I speak, of course, of Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple Computer. Jobs’s figure loomed large over my life a decade ago. My first wife had convinced me to switch to a Mac in 2000, and I embraced everything Mac and Apple with all the zeal of the newly converted. She and I regularly went together to the Apple retail store in Cambridge for Jobs’s keynotes, just to watch him announce new products with his famous showmanship. I have been far less enthused about Apple recently, especially the arbitrary restrictions the company places on iPhone apps – the exact kind of controlling monopolistic behaviour that Apple was once best known for fighting against. I still happily use Macs and iPods, though. And more importantly for today, I learned important lessons from following Apple and Jobs so devotedly in the 2000s – above all about leadership. 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
Even if one accepts Śāntideva’s idea that political participation is harmful to a good life, that doesn’t mean that one must be finished with political thought. For there’s another key way that politics enters into reflection: as analogy. The politician has often appeared in ethical texts as a figure for the individual; we learn what is good or bad in a single human life by examining what is good or bad for a king or a state.
The most famous use of this analogy between individual and state is likely in Plato’s Republic. In Book II, Socrates reminds Glaucon that one can typically see bigger things more clearly than smaller things. Similarly it is easier to observe justice in a state than in an individual, so we should first ask what justice is in a state, and then we will be more able to see what it is in an individual. The city or state is larger than the individual; “perhaps, then, there is more justice in the larger thing, and it will be easier to learn what it is.” (368)
Plato’s approach, of using the state to illuminate the individual, is not obvious or natural; it was not taken by the Confucians, as far as I can tell. Confucius in Analects I.2 says that those who behave well toward their parents don’t start revolutions; Mencius argues for benevolence over profit by arguing that a state of benevolent people will flourish. Here – not so surprising given the early Confucians’ social context – the point seems to be to figure out how to run a state, and individual conduct is addressed for its relevance to that goal, rather than the other way ’round.
But one can find a similar approach to Plato’s in a more surprising place, where it plays a different role: the work of the Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti (whom I also discussed last time). Continue reading
ascent/descent, Augustine, Confucius, intimacy/integrity, Ken Wilber, Maimonides, Martha Nussbaum, Max Weber, Mozi, Plato, Prabhupada, puruṣārthas, Stephen Walker, Tattvārtha Sūtra, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas P. Kasulis, Yoga Sūtras
I’ve been thinking further about what kind of categories one may best use to classify philosophies and their associated ways of life. I do think my earlier classification of three basic ways of life hits on something quite important; but I also think Stephen Walker’s criticisms of that scheme (addressed here) are on point. Among those who reject traditional ways of life and knowing on non-ascetic grounds, there is more going on than the pleasure-seeking I identify with the concept of “libertinism.” That’s why I toyed in the same post with expanding the conception based on the Sanskrit puruṣārthas, the “four aims” of worldly success, pleasure, traditional duty and liberation. But as I mused at the bottom of that post, the puruṣārtha scheme loses the far-reaching nature of the three-ways-of-life comparison. The differences between asceticism, traditionalism and libertinism are not only differences in ways of living; they reach down to epistemology and ontology, theoretical ways of understanding the world. When the “libertine” mode of living and thinking is formally subdivided into artha and kāma, these two supposedly separate modes no longer look all that distinct from one another.
Instead, I now turn back to a different categorization I didn’t have time to mention in the puruṣārtha post: the intersecting axes of ascent and descent, and intimacy and integrity. These two ways of classifying philosophies seem to me to do more justice to East Asian thought, while still going “all the way down”: extending from theoretical foundations all the way up to life as lived. Continue reading
In private messages, Stephen Walker recently came back to points he’d made before about the three basic ways of life I had identified before (asceticism, traditionalism and libertinism). He noted, correctly I think, that that scheme as it stands is Indo-Eurocentric; many Chinese thinkers (especially pre-Buddhist ones) do not fit it comfortably.
The problem is not merely a matter of some thinkers lying between ways of life – if, say, Mozi lies between traditionalism and libertinism, as Aquinas lies between traditionalism and asceticism. Schemes like this are (and probably must be) Weberian ideal types: the possibility that real-world examples will fall somewhere in between the categories is not just anticipated, it’s intended. The point is to have a universal heuristic to understand the particulars better, not to have a classification where one can file everything neatly into one folder or the other. (There is something rather Platonic about the ideal-type method, in that one never expects to encounter a perfect or exact manifestation of the category in the real world.)
No, the serious problem is more particular to the scheme, with its third category of “libertinism” encompassing those thinkers who do not embrace asceticism and whose critiques of tradition are relatively radical. Chinese tradition features many such thinkers – but, contrary to my category of “libertinism” as defined in the earlier post, almost none of them highlight pleasure as a (let alone the) central feature of a good life. Continue reading
My wedding approaches rapidly, and with my love of philosophy it’s important for me to have profound and meaningful readings at the ceremony. We have each picked a modern reading that meant a lot to us – she from Walt Whitman, and I from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, beautiful advice from when I was a child. But I also wanted to find meaningful premodern readings, and that turned out to be a lot harder.
The problem I quickly realized is that romantic marriage is a recent invention, a construct of our own time. It was obvious to me from the beginning that I’d get little help from Indian Buddhism, where sex and marriage are emphasized as fetters that bind us in suffering. I knew that to choose marriage was to side against Śāntideva. Sure, Śāntideva praises the monk Jyotis for breaking his monastic vows and marrying a woman who fell in love with him – but Jyotis, like a good bodhisattva, did this entirely out of compassion. “I’m marrying you out of sympathy” is not exactly the note on which I want to start married life. Continue reading
Alasdair MacIntyre, ascent/descent, Augustine, Ayn Rand, Caitanya, Confucius, intimacy/integrity, ISKCON, James Joyce, Ken Wilber, Martha Nussbaum, pàn jiāo 判教, Plato, Prabhupada, Tattvārtha Sūtra, Thomas P. Kasulis, Yoga Sūtras
Five years ago, on a language fellowship in India, I had more time to do broad reading in cross-cultural philosophy than grad school usually permitted. I wound up reading a lot of Ken Wilber, and had already been immersed in Martha Nussbaum’s thought for my dissertation. These two thinkers don’t have a whole lot in common, beyond coming out of roughly the same (American baby boom) cultural milieu and having an unusually wide-ranging philosophical outlook. But there is one set of categories that features prominently in both of their work, and I suspect for good reason: ascent and descent.
For Wilber, one of the most fundamental philosophical debates is that between Ascent and Descent: between a spiritual view that aspires to transcendence of the everyday material world, and a materialist view that embraces it. (Like the intimacy-integrity distinction – on which more shortly – the distinction is particularly interesting because it embraces theoretical as well as practical philosophy, metaphysics as well as ethics.) Some of Wilber’s sharpest criticisms are directed against ecological philosophies of interdependence, which suggest that what we ultimately need is to embrace our mutual dependence in the natural world. In Wilber’s eyes, such a view leaves us scarcely better off than the mechanistic individualism it aims to replace, for both views remain squarely within a materialist tradition of “descent,” neglecting the spiritual realm. I have noted before that, while Yavanayāna Buddhists often embrace such views of interdependence, they are wildly at odds with traditional Indian Buddhism, for reasons similar to those noted by Wilber.
Upheavals of Thought, the weighty tome that I would consider Nussbaum’s magnum opus, employs such a distinction through its third, longest and final part – entitled “Ascents of Love.” Continue reading
Having decided on marriage, my fiancée and I are now well immersed in the process of planning our wedding. And like many young couples, we feel a strong distaste for what we have come to call the wedding-industrial complex: the North American industry that makes a lucrative profit from telling couples what they must do and selling it to them, documented in Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day. And then too often, we have then wound up going through a process uncomfortably familiar to many couples in our situation: observing traditions you despise, deciding you’ll do it all differently, and then finding yourself going through the traditional process anyway. Susan Jane Gilman expressed it perfectly in her article (and then book) Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. She and her fiancé decided that they hated the expense, pomp and sexism of a traditional wedding, and so theirs would be different. They’d just leave it as a fun party: hire a DJ, a bartender and an ice cream truck. But:
Somehow, Bob and I had also overlooked the fact that even if all you wanted was an ice cream truck, a bartender, and a deejay, you still needed a place to put them. And if you decided it might be nice to have some photographs of the day — photographs that did not scalp anyone, or feature detailed close-ups of your uncle’s thumb — it was best to hire a photographer. And then, as my mother diplomatically pointed out, if relatives were going to travel across the country to witness your marriage, it was probably polite to feed them more than a Fudgsicle and a glass of champagne. And surely, you couldn’t expect older folks to balance a plate on their hand all night: they had to sit somewhere. And since you were going to have tables anyway, would it really kill you to put out a few flowers to brighten things up?
Eventually Gilman even accepts the pouffy white wedding dress of her essay’s title: “My mind might have been that of a twenty-first-century feminist, but my body was that of a nineteenth-century Victorian, and the dress seemed to have been custom-made for my proportions.” And so it begins: Continue reading
Aaron Stalnaker, Anne Monius, Augustine, Ayn Rand, Chan/Zen, Charles Tilly, Confucius, Edward (Ted) Slingerland, Graham Harman, Hanumān, Herbert Fingarette, Immanuel Kant, Pali suttas, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Quentin Meillassoux, René Descartes, skholiast (blogger), Speculative Realism, Tattvārtha Sūtra, technology, Xunzi, Yoga Sūtras
I’ve lately been trying to start understanding Speculative Realism, a contemporary movement within “continental” philosophy. Speculative Realism is of particular interest to me because, it seems, it is one of the first philosophical movements whose social network is focused on the Web. (One of its leading thinkers, Graham Harman, has his own regularly updated blog.) This is not yet the future I’ve been starting to imagine where the Web replaces universities and book publishing as philosophy’s institutional locus, since most if not all Speculative Realists are academics. Still, it’s an interesting first step.
Now what about the content of Speculative Realism, the ideas? It’s a difficult school of thought and I’ve only scratched the surface, by scanning of some of the websites. I am certainly not in a place to evaluate this emerging tradition’s arguments, not yet at least. But to help myself and others think through what Speculative Realism might mean, I’d like to try some preliminary comparison – what Charles Tilly would call “individualizing” comparison, the attempt to understand one phenomenon by drawing connections to others.
As I understand it so far, the most central idea in Speculative Realism is a critique of what the French Speculative Realist Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism.” I pinch Meillassoux’s definition of “correlationism” from Skholiast’s blog: correlationism is “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” Correlationism is an idea associated above all with Immanuel Kant’s epistemology, according to which our knowledge is limited to categories of human thought; it is thereby anthropocentric, focusing epistemology and metaphysics too much on the human subject and not enough on objects in the world. (Thus Speculative Realists like Harman often refer to their thought as “object-oriented philosophy,” a philosophy focused on the objects of knowledge, as opposed, presumably, to the “subject-oriented philosophy” of Kant.)
The first comparison that came to my mind when I read about this was one that I doubt Speculative Realists would find flattering: Ayn Rand. Continue reading
academia, Aristippus, Augustine, autobiography, Bhagavad Gītā, Confucius, David Hume, dharmaśāstra, Epicurus, Friedrich Nietzsche, G.W.F. Hegel, intimacy/integrity, Jeremy Bentham, Mozi, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha), Thomas Aquinas, Thomas P. Kasulis, utilitarianism, Yoga Sūtras
One reason I turn back to premodern philosophies so much is that they often show us questions larger than those generally asked in philosophy today. Especially important among these: “what kind of life should I live?” What sorts of major life decisions should I make? It still surprises me how rarely academic philosophers concern themselves with these questions, when we spend so much time teaching people in their late teens and early twenties – for whom these questions are in the foreground.
Lately in my mind I’ve been tossing around the hypothesis that the answers to the question “What kind of life should I live?” roughly boil down to three – and that each of the three is tied to some sort of metaphysics, a theoretical as well as a practical philosophy: Continue reading