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
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
Last year my friend Craig Martin made an interesting post on the subject of normativity – what we might, for lack of a better word, call value judgements – in academic religious studies. I disagree with almost all of it, and I think it’s helpful to spell out the reasons for doing so.
Craig situates himself as a poststructuralist who does not accept “the dream of objectivity or objective truth”, but nevertheless deems it “both important and useful to appeal to intersubjective verification (of the sort we see in the work of the American pragmatists)…” The problem is that the “intersubjective verification” described in this post sounds, to my ears, almost exactly like the old-fashioned empiricism that poststructuralists are (rightly) supposed to be rejecting. As it is applied in this particular context, “intersubjective verification” seems to be little more than a fancy way of maintaining the empiricist’s fact-value distinction: “intersubjective verification” is something we can reach about empirically verifiable facts, but not about those silly insubstantial value judgements.
The basic problem with such an approach, for Craig as for the empiricists, is that such a standard of intersubjective verification is itself a value judgement of exactly the kind that it urges we avoid. The problem may be best captured by repeating one of the post’s last statements: “I think we should attempt to avoid using praiseworthy or pejorative evaluative terms, as well as ‘should’ statements about our objects of study.”
Notice something amiss here? Continue reading
Last time I examined Andrew Ollett’s distinction between “decision-oriented” texts like Kant’s Grounding and “capacity-oriented” texts like Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, and the ways in which that distinction might suggest a “philosophical” versus a “historical” approach to those texts. I discussed what I found problematic about that application of the distinction, but noted Andrew’s quote that points beyond it:
Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.
I mentioned last time that in dealing with my wife’s cancer, I had started praying to Mañjuśrī, just as I had done (and written about here) five years ago in another period of my life that involved emotional difficulties – though considerably less difficult than this.
But that previous time had posed me an intellectual challenge as well, for I didn’t believe Mañjuśrī existed, as a sentient being capable of answering prayers. And while I may be calling myself a Buddhist now, what I said then still holds true: “I don’t think there is actually somebody out there who accumulated enough good karma to become a celestial being who redirects good karma down to the rest of us for our benefit.” Can it make any sense to pray to something you don’t believe in?
As it turned out, the question bothers me a lot less now than it once had. Continue reading
After I had my first epiphany in Thailand, being changed by Buddhist ideas, I thought for a while that philosophy was the key to a good and happy life – that what we really needed to live well was to understand and think about the big questions of life. I see that attitude now as a young man’s naïve enthusiasm. As I read more Hegel, I’m particularly struck by how little guidance there is in there for living well. Living well requires reflection, yes, but above all the kind of reflection that comes out of practice. And I don’t primarily mean the meditation and meditation-like practices to which Yavanayāna Buddhists so often reduce the idea of “practice”, but the likes of therapy, exercise, and the very fact of going through daily life and learning from one’s experience and mistakes.
So what, one may well ask, is the point of philosophy? Continue reading
At my Indian wedding, the ceremony referred at length to becoming gṛhastha: that is, entering the householder stage of life. This turned out to be truer than intended: my wife and I are in the final stages of buying a house. We will close, and move, over the next couple of weeks, and I will be taking a break from writing Love of All Wisdom during that time. I expect to return near the end of September.
Until then I’d like to leave you with this. I recently stumbled on a wonderful old post of Skholiast’s where, in response to a query from Gary Smith, he lists a number of short and pithy theses about what it is he believes. It looked to me like a useful exercise. I’d like to try it here myself. Most of this has been said elsewhere, by me or by someone else or both, with actual argument to justify it. But I thought it might be helpful to attempt a pithy summary in a single place. Continue reading
This is the first time I have featured a guest post on Love of All Wisdom. Jeffery Long, a professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, sent me this response after I had written my own piece on the topic. I disagree with a few of Jeff’s ideas, most notably the free employment of the term “Hindu”, but some disagreement is always to be expected among philosophers and humanists. I thought the piece merited prompt online publication and I found it to be in broad sympathy with the aims of this blog, so I am presenting it to readers here. I haven’t configured the site to allow others to add content, for the moment at least, so the “official” byline currently lists me as the author. But readers should be clear that this is Jeff’s work, not mine, and all credit and copyright belong to him. Enjoy. – Amod Lele
The first thing a respondent to Deepak Sarma’s essay, “White Hindu Converts: Mimicry or Mockery?”, needs to do is acknowledge the essential core of experiential truth and the genuine pain at its heart. Racism against brown-skinned persons is real and pervasive in North America. Being married now for over seventeen years to a Bengali, I cannot help but be aware of it. Sometimes this racism is overt and brutal, as in the case when, shortly after 9/11, a fellow customer at a gas station pointed to my wife and asked aggressively, “Is she from Afghanistan?” At other times it is more subtle, and perhaps even unknown to its perpetrators, such as when my wife speaks in a faculty meeting at the college where we both work only to have her words met with blank stares and confusion, while I later make basically the same comment and am told what a brilliant and insightful observation I have made. Continue reading
There’s a recurring theme in Indo-European thought that has often perplexed me: categories. The Indian Vaiśeṣika school of thought is known primarily for enumerating a set of categories (padārthas) with which to understand reality. I always had a hard time getting why they spent so much time doing that. The thing is, they’re hardly alone in doing it. In an introductory class I took on reading philosophical Sanskrit, we read an 18th-century Sanskrit introduction to the thought of Rāmānuja, a thinker quite far removed from Vaiśeṣika – and that too was all about dividing the world into categories. I have not yet delved much into Aristotle’s difficult theoretical philosophy, especially his Metaphysics – but most introductions to that work will tell you that it too is all about categories. What’s going on here? Why would so many major thinkers do this sort of thing?
I think a key reasons the categories have puzzled me is that, like the majority of my readers, I have been brought up in a worldview heavily infused by scientism. In the English-speaking world, at least, we usually take it for granted that reality is made of matter; we are materialists. And we are wrong. Continue reading
In last week’s post I began responding to my friend Momin Malik, who had defended relativism against ideas of universal truth. Momin had argued for relativism based on the need for internal understanding: we need to understand others in terms that make sense to them. I agreed with this – noting that every universalism needs a theory of error, and one which understands others in those kinds of internal terms is the best one.
Momin responded that this was not possible: “An internalist theory of error would require the universalist to give credence to the internal dynamics of another system, which would violate its universalism.” Continue reading