A few years ago I wondered how a naturalized Buddhism could avoid advocating suicide. If our goal is the cessation of suffering, and death is not the beginning of a new birth but a simple ending, shouldn’t death itself be our goal? I didn’t go very far with this argument, in part because I didn’t identify as a Buddhist at the time – there was a certain way in which not being a Buddhist made it not my problem. But now I am a Buddhist. And an excellent recent chapter by Jan Westerhoff, in Jake Davis’s fine new edited volume on Buddhist ethics, brings the point back into uncomfortable focus. Continue reading
I’ve devoted a lot of attention lately to a writing project focused on Alasdair MacIntyre‘s thought, one I first mentioned in my interview with Skholiast. It began critical of MacIntyre and then turned more sympathetic to him, but has become much bigger than that – because it has become a project articulating my own method for cross-cultural philosophy. The idea started off as a potential blog post (I was going to call it “MacIntyre vs. MacIntyre”) and then grew to the size of an article, but it may well become multiple articles, a book, or even multiple books. I’ve articulated some elements of this methodological position in previous posts and given my current thoughts in a paper for the Prosblogion’s virtual colloquium, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that.
As I come to engage more deeply with MacIntyre, though, I find myself faced with an important distinction: the methodological MacIntyre is not the substantive MacIntyre. I draw a great deal of inspiration from the former, with some modifications; I am more in agreement with him than not. But in the latter I find a great deal to reject – and to reject, moreover, on methodologically MacIntyrean grounds. Continue reading
Andrew Ollett has recently taken up the point I made earlier this year that Buddhist ethics, in distinction from modern analytical ethics, is not primarily concerned with decision procedure. He identifies Indian non-analytic approaches as “capacity-oriented”: “They maintain that ethical decision-making and action always presuppose being formed as a subject with particular capacities, dispositions, habits, and so on.” That is not quite how I would put it, because for a Buddhist thinker like Buddhaghosa, we are not actually subjects, formed or otherwise; our systematic delusion forms an idea of ourselves as subjects, but this idea is false, and part of the goal of ethics is to un-form or at least de-form it. I do agree, though, that in Buddhist ethics there is an emphasis on the development of beneficial dispositions and habits – virtues – that stands in distinction to the analytical emphasis on a decision procedure. (It seems to me like this might not be the case in Mīmāṃsā, whose legalistic mode of ethical reasoning does seem oriented to a decision procedure, but Andrew knows more about Mīmāṃsā than I do.)
Andrew’s post gets particularly interesting when he maps the decision/capacity distinction onto “disciplinary and methodological differences, or perhaps better, differences of outlook.” I think there is something to this point. I am not entirely in agreement with it, but I’d like to parse out that disagreement, as I think it points to something of deep methodological importance. Continue reading
My maternal grandfather, Claude Vipond, died peacefully last Tuesday. His life was long – he reached 95 years. Claude was a doctor and a World War II veteran, but I knew him entirely as a grandfather – an often larger-than-life figure at family gatherings, delivering corny jokes with an enthusiasm that made them hilarious. At large Christmas gatherings he would read to the grandchildren, not some sentimental Victorian Christmas story but Stephen Leacock‘s marvelously tongue-in-cheek Caroline’s Christmas.
The irreverence of Leacock’s self-subverting story left a strong impression on me as a boy – much like the movie The Princess Bride, which came out when I was the age of its child narratee. In a different way from my father, “Caroline’s Christmas” helped teach me the pleasures of being an outsider, with an ironic detachment expressed in humour – in ways perhaps more profound than I realized at the time. In many ways I think that story really sums up my grandfather’s spirit. Continue reading
In the previous discussion of why intellectualism and voluntarism are important, I left out what I think may be the most important aspect of all, one which leaves its mark on our thought today in the modern West. Namely: whether God is an intellect or a will bears directly on the way we think of morality – at least when we understand morality in terms of law, as the Abrahamic traditions all have to some degree.
If God is a will, then that will makes morality: morality is whatever God’s will commands. 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
I ended last year pointing out that while one can love all wisdom, it is almost certainly too hard to be able to sift through all the wisdom out there and put it together in the space of a single lifetime. What one can do is get to know a small number of traditions in great detail and attempt to bring them together.
But which? While I think the previous post gave a good account of the process, I have already come to regret its title, “Choosing a few traditions”. The term “choosing” suggests that the process can happen arbitrarily, or at least on the simplest sort of aesthetic grounds – the traditions you happen to like. (“Hmm, I think Ayn Rand, Zhuangzi and Gnosticism are kinda cool. Let me put those together.”) I didn’t mean it that way when I wrote it, but even so, as I’ve been thinking through the issues since then, I find myself noticing that even just thinking of the process in terms of “choice” makes it seem less rational than it is. Continue reading
A few years ago, Skholiast wrote a lovely post on the philosophical significance of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, two early 20th-century writers who shaped the genres we now call fantasy and horror, respectively. I was reminded of it this year at an enjoyable AAR panel entitled “Cthulhu’s Many Tentacles”.
Cthulhu, of course, is the best-known character (if that is the word) from Lovecraft’s stories, enough that the fictional pantheon he created has become known as the “Cthulhu Mythos”. Cthulhu is one of a set of “Elder Gods”: horrifying, vaguely amorphous, often tentacled monstrosities that have lain dormant for millennia and will soon devour humanity; their horror is such that the mere knowledge of them could drive one mad. The AAR panel gave recognition to many aspects of Lovecraft’s work: starting with a presentation on the man and his work itself, the presenters proceeded to examine the varied dimensions of the fandom that has grown up around Lovecraft (noting, in particular, that fan creativity has been greatly enabled by Lovecraft’s work rising into the public domain).
The most interesting point I took away from the panel came from a talk by David McConeghy (who also, coincidentally, was the respondent to my paper on teaching with technology). McConeghy noted that while a great deal of modern speculative fiction (he cited Mike Mignola’s comic-book series Hellboy) is clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and makes references to it, these works also typically have happy endings. Continue reading
In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.
More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. Continue reading