22 August 2007

The Great Conversation

I've said on my gnoxplorations page that my work, including posts like this one, represent an attempt to hold up my end of the Great Conversation. But i can't see that contribution in its whole context, and neither can you. Can anyOne? Is there a being for whom the Great Conversation is an internal dialogue?

You and i can only comprehend this (or any question) at the scale of the human body; at this basic level, all the buzzing business inside your brain serves the purpose of your understanding, and none of your neurons has any idea of that, even though they constitute it with their interaction. But what if all the human dialog, the crosstalk of the Internet and all the global media, is just the inner working of a global brain, working as a guidance system within the global body? What if the human collective, or Gaia perhaps, is doing the real meaning, even though we constitute it by interacting?

This may be an appealing idea, since we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to serve a higher purpose—this is part of our heritage as social animals. But we can at best imagine such ‘higher purpose’—as we are now doing—within the limitations of a human organism. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower’ (Swidler 1999, 9). Drawing upon the repertoire of human-scale experience, we might imagine Humanity or Gaia like a wise and nurturing parent—or we might imagine that this higher-level being cares about us no more than an anthill cares about the feelings of its ants. Let us imagine wisely, and humbly—and in the meantime, let our dialog probe and push the envelope of imagination and of knowledge.

08 August 2007

Reading and writing philosophy

Philosophy is always attempting to explicate the implicit. Try it, and you soon realize that ordinary language, though it must be the ground from which every theoretical edifice arises, is far too vague for any fine-grained explication. So you adopt a more specialized idiom, capable of more specific and less ambiguous expression. You may begin with an idiom already standardized within the field; but inevitably you begin adapting this ‘received idiom’ to current purposes, or inventing a new one, and at each step in the path your idiom becomes more distinctive, more specialized, more esoteric. Your explication, therefore, requires an ever greater commitment from the reader to immerse herself in that idiom.

For any reader, or anyone trying to make sense of the world, critical thinking is an absolute requirement. While we always rely on prejudice, intuition or external authority to some extent, we also have to recognize that none of them are ultimately reliable as guides. And there's no point in substituting one of them for another—for instance, calling upon your own prejudice to bear witness against someone else's authority. It's impossible to cogently criticize a writer's work without grasping its relation to your own experience. That relation is constituted by your reading, and that—not the writer or the writing—is the real target of genuine critical thinking.

What does a reader learn from immersing himself in a writer like, say, Peirce? First, that any thumbnail sketch of the author's ‘system’ is bound to be misunderstood. Indeed these sketches are most commonly used either as substitutes for an immersion to which the student is unwilling to commit himself, or as excuses for refusing that commitment. Of course there are good reasons for refusing that commitment, since intensive study of anything requires you to pass up a thousand other studies: you simply have to choose. But what you learn from any specific study is that no justification for passing it up, being uninformed by the study, can be at all informative about the subject of the study. At best it reveals that one way of reading the subject is a dead end.

03 August 2007

Salvation and/or Nirvana

One of the guiding principles of dialogue is a constant testing of the hypothesis that differences of idiom may conceal a convergence of experience. We are always entitled to wonder whether that other ‘belief system’ may be using different words to indicate the same realities that we know under more familiar names. Is it possible that Christian salvation really denotes the same experience as Buddhist nirvana?

One common factor shared by both is that spiritual seekers and questers imagine them elsewhere: at the end of the current spiritual journey, or on the far side of the river we must cross. This entails that some may reach the goal while others may not.

The Buddha on his deathbed is said to have reminded his followers that if anyone attains enlightenment, it is through his own efforts. The essential privacy of spiritual life (that is, of experience) is also affirmed in the Qur'án, Surah 35:

Allah verily sendeth whom He will astray, and guideth whom He will; so let not thy soul expire in sighings for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do!
— 35:8 (Pickthall)

And no burdened soul can bear another's burden, and if one heavy laden crieth for (help with) his load, naught of it will be lifted even though he (unto whom he crieth) be of kin. Thou warnest only those who fear their Lord in secret, and have established worship. He who groweth (in goodness), groweth only for himself, (he cannot by his merit redeem others). Unto Allah is the journeying.

— 35:18 (Pickthall)

On the other hand, the Buddhist bodhisattva gives up all aspiration to a private attainment. Likewise salvation in Christ is in communion, participation in the One Body, love's body. Nirvana is not an escape from the mess of the world, or from entanglement with others, but the realization of the interbeing of the self. So is the body of Christ.

For a human, to be conscious of self and of experience, and of their privacy, is to be grounded in the human community, in the social nature of the human animal, in the language enabled by empathy and symbol. The self, insofar as one can be conscious of it (rather than conscious with it), is nothing but one of those symbols.

In Luke 2, upon first seeing the child Jesus, Simeon responds as follows:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32 (KJV)

Simeon here takes salvation ‘of all peoples’ as an accomplished fact embodied in Jesus rather than a distant goal, and thus he is allowed to ‘depart in peace’ like a slave released by his master. Before seeing this salvation with his own eyes, Simeon was already ‘righteous and devout’ (2:25), but he had no desire for a private and personal salvation that would leave others unsaved. There is something deeply selfish about such a goal. This is one face of spiritual materialism (Trungpa 1973). It takes a renunciation of that selfishness to realize nirvana not as a remote goal but as a present reality concealed behind the ignorance of self-interest.

01 August 2007


Thanks to Vernon Lynn Stephens for posting the first comment to appear on this blog, and thus proving my expectation wrong—philosophers live for just those moments! (I'm a bit slow responding due to some social distractions over the past few days.)

Thanks also, Vernon, for pointing out the importance of pointers. Some folks use a ‘blogroll’ to furnish pointers to visitors; i use instead an annotated page on my home site, which i call
I've been keeping this updated for over 5 years now, in the hope that it might lead others to some sources that i've found fruitful in various ways. It's mostly print sources but increasingly i'm adding web links to it as well. Anyone who finds these little bloggish meditations of some use will probably find some pointers there.

As for phenomenology, i'm not widely read in that neighborhood, except for Merleau-Ponty—and Eugene Gendlin, who doesn't self-label as a phenomenologist, but he seems connected to that category. Follow this link to SourceNet for more about his work. Most of my acquaintance with Husserl is second-hand (through the Evan Thompson book that i reviewed, for instance), since i've decided i don't have time to immerse myself in his work as i do in Gendlin and Peirce. I do have a hunch that Peirce and Husserl were thinking along parallel but separate tracks in some ways, though neither paid much attention to the other. (Maybe each was put off by the other's idiom, which would be quite understandable in both cases!) My hunch is spelled out a bit more in the ‘Peirce on Phenomenology’ page on my website.

Today i'd like to point in a slightly different direction, toward
The Wholehearted Way, which is a translation of Eihei Dogen's ‘Bendowa’ (one of his earliest works) along with a commentary by Kosho Ushiyama Roshi. I don't know of a better introduction to the practice of Zen Buddhism (though i do list some others on SourceNet). Near the end of the book comes a remark by Dogen (italicized below), followed by Uchiyama Roshi's comment:

If the genuine buddha-dharma permeates the country, because of the ceaseless protection of buddhas and heavenly beings, the emperor's reign will be peaceful.

I agree, and yet if we try to spread buddha-dharma in order to pacify the world, the order will be turned upside down. That is what the so-called new religions do in order to collect people. When zazen practice permeates the world, meaningless conflicts may disappear. Consequently, peace may pervade the world. It may be possible, but such an effect is nothing other than a by-product of zazen. We should not put the cart before the horse.

These days, some companies force employees to practice zazen at Zen temples for the sake of making them obedient, so that they work more efficiently without going on strike. Such zazen has nothing to do with buddha-dharma. Zazen should be strictly good for nothing. It is vital to just practice this good-for-nothing practice.

— (Okumura and Leighton 1997, 198-9)

The point here is that authentic practice is always ‘autotelic’, as the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi puts it: free of ulterior motive. It is not a means to some end external to itself, whether personal or social. It's not a solution for the world's problems: rather it puts all those problems into a bigger context, as a dewdrop does the moon. This principle is confirmed in countless scriptures, all the way from the Tao te Ching and the Bhagavad-Gita to Carlos Castaneda's ‘controlled folly.’ And according to Peirce (especially in his Cambridge Lectures of 1898), the practice of the pure scientist is likewise ‘good for nothing’. A science which serves corporate purposes, or addresses ‘vitally important’ social issues, is ‘upside down’, to use Uchiyama Roshi's term.

In these days of gathering environmental crisis, people are naturally looking for ways to deal with it. Maybe the best way is to just sit still and hope that such a model of minimal entropy production is contagious. That's seems reasonable, given that most of the problems are symptomatic of our chronic human busyness. But that shouldn't be our reason for sitting still; and the same goes for any essential practice. It has to be its own reason, lest it lose the very purity which makes it essential, along with any ‘practical’ efficacy it may happen to have.

So what about the practice of whole-body reading? In this practice the scripture or text points directly to deepest experience. Ideally your reading is one-pointed, though you reflect later on that this particular text is only one of many pointers, each in its own idiom, to the one deep truth. Later, you might bear witness to that experience by giving someone else a pointer to that same text, or to others which have worked as turning words for you, in one way or another. This is important in these days of information inundation, when a reader or seeker has so many texts to choose from. In a sense we are busy weaving a world-wide web of these pointers and links. But that's only a by-product of our bearing witness to the practice of deep reading, just as The Wholehearted Way is a byproduct of Zen practice, even as it's also an invitation.

When our mind faculty and other sense faculties have been transformed and purified as a result of the merit we have received from hearing, understanding, and practicing this wonderful Dharma, then we need hear only one gatha or one line of the sutra to understand all sutras and teachings. We do not need to study the entire Tripitaka [Buddhist canon] in order to understand the Buddhadharma. One gatha [verse] contains all other gathas, one teaching reveals the deep meaning of all other teachings, just as the truth of impermanence contains the truth of no-self and the truth of interbeing. This is the meaning of the Avatamsaka Sutra: the one contains the all.
— Thich Nhat Hanh (2003, 87)

So you don't even have to read the Avatamsaka Sutra to get this point, yet that could be a turning word for you too, because it may express the point in some way you would never have thought of otherwise, and thus reveal the ‘emptiness’ of all expression. So there's another pointer that you don't have to follow.