On traditional wisdom and qualitative individualism

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David Meskill asked an important question in response to my coming out as gender-fluid. He asks:

I’m curious about how your personal transformation might relate to your interest in traditional wisdom. Has it affected your views of tradition? Have those views informed your transformation in any way?

I said a bit in response to his comment (and in the previous post itself), but I’d like to expand on it here. (David is correct in thinking I have addressed the question somewhat in earlier posts; I will link to many of those here in this post.) As I noted in the previous post, my conviction that gender identity does not have to correspond to biological sex is deeply informed by qualitative individualism, which is a largely modern movement, though (like nearly every modern movement) it is one with premodern roots. But I do think it’s important to understand our philosophies historically and even understand ourselves as belonging rationally to a tradition, and I think there is a great deal to be found in premodern traditions that is lacking in more modern ones (such as Marxism). I am willing to characterize my relationship to Buddhism, especially, as one of faith. So how does all of this fit together?

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In which I come out

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The liberation of women from traditional subservient gender roles has been the crowning achievement of the 20th century. That process of liberation is not complete, and will likely not be for some time. As it proceeds, it can take on unexpected consequences and connotations.

In particular, it turns out that the complete eradication of gender is something relatively few people ever wanted, even in those societies where feminism has gone furthest. Early feminists like Beauvoir understandably attacked the ways in which social understandings of womanhood kept women in a subservient position. For Beauvoir, gender roles interfered with women’s expression of their authentic selves.

Yet as women’s social position has improved over the decades since Beauvoir (and I don’t think there’s much debate that it has improved), gender has not withered away, or even begun to. Rather, it turns out that – on the same grounds of authentic self-expression that animate Beauvoir – many of us now welcome more signifiers of gender than we have to. That is: the past decade has seen an explosion in transgender expression, in which one comes to believe that one’s authentic self is essentially a particular gender – just not the one that had been assigned according to sex organs. And one then often goes through great lengths in order to have the various signifiers of that gender – and sometimes even the associated organs themselves. Feminists and psychologists had long noted a distinction between sex as a biological category and gender as a social construct overlying that category. It turns out that for many, the result of that distinction was not to eradicate gender, but to embrace a gender identity that does not correspond to one’s biological sex.

I say all of this as a preface to a more personal announcement: I consider myself gender-fluid, and have done so for nearly three years now.

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The Buddhist oxygen mask

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If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your oxygen mask on first, and then assist the other person.

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline has heard this instruction; anyone who flies frequently has heard it so often that it becomes background noise, though relatively few of us have ever had the chance to put it into practice. If the plane cabin depressurizes and the oxygen masks drop, one has only seconds before running out of oxygen oneself; if one tries to put the oxygen mask on a child first, hypoxia may inhibit one’s ability to put the mask on the child correctly, to say nothing of the risk to oneself. One can best save both people by attending to oneself first – running against any parent’s natural instinct to protect his own child.

I’m not the first to see this advice as a metaphor for other forms of ethical conduct in relationships: “the oxygen-mask principle”. Often we can take care of others most effectively by taking care of ourselves. What I also see, though, is that this principle is deeply Buddhist.

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The Sigālovāda’s vicious mean

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The Sigālovāda Sutta might be my least favourite sutta in the Pali Canon.

There is relatively little that the Pali texts say on “ethics” in a modern Western sense of interpersonal action-guiding; much of the specific instructions on action are found in vinaya, legal texts for the conduct of monks. The Sigālovāda is relatively unusual in providing guidance for action to lay householders. For that reason, a number of secondary writers on Buddhist ethics regard it as as a valuable guide for Buddhist ethical conduct.

I do not.

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Among the MacIntyreans

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I’ve had the good fortune in the past couple years to attend multiple events held by the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry (ISME). (To answer the question that is most often asked when I first mention the ISME: yes, it exists!) The 2020 and 2021 events (the second of these happening last week) were virtual, for the unfortunate reasons of the COVID pandemic, but that virtual status did give me the ability to attend. Previously in summer 2019 I had a wonderful time at a conference called To What End?, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. It was only unofficially the annual ISME conference, held in honour of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 90th birthday: unofficially on both counts, apparently because the guest of honour did not want to attend a conference named after himself.

Attend he did, and it was my first (it could well be my only) chance to see MacIntyre in the flesh. But perhaps the more interesting phenomenon was to be in several rooms full of MacIntyreans. (And to find out that apparently others pronounce it “mac-in-TEE-ree-an” rather than the more obvious “mac-in-TIE-ree-an”.) It was a lovely opportunity to think and discuss more about the living thinker I have probably learned most from in my lifetime. And, perhaps, to observe the sociology of my fellow admirers of him: something MacIntyre would likely approve of, since his philosophy has always had a sociological bent.

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Should undergraduate classics require Latin and Greek?

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The discipline of classics has made headlines recently with Princeton University’s decision to no longer require majors to take Greek or Latin. This is a fairly momentous decision: aren’t Greek and Latin what Classics is all about?

I have mixed feelings about the decision. I think there is a lot of value in learning Greek and Latin. Certainly for philosophers: we need to understand philosophy’s history, and in our world that history is inescapably Western even for those of us who do not focus on it. I am broadly Aristotelian and wish I knew more Greek to understand him better. As for Latin, it remains important for lawyers and biologists, and knowing the very many Latin roots of English words gives us a much deeper understanding of those words’ meaning. A world where even fewer people know Greek or Latin does not seem to me a good thing, overall.

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Frustration where mind meets world

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I find myself repeatedly returning to the question I asked earlier this year: “Is the problem in our heads?” That is: for Buddhists, especially classical ones, is the fundamental human problem located in our minds, or in the world? I have found that my thinking on this question has already changed even just since my posts on the topic last month.

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The courage to change the things we can

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The Serenity Prayer, it turns out, has multiple versions. On the Alcoholics Anonymous website you’ll find the version I quoted before, though the site adds that the first person is often pluralized, “I” to “we”:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

However, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton in her memoir gives us a different version. She says that Niebuhr’s original version of the prayer was composed in 1943, was first preached by him in a Sunday sermon that year in Heath, Massachusetts, and looked like this:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

As Sifton notes on pp292-3, there are at least two major differences between these two versions. The first refers to grace and the second does not; the first refers to changing what I or we can change, the second to what should be changed. Sifton prefers the second; she says that AA “simplified” the text and her father “minded” the change but did not object.

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Health, wealth, time, and their purposes

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Sandro Galea, the dean of BU’s School of Public Health, recently wrote a wonderful (free) Substack post reflecting on the nature of health in the pandemic and post-pandemic era. I’m writing about Galea’s post here because the questions it raises are absolutely philosophical ones.

He closes with the important comment: “we do not live to be healthy—we aspire to be healthy so we can live.” In other circumstances this might seem a truism. But the past fourteen months have made it all too clear how much this needs to be said. For we have all become all too aware of just how much can be given up for the sake of health. Government restrictions already placed major limits on our activity. Most people I know, myself included, limited their activity considerably further than what was required by the government. And most of us also know others whose restrictions went even further than our own. A number of people effectively became voluntary shut-ins, losing all physical contact with the outside world out of fear of a dread disease.

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The path corrects the mind

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This week I continue my response to Patrick O’Donnell’s comments disputing my claim that in classical Indian Buddhism “the causes of suffering are primarily mental”. The discussion last time was abstract and theoretical, but it has practical consequences – which bring us back to Engaged and Disengaged Buddhism. Patrick has an interesting discussion here which I think is unfortunately confused by terminological problems. He says:

If the problem is in our heads, what about the story of the poisoned arrow? One removes the arrow without inquiring into who shot it, why, etc. Of course we may inquire into such things later, after the fact (the metaphysics and psychology if you will).

The thing is, the Shorter Māluṅkya Sutta’s story of the poisoned arrow is not a warning against seeking an understanding of “metaphysics”, let alone of psychology. The “questions that tend not to edification” in that sutta are largely cosmological questions: about the eternality or finitude of the cosmos, whether a Tathagata exists after death. The unedifying questions are described as “positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One” – which psychological questions pretty clearly are not. The craving and ignorance in our heads are the poisoned arrow that we have to get out first, before we can worry about the cosmological questions of who shot it.

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