As I noted last week, I owe a real intellectual debt to Chris Fraser‘s work for helping me figure out Zhuangzi – or the Zhuangzi, as Fraser would say. His interpretations have been of incredible value to me in understanding this very difficult thinker (or text, if you prefer). I have my difficulties with him, though, when it comes to methods of constructive application – of trying to apply Zhuangist philosophy to our contemporary context. Continue reading
A while ago I discussed how Janet Gyatso had objected to my approach of assuming authorial coherence and single authorship in my dissertation on Śāntideva (and in other works). I said there that “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?” I answered yes and I stand by that. I remain firmly in agreement with Thomas Kuhn’s dictum that [w]hen reading the works of an important thinker” one should look for the apparent absurdities and ask how it could make sense that “a sensible person could have written them”. But I didn’t go back to what I implied was the “smaller” issue – which may not in fact be so small.
In the case of Śāntideva, the historical evidence suggests that his most famous work, the Bodhicaryāvatāra, is composite: there is a version of it discovered relatively recently at Dunhuang which seems to be significantly earlier than, and substantially different from, the version known to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It would seem that the text as we know it is the work of at least two composers. And that, in turn, poses a problem for someone wanting to use Kuhn’s approach as he states it: what if this text is not the work of an important thinker or a sensible person, but multiple ones? Are we not then entitled to treat the text as incoherent because of all the different minds that went into it? Continue reading
This week I’d like to continue to think through the topic of dialectic, which I began to explore last week in the terms of a double movement transcending and including. In my most detailed previous post on dialectic so far, I got at the transcend-include distinction much more obliquely. I distinguished between dialectical thinking in a broad sense, as a progress through inadequate conceptions which are incorporated and leave their mark on the inquiry, and dialectical argument more strictly, as beginning from the opponent’s point of view and pointing out its inadequacies from within. I would say now that this dialectical argument in a strict sense is the transcending moment of dialectic, whereas the broader progress is the including moment.
In expanding on this point, let me leave aside the including moment for now and start with the transcending. Continue reading
Michael Reidy and the recently returned Thill raise an important point in response to last week’s post, on the assessment of philosophy from analytic and “continental” perspectives. I argued that analytic philosophy judges philosophical on argument and continental philosophy on the depth of interpretation – interpretation “that could explain not merely what Kant [for example] said, but why he said it.”
Michael responded that the two were not likely to be so far apart in practice: “You can hardly develop a credible problematique without knowing some details.” Thill responded that this depth of interpretation necessarily “involves also an explanation of Kant’s argument for his views or claims!!!… What else could ‘why he said it’ mean or refer to?”
Thill’s question appears to be intended as rhetorical (especially given the laughs that precede and follow it in his comment). But it shouldn’t be. Continue reading
I’ve been wanting to follow up on an earlier post and ask just what science, natural science, really is. I realize that the concept “science” has two separate and distinguishable, though related, meanings. On one hand, “science” has a normative meaning – it names an ideal, of how our investigations into the empirical world should be conducted. On the other, it has a descriptive meaning – it names a set of institutions with a history, inhabited by fallible human beings who, often as not, fail to live up to that ideal even though they are supposed to live up to it.
The first, normative meaning is the one with the most philosophical significance. This is the one with normative weight; it is in this sense that, if we call something unscientific, we are saying something bad about it. I haven’t pinned down the details of this normative sense as much as I’d like yet, but I think it involves testing falsifiable hypotheses, making controlled experiments, controlling for variables, and above all rejecting hypotheses that turn out to be falsified. I expect to say more about this normative sense of science in the near future.
Overall I think it is that first (normative) sense of science that’s most relevant to philosophical inquiry, inquiry about the nature of reality and how we should live in it. But the second sense also matters, if only because we need to isolate it as a way of understanding the first. In this descriptive sense, science is what scientists do, and scientists are people who have been trained in academic science departments. This is the realm where scientists fudge data to fit their own political agenda or that of their corporate funders. It is also what Thomas Kuhn famously catalogued in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where the consensus among scientists moves much more randomly and haphazardly than the normative ideal should indicate. There is something about science in the first sense that is (I would argue) inherently good; this is not the case about science in the second sense. A man who has a PhD in biology but regularly falsifies data to fit his preconceptions is a scientist in only the second (descriptive) sense, not the first (normative) sense.
What strikes me about this distinction, though, is that much the same distinction could be made about any given “religion.” Continue reading
In the previous post I noted that I am completely unimpressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. What I know of the rest of his work, at least the Philosophical Investigations, has done little to impress me either. (Most of what I read serves to convince me more strongly that he is wrong.)
I suppose I’ve long been predisposed against Wittgenstein because of the unfortunate ways his thought is used in religious studies. 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