Let me begin with a guessing game, for those readers who consider themselves relatively widely read in philosophy. I am thinking of a text that examines two different views of human beings. It examines on one hand the view that humans are entities that act on the world of the sort that one can tell stories about, using language, living in communities, giving and taking. It juxtaposes this view on the other hand with the view that humans are collections of smaller imperceptible particles that operate strictly according to universal laws of causation. The texts comes to the conclusion that the latter view is the one that corresponds to reality, with the former simply an appearance or convenient way of speaking. Which text is this? 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
Last week I submitted Thomas Kasulis’s dichotomy of intimacy and integrity worldviews to critical scrutiny. I pointed out the distinction between the epistemological element on one hand, in which intimacy knowledge is somatic and affective while integrity is self-reflective and public, and the ontological element on the other, in which intimacy sees the world as composed of internal relations and integrity sees it as made up of external relations. I noted Hegel appears to have an intimacy ontology and an integrity epistemology, while the Pali Buddhist texts appear to be the opposite – suggesting that rather than speaking of intimacy and integrity as a unity, perhaps we should break them up.
And yet while one can separate the two elements of these ideal types in this way, I suspect that one shouldn’t – because they turn out to have a deep logical relation to each other. It is one that I think Kasulis tends to leave unstated, partially because he doesn’t split up these two elements in the first place. Continue reading
After I had my first epiphany in Thailand, being changed by Buddhist ideas, I thought for a while that philosophy was the key to a good and happy life – that what we really needed to live well was to understand and think about the big questions of life. I see that attitude now as a young man’s naïve enthusiasm. As I read more Hegel, I’m particularly struck by how little guidance there is in there for living well. Living well requires reflection, yes, but above all the kind of reflection that comes out of practice. And I don’t primarily mean the meditation and meditation-like practices to which Yavanayāna Buddhists so often reduce the idea of “practice”, but the likes of therapy, exercise, and the very fact of going through daily life and learning from one’s experience and mistakes.
So what, one may well ask, is the point of philosophy? Continue reading
This week I’d like to continue to think through the topic of dialectic, which I began to explore last week in the terms of a double movement transcending and including. In my most detailed previous post on dialectic so far, I got at the transcend-include distinction much more obliquely. I distinguished between dialectical thinking in a broad sense, as a progress through inadequate conceptions which are incorporated and leave their mark on the inquiry, and dialectical argument more strictly, as beginning from the opponent’s point of view and pointing out its inadequacies from within. I would say now that this dialectical argument in a strict sense is the transcending moment of dialectic, whereas the broader progress is the including moment.
In expanding on this point, let me leave aside the including moment for now and start with the transcending. Continue reading