Love of All Wisdom

Searching for ascent and descent (2)

by on Apr.13, 2014, under Greek and Roman Tradition, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics, Vedānta

For reasons I discussed last time, I’ve found it important to categorize philosophies using the ideal types of ascent and descent – but have not yet been able to specify them as clearly as an ideal type should be. I had thought I had drawn the concepts from Martha Nussbaum as well as Ken Wilber, but Nussbaum’s use of the ascent-descent dichotomy turned out to be implicit at most.

Wilber is not exactly clear on the topic himself. In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, the most systematic presentation of his ideas, he does not offer a definition as such. He does present us with a more detailed description of what he’s getting at, speaking of the movements of a quasi-Hegelian Spirit (with a capital S): (continue reading…)

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Searching for ascent and descent (1)

by on Mar.30, 2014, under Flourishing, Metaphilosophy, South Asia

A couple years ago on this blog, after exploring a number of ways of classifying world philosophical traditions cross-culturally, I found the most robust and satisfying to be a 2×2 grid: we may classify philosophies as intimacy or integrity, and we may classify them as ascent or descent. (Methodologically, I find it best to treat each of these four as an ideal type.)

What I didn’t do was spell out with much care what each of these terms really meant. Last fall I tried to articulate more precisely what I meant by intimacy and integrity, and am currently in the process of writing an article on the topic. But what about ascent and descent? (continue reading…)

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The accidental Gītā

by on Mar.16, 2014, under Epics, Flourishing, Foundations of Ethics, Mahāyāna, Metaphysics, Modern Hinduism, Morality, Vedānta

A strange coincidence surprised me as I designed this spring’s course in Indian philosophy – but one that I suspect is quite significant. The coincidence resulted from three of my primary concerns in selecting content for the course syllabus, and I’ll start with those. One of those was, whenever possible, to focus on primary texts – texts actually written by Indian philosophers.

A second primary concern was to stress the connections between theoretical and practical philosophy. Too often, Indian epistemology and metaphysics are seen as purely abstract activities with little relation to one’s ethical conduct or even one’s ultimate liberation, and Indian reflection on practical matters is taken to have little background in that theoretical work (as in Damien Keown’s needlessly pessmistic reflection that there is no such thing as Buddhist normative ethics). It is no wonder that Indian philosophy is so little studied when even those who study it sometimes think its questions tend not to edification.

My reading of Śāntideva convinced me that this is absolutely not the case. Metaphysics is a pervasive concern of his most celebrated text (and one of the most widely read works of Buddhist ethics), the Bodhicaryāvatāra – not only in the ninth chapter, which focuses on it, but in the other more widely read chapters as well. (I gave a talk on this topic at the SACP a few years ago, and am planning on expanding it into a paper for publication soon.) I have come to believe that this is the case more widely in Indian philosophy as well. It’s not always easy to see what the practical implications of Indian theoretical thought are, but I think that they are there, and it was hugely important to me that my course bring them out.

My final primary concern was to bring in modern Indian philosophy, in order to excite student interest and let them know it is not a dead tradition. (continue reading…)

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Acknowledging newness

by on Mar.02, 2014, under Early and Theravāda, M.T.S.R., Natural Science, Yavanayāna

Readers may have noticed my expressing a certain ambiguity with respect to the new Buddhist movements I call Yavanayāna. I have often defended their value as legitimate traditions in their own right, but I have also repeatedly criticized them for their political activism, their embrace of “interdependence”, their reluctance to admit the significance of sectarian differences. Moreover, my ground for criticism in these cases is that they misrepresent traditional and especially early Buddhism. Some readers might well wonder whether there is a problem here: whether I am criticizing their innovation only when it is convenient to do so, which is to say only when I agree with it.

In response I would stress that I am not against innovation as such. (continue reading…)

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Of disruptive innovation

by on Feb.16, 2014, under Economics, Politics, Work

If one follows current conversations about technological changes in higher education — which it is a major part of my job to do — one quickly encounters a great deal of praise given to “disruption” and “disruptive innovation”. Massive online open courses and various other online innovations, we’re told, will overthrow the tired old models of education and usher in a marvelous new world far better for students than the sclerotic old habits of the deadwood professorial class.

So far, none of these technological trends has yet made big changes in the way higher education is done. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been only two trends in higher education that were genuinely disruptive innovations in a literal sense – that is, innovations that have genuinely disrupted the lives of the people who make up higher education. The first of these is adjunctification; the second is tuition increase. (continue reading…)

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Understanding understanding

by on Feb.02, 2014, under Daoism, Epistemology, Metaphilosophy

I have recently begun the exciting opportunity to teach a course in Indian philosophy in Boston University’s philosophy department. Thinking about and designing the course, I had the great opportunity to work with the small but excellent staff of BU’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. They asked me: what’s your objective for the course? More specifically, what will your students be able to do when the course is done? They recommended that I pay particular attention to the verbs identifying these student abilities.

Such a question is easier to answer in skill-oriented courses – courses in Java programming or academic writing. There, the point of the course is all about something that students will be able to do. In a humanistic course, objectives are different, and often not easily specified. It’s not just that humanistic learning may have as much to do with personal transformation as with any acquired ability. It’s that even the abilities acquired are themselves difficult to define. In particular: one of the first verbs to come out of my mouth in response was “understand”. And one of the staff soon said in response, “we’d like to encourage you to avoid the U-word.” (continue reading…)

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A synthesis beyond Orientalism

by on Jan.19, 2014, under M.T.S.R., Modern Hinduism, Vedānta, Yavanayāna

[Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.]

I am increasingly getting the impression that the debates over Orientalism in Asian traditions have taken a new turn, and one very much for the better.

Few books of the twentieth century have made as much impact as Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism. It is particularly striking that even though Said’s book was entirely about the Middle East, it has been a major scholarly landmark in the study of South and East Asia. Until Said, Western scholarship on Asia was rarely viewed as having a hidden colonial agenda. The perennialism of élitist mystical schools like Theosophy was taken seriously by scholars. And the views of Asian traditions’ popular advocates – such as D.T. Suzuki, Walpola Rahula, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – were widely accepted as accurate portrayals of those traditions.

After Said, all that changed. (continue reading…)

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The Indian Philosophy Blog

by on Jan.08, 2014, under Blog Admin, South Asia

It is with great pleasure that I announce the creation of the Indian Philosophy Blog, a new group blog exploring all aspects of Indian thought. We hope to be for Indian thought what the excellent Warp, Weft and Way has been for Chinese. I have done some of the technical work to help put this together but the content is that of the contributors. Please check it out! I will continue to do my blogging in cross-cultural philosophy here, but intend to cross-post any posts that are directly related to Indian thought.

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The theology of Christmas carols

by on Dec.22, 2013, under Aesthetics, Christianity, Emotion, God

I will be taking a break from blogging over the next few weeks’ holiday. When new posts return in January, they will be on a biweekly (or fortnightly, if you wish) schedule: every alternate Sunday rather than every Sunday. I continue to enjoy writing Love of All Wisdom and intend to keep doing so, but as I have tried publishing more conventional papers, studying computer science and teaching a course on top of my day job, the weekly schedule has been too hard to sustain. I hope that alternating weeks will make it easier for me to continue engaging in the wonderful exchanges of ideas that have taken place here.

In Canada and the US today, the Christian aspect of Christmas is likely most noticeable in the music. There are of course a great number of English-language Christmas songs with little or no Christmas element (“Jingle Bells”, “Deck The Halls”, “Frosty The Snowman” and so on). It is increasingly common to hear only these songs played in public places. But one may quickly feel something missing here. Certainly some of these songs are grander than others; it would be a difficult task indeed to argue that “Deck The Halls” is no better a work than “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. But even so, there is a certain depth that is missing from them.

By contrast, many Christian carols engage with some weighty theological questions, especially that most significant of all questions for monotheistic believers: theodicy, the problem of bad. If there is a God – specifically, a being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent – how can the world be so full of terrible things? (continue reading…)

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The Christian Christmas

by on Dec.15, 2013, under Christianity, Judaism, Modern Hinduism, Rites, Sufism

In previous years I’ve insisted that Christmas has a significance and value to North American life well beyond Christianity. It is a ritual that brings families together – something Confucius would say is among the most important things in the world, irrespective of anything such rituals might mean. And its meaning is not limited to Christian stories; it is also a seasonal festival of light and darkness, of the winter solstice.

I stand by all of that. But having said it, I think that for secular North Americans (and likely Europeans as well) there is also considerable value in the specifically Christian meaning of the festival. (continue reading…)

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