Friday, May 19, 2017

What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy?: The Case of Skepticism

Devanagari version of the Hymn of Creation in the Ṛg Veda



Scholars of all types of philosophy are fond of referring to philosophical traditions. But what does this mean? What counts as a tradition?

In the Indian context one way to discuss a tradition is with the word darśana, which literally means view or viewpoint from the root “dṛś” – “to see.” It can also be translated as “school.”

We might also look to the etymology of the English word “tradition,” which derives from the Latin “traditio” (a handing down, delivery). Must a tradition be handed down through interpersonal transmission from teacher to student in the traditional Indian model? Or could it be a matter of later philosophers being inspired by reading particular texts, or perhaps some combination of interpersonal transmission and textual inspiration?

Let’s look at this issue with a topic near and dear to my heart (or, in any case, to my current research agenda): skepticism in Indian philosophy.

While I think there may be something like skepticism about the external world or about other minds in Indian philosophy, here I’m talking about a kind of skepticism about philosophy itself, an attitude I see most explicitly present in Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. (If you don’t accept my somewhat controversial premise, that’s fine; I hope my discussion of the concept of a tradition will still be interesting).

Lately I’ve been reading early Indian philosophy: the Ṛg Veda, some Upaniṣads, and some early Buddhist texts. I’ve noticed ways in which these texts contain the roots of the types of skepticism about philosophy later exemplified by Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa (although I should note that I am in no way claiming that the early texts are essentially skeptical texts -- they're all far too complicated to be reduced to any one of their elements). These later philosophers were making novel contributions, but they were starting with previously existing material. Does this mean there was a tradition of skepticism about philosophy in classical India?

There can’t be a skeptical tradition in the sense of a darśana. One might suggest that the Cārvāka darśana is a tradition of skepticism. While all Cārvākas doubt many of the knowledge-claims of their religious counterparts, most Cārvākas seem to have accepted a kind of commonsense, everyday knowledge as philosophically established. While Jayarāśi should be seen as cultivating seeds of Cārvāka skepticism that were planted earlier in the Indian tradition, these and other skeptical seeds were also cultivated outside the grounds of the Cārvāka darśana.

Furthermore, the etymology of darśana implies a specific, articulated set of views about philosophical matters. Skepticism about philosophy is not a particular view about philosophical matters, but rather an attitude about engaging in such philosophical pursuits. If anything, skepticism about philosophy is an “anti-darśana” rather than a darśana itself.

Nonetheless, skepticism about philosophy seems to have been handed down from the earliest beginnings of Indian philosophy. The seeds of skepticism were planted in the Ṛg Veda, Upaniṣads, and early Buddhist texts. These seeds were later cultivated by philosophers in at least three different eras coming out of what are usually considered to be three different traditions: Jayarāśi from Cārvāka, Nāgārjuna from Buddhism, and Śrī Harṣa from Advaita Vedānta.

This represents an alternative way of conceptualizing traditions in Indian philosophy. Traditions within Indian philosophy might be distinguished by methods and goals rather than explicitly articulated beliefs, religious affiliation, or placement within traditional doxographies.

There are three elements in particular that formed the key methods of skepticism about philosophy: vitaṇḍā, prasaṅga, and prasajya. Vitaṇḍā is discussed in the Nyāya Sūtra as a type of debate in which one seeks to destroy an opponent’s view without putting forward a view of one’s own. Prasaṅga is a form of argument in which several possible interpretations of an opponent’s philosophical thesis are put forward, each being rejected in turn as either internally inconsistent or as incompatible with the opponent’s other commitments. This was the standard form of argument for Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi. Prasajya negation is a “commitmentless denial” (as B. K. Matilal called it) that allows skeptics to deny their opponents’ theses without thereby committing themselves to any alternative philosophical thesis.

Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa employed these methods toward similar - albeit not identical – goals. They all sought to destroy the bases of philosophical conceptualization, Nāgārjuna for the Buddhist quietist goal of relinquishing all views, Jayarāśi for the Cārvāka purpose of enjoying life more fully, and Śrī Harṣa in line with Advaita goal of becoming open to experience of non-dual brahman.

Does it make sense to identify a skeptical tradition (or cluster of traditions) within Indian philosophy even if doing so cuts across the usual ways of identifying Indian philosophical traditions? Might we likewise identify other traditions in Indian philosophy: pramāṇavāda, realism, idealism, rasa, alaṅkāra, etc.? While I’m not denying that the darśana model has its uses, might it be helpful to think of other ways of carving up Indian philosophical traditions?


Postscript: I've cross-posted this at the Indian Philosophy Blog.


Post-Postscript:  Just for fun, here's the song "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Libertarian Lunacy: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein



Heinlein has always been my least favorite of the Big Three (my ranking: Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), but I thought I'd give him another chance.  I checked out The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from the public library, because the thought of borrowing a book about libertarian revolution from my favorite tax-supported socialist institution amused me.  There were some things I liked about this one, but there's also a lot I disliked, especially the misogyny.  The rest of this review will take place in the form of an imagined dialogue with a Heinlein fan, because that's how I was able to work out what I thought about this one.


Heinlein fan:  So, what'd you think?  Pretty great, huh?

Me: Well... I've never been a huge Heinlein fan.  I liked Stranger in a Strange Land (at least the hippie grokking stuff), but I totally don't see why Starship Troopers is so beloved.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress had some good points ... and a lot of bad ones.

Heinlein fan:  What?  How can you not love Heinlein?  What kind of SF fan are you?

Me:  A bad one, I guess.  I enjoyed Mike the computer, especially his attempts to understand humor. Maybe Heinlein's point is that a successful revolution requires a near-omniscient, omnipotent force?

Heinlein fan: Yeah, Mike!  Heinlein does characters so well, better than most other 60's SF authors.

Me:  I don't know.  Maybe.  Other than Mike, I can't say I liked any of the characters much.  I will admit that, while the plot meandered in the middle, it picked up toward the end and got pretty exciting.  But I still prefer Clarke and Asimov.  I like to think about Big Ideas in my science fiction.

Heinlein fan:  But Heinlein has a lot of those!  Human nature! Utopia! Government and authority!  Gender issues! A non-racist future!

Me: Sure, I guess.  The society does seem to be relatively colorblind, somewhat like Star Trek (although the ideal of colorblindness has its own issues).  Prejudice exists based on Earth vs. Loonies instead.  As for the libertarian revolution, I really do wonder if you could read this book as saying you'd need a near-omniscient computer to pull it off.

Heinlein fan:  Or maybe it's just a fun tale of revolution!  For libertarians!

Me:  Setting aside my own politics for a moment, let's just think about the concept of a libertarian revolution.  If your political philosophy basically consists of hatred of the concept of government and whining about how taxation is theft (as it seems to for the characters in this book, much in the vein of some contemporary American libertarians), how will you succeed in setting up even a minimal government?  And how can they really have no laws?  Won't they have to have taxes at some point?  Or maybe Heinlein's point is that the best government would be by those who hate government, hence making a libertarian utopia impossible?  Again, I find myself stretching the book a bit to make it more plausible or interesting, much like I had to with Starship Troopers.

Heinlein fan:  It's just a novel, not a philosophical treatise.  Science fiction is about playing with ideas through thought experiments, not working them out with philosophical rigor.

Me:  Fair enough.  I appreciate that.  But there were some things that bothered me about this one.  Like the gender stuff.

Heinlein fan:  Well, Heinlein was a man of his times.  And for those times, he was pretty progressive.  Women have a lot of power on Luna.

Me: But that's why Heinlein's misogyny is so weird.  It's a kind of condescending praise of women.  They only have power insofar as they are commodities for men for the purposes of sex and reproduction.  There's even a little speech somewhere in there that basically says so (mixed in with all the speeches about how authority is bad, taxes are evil, blah, blah).

Heinlein fan:  But men are commodities for their labor on Luna, too!  Hence the book's famous acronym: TANSTAAFL!  There ain't no such thing as a free lunch!

Me:  Yes, but this is a deeper critique of capitalist libertarianism, I suppose: it turns humans into commodities.  Nobody on Luna seems to have any value apart from their economic value.  That's not a very appealing future to me.  Of course it's true from an economic point of view that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, but that doesn't mean that human beings do nothing but eat lunch. But let's get back to gender.

Heinlein fan:  Okay.  What about Wyoh!  She's a kick ass woman!

Me: She's exactly what I'm talking about.  She's just smart enough to be sexually interesting to the men, but not smart enough to challenge their intelligence.  Notice how often Heinlein has Mannie (the main character) point out how ignorant she is of science and politics, even for a "non-stupid."  And of course she's a beautiful woman who ends up in the line marriage with Mannie.  I don't even need to put a spoiler alert on that, since roughly 73% of all science fiction novels that introduce a beautiful, kick ass woman in the first chapter will have the male protagonist sexually involved with her by the end.  This is not to mention the running joke when she and Mannie are flirting about how he's rapist or the fact that she has frank discussions about her fertility and past surrogate pregnancies two minutes after they meet (and of course her character arc involves becoming fertile again, because apparently an infertile woman is no woman at all).

Heinlein fan:  But the line marriage and other polyamorous arrangements are neat.  Heinlein was caught up in the sexual revolution of the 60's!

Me: Yeah, that was kind of cool.  I'm not a marriage traditionalist, but the group marriage stuff all seems a little bit too happy, like group marriages would solve all our problems.  And it doesn't seem like they've done much to help women on Luna, who mostly cook and run the households while the menfolk plot the revolution.

Heinlein fan:  But again, Heinlein was a man of his times.  He's no more sexist than other prominent male writers of the 1960's.

Me:  Actually, I'm not so sure.  Compare this to another famous book published around the same time: Frank Herbert's Dune.  I'm not saying Dune doesn't have its gender troubles (like why must the Kwisatz Haderach be a man?), but women are seriously powerful in the Dune universe often despite the blatant misogyny of the male characters.

Heinlein fan:  But Dune is so weird it's not a fair comparison!  How about the other two of the Big Three: Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov?  They weren't exactly writing feminist SF in the 60's.

Me:  True, but Asimov and Clarke basically just ignored women, or wrote the rare women who showed up as if they were men.  It's more of an erasure than Heinlein's condescending faux-egalitarianism.

Heinlein fan:  So they were all sexist.  But is one kind of sexism better than the other?

Me:  I honestly don't know.  I'm not going to defend any of it, but for whatever reason I find the Clarke-Asimov route less annoying.

Heinlein fan:  But at least Heinlein was trying!

Me:  Sure, I get that.  The biggest mystery to me is why Heinlein became such a major figure in the genre.  I'm not saying he's not talented or that some of his stuff isn't good.  But to me he doesn't seem to be at the same level as Clarke and Asimov.  Maybe I'm missing something?  I've only read his most famous works (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and this one).  Maybe I need to read his other stuff?  Or should I bother?

Heinlein fan:  Yeah!  Read .... [launches into a long list of Heinlein books I will probably never read...]



Rating: 72/100

See also my Goodreads review.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Uses of Philosophy, Part 2: Coolness of Mind



How do you get the philosopher off your porch? 
Pay for the pizza.

Jokes like this demonstrate the eternal verity that philosophy is useless, an attitude that goes back to ancient times.  As a person who makes a living teaching and writing about philosophy, you’d expect me to disagree with this negative assessment of philosophy.  And I do!  Back in 2015 I wrote a post called “Three Uses of Philosophy” that suggested philosophy has at least three uses: it can be fun, it cultivates intellectual skills such as critical thinking, and it can make us less dogmatic.

I happen to think that philosophy has lots of uses, a lot more than three, anyway.  So I decided to make a series based on my earlier post.  Another use occurred to me a few months ago when I was teaching the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in one class and the classical Indian skeptics Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa in another.  I call this coolness of mind, a state in which your worries melt away, a freedom from the heat of mental disturbance and the churnings of suffering and anxiety.  Coolness of mind contains a subtle and peaceful beauty of its own, like the quiet of the desert just before dusk or a moonlit midnight after a gentle snowfall.


Spinoza: The Coolness of God/Nature

While there are ways in which Spinoza is the first distinctively modern philosopher (his thoroughgoing rejection of superstition, for instance), there is one way in which he is in the vein of the ancient Greek and Roman world.  For Spinoza, the end result of his philosophical activity is a personal transformation, much as it was for ancient Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics.  For Spinoza, this state involves learning to engage in what he calls “intellectual love of God.”

Spinoza has, to put it mildly, an idiosyncratic concept of God.  For him, God just is Nature.  Whether this commits Spinoza to a kind of pantheism or not, his concept of God is so strange that many people, both critics and fans, have said he’s really a kind of atheist.  Fortunately that debate and much of the dizzyingly complex nature of Spinoza’s philosophy are beside my point here (although I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up Spinoza’s Ethics to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of metaphysical system, which is delightfully set forth in geometric form).  Whatever God/Nature is, we humans become more complete, more serene through the rational contemplation of the essence of God/Nature.

One of Spinoza’s descriptions of a transformed person who is experiencing the most meaningful of human lives appears (appropriately enough for Douglas Adams fans) in Proposition 42 of Book V of the Ethics:

“… the wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, suffers scarcely any disturbance of spirit, but being conscious, by virtue of a certain eternal necessity, of himself, of God and of things, never ceases to be, but always possesses true spiritual contentment.” (Translated by Samuel Shirley)

Is it easy to achieve such a state?  Of course not.  A few lines later, you can find my all-time favorite quote from Spinoza: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”


Ancient Coolness: Skepticism in India and the Mediterranean

For Spinoza, having the right kind of knowledge or contemplation is the key to coolness of mind.  The truth shall set you free, although “freedom” is really a kind of necessity for Spinoza (one of the endearing oddities he shares with some ancient Stoics).

But there is another route to coolness of mind.  You might engage in the philosophical pursuit of truth and come up short, but instead of frustration, you might find a kind of tranquility.  You might achieve what ancient Greek and Roman skeptics called “freedom from disturbance” or what Nāgārjuna called “pacification of conceptual proliferation.”  You might use philosophical thinking to unravel your mania for philosophical answers.  You might harness the power of philosophical skepticism to cultivate coolness of mind.

There are a variety of strategies involved and I don’t want to get into the philosophical details (you can find the devil in those details for yourself).  Ancient skeptics in various cultures are united not by what they believe, but by their similar methods toward an even more similar goal: the purging of the bases of philosophical belief as a means to coolness of mind.

Say you read Spinoza and find him intriguing, but you can’t quite get on board with his baroque metaphysical beliefs.  Skeptics may have something for you.  Whereas Spinoza, Stoics, and others think the truth shall set you free, skeptics think freedom consists precisely in learning to be okay with not knowing the truth, with seeing that any view you put forward might contain serious flaws, either internally or by opposition to another equally convincing view.

But neither do you give up entirely on the truth.  Ancient skeptics would call most modern day postmodernists and relativists “negative dogmatists” – just because you haven’t found the truth doesn’t mean it’s not there!

I think ancient skeptics might provide us with a middle way between obnoxious dogmatists who think they know the truth and obnoxious dogmatists who scoff at the very idea of truth.  Whether I’m right about that or not (and I may not be), ancient skeptical methods of cultivating coolness of mind can be useful.

Early in my graduate school career, I thought there was something wrong with me.  Some of this was run-of-the-mill imposter syndrome, but some of it was because, unlike most philosophers, I didn’t have strong opinions about philosophical issues.  Should we be realists or anti-realists about truth and scientific inquiry?  Should we be utilitarians, deontologists, or virtue ethicists?  Should we accept paraconsistent logics or stick with classical logic?  Do we have non-conceptual experience akin to “raw data” or is our experience always already conceptualized?  Should we be internalists or externalists, contextualists or invariantists?  Should we be metaphysical libertarians or compatibilists?

I see pretty good reasons in favor of all of these views, but just as importantly, I also see serious flaws with each of them.  Of course, I sometimes succumb to temptation and lean in one direction (I lean pretty far in the compatibilist direction and I’ve been gravitating more toward realism and virtue ethics in recent years).

What ancient skepticism taught me is that it’s okay to admit you don’t know.  This is a powerful message in the world of professional academic philosophy, where careers are made by the relentless defense of views; it’s even more powerful in our contemporary world that demands instantaneous certainty on social media and obsessive commitment to a view regardless of reasons, evidence, or complexity (the current President of the United States is one salient example here, although this attitude can be found in some of his critics as well).


Objection: Who wants to be cool?

But isn’t mental coolness a kind of zombified state detached from what makes you you?  Is it, as contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, a route to indifference to your loved ones or an excuse for resignation in the face of injustice?  Is it a withdrawal from your humanity or bad faith sublimation of the angst inherent in human existence?

In a properly philosophical spirit, I can’t claim to fully answer these objections.  Doing so requires more philosophy!  But I can point out that coolness of mind isn’t the only use of philosophy.  Other uses, like critical thinking or fun, might pull you back into philosophical or political engagement. 

But having experienced coolness of mind might give you some wherewithal to engage in those things with a little more focus, perspective, and compassion for yourself and others.  As the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume suggested, being skeptical in your study might make you a little less likely to become a dogmatic know-it-all in the rest of your life.


If anything, a few moments of coolness of mind now and then might, as Jayarāśi says, open you up to the joys of human life.  It might, like Nāgārjuna modeled, be a way out of suffering and attachment, or it might, following Spinoza, be the key to the meaning of life itself.  At least for a certain kind of person who can’t just switch off their mind at will, philosophical paths to coolness of mind are about as useful as anything could be.