Let me begin with a guessing game, for those readers who consider themselves relatively widely read in philosophy. I am thinking of a text that examines two different views of human beings. It examines on one hand the view that humans are entities that act on the world of the sort that one can tell stories about, using language, living in communities, giving and taking. It juxtaposes this view on the other hand with the view that humans are collections of smaller imperceptible particles that operate strictly according to universal laws of causation. The texts comes to the conclusion that the latter view is the one that corresponds to reality, with the former simply an appearance or convenient way of speaking. Which text is this? Continue reading
A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture on Buddhism to David Decosimo‘s class at the Boston University School of Theology. The students were a delight to teach – smart, actively engaged, asking many questions. One student’s question in particular stuck with me after the session. She had started to ask a long set of multiple questions, and then distilled it down to what she referred to as a simple question: “How would you describe the relation between Buddhism and science?”
My first response was: “That is not a simple question!” There is so much to say about it that there are now books written not merely on the actual relationship between Buddhism and science, but on the very idea of a relationship between Buddhism and science. I gave a relatively rambling answer. But after leaving the classroom it occurred to me that there was a relatively simple answer that I could have given – one that would have put a large part of the question’s complexity aside, but focused on something of particular relevance to students of Christian theology. Continue reading
I’m continuing to examine Justin Whitaker‘s interpretation of Pali Buddhist ethics as Kantian moral law. I argued last time that the concept of dhamma does not serve in these texts as a universal, trans-human moral law. Here I want to take a similar look at the concept of kamma – better known in English as karma.
Justin claims that for Kant “the Moral Law is universal, concerned with all (rational) beings, and is holistic in its conception of morality as a guarantor to a just realm of ends (supported by the moral argument for belief in God).” (47) I think this interpretation of Kant is missing something in that Kant does not view the moral argument as demonstrating that there actually is a guarantee of cosmic justice, only that we must act as if there is (it is a regulative ideal). But I’ll leave that aside here because I want to focus on the comparison to Buddhism. Continue reading
In his interesting recent Buddhism and Political Theory, Matthew Moore sums up current scholarly work on Buddhist ethics noting “There are several major debates ongoing in the field, particularly whether early Buddhist ethics are better understood as consequentialist or a version of virtue ethics (almost no one argues for deontology)…” (113)
My friend and fellow blogger Justin Whitaker is a major part of the “almost”. I once described him as a “voice in the wilderness” for interpreting Buddhist ethics in terms of Kantian deontology. But I was delighted to hear that he has recently completed his dissertation, in a way that should make that voice a little louder. And I was happy to have a chance to read it.
To say that I am delighted that the work exists is not, of course, to say that I agree with it. Continue reading
As I noted last time, I think the disregard of ethics by Indian-philosophy scholars like Dan Arnold is a problem in itself: it’s a misconception of what philosophy is, and one that harmfully shrinks the field of the study of Indian philosophy. But I think this neglect would still be a problem even for people who do decide to restrict their study of Indian philosophy to the theoretical realms of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language. For it seems to me that at least in Arnold’s case, the neglect of ethics leads to a misinterpretation of the metaphysics.
Arnold’s misinterpretation is focused above all around the relationship between the famous Buddhist “two truths”: conventional truth (saṃvṛti) and ultimate truth (paramārtha). Consider Arnold’s description (again in his review of Karen Lang) of the second chapter of Candrakīrti’s Catuḥśatakaṭīkā. “Candrakīrti develops (contra Vasubandhu) a characteristically Mādhyamika point to the effect that the conventional reality of pleasure is not denied, only its being the ‘inherent nature’ of life.” From this description, Candrakīrti’s chapter sounds like it is all about acknowledging pleasure and making room for it. You would not be able to tell that the point of this chapter, very explicitly stated at its beginning, is “rejecting the illusion of regarding the painful as being pleasant” – or that in this chapter, pretty much everything that we would normally consider pleasant turns out to be painful. Continue reading
It is commonplace today for scholars of Indian philosophy to focus their attention entirely on theoretical philosophy at the expense of the practical. I think this tendency is a mistake. I see at least two grave problems with it. First: In my 2015 article I argued that (at least in the case of Śāntideva) our understanding of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if we ignore Buddhist metaphysics. I am now beginning to think this issue goes in the other direction as well: that we will misinterpret Buddhist metaphysics if we ignore Buddhist ethics. I will talk about that problem next time. This time, I will address the other problem: it can drop us into the all-too-familiar trap of treating some Indian inquiries as “not philosophical” even when they were engaged in by most of the great philosophers of the West.
A friend read the previous post on ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva and asked (on Google+) what exactly I meant by “incompleteness”. It was a great question and made me realize there was a bit of confusion in my own thinking.
The point of connection I saw between the two different thinkers was above all at the level of understanding the world. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking lately about MacIntyre’s explanation of the Muslim philosopher ibn Sīnā and the ways in which ibn Sīnā’s concept of God requires us to rethink the entire world around us if we accept it:
From [atheists’] standpoint a theist is someone who believes in just one more being than they do and who therefore has the responsibility for justifying her or his belief in this extra entity. But from the standpoint of the theist this is already to have misconceived both God and theistic belief in God. To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything. (God, Philosophy, Universities p. 47)
What’s drawing my attention is that you could write a very similar passage to characterize Buddhism. Continue reading
I struggle with the Buddhist concept of non-self. I am not sure whether I accept it. But I am confident that Buddhists are able to demolish one of the more influential Western accounts of the self, that of René Descartes.
Descartes, recall, is worried that he cannot be certain of anything. Like Plato before him, he knows his senses are often wrong; he could be dreaming, he could be in the Matrix. Unlike Plato, he is not satisfied to take even mathematics as a certain foundation. It could be that an evil demon (or the creators of the Matrix) had deceived him such that there was no shape or place, and the real world was far stranger. Geometry isn’t certain enough. Arithmetic? Here he comes to real uncertainty:
I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge; so how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square?
I think Descartes’s reasoning is right up to this point (as many Buddhists would not). Continue reading
Medieval Christian philosophy (or theology), often referred to as “scholasticism”, is often characterized as being about abstract questions with no relevance to anybody outside the scholastics’ own tradition. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is often taken as an example of their sort of irrelevant question, though as far as I know no medieval philosopher ever actually asked that question. People who characterize medieval Christian thought this way would likely also need to say the same about medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophy if they knew anything about it (which, typically, they don’t).
You will probably have guessed that I do not share this assessment of medieval thought. True, some of their questions presuppose so much that it is hard to imagine it relevant to those outside their tradition – such as the question of whether angels can occupy the same physical space, which they actually did ask. But every tradition depends on assumptions that others may not necessarily share – certainly including analytic philosophy, where so much ethical reflection depends on taken-for-granted “intuitions”. For these reasons I often refer to analytic philosophy as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition.
Yet analytic philosophy does ask questions that are relevant to those who do not share its assumptions, and the same is true of medieval thought – even on questions that might appear irrelevant at first glance. I note this point with reference to one medieval question in particular: Continue reading