I have recently welcomed the corrective force of books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, which remind us that modern appropriations of Indian tradition have their own continuity with the evolving past tradition. I now find myself regularly reminded just how much such a corrective is needed. I have noted plenty of examples before, as with respect to Gregory Schopen and Donald Lopez. But I recently found perhaps the most striking example in the works of the contemporary Sanskrit scholar Herman Tull. Continue reading
Edward Feser has a fascinating post up on the ethics of lying. Feser, perhaps not surprisingly to his regular readers, follows Augustine in taking up a position in some respects even more extreme than Kant’s: a lie is always wrong, and a lie by omission – like Aśvatthāma the elephant – is just as much a lie.
Not agreeing with Feser’s Augustinian presuppositions, I also don’t agree with his conclusions. I do think that some unambiguous lies can be right because of their consequences, at the very least in extreme cases like the murderer at the door who asks you whether you’re sheltering his next victim (to which Feser refers, as did Kant). But that’s not what’s interesting about Feser’s post, nor is it his point (at least, not directly). Rather, he’s asking what a lie actually is. For him this question is vital because it directly implies which behaviours with respect to the truth are ever permitted and which are not. But it’s still an essential question for those of us who believe that there is something merely bad about all lying, even if that badness can on occasion be outweighed by other factors. Which speech acts possess that intrinsic badness?
Feser says many profound and interesting things in response to this question, but I was particularly struck by one of the first, on pleasantries, and I’m going to spend today’s post riffing on that point. According to Feser, it is not a lie to say “I’m fine, thanks” in reply to “how are you?” when you are not feeling fine, for in such a context “I’m fine, thanks” does not actually mean that you are feeling fine or doing well. Continue reading
My wedding approaches rapidly, and with my love of philosophy it’s important for me to have profound and meaningful readings at the ceremony. We have each picked a modern reading that meant a lot to us – she from Walt Whitman, and I from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, beautiful advice from when I was a child. But I also wanted to find meaningful premodern readings, and that turned out to be a lot harder.
The problem I quickly realized is that romantic marriage is a recent invention, a construct of our own time. It was obvious to me from the beginning that I’d get little help from Indian Buddhism, where sex and marriage are emphasized as fetters that bind us in suffering. I knew that to choose marriage was to side against Śāntideva. Sure, Śāntideva praises the monk Jyotis for breaking his monastic vows and marrying a woman who fell in love with him – but Jyotis, like a good bodhisattva, did this entirely out of compassion. “I’m marrying you out of sympathy” is not exactly the note on which I want to start married life. Continue reading
What does it mean to respect another culture, or the people and ideas within that culture? In the prevailing climate of contemporary academic religious studies, it seems taken as a given that one should refrain from criticizing other cultures and their beliefs and ideas. Older Buddhologists like Edward Conze are viewed as an embarrassment, with their strong opinions, positive and negative, about Buddhism and India. We are told not to judge other cultures the way Conze did. Sometimes the refusal of judgement derives from a positivistic desire to ape natural science, with an “objectivity” that denies reference to value; but more often, making judgements about other cultures seems imperialist and disrespectful, a form of Orientalism or even racism.
This refusal to make judgements seems to me to underlie the currently fashionable “performance theory” in studies of ritual, and religious studies more generally. The approach here (usually drawing on the speech-act theory of J.L. Austin) is to remove attention from ideas and truth claims and direct it instead toward social functions: don’t look at what people’s claims say, look at what the claims do in their social context. (As a former sociologist it’s curious to me that the hot and trendy methodology in religious studies – look at functions rather than ideas – looks very similar to the sociological functionalism of Talcott Parsons, an approach that sociologists now discuss only to explain how discredited it is.) One former colleague of mine, describing his studies of Vedic texts, explained his approach as follows: “What do these texts mean when they say ‘gold causes jaundice’? They can’t really believe that gold causes jaundice! There must be something else going on here, something that it does to say such a thing.” As far as I understand it, much of this performance theory is motivated by a desire to respect other cultures. Surely people can’t be so stupid as to mean these bizarrely unscientific things they say; they must be saying it for another reason.
It seems to me, though, that this view gets it exactly backwards. Continue reading