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
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
Judging by the comments, many readers found my diagnosis-prognosis post to be dark and pessimistic. Going back to the post, it’s not hard to see why. I endorse there the dark view of our existing human problems shared by Augustine, Marx and the Pali suttas; and yet I don’t think any of their solutions work. The essay effectively ends with a rejection of hope. The logical conclusion to draw from the essay might seem to be “life sucks.”
The understandable reactions to the essay’s pessimism nevertheless surprised me. For as I wrote it, I felt light, happy, life-affirming. Why? Continue reading
Skholiast recently pointed to a sad event that I’d been unaware of until he mentioned it: the death of Pierre Hadot. Skholiast’s involvement with Hadot, from the look of things, is deeper than mine – I’ve read some of his work and referred to him a couple of times on the blog, but I don’t think that he has (yet) had a deep effect on my thinking. Still, I find myself very much in sympathy with Hadot’s approach, and I think his loss is a real one, so I’d like to offer a few musings in memoriam.
The idea that I always associate with Hadot is encapsulated in the translated English title of one of his major works: philosophy as a way of life. Hadot, a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, treats this philosophy as a way of life, a set of “spiritual practices,” and in so doing he helps remind us of the distance between ancient and modern philosophy. And I don’t just mean that he gives us yet another reason to critique contemporary philosophy departments, which (whether analytic or continental) typically seem far from any ancient ideal of the love of wisdom. I mean also that he reminds us why philosophy has so little place in contemporary Western culture. Continue reading
In examining my previous question on internalism and externalism I’ve been trying to explore a powerful but complex and difficult answer: that this question is expressed in the very history of Western philosophy.
Lately I’ve slowly been making my way through Philosophy and Freedom, a collection of essays by and about the neglected Canadian Hegelian philosopher James Doull (rhymes with towel). Doull, like Socrates or George Herbert Mead, never published a book during his lifetime; his reputation derives almost entirely from being spread by his students and their students, mostly through the classics department at Dalhousie University and the great-books program at its affiliated University of King’s College. (I myself know Doull’s work only because a lifelong friend of mine is one of Doull’s “grand-pupils,” a devoted student of Doull’s students at Dalhousie and King’s.)
Doull’s work is difficult, both in the density of its prose and in the wide range of the texts it expects familiarity with – the chapter on ancient Greece covers not only philosophy but the full range of history, tragedy and comedy, viewing their scope all together through a Hegelian philosophical lens. Moreover, because Doull’s concerns are so wide-ranging, a study of his work does not immediately repay the reader with direct application to particular philosophical questions and problems. If ever there was a big-picture thinker it is this man, at least when it comes to Western philosophical traditions.
And yet studying Doull closely has ultimately paid off for me in thinking about the big question I’ve addressed above. I realize that this question of ethical motivation has, in its way, been central to Western philosophical tradition, not merely in the works of individual thinkers but through its history. Continue reading
One of 2009’s more interesting developments in philosophy is the publication of John Rawls’s Princeton undergraduate thesis, entitled A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith. In the past thirty-five years we have known Rawls as an eminently secular political philosopher, trying first (in A Theory of Justice) to work out a political philosophy without any “religious” ideas, and then later (in Political Liberalism) leaving “religious” views at the margins of the theory, where they’re only allowed in insofar as they agree with each other, forming an “overlapping consensus.”
Turns out it wasn’t always so. The title of Rawls’s thesis would have appeared a little drab at the time, but it’s striking to those who have read Rawls’s later philosophy. While the thesis deals heavily with questions of community and interpersonal relations, it says very little about Rawls’s later concern for the organization of the state. And soon after he wrote it, Rawls would go off to fight in World War II, and the horrors he saw would turn him agnostic. But what’s far more striking in the thesis is the continuity between the old (devout, pious) Rawls and the new (secular, political) Rawls. For my part, I have previously thought of Rawls as a philosophical foe – associating him with the utilitarianism that I rejected – and the thesis confirms to me that, in the most important respects, Rawls was thinking in all the wrong directions. Continue reading
I’d like to push a bit further on the theme of the previous post, because I think it points to some important objections people have to Buddhism – and related philosophies.
A long time ago, I was talking to my friend Nic Thorne, a classicist, about Buddhism and virtue. I was explaining the characteristically Buddhist virtue of k??nti or patient endurance – taking unpleasant events with peace and equanimity. He said: “stoicism.”
The word just floored me. At that point I’d never studied the Stoics, and never imagined that there could be a connection between Buddhism and stoicism – whether with a small or big S. I associated the term “stoicism” with icons of old-fashioned masculinity, which seemed at the time almost comical: the British stiff upper lip, John Wayne. Men who refused to display emotion. I assumed such a posture was repression, leading to passive aggression – or perhaps to self-destruction. (Slash‘s autobiography is an interesting case study of a man who, unwilling to talk about or express his worries, instead turns to heroin for a release.)
But through my appreciation for Buddhism, I came to a new appreciation of that traditional masculinity as well. There’s something to the idea that one should control one’s emotions – though, again, this is very different from repressing them. It’s good to be the kind of person who doesn’t get angry – even though it’s terrible to be the kind of person who gets angry inside and represses it outside.
I do think, though, that the association of small-s stoicism with masculinity is misguided. Harvey Mansfield tried to defend it in his book on manliness, and in a talk he gave on the subject at Harvard; but I couldn’t discern a single reason in his talk why this manliness should be a virtue limited to biological males. I asked him why it wouldn’t be a virtue for women too, and he said “well, that’s the gender-neutral society I’m attacking,” but nothing in his reply seemed at all persuasive in claiming there was anything wrong with such a society. I appreciated his attempt to revive the virtues associated with masculinity, but his attempt to maintain a gender link did those virtues no favours.
If anything, it seems to me that the opposite of Mansfield’s position is true. Men should be the ones trying to express their repressed emotions, since they’re so conditioned to repress them – that’s how we avoid ending up in Slash’s position. It’s women, conditioned to be emotional, who most need a healthy dose of Buddhist patient endurance.
The question at the heart of my dissertation work, on the Buddhist thinker Śāntideva, is one I don’t feel I’ve resolved: the question of external goods. I took this term from Martha Nussbaum, who in turn got it from Aristotle: external goods (and bads) are things in life that lie largely beyond our control. Wealth, personal relationships, good health: we have some control over all these things, but in the end they can all be taken from us through no fault of our own. The question is: how should we react to gains and losses of external goods, to the vagaries of fortune?
Nussbaum tends to embrace the most commonsense position: our losses of external goods are real losses, and our strong reactions to such losses are expressing the truth that our lives are poorer. She contrasts this view to the Stoics, who say that we should remain calm and unshaken, confident in our own virtue.
I have a strong sympathy for the Stoic side; it’s been my experience that if one becomes unhappy whenever misfortune strikes, one will never be happy. The most extreme logical conclusion of their view seems to be a single-minded devotion to virtue and inner peace, best expressed in a monasticism like Śāntideva’s; but something does seem to me lost in such a life, a loss that could outweigh the misery from being struck by external losses.
There is a third position on the question, though, which has come to interest me more after the dissertation. Thinkers as far apart as Mencius and Nietzsche tend to support a view that losses do matter, but actually benefit us by strengthening us: “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” In some respects Śāntideva is closer to this position than he is to the Stoics; and I’m wondering whether it might be the most sensible position to take.