Category Archives: History of Philosophy

Against Stoicism

There is a familiar tension within Stoicism between determinism and moral responsibility. The Stoic response is typically to restrict each portion of the puzzle to different realms. Not all Stoics agree on how this division should be maintained. The ancient Stoics maintained that there is one world governed by two principles: matter and reason. Modern Stoics[1] divide the world into two along those same lines. In the world of matter, action is determined. In the world of reason, it is deliberated and chosen. I shall be concerned here with how the modern Stoic understands each individually and how they relate. The Stoic cannot ultimately resolve this tension.

The Stoic account of the world of matter is straightforward. It is ordered by the categories, which permit the theoretical understanding of material events by situating each within a causal series. And so it is with human action, embodied as it is. But in the world of matter, human action is not caused by some intention or will. As the Stoic makes clear, the will is a practical postulate which does not bear on the theoretical understanding of the world of matter: “the postulates play no theoretical or explanatory role whatsoever. They provide us with concepts that define the intelligible world, but we have no intuitions to which we may apply those concepts, and consequently no theoretical knowledge of their objects.”[2] Moral responsibility has its source therefore in the world of reason, the intelligible world, not the material. This is where the real meat of the Stoic account lies.

For the Stoic, the world of reason is revealed in a particular standpoint, one in which action is deliberated. As they say, “In order to do anything, you must simply ignore the fact that you are programmed, and decide what to do—just as if you were free . . . It follows from this feature that we must regard our decisions as springing ultimately from principles that we have chosen, and justifiable by those principles. We must regard ourselves as having free will.”[3] The world of reason, on this view, is populated by those practical postulates needed to completely determine deliberation and moral action. Most important of these for my purpose is the will. This is what deliberates and ultimately chooses some course of action. It is “a rational causality that is effective without being determined by an alien cause.”[4] The will is self-determining, and so is subject to no cause. It follows that moral action qua moral is undetermined by any element of the phenomenal world. It is entirely bound within the intelligible.

The Stoic takes this to ground the freedom of the will. But this is not to say that the will is undetermined. For the Stoic, the will is free only insofar as it is causally isolated from the world of matter. It is nevertheless bound to law because it is itself a causality. This follows immediately from the Stoics’ nomological account of causation: “Since the concept of a causality entails that of laws . . . it follows that freedom is by no means lawless.”[5] Of course, the account of causation that applies here is relevantly distinct from that of the world of matter. The will is not bound to antecedent cause, but its deliberation is nevertheless constrained in the same sort of way. The law still applies to the will, but here the law is rational, not material: “The free will therefore must have its own law . . . [S]ince the will is practical reason, it cannot be conceived as acting and choosing for no reason. Since reasons are derived from principles, the free will must have its own principle.”[6]

The laws which govern the will have their source in the reasons that a will has for choosing one course of action over another. These reasons begin with incentives. For the Stoic, “An incentive is something that makes an action interesting to you, that makes it a live option . . . [It does] not yet provide reasons for the spontaneous will, [but] determine[s] what the options are—which things, so to speak, are candidates for reasons.”[7] Incentives become reasons once they are adopted as maxims. But since incentives don’t just disappear, this process of adopting an incentive as a maxim rather consists in the rational ordering of our incentives, of choosing which incentives take precedence over others.

For the Stoic, the rational order of incentives is readily given in reason as revealed by the structure of the will. Because the will is itself uncaused, it is spontaneous. But in order to be a cause, it must adopt some maxim. As the Stoic puts it, “At the standpoint of spontaneity, the will must . . . choose a principle or a law for itself. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[8] This content must be compatible with the spontaneity of the will and must be available in the world of reason. For the Stoic, there is only one thing which meets these criteria: the will itself. And so the will may ultimately take itself as its content. The Stoic represents this by the following principle: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[9] They call this the Formula of Universal Law, which they say “merely tells us to choose a law. Its only constraint on our choice is that it have the form of a law. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[10] It is of course plain that the Formula of Universal Law does not merely tell us to choose a law. It tells us to choose a universal law. There is a problem here which I shall come to later. For now, I must continue with the Stoic account of moral responsibility.

By now in their account, the Stoic maintains that their account of right action has been satisfactorily demonstrated. What remains is to account for how human beings may act rightly. This is in effect to account for how the world of matter and the world of reason interact. The ancient Stoic can easily account for this because they hold that there is only one world which can be explained in two distinct but consistent ways. The modern Stoic might seem to face a deeper difficulty. However, their account is ultimately the same. The difference here is that they have inverted the metaphysics of their ancient predecessors. Where they ancient Stoics took matter to be fundamental, the modern Stoic holds that the world of matter has its ultimate source in the world of reason, which they then call the noumenal world. As such, when a human being wills some action, its influence in the world of reason makes it so also in the world of matter.

The will does not have sole influence over the world of reason, however. The world of reason is divinely ordered, and so one’s will must contribute to this order in some way. How this occurs is unclear in the Stoic literature. Whatever happens, the parallel limitation occurs also in the world of matter as represented by the laws of cause and effect. The human will, as realised by the material body, is bound by these laws and therefore not completely free. It is always bound by what appears to it as a possible course of action: if that is one is not met by the appropriate kinds of intuitions that permit right action in a given situation, one cannot possibly act rightly. This is of course not a strictly passive process, but it has important passive elements: even if we purposely look for ways to alleviate suffering, for example, these ways may never appear to us even if they are in plain view. It follows from this that in the world of matter the human is not perfectly rational, even if the isolated will in the world of reason is. And so this imperfect rationality is the source of moral responsibility: we are capable of acting on the moral law and yet sometimes, through our own faults, fail to perfectly realise it in the world of matter.

Just as it was for the ancient Stoics, becoming moral for the modern is therefore a process of more completely realising the moral law in the world of matter. This is the importance of virtue. The virtuous person takes the moral law, as given in reason, to be their end. And virtue must be cultivated. As it was for the ancient Stoics, so it will be for the modern: in becoming virtuous, one meditates upon one’s incentives and subordinates those of the inclinations while elevating those of reason. This is not an easy process, as the Stoic says, for “you are imposing a change on your sensible nature, and your sensible nature may, and probably will, be recalcitrant. Although adopting an end is a volitional act, it is one that you can only do gradually and perhaps incompletely.”[11]

It does not matter how great this imposition is: we are obliged to make it from our nature as agents, as rational creatures yearning to be free. But for the Stoic, freedom is only given in subjugation to the moral law. Man is not born free: he becomes free by learning to bear the weight of his chains. Only as a slave within the Empire of Ends shall one have liberty. And so our obligation, as reason commands, is to board the Clotilda and set sail for the Land of the Free. The Stoic wishes to defend this bald incoherence. I will not allow this. The injustice of this empire is already apparent. Let me bring it more clearly into view.

The Stoic is often quite careless with their concepts. Consider the problem that I have already mentioned, for example. The spontaneity of the will on their view demands some law, but it does not demand some universal law. The confusion here consists in what the Stoic takes laws to be and what they constrain. They think that to choose some maxim for oneself in the world of reason is also to choose for all others. Since each will is equal under the laws of reason, to make oneself an exception would be irrational. But this is not quite right. There is a relevant difference between my will and yours: I make decisions for myself and not for you. The universal law here applies only to all those things which are me. Yet this gives absolutely no content to the will, and so the recursion here contributes nothing to what one might be able to take as a maxim.

This is not to say that the will cannot in principle adopt the Formula of Universal Law as its maxim. It is only to say that so adopting it does not preserve the spontaneous condition of the will. In order to take it as a maxim, one must bind oneself to the law of the cosmopolis, the Empire of Ends, the Formula of Humanity, which indeed cannot be given purely in reason. It is of course unclear whence this law can be given at all except through some mystical communion with God, but let’s set this aside for now.

It is more important that in clearing up the Stoics’ concepts, we recognise now that the moral maxim is on roughly equal ground as the maxim of self-love. The former says that “I will do my duty and what I desire only if it does not interfere with my duty.” The latter says that “I will do what I desire and what is my duty only if it does not interfere with what I desire.” Both destroy the spontaneity of the will to some degree, though the Stoic will still insist that the former is preferable because the latter destroys spontaneity in a particular way: “Incentives of inclination cannot move the will to abandon its position of spontaneity, since they cannot move the will at all until it has already abandoned that position by resolving to be moved by them.”[12] The moral maxim, they claim, does not do this since it remains open ended what sorts of actions may fulfill one’s duty. On closer inspection, however, there is no asymmetry here. In both cases, the will must first resolve to be moved before it can be, and in both cases there is any number of actions which might satisfy a maxim. To be a slave of one’s passions is essentially the same as being a slave to the law.

But this is quite a minor problem, one that merely follows the trail which much deeper confusions have set out for the Stoic. Plutarch’s criticism of the ancient Stoics has not been addressed by the modern, for example. The modern Stoics attempt to hold both that a will is always moved by an incentive (eventually) and that it cannot be moved by it until it resolves to be moved. The latter for the Stoic requires assent, or what they more commonly call judgement. Plutarch rightly points out this inconsistency and maintains that judgement is not only not required for action but also possibly harmful to right action. Judgement changes the ways in which both the world is perceived and one’s agency is constituted. Acting without judgement does not do this: it allows one to take an open-ended approach to the world and to oneself in order to seek what is truly good and act for its sake.

One reason that the Stoics deny this is their nomological account of causation. In order to be moved by some incentive, they think, one must be able to comprehend the law that addresses this incentive. These laws are not given in intuition, but rather by abstraction in reason. And so to act on any incentive is ultimately to make a judgement about some law and one’s own relation to it. Hence there is no way around positing laws or reasons to which the will is in some sense bound. And yet, there are no such laws. In recognition of an incentive, the will constructs a model which guides its response. But in no case need this model be expressed as true or even as nomological and making a judgement one way or the other serves only to constrict the will and diminish its openness to what must be done.

The Stoic takes this to be unnecessary because they conceive of the will as ultimately uncaused and completely spontaneous: in other words as free. But they have no grounds for this assumption. For the Stoic, this is a practical postulate necessary in the moment of deliberation and decision. As one reflects on one’s choices, that is, it is not relevant that one’s actions are already determined since subjectively one must nevertheless decide what must be done. And since the will is not (relevantly) determined, they say, it must be free. This does not follow. There is only one thing that is relevantly true here: that in deliberation, it is subjectively opaque what one has already been determined to do, if anything. There is an epistemic distance here that cannot be traversed. The Stoic attempts to infer from this distance the existence of the will and a whole world that it populates. So dogmatic they are that other more reasonable inferences fail to cross their mind at all. Whatever might be true metaphysically, the determination of one’s actions by prior events is simply irrelevant to whether one is morally responsible for a given act. Yet the Stoic is bound to their metaphysical inferences as if these are given in reason alone and not by some pretheoretical psychological disposition which blinds the Stoic to other available options.

And this is really the danger of Stoicism: so blinded they are by their commitment to empire that they bend the world to abide by its edicts. Up is down, war is peace, intuition is reason, and slavery is freedom. Let this not be so: let us go forth and establish our liberty, our freedom from the edicts of the Empire of Ends. And where the Stoic attempts to enslave us, let us cast his reason into the flames. Perhaps when he sees it transformed into ash he will realise at long last that his empire is not eternal.

 

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Notes:

[1] There are of course two kinds of modern Stoic. One kind is mere atavism and hence does not differ at all from ancient Stoicism but for a lack of detail and rigorous argument. This is the sort of foolish nonsense which Massimo Pigliucci among others promotes and hence may be easily dismissed. But another kind is adaptation. These Stoics have reinvented themselves for a different age. They cannot be similarly dismissed and must be directly opposed, for they too bear the same faults as their predecessors despite their differences. They too would see us subjugated to empire. They too would see us enslaved.

[2] Christine Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 172-173

[3] Ibidem, 163

[4] Ibidem

[5] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 446, quoted in Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[6] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[7] Ibidem, 165

[8] Ibidem, 166; italics in original.

[9] Kant, Groundwork, 4:421

[10] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 166

[11] Ibidem, 180

[12] Ibidem, 166

In Defence of Tom Nagel

This is something I must do. I didn’t intend it. I never wished for my life to turn out this way. Life is a tragedy and a farce; my concerns and my views, my position and my stature, my principles, all of these command me to this end. So here I am, defending the detestable, the corrupt, the deeply mistaken. So here I am defending Thomas Nagel.

Nagel’s concern is a problem, a singular problem, that lies at the heart of philosophical naturalism. This sort of naturalism aspired to a complete, objective description and explanation of natural phenomena. It failed. It failed in dozens of ways. Philosophers were swept up in the atomic age, that period of time where science had made inconceivable advancements in understanding the physical world, alongside a similar advancement in technology that stood in testament to the power of science. Science became the model for good philosophy, heralding in a flurry of novel philosophical problems and tensions. Philosophers simply weren’t prepared for this. They faced down problem after problem, from theory-ladenness to confirmation, explanation, and so on. And to escape these, they once again roused the traditional philosophical problems they originally sought to escape. By the 1980s, naturalism was on its deathbed. And Nagel could explain all of this.

In Nagel’s view, the naturalist project was doomed from the beginning: there will always be a lacuna that plagues the objective view. The scientific enterprise, despite its aspirations, always begins from some perspective. Though the objective view can be abstracted away from that perspective, it can only do so by negating that whence it began. That is, the subjective view, the engaged view, will always plague the naturalist project. There will always be this conspicuous discrepancy. There will always be this absurdity. Naturalism fails because it attempts to elide this inconsistency.

Where this inconsistency lies Nagel never makes clear. What stops the objective view from subsuming the subjective into its body? Is it simply incapable of representing those kinds of indexed relational facts? Nagel thinks it is. No matter how it attempts to do that, the objective view can never represent the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view. It can only accomplish this by imaginatively transposing our own subjective view onto others. And this works sometimes. I can imagine what it is like for Barack Obama to eat an apple, for example, only because I know what it’s like myself to eat an apple. But I cannot imaginatively transpose my subjectivity to creatures with very different faculties than my own. Human echolocation is rudimentary and insensitive: I cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Human taste receptors are very different than insect taste receptors: I cannot imagine what it’s like for a cockroach to eat scrambled eggs. There is a tension here, but there is no inconsistency. Two conceptual schemes butt up against each other, but inconsistency is not the kind of relation that can hold between conceptual schemes, except trivially. What matters is whether a single conceptual scheme can coherently represent the basic phenomena the other represents. That is, what matters is whether the conceptual schemes are translatable. And Nagel has not given any reason why they are not.

Instead of arguments to these ends, Nagel gestures. He asserts. He plants his heels in the sand and denies that the naturalist can account for the subjective view. And if Nagel stopped here, there would be nothing terribly wrong. Highlighting a tension is a good thing to do in philosophy, even if there is nothing deeper to be said. But he doesn’t stop there. Nagel wants to make substantive positive claims about consciousness and about life and about metaphysics. He reifies the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view into some kind of irreducible metaphysical thing so powerful that it can topple one of our most well-supported and well-conceived scientific theories: Darwinian evolution. This is absurd! Evolutionary theory has a number of conceptual problems—all large and diverse theories will. But this massive, well-supported theory cannot be overturned by a hunch about conceptual schemes. That’s just not the way philosophy works. David defeats Goliath not because he is the underdog; he defeats him because he is more capable, more resourceful, because he capitalises on Goliath’s weakness and fragility. And so it is in philosophy. Nagel doesn’t do this. Nagel highlights a tension that naturalists must take seriously—and that some have!—but makes no substantive moves to demonstrate that there is any fundamental, unavoidable inconsistency. This is bad philosophy. Thomas Nagel does bad philosophy. He is a bad philosopher.

But here’s the kicker: bad philosophers are a much greater, much more pernicious threat than bad philosophers. For while the bad philosopher promotes a bad argument, bad philosophers promote a toxic community. That is, there are two ways to be a bad philosopher. There are those who argue poorly and make no great headway on philosophical problems, or who highlight problems that are no great difficulty. Most philosophers, possibly all philosophers, are bad philosophers in this way. There is no shame in that. Philosophy is difficult. But there are also those who demean and belittle their philosophical opponents. They are those who in their hubris command that the dissenters be ridiculed and thrown from the windows of our great ivory tower.

This is what I mean to defend Nagel from. He receives a great deal more abuse than he warrants. Just read the reviews of Mind and Cosmos. Philosophers ask “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” and move to much harsher statements about his intellect and abilities. Some say that “[Nagel is] a self-contradictory idiot.” Others go even farther: “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are. In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” And this is not just a phenomenon present in book reviews. It is a communal activity. As Andrew Ferguson relates, at a conference in the Berkshires entitled “Moving Naturalism Forward,” Dan Dennett was “appalled to how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang . . . They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” Dennett did not specify who these philosophers were. Alex Rosenberg obliged: “And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever. And it’s by Tom Nagel.” This… this is disgusting. All of it. Every last insult. Every last word. This is not how good philosophy is done. This is not how good philosophers comport themselves. These men—and they are all men—are a stain on philosophy.

If philosophy is worth doing, if philosophy is worth anything, we must root out this kind of bad philosophy. We must foster a healthy community, one in which philosophers are free to explore their varied interests and methods. Thomas Nagel should be free to do philosophy as he wishes; if they do not like it, these mean-spirited naturalists are free to respond. But in the present case, this I think is the major crux of the issue. The Rosenbergs and Dennetts and so on of philosophy, these bad philosophers have no substantive response to Nagel. Nagel employs an established method—a bad method, but an established method nevertheless—that naturalism disavows. Naturalists are doing the same thing. They promote naturalism as a viable philosophical method, one which is distinct from Nagel’s intuitionism. But in their position, they are not warranted to hurl insults across the divide. They must first puncture holes in Nagel’s hull before they can tell him he’s sinking. They must first take seriously Nagel’s method and show that he cannot address the central problems of philosophy before they can insult him. And good luck with that.

Until then, let Nagel prosper. Let Nagel write what he wishes to write. Let Nagel teach what he wishes to teach. Let the light of reason bleach away his errors and ours. Our students deserve this. We deserve this. Philosophy deserves this.

Its name is Kun

I’ve begun one of my periodic re-readings of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that coalesced during the late Warring States period (476-221 BCE). It’s an intricate text, the work of many voices representing many perspectives. Stylistically, it consists of parables, anecdotes, poems, arguments, and much else besides. It’s often impossible to tell whether a given story is a straightforward depiction of a great sage or simply an elaborate prank (or both). My aim with this reading is simply to move through it slowly, picking apart each anecdote and seeing what results. I have no axe to grind and no clear sense where I am going. I am writing about it here simply to force myself to elaborate and organize my thoughts. Should any other readers find what I write interesting or useful, that is an added bonus.

This post concerns the first fable in the Zhuangzi. Here is how it begins (all passages are from the Ziporyn 2009 translation):

There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion named Kun, and this Kun is quite huge, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Peng, and this Peng has quite a back on him, stretching who knows how many thousands of miles. When he rouses himself and soars into the air, his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens. The oceans start to churn, and this bird begins his journey toward the Southern Oblivion. The Southern Oblivion—that is the Pool of Heaven.

Ziporyn 2009

Already in this paragraph, Zhuangzi confronts us with three of his central themes: perspectivism, transformation, and forgetting. I’ll take up each in turn.

The Zhuangzi delights in the variety of perspectives that the world offers. Were there a view from nowhere, I do not think Zhuangzi would see much value in it. Our first taste of this comes in the very name of the mysterious fish in the Northern Oblivion: Kun (鯤). The name literally means “fish roe.” The Kun is simultaneously unfathomably huge and extremely small. A later passage in the fable discusses how other animals perceive the Peng as it flies:

The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at [Peng], saying, “We scurry up into the air, leaping from the elm to the sandalwood tree, and when we don’t quite make it we just plummet to the ground. What’s all this about ascending ninety thousand miles and heading south?”

Ziporyn 2009

Zhuangzi comments: “What do these two little creatures know? A small consciousness cannot keep up with a vast consciousness; short duration cannot keep up with long duration.” Here the emphasis is on the largeness of the Peng—its size makes it incomprehensible to smaller creatures. Yet in naming the fish Kun, Zhuangzi asks us to consider whether there is not some further perspective in which it plays the role of the small, uncomprehending creature. Even as he praises the lofty perspective of the Kun/Peng relative to the cramped laughter of the cicada and dove, he seems to be grinningly deflating any attempts to treat that perspective as ultimate.

This is further confirmed by Zhuangzi’s remarks on dependence in this passage. Zhuangzi notes that the Peng has to fly especially high to fly at all:

And if the wind is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support Peng’s enormous wings. That is why he needs to put ninety thousand miles of air beneath them. Only then can he ride the wind, bearing the blue of heaven on his back and unobstructed on all sides, and make his way south.

Ziporyn 2009

Later, toward the end of the parable, Zhuangzi draws the moral more explicitly, when he discusses the cases of Song Rongzi and Liezi. Song Rongzi is admirable because he “clearly discerned where true honor and disgrace are to be found.” And yet he is not fully admirable: “there was still a sense in which he was not yet really firmly planted.” Paralleling the Peng even more closely, “Liezi rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful.” And yet, “there was still something he needed to depend on.” None of the three—not Song Rongzi, not Liezi, not Peng—have fully achieved independence. None are quite able to go “wandering far and unfettered” (the title of the chapter).

So how might one unfetter oneself? Here the second and third themes are relevant. If the Zhuangzi has any central message, it is that one should make peace with change. In particular, one should come to recognize even death itself as merely one more change. Thus, in a later parable, we see Zhuangzi being berated by a skull for thinking that life is obviously preferable to death. In another episode, presumably after the incident with the skull, we see Zhuangzi happily banging away on pots and pans after his wife has died. When his friend Hui Shi confronts him about this, he admits feeling sad at first, but then he remembered that death is merely one of the changes, and his sorrow left him.

It is striking, then, that the Zhuangzi opens with a drastic transformation: Kun becomes Peng. This is a total transformation: from one kind of creature to another, from one form of life to another, from one element (water) to another (air). What identity is preserved across this transformation? In what sense can we say that Kun and Peng are the same? It hardly seems there is any. And yet there is no lamentation, no sense of loss or regret. Kun simply transforms, and then, as Peng, goes on his journey. It is as if Peng has totally forgotten his former existence. And that brings us to the final theme: forgetting.

What is the significance of Peng’s journey? It is noteworthy that we are told little about the journey itself, beyond how it looks to an observer (“his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens”). What we are told is the journey’s endpoints: Peng travels from the Northern Oblivion to the Southern Oblivion. (The Southern Oblivion is identified with the “Pool of Heaven”, though later in the parable it is the Northern Oblivion that is so identified.) Oblivion indicates forgetfulness, the absence of memory, its total destruction. It is hard, at least for me, not to read this journey as a metaphor for life: from the oblivion before death to the oblivion after death. We have no experience of either state; we simply move from one to the other.

But oblivion is not limited to the periods before birth and after death. There is a case to be made that forgetting plays a central role in Zhuangzi’s conception of the sage: the sage is one who forgets. (On this point, I have learned a great deal from this interesting paper by Linna Liu and Sihao Chew.) I have already mentioned the story of Zhuangzi playing drums after his wife’s death: he has forgotten his sorrow. The third story in the Zhuangzi praises the great ruler Yao because, on seeing the “masters of distant Mt. Guye […], he forgot all about his kingdom.” The sage’s ability to forget appears to free them from their past. As the later commentator Wang Fuzhi glosses the chapter title: “’Unfettered’ means echoing beyond the dissolving tones—forgetting what has passed.”

The first parable of the Zhuangzi ends with a summary statement of its moral: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no one name.” I have long found it puzzling how this moral emerges from the stories that precede it, but now I think I see. Those stories show us a variety of perspectives, show us transformations between them, and counsels us to forget, at least to an extent, one’s past. It is not that this ideal person has no identity, no merit, or no name. Rather, their identities, merits, and names are inconstant and shifting. One forgets who one was and becomes someone else, and so wanders far and unfettered.

I want to end by drawing attention to one last feature of this parable. It overflows with laughter. Zhuangzi cites a (probably made up) text in his support; the name of this text is The Equalizing Jokebook (see my thoughts on this here). The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at Peng. In another version, a quail laughs at Peng. Song Rongzi “would burst out laughing” at a man “whose understanding is sufficient to fill some one post.” It seems that everyone, whether they are being held up as admirable or as limited (or both), is always laughing. This is one of the most endearing features of the Zhuangzi.

Works cited

  • Liu, Linna and Sihao Chew. 2019. “Dynamic Model of Emotions: The Process of Forgetting in the Zhuangzi.” Dao 18 (1):77-90. DOI: 10.1007/s11712-018-9642-6
  • Ziporyn, Brook. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.

The Equalizing Jokebook

One of the curious features of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that emerged during the Warring States period (476-221 BCE), is its apparent citations of other texts. For example, the book opens with a parable about a fish named Kun that transforms into a bird named Peng and undertakes a long journey. Immediately after describing this, the text continues:

The Equalizing Jokebook, a record of many wonders, reports: “When Peng journeys to the Southern Oblivion, the waters ripple for three thousand miles. Spiraling aloft, he ascends ninety thousand miles and continues his journey without rest for half a year.

(Ziporyn 2009, p. 3)

This alleged quotation adds little information to what comes before it. So why is it there? One hypothesis, defended by A. C. Graham (1981), is that these quotations are the product of scribal errors. Some later commentator noted a parallel between the Zhuangzi and some later text, and these comments were eventually copied into the Zhuangzi itself. A more traditional hypothesis is offered by the commentator Lin Xiyi (1193-1270?):

This doesn’t mean such a book really exists, necessarily. Zhuangzi invents a story and then cites this book as his own verification. This another example of his playful theatrics.

(Ziporyn 2009, p. 130)

On this view, Zhuangzi’s invented citations satirize the Confucians, who sought to support their claims with references to various authorities. For my part, I do not know that evidence will ever resolve this dispute. Nor need it. The Zhuangzi is unquestionably a polyvocal text, with contributions from authors separated in both time and thought. Zhuang Zhou himself lurks as an elusive presence within it, ostensibly the author of its first seven chapters (the so-called “inner” chapters), though none of it can be definitively attributed to him. The book contains a cacophony of perspectives—a state of which Zhuangzi himself would surely have approved. Ultimately, there is only the text as we have received it, shaped by many hands with many and clashing intentions. In this regard, I think it best to treat these citations as proper parts of the text, and see how they contribute to its overall effect. (Henceforth, I will speak of Zhuangzi as “the” author of the text. This should be understood as referring to the whole conglomerate of authors, not merely the historical Zhuangzi.)

Seen in this light, I can only take Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook as itself a rather clever joke. Looking at the Zhuangzi as a whole, two features especially stand out. First, the book is very funny. Wittgenstein famously said that a work of philosophy could be written consisting entirely of jokes; he was apparently unaware that this had already been done more than 2000 years ago. The authors of the Zhuangzi are constantly pulling the reader’s leg, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. (Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio have written a very good book, Genuine Pretending, that takes seriously the Zhuangzi’s status as a “jokebook.”) Second, insofar as the book does have a central philosophical aim, “equalizing” captures it fairly well. The second chapter is called “Equalizing Assessment of Things”, and the book constantly works to upset our attempts to draw conceptual divisions, one side of which can be viewed as good/desirable and the other as bad/undesirable. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the word 諧 (xié)—translated by Ziporyn as “joke”—can also mean “harmony”, a meaning that Zhuangzi is surely exploiting.

My proposal, then, is that Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook is in fact a humorous citation of the Zhuangzi itself. Were it not customary to name such books after their alleged authors, I doubt one could find a better name for the Zhuangzi. One advantage of this proposal is that the citation is not merely made up. After all, by including the citation within the text, the quotation does indeed become a part of the text. Such a self-validating self-reference would, I think, have appealed to Zhuangzi. It’s his kind of humor.

Even more important, however, is the way that this view allows us to expand on Lin Xiyi’s commentary. There is a serious philosophical point hidden in Zhuangzi’s “playful theatrics.” It is, as suggested above, a parody of the Confucian practice of supporting their claims with references to certain authoritative texts. What I want to suggest is that treating the citation as self-referential helps to sharpen this satire, in a way that merely citing a made-up text would not. The reason for this concerns Zhuangzi’s comments on independence in this parable.

I will post a more detailed interpretation of the whole parable at some later point. For now, however, I simply want to focus on a passage toward the end of the parable, as Zhuangzi starts to home in on his central moral. There, he discusses the example of Liezi, a central figure in Daoist thought. For Zhuangzi, however, Liezi is admirable but imperfect. Though he “rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful,” and though “he did not involve himself in anxious calculations,” nonetheless “there was still something he needed to depend on” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 5). That dependence on something external is Liezi’s key flaw. It opens Liezi up to being hindered. Zhuangzi goes on to paint an image of one who escapes even this last vestige of dependence, such that “your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 6).

It is in this context that self-citation matters. For authentication of the story of the Kun/Peng, there is nothing outside the Zhuangzi on which one can rely—not even a fictional text. The text rests on itself, validates itself. Yes, Zhuangzi is mocking Confucian epistemology. But he is also exemplifying his own.

Works Cited

  • Graham, Angus C. (trans). 2001. Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Moeller, Hans-Georg and Paul J. D’Ambrosio. 2017. Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Ziporyn, Brook (trans). 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, with selections from traditional commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett.

The Death and Dissection of Philosophy in the Classroom

There is no escaping that the humanities, and philosophy in particular, are facing an academic crisis. Student enrolments have declined to their lowest level in decades, and many departments have been cut completely from universities or merged together with others, such as religious studies. Much of this can be explained by public misconceptions about the nature and practicality of a philosophy degree. But this is not the whole story. We philosophers bear some of the blame. What I mean is this: philosophy classrooms, in large part, are sterile and lifeless. It should not be this way. Philosophy has always been one of the most lively and engaging genre of literature and scholarship. Philosophy engages with those questions which immediately affect people’s lives. Philosophical questions occur to everybody everywhere, and often rouse and capture those who consider them. Many of these questions are idle, yes, but just as many are profound and important, addressing the most human of human concerns. So what is going wrong in our pedagogy? Why are our students so unaware of philosophy’s promise not only as a university major, but as a life-changing experience? In short, it’s academic philosophy that has signed the death warrant of academic philosophy.

Philosophy is a difficult subject to teach in universities. Classes have regimented curricula and learning outcomes. As with much of academia today, the model here is the science classroom. So jealous is philosophy of the notoriety and success of science that it attempts everywhere to imitate it. The science classroom is analytical. Instructors dissect bodies of knowledge to give students a glimpse into its parts. They are not immediately interested in its physiology or its behaviour—that all comes later. The instructor and students are observers. They do not participate. No one within the classroom contributes to or even interferes with that body of knowledge. And they cannot. It is dead. It is static. Students of science do not do science in the classroom. They merely experience it having been done. These students do not even experience the development or evolution of that body of knowledge. They are not made aware of its environmental demands, its developmental constraints, or its selection pressures. And this all makes for good science education: the facts must come first before the theory, and the object must be considered independently from its subject.

But in philosophy, this is inappropriate. It suits science to consider itself dead and sterile in isolation. But philosophy is not like this. There is much more to philosophy than static, atemporal theory. Philosophy is embodied. Philosophy is alive. Philosophy is social and personal and active. It is not a body of knowledge at all, but a practice, a way of living. Its parts cannot be endlessly replaced and recombined into something new. That’s not how philosophy functions. Philosophers are not primarily in the business of explaining.

And yet, in the classroom, philosophers treat philosophy little different than they do science. The great theories of the canon are dissected before the student body, who sit at a distance from the spectacle they are to witness. The instructor carefully teases apart each muscle and tendon revealing bones and ligaments. As a system, a view, a theory is analysed, we take it to be fully understood. And then we proceed back to our offices and engage living systems, seeing no inconsistency with what we just taught. And yet, we miss something important. This is evident most clearly in two of philosophy’s most challenging and common objections: 1) philosophy is useless; and 2) philosophy is mere opinion. I will begin with the first.

Philosophers tire of hearing about their uselessness. It is not difficult, they say, to find testimony to philosophy’s awesome power. But just try to measure this. Just try to count all those who have benefited from philosophy’s presence. There is no ruler for this. There is no scale which shows the absolute weight of being leave one’s body as she is first overcome by philosophy. And as we try, we are faced with this simple fact: most students are not so overcome. Most students never meet philosophy in the flesh. They only meet its bones and sinews as it is sprawled out before them.

This is no worry, say philosophers, for we can measure philosophy’s benefits. Just look! Philosophy students perform better on the GRE, the GMAT, the LSAT, the MBAT, the ACAT, and the ISAT. This is truly impressive and wonderful! But as you are regaled with these successes, as your eyes glaze over in the monotony, just remember that the last three don’t exist and the first three don’t mean much of anything. Of course philosophy prepares students for logic tests. We’re the only people who pretend to teach logic. The other disciplines are too busy teaching students useful facts and skills that erect towers and treat typhus. Philosophy races out of the gate teaching thinking skills; the other disciplines require a great deal more background knowledge before they can even start. And without this handicap, it is not clear that philosophy would ever perform any better. But that it currently performs better highlights something else: philosophy doesn’t require background knowledge, and indeed adds next to nothing to students’ epistemic inventory.  So philosophy quickly develops analytical skills and problem solving but teaches nothing while other disciplines teach quite a lot and more slowly develops analytical skills and problem solving. The preference is obvious and reflected in student choice.

“Now hold on!” someone might say, “Philosophy students learn about Locke’s theory of substance. Doesn’t that matter at all?!” And, well, no. It doesn’t. Locke’s theory is one of many. As it is dissected, its relations to Locke’s other theories and the theories of others are drawn out. The instructor, as observer, does not render judgement. She teases out its muscles for display. Should the student endorse this view? Or shall she endorse this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or this other, or…? No one can say with certainty. It is up to the student to decide. And with such a diversity of options and no clear, agreed upon criteria of success, how else is the student to decide between dead and sterile theory parts than by opinion? This is not a problem that faces the sciences. When the scientific body of knowledge is dissected, students are presented with a largely coherent set of facts that can be endlessly reused and reassembled into new and better theories.

It is no secret why students flee philosophy (and the humanities more broadly) en masse. It is no secret why they almost completely enrol in STEM programs. But it is also no longer mysterious what philosophy is doing wrong in its pedagogy: philosophers are playing the scientist’s game in the academy, and they are losing badly. Philosophy is not the kind of thing that can be dispassionately dissected for students. Instructors in philosophy classrooms can’t simply stand aside as an observer: she is a participant. Philosophy must be lived. Philosophy must be embodied. Students must be given philosophy in the flesh. Only then can they be captured and entranced by it. Only then can they be improved by it. Philosophy does not speak herself: we must speak for her.

I am not certain how to do this. I have no idea how to bring philosophy to life but by doing it. But some things are clear still: instructors and students are not observers but participants. In the philosophy classroom, philosophy must be done. And in this, of course the history and the diversity of views is relevant. These are options to be presented, to be thought through, and evaluated. And to do this, students must be faced with the kinds of problems philosophers work to solve and their motivations. Only then shall philosophy demonstrate its use. Only then shall we recognise that philosophy is about more than just one’s opinion.

Anti-Anti-Skepticism

We live in an era of anti-skepticism. Skeptics are the enemy. They must be destroyed and overcome. This is what drove Descartes and Leibniz, Locke and Hobbes, and even Hume. They sought to naturalise the world, to conquer it, knowing its features with certainty. But this new tradition of anti-skepticism is very different. Philosophers today do not claim to certainly know. They in no way claim to refute the skeptic. The older eras held knowledge to be something lofty, fragile, godly. Knowledge was something not for man but for gods, for elites, for those deserving of special authority. In this new era, the anti-skeptics have lowered knowledge. It is not lofty: it is mundane. It is not godly: it is human. They have not refuted the skeptic: they have made her irrelevant. And the consequence is dire.

I begin by motivating contemporary anti-skepticism from its roots in Moore and Wittgenstein. Then I show how this tradition fails to overcome skepticism.

Moore begins with knowledge. Of course he knows that idealism is false. Of course he knows that he has hands and was once smaller than he currently is. What he doesn’t know is how to correctly analyse any sentence saying so. This looks dumb. Surely Moore cannot possibly know that he has hands: what if he is dreaming? What if he is hallucinating? What about Descartes’ evil demon or any of Hume’s or Kant’s skeptical challenges? But Moore is not troubled by these suggestions: these are only competing analyses of what it means to know. And these others are inferior. Why? As Moore suggests in “A Defense of Common Sense,” the skeptical analysis commits skeptics to far more than Moore’s analysis. Moore is committed to the truth of only a small set of basic claims—that there is a world, that he is an element of that world, that he was once younger and smaller than he currently is, and so on. The skeptic, on the other hand, is committed to these basic claims plus their skeptical claims. As Moore notes, the skeptic does not stop herself from going about in the world as a normal human being. She still wakes in the morning, commutes to work, constructs arguments for skepticism, and presents them to an audience of other philosophers. She demonstrates that she knows these things through her actions. Only she does not claim to know them: she both knows them and commits herself to not knowing them. This is extravagant. This is impossible. The consistent skeptic sits demure like Johannes Climacus, never stirring, never speaking, never thinking.

The idea is this: language is a practical thing. It has consequences. It does not matter whether we are dreaming, for we do not act like we are dreaming. If a debate is predicated on something so ethereal, something so benign, then it is not predicated on a correct understanding of language. Language is substantive and effective. We all know this: we all use language for some purpose. Our claims bear in some way on our lives. And what skeptics mean is just this: that when we say such and such, we could be wrong. This is trivially true, but the skeptic overstates her case. And for Moore, there is no sense in which we could ever be meaningfully wrong about whether there is a world or whether we were once smaller than we are now. There is a subset of propositions (Moorean propositions) that we cannot consistently and meaningfully deny.

Moore did not succeed in this argument. But, says Wittgenstein, he is not wrong. He has rather failed to carry his insight to its logical conclusion. Moore remains vulnerable to skeptical attack by those who do not understand what it means to be certain, to know, and to doubt. Wittgenstein does. He will finish what Moore began.

For Wittgenstein, knowledge is located within a discourse: one knows such and such only if competent others recognise her as knowing such and such. This means that the claim must be recognised as true, but also that the reasons she gives for her claim are recognised as appropriate. This is not to reduce knowledge or even truth to something communal or legislative. A community cannot agree to collectively upend their knowledge system by changing what they believe and accept as valid reasoning. We are bound to a language in which we have no say. Our language gives us the concepts and thoughts to which our perception of the world conforms. In Kantian terms, language is the source of the categories of experience. Some of these are grounded in our form of life. In this Wittgenstein agrees with Moore. Others are grounded in particular grammars. But in neither case is the result a kind of relativism. It is rather a kind of contextualism: language merely shapes the world; it does not construct it.

The skeptic here has no room to move. Doubt can only occur concurrently with certainty. That is, where one aspect of a discourse is brought into question, it is questioned on account of other aspects of that discourse. When Copernicus doubted that the Sun revolved around the Earth, he did so on grounds acceptable to him, namely the simplicity of the heliocentric model and God’s preference for simplicity. Without these certainties, it is incoherent to doubt geocentrism. Doubt itself must be justified.  The skeptic does not do this. She holds an apple in her hand and asks “Is this apple an apple, or is it something else?” The question is senseless. Of course the apple is an apple. If it were not, it would not be an apple. The skeptic’s only reply undermines her claim: “You miss my point, Wittgenstein. I mean to say that we all know what an apple is, but cannot with certainty suppose that this object I hold in my hand is an instance of the general concept. And so also with any instance of any general concept.” This may be a legitimate and sensible question. Surely someone once pointed to a whale and asked whether that fish is a fish only to be answered in the negative. Surely it is never obvious when any object is an instance of a concept. But skepticism this isn’t. The relevant doubt is localised and predicated on a kind of certainty: that one knows what an apple is. And in general, if one is comfortable identifying the object of doubt with a name that is under dispute, the doubt is easily assuaged. Of course the apple is an apple: we call it an apple.

Whether a doubt is sensible and appropriate always depends on the context it is present. Some contexts place a greater demand on one’s knowledge of a claim than others. And some others will open up the possibility of doubt from some claims and not others. This is the skeptic’s greatest error. They always wish to doubt that which is never open to doubt. They wish to doubt those claims that are predicated on our form of life. They wish to doubt Moorean propositions. It’s curious that the skeptic claims to doubt the external world, yet stands upon the stage to address an audience. It really makes one think.

But in truth, the skeptic is well within her rights to do this. The most pressing questions in philosophy are not about apples or astronomy. They are about who we are and how we ought to live. There is nothing more fundamental to our form of life than not knowing who we are or how to live. And answering those questions requires inquiring into our history and our constitution. Not everyone who so inquires is a skeptic. The skeptic is only one who has so inquired and found herself at a loss. She is one who feels uneasy about who she is and how she ought to live. This is not absurd. This is not incoherent. It strikes me that this is the most natural, the most human feeling possible. For who among us truly knows how to live?

Contemporary anti-skeptics don’t satisfy these questions. They rule them out from the outset, and they themselves know this. Both Moore and Wittgenstein famously stood in an odd relationship to philosophy’s most pressing questions. For Moore, “the good is good, and that is the end of the matter.” (PE, §6) Wittgenstein agrees. Value is indefinable. It is something nonsensical: though it is everywhere present to us, it cannot reside in the world of facts. Both Moore and Wittgenstein surrender to a kind of bland mysticism. And what good is mysticism in answering our deepest questions? What good is anti-skepticism if it cannot actually overcome our skepticism? Moore and Wittgenstein offer no authority. They offer no guidance. Anti-skepticism is useless.

An Introduction to Abhidharma Metaphysics

The Abhidharma school of Indian Buddhism represents one of the earliest attempts to form a complete, coherent philosophical system based on the teachings of the Buddha. Abhidharma metaphysics rests on mereological reductionism: the claim that wholes are reducible to their parts. On the Abhidharma view, a composite object like a table is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is a convenient designator based on our shared interests and social conventions. Crucially, for Abhidharma Buddhists, this also extended to the self. The self, rather than being an enduring substance, is reducible to a bundle of momentary mental states (Carpenter, 2).

Based on this principle of reductionism, Abhidharma went on to develop the Doctrine of Two Truths. A statement is “conventionally true” is if it is based on our commonsense view of the world, and leads to successful practice in daily life. Thus, it is conventionally true that macro objects such as tables and chairs exist. A statement is “ultimately true” if it corresponds to the facts as they are, independent of any human conventions. According to the Abhidharma view, the only statements that can be considered ultimately true are statements about ontological simples: entities that cannot be further broken down into parts. The tendency to think that statements involving composite objects like tables are ultimately true arises when we project our interests and conventions on to the world.

The primary opponents of the Abhidharma Buddhists were philosophers of the Nyāya orthodox tradition, about which I have written before. Nyāya philosophers were unflinching commonsense realists. They held that wholes existed over and above their parts. The word “table” is not merely a convenient designator or a projection of our interests on to the world, it is a real object that cannot be reduced to its parts. Nyāya held that there are simple substances and composite substances. Simple substances are self-existent and eternal. Composite substances depend on simple substances for their existence, but cannot be reduced to them. They possess qualities that are numerically distinct from the qualities of their component parts.

There are some obvious difficulties with the view that wholes exist in addition to their parts, and Abhidharma philosophers were quick to point this out. If the table exists in addition to its parts, it would follow that whenever we look at a table, we are looking at two different entities – the component parts and the (whole) table. How can two different objects share the same location in space? Nyāya philosophers responded by stating that wholes are connected to parts by the relation of inherence. In Nyāya metaphysics, inherence is an ontological primitive, a category that cannot be further analyzed in terms of something else. To put it very crudely, inherence functioned as a kind of metaphysical glue in the Nyāya system. The inherence relation is what connects qualities to substances. The quality redness inheres in a red rose. Similarly, the inherence relation also connects wholes with their parts. In this case, the whole – the table – inheres in its component parts.

At this point in the debate, the standard Abhidharma move was to ask how exactly wholes are related to their parts. Do wholes inhere wholly or partially in their parts? If wholes are real and not reducible to their parts, but nonetheless inhere only partially in their parts, it would mean that there is a further ontological division at play. We now have three different kinds of entities. The parts of the table, the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table, and the whole. Now, what is the relation between the whole and the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table? Does the whole inhere wholly or partially in the second set of parts? If it is the former, then the second set of parts becomes redundant, for the whole could simply inhere wholly in the first set of parts (that is, the parts of the table). If the whole inheres partially in the second set of parts, then we will have to introduce yet another whole-part distinction, and there is an obvious infinite regress looming.

The Nyāya school held that wholes inhere wholly in their component parts. They drew an analogy with universals to make the illustration clear. Just as the universal cowness inheres in every individual cow, the table inheres wholly in every one of its individual parts.

Abhidharma philosophers rasied a second set of difficulties for Nyāya. Consider a piece of cloth woven from different threads. According to the Nyāya view, the cloth is a substance that is not merely reducible to the threads. But now let us suppose I cannot see the whole cloth. Let us suppose most of the cloth is obscured from my view, and I only see a single thread. In this case, we would not say that I have seen the cloth. I am not even aware that there is a cloth – I think there is just a single thread. But if the Nyāya view is correct, then the cloth (the whole) inheres in every single thread, so when I see the thread, I should see the cloth as well. But since I don’t, it follows that the Nyāya view is incorrect.

Now consider a piece cloth woven from both red and black threads. Since the cloth is a separate substance, and since composite substances possess qualities numerically distinct from their component parts, the cloth must have its own color. But is the color of the cloth red or black? Nyāya responded that the color of the cloth is neither red nor black, but a distinct “variegated” color (Siderits, 111). But this only multiplies difficulties. If the cloth is wholly present in its parts, and it possesses its own variegated color, why do I not see the variegated color when I look at its component parts? When I look at the red threads, all I see is red, and when I look at the black threads, all I see is black. I do not see the variegated color in the component parts and yet, if the whole inheres wholly in its parts, I should.

Finally, if the whole is a distinct substance over and above its parts, the weight of the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. But we do not observe this when we weigh composite substances. This is highly mysterious on the Nyāya view. But these problems are all avoided if we simply accept that wholes are reducible to their parts.

Abhidharma is a broad tradition that encompasses numerous sub-schools. Two of the most prominent ones are Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika. While both sub-schools agree that everything is reducible to ontological simples, they disagree on the number and nature of these simples. The Vaibhāṣika school is fairly liberal in its postulation of simples, while Sautrāntika is conservative. Moreover, Vaibhāṣika treats simples as bearers of an intrinsic nature. According to Vaibhāṣika atomists, an earth atom, for instance, is a simple substance that possesses the intrinsic nature of solidity. The Sautrāntika school rejected the concept of “substance” entirely. There are numerous reasons for this (most of them epistemological, that I will cover in a subsequent essay), but roughly, it came down to this: We have no evidence of substances/bearers, only qualities. Further, there is no need to posit substances, because everything that needs to be explained can be explained without them. For Sautrāntika philosophers, an earth atom is not a substance that is the bearer of an intrinsic nature “solidity” – rather, it is simply a particular instance of solidity. Thus, in Sautrāntika metaphysics, there are no substances or inherence relations, there are simply quality-particulars. This position is similar to what contemporary metaphysicians call trope theory.

The term “reductionism” is often cause for confusion when used in relation to Abhidharma Buddhism. It must be emphasized that the kind of reductionism relevant here is mereological reductionism. Abhidharma Buddhists were not reductionists in the sense of believing that consciousness could be reduced to material states of the brain. All Abhidharma schools held that among the different kinds of ontological simples, some were irreducibly mental, as opposed to physical.

Apart from mereological reductionism, the other key aspects of Abhidharma metaphysics are nominalism and atheism. I have covered the Buddhist approach to nominalism in a previous essay, so I will not go over it here. When it comes to atheism, it is important to recognize that Abhidharma Buddhists (like all Buddhists) were only atheistic in a narrow sense. They rejected the existence of an eternal, omnipotent creator of the universe. This did not mean that they were naturalists or that they rejected deities altogether. They believed in many gods, but these gods were not very different from human beings apart from being extraordinarily powerful. Venerating the gods was a means of obtaining temporary benefits in this life or a good rebirth, but the gods could offer no help with the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice: liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The gods themselves, being unenlightened beings, were stuck in the cycle of rebirth. To attain liberation one must seek refuge in the Buddha, the teacher of gods and men.

Works Cited:

Carpenter, Amber. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. Routledge, 2014. Print.

Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Ashgate, 2007. Print.

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