On Stephen Walker’s recommendation, I’ve been turning to the articles of Chris Fraser in order to understand the difficult Daoist thinker Zhuangzi. (Happily, Fraser makes most of his articles available free online.) The Zhuangzi is an intimidating text to attempt to understand for a number of reasons, and it’s helpful to have the guidance of someone like Fraser who has spent a lot more time with it than I have. Continue reading
I mentioned two weeks ago that there were two reasons I didn’t think my dissertation would become a book. The previous week I focused on the practical and political reason: I believe in free open access, and now that I’m not on the faculty track I can put my money where my mouth is.
The other reason, which is far more interesting to me, has to do with the dissertation’s content. I think back to when I was proposing a first inchoate version of the project, perhaps ten years ago or so now, knowing I wanted it to involve some amount of constructive dialogue between the ideas of Śāntideva and of Martha Nussbaum. Robert Gimello, on my committee at the time, said to me that he didn’t think that this would be an appropriate project for a dissertation. Not because those questions were inappropriate for a scholar to ask; indeed, he approved of them. Rather, he thought, that project seemed like a twenty-year project, much larger than a dissertation. For the dissertation I should buckle down and just try to understand Śāntideva himself.
I didn’t follow Gimello’s advice, and I’m glad I didn’t. Continue reading
In scholarship on Karl Marx it is a commonplace to draw a distinction between the “early Marx” or “young Marx” on one hand, and the “late Marx” (or “mature Marx”) on the other. There is considerable debate about whether Marx changed his opinions from the early phase or the late phase; many argue that they were constant. But there is little doubt that he changed his emphasis. The young Marx – the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts and Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – writes a great deal about Hegelian philosophy and the criticism of “religion”. For whatever reason, the late Marx – the Marx of Capital – largely leaves that topic behind, at least in what he says explicitly. He turns his attention instead to economics and politics, to the details of capitalism’s functioning.
Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I much prefer the writings of the young Marx. (It is humbling to realize that I am now older than he was.) And indeed I recently had a chance to go further: to the works of the very young Marx. Continue reading
Last week’s post explored how my views have begun moving from integrity toward intimacy. To me the key appeal of the intimacy approach, as I discussed there, is the way it can lead to satisficing over maximizing. Last week I focused on the implications of this distinction for happiness.
But there’s an additional appeal to intimacy’s satisficing, one which I have also begun to explore only recently. I have often been curious about the tendency for philosophies to be either supernatural or political (or both) in orientation, and as an explanation I have repeatedly returned to Simone Weil’s quote: “Atheist materialism is necessarily revolutionary, because to orient oneself toward an absolute good down here, one must place it in the future.” The question then is: why do we need to orient ourselves to an absolute good, in the future or up there? Why not just set our eyes lower? Continue reading
I have noted that those modern Westerners who learn from South Asian philosophy are usually looking for Ascent while those who learn from East Asian are usually looking for intimacy. Given that my own doctorate was specialized in South Asia, with little East Asian component despite my eventual focus on Buddhism, you might easily guess what my own orientation has been on this score – and you’d be right. I’ve often insisted on correcting those who portray Buddhism as an intimacy-oriented tradition – not just to set the historical record straight, but because I think it’s important to emphasize the value of integrity. When I was thinking in terms of three ways of life, the integrity-oriented “ascetic” and “libertine” approaches, for all their contrasts with each other, both appealed to me far more than the intimacy-oriented “traditionalism”.
But then in recent months and years I’ve been reading significantly more East Asian thought myself – and I’ve also been a bit startled to find myself leaning more toward an intimacy orientation. 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
One of the first posts I made on this blog examined Dale Wright‘s methodological approach of naturalized karma. This is a way of continuing to use the concept of karma, and thereby remaining more closely in dialogue with classical Buddhist (and Jain and brahmanical) texts – without relying on the supernatural connections usually implied by the concept, especially rebirth. (By “karma” here I refer above all to the referents of Sanskrit pāpa and especially puṇya, best translated respectively as “bad karma” and “good karma”.) I’d like to explore this idea in more detail here.
Wright’s basic approach is to read karma as meaning something like an Aristotelian virtue ethic: good actions are rewarded with a good, flourishing life, in this life irrespective of future ones (and bad ones correspondingly punished). This much is not a Yavanayāna innovation; plenty of Buddhist texts make it clear that good action is rewarded in this life as well as in future ones. Continue reading
One of the most fundamental things a philosopher does is to ask why. When someone says “you should do x” or “y is good,” it seems to me, the true lover of wisdom needs to ask why this is the case. If someone tells me I should do something and can’t provide a reason, I see this as grounds for questioning whether it really is something I should do at all. Nietzsche, if he does nothing else, shows us that the things we take as obvious may well not be so.
So what happens when we try to take our reasons all the way down? When we continue asking why we should do anything? We begin to get to a complex meta-ethical question: what constitutes a reason for action? What is it to have a reason to do something? (Warning: this will be an abstract and theoretical post, but it is important to fundamental questions like why we should do anything at all.) Continue reading
In each of the three great classical traditions of philosophy – the West, South Asia and East Asia (or Greece, India and China) – there appears early on a school of thought that is taken as that tradition’s target of attack. This school dies out after a few hundred years or so, so that in modern times we know them above all as the object of the mainstream tradition’s attacks. And yet, to the extent that we can date the philosophy in this period, the philosophical reflection arising before this school tends to be far less sophisticated than that coming after.
The three schools in question are the Sophists in Greece, the Cārvāka or Lokāyata in India, and the Mohists in China. They are of crucial importance to any cross-cultural philosopher, because by running against the grain of the later tradition they break most of our stereotypes about that culture’s philosophy as a whole. In most general attempts to characterize the nature of Indian philosophy, for example, the words “except the Cārvākas” come up a lot. 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