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…)
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…)
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…)
[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…)
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.
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…)
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…)
I cannot think very long about aesthetics without encountering the concept of kitsch. Perhaps doubly so now in the Christmas season (on which more in coming weeks), but in the rest of the year at all. One of the reasons I haven’t thought that much about aesthetics, I realize, is that I suspect most modern thinkers on the subject would consider many of my favourite artistic creations bad art – if they would consider them art at all. And the concept which would typically be used to describe them is kitsch: works with a lower-class popular appeal.
Among my favourite works of music are several power ballads of the late ’80s and early ’90s, which I enjoy non-ironically. In visual art, I love the bright Indian aesthetic in its popular manifestations: poster art of deities, temples covered in “Christmas” lights. (continue reading…)
There is a destructive pattern of behaviour I’ve observed too often which, in an amateur psychological diagnosis, I have come to call the bodhisattva complex. I thought of this term as a friend of mine – a young medical resident – described the behaviours she observed among her fellow medical residents and doctors, who think nothing of working 24- or even 48-hour shifts in order to help people in their care. One wonders: what kind of patient wants to be treated by a man or woman who hasn’t slept in 48 hours?
When I refer to the bodhisattva complex, I do not mean that actual bodhisattvas – ideal Mahāyāna Buddhist beings – are psychologically unhealthy. Some might make that argument (Martha Nussbaum has done so, more or less), but I would not at all. Rather, the bodhisattva complex refers to something which I think is far more common than actual bodhisattvas: you suffer it if you believe you are a bodhisattva, but aren’t. (continue reading…)
I have written before about Eric Schwitzgebel’s studies suggesting that professors of ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. Now what does this finding mean? A while ago, Schwitzgebel reflected some more on these studies – and on the reactions he found to them. (This reaction was recently referred to on the Philosophy Bites podcast and even in the Manchester Guardian.) He pointed out:
Philosophers rarely seem surprised or unsettled when I present my work on the morality of ethicists — work suggesting that ethics professors behave no differently than other professors or any more in accord with their own moral opinions (e.g., here). Amusement is a more common reaction; so also is dismissal of the relevancy of such results to philosophy. Such reactions reveal something, perhaps, about the role philosophical moral reflection is widely assumed to have in academia and in individual ethicists’ personal lives.
I think Schwitzgebel is quite right that the reaction is telling. Few, I think, would be surprised to hear that ethicists aren’t especially ethical. But similarly few even seem to consider this a problem – and that is what troubles me. (continue reading…)