There is only name and form


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I now begin my responses to Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad on the thought of Buddhaghosa. Let me first reiterate a point I made early on: what I refuse is the interpretation that Buddhaghosa’s understanding of ultimate, conventional and the aggregates are merely phenomenological and not ontological. That is, I reject Heim and Ram-Prasad’s claim that “Buddhaghosa does not use abhidhamma as a reductive ontological division of the human being into mind and body, but as the contemplative structuring of that human’s phenomenology.” Emphasis added. I am not, and never was, denying a phenomenological element to Buddhaghosa’s ideas; I would have no objection to the claim that Buddhaghosa uses abhidhamma categories as both an ontological division of a human being and as a structuring of that human’s experience (contemplative or otherwise). As far as I can tell, the ontology/phenomenology distinction is not one that Buddhaghosa employs; in Heim and Ram-Prasad’s article I do not see any evidence that Buddhaghosa makes such a separation.

Indeed that very distinction of phenomenology from ontology seems to me to depend on a distinction between subject (the topic of phenomenology) and object (the topic of ontology). Such a split seems to me one that Buddhaghosa is unlikely to want to make, given his commitment to deconstruct the self/subject. And I think the refusal of such a split may be lent support by Heim and Ram-Prasad’s article itself, on points which I did not refer to because I suspect I am in agreement with them: namely, that Buddhaghosa makes no significant split between mind and matter. Continue reading

The importance of reading Buddhaghosa closely


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A while ago, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad made a thoughtful reply to the last of my post series on Buddhaghosa. I thank Ram-Prasad for that reply; I appreciate his willingness to engage with my rather cheeky attempt to reply to an article before it was even published. Now that his and Maria Heim’s article has reached publication (in Philosophy East and West 68(4), October 2018), I think it is time to take that reply back up again. Continue reading

On translating out of order


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Last time I expressed my gratitude and praise for Matthew Dasti and Stephen Phillips’s much-needed recent selective translation of the Nyāya Sūtras and commentaries. I stand by all of it – and also noted that the book drives me crazy.

Why? Dasti and Phillips made two decisions that I think are characteristic of an analytic approach to Indian texts. One was to publish selections and excerpts  – probably the right choice, as discussed last time. The second one, however, was to publish those selections entirely out of order. Continue reading

On new translations in Indian philosophy


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One of the immediate frustrations one faces in teaching Indian philosophy is that good translations are sorely lacking, certainly into English and I suspect into any Western language, perhaps even any non-Sanskrit language. A Source Book of Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, has been one of the most frequently used works since its publication – in 1957. Radhakrishnan and Moore have been dead for decades. And their work leaves much to be desired, filled with so many ellipses that one feels like one is reading Radhakrishnan’s and Moore’s ideas rather than those of the original authors; the ellipses are disruptive enough that the reader can spend more time wondering what was omitted than learning the original.

And yet with respect to some texts at least, Radhakrishnan and Moore still have yet to be surpassed. Continue reading

Does Aristotle believe in a monotheistic God?


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Many scholars of Aristotle regard him as a monotheistic theologian, one who sees humanity’s ultimate end as tied to a divine First Explanation. They do not go so far as to say Aristotle actually was an Abrahamic monotheist – that would be a very strange historical claim to make – but they see him as having anticipated that sort of monotheism in the fundamentals of his philosophy. The God at issue here would be very much the “God of the philosophers”, the God identified by medieval theologians from multiple Abrahamic traditions (ibn Rushd, Aquinas, Maimonides) who all considered themselves Aristotelians, and read Aristotle very much in this light. Their reading is shared by contemporary Aristotelian thinkers I greatly respect, like Alasdair MacIntyre and James Doull. This theistic approach to reading Aristotle, in short, has a long and noble pedigree.

Doull, for example, says that Aristotle’s unmoved mover, his originating metaphysical principle, turns out to be “a God who knows himself in natural necessity” (Philosophy and Freedom page 50). MacIntyre says of someone who reckons with the theoretical claims of “Aristotle and such Aristotelians as Ibn Roschd, Maimonides, and Aquinas” :

What their arguments will perhaps bring home to her is that her and their conception of the final end of human activity is inescapably theological, that the nature of her practical reasoning and of the practical reasoning of those in whose company she deliberates has from the outset committed her and them to a shared belief in God, to a belief that, if there is nothing beyond the finite, there is no final end, no ultimate human good, to be achieved. So she may complete her reasoning by discovering that what is at stake in her decisions in moments of conflict is the directedness of her life, if not toward God, at least beyond finitude. (Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity 55-6)

Yet their approach is also very strange just on the face of it. Continue reading

Does Śāntideva think bodhisattvas are happy?


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A while ago William Edelglass put up a paper for discussion on about Śāntideva and happiness. I made some suggestions for changes in a way that turned out to be unhelpful, since William informed me that the paper was already on its way to publication and he had only put it up by accident! Now, though, the paper has been published, as a chapter in David McMahan and Erik Braun’s valuable and readable volume on meditation, Buddhism and science. So perhaps now is the time to take my old suggestions and reframe them here as part of an ongoing public discussion.

William’s purpose in the chapter is to critique what he calls the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism, in which Buddhist advocates cite Buddhism’s ability to make its practitioners happy. The most prominent such case is Matthieu Ricard, the Tibetan monk whose fMRI scans showed record levels of activity in the parts of the brain associated with happiness. William thinks this emphasis on happiness misrepresents significant elements of Buddhism, and cites Śāntideva at length to prove his case.

Overall, I do not find myself convinced. Continue reading

How can you be yourself if there is no self?


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The rise of qualitative individualism in the West coincides relatively closely with Western interest in Buddhism. Nietzsche and Emerson, two of the most influential qualitative individualist thinkers, both had an interest in Buddhism stronger than was usual for philosophers of their time. And the greatest flowering of Western interest in Buddhism occured in the 1960s, the same time when qualitative individualism itself became fully mainstream.

Qualitative individualism can be put in many ways, but one of its most characteristic injunctions is “be yourself”. The injunction is often phrased further in terms of one’s true self. Such ideas are of central importance to the LGBT movement. A recent news profile asking Boston University students about the meaning of being transgender finds many of them echoing a common refrain: “discovering your truest self”, “finding one’s true identity”, “being their true selves”, “being truly, completely, unapologetically me”.

None of this seems like a great fit, on the face of it at least, with a tradition that has proclaimed for 2000 years that there is no self. Continue reading

The material conditions of qualitative individualism


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When I first started reading Charles Taylor on qualitative individualism in my 20s, my Marxist father complained that Taylor paid too little attention to material conditions. I didn’t really get the criticism at the time, but I do now, for reasons that go well beyond reading and writing.

Taylor’s discussion of qualitative individualism (or “expressivism” or the “ethics of authenticity”) takes place largely in the realm of ideas, as mine also has so far. I have tried to trace the history of the ideas of qualitative individualism. But such a history is incomplete. Continue reading

The case for individual teleology


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The big problem with the relative lack of philosophical attention given to qualitative individualism is that the ideal has had relatively powerful defences. Its most explicit defenders have been existentialists like Sartre, but Sartre’s best-known defence, at least, seems to fall flat. Charles Taylor has done the most to articulate the idea and how and it makes internal sense, but for the most part he is very cautious about ever actually endorsing it. Sometimes his defence of it seems to be simply on historicist grounds, as I quoted him in my first post on the subject. That is: qualitative individualism happens to be what we believe in the educated 21st-century West, and it is just for that reason important to us. Western governments therefore need to respect it just as the governments of Turkey or Indonesia need to respect Islam. Beyond politics, it is among our assumed starting points for inquiry, such that philosophically it is important to think with it (even if in the end we come to find it untenable). This point does matter.

But the point also doesn’t go far enough. Continue reading

Existentialism is a qualitative individualism


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My first post on qualitative individualism attracted several helpful comments, possibly drawn here by a link from Daily Nous. A couple of these commenters pointed out that that the ideal is not as “invisible” as I made it out to be – not even to philosophers. I hear it expressed relatively rarely in philosophical works now, but this would not have been the case fifty or sixty years ago, when the philosophy that was all the rage was: existentialism. Existentialism is not the only way for qualitative individualism to be expressed philosophically, but it may well be the most influential to date. Continue reading

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