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
One of my greatest passions in life is food, trying out new cuisines and spices in unusual restaurants. In a certain way, a love of food was central to my philosophical development; part of the reason I went to work in Bangkok, where I discovered Buddhism, was my love of Thai food.
So I’m interested in philosophical treatments of food. Recent treatises on the subject, though, have proved disappointing. One of the worst is Leon Kass’s The Hungry Soul, a work that tries to think through just about every aspect of eating except for the pleasures of taste. He mentions them very briefly on pp. 90-91, where he dismisses them as ephemeral, disappearing once enjoyed, and therefore “closed to the permanent or the eternal” – just like music or drama, though this parallel goes curiously unmentioned. Kass admits that he “cooks little” and “has unsophisticated tastes” – basically, it would seem, he doesn’t enjoy food very much. Which makes The Hungry Soul comparable to a treatise on music written by the tone-deaf.
But Kass may be a bit too easy a target. He has already been the target of much ridicule on the Internet for his pompous pronouncements on food etiquette, most notoriously his condemnation of the act of licking an ice cream cone, as “a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.” I know few who take him seriously.
Far more of a hearing is given to Michael Pollan, whose recent work seems to echo Kass’s puritanism in language more acceptable to educated left-wingers. Especially, his work In Defense of Food seems rather to be an attack on it. Continue reading
A few years ago, Skholiast wrote a lovely post on the philosophical significance of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, two early 20th-century writers who shaped the genres we now call fantasy and horror, respectively. I was reminded of it this year at an enjoyable AAR panel entitled “Cthulhu’s Many Tentacles”.
Cthulhu, of course, is the best-known character (if that is the word) from Lovecraft’s stories, enough that the fictional pantheon he created has become known as the “Cthulhu Mythos”. Cthulhu is one of a set of “Elder Gods”: horrifying, vaguely amorphous, often tentacled monstrosities that have lain dormant for millennia and will soon devour humanity; their horror is such that the mere knowledge of them could drive one mad. The AAR panel gave recognition to many aspects of Lovecraft’s work: starting with a presentation on the man and his work itself, the presenters proceeded to examine the varied dimensions of the fandom that has grown up around Lovecraft (noting, in particular, that fan creativity has been greatly enabled by Lovecraft’s work rising into the public domain).
The most interesting point I took away from the panel came from a talk by David McConeghy (who also, coincidentally, was the respondent to my paper on teaching with technology). McConeghy noted that while a great deal of modern speculative fiction (he cited Mike Mignola’s comic-book series Hellboy) is clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and makes references to it, these works also typically have happy endings. Continue reading
Two disclaimers are required for this week’s post. First, Janet Gyatso was on my dissertation committee and before that served as my doctoral advisor. Second, Columbia University Press offered to send me a free copy of her new book if I would review it on Love of All Wisdom, and I accepted on condition that the review could be critical. This is that review. Take it as you will.
Sometime during my doctoral studies I recall a student asking Prof. Janet Gyatso what she was currently researching, and she mentioned Tibetan medical literature. That couldn’t have been any later than 2007, when I graduated, and was probably before. Only now, at least eight years later, has Gyatso’s book on Tibetan medicine come out – and one can see why it took so long.
Being Human in a Buddhist World cannot have been an easy book to write. It is a detailed study of several different Tibetan works on medicine, none of which have been translated into a Western language, and all of which deal with highly technical questions of biology using a set of concepts very different from those familiar in the modern West – some in the form of “a dark, incomplete, and frequently illegible third-generation photocopy of a manuscript that is itself rife with spelling mistakes and smudges.” One does not find oneself eager to replicate such a study.
The title of this book is well chosen. Most Buddhism tends to be what I have called an ascent tradition; it is about transcending the condition of our everyday particular humanity, detaching oneself from what the texts Gyatso studies call “the horrible world”. But even if we were to grant that its most advanced practitioners have become in some sense superhuman (say Thich Quang Duc, who, eyewitnesses say, was able to remain perfectly at peace while setting himself on fire), the fact remains that everybody else is still human, all too human. Continue reading
One of the key debates in Indian philosophy is what counts as a pramāṇa: an instrument of knowledge, a “reliable warrant”, a means of knowledge reliable enough that one can be reasonably confident to take its conclusions as true. What counts as a pramāṇa? Many Indian philosophers will provide a numbered list of them.
In the empiricist tradition that remains popular in the West, boosted by the discoveries of natural science, only experience is admitted as a pramāṇa: to a full-blown empiricist, nothing counts as knowledge if it doesn’t ultimately have its roots in experience, based in some sort of direct perception. (Ken Wilber’s thought has come to take this position more and more over the years, to its detriment.) The debate over pramāṇas in modern Western philosophy is often framed as one between empiricism and rationalism. That is, where empiricists admit only experience as a pramāṇa, rationalists also allow reasoning an independent validity: some things can be rationally known a priori, independently of sense experience.
Some Indian philosophers have agreed with these views. Continue reading
I have juxtaposed the works of Ken Wilber and Alasdair MacIntyre against each other more than once here. They are at odds in many respects, and MacIntyre often has the best illustration of Wilber’s weak points. MacIntyre’s anti-modernism is the most potent antidote to the ever-increasing modernist tendency of Wilber’s thought. So too, MacIntyre effectively skewers what was perhaps always the weakest point in Wilber’s work, his “worldcentric” ethics. Finally, the uses they have made of non-Western thought are in drastically different directions, related closely to the content of their thought, such that MacIntyre’s intimacy orientation leads him to China and not India, and Wilber’s occasional interest in ascent leads him to India and not China.
(Wilber refers to refers to MacIntyre’s After Virtue once in a passing footnote to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (684n21), but not in a way that comes to terms with MacIntyre’s challenge to Wilber.)
But there are at least two influences the two thinkers have in common. One is Hegel: especially in his earlier work, Wilber has often cited Hegel as an influence for his project of synthesis (although he doesn’t really get Hegel’s dialectical approach), while MacIntyre takes himself in After Virtue to be doing philosophical history in a sense deriving from Hegel. The second influence, which I want to talk about here, is Thomas S. Kuhn. Continue reading
There are two different ways to apply the distinction between dialectical and demonstrative argument, and it’s important to be aware of the difference. I draw the terms dialectical and demonstrative argument from Alasdair MacIntyre in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (pages 88-9), who in turn takes the distinction from Boethius‘s De topicis differentiis and ultimately from Aristotle’s Topics. The key point is that dialectical argument argues to first principles, and demonstrative argument from first principles.
But what are those first principles? Are they first principles for knowledge in general, or merely first principles within a single paradigm? Continue reading
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a groundbreaking work that changed the way the world thinks about natural science. Kuhn claims that science works not as a steady, additive accretion of knowledge, but as through periods of specialized knowledge accumulation within one paradigm that (every so often) is displaced by a genuinely novel revolution that overthrows the existing paradigm.
It has sometimes been noted that social scientists and philosophers are much more likely to read Kuhn than natural scientists are. I don’t think this is necessarily because natural scientists are less likely to believe Kuhn’s historical account, but because they are less likely to see the history of their discipline as relevant to their current activity. For my part, I do not (yet) know the history of natural science well enough to know how accurately Kuhn’s description fits it. But it’s worth thinking about how Kuhn’s description applies outside the natural sciences he studied, to the humanities and social sciences. Continue reading
Consider this dialogue:
A: “All fish breathe through gills rather than lungs.”
B: “But whales are fish, and they breathe through their lungs.”
A: “Whales may look and seem like fish, but they aren’t truly fish because they breathe through their lungs.”
To anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of biology, A’s reasoning here must seem sound. Yet among some philosophers with a scientific bent, the structure of the reasoning A employs is often criticized as a logical fallacy. Continue reading