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
In scholarship on Karl Marx it is a commonplace to draw a distinction between the “early Marx” or “young Marx” on one hand, and the “late Marx” (or “mature Marx”) on the other. There is considerable debate about whether Marx changed his opinions from the early phase or the late phase; many argue that they were constant. But there is little doubt that he changed his emphasis. The young Marx – the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts and Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – writes a great deal about Hegelian philosophy and the criticism of “religion”. For whatever reason, the late Marx – the Marx of Capital – largely leaves that topic behind, at least in what he says explicitly. He turns his attention instead to economics and politics, to the details of capitalism’s functioning.
Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I much prefer the writings of the young Marx. (It is humbling to realize that I am now older than he was.) And indeed I recently had a chance to go further: to the works of the very young Marx. Continue reading
Every human life ends in death. A long time ago I noted that we often forget this fact; and we shouldn’t. But granted that we acknowledge that we are all going to die, just how significant is the fact of our deaths? A little while ago I treated it as a significant problem, whether for an egoist or for one seeking the good in politics: whatever we achieve comes tumbling down in the end.
There’s a strong philosophical allure to consequentialism, the view that the best actions are those that produced the best consequences (of whatever sort). But a problem with consequentialism is that consequences, by definition, happen in the future – and eventually there will be no future. Continue reading
A comment from Thill on a recent post makes me reconsider the category of the supernatural, which I’ve employed many times on this blog. It’s been an important category in my reflection because I acknowledge the normative weight of natural science, and am suspicious of claims that contradict its findings. When Śāntideva tells us that advanced bodhisattvas can fire rays from their pores that make the blind see and make malodorous people smell better, I have reason to disbelieve him. The idea of rebirth – at least in the straightforward way Śāntideva portrays it, with bad people getting reborn in hells – makes me similarly suspicious, which is one reason I’ve been so sympathetic to Dale Wright’s project of naturalizing karma.
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
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
The Catholic Pauls, it seems clear to me, oppose ethical egoism in strong terms. Interestingly, however, they do not spend much time attacking it; instead, they attack a kind of altruism that is very different from their own. And their positions interest me greatly because of the way it highlights differences among philosophical concepts of altruism.
Ethical egoism of some description – say, as advocated by Epicurus – is a perfectly respectable philosophical position. One can say that one’s reasons to benefit others are all ultimately based on benefit to oneself, if one’s own self-interest is rightly understood. Neither Paul has a great deal of sympathy for this position, as far as I can tell, but it is not what they take as a target for their attack.
Rather, they reserve their greatest ire for a position that derives other-orientation from ātmanism – or at least from nondualism. Continue reading
Skholiast recently pointed to a sad event that I’d been unaware of until he mentioned it: the death of Pierre Hadot. Skholiast’s involvement with Hadot, from the look of things, is deeper than mine – I’ve read some of his work and referred to him a couple of times on the blog, but I don’t think that he has (yet) had a deep effect on my thinking. Still, I find myself very much in sympathy with Hadot’s approach, and I think his loss is a real one, so I’d like to offer a few musings in memoriam.
The idea that I always associate with Hadot is encapsulated in the translated English title of one of his major works: philosophy as a way of life. Hadot, a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, treats this philosophy as a way of life, a set of “spiritual practices,” and in so doing he helps remind us of the distance between ancient and modern philosophy. And I don’t just mean that he gives us yet another reason to critique contemporary philosophy departments, which (whether analytic or continental) typically seem far from any ancient ideal of the love of wisdom. I mean also that he reminds us why philosophy has so little place in contemporary Western culture. Continue reading
In examining my previous question on internalism and externalism I’ve been trying to explore a powerful but complex and difficult answer: that this question is expressed in the very history of Western philosophy.
Lately I’ve slowly been making my way through Philosophy and Freedom, a collection of essays by and about the neglected Canadian Hegelian philosopher James Doull (rhymes with towel). Doull, like Socrates or George Herbert Mead, never published a book during his lifetime; his reputation derives almost entirely from being spread by his students and their students, mostly through the classics department at Dalhousie University and the great-books program at its affiliated University of King’s College. (I myself know Doull’s work only because a lifelong friend of mine is one of Doull’s “grand-pupils,” a devoted student of Doull’s students at Dalhousie and King’s.)
Doull’s work is difficult, both in the density of its prose and in the wide range of the texts it expects familiarity with – the chapter on ancient Greece covers not only philosophy but the full range of history, tragedy and comedy, viewing their scope all together through a Hegelian philosophical lens. Moreover, because Doull’s concerns are so wide-ranging, a study of his work does not immediately repay the reader with direct application to particular philosophical questions and problems. If ever there was a big-picture thinker it is this man, at least when it comes to Western philosophical traditions.
And yet studying Doull closely has ultimately paid off for me in thinking about the big question I’ve addressed above. I realize that this question of ethical motivation has, in its way, been central to Western philosophical tradition, not merely in the works of individual thinkers but through its history. Continue reading
academia, Aristippus, Augustine, autobiography, Bhagavad Gītā, Confucius, David Hume, dharmaśāstra, Epicurus, Friedrich Nietzsche, G.W.F. Hegel, intimacy/integrity, Jeremy Bentham, Mozi, Pali suttas, 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