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
It was sixteen years ago, in 2000, that I wrote this week’s post. It was a short paper submitted for Francis Fiorenza‘s class on hermeneutics, on the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I post it (unedited) because it was something of an intellectual milestone for me, moving away from the more radical Marxist-influenced view I had been holding up until that time. I was surprised as I wrote the paper that I found Gadamer’s more traditionalist view more persuasive than Habermas’s quasi-Marxist social-scientific rationalism.
Since it was written for a professor who knows both Habermas and Gadamer well, it assumes some knowledge of the two thinkers (as well as of Hegel, on whom they both draw) and may be tricky for someone unfamiliar with them. References are to articles by Habermas and Gadamer in Gayle Ormiston and Alan Schrift’s anthology The Hermeneutic Tradition (HT), and to the second revised English edition of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (TM).
My sympathies in this debate certainly lie primarily with Habermas. I also find that in many respects Habermas and Gadamer are very close to each other. Nevertheless, overall I find Gadamer’s position the more compelling of the two, because I am convinced by his argument that we cannot ultimately reject tradition.
Authority, tradition, prejudice are certainly unappealing words — although more so, I think, in English than in German, especially in the case of prejudice. (Vorurteil has at least some positive connotations.) Gadamer’s attempt to rehabilitate them feels quite unwelcome to me. Prejudices say that interracial children like me should not exist; authority keeps women in unhappy relationships and out of the workplace; tradition frowns on unconventional sexuality, or in some cases any sexuality at all. What could there be to rehabilitate here?
Gadamer’s answer, of course, is plenty. Continue reading
In the previous post I discussed why academic philosophers have usually focused on the West, and pointed out reasons why some amount of Western focus remains valuable. Above all, I noted: “we are always already formed by some sort of philosophical tradition, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. And a great deal of what forms us is Western.” So exploring Western philosophy is important to understand our own thought better, where we are coming from.
There are at least two important objections to be made to that claim as I have phrased it. Continue reading
In the early 1960s, my father finished his PhD in political science from Cornell. Under the restrictive and racialized American immigration rules of the day, he needed to work in a neighbouring country for two years before he could come to the US. So he applied for six tenure-track faculty jobs in Canada. He was offered five of them. The sixth, at the relatively low-prestige Memorial University of Newfoundland, turned him down with a curt letter that said “In our competition, you failed to qualify.” He found it amusing that such a lower-tier school would say such a dismissive thing when he had offers from so many places higher in the hierarchy.
This story ceased to amuse me when I received my PhD from Harvard in the late 2000s and began applying for faculty teaching jobs myself. I sent out nearly two hundred job applications, most of them for tenure-track jobs, across Canada and the United States, and a few off the continent. I received not one tenure-track offer anywhere. If Memorial University of Newfoundland had offered me a position, I would have taken it without hesitation and been grateful to have the opportunity. The same applies to most of my generation in academia. To those coming of age in the 21st-century university, my father’s story sounds as implausible as if he had wandered into the White House, said “I’d like a job as President of the United States”, and been offered it on the spot. But it was and is true. His experience was in Canada, but as far as I know, those faculty of his generation with a similarly prestigious degree who could apply for jobs in the United States had a comparably wide range of opportunities.
This intergenerational experience should highlight how the story in the academic humanities and social sciences from the 1960s to the 2010s has been above all a story of decline. Many North American leftists look at the real accomplishments made in areas of race, gender and sexuality and see this period as a time of unalloyed progress. I cannot. Continue reading
Readers may have noticed my expressing a certain ambiguity with respect to the new Buddhist movements I call Yavanayāna. I have often defended their value as legitimate traditions in their own right, but I have also repeatedly criticized them for their political activism, their embrace of “interdependence”, their reluctance to admit the significance of sectarian differences. Moreover, my ground for criticism in these cases is that they misrepresent traditional and especially early Buddhism. Some readers might well wonder whether there is a problem here: whether I am criticizing their innovation only when it is convenient to do so, which is to say only when I agree with it.
In response I would stress that I am not against innovation as such. Continue reading
I’ve been spending some time lately with James Doull‘s last essay, “Hegel’s Phenomenology and post-modern thought”, and also with his closely related address on “Heidegger and the state”. (Both are in Philosophy and Freedom, the only published book of Doull’s writings.) Doull’s project in the Hegel essay is in a sense meta-Hegelian: to situate Hegel‘s thought in a philosophical history, as Hegel himself would do with the thinkers before him.
So the first parts of the essay tell the story of premodern and modern Western thought as it leads up to Hegel – a fine exegesis. But it’s the latter part of the essay that gets really interesting. For of course the history of philosophy went on after Hegel – and how should a Hegelian deal with that? Continue reading
A few years ago I told what I thought of at the time as the story of my philosophy: how I left a utilitarian worldview and came to discover Buddhism in Thailand at age 21. I realize now that there’s something important missing from that story, and you can see it in the final paragraph of the second piece:
And yet, all the Western philosophy that I’d learned before didn’t just go away. I’d learned important, powerful, beautiful things that seemed true – and often seemed opposite to the Buddhism I’d found myself in. Is there a way to reconcile the two? One way or another, that question has been central to my life ever since.
That was the right ending: since then I have indeed been preoccupied with reconciling Buddhism and the Western philosophy I’d already learned. But if you only read those two pieces, you would come away with the impression that the Western philosophy I had learned, and would try to reconcile, consisted primarily of utilitarianism. And that would be completely wrong. Continue reading
For those of us who think at length about universities and the changes they may undergo, it’s a commonplace to refer to the medieval origins of the modern university system. These origins are typically taken to be a bad thing. For example, lecture-based pedagogy is said to date to a time before printing, when that was the only way students would have access to a text. So, the argument goes, it’s an obsolete atavism; there is no reason to keep it around.
I have become increasingly nervous around this line of argument. For it seems to me that a fully modernized university will be one that has no place for the humanities. Continue reading
Recently I’ve been carrying around and reading a copy of G.W.F. Hegel’s masterwork, the Phenomenology of Spirit. Carrying a book with such a strange and obscure title, and no cover art, sometimes makes me think: what would I say to a curious onlooker, whether friend or stranger, who asked the deceptively simple question, “What’s that book about?”
To a simple question one wishes to give a simple answer. In the case of the Phenomenology of Spirit I think there is only one good simple answer that one can give to the question “What’s that book about?” It is a one-word answer: everything. 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