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
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
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
I’ve been spending some time lately with James Doull‘s last essay, “Hegel’s Phenomenology and post-modern thought”, and also with his closely related address on “Heidegger and the state”. (Both are in Philosophy and Freedom, the only published book of Doull’s writings.) Doull’s project in the Hegel essay is in a sense meta-Hegelian: to situate Hegel‘s thought in a philosophical history, as Hegel himself would do with the thinkers before him.
So the first parts of the essay tell the story of premodern and modern Western thought as it leads up to Hegel – a fine exegesis. But it’s the latter part of the essay that gets really interesting. For of course the history of philosophy went on after Hegel – and how should a Hegelian deal with that? Continue reading
As Christmas approaches, I return to the theme I took up two years ago of the meaning of Christmas to a non-Christian – spurred on in part by my recent reflections on single–mindedness. Ben, commenting on that previous post, noted:
Christmas appears to have a dual message in our culture. ‘Rampant consumerism’ is one half, and ‘The True Meaning Of Christmas ™’ is the second. While there are exceptions that focus more on family and loved ones and generosity, references to TTMOC largely also include references to the birth of Jesus.
I think Ben is on to something important: an unreflective understanding of Christmas can turn into a simple consumerism. So, many who do reflect on Christmas either refuse to celebrate it at all or try to make it entirely about Jesus. I think both reactions, but especially the latter, are examples of single-mindedness as a problem: an attempt to pick out one single meaning that’s most important and ignore the details. But for those of us who genuinely enjoy Christmas, the details can be the most important part. Continue reading
Last week I spoke of a philosophical single-mindedness shared by modernists, evangelical Protestants, Salafi Muslims and St. Augustine, and this week I’d like to reflect on it further. What these various single-minded thinkers hold in common is opposed above all, I think, by literal conservatism. Conservatives in the literal sense seek to preserve much of the world as it is – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They are opposed to radical breaks and revolutions, whether those aim to take us forward (as the modernists) or backward (as the Salafis). I noted in my earlier post that Jane Jacobs’s urban criticism, a direct attack on modernist architecture and modernist urban planning, is a quintessential example of literal conservatism; Jacobs would react with the same hostility to the Salafi assault on Mecca. In that respect, for all its urbanity, Jacobs’s work is of a piece with the agrarian rural conservatism of Front Porch Republic and Wendell Berry.
The appeal of such literal conservatism is certainly not limited to aesthetics, but one may perhaps see it most clearly in the aesthetic realm. (Some modernists, like the Marxist geographer David Harvey, see an aesthetic conservatism as opposed to a more ethical modernism.) For it’s hard to imagine elevating a single most important principle, as modernists typically do, as the principle behind beauty: could one ever say “Everything constructed according to principle X will be beautiful,” without making principle X entirely vacuous and devoid of content? Aesthetics seem to require a focus on the details and not merely the big picture.
Now of the various single-minded thinkers I’ve mentioned so far – modernists, evangelicals, Salafis and Augustine – one might note that they all have their historical roots in Western traditions. Continue reading
One of the most common slams made against modernist (Yavanayāna) Buddhism is that it is “Protestant.” I’ve previously written about how there’s more to Buddhist modernism than this, and about the curious quasi-theological assumption that having Protestant influence is seen as a bad thing. At the same time, I’ve been realizing that there are close links between Protestantism and modernism. Not too surprising, perhaps, since the two emerge out of the same historical context, the Europe of the past 500 years – but I think their similarities may go deeper than that. Continue reading
It will not do my readers much of a service to announce that Jack Layton has died. To non-Canadian readers, the name will probably mean little or nothing; Canadian readers in the past week will have heard of little else.
Jack Layton was the leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, the only political party whose candidates I have ever voted for. He died of cancer on 22 August, at the relatively young age of 61 – at the peak of his career. Until Layton took over the NDP, the party had never received more than 44 of the roughly 300 seats in the Canadian Parliament. Earlier this year, under his leadership, the party earned over 100, most of those in Québec – where the party had never held more than a single seat before. It received more than twice as many seats as the third-place Liberals, a party which had governed Canada so often that it viewed itself as the “natural governing party.” And a great deal of this rapid rise derived from Layton’s personal popularity. His funeral has now been receiving coverage in Canada comparable to that of Princess Diana’s – at a time when it is held as a commonplace that people hate politicians and are fed up with them. His life and death moved a great many. My American wife, who a year ago didn’t know who Jack Layton was, was moved to tears watching the coverage of his memorials.
Now why am I going on about Jack Layton on a philosophy blog? Continue reading
I’m returning today to the idea of perennial questions: questions that recur throughout the history of philosophy, where both sides of a debate keep getting articulated in many different places. The key feature of these perennial questions, to my mind, is that they are large: they cannot be narrowed down to a single precisely defined question within a single philosophical subfield, of the sort that analytic philosophers aim to ask, but extend their ramifications across multiple fields of theoretical and practical inquiry.
So far I’ve explored two major perennial questions: ascent versus descent and intimacy versus integrity. I have taken these as two different axes along which philosophies can be classified – in their ethics and soteriology as well as their metaphysics and epistemology.
But why should we treat these as exhausting the perennial questions? Continue reading