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While the cover of Seth Zuihō Segall’s The House We Live In claims the book draws its account primarily from Aristotle, the Buddha and Confucius, the deeper, animating influence turns out to be pragmatism. There’s no problem with taking inspiration from pragmatism as such; the problem is that Seth’s pragmatism is so relentless and extreme that it rules out of court all opinions that differ from it – including, it turns out, those of Aristotle, the Buddha and Confucius.

The excessive pragmatism in question is expressed above all in this sentence: “whenever we ask ‘what’s the meaning of “X?”‘, we are really asking, ‘what is the significance of “X” for maintaining and enhancing our lives.'” (107) This pragmatic claim is simply not true. Some of us are really asking the latter question when we ask the former. Seth would like it to be the case that all of us are asking the latter question. But it’s not.

Rachael Petersen (pic from her Twitter feed)

Many explicitly reject Seth’s interpretation on that point – and not just conservative monotheists. Consider Rachael Petersen, a Harvard divinity student who had undergone one of Roland Griffiths’s psilocybin trials, and had a full-fledged mystical experience as a result of it. In a panel about the experience, Petersen critiqued the language of integration that is often used in discussing psychedelic experiences: “I was told, you need to integrate this experience into your life. And I was like, wait, I just encountered an ultimate reality. Wouldn’t that imply that I need to integrate myself into it?

That powerful quote has stuck with me ever since that panel. For Petersen, there was a problem with viewing this encounter’s significance merely in terms of “maintaining and enhancing” her own life, or even those of others. She believed that she had encountered something bigger and more important than those; the real question of significance wasn’t the significance of that ultimate reality for her life, but her life’s significance for that ultimate reality.

The modern Japanese Buddhist philosopher Nishitani Keiji in the opening of Religion and Nothingness elaborates a similar critique:

to say that we need religion for example, for the sake of social order, or human welfare, or public morals is a mistake, or at least a confusion of priorities. Religion must not be considered from the viewpoint of its utility, any more than life should…. Of everything else we can ask its purpose for us, but not of religion. With regard to everything else we can make a telos of ourselves as individuals, as man, or as mankind, and evaluate those things in relation to our life and existence. We put ourselves as individuals/man/mankind at the center and weigh the significance of everything as the contents of our lives as individuals/man/mankind. But religion upsets the posture from which we think of ourselves as telos and center for all things. Instead, religion poses as a starting point the question: “For what purpose do I exist?” (2-3)

Seth can certainly say that Nishitani and Petersen shouldn’t be asking the question in those terms, that they should be asking about the significance of religion or mystical experience for maintaining and enhancing their own life. (Assuming, of course, that he’s willing to take up the task of arguing to convince someone!) What he can’t legitimately say is that they are “really” asking about religion’s or the experience’s significance for their own lives – when they explicitly say that they are not, that rather they are asking about their lives’ significance for an ultimate or “religious” reality. Here again, Seth is not living up to his own advice to “listen to your beliefs and explain why I believe mine”. When people explicitly say that “what’s the meaning of ‘X’?” does not merely mean its significance for enhancing and maintaining their lives, he doesn’t listen.

Seth does recognize some role for religion as a source of meaning (111-13), in that limited sense of enhancing and maintaining our lives. And indeed, our lives are typically enhanced and maintained by a transcendence of self. But the meaning from this self-transcendence is paradoxical: we need to go beyond ourselves in order to actualize ourselves. When we speak of that going-beyond only in terms of meaning-for-us – of “maintaining and enhancing” our lives – we deprive it of its power. I think here of Bruce Cockburn’s lyric: “without the could-be and the might-have-been, all you’ve got left is your fragile skin, and that ain’t worth much down where the death squad lives”. A therapist may not need to address that paradox himself: it’s the therapist’s job to be concerned with maintaining and enhancing a client’s life. But if the client is deriving meaning from self-transcendence in the way that Petersen and Nishitani do, then from the client’s perspective it must necessarily be about something more.

Seth, though, takes his unjustified pragmatic claim about meaning to an extreme even further than this. He extends this approach to “meaning” not just to the existential meaning discussed so far (“what is the meaning of life?”) but to cognitive meaning, the meaning of words. Now even truth is reduced to a matter of mere usefulness – the striking view expressed in his earlier blog comment that “I think it’s best to give up claims to anything being ‘ultimate reality’ — when have such claims ever gotten us anywhere useful in the past?” He makes the eye-opening claim that even the truth of mathematical concepts has to do with nothing more than their utility:

… the meaning of the object for me is its potential utility in furthering my process of living. It’s the same when we inquire into the meaning of abstract terms such as the meaning of love or the mathematical symbol “π”… The meaning of “π” is also all the things it means for your life and our common social understanding of things—”the thing I need to remember when figuring out the area of a circle from its radius,” or “the thing I need to understand if I’m going to pass math.” (108)

Aristotle would never agree with such a relentless utilitarianism! (I’m in general agreement with Richard Rorty’s claim that pragmatism is just utilitarianism applied to knowledge.) When he wrote a whole book that gave its name to what we now called metaphysics, he began it with the sentence “All men by nature desire to know.” For Aristotle, to know the true natures of things, and our quest to do so, had an intrinsic role in our eudaimonia, our flourishing – not its utility for passing exams or constructing buildings, but as a constitutive part of eudaimonia in itself. (And, of course, as Kieran Setiya notes, Aristotle judges philosophies by their truth: “Aristotle believed that his philosophy was true—one size fits all—not a good look for some that others need not sport.”)

Seth outlines a set of multiple domains of flourishing – what classical Indian texts would call puruṣārthas. I agree that there are multiple such domains and it’s worth trying to catalogue them. But I notice that in both his list of domains – relationship, accomplishment, aesthetics, meaning, whole-heartedness, integration, and acceptance – and his other related list of “higher goals” – “freedom, equality, justice, wealth, power, respect, beauty, intimacy, security, excellence, serenity, sanctity, and ecstasy” – truth is conspicuous by its absence.

The problem with such a list is that, as Aristotle notes, seeing or knowing truth is certainly something human beings seek, not merely because honesty is the best pragmatic policy (as Seth discusses on pp 58-9), but just as often for its own sake. To ask “when have claims of ultimate reality ever gotten us anywhere useful?” is much like asking “when has beauty ever gotten us anywhere useful?” There are answers about utility that can be made – Śāntideva, in chapter IX of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, claims that knowing the ultimately empty nature of reality is what liberates us from suffering – but there is also an extent to which, as with beauty, to ask about the purpose of truth is to miss the point. Truth and beauty are the point.

Indeed, if there is one puruṣārtha the Pali Buddhist sutta texts do clearly acknowledge as valuable aside from the removal of suffering, it is yathābhūtadassana, seeing things as they are – that very seeking of true knowledge which Seth implicitly excludes from his list. A list of domains of human flourishing that does not include truth – or something closely related to it, like correct seeing or knowledge of reality – is incomplete. And once it’s added in there, we get a very different view about which questions are significant.