann Druyan said, science “is forever whispering in our ears, ‘Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.’” Many of the claims a Newtonian physicist would once have confidently made, have been shown to be false by Einsteinian and quantum physicists.
As it turns out, this crucial idea has important roots in Muslim thinkers who might reasonably be called fundamentalist.Continue reading
A few years ago I discussed why the debate between intellectualist and voluntarist conceptions of God (is God an intellect or a will?) was so important in the medieval Western world. (The West here includes medieval Muslims, who not only started the debate, but were often further west than the Christians – in what is now Spain and Morocco rather than France and Italy.) I followed up by speaking of the modern practical implications of this debate: how it shows up in modern conceptions of law, and democracy. I think there are also some interesting things to say about the ethical implications of the debate in its own context.
Above all, if God is taken as a supremely good being, then our conception of him is inextricable from our conceptions of goodness and morality as such – and for that matter, of how we can tell what is good. This was the context for the debates that raged in early Muslim ethics, perhaps best chronicled by George Hourani. Muslims of the time agreed that the good life should be thought of in terms of law (shari’a): the prohibitions and obligations set out by God. But how do we know what God’s law is, exactly? It depends on what God is.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