As previously announced, I am beginning a series of interviews with figures whose thought I find interesting, challenging, compelling, and worth your attention.
This post is the first half of an interview I conducted with Amod Lele. (You can read the second half in the following post.) Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy at Boston University and also teaches (his official title is "Visiting Researcher") at Boston University's Center for the Study of Asia; he also blogs extensively at the Indian Philosophy Blog (which he helped to found) and at his own blog Love of All Wisdom. I stumbled on the latter very soon after I began blogging myself, and have yet to find a blog more congenial to my own disposition -- though not always to my own (un)settled positions. The key to this feeling-simpatico is really right there in his blog title. It's love of wisdom -- not logical hair-splitting, nor fisticuffs with big words, but a real, full-blooded, old-fashioned and up-to-date, quest for that elusive thing we used to call the meaning of life. But it's love of All wisdom -- not just the few bits of the story that have wound up canonized by contemporary western university philosophy departments. My impression is that Lele is just as likely to be reading Jaimini or Kūkai or Xiong Shili, as he is Plato or Augustine or Marx. This isn't multiculturalism with footnotes, but real learning, in every sense of the word. Lele is frank about where he sees holes in his erudition, and displays a very becoming modesty in the face of what we have to acknowledge is the project of a lifetime, or more. But he's also willing to say -- gently but firmly -- when something looks, to his mind, problematic, wrong-headed or unworkable. He's called me on this a few times; I assume and hope he will continue.
The interview was conducted in two stages, written and a spoken (which do not correspond to the two halves into which, for convenience, I've broken it). After Lele agreed to the project, I sent him a preliminary set of questions, to which he responded in writing. I encouraged him to take his time in answering, and he did. The second part of the interview happened much more quickly. After I had meditated on these answers for a short while, we had a long conversation, during which we allowed the course of the discussion to go where it would, occasionally returning to the beaten track of his original responses, but making some long and interesting detours. I then folded the transcript into the original written exchange, editing somewhat for readability. I have taken out most of our "um's" and a few false starts, but I have not tried to give spoken exchanges a more grammatical sheen, nor have I disguised written ones with an ersatz informality. Doubtless certain seams are visible, but I trust the whole is coherent. (There are links to some of Lele's writings (and other background) in both material, so if you really fancy playing the spot-the-seams game, don't rely on the links for your clues. Needless to say, I do not think this is the most interesting aspect of the exchange.)
Although I did not compose the initial questions nor conduct the interview guided by it, this succinct post of Lele's outlining his philosophical stance is a useful one for keeping in mind as you read.
The second half of the interview will appear in one week.
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Skholiast: Your dissertation was on Śāntideva and Martha Nussbaum. A surprising juxtaposition, one might think – though perhaps not as surprising as it seems. Nussbaum’s own work, after all, is grounded in the Greeks, and she spends a good deal of attention on the Stoic and Epicurean traditions – lesser-known voices from antiquity which turn out to have quite a lot to say today. So Śāntideva, albeit a voice from another tradition, is less a stretch than at first glance.
Were you always drawn to philosophy as a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary practice? Was there perhaps a key moment which pressed this home for you? Is it grounded in important biographical facts about your own life?
Amod Lele: No, yes, and yes. I first started learning about philosophy in high school, where what drew me was Western ethics; in undergrad my interests moved to Hegel and Marx. I was curious about what non-Western philosophy might involve, and read Heinrich Zimmer’s Philosophies of India around my fourth year, but at that point it really wasn’t much more than curiosity. Zimmer didn’t really get me into Indian philosophy, probably because at that point I was still extremely suspicious of “religion”, and Zimmer insisted (generally correctly) that in India one could not really separate Indian philosophy from most of what is called “religion”. This all changed for me in Thailand, shortly after undergrad, when Theravāda Buddhism provided me with a life-changing epiphany. That was when the importance of cross-cultural philosophy became obvious to me. It seemed to me that Hegel was right about most things and the Pali texts were also right about most things, and yet they also seemed diametrically opposed on many counts. Could they be reconciled?
S: So, Can they?
A.L.: Whew.… Well, my answer to this is probably going to change from day to day. The answer is in principle Yes. I do think that truth is one; I don’t think there is ever a point of radical disjuncture. I think Hegel would clearly be in sympathy with that expression; for him the Pali texts are already part of the synthesis, just at a very low level he hardly needs to mention. For the Pali texts themselves, that becomes an interesting question, one I’m trying to think through more these days – a methodological question. One thing I think people have not thought enough about is how non-western epistemologies would inform our questions of method. There’s a certain sense that people have that the West is the only place where we’ve really thought through questions of method, so our methodological thinkers have to be from here. And that sounds orientalist, but when you actually get to the point of asking “what’s Kumārila’s methodological take?” – you realize this results in a vision in which we all should perform the Agnihotra sacrifice, and where the Vedas are the bearers of all truth, and that’s something which is pretty hard for most of us, including most modern Indians, to swallow. So I think there’s a lot of work that’s still to be done, on that score. What I’m currently focusing my intellectual attention on, is a project engaging with Alasdair MacIntyre’s work. It’s still in the very early stages and I’m not sure what form it will take, but it does have to do with a lot of these kinds of methodological questions in cross-cultural philosophy, about how a synthesis is possible.
You know, part of the issue is that any synthesis has to go towards – it has to go very, very deep, to the roots, in a way that requires a very long engagement if it’s going to be anything more than superficial conflict resolution. Conflict resolution has its place, when there’s immediate conflict that has to be dealt with, but there’s no war going on between Hegelians and Theravādins.
S: So, what would happen if – if it could be demonstrated to you that they can’t be reconciled?
A.L.: I guess the first question is what that would mean, to have such a demonstration – what that would even consist of. Not even in the details of the arguments, just—what would it mean to say that they cannot be reconciled?
S: This is part of my way of asking, what does reconciliation mean?
A.L.: Right; and that’s probably the bigger point. It’s hard to say that in advance; but for me, what’s most fundamentally involved in reconciliation is synthesis. I try to talk a lot of dialectical synthesis, meaning an attempt to preserve what’s at the root, the fundamental reasons underlying each position, in a way that what is rejected is not the most significant things, that give rise to the position, but the details, the accidental results of the position itself. Ken Wilber has shaped my views on this in some respects, although I quite fundamentally disagree with the approach he ultimately takes; but there are echoes of his work in my own—what he insists upon for his constructive position is that you don’t preserve the details of anyone’s position, but you preserve the experiences that gave rise to it.
S: The motives.
A.L.: Well, for me it’s the motives. That’s a difference between me and Wilber; for Wilber it’s very much about experiences. That comes out of a radical empiricist epistemology which I think is absolutely and completely untenable – at least in anything like the project Wilber wants to do, of transcending-and-including all different available perspectives. What he wants to say is that everything is coming out of some sort of experience, a replicable experience. In my article about him a couple of years ago, I took on that position and argued no, most of these traditions are not coming out of replicable experiences. But at the same time, what the whole project of looking for those experiences is about, is asking, what’s really important here? That’s what we need to preserve. Not the accretions, but the core and essentials. Not the trappings. Of course, saying that – the much more difficult question is, what is the core, what is the essential, and what is merely trappings? Wilber takes an answer to this which is much too easy, which is that there are some experiences there, but when you replace experience with motives, this is much more helpful.
The trick about “motives” is that that term can mean a number of things – there are instrumental motives, and “motives” held in bad faith – but when we ask what people’s motives are for taking a particular perspective as the truth – and I mean, not mouthing a commitment, but sincerely believing it – then I think we’re much closer to the mark.
S: You've continued to engage Nussbaum since you finished your dissertation, and one of the central concepts you have been elaborating derives from your thinking about her. I'm referring to the "axis" you see between "Ascending" and "Descending" modes of thought. This axis also has clear roots in the work of Ken Wilber. I'll come to Wilber in a moment, but how did you come to draw this particular strand out of Nussbaum's work? My own impression of Nussbaum has been somewhat different, though I hasten to add you have read her more closely than I have. My sense, however, is that Nussbaum clearly champions the mode of "descent" and wishes to downplay a tendency to "ascent" which she considers to have had an over-determining impact upon western thought. You, on the other hand (if I may offer what is bound to be a caricature right off the bat), seem to be concerned to strike a balance and not to over-compensate by too readily valorizing the particular. Do you agree that you are reading Nussbaum to some degree at slightly cross-purposes to her own?
A.L.: Yes. In the dissertation I’m pretty clear about doing that, and my take on ascent and descent is no different. I find Nussbaum’s categories are helpful to think with, partially because they give us a foil; they articulate modern Western common sense in a way that gives me something worth opposing. I think Nussbaum agrees that ascent and descent are real tendencies, and wants to pull us further toward descent. What I want to do is invert that. Not that we should move to a pure ascent but that our society is terribly mired in descent, and needs more of a balance. Wilber used to get this, and agree with it pretty much exactly, in his “Wilber-4” phase. Tragically, in “Wilber-5” he’s become almost as much of a descender as Nussbaum, although I suspect he might not admit it.
S: “Mired in descent?” That’s not the usual critique. I am used to hearing the opposite—that our culture is far too ascent-oriented.
A.L.: Yeah, I think that’s just a crazy thing to say. There’s this endless drumbeat from postmodernists saying that we need to descend evermore into these relativist perspectives that have nothing to do with each other and nothing to do with the truth. Where this typically comes from and comes back to is an obviously self-contradictory position, such as that the truth is that there is no truth. It is kind of a wonder that that view has endured as long as it has.
But the interesting thing is that, while I feel the cultural tide turning away from postmodernism – it doesn’t seem to have the intellectual pull that it used to, and the Speculative Realists have much more energy in “Continental” circles from what I can tell; it seems inevitable that postmodernism was always going to have run its course, the only question was when, and it seems to be happening now – and yet, what’s not changing from postmodernism is this emphasis on descent. I see it very much now in politics. It’s as if we are going back to modernism, the pendulum is swinging again; with the boldness of militant secularism, the New Atheists – Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens – but also more broadly, in the culture, the idea of freedom of religion seems to be something that people are now reconsidering, because of specific instances—take the Hobby Lobby debate, or in Indiana the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I don’t think that businesses should be allowed to discriminate against gay couples or refuse to offer contraception on the grounds of traditional beliefs, but the fury that greeted the idea that they would be allowed to do these things was something that surprised me. Especially the increasing demonization of people who oppose gay marriage. The idea of what is still called something like a traditional “religious” world view, is something increasingly viewed as evil. There’s almost a Freudian, continual need to kill the father: God is dead and yet we need to keep killing him more. Something our culture needs very much is a better sense of what is universal, what is transcendent – to rise above this endless diversifying of perspectives that can’t talk to each other, can’t understand each other, and don’t want to understand each other.
S: Yeah. The multicultural disintegration into a multitude of voices that can’t help but talk past one another – that chorus is what I think of when I think of the critique I mentioned, that we’re all too ascent-oriented. But there comes a point at which that claim turns out to be addressing the last war, so to speak. Maybe there was a time when we were too ascent-oriented, when, say, Christianity was a monolithic power in the West. I think that hour has long passed.
A.L.: Exactly. Probably the last people that could have made that critique and made it stick were the young Hegelians – Marx’s generation. I think that ever since then, since Marx and Nietzsche, and especially with Heidegger and analytic philosophy, the tide has been sweeping further and further away from ascent. Certainly, if I were writing in medieval Europe, I would say, “guys, we need to look at the particular, we need to descend much more from here” – if I were even allowed to say that, which I probably wouldn’t have been, and that would itself be part of the problem. The world of Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and even more so the Augustinian world which preceded them, was indeed one that really did neglect the world of individual particularity –
S: But the argument became so loud, that we were suffering from this incredible hangover from that – for so much of the twentieth century, this was the constant refrain: we took our cue from Augustine, and look where it got us! But no one looked around, as this complaint was repeated more and more, and said – the fact that I am even able to articulate this argument, indicates that something has shifted.
S: So your point about the incredulity and offense occasioned by disputes about things like gay marriage – that’s interesting to me because it points to the place where these shifts and tendencies really show up. They don’t show up on the level of a rarefied exchange of ideas; they show up on the level of what people actually value. And yes, there’s an argument going on on the level of values, but it’s quite clear what the loudest voices are, and what the base assumptions are – and it’s quite clear what happens when you question those assumptions. I was struck by – I recently read a novel by Owen Barfield, and he asks, with connection to the Lady Chatterly’s Lover trial for obscenity – Why is it that the partisans of brotherly love suddenly become so nasty when you question them?
A.L.: Yes. One of the things I find appealing about MacIntyre is that he looks at liberalism as a tradition – a tradition whose fatal flaw is that it doesn’t see itself as a tradition. Someone I’ve found very helpful – I just re-tweeted a piece by him – is Damon Linker, who articulates a lot of what I’ve been feeling about gay marriage – I am absolutely for it, but I don’t want to demonize the people who are against it. Linker, I think, has a very good handle on these issues. I haven’t really blogged about him yet – I’ve been staying away from questions of “religion and politics” until I’ve thought them through more, partly because – because it is so easy to get shamed, to get demonized if you say the “wrong” thing. At some point I feel I’ll be willing to risk that – to stand up for positions I take to be unpopular – but I want to be sure I have the courage of my own convictions before I do that; when I do, though, I’ll probably write a lot about Linker. He’s someone who used to write for First Things, used to be very much a part of that American right-wing Christian conservative movement, and gradually drifted away from it because he became deeply convinced of the truth of political liberalism, that we really do need to make room for a plurality of perspectives. But, he also says, this applies to people who aren’t liberal in that way. We really do need to allow for freedom of religion. Linker takes this a bit further than I would… the difference is that he thinks this freedom should apply to businesses; where I would say it really should be just to individuals. But there is, in any case, a certain amount of liberalism that I am persuaded by – I’m still working through how much. One of the most explicit things I’ve written on this was a post called Freedom of Choice: A Classical Defense, where I point out: it’s very hard to figure out what the good is, and I think that individuals are typically in the best place to figure this out for themselves. Not because I have any faith in the goodness of their nature as individuals – I don’t – but I have even less faith in the goodness of the human nature of other people, or of the institutions, who would make those decisions for them. People do often make decisions that interfere with their own flourishing; but when large bureaucratic organizations make those decisions for them, that interferes with flourishing even more.
So when someone’s vision of the good is one that says “I do personally disapprove of homosexuality, or contraception”, that’s something we should be able to make some room for. It gets a bit different when they open a business – then it’s no longer just about them, but about the people they’re interacting with, and the people they’re employing especially. That’s one of those places it gets complicated, and there’s a certain amount of judgment I want to reserve. But it’s important that allow space for people to have differing visions of the good, and, to take it back to the ascent-and-descent question, and how prevalent descent is in our society, I think that view is in some jeopardy at this point. Rod Dreher is someone else whose blog I read a lot, and the way he describes the left-wing position, the common cultural liberal position, is to say – correctly, I think – that it holds that “error has no rights.” Which is something the medieval European order would certainly have said: if you reject Jesus Christ, you are wrong, and you do not have a right to an opinion. When you look at the way that someone like Brendan Eich was essentially recently hounded out of his job at Mozilla for privately donating money to a campaign against gay marriage, you see that view—that error has no rights; even when someone is not acting in the capacity as a business with responsibilities to others, but as a private citizen, if they express this “religious” view, there is something deeply wrong with them as a person, and society should shun them, marginalize them, treat them as outcasts.
S: But it gets tricky – we’re not just talking about “views,” we’re talking about visions of practice, proposals for practice. It’s one thing for me to say, I’m opposed to abortion, and a very different thing for me to propose something dispositive for everybody. If I say, I’m opposed to abortion, I do not mean, well, I won’t have one! I mean, it ought not to happen. My proposals are about what should and should not happen at large, not about my own private life. This means that liberalism is inherently complicated, inherently conflicted. And I’m not convinced that liberalism understands this, can theorize it.
A.L.: I think there’s a helpful Buddhist contribution to be made to this whole discussion, though I’m not sure precisely what it is yet. Over the last couple of months I have started identifying as a Buddhist myself in a way I haven’t before; and I do think that the Buddhist take on politics, insofar as one can speak of one, which is of course problematic, is very much an anti-political take. It’s a tradition that tends much more to retreat, or one might better say advance, into monasticism. To say, when giving advice to kings, what you should do is give that kingdom away, renounce it, and become a monk –
S: Hard luck for whoever you hand it off to!
A.L.: Well, that is true, but there is a tradition – I’ve seen some texts that refer to passing possessions, of which kingdoms would be one instance, as a kind of moral hot potato. A lot depends in that case upon how much altruism is considered a part of the path. In Theravāda Buddhism, the person you are handing it to is – there’s a certain real sense in which, that’s their problem. They think it’s a good thing that they’re getting the kingdom, and they’re not on the path to enlightenment in the same way you are, so it becomes their problem to work it out, and that’s OK. You need to work on yourself first. When you get into Mahayāna, and altruism, the questions get a little trickier that way. It ties very closely into questions I was exploring, to some extent in my dissertation and more so in an article on gift-giving I published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics a year or two ago. To say you’re supposed to give things away because possessions are harmful is one thing, but you’re also supposed to be benefiting people, so why are you giving them these things that are harmful to them? So many of the concrete prescriptions for action in Mahayāna have to come back to the notion of upāya, skillful meanS: what’s particularly appropriate for the situation? There are a lot of affinities here with pragmatism, consequentialism, utilitarianism, but the difference is, what is this being useful for? One could sort of argue that the end is happiness, in both cases, but it’s happiness conceived entirely differently – both as to what leads to it, and as to what constitutes it. In that Mahayāna perspective, one acknowledges the futility of worldly pursuits and external goods, and that suffering comes from craving, ignorance, and anger – and the goal is to get to a state beyond this, both oneself and other people – in Mahayāna, it’s especially for other people – but recognizing the fact that others are on different stages of the path, at different levels. Most people are just very far from even remotely getting this. That being the case, the best thing that you can do is to just get them in a state where they’re going to listen to you, listen to the dharma and those who preach it – and one of the best ways to do that is to give them the stuff they want, even if possessing that stuff is relatively harmful for them. I think the giving away of the kingdom counts as that. The article really goes into this in depth. I think that’s the way this tension ultimately works itself out. In the end, in the Buddhist eschatology, there would be no kingdom and no need for a kingdom. But we’re far enough from that that no one really needs to deal with that implication now – we won’t be getting there for another couple billion years.
S: I have a hard time imagining such a thing – even if Yavanayāna Buddhism were to have an enormous cultural impact, far greater than what it’s had so far, I still have a hard time thinking of what civil society would look like. Would we still need to, I don’t know, provide health care, manage trade?
We will come back to Buddhism, but I want to ask a few preliminary questions first. You are -- would you concur? -- in some sense of the term, a foundationalist: unapologetic in proclaiming philosophy’s need for first principles. Such a stance has not been widely shared in recent decades -- or at least, not among the most visible trends. Was it always obvious to you that the rejection of first principles was a non-starter?
A.L.: No, I can’t say it was always obvious. I used to think of myself as a coherentist, and was fond of the leaky-raft metaphor. I insisted that we have to “start where we are”, not from some absolute Archimedean starting point. What really changed this was reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s wonderful discussion in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry of the distinction between dialectical and demonstrative argument. I think I got this around 2005 or so. A close friend, strongly influenced by James Doull, had tried to push me on this point for a while, but it didn’t click until I saw it in MacIntyre. I realized then that even Descartes, taken as the arch-foundationalist, agrees we need to start where we are – but in a chronological sense, not a logical sense. We have to start where we are but we don’t have to end where we are (or were); we get from where we are to the foundation. Or that’s the idea. And I guess I’m still not 100% sure that I would count myself as a foundationalist. Recently (I posted on this a bunch in 2014) I’ve been thinking with Thomas Kuhn on the topic, that first principles are what constitute paradigms within disciplines, and I think we absolutely need first principles in that respect. What foundationalism in philosophy would involve is a meta-paradigm, a set of first principles for finding first principles. I suspect it would be good to have that; my inclinations at this point are foundationalist. But I hesitate to call myself a foundationalist – yet, at least – because in order to have such foundations I would have to know what they are. And I’m not sure that I do.
S: You have paid some considerable attention to a couple of thinkers who are dismissed by most academics, despite their notoriety and apparent "pop" status. I remember that you once remarked about Ayn Rand that while you did not agree with her, you took her seriously as a thinker and often found that one way of getting purchase on a question was to ask what Rand would make of it. This seemed, and still seems, to me a very good rule: ask yourself what Descartes, or Whitehead, or Žižek would say about such-and-such, and if you can get very far, you probably have advanced your understanding on at least two fronts. It strikes me that this approach – of seeing whether one understands an issue by trying on the perspective of someone else – may come more naturally to an “outsider” – a position you have said you inherited in some degree from your father. Do you think you are predisposed to this?
A.L.: I’m not sure about that. This is a heuristic I have found useful in the past for grappling with new philosophical questions I haven’t thought about before. I think that’s gradually becoming less necessary for me, because after two decades of trying to think philosophically, I think I’ve thought at least a bit about most of the questions; where I still have a lot to learn is about all of the very different possible answers. My choosing of Rand was not arbitrary, though; one of the things that makes her thought stand out to me is its simplicity. Simple thought is typically wrong, but it’s also much easier to think with. I’m not at all sure that asking what Žižek would say about a given topic would be helpful in the same way.
A related heuristic I’ve found useful, this one for getting at the answers, is to ask: “who would disagree with this?” (Rand is again useful for this. Right or wrong, it’s not hard to know where she stands.) What I’ve tend to observe in reading philosophy – and this may be where the outsider tendency manifests itself – is that the times where you probably don’t understand something are the ones where you find yourself thinking “well, I guess that probably makes sense.” To me that suggests you haven’t yet grasped its significance. To understand what an idea is, you need to understand what it isn’t. Determination is negation. Rand is quite good at negating, and therefore, in a sense, at determining.
S: Another thinker to whom you've attended at length, as mentioned, is Ken Wilber. Your ascent/descent axis is clearly derived from your reading of him; and more recently, you wrote a long paper engaging with Wilber's positions and critiquing his take on spiritual tradition. I am curious -- for more than one reason -- what your experience has been of venturing into this arena. First, do you find that the field of "Integral studies," as Wilber has called his approach, suffers from being in some ways cut off from wider academia?
A.L.: Yes, absolutely. Wilber himself lacks the rigour that comes from engaging with serious opponents. It’s clear that he considers serious disagreement from other people in his cultural milieu – postmodernists, Yavanayāna Buddhists. But he doesn’t seem to have even considered the conservative critiques from an Alasdair MacIntyre, or the historical critiques of his brand of mysticism (the topic of the paper), or just about anything in analytical ethics.
S: Were you able to get valuable feedback from others in Wilber's "camp" who you felt had taken you seriously?
A.L.: Yes, again. I got two great peer reviews from Wilberians which changed my understanding about him a lot. Up until then I hadn’t realized just what a change the move from Wilber-4 to Wilber-5 was.
S: And what do you think mainstream religious and philosophical scholars and thinkers have to gain by engaging with Wilber?
A.L.: Above all I think it’s a sense of the bigger picture, going beyond their own specialty. Academia these days insists that your work be (a) new and original and (b) rigorous and defensible, and (c) a massive volume of it in a short time. That basically requires nitpicking: you have to go in and find an area of interest so small that nobody’s found it worth studying before. And so everyone gets focused on their tiny little corner of reality and neglects the big picture. Wilber is the opposite, and that’s why I’ve turned to him so much. Wilber helps us think about the significance of the little things academics study, why they would matter. I think he gets the big picture wrong (and he does so in large part because of his lack of attention to academic detail), but the bare fact that he tries (and tries hard) to get it at all is something sorely lacking from contemporary academia.
S: You mentioned James Doull -- a significant Canadian scholar and thinker whose (posthumous) book Philosophy and Freedom blends depth and erudition to a cumulative effect that is daunting and inspiring. Doull seems to be much less well-known outside of Canada – is that your impression? I take it you studied for a time with one of Doull's students? Did this Hegelianism take you by storm, or did it slowly percolate in you?
A.L.: “Studied” is not exactly the right word, nor is “Doull’s students”. My oldest and dearest friend – we met in the 1970s, though neither of us is yet 40 – had his intellectual formation at King’s College in Halifax, in a program largely founded by Doull and carried on by Doull’s students. If he ever met Doull it wasn’t more than once or twice; really he was Doull’s grand-pupil. But that Doullian Hegelianism he encountered definitely took him by storm, and he became one of the most orthodox Doullians there is – other students in the program have commented to me on occasion that they’re not as deeply immersed in it as he is. As for me, I reacted quite negatively to the ideas he was learning at first; they took a lot longer to percolate.
S: Have you been similarly impressed – I ask because I assume that, as a Canadian, you encountered his work – by George Grant?
A.L.: No, or at least not yet. What I’ve read of Grant so far has been interesting, but not nearly in the same league as Doull. Grant is perhaps most interesting to me as part of a more general movement of Canadian Hegelianism, best known in Charles Taylor but having deep roots going back to John Watson (who lived and taught in my home town). That’s something I hope to learn a lot more about.
S: My impression is that your encounters with Doull were important in part because, beyond introducing you to Hegel, they nurtured in you, or gave you some vocabulary, for what would later be a budding small-c conservativism -- a tendency you have referred to as being "saved from politics." I am reminded that Plato cautions against the attempts of philosophers to engage with politics, not least because it will consume all their time. Randall Collins in The Sociology of Philosophies -- another really significant (and seemingly neglected) book that you have attended to -- describes a dynamic that you have commented upon: "innovation through conservativism," and a very strong feature of your work, which appeals to me as getting to the heart of philosophy per se, is your read of this general tendency as pre-modern, and thus not merely a reaction to the upheavals of the last century and a half. (You point out, for instance, that Sankara can persuasively be read as engaging in just such conservative innovation.) This strikes me as important because it is all too easy to critique conservativism as reactionary through and through, and moreover as an accomplice (witting or no) to the status quo powers that be. Does this accord with your own understanding?
A.L.: My understanding of this is quite different. There are three different tendencies that I think you’re running together here, each of which is something of a regular buzzword of mine: “literal conservatism”, “innovation through conservatism”, and “being saved from politics”. (The latter I more commonly describe as “anti-politics”, but the “saved” formulation has tended to resonate more with people, and I’m happy with that.) But I intend them each as very different from each other. The first one tends to endorse the status quo and the second to endorse some sort of return to what was before the status quo (it could be called “reactionary”). I should add that I don’t see the status quo as necessarily bad; indeed I think the heart and the point of literal conservatism is the idea that the status quo is good, at least when compared to likely alternatives. But both of these conservatisms can easily advocate active engagement in politics as essential (one might think of Burke’s “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”). I would probably read Doull as innovation through conservatism and Hegel as a literal conservative late in life, but probably as neither in his youth.
Neither of them, though, has anything to do in my mind with being saved from politics. Quite the opposite. This is actually probably my single biggest objection to Hegel (and likewise Doull): he makes the good a fundamentally political matter. (He once said something like “the morning newspaper is our religion”.) I find that extremely problematic. Being saved from politics is something I derive entirely from my other side, from Buddhism. I’ve written a number of times on the blog about how Śāntideva explicitly warns us to avoid political engagement, but Buddhist anti-politics was something I’d already encountered reading about Buddhism in Thailand. I reacted strongly against that anti-politics when I first encountered it there, but it definitely stayed with me, and became absolutely essential to me during the GWB years. I am very thankful that I found this in Buddhism, because I would never have got it from Hegel (or Doull).
As for both variants of conservatism, I should add that I keep them at a certain arm’s length. I have learned from both and sometimes identify as a conservative (though never as a right-winger!) But even that is always with caution and trepidation – there is a significant amount I think is missing from both.
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(The second half of this interview