I was honoured to see Elisa Freschi’s post reviewing my recent article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics. I have a lot to say about both the post itself and the comment threads that followed it. I’ve said some of it in those threads already, but I’d like to pull them together and express a way they relate to more general ideas. Continue reading
The term digital humanities has quickly become trendy over the past couple years. The term has often excited me, since digital technology in the humanities is both a part of what I do for a living, and what makes my humanistic scholarship on this blog possible. So I’ve followed discussions of digital humanities, such as the HUMANIST mailing list, with interest.
I remain deeply interested in the field, but I’ve also begun to acquire some skepticism toward it. Continue reading
The translation of a small passage can turn out to tell us a great deal. Consider section 4B12 of the Mencius. Mencius says in this section that the great man is one who retains, or does not lose, chizi zhi xin 赤子之心. This Chinese phrase translates literally as something like “heart/mind of baby.” Most translators have followed the interpretation of the great Neo-Confucian synthesizer Zhu Xi, which dovetails smoothly with the optimistic view of human nature generally attributed to Mencius: in D.C. Lau’s translation, “A great man is one who retains the heart of a new-born babe.” We are born naturally good as babies, and become bad only if something intervenes to impede our natural development. (Contrast Augustine in the first chapter of the Confessions, who observes babies as creatures of desire and envy.)
Bryan Van Norden’s recent translation of Mencius challenges this interpretation. He translates 4B12 as “Great people do not lose the hearts of their ‘children.'” And he notes that in this he is following the early commentator Zhao Qi – for whom “children” refers to the subjects of a ruler, whose hearts must be won over. Nothing here about babies or children being naturally good.
Van Norden could be right about Mencius to this point; I’m far from a Mencius scholar and wouldn’t be able to tell. What struck me as far more surprising, though, is what Van Norden says next. Continue reading
What is truth? I’d like to continue a dialogue on this subject between Elisa Freschi and myself that began in the comments to my post on performance theory. I’ll start by summarizing the debate so far (skip down a couple paragraphs if you’ve already been following these comments, or would rather click on the links to see the original debate).
We have been debating the extent to which truth can properly be understood as correspondence to reality. I think it generally can, but insisted that that reality should not just be understood as “outer” reality. Our understandings of our inner, subjective states can also be true or false in the sense of succeeding or failing to correspond to reality (as when we are incorrect about being happy).
Elisa continued this debate with a post on her own blog (as I’m now doing in return). She argued that the experience of pain is “subject-dependent,” and cannot be understood as corresponding to a reality beyond the subject’s own understanding: “No scientist could convince me that the pain I am experiencing is unbearable if I can bear it (and vice versa, different people react very differently to what seems to be the same neuronal stimulus).” I responded in the comments that we can indeed misjudge pain, like happiness; I mentioned a physiotherapist friend who gets frustrated when he asks people to rate the pain from a minor injury on a scale of 1 to 10 and they immediately say 10. Elisa replied as follows:
It is not fair to ask someone who has only experience of a feeble pain to collocate it on a scale from 1 to 10. She would, rightly, collocate her present pain on the 10th level, because the ’10’ as a level of pain sensation can only make sense in regard to the pain we have actually experienced. A child will say that 10 is the pain one experiences after a minor fall, a woman who has just given birth will describe the 10-level-pain as something different, but they are right in maintaining that the pain they are presently experiencing is the highest they have ever experienced. The physiotherapist asks them to conform to an objective scale, valid for everyone, hence his disappointment.
My response: Continue reading
In almost any contemporary introduction to Buddhism, one of the first things one learns is the Four Noble Truths:
- Everything is suffering (dukkha).
- Suffering is caused by craving.
- There is an end to suffering.
- One can reach this end by following the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Truths are central to the teaching of the early Pali suttas, so something like them was probably central to the teaching of the historical Buddha. There’s been a recent trend in Buddhist studies to disparage the Four Truths, on the ground that they were far removed from the practice of most Buddhists in history, whose lives (especially but not only in East Asia) focused much more on devotion and magic. But never mind. I’m far less concerned with learning about the historical structure of past Buddhist societies, and more with the question of whether these truths – undeniably revered and treated as truths by many Buddhists throughout history – are indeed true.
I noted before that the Second Noble Truth was of great importance in my own spiritual development. I would still count it as the most important thing I’ve learned from Buddhism. Maybe not all suffering comes from craving, but a huge chunk of it does.
But what about the other three? Continue reading