I ended the last post with the question of how to put together the insights I have found from Western philosophies like Hegel’s, on one hand, and Buddhism on the other. That question is the twenty-year project that animated my dissertation, though it could not be the dissertation. There it was Martha Nussbaum rather than Hegel whom I juxtaposed with Buddhist thought, because she had engaged with key Buddhist ethical questions and taken opposed answers. (Engaging with Hegel at any length, on the other hand, would have required a whole ‘nother dissertation.)
Two disclaimers are required for this week’s post. First, Janet Gyatso was on my dissertation committee and before that served as my doctoral advisor. Second, Columbia University Press offered to send me a free copy of her new book if I would review it on Love of All Wisdom, and I accepted on condition that the review could be critical. This is that review. Take it as you will.
Sometime during my doctoral studies I recall a student asking Prof. Janet Gyatso what she was currently researching, and she mentioned Tibetan medical literature. That couldn’t have been any later than 2007, when I graduated, and was probably before. Only now, at least eight years later, has Gyatso’s book on Tibetan medicine come out – and one can see why it took so long.
Being Human in a Buddhist World cannot have been an easy book to write. It is a detailed study of several different Tibetan works on medicine, none of which have been translated into a Western language, and all of which deal with highly technical questions of biology using a set of concepts very different from those familiar in the modern West – some in the form of “a dark, incomplete, and frequently illegible third-generation photocopy of a manuscript that is itself rife with spelling mistakes and smudges.” One does not find oneself eager to replicate such a study.
The title of this book is well chosen. Most Buddhism tends to be what I have called an ascent tradition; it is about transcending the condition of our everyday particular humanity, detaching oneself from what the texts Gyatso studies call “the horrible world”. But even if we were to grant that its most advanced practitioners have become in some sense superhuman (say Thich Quang Duc, who, eyewitnesses say, was able to remain perfectly at peace while setting himself on fire), the fact remains that everybody else is still human, all too human. Continue reading
Last time, I observed Peter Singer’s proposed radical revision of our moral views – the claim that, when we keep money that we could give to help the starving or diseased without major sacrifice, we are doing something as bad as if we let a drowning child drown. Is Singer right?
At the heart of Singer’s argument, by his own reckoning, is this principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” He explicitly states that the implication of this “ought” is duty and obligation, not merely charity and generosity. It is not just that sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure to help those in need is good, but that any refusal to do so is bad, something deserving of one’s own guilt and shame and others’ condemnation.
Now on what grounds should we accept this principle, if indeed we should? Continue reading
The image of a drowning child is a vivid one – enough to make it a key example in two very different traditions of moral philosophy. In ancient China, Mencius used the image to illustrate humans’ natural inborn moral benevolence: we would all “have a feeling of alarm and compassion” at such a sight, and not out of any form of self-interest. Thousands of years later, in the early 1970s – when Chinese philosophy was known to the West but it would rarely have occurred to a Western philosopher that he should study it – the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer used the same image. In his famous article “Famine, affluence and morality”, written in 1971 and published 1972, Singer says this:
if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
But Singer puts the image to a very different use than Mencius. Continue reading
One of the key debates in Indian philosophy is what counts as a pramāṇa: an instrument of knowledge, a “reliable warrant”, a means of knowledge reliable enough that one can be reasonably confident to take its conclusions as true. What counts as a pramāṇa? Many Indian philosophers will provide a numbered list of them.
In the empiricist tradition that remains popular in the West, boosted by the discoveries of natural science, only experience is admitted as a pramāṇa: to a full-blown empiricist, nothing counts as knowledge if it doesn’t ultimately have its roots in experience, based in some sort of direct perception. (Ken Wilber’s thought has come to take this position more and more over the years, to its detriment.) The debate over pramāṇas in modern Western philosophy is often framed as one between empiricism and rationalism. That is, where empiricists admit only experience as a pramāṇa, rationalists also allow reasoning an independent validity: some things can be rationally known a priori, independently of sense experience.
Some Indian philosophers have agreed with these views. Continue reading
I have juxtaposed the works of Ken Wilber and Alasdair MacIntyre against each other more than once here. They are at odds in many respects, and MacIntyre often has the best illustration of Wilber’s weak points. MacIntyre’s anti-modernism is the most potent antidote to the ever-increasing modernist tendency of Wilber’s thought. So too, MacIntyre effectively skewers what was perhaps always the weakest point in Wilber’s work, his “worldcentric” ethics. Finally, the uses they have made of non-Western thought are in drastically different directions, related closely to the content of their thought, such that MacIntyre’s intimacy orientation leads him to China and not India, and Wilber’s occasional interest in ascent leads him to India and not China.
(Wilber refers to refers to MacIntyre’s After Virtue once in a passing footnote to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (684n21), but not in a way that comes to terms with MacIntyre’s challenge to Wilber.)
But there are at least two influences the two thinkers have in common. One is Hegel: especially in his earlier work, Wilber has often cited Hegel as an influence for his project of synthesis (although he doesn’t really get Hegel’s dialectical approach), while MacIntyre takes himself in After Virtue to be doing philosophical history in a sense deriving from Hegel. The second influence, which I want to talk about here, is Thomas S. Kuhn. Continue reading
There are two different ways to apply the distinction between dialectical and demonstrative argument, and it’s important to be aware of the difference. I draw the terms dialectical and demonstrative argument from Alasdair MacIntyre in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (pages 88-9), who in turn takes the distinction from Boethius‘s De topicis differentiis and ultimately from Aristotle’s Topics. The key point is that dialectical argument argues to first principles, and demonstrative argument from first principles.
But what are those first principles? Are they first principles for knowledge in general, or merely first principles within a single paradigm? Continue reading
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a groundbreaking work that changed the way the world thinks about natural science. Kuhn claims that science works not as a steady, additive accretion of knowledge, but as through periods of specialized knowledge accumulation within one paradigm that (every so often) is displaced by a genuinely novel revolution that overthrows the existing paradigm.
It has sometimes been noted that social scientists and philosophers are much more likely to read Kuhn than natural scientists are. I don’t think this is necessarily because natural scientists are less likely to believe Kuhn’s historical account, but because they are less likely to see the history of their discipline as relevant to their current activity. For my part, I do not (yet) know the history of natural science well enough to know how accurately Kuhn’s description fits it. But it’s worth thinking about how Kuhn’s description applies outside the natural sciences he studied, to the humanities and social sciences. Continue reading
Consider this dialogue:
A: “All fish breathe through gills rather than lungs.”
B: “But whales are fish, and they breathe through their lungs.”
A: “Whales may look and seem like fish, but they aren’t truly fish because they breathe through their lungs.”
To anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of biology, A’s reasoning here must seem sound. Yet among some philosophers with a scientific bent, the structure of the reasoning A employs is often criticized as a logical fallacy. Continue reading
I have recently begun the exciting opportunity to teach a course in Indian philosophy in Boston University’s philosophy department. Thinking about and designing the course, I had the great opportunity to work with the small but excellent staff of BU’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. They asked me: what’s your objective for the course? More specifically, what will your students be able to do when the course is done? They recommended that I pay particular attention to the verbs identifying these student abilities.
Such a question is easier to answer in skill-oriented courses – courses in Java programming or academic writing. There, the point of the course is all about something that students will be able to do. In a humanistic course, objectives are different, and often not easily specified. It’s not just that humanistic learning may have as much to do with personal transformation as with any acquired ability. It’s that even the abilities acquired are themselves difficult to define. In particular: one of the first verbs to come out of my mouth in response was “understand”. And one of the staff soon said in response, “we’d like to encourage you to avoid the U-word.” Continue reading