In the previous two posts I tried to show how I came to the best definition I could find for ascent and descent. Namely, ascent is an attempt to transcend the particular human condition, in the name of a higher and better universal; descent is the attempt to embrace the particular human condition without regard to such a universal. This time I’m going to try to spell out just what I mean by that. Continue reading
There is a destructive pattern of behaviour I’ve observed too often which, in an amateur psychological diagnosis, I have come to call the bodhisattva complex. I thought of this term as a friend of mine – a young medical resident – described the behaviours she observed among her fellow medical residents and doctors, who think nothing of working 24- or even 48-hour shifts in order to help people in their care. One wonders: what kind of patient wants to be treated by a man or woman who hasn’t slept in 48 hours?
When I refer to the bodhisattva complex, I do not mean that actual bodhisattvas – ideal Mahāyāna Buddhist beings – are psychologically unhealthy. Some might make that argument (Martha Nussbaum has done so, more or less), but I would not at all. Rather, the bodhisattva complex refers to something which I think is far more common than actual bodhisattvas: you suffer it if you believe you are a bodhisattva, but aren’t. Continue reading
My previous two substantive posts, on Thomas Kasulis’s intimacy/integrity distinction, went in opposite directions from one another. Two weeks ago I noted how the intimacy/integrity distinction seems to divide into two separate distinctions – an ontological one of internal vs. external relation between things, and an epistemological one of affective somatic “dark” knowledge vs. public self-reflective knowledge. Kasulis writes as if internal relation and affective somatic knowledge are all part of the same complex and vice versa, but Hegel and the Pali Buddhist texts seem to cross these divides, such that the Pali literature places external relation with affective somatic knowledge and Hegel the opposite.
Last week, though, I aimed to show that the connection Kasulis assumes between these aspects is a real one. What I pointed out was that an internal relation between existent things implies an internal relation between knower and known, and that this implies an affective somatic kind of knowledge – as an external relation between things implies an external relation between knower and known, and therefore a public and self-reflective kind of knowledge.
But if this is so, what do we do with the exceptional cases of Hegel and the Pali literature, which seem to involve one but not the other? Continue reading
I have frequently discussed how early Indian Buddhism, like Jainism, takes an integrity perspective in an ethical or practical sense. I’ve said less about the theoretical side of its integrity approach. But I think that side is very much there. And it’s that link between theoretical and practical philosophy that makes the concepts of intimacy and integrity so appealing: they go “all the way down”.
I find it particularly important to discuss the theoretical integrity of early Buddhism because I think this is a place where Thomas P. Kasulis – from whom I take the very concepts of intimacy and integrity – has misapplied his own theory. 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
I have often found myself somewhat bewildered by the philosophy of the early- to mid-20th century, associated above all with the names of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. These two thinkers cast their shadow widely over the traditions of philosophy that followed – Heidegger over “continental” philosophy, Wittgenstein over analytic. (The split between the two traditions was not nearly as pronounced in their day; in many respects they helped create it.) They are far apart in many respects, but they do share at least two tendencies I have strongly disliked – an indifference to ethics and concerns about the good life, on one hand, and a rejection of the bulk of philosophy that came before them on the other. I have tended to view these two tendencies as going hand in hand – but do they?
I’ve been thinking anew about Heidegger and Wittgenstein from perhaps an unusual angle: Chad Hansen’s fascinating A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. I don’t yet know early Chinese thought well enough to assess whether Hansen’s account of it is accurate. But I can at least say that Hansen, like Nietzsche, is more interesting and thought-provoking even when he’s wrong than most people are when they’re right. Continue reading
While recently poring over Ken Wilber‘s works, I’ve thought repeatedly about his ideas in relation to Alasdair MacIntyre‘s. Wilber, ever since he identified the pre-trans fallacy, has been an arch-modernist: the world from the Enlightenment onwards has been far better than the traditional world that preceded it. His most recent phase has taken a more postmodern, relativistic turn, but even as a postmodernist he is still a modernist: for Wilber the pluralism of a postmodern worldview is a clear advance, a development, and a pretty unambiguous one.
This is not the worldview one finds in MacIntyre. Continue reading
Today’s post follows up on those from two and three weeks ago, and there’ll be another one next week. I intend the four posts, taken together, to make a statement about the continuing importance of the idea of God: why, in the face of the very real problem of suffering and the scientific ability to easily do without God as an explanation of life’s apparent design, God is still hard to do away with. I mean this on an intellectual and philosophical level, not merely an emotional one; it is not just that we need to bother with God because so many people out have some neurological need for him, but that there yet remain ways in which God helps us to make sense of reality.
I’m going to begin this week not with God, but with Buddhism. Continue reading
The new Journal of Buddhist Ethics has an interesting article up on Śāntideva, by Stephen Harris, a grad student at U of New Mexico. Harris is a colleague of Ethan Mills, who gave the APA talk about skepticism that I discussed in late December (and who has since made thoughtful contributions to this blog’s comments); Harris also gave a talk about Śāntideva on Mills’s panel.
Harris’s article returns us to the most famous passage in Śāntideva’s work: the meditation on the equalization of self and other in Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter VIII, in which Śāntideva takes metaphysical arguments for the nonexistence of self (Buddhist anātman) and uses them as a premise to argue for altruism, ethical selflessness. He asks: “Since both others and myself dislike fear and suffering, what is special about my self that I protect it and not another?” The self that I was three minutes ago is a different entity from the self I will be three minutes from now; the present self has as much reason to protect others as it does its future self. He adds: if you object that suffering should be prevented only by the one it belongs to, well, your foot’s suffering does not belong to your hand, so why should the hand do anything to protect the foot?
The Catholic Buddhologist Paul Williams has criticized this passage in depth, arguing that altruism makes no sense without selves. I’ve discussed Williams’s criticisms twice before, though I haven’t taken a position on the debate yet. I will note that several Buddhologists have already come to Śāntideva’s defence on these arguments – with varying degrees of success.
Harris is the first writer I’m aware of to defend Williams’s position (other than Williams himself). Continue reading
Patrick Deneen had an eloquent piece up this week at Front Porch Republic, a speech given at a student retreat held by the Tocqueville Forum. This speech is emblematic of many popular conservative (and I mean literal conservative) ideas, with implications that go wider than mere politics.
Deneen’s speech is a “defence of culture.” Following one Romano Guardini, Deneen understands culture in a specific sense that ties it essentially to nature, history and society. Culture thus defined is a tradition of interacting with nature and other humans, suspicious of change, deferring to the past and ready to pass it on to future generations. When defined this way, Deneen says, the enemy of culture is liberalism, the contemporary politics of individual choice and freedom at a great remove from nature, history and society. (In this sense, most of the libertarian American Tea Partiers are consummate liberals; liberalism is generally the ideology of both the modern left and the modern right.) Liberalism, Deneen says, endorses an “anti-culture,” or at least monoculture, in which the priority of individual over collective goods is everywhere enshrined. The particular kind of collective goods Deneen has in mind, I think, have above all to do with raising a family – for example, the ability to raise one’s children in an environment that is not thoroughly sexualized by scantily-clad magazine covers, Lady Gaga, Internet pornography and Bratz dolls. (The example is mine, but it’s true to Deneen’s position as I understand it.) Perhaps the most telling line in the piece, and the one that inspired me to write this entry, is this quote from Bertrand de Jouvenel: the political philosophers of liberalism are “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.” Continue reading