Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Is Buddhist Philosophy Neglected and Discriminated against in the West?

Dead White Males

Here's an interesting and challenging article by philosophy professor Justin E. H. Smith, published in the New York Times.

The article raises three main questions:

(1)  Is philosophy universal, or it is socially and culturally determined?

(2)  Is non-Western philosophy justly neglected as being irrelevant to the modern world?

(3)  Should non-Western cultural traditions nevertheless be admitted into the philosophy curriculum as 'affirmative action', irrespective of their worth or relevance?

Dead Brown Males

Here's the article in full

I'll examine the points raised in more detail, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy.


(1)  Is philosophy universal, or it is socially and culturally determined?

1.1 "Non-Western philosophy is not approached on its own terms, and thus philosophy remains, implicitly and by default, Western."

In the case of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to approach it 'on its own terms' is to deny its universal applicability.   The foundational tenets of most (all?) extant schools of Buddhism are the Four Seals of Dharma, from which most of the rest of the philosophy is derived. It is a basic claim of Buddhism that these Four Seals are universal, being applicable to any sentient being, anytime, anywhere.

1.2 "What Europe does claim is a certain tradition reaching back to Greek antiquity. But even that claim is in question. The “Greek miracle” is in the end only a historiographical artifact, a result of our habit of beginning our histories when and where we do, for there was always influence from neighboring civilizations."

True, if you go back a little earlier than Plato you come to Heraclitus, who in common with Buddha, claimed that change and impermanence  are more basic aspects of reality than stasis and existence.  

However, this strand of 'process' philosophy dissappeared from the West soon after, and Platonic essentialism dominated Western thought until the work of Mendeleev and Darwin in the 19th century. 

In 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' Daniel Dennett says ' Even today Darwin's overthrow of essentialism has not been completely assimilated .... the Darwinian mutation, which at first seemed to be just a new way of thinking about kinds in biology, can spread to other phenomena and other disciplines, as we shall see. There are persistent problems both inside and outside biology that readily dissolve once we adopt the Darwinian perspective on what makes a thing the sort of thing it is, but the tradition-bound resistance to this idea persists.'

1.3 "The difference is that philosophy is simply not like science; it is much more intricately wrapped up in cultural legacies (some have argued that science is just another cultural practice too, but I’m not prepared to say that either). Much of the difficulty of taking a rigorous and serious approach to the teaching and study of non-Western philosophy in Western philosophy departments is that many philosophers remain attached to the article of faith that philosophy is something independent of culture."

The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that philosophy is culturally and socially determined and does not address any truths outside the realms of anthropology and sociology.  This anti-intellectual trend in university liberal arts departments (especially English departments)  caused them to become dominated by a "trendy" branch of post-modernist deconstructionism.  However, attempts to apply this fashionable nonsense to science came to grief with the Sokal HoaxThe postmodernism generator serves the same function for philosophy.

(2)  Is non-Western philosophy justly neglected as being irrelevant to the modern world?

2.1 "Second, non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion.  In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally “other.”

Buddhist philosophy, in particular the Madhyamaka, is alive and well and can shed some interesting light on present day problems. However it needs to be regarded as a living methodology rather than something from the distant past, of antiquarian interest only.

Topics that can be addressed by the Madhyamaka include:

2.2 "But whatever the complexities of the world in which Plato wrote, it is at least true that the subsequent tradition that would come to be called “Western” or “European ... really does constitute, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, a “series of footnotes to Plato.” Seen from this perspective, the only reason to take European philosophy as the default tradition for our curricula is that it just happens to be, for contingent historical reasons, our tradition."

Whitehead was a process philosopher, who was commenting on the stultifying effect of Plato on 2000 years of Western philosophy. Process Philosophy holds that the underlying basis of reality is change, process and impermanence. Becoming is more basic than being, and existence is really just impermanence in slow-motion.

The converse view - Substantialism, holds that true reality is 'timeless' and based on permanent ideal forms. Change is accidental, whereas the substance is essential.

Traditional Western philosophy has always denied any full reality to change, which is conceived as only accidental and not essential. Buddhism is, of course, the ultimate Process Philosophy. According to Buddhism, all functioning phenomena are impermanent and have no essential natures or inherent existence.

However, Substantialism has dominated Western philosophy from the time of Plato until the early twentieth century, and is still deeply embedded within our culture.

There were indeed Process Philosophers among the early Greeks. For example Heraclitus pointed out that no-one can step into the same river twice. It's not the same river nor is it the same person.  Nevertheless, the early process philosophers were ignored or forgotten, and the theory of ideal forms propounded by Plato was adopted by the later Greeks and then enthusiastically embraced by the Christian Church as a justification for Creationism, and the derived doctrines of Original Sin, the Fall of Man etc.

(3)  Should non-Western cultural traditions nevertheless be admitted into the philosophy curriculum as 'affirmative action', irrespective of their worth or relevance.

3.1 "The goal of reflecting the diversity of our own society by expanding the curriculum to include non-European traditions has so far been a tremendous failure."

Surely the goal of academic philosophy departments should be to teach philosophy, not to include second rate stuff uncritically just for the sake of it.  Affirmative action is all very well for human beings, but not for ideas.  Non-western philosophy will have to justify itself just like anything else, and will be stigmatized as second rate if it gets a free ride in the interests of 'diversity' or a patronizing reaction to the dominance of Dead White Males.

3.2  "In this reality, Western academic philosophy will likely come to appear utterly parochial in the coming years if it does not find a way to approach non-Western traditions that is much more rigorous and respectful than the tokenism that reigns at present."

Quite true, but it's not going to happen unless the non-Western philosophers sell their ideas to philosophy departments as being interesting in their own right, and not something imposed out of misplaced political correctness or post-colonial self-loathing.

- Sean Robsville


Indian Philosophy and the university of Hawaii (PDF)

Infinity Foundation



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