Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, May 22, 2015

Signal to noise

I've maintained before that the claim in Socrates' defense concerning what sort of life is worth living is not simply an exhortation to a certain ideal; it is a therapeutic rejoinder to the morose conclusion of the tragic world view according to which "not to be born is best, and next best is to die soon." My contention is that Socrates actually concedes that the "worthwhileness" if life is not a foregone conclusion, but holds that there is a good life, and that its sine qua non is (in the usual translation, with which I won't quibble for now) "examination."

Nietzsche famously faulted Socrates for his diagnosis of life, most obviously in The Gay Science, 340: his account of the hemlock scene. He takes Socrates to task for (Nietzsche thinks) construing life as a disease one needs curing of; hence, Nietzsche thinks, Socrates' assertion that he owes a sacrifice of thanks to Asclepius. For all his polemics and his posturing as Anti-Christ, Nietzsche's first and last opponent is Socrates; and here, in his stance as an affirmer of life, he exhorts: "O my friends, we must overcome even the Greeks!"

So it is really quite something to remember that Nietzsche also names a sine qua non. This Yea-sayer, this prophet of amor fati, declares that there is after all one thing without which life would be, well, not worth living:
Without music, life would be a mistake.
(Twilight of the Idols 33.)
This is not an anomaly in Nietzsche, who engaged at the beginning and the end of his career with the most looming musical genius of his era; who at the end of his life signed his letters Dionysius, the god of that very art which his first book had said was born "out of the spirit of music." Nietzsche is probably the most musical of all modern philosophers, the one for whom music is most central to his thought, more so even than Schopenhauer before him, or Adorno or Marcel after. (His own compositions, despite the sneers they got from Wagner, still hold up.)

A great deal depends upon how much difference one discerns between Nietzsche's sine qua non and Socrates'. For some, it's an open and shut case: they're diametrically opposed, 180 degrees apart! But others (and by no means the least Nietzschean) may say -- not "no difference at all!", but perhaps -- "180 degrees in what space?" For the space of reasons is not necessarily Euclidean. And neither is the space of music.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"We need ideas sufficiently different from our own": Interview with Amod Lele, part 2

This is the second half of an interview I conducted with Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom and the Indian Philosophy Blog, not to mention Boston University. In the exchange below, a number of threads from that first half are picked up, so I commend that first half to anyone who wonders to what any given remark is apropos. In the preamble to the first half, I introduced Lele, so I will direct you there for more background. I also detailed the genesis and manner of the interview process. It may be useful to remind readers that this text is a composite, made by merging a written exchange and a transcript of a voice conversation.

It remains for me to express my thanks again to Lele for being so game to engage in this. Some of my questions were simply aimed at clarifying, but I also hoped to do some in-the-moment thinking-through of problems, and I deeply appreciate Lele's willingness to go along with the process, in particular since, as he knew well, I had not tried this sort of thing before.

Comments are of course welcome on both halves of the interview.

* * *

Skholiast: You mentioned that your encounter and engagement with Buddhism was initially via Theravāda Buddhism in Thailand. This is not the way most westerners have met Buddhism -- usually in the form of Japanese Zen or more recently, one of the Tibetan lineages. You have remained strongly aware of the historical development of Buddhism and the differences between the traditions. I take it this is a matter, for you, of historical accuracy and aptness, and not simply a short temper with western "orientalism"? How has your account and critique of "Yavanayāna Buddhism" developed out of this historical and/or doctrinal concern?

Amod Lele: One of the more appealing things to me about Buddhism in Thailand was the idea of focusing on one’s own liberation. The political utilitarianism I’d inhabited up to that point had said what you were supposed to do was help everyone else get up to your level of external goods – even though at that very level I was completely miserable. I appreciated a system that gave good treatment of others its due, but acknowledged saving yourself as the ultimate goal – something a typical Western view would have condemned as “selfish”. At the very least, I saw it working on the the airplane-oxygen-mask principle: you need to save yourself to save anyone else. The contrasting idea that one might delay one’s own liberation to save others (as Mahāyāna is sometimes taken to say) struck me as something that could get in the way of that message I had found in Theravāda. In addition, I was still nonplussed by the proliferation of godlike Mahāyāna bodhisattvas, when one of the things that had first made me curious about Buddhism was that it wasn’t all about a god. So I viewed Mahāyāna with a lot more skepticism. I’ve learned a lot more from Mahāyāna in the ensuing years and these ideas no longer repel me in the same way, but what endures is a respect for Buddhist sectarianism. These differences between traditions matter, they mean something. The idea of Yavanayāna Buddhism seems to me a natural outgrowth of that point. The Buddhism of a Stephen Batchelor or a Henry Steel Olcott or even an S.N. Goenka is very different from the Buddhisms of Dōgen and Tsong kha pa and Buddhaghosa, just as they are all different from each other. And that matters too. One is often tempted to add that they are “not better or worse, just different”, but I think it is more accurate to say “both better and worse – and different.”

S: This remark you made about Theravāda is quite striking – the emphasis on taking responsibility for your own spiritual attainment. As if it were a kind of French existentialism, with a very different cosmology. And it feels like the question of cosmology is kind of what it comes down to – this notion that after all, the king talking to the monk is on a path, or a part of the path, that’s very different from where stands the person who’d be quite willing to take the kingdom – this notion that one can in some way sketch out a rough hierarchy (is that too strong a word?) of people, of stages of the soul – that is already a very, very different assumption from the common assumptions of liberalism – which wants that whole question to just go away.

A.L.: That’s right. But where there’s a real power in liberalism, a way that it can be beneficial, is that liberalism at its best is willing to say: “You can go ahead and establish that hierarchy of stages of the path, you can say that some people are better than others in some respects; you may even establish voluntary institutions organized around that principle. But what you can’t do is enforce that hierarchy outside the institution – or even, within certain economic institutions, where participation is at some level involuntary, because people have to work to eat.” And if one understands liberalism in that way, there are positive affinities between Buddhism and liberalism. Liberalism tends to say that religion is something in the private sphere. This is a very difficult claim to make about some – well, Christianity is in an interesting middle position here, but for, say, Islam, or Confucianism, or Dharmashastra in Indian ethics, it’s harder. Insofar as we’re going to recognize these as religions at all, which I think in the case of Islam we have to if the term religion is going to mean anything, that is not a viable position for them. One way or another, one of the fundamental tenets of Islam is that God commands justice; to not work for that divine justice is a shirking of your responsibility. But that’s not the case for Buddhism, especially not for Theravāda Buddhism. One of the interesting things about a Theravāda perspective (and similarly in a Jain perspective; they’re closely linked historically): to say that “religion,” which we’re going to identify with this tradition, goes into a private sphere—there’s not a whole lot of problem with that. There might be, to the extent that, say—nowadays there are protests against Christmas displays in shopping malls, and a similar protest might be lodged against visible Theravāda monks going about on their alms rounds; so once objections to religion in the public square go to, not merely religion affecting politics, but religion being visible at all publically, then it starts to clash with the practice of Theravāda Buddhism. But to say religions should keep their noses out of politics—that’s easier for a Theravādin than for most people who adhere to what we typically identify as religions.

S: In your thinking, the ascent - descent axis is complemented with a second one, derived from the work of Thomas Kasulis, that runs between the poles of integrity and intimacy. (I am struck by a sociological or anthropological dimension here -- perhaps not unrelated to your reading of Collins' Sociology of Philosophies.)

Is this 2-D map with its four quadrants -- integrity-ascent, integrity-descent, intimacy-ascent, intimacy-descent -- intended in your mind to give a relatively exhaustive taxonomy of philosophical dispositions? And, perhaps even more importantly, ought we to hope that it will help us adjudicate among them, or will it only be a classificatory tool?

A.L.: I suppose it depends on what we mean by “exhaustive”. Yes in the sense that I would hope we could helpfully place any existing philosophy somewhere between these ideal types. (I am not currently sure that we can – I am struggling with the case of Daoism, which I think may complicate the ascent-descent axis a lot – but that was the intent.) Not in the sense that one can exhaust the philosophies by placing them on the axes; there’s a ton that isn’t captured by them.

But yes, it is intended to be more than classificatory. My description of these as ideal types is indeed sociological, since it’s explicitly derived from Max Weber (my first two degrees were in sociology). But the intent of having those classifications is to go somewhere Weber never would have: to try and pull together a dialectical synthesis of a very wide range of philosophies, by synthesizing the opposing positions on two of the conflicts that divide them the most.

S: One of the places I have worked hardest to think along with you has been with regards to the axis of intimacy-integrity. You have noted yourself that this axis could be critiqued as conflating epistemological and ontological concerns: there are (it could be argued) two different issues -- a question of knowledge (is it personal and affective, or public and cognitive?), and a question of being, which curiously seems to come down to a doctrine of relations (are they "internal" to their relata, or "external," so that the relata could exist without those particular relations?) I am on record myself as holding that as a practical matter, ontology and epistemology are always mutually-entailing; but I am very impressed by your point that this particular "axis" of things and relations does seem to be distinguishable from other aspects of Kasulis' dichotomy. In fact, your explanation of why in the last resort you think they ought not to be separated is very much bound up with some of my rationale for linking ontology and epistemology -- or phenomenology. But in fact, this pairing seems meta-stable to me: neither absolutely separable, nor absolutely identifiable. It feels to me much like the "two" sides of a Klein bottle.
And it occurs to me that ascent and descent may actually be similar. These are "practical" terms -- they describe a kind of motion of the soul's aspiration -- from general to particular, or vice-versa; in this respect they are very like intimacy and integrity, in that they could be taken to name values. Obviously, though, this can also match an ontology, which may or may not map onto the practice in a one-to-one way. I think what I am getting at is close to what people mean by "Transcendence" and "Immanence". One might think that Immanence always goes along with descent, and Transcendence with ascent, but -- and here I hope you will forgive some very rough-&-ready use of what are, no doubt, problematic categories -- the example of the Christian-gnostic dispute (about which I have left hanging a comment exchange with you on my blog) points out the non-straightforwardness of this: Both Gnostics and Christians ostensibly affirm a "transcendent" power beyond this world; but this does not make them both "ascenders", for despite the later critique which insists that Christianity is mired in world- and body-denigration, the stakes for which Christianity fought the gnostics were the goodness of the world and the body. Similarly, although Immanence is the watchword for Deleuze's reading of Spinoza, one can make a strong case that Spinoza is an ascender. Deleuze himself, I think, is not; Laruelle, even less so. So it would seem that an ontology of transcendence or immanence can be at least provisionally distinguished from a spiritual aspiration of ascent or descent. Yet here again, I would not advocate adding another axis – and not simply because we don’t want to multiply dimensions until our conceptual coordinate space resembles string theory. Rather, it seems to me that these hybrids indicate where ontology and ascesis actually turn into, or occasion, each other.

A.L.: There’s a lot in this question (if it can be called that). A huge appeal of intimacy-integrity and ascent-descent as axes for me is that, unlike other perennial questions (say, free will) they go “all the way down”; they entail not only epistemology (/logic) and ontology (/metaphysics), but ethics and aesthetics and even politics. They tie a philosophy together. So in intimacy and integrity there is also that practical dimension: the Confucians take a strong intimacy approach, according to which the good emerges in our relationships, in a way distinct from both integrity descenders like Locke and Rand (individuals have rights and the good emerges from their worldly needs) and integrity ascenders like the Jains (we need to separate from the cruft of the world and abide in transcendental aloneness). That’s actually why I found it so important to pull out the ontological dimension of Kasulis’s distinction from the epistemological; out of his five criteria for identifying intimacy, four are epistemological, but it’s the remaining, ontological one that really feeds the practical philosophy.

On transcendence, one of the important points I see is the distinction between transcendence and the transcendent. That relates to another dichotomy I’ve discussed, between ātmanism and encounter – which, I realize as soon as I say it, I got from you. Within those philosophies that posit a transcendent reality, the questions: what is our relation to it? Do we need to ourselves transcend, to become transcendent beings, as the Jains and Buddhists and Gnostics would have it? Or do we simply need to love and admire that transcendent being “from below”, as Lévinas or Sirhindī or Ramprasad Sen would insist?

S: I’d like to back up now, back to where we started, to the cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary ambitions we mentioned at the beginning, and ask you about your conception of what philosophy is generally. Your work obviously attends to traditions that are often billed as “religions” – a notion I note you do not make much use of. Moreover, your work has both a scholarly and an original dimension. Do you think – to put it slightly portentously —that these sorts of border-crossings are a necessity for philosophy in our time? Does it seem to you that “philosophy” as a general term remains meaningful and useful beyond western civilization, or are notions like “Chinese philosophy” more or less travesties and conceptual colonialism? (I think I know – generally – what you will say here, but I’m curious to see if I am to be surprised, at least in the details). More generally, do you think there is any sense in speaking of philosophy itself – a trans-cultural and trans-historical activity? And if so, what does it entail?

A.L.: I retain the literal sense of philosophy as the love of wisdom, thus my blog’s title; though I think philosophy does require the more specific sense of reasoning of some sort. Unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom is not philosophy, though faith-seeking-understanding is. I’m not enough of an anthropologist to say whether this is a human universal, but I suspect not, in that challenging received wisdom can be something of a luxury; when it’s a real question whether you can feed your family, you’ll probably just think what you’re supposed to think, and that’s as much wisdom as you need.
I find myself quite unimpressed by ideas like “conceptual colonialism” – even when applied to India, but far more so for China and Japan, which were not actually colonized. I’ve long been troubled by the prevalence of, for lack of a better word, white guilt: that is, in this context, the idea that a history of racism and colonialism means that the West and its categories should be assumed wrong, as if racism and colonialism were not things other cultures indulged in when they had the chance. “Philosophy” is of course not a word native to Asia, but neither is any other word in the English language. Translation is always a tricky business, but I think the word “philosophy” in this sense does a fine job of capturing what Rāmānuja and Xunzi and Dōgen are doing.

I suppose if it were of the utmost importance to us to get beyond the categories of colonial Englishmen (and I do think there’s something of value in such a project), what we would have to do above all is not write in English – or any of the other languages of the European colonial powers. In Marathi it’s natural to write about the work of Kant or Plato as tattvajñāna, and doing so would probably lead one to think differently about it, in a productive way. It’s my impression that there is a lot of really exciting stuff being done in modern Chinese right now. But I don’t know whether my Chinese will ever be good enough to access it! I suppose one helpful thing we can do is read people like Nishitani Keiji and Mou Zongsan, who wrote and thought about European ideas in Japanese and Chinese but are now being translated into English. Even though the end result is in English, the thought that produced it did not take place in English, and that can help us see beyond blinkers that the English language might otherwise impose on us.

S: So, your dissertation is available online, and you have publicly renounced any aspirations for a usual academic career, though it is plain that you enjoy teaching and find your work rewarding. Beyond your very successful blog (or perhaps in tandem with it) have you writing projects you care to share anything about?

A.L.: That should probably be “blogs”, plural – it’s tempting to rank the Indian Philosophy Blog as more of a success than Love of All Wisdom, because it’s more widely read and generates more engagement. I’ve also got an article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics, and a bibliography on Hindu ethics, currently in press. I have an article on intimacy and integrity in the works, and have been planning to write a methodological article on Alasdair MacIntyre as well. There’s more at the idea stages, too, but with the limited time I have to write this stuff I should probably focus on these more concrete plans.

S: Is there anything at all you’d like to share or speculate upon that hasn’t been touched on yet?

A.L.: A theme I noticed while answering these questions was how many times I wound up saying “I reacted to x negatively at first but eventually came to it”: Doull, Buddhist anti-politics, a philosophy tied to “religion”. I suppose that says something about my personality. In some ways my way of really engaging with something is to react against it. And I do find truth often emerges from conflict. That’s another theme I see coming up here, in the questions about Buddhist sectarianism and Ayn Rand: the differences between traditions can be productive in our attempts to find truth. I’ve been talking a lot with another friend who finds my ideas on hermeneutics a little weird, specifically the idea that one reads texts most productively by letting them challenge oneself (he even calls that the “Lele Doctrine”). But that’s certainly been what I’ve found: we need ideas sufficiently different from our own that they shock us enough to react against them (though not so different that we can’t even imagine what their truth would mean). In my experience at least, I’d say that’s how we really learn, that’s how we grow.

S: What I’ve noticed, as we’ve been talking, is that the conversation has turned in a political direction more frequently than I’d anticipated.

A.L.: Yes, I was noticing that too.

S: The return of the repressed.

A.L.: Ha!

S: So this does play into a question I find personally pressing, which I mentioned, and which I want to press further. There’s the issue of what philosophy is; and then there’s the issue of our moment in philosophy. Of course, Hegel thinks that, on some level, there’s no difference, really, because philosophy just is the articulation of its own historical moment; and the recapitulation of that in a broad vision – a system – to oversimplify, not to say Bowdlerize, Hegel. But I’m struck by – well, I’m a perennialist; and I really believe – if pressed, I’d go to the wall and say that philosophy is the really the same wherever you find it. (Not its answers but its concerns). And that it – philosophy – is always possible – though sometimes it’s more difficult than in other cultural situations. But the particular moment and circumstance of philosophy does change, and part of its historical task is to keep itself possible. So I wonder – a lot of this discussion we’ve been having about the encounter of religions with politics, the encounter of religions with one another—does this feel to you like some kind of essential work for philosophy now?

A.L.: Yes. That’s the short answer. The longer answer will probably be a lot more roundabout. It’s important to keep in mind that for Hegel, philosophy is its own age comprehended in thought, but that’s also an advance towards the truth. There’s an interesting question, in a Hegelian perspective, of what the task would be for someone who aspires to be a philosopher, who does not happen to be German, or even more so, does not happen to be a Westerner.

S: Ooh, yeah. Tough luck!

A.L.: (Laughs) Well, yeah, but it’s a real and interesting question. And now that I think of it, that question becomes very real and practical for Hegel’s most devoted applied followers, the Marxists. Their question, which was once upon a time a very live one, was, Can you skip stages and go straight to socialism? Or do you have to go through capitalism and perhaps even feudalism? And I’m not sure the answer is clear, from Hegel’s own work. He’s writing supposedly from the top of the heap, so his task is clear. But if I’m a Japanese intellectual in 1850, and I’ve got an education in the west and picked up Hegel, or someone’s just translated him into Japanese – what should I be doing, when I’m in this place that’s not in the forefront of philosophy? How should I handle that? I’m not sure that’s a question Hegel really asks. Should I be trying to make a sort of synthesis of my Buddhist, my Shinto society, with Hegelian philosophy? Or should I be trying to get it to the beginning of the process – to get beyond “Oriental despotism” and just into classical Greece and start there, so that we can move the process on? I don’t think he pays much attention to that question. This is one of the reasons I like to say that Hegel is strong with respect to time, and weak with respect to space.

S: I just encountered a claim by Watsuji Tetsuro. He says the same thing, about Heidegger. Heidegger does not emphasize space enough. And it strikes me – though this may not be where you’re going – this is about ascent and decent. If, say, the Marxists were mistaken, and you couldn’t pole-vault over feudalism or capitalism, and that’s why the socialist experiments collapsed in different ways – part of this seems to be attributable to a lack of attention to the particular.

A.L.: Hmmm…. Yeah, that’s right. Marx makes for an interesting take on the whole ascent-and-descent question. There’s a sense in which there’s a universal there, that rides over particularities, and yet it’s a peculiar kind of historically situated universal, which some would argue is not all that universal in the first place. Doull has an argument which sees Marxism as almost of a piece with liberal individualism, because there’s a way in which it takes the individual’s own desires as paramount. He’s looking, in particular, less at Capital than at Marx’s early philosophical writings, especially that paragraph where Marx comes closest to envisioning what the ideal society might look like, and talks about this place where I can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon…and criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” From Doull’s perspective, this is very like utilitarianism, in the sense that it’s a universalism of particularity, and takes human desire and self-expression, and elevates that to a universal, rather than have a universal that transcends individuals. This is bringing me back to -- there are several concepts which I’ve mentioned on the blog, which are related to each other, but not identical: ascent is one of them; transcendence is another; single-mindedness is another. There’s a very uneasy connection between them. Stalinism is a very single-minded philosophy, but not one that is –

S: Not “pure of heart!”

A.L.: No, not pure of heart, but who is? But whether Stalinism counts as a philosophy of ascent, or transcendence, is less clear to me, because it is so this-worldly; it takes the things of this world as its goal; not aspiring to a higher truth beyond that, in a way that I think even Hegel does. The truth in Hegel aspires to comprehend the earlier stages in a way Stalin’s doesn’t.

S: I think I may have cut you off earlier, when we were talking about the question of what is philosophy’s job now.

A.L.: Yes, thanks for bringing me back to that. To me, a lot of this comes out of the question of who does philosophize, and who needs it? There are many people who live good lives and don’t need philosophy. Those people tend to be in positions which are, intellectually, relatively unproblematic. The need for philosophy comes out when there are really big questions, that are not resolved. Often there are questions unresolved within a given tradition – I think that’s basically what analytic philosophy does. I view it as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition, and I don’t say that as a pejorative. There’s a place for scholasticism, and liberalism can have it and should have it – liberalism, and scientism, I suppose. But we are now in an age when we have unprecedented access to a wide variety of other traditions. And we’re recognizing, much more than before, I think, that they have found answers, which the western tradition has not necessarily found, and that we don’t know, yet, which answers are correct or where the correct answers are going to come from. I think it is really the task of the time, to be comparative philosophers, I think that’s what’s most urgently needed. It doesn’t fit very well in the academic disciplinary divisions, which is one reason I’m just as happy not to have a faculty career. But I’ve noticed – Macintyre, in some of his latest work has tentatively taken a few steps to starting to explore Confucianism. That’s difficult for someone who thinks that to really do something with a tradition you need to learn it as a “second first language.” But he’s trying, with Confucianism. In the second edition to A Short History of Ethics, he says “I should mention, this isn’t actually a short history of ethics, it’s a short history of Western ethics.” And Heidegger, you know, actually translated the Daodejing, or at least part of it, but never published it. I’m trying to recall the details, but someone – I think Gadamer—says “you have to understand, for a man of Heidegger’s generation, you would never say anything about a tradition that you knew so little about.” You had to really get into it deeply, to understand it. I don’t think Heidegger got there in his lifetime, but he recognized the need to try. Since Hegel, there’s been a recognition that non-western philosophy has to fit somewhere; by now, translations have reached a good enough point, and secondary scholarship, descriptive and explanatory scholarship has reached a good enough point, that it becomes possible for people to start really thinking constructively about other traditions. You notice, even someone like Sam Harris starts talking about mindfulness meditation, wanting to have a denaturalized Buddhism, somewhere in his militantly atheist philosophy. And Michael Puett’s over-enrolled class in Confucian ethics, as one of the most popular courses at Harvard now. There are these straws in the wind, that indicate that philosophy cannot go on just remaining western philosophy anymore; the alternatives present themselves too urgently. Academic philosophers with tenure can go on ignoring nonwestern philosophy, because their imperatives are their own, and they may just go on within their scholasticism. But insofar as they do that, they make themselves irrelevant to the way the world is going. Especially at a time when it’s hard to imagine China’s GDP not overtaking the US’s within our lifetimes – a time when the United States is so paralyzed by its own political dysfunction – we may move to a world no longer so unipolar, and where for the first time in centuries, one of those poles is not European. Figuring out what to do with Asian philosophy and western philosophy and the relationship between us, probably is the philosophical task of our time.

S: Americans’ multicultural competence, despite the ascendancy of that term, seems low and getting lower – our facility in other languages is not high, and – I mean, if Heidegger thought he was not competent! Most of us cannot touch the hem of his garment. And yet – there may be a bright side to the smorgasbord approach; emboldened by not knowing how incompetent we are, we are in general doubtless not so deep as Heidegger; but lacking his scruples we may be able to gain some ground he didn’t dare approach. Of course, we will still require depth to secure it; but maybe it’s good not to be so cowed by the centuries.

A.L.: I think there is actually something wrong with Heidegger’s reluctance to engage Chinese tradition in that way, and to some extent there’s a critique to be made of MacIntyre here: this idea that you have to learn a tradition as a “second first language” to be competent in it – well, who’s MacIntyre’s model? Thomas Aquinas. By some accounts, at least, Aquinas didn’t know any Greek; and yet became one of the world’s greatest interpreters of Aristotle, and founded this newly re-energized tradition of Aristotelianism which MacIntyre thinks is supremely worthy of emulation.

And conversely: the scholarship on Asian religions and Asian philosophy for the past thirty, forty years, has increasingly become this mind-numbingly dull drumbeat of a critique of everybody who’s talked about the subject before, of people like Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan: saying “Ha, ha, look at these stupid people and how wrong they all got it. Aren’t we so great because we’re so much smarter, and we know the tradition really wasn’t that way?” And yet, the thing about that line of critique is that there’s very rarely any sort of constructive alternative advanced—

S: It doesn’t tell us what they tradition was, just what it wasn’t.

A.L.: Well, they do kind of try to tell us what the tradition was; but what they don’t try to tell us is what the tradition could be. What Roy and Vivekananda, and Walpola Rahula, and Olcott, and [Anagarika] Dharmapala, and all of those people who get taken as whipping-boys today – what they were trying to do was re-invigorate their traditions, and provide them with the resources to be constructive contributors to the dialogue of the world. I read all this stuff from Don Lopez, and all these other people from the past forty years, as basically saying “shut up, go back in your hole, you can’t do that, the real tradition was what was there in 1500” – in a way that closes off that dialogue. It tries to portray these people, people like Vivekananda, as orientalists who had no respect for their tradition. But it seems to me that it’s people like Lopez who have a much deeper disrespect for the tradition, in that they want to pose this radical disjuncture, where the tradition is somehow not allowed to change and update itself. I think what was really going on – well, the problem with Vivekananda and so on was that they didn’t really have enough of a historical awareness, they weren’t quite willing to admit that they were doing something new. But I think that where we need to go now is a willingness to do something new. Nobody now, or at least, very few people now, and certainly not scholars of Buddhism like Lopez, will ever tell you that Chinese Buddhism is illegitimate because it made all these incredible modifications to Indian Buddhism, to the point that it was completely unrecognizable compared to what the historical Buddha would have taught – even though it did all that. There are many ways in which the gap between Pali Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism is much larger than the gap between Pali Buddhism and the Buddhism of an Olcott or a Dharmapala. They’ll never say that Chinese Buddhism is illegitimate, but they’re so ready to dump on, you know, modern hippie Buddhism, and say, well, that’s illegitimate. Even when it differs less. So part of that philosophical task, of constructive dialogue now, is accepting that some sort of modification of a tradition is a legitimate part of that tradition. While giving the respect that we want to give to the ancients, we should be ready to accept some amount of modification, change, perhaps even modernization, and reasoned differentiation. And I’m seeing some encouraging signs, in books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and David McMahan’s Making of Buddhist Modernism, where people are saying, for instance: “Yes, what Ram Mohan was doing was something different from what came before him, but he also wasn’t just making it up. He was reading quite widely and thoroughly, he was engaged in the debates of his time, and cognizant of the debates going on in this world that really wasn’t influenced by the British. He was bringing them into this British environment, and made of them something different by doing so, but something that still had a connection to the tradition that came before it.”

S: I need hardly say that the same task is very pressing, though different and difficult to see in some ways because we sit in the midst of its cultural matrix, in terms of Christianity. An urgent requirement: to be able to authentically continue something, rather than merely repeat, or merely cut off at the roots.

A.L.: Christian theologians make for a good guide in all of this, because they have been thinking about it longer. The Asians have been confronting these issues for two or three centuries, but in the West it goes back considerably further than that, and these kinds of historical, methodological questions emerged in the context of Christianity, and especially in the rise of Biblical criticism. So I think it is people like MacIntyre, and Bernard Lonergan, and Charles Taylor, and James Doull, who all very much see themselves as Christian, who are methodological lodestars for those of us who do not see ourselves as Christian, and are trying to find interpretations of other traditions. Our path will not be their path, but if it’s going to be any good, it needs to be informed by theirs.

(The first half of this interview is here)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Steps towards the meaning of synthesis: Interview with Amod Lele, part 1

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.

* * *

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.

A.L.: Right.

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 will appear next week is up here. Comments on both halves are welcome.)