A dialogue on Buddha


AT a recent Salisbury Democracy Café Trevor Wells talked passionately about a book by T R V Murti looking at the central philosophy of Buddhism. I was so fascinated that I bought a copy.  I wrote the following critique and Trevor has kindly responded.  I have included that response below.  Our dialogue continues…

MANY people in the West are interested in the non-religious Buddhism exemplified by Stephen Batchelor in his book Buddhism Without Belief.  More recently writers have been exploring the ways that Buddhist thinking on how the brain forms a model of the world – rather than perceiving it unmediated – chimes with the discoveries of neuroscience.

So, it was with some trepidation that I bought a copy of T R V Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamika System after it was mentioned during a recent Democracy Café. This a complex book, and trying to boil it down to its essence is not easy. But, basically, Madhyamika claims that critical analysis reveals the inherent flaws and contradictions in every theory that ‘cannot be remedied by attention and adjustment’.  According to Murti, however, the rejection of every view or theory by using the logical tool reductio ad absurdum does not mean the ‘acceptance of any other view’. Indeed, the rejection of all ‘thought categories and views is the rejection of Reason to apprehend reality.  The Real is transcendent to thought’.

The essence of the Madhyamika attitude, according to Murti, is to ‘observe the nature of things without standpoints’.  Hypotheses are useful in the field of science where they can be verified (or falsified) by sense-experience but, argues Murti, the ‘procedure…carries a necessary limit with it’ and the problem with philosophical systems is that they ‘adopt this procedure, but discard the limitations’.  Philosophy is distinguished from scientific procedures because it ‘claims to give absolute certain knowledge’.

The Madhyamika method is to ‘deconstruct the mind’ which leads to the ‘purification of the intellect’ and, ultimately, Intellectual Intuition devoid of the two extremes of the Excluded Middle ‘Is’ and ‘Is not’. Criticism in Madhyamika is not a means to an end, ‘criticism itself is philosophy’. Murti lays great store by the confusion and mystery of causation, space and time, particularly the first.  He points to western philosophers, particularly David Hume, whose scepticism led to Kant being aroused from his metaphysical slumber to come up Transcendental Idealism.  Indeed, Kant receives special treatment as being quite close to Madhyamika, even though he was not ‘genuinely convinced of the possibility of Intellectual Intuition, pure knowledge without the mediation of categories’.

But what is Intellectual Intuition?  Well, according to Murti, it is ‘unfathomable, immeasurable, too deep for words, too universal for distinctions to apply’.  And: “Intuition is the Absolute.”  Then we discover that the Absolute is equated with the Perfect Being or God, and Buddha is deified as such – although there is no restriction on the number and form of Perfect Beings, and every ‘being is Buddha in the making’.

What to make of all this?  Well, one could point out a number of apparent inconsistencies.  For example, much is made of demolishing all existing rational theories, but to do so Madhyamika uses a highly rational tool – reductio ad absurdum.  Again, the avowed aim is to create the concept less mind, and yet the notion of Intellectual Intuition sounds very much like, well, a concept.  And why should Intellectual Intuition fill the void?  Why not Schopenhauer’s undifferentiated and amoral force, which he calls the Will?  Achieving a state of Intellectual Intuition seems to be impossible for most of us but Murti argues that the Perfect Being is able to have one foot in the nouminal and one in the phenomenal to enlighten the rest of us – but how can he do that if, as we have seen, Intellectual Intuition is, literally, ineffable?

One might also challenge some of Murti’s claims about Western philosophy, in particular that it is all in search of the universal. That certainly isn’t true of Hume or Nietzsche, indeed the latter’s philosophy is based on criticism from which emerges the ubermensch, like the Perfect Being, beyond Good and Evil.  And his categorisation of agnosticism is, arguably, another Straw Man when he describes it as an ‘attitude of doubt and despair’.  In fact, the man who coined the word, T H Huxley, expressed it positively as ‘follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as ‘do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’.

This brings us to the heart of the matter.  There is no doubt that Murti would be able to counter all of the criticisms made in this article but perhaps this isn’t the point.  According to Batchelor Buddhism is first and foremost a method – ‘not something to believe in but something to do’.  And we might adopt another logical tool called Biting he Bullet in which one accepts the rather unpalatable consequences of principles which one is unwilling to jettison.  This is exactly what Hume does.  He argued that even if one could not establish a firm foundation of empiricism by using empirical methods without vicious circularity, we nevertheless have a strong intuition (in the everyday sense of the word) that we do live in a world bounded by causation, space and time, even though these categories seem to disappear at the sub-atomic level.  So, given this strong intuition, rather than going down the a priori route, Hume asks how we can be rescued from scepticism.  He should be seen, therefore, not as a sceptical philosopher but as a post-sceptical philosopher.

For myself, I am conflicted by something similar to the duck-rabbit illusion.  One minute I see materialism, the next transcendentalism. For most of the time, however, I try to live my life according to Huxley’s agnosticism and Bite the Bullet with regard to the limitations of reason, seeking an uncomfortable position between the two.

Dickie Bellringer

The essence of the teachings of the Buddha as they present themselves to me are intended to be understood in a non-religious sense. It is important to recognise that the Buddha considered it the height of foolishness and futility to attempt to make either a positive or negative statement with regard to reality.  He therefore disregarded all views as merely views (drsti).

The Buddha makes clear:

To hold that the world is eternal or to hold that it is not, or to agree with any other of the propositions you adduce is the jungle of theorising, the wilderness of theorising, the tangle of theorising, the bondage and shackles of theorising, attended by ill, distress, perturbation and fever; it conduces not to detachment, passionlessness, tranquillity, peace, to knowledge and wisdom of Nirvana.  This is the danger I perceive in these views which makes me discard them all.

The ultimate anti dogmatism.  Views are to be understood as like a raft used to cross the ocean of existence but to be cast away as the useless things they are once having reached the other side.  They have a purpose but are not an end in themselves.  The Buddhist rejects all views as perfunctory. 

This contention also necessarily implies that the criticism of views is not itself a view.  The criticism of all views is the heart of the Madhyamika approach and the basis of its philosophy.  It is recognised and understood that philosophical debate is inescapably circular by its very nature but nevertheless remains purposeful.  As TS Elliot commented:

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began but to know the place for the first time.

Reason and its dialectical mode is functional for everyday subject/object analysis but reality is a priori not subject to anything because it is not objective, it simply is.  Subject and object are one. Whatever reality is it is not subject to analysis by any means reliant on reason to reveal it.  The Buddhist masters were fully aware that language soon fails to provide a meaningful means of exploration. The purpose is to lead the pupil to discover and manifest direct intuitive understanding.  Intuition of the absolute is the absolute.

The master would enter the room of initiates take his position at the head of the class. Hours would pass without a word spoken. The master would finally exit the room turning to the class and uttering ’’Now do you understand’’.

The Excluded Middle is not the result of synthesis as an expression of the resolution of the dialectical approach.  It is not a resolution it is a transcendence of the level of the dilemma and contradiction inherent within reasons function.  The recognition of the inherent conflict in reason itself is the first step to its transcendence.

I like your description of one minute seeing materialism and the next transcendentalism.  Perhaps the momentary glimpse of the transcendent is what is required to give meaning to the material.

Trevor Wells









The plight of the partisan


 Prof Lea Ypi



Prof Jonathan White







POLITICAL partisans have come in for some stick in recent years. Not only do we have to bear insults like being accused of being part of a dying breed or part of a crumbling political system, we often, despite ourselves, end up defending every cock-up committed by our party of choice out of a sense of loyalty to that party and our fellow members. We are told that parties are a menace, people are fed-up with party politics and should be replaced by a non-party system centred on the individual.

But here, at last, is a book that lends succour to the beleaguered party animal. And it does so in a thoroughly academic way and without trying to eliminate reason from the political landscape – as so many tiresome books have of late. As Jonathan White and Lea Ypi write in their 2016 book The Meaning of Partisanship: “One has learnt to be attentive to the travail of parties, and unlearnt how to see the inspiration behind the partisan stance.” The authors quote civil rights activist Angela Davis as saying: “I needed an anchor, a base, a mooring. I needed comrades with whom I could share a common ideology. I was tired of ephemeral ad-hoc groups that fell apart when faced with the slightest difficulty.”

The authors argue that the ‘collaborative effort to turn individual beliefs and interests into generalizable principles and aims that are defined, proclaimed, and pursued in association with others is valuable from a democratic perspective, we have suggested, as it contributes to the processes of political justification without which the exercise of political power is arbitrary’. Of course, we know that there can be problems and none of what the authors argue is a defence of a particular political configuration. In addition, much of the argument against political parties is that they encourage tribalism. All this is true, but the authors add that if the ‘price of their association is a measure of intransigence, the sacrifice of some independence of thought and action, it is a price worth paying in view of the merits of political commitment’.

Those of us who try to ensure that their party remains true to its overall aims also gains some traction in this book. The authors argue, for example, that party structure should not mask its ‘principled position irreducible to sectoral interest alone’ even though ‘there is a real possibility that the organizing process distorts the terms of the association, putting its basis in question’. The authors are at pains to point out that, while it might be necessary from time-to-time to obscure the normative basis of the party, this should be seen as a pathology and should not become the main driver of the party.

Another important aspect of the party is that its structure should give voice to its partisans ‘proportionate to their position in the ethical life of the association’. And given the time and commitment required to effect lasting change, the ‘party structure should preserve the constancy of the partisan project’. The authors also point to the profound scepticism of ‘those who see fundamental transformations in the social and economic structure of contemporary societies as ruling out the possibility of marshalling  large numbers of people to a cause, or of achieving meaningful political change’. But they add that these are ‘challenges of course to democracy and democratic theory tout court‘. And I would add that part of the aim of the partisanship to which I ascribe is to restore the sense of the individual flourishing as part of the collective, as opposed to a lone wolf whose relationship with others is purely transactional.

The Meaning of Partisanship is an important corrective to the common view that party politics is almost entirely destructive. That does not mean that the current duopoly is good in itself or that there might be welcome changes in the fortunes of smaller parties with, say, the introduction of some form proportional representation. But it makes a powerful case for the benefits of action in association with others. The Meaning of Partisanship is published by Oxford University Press.

Dickie Bellringer


Democracy Café

Brief report of the Café which took place on 13 April 2019

Salisbury Democracy Café on Saturday 13 April was packed with new participants as well as many who come every month.

The first question posed was: Are human rights absolute or relative? That generated a fascinating deliberation that touched on the wider question of the nature of ethics in general.

Arguments ranged from those who believed that human rights had to be absolute and unchanging to participants who claimed that because ethical mores shifted over the centuries human rights had to be relative as well.

The idea that moral laws are out there waiting for us to be discovered has a long and distinguished philosophical history, but questions were raised about how they got there in the first place. Divine action was one possible answer but if that failed then one has to ask why a non-divine, materialistic world would begin with immaterial ethical codes waiting for us to discover them. Nevertheless, proponents of absolute human rights were concerned that if they were not absolute, how could they be protected from arbitrary alteration by the rich and powerful?

However, the dialogue took an interesting turn when it was suggested that the use of the words ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ did not accurately reflect the nature of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not necessarily make claim to the absolute but nor are they quite openly relative. Universal simply means that they apply to everyone and the declaration crystalizes them in a way that prevents easy manipulation while allowing justified changes. A point was made about a phenomenon known as Conquest by Declaration in the same way that Google declared, without challenge, that it had the right to plunder our experiences for its own enrichment. It was also pointed out that it was possible to define certain moral positions, like altruism, in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, making them objective but neither absolute nor universal.

It was an intriguing dialogue, which got us all thinking about things and asking ourselves more questions in a way the democracy café has unique ability to do.

The second question was: Should Julian Assange by extradited to the USA following his forcible removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy? This was a much more confined deliberation, although it did raise questions about the fairness of the justice systems in the UK and the USA. Nobody challenged the justification of extradition in general but concerns were raised about whether or not Assange would get a fair trial in the USA.

Once again the participants in the democracy café proved their ability and willingness to tackle difficult questions in what has become an ‘oasis of reasonableness in a desert of rising intolerance and polarization’.

Dickie Bellringer

We want to have pop-up cafés in other part of the city in order to give as many people as possible the chance to experience deliberative democracy – so if you know of an organisation that would be open to this please let us know.

The aim of the new Salisbury Democracy Alliance – which is advised by Prof Graham Smith and backed by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Wessex Community Action, deliberative democracy experts Talk Shop and Salisbury Democracy Café – is to create Salisbury’s first Citizens’ Assembly. ocked0


WHAT is altruism and what conditions would need to be in place for it to be possible? These are the central questions that the American philosopher Thomas Nagel attempts to answer in The Possibility of Altruism.

I have to concede that this is a book that and I have read and re-read many times since I bought it in the 1970s.  It’s 145 pages of densely packed arguments are difficult and there are some passages that are so opaque that I still don’t fully understand them.  Nevertheless, it has had a major impact on the way that I view the world, so, having tussled with again recently, I thought I would share it with you.

It should be said that Nagel does not rely on the argument of some evolutionists – Richard Dawkins included – that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up.  Rather, he uses pure reasoning.

So, what is altruism?  Well, I take it to mean that an act is altruistic if, and only if, it is a disinterested act intended to benefit another or others.  Note that this a weak form of altruism in that it doesn’t require one to help others at the expense of oneself, only that one does not expect to benefit from the act. But even if this is a weak form, it is still significant because it is distinct from altruism’s arch nemesis – egoism.  Nagel argues that we have a ‘direct reason to promote the interests of others – a reason which does not depend on intermediate factors such as one’s own interests or one’s antecedent sentiments of sympathy and benevolence’.

Nagel relies heavily on his two viewpoints, the personal and impersonal – the ability to see oneself as merely one among many. Put simply, he argues that if from a personal – or subjective – viewpoint one has a reason to do something, like relieve a pain in one’s neck or reduce one’s poverty, then from the impersonal – or objective – viewpoint one has a prima facie reason to relieve a pain in someone else’s neck or reduce their poverty.  “At least sometimes objectification will demand that everyone pursues an uncomplicated end which we acknowledge a subjective reason to pursue… If this is the case, then we have a prima facie reason to secure those ends for others as well as for ourselves.”

It’s important to note that Nagel is not saying that everyone will act altruistically if they have a reason to do so, or that that there are not various situations that ‘may complicate the result when there is a conflict between reasons to help others and reasons to help oneself’.  But he adds ‘even if we allow for these possibilities, the acknowledgement of prima facie reasons to help others is a significant result’. Indeed it is!  For it destroys the egoistic position that everything one does is in one’s own interests.  And this is just as well because earlier in this remarkable little book  Nagel demonstrates how ‘peculiar egoism would be in practice; it would have to show itself not only in the lack of a direct concern for others but also an inability to regard one’s own concerns as being of interest to anyone else, except instrumentally or contingently upon the operation of some sentiment’. He provides a lively example the absurdity of the egoist’s position: “The pain which gives him a reason to remove his gouty toes from another person’s heel does not in itself give the other any reason to remove the heel, since it is not his pain.”

If Nagel’s arguments carry any weight – as I believe they do – then they are an important antidote to the self-interested individualism that runs through the neoliberal project.  As such the neglected The Possibility of Altruism and its equally neglected companion book The View from Nowhere, also by Nagel (published by Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press respectively) deserve to be revived.

Dickie Bellringer

Surveillance Capitalism – a waking nightmare

In her new book Shoshona Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as a ‘new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a must-read for anyone interested in the roll that the giant internet companies play in our society – and surely that must mean all of us. It reveals much more than the slick advertising of ‘smart’ machines over ‘dumb’ humans and the way that these companies prey on our psychological vulnerabilities.

This, according to Zuboff, is a ‘parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behaviour modification’. And she argues that it is as ‘significant threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world’.

Under this new economic hegemony instead of, as Marx put it, capital being the vampire that feeds on labour, surveillance capitalism ‘feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience’. It is no longer nature that is the raw material of capitalism – we humans are!

It all began almost by mistake when Google realised that the ‘behavioural surplus’ that was clogging up its servers as ‘data exhaust’ could be bundled together to create powerful and accurate predictions of human behaviour. That in turn could be deployed to modify human behaviour. Google simply declared, without any apparent challenge, that it claimed ‘human experience as raw material free for the taking’ in what Zuboff describes as being ‘conquest by declaration’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism also provides us with the philosophical underpinning of what Zuboff calls ‘instrumentarian power’. One of its high priests is Alex Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT’s Media Lab, whose ‘God’s eye view’ of animals is transposed to humans and declares that he doesn’t much like the ‘despotism of democracy’. Democracy, it turns out, is unwelcome friction in the otherwise smooth transition to perfect prediction of human behaviour through behavioural modification. In his thinking the sheer speed of the digital world outpaces the slow machinations of human deliberation and negotiation that characterises traditional politics. So, ‘computation replaces the political life of the community as the basis of governance’. And this process speeds up even more as the internet becomes decoupled from computers and smart ‘phones as it enters the real world with the Internet of Things.

Zuboff wtites: “This shift from society to swarm and from individuals to organisms is the cornerstone upon which the structure of an instrumentarian society rests.”

In his 2015 book Postcapitalism Paul Mason takes a rather more benign view of the internet because it allows the possibility of zero-priced goods in the webbed network as the spread of free information undermines the hierarchical interests of the corporations. He mentions in passing that part of the latter’s fightback is the ‘creation of monopolies on information’. According to Zuboff, however, this monopoly is the new capitalism. The question then arises as to how the creators of goods and services maintain their prices as ‘things’ become a part of the flow and the real value lies in the cheap information it contains.

Well, it has been known for some time that there is no such thing as a free market, except in the sense that the corporations demand freedom from regulations and interference. The masters of advertising have always played on our human frailties and in particular over the last 30 years or so have been working to infantilise us by encouraging us to want some ‘thing’ NOW instead of waiting until we have enough money to pay for it and by urging us to ditch cash in favour of plastic because it’s easier to part with our money. Nevertheless, the Internet of Things does present new problems for the ‘makers’ and they are having to think of new ways of pricing through mechanisms like subscriptions, pay-per-use and value sharing. At the same time surveillance capitalism does appear to create a tectonic shift away from the ‘makers’ to the information gleaners and Marx’s old adage in the Communist Manifesto that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ springs to mind.

In the meantime, Zuboff urges us to be the friction that Pentland so despises and she is as one with Mason as she attacks the inevitability that the tech giants exploit to make it seems as though there is no alternative. She writes: “Friction, courage, and bearings are the resources that claim the digital future as a human place, demand that digital capitalism operates as an inclusive force bound to the people it must serve, and defend the division of learning in society as a source of genuine democratic renewal.” Indeed, although in my darkest moments I wonder whether we have already become resigned to our fate through this sense of inevitability and helplessness, and that we will eventually collaborate in our own demise as Joseph K finally does in Kafka’s The Trial – heads bowed staring into the abyss of the black mirror that reflects our empty selves.

Dickie Bellringer