A dialogue on Buddha

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

iu

 Prof Lea Ypi

 

white

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

 

Book review

The Political Mind by George Lakoff

So, here we go again! The Political Mind: Why You can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain is yet another book in which the author uses dense reasoning to attack what he falsely believes to be the traditional view of rationality.

The Political Mind was written by cognitive linguist George Lakoff in 2008 and has been followed by a slew of similar attacks on reason that, without any sense of irony, use reason to do so. Lakoff argues that our brains use the logic of framing, prototypes and metaphors to think and if we only understood then progressive politics, would, in a ‘just so’ sort of way, win out. The weird thing about this book, however, is that one can fully accept all of his conclusions about progressive politics and the need to use metaphors etc without accepting any of his science.

For example, he relies heavily on the claim by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga that 98 per cent of what the brain does is unconscious. Even Lakoff acknowledges in a footnote that numbers like these make little sense because one cannot count thoughts. Nevertheless, he writes that the percentage ‘seems about right’. But he then goes on to repeat the figure ad infinitum throughout the book as though it is an unchallengeable fact. It is contestable, however, and not only for the reason that Lakoff provides, but also because it is a quantitative measurement not a qualitative one.

Even supposing we accept the 98-2 per cent split, it may be, as Lakoff acknowledges, that much of unconscious thought is taken up with keeping the body functioning, while the 2 per cent is usefully spent on writing books like The Political Mind and inventing the internet. An analogy might be with the 98 per cent (estimates vary but they are always close to 100 per cent) of our DNA with chimpanzees but that 2 per cent and a few switch genes makes a huge cognitive difference between homo sapiens and chimpanzees – although some might argue of course that it might be better, and less destructive, if we were more like chimps.

Another major problem with this book is that it presents a hopelessly simplified and homogenized version of what he calls ‘The Old Enlightenment’, in which its great 18th century universally privileged rationality to create an over reliance on cold reason. In fact the Enlightenment thinkers held a widely differing positions ranging from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who insisted that ‘reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions’, to Emmanuel Kant who really did privilege reason. Other thinkers like Diderot argued that although the true philosophe was guided by reason, he does seek to eliminate the emotions. Instead he ‘works at not being dominated by them, at benefitting from them, and at making reasonable use of them’. Many thinkers acknowledged that humans are often the ‘slave of the passions’ but thought we should at least try to question ancient ideas and traditions rather than blindly accepting them. In other words, Lakoff is guilty of the straw man facility in which he sets up an argument that doesn’t hold water in order to render is easier to knock down.

Yet another problem is Lakoff’s pathological reliance on the metaphor, which has to do some very heavy lifting. One gets the sense that we literally think in metaphors etc. all the time. “So far we have seen that we think in terms of frames, narratives, metaphors, metonyms, and prototypes.” But it is metaphors that carry the heaviest load. He sees metaphors even when there is one. Conservative attitudes are defined by the strict parent metaphor while progressives are defined by the nurturing parent and so on…and on. Truth only appears once and that is pejoratively when referring to the formal logic of philosophers like Bertrand Russell – although it never occurs to Lakoff that hi book might have benefited from a sprinkling of formal logic.

And you don’t need any of his neuroscience to agree with his final chapter which is a paean to progressive thought, but the irony is that it is written in a literal non-metaphorical way. Metaphors are useful ways of bringing ideas to life. Witness John Donne’s ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’. More prosaically this means, as Lakoff points out in his last chapter, that ‘our brains evolved for empathy, for co-operation, for connection to each other and to earth. We cannot exist alone’. Quite so! It beggars belief that either Lakoff or Donne thought of this truth metaphorically first and then pondered what its literal meaning was. Metaphors in themselves are neutral and their truth or otherwise depend on the ideas they are trying to express.

And what of his conclusion that his naturalistic account leads to what he calls Moral Accounting of which utilitarianism is its non-metaphorical expression? Or that the nurturing parent metaphor leads to non-metaphorical empathy? One of the problems with naturalistic accounts of ethics is that one can always ask whether its conclusions are right. Do altruism and empathy, both of which are said to evolved, always lead to right action? The answer must be ‘no’. One may sacrifice oneself for or have some empathy for a monstrous cause or person. And it is just too pat that his scientific account leads to utilitarianism, conveniently bypassing other normative ethical theories. And is Moral Accounting the only framework for moral decision-making – I think not.

One might agree that the use of metaphors, framing, narratives, metonyms and prototypes are important and that emotions are form an important part of our reasoning without having to give up on the notion of truth. Afterall, we surely believe that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ brilliantly expresses an important truth in a particularly vivid and memorable way – not that the metaphor replaces truth. Framing of truths is an important skill that progressives need to learn but the framing itself should not replace the truth. Shifting public opinion is important in order to re-establish the sort of progressive ideas that fuelled the post-war consensus but this work can equally well, if not better expressed within the notion of the dominant ideology or Gramsci’s idea of hegemony as it can in terms of cognitive linguistics.

There is an element of ‘just so’ about Lakoff’s book. It is all too convenient his neuroscientific just happens to coincide with his progressive politics.

Dickie Bellringer

George Lakoff