Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.Continue reading
A while ago I was contacted by an academic publisher asking me to review a new introductory textbook on philosophy of religion. I didn’t do so, even though the publisher offered me a stipend. The main reason was just that I didn’t have the time for it. But the more interesting reason was my objections to the work’s entire project.
The book’s proposed table of contents spoke of a work devoted entirely to God: the concept of God, and arguments for and against his existence. That is not an idiosyncratic approach; there are many existing textbooks in “philosophy of religion” that take the same approach. So there was nothing especially or unusually outrageous about this textbook and its other. And that is exactly the problem.Continue reading
The term mindfulness is ubiquitous in English-language discussions of Buddhism – and beyond, in secular meditation techniques. When I first encountered Buddhism in Thailand, the English word “mindfulness” was central to my understanding of the tradition. My journals in 1997 described mindfulness as “the Buddhist virtue”, and identified it with “detachment from negative emotions, the ability to sit back and go ‘Y’know, there’s really no reason to be pissed off about this here.’” It was not a word I encountered anywhere outside my own study of the tradition.
Seventeen years later, I realized that “mindfulness” had become mainstream when my hospital had prescribed mindfulness meditation for my insomnia. It has already become considerably more mainstream in the few years since. A couple years ago I participated in a new and popular mindfulness program through my employer, Boston University. I should stress that this program had nothing to do with the religion or philosophy departments, the Center for the Study of Asia, the Buddhist students’ organization, or any other such Buddhism-related part of the university. No, it was offered through Information Services and Technology, as part of my day job assisting professors to teach with technology – whether they are professors of chemistry, public health, hospitality administration, or anything else. Continue reading
The conflict between Buddhism and qualitative individualism is a major difficulty for my own philosophy. In addressing that conflict, there is one approach that has repeatedly stuck out at me. I don’t think it actually solves the problem, but it may be a step towards a solution.
That step is to build on the similarities between the Buddhist conventional/ultimate distinction and Wilfrid Sellars’s distinction between the manifest and the scientific image. Both of these dichotomies are focused on the human person or self: at the conventional (sammuti/vohāra) or manifest level, selves and their differences are real and important, and stories can be told; at the ultimate (paramattha) or scientific level, selves disappear, reduced to smaller particles that form a more fundamental level of explanation.
We may note here a key way that Sellars departs from at least Buddhaghosa’s Buddhism. He agrees with Buddhaghosa’s view that the ultimate/scientific level is an important respect truer than the conventional/manifest. But the further difference is very important: for Sellars, the manifest image is necessary for ethics (and probably aesthetics and politics.) Continue reading
If you are the sort of person who reads comparative philosophy blogs, you probably remember the widely read New York Times article that Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden wrote two years ago, calling for the study of non-Western philosophies in philosophy departments. I agreed with their overall point, surprising nobody that I can imagine, but had strong reservations about their underlying reasoning, then as now: in urging the study of non-Western thought they said nothing about anything valuable it actually would have to teach us, treating geographical diversity as sufficient.
Van Norden has now expanded the article’s point into a book, Taking Back Philosophy. (He invited Garfield to join in writing the book, but Garfield was too busy with other projects.) Columbia University Press sent me a free copy of the book in the hope I would review it on Love of All Wisdom and/or the Indian Philosophy Blog; I mention that as a disclaimer of sorts, though there were no specifications on the content of the review. I offer my thoughts here. Continue reading
A little while ago, responding to Garfield and Van Norden’s call for diversity in philosophy, I argued that we should fight for the inclusion of non-Western thought in philosophy programs on the grounds of its intrinsic worth as philosophy, not merely on the grounds on geographic diversity. Now Fordham’s Nicholas Tampio has made an argument far more diametrically opposed to Garfield and Van Norden’s: philosophy departments should continue in their current habit of not teaching non-Western thought at all. Or at least, they should make no special effort to bring it in. (“Let philosophy departments evolve organically…”) Why not? Because, Tampio says, many of the leading non-Western thinkers we might consider philosophers – such as Confucius – really aren’t.
In my experience, many who take such a position do so from a standpoint of ignorance at best and apathy at worst: they don’t know non-Western philosophy and they don’t care to learn it. Sometimes they will argue for such a position; more often they simply rely on the departmental inertia that allows them to get away with such ignorance and apathy. It is the great virtue of Tampio’s piece that it is no such thing; Tampio writes out of a long engagement with medieval Islamic thought and one of its leading figures. And while it seems pretty obvious to me that medieval Islamic thought should be considered part of Western intellectual tradition, the fact remains that it usually isn’t. Not only does Tampio know at least this one (supposedly) non-Western tradition, he is basing his argument on that tradition and the self-understanding of its own thinkers.
Tampio calls our attention to something very important which is often neglected in debates about philosophy: in medieval Muslim thought, one finds perhaps the most explicit and articulate rejection of philosophy in the intellectual history of the world. Continue reading
Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden have a widely circulated article in a recent New York Times, chastising American philosophy departments for paying insufficient attention to non-Western traditions of thought. It will surprise nobody that I sympathize with them, since I’ve been trying to get non-Western thought a hearing for years. But in part for that reason, I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it hasn’t got that hearing so far. The reasons for this are not all bad ones, and anyone working to change the situation needs to understand what those reasons are. Perhaps most importantly, they need to ask a vital question that I don’t see asked in Garfield and Van Norden’s article: why should we study philosophy? Continue reading