I have repeatedly returned to the categories of ascent and descent, and intimacy and integrity, to classify philosophies; and I have found that the two intersect in important ways. When I discussed that intersection the first time, skholiast asked the important question: “What is the itch in us to make such schematisms?” What is the purpose of trying to classify philosophies in this way?
My first response was that these two are perennial questions, questions that recur throughout the history of philosophy around the world. While I continue to think more or less that that’s the case, I don’t think it did enough to say what’s important about these particular two categories. As I noted later, there are plenty of perennial questions beyond these two. But at the same time, I do see something special about these two classification schemes that merits particular attention to them.
For one thing, they reach very deep. The other perennial questions I named in the later post – free will and human nature – do have ramifications both theoretical and practical, but I’m not sure that they colour the overall tenor of a philosophy the way ascent-descent and intimacy-integrity do. A philosopher’s position on free will or human nature seems to me less likely to affect her views on the basic nature of reality and knowledge, say, than these two do. I’m not entirely sure that this point holds up well, but it’s probably worth mentioning.
The more powerful reason to work with these two classification schemes, I think, is that they name perhaps the most abiding differences between philosophical traditions. I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to say that the modern West generally takes an orientation of integrity descent, in its secularism and its atomistic individualism. Thomas Kasulis’s book, from which I draw the intimacy-integrity distinction, takes the modern West as the paradigm of an integrity approach; Ken Wilber, in theorizing ascent and descent, identifies the recent history of the West with the “dominance of the descenders.”
What I find particularly interesting about these classifications, though, is that they don’t merely name distinctions between the West and the non-West, or modern and non-modern. Those kinds of distinctions have been done and done to death, especially in the early- and mid-20th century sociological work that asked why the rest of the world hadn’t “modernized” the way the West had. (Max Weber’s work is probably the most famous in this genre, but far more of them were written.)
Rather, these classifications also catch distinctions between the major non-Western philosophical traditions, those of East Asia (especially China and Japan) and South Asia (especially India). I noted previously that Kasulis’s intimacy-integrity distinction at first struck me as just another forgettable example of the attempts to characterize the modern West against the rest of the world, until Parimal Patil pointed out the fact – right under my nose – that in nearly every aspect of Kasulis’s classification, classical Indian thought had an integrity orientation at least as strong as the West’s. Ever since then, I’ve found the classification indispensable. One might similarly note that the ascent orientation in classical Chinese thought is not significantly stronger than it is in the modern West – not, at least, until Buddhism begins to arrive there from India.
In other words, Kasulis could not have written a book characterizing ancient India as an intimacy culture in the way that he did with modern Japan. Wilber, meanwhile, notes that contemporary Westerners (especially of his baby boom generation) are much more likely to recognize a lack of intimacy in their own culture than a lack of ascent; he reserves significant criticism for the widespread ecological views that exalt our interdependence with nature but do not recognize a spiritual dimension in which we strive for something beyond it. And it can be no coincidence that, with such a project, Wilber refers far more often to Indian tradition than to Chinese. Nor, conversely, is it a coincidence that Alasdair MacIntyre – whose philosophical writings have long been aimed at moving contemporary Western thought to a more intimacy-oriented worldview derived from ancient Greece – has written significantly on Confucian thought, but said absolutely nothing (that I’m aware of) about anything Indian or Buddhist.
It seems to me, then, that when modern Westerners turn to other traditions to seek something missing in their own, they look to China if they think the “something missing” has to do with intimacy, and India if it has to do with ascent. A notable exception to this tendency (of looking to India for ascent and China for intimacy) is Yavanayāna Buddhism, which looks to the Buddha’s Indian Buddhism for an intimacy philosophy that celebrates the interdependence of all things – something it is not. But I suspect the chief reason it can do this is the presence of East Asian Buddhism, which does celebrate interdependence in a way that would be quite alien to the Buddha himself. In this respect, I think Yavanayāna is the exception that proves the rule.