Five years ago, on a language fellowship in India, I had more time to do broad reading in cross-cultural philosophy than grad school usually permitted. I wound up reading a lot of Ken Wilber, and had already been immersed in Martha Nussbaum’s thought for my dissertation. These two thinkers don’t have a whole lot in common, beyond coming out of roughly the same (American baby boom) cultural milieu and having an unusually wide-ranging philosophical outlook. But there is one set of categories that features prominently in both of their work, and I suspect for good reason: ascent and descent.
For Wilber, one of the most fundamental philosophical debates is that between Ascent and Descent: between a spiritual view that aspires to transcendence of the everyday material world, and a materialist view that embraces it. (Like the intimacy-integrity distinction – on which more shortly – the distinction is particularly interesting because it embraces theoretical as well as practical philosophy, metaphysics as well as ethics.) Some of Wilber’s sharpest criticisms are directed against ecological philosophies of interdependence, which suggest that what we ultimately need is to embrace our mutual dependence in the natural world. In Wilber’s eyes, such a view leaves us scarcely better off than the mechanistic individualism it aims to replace, for both views remain squarely within a materialist tradition of “descent,” neglecting the spiritual realm. I have noted before that, while Yavanayāna Buddhists often embrace such views of interdependence, they are wildly at odds with traditional Indian Buddhism, for reasons similar to those noted by Wilber.
Upheavals of Thought, the weighty tome that I would consider Nussbaum’s magnum opus, employs such a distinction through its third, longest and final part – entitled “Ascents of Love.” Continue reading