Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.Continue reading
On the Indian Philosophy Blog, commenter Anthony S asked an important and difficult question: what are good resources for thinking through Indian political philosophy?
. I’m interested not so much in comparative philosophy as comparative political thought/theory, specifically in terms of Indian and “Western” thought regarding the international/global. While I am happy comparative philosophy seems to be taking off in recent years, I wish the intensity was the same in political science/theory. If anyone has some good thoughts/resources regarding any of this, I’d be very appreciative.
A strange coincidence surprised me as I designed this spring’s course in Indian philosophy – but one that I suspect is quite significant. The coincidence resulted from three of my primary concerns in selecting content for the course syllabus, and I’ll start with those. One of those was, whenever possible, to focus on primary texts – texts actually written by Indian philosophers.
A second primary concern was to stress the connections between theoretical and practical philosophy. Too often, Indian epistemology and metaphysics are seen as purely abstract activities with little relation to one’s ethical conduct or even one’s ultimate liberation, and Indian reflection on practical matters is taken to have little background in that theoretical work (as in Damien Keown’s needlessly pessmistic reflection that there is no such thing as Buddhist normative ethics). It is no wonder that Indian philosophy is so little studied when even those who study it sometimes think its questions tend not to edification.
My reading of Śāntideva convinced me that this is absolutely not the case. Metaphysics is a pervasive concern of his most celebrated text (and one of the most widely read works of Buddhist ethics), the Bodhicaryāvatāra – not only in the ninth chapter, which focuses on it, but in the other more widely read chapters as well. (I gave a talk on this topic at the SACP a few years ago, and am planning on expanding it into a paper for publication soon.) I have come to believe that this is the case more widely in Indian philosophy as well. It’s not always easy to see what the practical implications of Indian theoretical thought are, but I think that they are there, and it was hugely important to me that my course bring them out.
My final primary concern was to bring in modern Indian philosophy, in order to excite student interest and let them know it is not a dead tradition. Continue reading
Last week I discussed the first reason you can read my dissertation on this site, and said that this week I would talk about the second reason. But I’m going to put that off until next week, to speak this week of a current event.
I refer, of course, to the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. The selection of a pope is a philosophically significant event, for a pope is in some respects among the modern age’s closest equivalents to a philosopher-king: a man trusted by millions or even billions of people to decide the truth about ultimate reality and what is good. And the selection of this pope in particular seems to me an excellent one, a man much better suited for this role than I expected him to be. Continue reading
The momentous yet mixed results of this week’s Canadian election were overshadowed on the global scene by the killing of Osama bin Laden. Though the first event riveted me more, the second has more philosophical significance – or rather, not the event itself, but the reaction to it.
Americans have typically greeted bin Laden’s death with jubilation and celebration, often waving American flags and chanting “U.S.A.” But some minority voices, such as Linton Weeks at NPR radio and Pamela Gerloff of the Huffington Post, have raised questions about this celebration. Is it really a good idea to celebrate a human death, even the death of one’s enemy? Continue reading
Under what circumstances can one be absolutely certain of anything? I had intended my previous post to be on that question, but the preliminary inquiries to it were significant enough that I thought they deserved their own post. I end that post, like the earlier “Certain knowledge” post, on a note of uncertainty; I don’t discuss any circumstances under which certainty is possible. So is it possible at all?
I generally lean toward saying no – and an uncertain no. I leave the possibility open that something will be revealed to me that I can be absolutely certain of; but I don’t think one exists. The happy thing about this kind of uncertainty is there’s no contradiction in it. While “there is no truth” is a contradiction because it asserts that the truth is there is no truth, and “we cannot know anything” is a contradiction because it implies that it can be known that nothing can be known, the same is not true about “we cannot be certain about anything.” The last can be asserted as a statement that is merely highly probable; it doesn’t need to be certain to be true, and therefore can be true without contradicting itself.
Still, I do think there’s one circumstance where real certainty is possible – though it is merely a hypothetical circumstance. Continue reading
In his talk at the conference this year, SACP president Peimin Ni pushed further on the claim he made last year: the idea of philosophy as a technique. I was fortunate to spend a long and enjoyable lunch discussing the talk and its ideas with him further. (I love the SACP conferences because their format is designed to encourage the emergence of mealtime conversations like this; last year I enjoyed a similarly thoughtful discussion with Ted Slingerland.) The present post recounts the ideas expressed at the lunch, naturally from my own side; I hope I am being fair to Ni’s arguments in what follows.
Ni’s talk focused on the Chinese concept of gongfu 功夫, dating from the early centuries CE and meaning any practical art – it could include calligraphy, sports, cooking, good judgement or statecraft. (Although the word gongfu has long ago passed into English with an alternate spelling, it is probably best to keep using the Pinyin spelling rather than confuse people with a term most associate with goofy movies about roundhouse kicks.)
Gongfu as Ni understands it then bears some resemblance to the Greek concept of technē, or Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of practice, with one crucial difference. Aristotle’s technē involves a telos; it is embedded within a larger determinate framework of human flourishing. With gongfu, on the other hand, Ni agreed with my earlier characterization of the process as a technique. It is open to us to choose our aims; gongfu merely allows us to achieve those aims. There is a gongfu of killing as well as a gongfu of saving. Continue reading
Ayatollah Khomeini, Graham Priest, J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, John Caputo, Martin Luther King Jr., Michel Foucault, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Paul Feyerabend, Plato, postmodernism, relativism, Socrates, Stanley Fish, Thrasymachus
The term “postmodernism” (or “poststructuralism”) is notoriously elusive; it’s sometimes said that if you think you know what it is, you don’t. But that doesn’t stop its practitioners from talking about it, and I don’t think it should stop anyone else either. I will use “postmodernism” to refer to a set of ideas, widely held among academics in the past 30 years, which takes inspiration from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and denies the worth of claims to truth. One will frequently find postmodernists (John Caputo is one of the more explicit about this) claiming that “the truth is that there is no truth.”
The claim that there is no truth is false. It contains a contradiction that cannot be resolved unless one takes it to mean something very different from what it appears to mean. Nor is this one of that narrow group of paradoxes which could be taken as true on the grounds of Graham Priest’s dialetheism. Priest tries to argue that most of the problems with contradiction stem not from accepting some contradictions, but from accepting all; but if one accepts “there is no truth,” one comes much closer to allowing all contradictions in. Indeed postmodernists often approvingly quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend in telling us that “anything goes.”
It is not true that there is no truth. What is crucial about this and other postmodern claims, however, is that its truth value is not the point. Like Stanley Fish, postmodernists shift our attention away from contradiction and truth entirely, claiming they’re not the important thing. (Caputo at one point approves one of his opponent’s moves because “it drops the stuff about contradiction and actually addresses the issues.”) Drawing on J.L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, postmodernists will argue that the reason to make such a claim against truth is its performative dimension. The point, that is, is not what the sentence says, but what it does.
It is on this last point, however, that the evidence against postmodernism seems strongest. What, exactly, has postmodernism accomplished? I have previously mentioned cognitive dissonance and spiritual transformation as reason to be concerned about contradictions. But these are typically not at the forefront of postmodern concern. Rather, most postmodern writers express some sort of concern for marginalized political groups – women, gays, transgendered people, the poorer or working classes, people in nonwhite racial groups, people from colonized societies. But what has postmodernism actually done to improve their situation?
What do Augustine, Gandhi, Śaṅkara, Marx and Mao all have in common? Something quite important. But before answering this question, a brief excursus on Marx’s inspiration, G.W.F. Hegel.
In reading Graham Priest’s work, I was particularly struck by a point Priest makes at length in his Stanford Encyclopedia article: that Hegel believes there can be true contradictions, and is in that sense a dialetheist. I think Priest is technically right, but the point can be a bit misleading.
First, Hegel accepts the normative force of non-contradiction, in a way that Priest also does but tends to push to the sidelines. That is: while it’s possible for contradictions to be true, there’s also something about them that is epistemologically bad. As I noted last time, Priest accepts this point himself, so that when he says “What is so bad about contradictions? Maybe nothing,” he is effectively being disingenuous for rhetorical effect. For Priest, contradictions are epistemologically bad only in that the probability of a contradiction being true is generally low. For Hegel the problem with contradictions is something significantly bigger: a true contradiction eventually and inevitably becomes false.
This point leads into a bigger difference that goes well beyond Hegel’s and Priest’s work, which is what I really want to address today. Priest generally imagines contradictions as existing between linguistic truth-bearers of some description. He says at the beginning of the SEP entry that “we shall talk of sentences throughout this entry; but one could run the definition in terms of propositions, statements, or whatever one takes as her favourite truth-bearer: this would make little difference in the context.” But some objects taken to bear truth could, I think, change the nature of the claim significantly. Priest’s truth-bearers are statements, beliefs, propositions – all mere linguistic mental or verbal objects. But not everyone has taken truth-bearers to be of this kind. The most vivid exception may be Saint Augustine, about whom Alasdair MacIntyre put the matter beautifully:
for Augustine it is in terms of the relationships neither of statements nor of minds that truth is to be primarily characterized and understood. “Veritas,” a noun naming a substance, is a more fundamental expression than “verum,” an attribute of things, and the truth or falsity of statements is a tertiary matter. To speak truly is to speak of things as they really and truly are; and things really and truly are in virtue only of their relationship to veritas. So where Aristotle locates truth in the relationship of the mind to its objects, Augustine locates it in the source of the relationship of finite objects to that truth which is God. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, p. 110)
Here not merely statements or beliefs but things are true – by virtue, I think, of their genuineness, their closeness to a Platonic Form of goodness which, for Augustine, turns out to be God himself. Continue reading
Cross-cultural philosophers often wish to treat Jesus of Nazareth as a great philosopher, whose life and thought we can learn from – but one who is fully human, no more divine than the rest of us.
C.S. Lewis hated this move, thought it was intellectually sloppy. Continue reading