As of this Thursday, Love of All Wisdom will be three years old. I’m happy with the way the blog has been working out – the ideas I’ve been able to get out to the world, and the discussion they’ve provoked both in the comment forums here and in other places (in person, on social networking sites, and even earning me an invitation to publish in a journal). I thought this would be a good occasion to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: explain the scheme of tags and categories I use to classify blog posts. There’s so much written here now that I doubt many people are going to read it all; I only intend it to expand in the future. And the tags and categories – listed to the right of this post in the pages’s sidebar – are a good way to explore the topics that are of most interest to you. Continue reading
I’ve been delighted to take up my new full-time job as educational technologist at Boston University. It’s been great to use my background in scholarship and teaching in a way that, unlike faculty work, actually makes a living.
My specialty as a technologist has been to help faculty adopt ePortfolios – electronic collections of student and faculty work, typically with the intent of making student learning visible to an outside audience. There are a variety of purposes to ePortfolios, but one of the most common is assessment – figuring out whether students are really learning what they’re supposed to be learning.
Educational institutions have come to emphasize assessment more and more in the past decade. Assessment is sometimes resisted in the humanities because of an emphasis on quantification – often with good reason, as in the case of the UK’s catastrophic RAE and its relentless insistence on quantity over quality of scholarship. But there’s no reason for humanists to be opposed to assessment in principle. We always claim that our students come out of our classes better than they were when they began – better writers, more careful readers, more thoughtful, more critical, more knowledgeable, more engaged citizens, whatever. If they didn’t improve in some such ways, there would be no point in our teaching them. And surely at least some such improvements can be observed, even if we resist attaching numbers to that improvement beyond the grades we give. Moreover, some of those who have tried to observe whether students do indeed improve in these ways in their college classes – notably Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa – have found that in many cases, in the US at least, they don’t. This fact, if true, would be disastrous, considering that US students typically go tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for their educations. Surely we cannot merely assume that this is money well spent. And so assessment of some sort seems to me quite a valuable task.
Working professionally with assessment has led me to think more about the question: how do we assess philosophy? It is this question, I think, that may have contributed the most to the notorious divide between analytic and “continental” philosophy. Continue reading
A decade or so ago, in David Hall‘s graduate class on method and theory in the study of religion, Hall asked the class why the study of religion in recent years had focused so much on particular historical details in individual places rather than larger issues that characterized or crossed traditions. I responded that the competitive job market and publish-or-perish tenure system require that people take an ever narrower focus, in order to carve out a niche for themselves. Hall replied, “Er, well, yes, that’s the cynical explanation.”
And I thought: cynical? Hall made his name studying the material conditions that gave rise to American “religion,” the economics of printing and text production. Much of his career was about the (often wise) materialist advice to explain the popularity of certain ideas by following the money. And yet suddenly, when that same mirror was turned on his own intellectual environment, of the 21st-century North American university – somehow it became “cynical”? Somehow, unlike all those thinkers we study, we have magically managed to escape the pressures of money-making and live in a world of pure ideas? Continue reading
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
The online Journal of Buddhist Ethics has recently begun an online conference on an interesting pair of articles dealing with Buddhism and the natural environment, by David Loy and my former grad-school colleague Grace Kao. (Both articles were originally presented at the 2010 AAR conference in Atlanta.) While the conference is oriented toward comments on the JBE website, I’m posting my response here because my thoughts are long enough to be a full blog post of their own.
The different backgrounds of the two writers are evident from their pieces – but that itself makes the dialogue between them more interesting and fruitful. Loy is writing as a Buddhist. In a sense Loy’s arguments come in two pieces: first a dialectical argument to a certain conception of Buddhist first principles, especially based on the idea of non-self, and then a demonstrative argument from those principles to a sense of environmental concern. The first section makes the article more than a piece of “Buddhist theology”; unlike Glenn Wallis’s manifesto, Loy’s article is written as if it is intended to persuade non-Buddhists to a Buddhist point of view.
The substance of Loy’s demonstrative argument is similar to one that I have criticized in the past: that Buddhism is environment-friendly because it tells us to acknowledge our interdependence with other life on the planet. Loy’s argument is a bit more sophisticated than the view I criticized, and might arguably stand up to some of those criticisms. But I’m not going to focus on that point here. Rather, I’m more interested in the dialogue between Loy and Kao, and its implications.
Kao is not a Buddhist nor a Buddhologist, but a scholar of cultural diversity and the issues it poses for global politics. Partially for that reason, Kao’s article does relatively little to engage Loy’s Buddhist claims directly. Instead, she raises interesting and important questions about the proper connection between cross-cultural philosophy and global politics. Continue reading
I’d like to say some more about questions of doubt and certainty, which were central to my recent discussion of Wittgenstein. I explored this question at greatest length in the post called “Certain knowledge”, but the conclusions there were tentative – which is to say, not certain.
To recap a little first: This question was Descartes‘s biggest passion. He wanted one and only one Archimedean point, one firm foundation that could not be doubted, on which he could build the rest of his philosophy. And to doubt that he was doubting would be self-contradictory, so the existence of his doubt and therefore of his own existence became certain. “I think, therefore I am.”
But Descartes was wrong: the existence of the thinking self can be, and is, doubted all the time. Almost all Buddhist tradition rests on just such a doubt: the self is not real. If there is an indubitable Cartesian foundation, one must take it back to “There is thinking, therefore there is being.” But is there even this? Descartes argues that to doubt one’s own doubt (or doubt one’s own thinking) is self-contradictory. To establish this point for certain, however, does require that one accept the logic law of non-contradiction – and accept it as an absolute law, brooking no exceptions ever. Graham Priest’s dialetheist epistemology denies this very point: only by allowing that certain contradictions can be true, he says, can we successfully resolve the liar paradox or Zeno’s paradoxes. Continue reading
It is probably uncontroversial to describe Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers. In my less charitable moods I’d be tempted to say that this is rather like being one of Kansas City’s tallest buildings. Still, his vast influence over the philosophies that come after him is undeniable – but I often wonder why.
I’m led to think about Wittgenstein by a few recent comments from Thill, quoting a text called On Certainty. Readers might recall that in my most extensive reading of Wittgenstein to date – looking at the Philosophical Investigations – the main effect he had on my thought was to push me away from his thought and closer to the thinkers he disliked, like Plato and Augustine. But a brief look at On Certainty does even less for my estimation of Wittgenstein as a thinker. Continue reading
One of the more potentially pernicious ideas in philosophy is the idea of “common sense,” so often played as a trump card against any idea that departs from the established prejudices of one’s interlocutors. But for the most part, that’s all “common sense” can amount to: prejudice, the pre-judgements shared in common by a given social context. Now this doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Hans-Georg Gadamer tried to “rehabilitate” the concept of prejudice (Vorurteil) on the grounds that even newly acquired knowledge must be measured against knowledge we already have. We must start where we are. As I noted in discussing dialectical and demonstrative argument, this is true even of foundationalist thinkers like Descartes who try to begin everything from first principles – in the chronology of their arguments, they must start with prejudice or “common sense” in order to figure out what the first principles are.
But Gadamerian prejudices can still be prejudices in the pejorative sense as well. Continue reading
I argued before that categories like ascent-descent and intimacy-integrity are important because they help us identify perennial questions, questions that appear (together with their usually opposing answers) throughout the history of philosophy. The debate between ascent and descent is a debate between the Chinese Buddhists and the Confucians as much as it is between Plato and Aristotle. The identification of such universal questions seems to me an important part of metaphilosophy: the study of philosophy itself, and not merely of philosophy’s varied subject matter.
The attempt to identify such universal categories, I think, is central to the work of analytic philosophy. It drives the characteristically analytic attempt to classify Buddhist ethics according to the categories of 20th-century ethics: is Buddhist ethics consequentialism or virtue ethics? For that matter, is Śāntideva a determinist or a compatibilist? The problem with such attempts, in my book, is that they take it for granted that the questions of 20th-century ethics (consequentialism, deontology or virtue?) are the most important ones to ask. Such an approach, it seems to me, strongly limits one’s ability to learn anything of substance from other traditions. Foreign traditions (and this includes the Greeks and the medieval Christians as much as the Confucians or Vedāntins) can teach us different questions to ask, not merely different answers to those questions. That’s why it’s important to me that when we do think in more universal categories, we try to involve categories (like ascent-descent) that are derived from the study of multiple traditions.
Part of the point of thinking across traditions in this way, to me, is that metaphilosophy shouldn’t only be about universals, but about particulars – specifically, historical particulars. I have no problem in saying that philosophy aims at universal truth; but it does so only through the eyes of individual philosophers, who are all finite, particular and historically limited human beings, shaped greatly by their historical context. And for any given philosophy – including one’s own – that context is an essential reason why it is the way it is.
A couple of my recent posts have explored the idea of anti-politics – the idea that concern with affairs of the state is typically detrimental to a good human life. The anti-political view is one for which I have great sympathy. Now, as the previous post might have suggested, I also reject the supernatural; I believe that natural science is our best guide to the causality of the physical world, and that we would do well to look with skepticism on belief in celestial bodhisattvas, the multiplication of tooth relics, or an afterlife.
But if one takes up the resulting position – neither supernatural nor political – then one has relatively little company in the history of philosophy. From Yavanayāna Buddhists to Unitarian Universalists, those who have sought to move beyond the supernatural have typically also believed in political engagement. The vast majority of political quietists like Śāntideva believed in a vast panoply of unseen worlds far beyond those supported by empirically tested evidence.
I continue to wonder: is there something I’m missing? Is there some reason why so many in the end tend to supernaturalism, politics, or both? Continue reading