Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.
Śāntideva’s anti-political views are very commonly missed by Buddhist scholars today, especially constructive or theological ones, who are excited by the Engaged Buddhist embrace of political action. He is hardly alone among classical Indian Buddhists in expressing them. So last September I proposed a presentation to the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS), which I intended to turn into a paper, explaining the importance of these anti-political views and entitled “Disengaged Buddhism”.
I was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the American election. Continue reading
Last year my friend Craig Martin made an interesting post on the subject of normativity – what we might, for lack of a better word, call value judgements – in academic religious studies. I disagree with almost all of it, and I think it’s helpful to spell out the reasons for doing so.
Craig situates himself as a poststructuralist who does not accept “the dream of objectivity or objective truth”, but nevertheless deems it “both important and useful to appeal to intersubjective verification (of the sort we see in the work of the American pragmatists)…” The problem is that the “intersubjective verification” described in this post sounds, to my ears, almost exactly like the old-fashioned empiricism that poststructuralists are (rightly) supposed to be rejecting. As it is applied in this particular context, “intersubjective verification” seems to be little more than a fancy way of maintaining the empiricist’s fact-value distinction: “intersubjective verification” is something we can reach about empirically verifiable facts, but not about those silly insubstantial value judgements.
The basic problem with such an approach, for Craig as for the empiricists, is that such a standard of intersubjective verification is itself a value judgement of exactly the kind that it urges we avoid. The problem may be best captured by repeating one of the post’s last statements: “I think we should attempt to avoid using praiseworthy or pejorative evaluative terms, as well as ‘should’ statements about our objects of study.”
Notice something amiss here? Continue reading
My undergraduate degree was in sociology and geography, with a focus on urban studies. That world often seems far away from the cross-cultural philosophy that drives me now – but not always.
Since “urban sociology” existed as a subfield and seemed to be the one I was trying to study, I once did a term-paper project asking the question: what is urban sociology? The answer I found most interesting and compelling was provided by the Australian sociologist Peter Saunders, in his Social Theory and the Urban Question. Continue reading
You might remember the political crisis in Thailand that made headlines six years ago as protesters clashed in the streets. At the heart of the crisis was Thaksin Shinawatra, the corrupt and authoritarian but very popular prime minister. His supporters bore the unfortunate name of Red Shirts; his opponents, Yellow Shirts.
I had identified the crisis as one of populism against technocracy: the Red Shirts fighting for the sovereignty of the democratically elected people’s choice who put wealth in the hands of the poor, the Yellow Shirts for effective, transparent government and the rule of law. The Yellow Shirts’ supporters had already dethroned Thaksin in a 2006 military coup; the protests were the Red Shirts demanding the return of democracy. They got it: there was another election in 2010. Thaksin could no longer run because he had now been convicted of many crimes – but his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra did, and won spectacularly. Yingluck was the prime minister until 2014 – when she was turfed by another military coup. The military remains in power in Thailand now. That option remains available to technocratic élites who can’t stand how dumb the masses are: end democracy so that you can ignore their votes.
Back then in 2010 I had already noted how the conflict between populism and technocracy was not limited to Thailand. I had pointed to examples of it in the United States. But my examples then – Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, even Sarah Palin – were comparatively marginal figures.
They are not anymore. Continue reading
In the early 1960s, my father finished his PhD in political science from Cornell. Under the restrictive and racialized American immigration rules of the day, he needed to work in a neighbouring country for two years before he could come to the US. So he applied for six tenure-track faculty jobs in Canada. He was offered five of them. The sixth, at the relatively low-prestige Memorial University of Newfoundland, turned him down with a curt letter that said “In our competition, you failed to qualify.” He found it amusing that such a lower-tier school would say such a dismissive thing when he had offers from so many places higher in the hierarchy.
This story ceased to amuse me when I received my PhD from Harvard in the late 2000s and began applying for faculty teaching jobs myself. I sent out nearly two hundred job applications, most of them for tenure-track jobs, across Canada and the United States, and a few off the continent. I received not one tenure-track offer anywhere. If Memorial University of Newfoundland had offered me a position, I would have taken it without hesitation and been grateful to have the opportunity. The same applies to most of my generation in academia. To those coming of age in the 21st-century university, my father’s story sounds as implausible as if he had wandered into the White House, said “I’d like a job as President of the United States”, and been offered it on the spot. But it was and is true. His experience was in Canada, but as far as I know, those faculty of his generation with a similarly prestigious degree who could apply for jobs in the United States had a comparably wide range of opportunities.
This intergenerational experience should highlight how the story in the academic humanities and social sciences from the 1960s to the 2010s has been above all a story of decline. Many North American leftists look at the real accomplishments made in areas of race, gender and sexuality and see this period as a time of unalloyed progress. I cannot. Continue reading
Until I began my 9-to-5 job in 2011, I had only rarely had to get up before 8 or 9 in the morning on a regular basis, which suited me fine since I am a night person. Now I need get up at 6:45, and it is a struggle to get enough sleep – and so I started worrying ever more about how little sleep I was getting, which gave me insomnia.
Fortunately the job has a good health plan (essential in the USA), and I was able to seek treatment for my insomnia at the highly regarded Boston Medical Center. They suggested a number of interventions to deal with the insomnia, several of which slowly came to prove helpful. The most striking moment among these interventions, though, was when they prescribed – mindfulness meditation. 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
If one follows current conversations about technological changes in higher education — which it is a major part of my job to do — one quickly encounters a great deal of praise given to “disruption” and “disruptive innovation”. Massive online open courses and various other online innovations, we’re told, will overthrow the tired old models of education and usher in a marvelous new world far better for students than the sclerotic old habits of the deadwood professorial class.
So far, none of these technological trends has yet made big changes in the way higher education is done. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been only two trends in higher education that were genuinely disruptive innovations in a literal sense – that is, innovations that have genuinely disrupted the lives of the people who make up higher education. The first of these is adjunctification; the second is tuition increase. Continue reading