After Confucius’s death, the great debate in classical Confucian philosophy was over human nature: between Mencius, who, broadly speaking, thought humans were naturally good, and Xunzi, who thought we were naturally bad. In a liberal democracy suffused with the individualism of the sixties, I think most people lean much closer to Mencius’s view. But we miss something very important if we ignore Xunzi’s. Continue reading
While recently poring over Ken Wilber‘s works, I’ve thought repeatedly about his ideas in relation to Alasdair MacIntyre‘s. Wilber, ever since he identified the pre-trans fallacy, has been an arch-modernist: the world from the Enlightenment onwards has been far better than the traditional world that preceded it. His most recent phase has taken a more postmodern, relativistic turn, but even as a postmodernist he is still a modernist: for Wilber the pluralism of a postmodern worldview is a clear advance, a development, and a pretty unambiguous one.
This is not the worldview one finds in MacIntyre. 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
I’ve been thinking a lot about the seventh chapter in a splendid book called The Ancients and the Moderns, by a fascinating Boston University professor named Stanley Rosen. I read the book over two years ago, but the ideas of this chapter have since continued to percolate in my brain.
Rosen argues that we need to see a much closer association between two fields of study often thought separate: logic and psychology. At first glance, the two might seem to have little in particular to do with one another. Logic concerns itself with the proper formal relationships between statements in arguments; psychology, with the empirical investigation of mind and behaviour.
But more basically, what are logic and psychology? Both, really, are the study of thought. 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
What is the connection between virtue and pleasure? The question came up in my discussion with Elisa Freschi on the previous post, and is in some respects a central question in the early history of Western ethics. At December’s Eastern APA conference, Lorraine Besser-Jones gave a really interesting talk on Aristotle’s approach to this connection, informed by some discussions in contemporary psychology. For Aristotle, she claimed, pleasure is an intrinsic part of virtue: nobody would call a man generous who does not enjoy acting generously. Besser-Jones wished to dispute this claim, on the grounds that virtuous activity is often not pleasurable. Continue reading
I introduced the last post by referring briefly to the idea of dialectic, and meant it in a Hegelian sense. But I don’t think I adequately spelled out what I mean by that. It ties closely to the key point of synthesis over compromise, which I did note. A mere compromise can include the bad parts of the two extremes it puts together, as well as the good (as per Shaw’s quip about body and brain); a synthesis qua synthesis takes as much of the good as possible and minimizes the bad, and in doing so is more than mere compromise.
But a dialectical synthesis is more than this. Continue reading
A couple of my recent posts have explored the idea of anti-politics – the idea that concern with affairs of the state is typically detrimental to a good human life. The anti-political view is one for which I have great sympathy. Now, as the previous post might have suggested, I also reject the supernatural; I believe that natural science is our best guide to the causality of the physical world, and that we would do well to look with skepticism on belief in celestial bodhisattvas, the multiplication of tooth relics, or an afterlife.
But if one takes up the resulting position – neither supernatural nor political – then one has relatively little company in the history of philosophy. From Yavanayāna Buddhists to Unitarian Universalists, those who have sought to move beyond the supernatural have typically also believed in political engagement. The vast majority of political quietists like Śāntideva believed in a vast panoply of unseen worlds far beyond those supported by empirically tested evidence.
I continue to wonder: is there something I’m missing? Is there some reason why so many in the end tend to supernaturalism, politics, or both? Continue reading
I generally agree with Aristotle that virtue is a mean between two vices – even in cases like justice, which are often taken as counterexamples. If one goes too far in one direction (say, cowardice or sense of entitlement), one misses the best way to be; the same applies in the other direction (foolhardiness or submissiveness), though it may sometimes be harder to see.
It’s easy, though, to misinterpret the idea of virtue as a mean. Virtue is not merely the middle ground. It is not a combination or a compromise between two vices. Virtue requires that the middle ground one occupy be specifically a good middle ground. It needs, essentially, to preserve what is best in each vice – to be a synthesis rather than a compromise. Continue reading
Aristotle, ascent/descent, Asperger's syndrome, Augustine, autobiography, G.W.F. Hegel, Graham Harman, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, nonhuman animals, Oliver Sacks, Plato, Rāmānuja, Raphael, Śaṅkara, Temple Grandin, Thomas Aquinas
I’ve just been reading the popular neurologist Oliver Sacks‘s piece “An Anthropologist on Mars,” from the book of the same name. It’s a short biography of Temple Grandin, a woman whose life was recently made into a movie. Grandin, an animal researcher, has Asperger’s syndrome or “high-functioning autism”; she understands science, and animals, much better than she understands the social interactions of her fellow human beings.
People describing Grandin often reach first for words like “extraordinary,” “fascinating,” “remarkable.” These are not the words that come to my mind. I say this not because I find her accomplishments limited – they are major – but because I find her story very familiar. I don’t know if I would be diagnosed with Asperger’s myself; but I do know that Asperger’s is part of a spectrum, with full-blown autism on one end. At the other end, I think, one finds the behaviour of typical science-fiction geeks and absent-minded professors, in whose company I unquestionably fall.
The central features of Asperger’s syndrome are a difficulty with social cues and a narrowness of interest; one falls far outside the normal realms of human interest and interaction. (My interests are almost opposite Grandin’s, yet this makes me sympathize with her more. Where Grandin has been obsessed with animals since her youth, my mother recalls that I was the only child to be completely uninterested when a bunny rabbit was brought into our classroom.) The subtle interplay and social niceties that come so naturally to most people, must be learned deliberately and consciously, as one learns mathematics – and learning these is often far more difficult than learning math.
There are a number of philosophical implications that the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome might have. In today’s post, I want to focus on its implications for the history of philosophy. Continue reading