The most recent book from Donald S. Lopez, Jr., one of the most widely read contemporary American scholars of Buddhism, is entitled Buddhism and Science. Unlike most books with this title, it does not explore similarities or complementarities between Buddhist tradition and the natural sciences. It is instead best described by Lopez’s original intended subtitle: A Historical Critique. Alas, Lopez’s publishers apparently thought this subtitle boring, and therefore required him to replace it; his chosen replacement, A Guide for the Perplexed, is not particularly exciting either, and more importantly makes it impossible for the casual reader to find out the ways that this book is drastically different from all the other books out there with the same title.
I am not here to write about dreadful editorial decisions, however, but rather the content of the book. Lopez undertakes what has become one of the most standard methodologies in the contemporary academic humanities: following Foucault and ultimately Nietzsche, it is typically known as genealogy. One starts with a widely used contemporary concept and goes on to show the history of its usage, in order to create doubts among those who might otherwise use it. This has already been done plenty of times both for the concepts of “Buddhism” and of “science”; Lopez’s project here is instead a genealogy of the joint concept of “Buddhism and science,” the frequent form of inquiry that tries to link the two conceptually or analytically. As is typical for contemporary genealogies ever since Edward Said (though not for Foucault’s own and certainly not Nietzsche’s), Lopez finds the origins of “Buddhism and science” in the colonial nineteenth century. He shows us that claims about Buddhism’s compatibility with science remain remarkably consistent from the late 19th century to the early 21st, even though the science itself has changed drastically.
Now what is the purpose of showing us this point? From Nietzsche onward, the genealogical method has never been neutral. The point has always been to undermine. Lopez doesn’t like “Buddhism and science” any more than Nietzsche liked morality. Continue reading