How can traditions be commensurable?


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I closed my previous post on method by noting I am getting increasingly skeptical of MacIntyre’s view that traditions are incommensurable with each other. Christian Hendriks made an excellent comment in response:

What would it look like for philosophical traditions to be more commensurable? It has seemed obvious to me for quite some time that many philosophical traditions are incommensurable; MacIntyre is attractive to me in large part because he addresses this problem (and addresses it as a problem rather than a neutral feature). I don’t mean “it seems obvious” to stand in for an argument here, but I can’t at this moment even imagine what it would look like for traditions to be more commensurable than MacIntyre claims. Can you elaborate on that? [emphasis in original]

It is a great question and one I will probably need to think through more fully. But I’d like to take a first stab at it here. Continue reading

Roots of a project on method


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How should one do philosophy across cultures? This is not an easy question, though too many people treat it as if it is. Mid-twentieth-century answers leaned to a perennialism like Ken Wilber’s, where at some deep level all the traditions are basically the same. That perennialism does not stand up to critical scrutiny: philosophical traditions are quite different from each other, and disagree with each other (and within each other) on crucial points.

But once one acknowledges those differences, one is still left trying to figure out what to do with them. It will not do to take one’s starting standard as given and judge everything that one encounters according to it – an approach characteristic of analytic philosophers, but also taken by Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought. Once one does that, there is scarcely much point left to thinking cross-culturally at all, for one already knows the answers. Given human finitude and fallibility, such confidence seems more like gross arrogance. But no better is the converse approach – typically labelled relativist – which views all the different traditions as equally right. Such an approach is a logical absurdity, since very few traditions themselves hold such a view: by declaring them right it declares them wrong.

What approach then should one take? Continue reading

The psychological case for disengaged Buddhism


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My project on disengaged Buddhism has now been submitted to a journal. It’s undergone several revisions by this point. One of the most important such revisions was suggested unanimously by BU’s magnificent CURA seminar. In an earlier draft I had attempted to emphasize the contemporary constructive significance of disengaged Buddhism by noting how its ideas were corroborated by some contemporary psychological research. The seminar participants thought that discussion of psychology did not strengthen the paper because I didn’t have the space to defend them fully; the paper would stand best discussing disengaged Buddhists’ claims in their historical context and letting those claims stand on their own.

I think they were right, and I removed the psychology discussion from the paper – a little sadly, as I thought the psychological case for disengaged Buddhism was worth making. Fortunately, I have another place to make it: here. Continue reading

Listening to contemporary disengaged voices


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My upcoming paper on disengaged Buddhism focuses on classical Indian texts that engaged Buddhist scholarship has generally silenced. As I read more, though, I come to see that contemporary Asian and Asian-American Buddhists also have politically disengaged tendencies, which modern politically active scholarship – not only Buddhist – also tends to silence.

I first noted this tendency of silencing in Judith Simmer-Brown’s introduction to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the leading engaged Buddhist organization she helped found. The group, she says, “was concerned that Buddhist practice centers and groups had become entirely removed from the social and political issues of the day: some teachers and organizations were even actively discouraging political involvement.” (69) And that’s it for those “teachers and organizations”. Why were they discouraging political involvement? What did they say? What were their names? No answers are forthcoming; they receive no voice. What we hear instead is the story of how Simmer-Brown and her American fellows put together a politically engaged group in defiance of their teachers.

The tendency plays out in a different way in Joseph Cheah‘s Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Continue reading

Disbelieving in God without being an atheist


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In recent years – years since I began writing this blog – I have come to realize that I do not believe in God. This is not a mere agnosticism; I believe that God does not exist. The idea of God once helped us make sense of the physical world in a way that it no longer does; the learned men and women who have studied living organisms have been most successful with a paradigm that has no need for a divine plan. Moreover the suffering of the world gives us active reason to disbelieve in God. It makes the idea of an omnipotent omnibenevolent creator seem almost absurd. There is no particular reason to believe an omnipotent being exists; if he did, he could not be omnibenevolent. He would likely be indifferent at best, evil at worst. Certainly not a being to worship or trust. I have become increasingly sympathetic to the drastic atheism of the Speculative Realist philosophers, who take their metaphors for existence from H.P. Lovecraft.

I have tended to think the non-design-based arguments for God’s existence are not taken seriously enough, and have defended them here in the past. But in the end I do not think they succeed. Continue reading

The middle ground in philosophy of science


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Last time I looked to find a middle ground in philosophy of science, between Francis Bacon’s historically untenable inductivism and Paul Feyerabend’s irrationalism. I noted then that I think Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos all attempt to stake out a position somewhere in this ground, with varying degrees of sucess. I turn to them now.

Karl Popper rightly acknowledges the scientific importance of fallibilism and uncertainty: science is powerful not because its conclusions can be proved right, but because it can acknowledge when they are proved wrong. Popper notes that science in practice advances more by falsification than by induction: the role of empirical data is not to ground generalizations, but rather to disconfirm them. One can legitimately formulate a theory in abstraction that says all swans must be white; the important thing is that one reject it when one observes a black swan.

But Popper’s critique of inductivism does not go far enough. Continue reading

The spectrum of philosophy of science


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I have found myself thinking more and more lately about the philosophy of science, and finding it increasingly important for the rest of philosophy. There are multiple reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is simply the prestige (or normative weight) we attach to scientific knowledge, a prestige I take to be deserved. I would agree that to the extent that it is fair to say that “science has established” that human consciousness is not reborn after death, then it is true that human consciousness is not reborn after death. Science, in that respect, is what classical Indian philosophers would have called a pramāṇa, a reliable means of knowledge.

A second, related, reason is that it turns out that that very nature of something’s being scientifically established turns out on closer glance to be quite complex, itself its own kind of philosophical question – and one with bearing on philosophical questions well outside the natural sciences. Studies of the history of science – what science has actually been in practice, not what it is supposed to be in theory – show us a process much messier than an account in the standard mold of “build your theory by generalizing from the empirical evidence”. Often the theoretical insight comes first and the observations supporting it come only later. So Copernicus built his heliocentric model mathematically and only later would Galileo demonstrate it with a telescope, just as Einstein began with an “intuition” of the theory of relativity that was only later empirically verified. The way actual science – including the science of our greatest scientific heroes – has proceeded, turns out to be considerably messier than the standard account tells us it is supposed to be.

How then might we think about what science and scientific knowledge are? Continue reading

Making the case for non-Western philosophy


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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

Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (3)


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My continuing dispute with Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, over the ideas of Buddhaghosa, now returns to where it began: the distinction between ultimate (paramattha) and conventional (sammuti or vohāra).

Heim and Ram-Prasad admit that for some Buddhist traditions these terms refer to different truths or levels of truth. (When Śāntideva employs the ultimate/conventional distinction, for example, he describes them explicitly as satyadvaya, two truths.) But Heim and Ram-Prasad claim that for Buddhaghosa it is not so. Continue reading

Buddhaghosa on seeing things as they are (2)


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I continue my argument from last time dissenting from Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s interpretation of Buddhaghosa. I turn to a second passage that Heim and Ram-Prasad use – incorrectly, in my view – to claim Buddhaghosa is not trying to take a position on the way things actually are. They note correctly that Buddhaghosa contrasts those who see correctly, one one hand, with those who “resort to views” (the diṭṭhigata) on the other. But what does this distinction mean, exactly? Continue reading

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