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
As I noted last time, I think the disregard of ethics by Indian-philosophy scholars like Dan Arnold is a problem in itself: it’s a misconception of what philosophy is, and one that harmfully shrinks the field of the study of Indian philosophy. But I think this neglect would still be a problem even for people who do decide to restrict their study of Indian philosophy to the theoretical realms of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language. For it seems to me that at least in Arnold’s case, the neglect of ethics leads to a misinterpretation of the metaphysics.
Arnold’s misinterpretation is focused above all around the relationship between the famous Buddhist “two truths”: conventional truth (saṃvṛti) and ultimate truth (paramārtha). Consider Arnold’s description (again in his review of Karen Lang) of the second chapter of Candrakīrti’s Catuḥśatakaṭīkā. “Candrakīrti develops (contra Vasubandhu) a characteristically Mādhyamika point to the effect that the conventional reality of pleasure is not denied, only its being the ‘inherent nature’ of life.” From this description, Candrakīrti’s chapter sounds like it is all about acknowledging pleasure and making room for it. You would not be able to tell that the point of this chapter, very explicitly stated at its beginning, is “rejecting the illusion of regarding the painful as being pleasant” – or that in this chapter, pretty much everything that we would normally consider pleasant turns out to be painful. Continue reading
It is commonplace today for scholars of Indian philosophy to focus their attention entirely on theoretical philosophy at the expense of the practical. I think this tendency is a mistake. I see at least two grave problems with it. First: In my 2015 article I argued that (at least in the case of Śāntideva) our understanding of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if we ignore Buddhist metaphysics. I am now beginning to think this issue goes in the other direction as well: that we will misinterpret Buddhist metaphysics if we ignore Buddhist ethics. I will talk about that problem next time. This time, I will address the other problem: it can drop us into the all-too-familiar trap of treating some Indian inquiries as “not philosophical” even when they were engaged in by most of the great philosophers of the West.
A friend read the previous post on ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva and asked (on Google+) what exactly I meant by “incompleteness”. It was a great question and made me realize there was a bit of confusion in my own thinking.
The point of connection I saw between the two different thinkers was above all at the level of understanding the world. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking lately about MacIntyre’s explanation of the Muslim philosopher ibn Sīnā and the ways in which ibn Sīnā’s concept of God requires us to rethink the entire world around us if we accept it:
From [atheists’] standpoint a theist is someone who believes in just one more being than they do and who therefore has the responsibility for justifying her or his belief in this extra entity. But from the standpoint of the theist this is already to have misconceived both God and theistic belief in God. To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything. (God, Philosophy, Universities p. 47)
What’s drawing my attention is that you could write a very similar passage to characterize Buddhism. Continue reading
I have long had an ambition which, I am slowly realizing, is unlikely to be fulfilled. It is an ambition suggested in this blog’s title: the idea of putting together all the major philosophical traditions of the world into a full synthesis. Ken Wilber’s work has to date been the most valiant attempt anyone has made to fulfill that ambition. But I have argued in many ways that this attempt has failed. It must fail, in the perennialist form Wilber’s work takes: to claim that all the world’s wisdom (or “religious”) traditions are basically saying the same thing. That claim makes the attempt at putting the traditions together much easier. It is also false. Continue reading
This week I’m going to continue the discussion of “common sense” from two weeks ago. I think it’s an important discussion because an overreliance on the concept of “common sense” can be (and seems to have been repeatedly) used to challenge the value and viability not merely of “religion” but of philosophy itself. I’m going to assume that readers of this current post have read that previous post – but not that they have read the comments on it, which have been the most numerous of any post on this blog so far (a full hundred!)
In those comments I challenged Thill to define the term “reliable,” which he had previously introduced to the discussion. I structured the post around the term “reliable” because in Thill’s previous comment, it had been at the centre of his only serious response to the point that “common sense” can be wrong (as in the case of sunrise and sunset). He said: “The fact that it is not infallible does not support the conclusion that it is not reliable!” No doubt I should have probed the definition of “reliable” further in the post – examining what Thill could have meant by it; I did not. I tried to make up for that lack in a later comment, where I asked Thill to define “reliable.” Thill responded that the onus was on me to define “reliable” since I had advanced a thesis relating to it; but my supposed thesis was intended as a response to his own thesis about the reliability of common sense, a word which, again, he introduced to the discussion. So I noted that I am happy to drop the term from the discussion as long as he, too, is willing to refrain from using the term “reliable” to refer to the epistemological status of so-called common sense. (That also applies to the others, Jabali108 and Neocarvaka, who have been exalting “common sense” in recent discussions.)
If we drop “reliable,” where are we left? Continue reading
I attended a great panel yesterday at the Eastern APA. Two of the presentations addressed each other directly on a topic I’ve discussed before: skepticism in Indian thought. The presenters, Ethan Mills and Laura Guererro of the University of New Mexico, had clearly been engaged in a longstanding debate with each other on the subject beforehand, which I think helped sharpen their thoughts nicely for the talk.
Mills presented on Jayarāśi, whose Tattvopaplavasiṃha (“The Lion that Afflicts Categories”) is the only extant full text attributed to a member of the Cārvāka-Lokāyata, the atheist and materialist school of ancient Indian thought. But Jayarāśi takes the Cārvāka school’s thought much further than it is usually thought to go. Whereas this materialist school is normally understood to merely deny the existence of gods and karma, Jayarāśi denies the existence of pretty much everything. Previous Cārvākas were said to believe that the world was made up entirely of the four elements; Jayarāśi says, “Even the view of world as elements is not well established. How much less are all the others?” He is, in short, a skeptic. Continue reading
Last week I attended an interesting talk by Harvard PhD candidate (and fellow Canuck) Rory Lindsay, through the graduate Workshop in Cross-Cultural Philosophy – a workshop I’m proud to have played a part in founding (and I’m happy to say that its current leaders have made it exponentially more successful than it ever was under my stewardship). Lindsay was exploring the skepticism of the Indian Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti; he compared Candrakīrti to the Hellenistic capital-S Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who held similar views, and examined the arguments made against Sextus by Myles Burnyeat. I want to discuss Lindsay’s talk by first giving some background to it, then recounting it, and finally offering a few of my reflections that came out of it.
Lindsay’s talk – I hope I will be interpreting it correctly – delved far enough into the technical details of Buddhist theoretical debates that some introductory remarks are in order. Those familiar with these debates should feel free to skip down a couple of paragraphs. Buddhist teaching deliberately and thoughtfully attacks certain aspects of common sense and common linguistic usage, and yet nevertheless needs to make some use of that linguistic usage. Continue reading
On my dissertation committee, Janet Gyatso always had perceptive comments to make, usually coming from many different directions. The one line of criticism that she pursued throughout the dissertation process was about authorship: she was visibly dissatisfied that I had chosen to pursue the diss as a study of a single author, Śāntideva. The point extended beyond my dissertation as well: early on in my PhD, I gave her a paper that explained it would treat the Yoga Sūtras together with their Yoga Bhāṣya commentary as an “internally coherent,” and she commented “you can’t do that.” In other classes focused on reading texts, she would tell her students that the class would not look for coherence – they would not be asking questions of the form “if the text says x here, how can it say y over here when the two contradict each other?”
One can always argue the details of this textual question in any given case. In Śāntideva’s case it’s not only a matter of arguing whether “his” two major works (the Bodhicaryāvatāra and the Śikṣā Samuccaya) were written by the same person; it’s also the fact that these texts may themselves be the work of multiple writers, in that there’s an early version of the Bodhicaryāvatāra (the “Dunhuang recension”) which differs from the received version known to tradition. But there’s an issue here much bigger than the interpretation of any one thinker: should one even try to find the coherent views of an individual author? Continue reading