Shall the truth make you free? Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism and the nature of philosophical inquiry

Sextus EmpiricusWhat is philosophy for? Is it a quest for truth? Is it really the case that the truth shall set us free, as the Bible says (John 8:32), and if so, is philosophy our way to freedom? These and other fascinating questions were asked by Ethan Mills, a philosopher at the University of Tennessee, at a special session on Stoicism and Eastern Philosophies held at the recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association—Eastern Division (Savannah, January 2018). Ethan went through a lot of material, and I only have his handouts and my few notes to attempt to provide the gist of his talk, yet the subject matter is crucial not just for Stoic practitioners, but for anyone interested in philosophy. I shall do my best here, and perhaps Ethan himself will chime in during the discussion.

The talk started with a few examples of a recently popular sport, the gratuitous denigration of philosophy, especially by scientists or science popularizers, and particularly by physicists. I have covered this territory multiple times (e.g., here, here, and here), so there is no reason to get into it again. Ethan poses himself the question of how best to respond to these charges (which may indicate he takes those people a bit too seriously, but then again the question of the value of philosophy ought to be answerable by any decent practitioner of the field). His first pass is a list that includes philosophy as “therapy” (following Martha Nussbaum), or as a way of life (in the words of Pierre Hadot).

Ethan’s thesis is then stated as follows: “While Naiyayikas [a collective term for several Hindu schools of logic and epistemology] and Stoics demonstrate that the concept of philosophy as therapy or as a way of life does not rule out also conceiving of philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise, ancient skeptics bring into focus the limitations of the truth seeking image, which may be useful today in defending philosophy from its denigrators.”

So the contrast here is between philosophy as therapy / way of life and philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. I have argued at book length, however, that — historically — the truth-seeking part of philosophy was natural philosophy, or what is today called science (see also this discussion). The rest of philosophy is more into the business of developing understanding than seeking truth — the two are definitely not the same thing. That is an additional “line of defense” (if one is really needed) against detractors of philosophy, especially of a scientistic bent: philosophy is therapy, a way of life, and a path toward understanding — that ought to be more than good enough to take it seriously. In terms of truth seeking, however, it does not (and need not to) compete with its offspring, science.

After these preliminaries, Ethan got into the meat of his talk, starting with a presentation of the Nyaya position on epistemology. I will provide a couple of quotes, though I must admit that they perfectly exemplify the reason why Eastern philosophy never spoke to me (too prone to riddles and unclear statements), which is why Stoicism felt like such a breadth of fresh air. But of course I realize that this may be in part a matter of taste and personality, and in part a question of cultural upbringing and familiarity with one approach rather than the other.

For instance, Ethan quotes Gautama’s Nyaya Sutra, from circa 200 CE:

“Attainment of the highest good is based on knowledge of the truth of the following: means of knowledge, object of knowledge, doubt, purpose, example, established position, limbs of an inference, speculative reasoning, ascertainment, friendly debate, debate for the purpose of victory, debate without establishing a counter-position, fallacies, quibbling, false rejoinders, and grounds for defeat.”

Now compare Marcus Aurelius, also cited by Ethan:

“Two things are clear: first, I am a part of the universe governed by nature, and second, I am related in some way to other parts like myself. Once I acknowledge this, I shall be content with any role the universe assigns me. … Realizing that I am part of just such a universe, I will calmly accept whatever happens.” (Meditations, X.6)

It sounds from the above like Gautama was indeed (also) in the business of finding truths about the world, and so were the Stoics. As is well known, they developed a three-fold curriculum of study, which included “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), “logic” (i.e., logic, rhetoric, and psychology), and “ethics” (i.e., the study of how to best live one’s life). The physics and the logic were in the service of the ethics, but were nonetheless respectively in the business of seeking truth about the natural world and of developing good arguments.

Which brings us to the next section of Ethan’s talk, on skepticism, in both its Eastern and Western versions. From the East, the Chinese mystic and philosopher Zhuangzi — one of the founders of Taoism in the IV century BCE — was a skeptic. Here is a quote from him, mentioned by Ethan:

“A fish trap is there for the fish. When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap. … Words are there for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?”

Not crystal clear? Yeah, to me neither. Nevertheless, Ethan mentioned several other skeptics from the Eastern traditions, including Nagarjuna (an Indian Buddhist philosopher of the II century), Jayarasi (an Indian philosopher of the early IX century), and Sri Harsa (a XII century Indian poet and philosopher).

On the Western side, of course, we have Sextus Empiricus and the philosophy known as Pyrrhonism, a general approach with which the Stoics very much engaged, especially in the form that it took among the so-called Academic Skeptics (such as Cicero). Here is a taste of Sextus:

“Skepticism is an ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed object and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment and afterwards to tranquillity. … Suspension of judgment is a standstill of the intellect, owing to which we neither reject nor posit anything. Tranquillity is freedom from disturbance and calmness of soul.” (Pyrrhōneioi hypotypōseis 1.8-10)

By the end of his talk, Ethan had reached the conclusion that both Nyaya and Stoicism demonstrate that pursuing philosophy as therapy / way of life doesn’t rule out philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. He asked if a similar idea could work for modern philosophy, and I have already given my negative answer above: two thousand years later, philosophy has deputized the search for truths about the world to science, and even logic is increasingly an independent discipline (though it is mostly still taught in philosophy departments). But this is no reason to deny the value of philosophy beyond therapy and as a way of life (both roles that science certainly cannot claim). That’s because of the huge contribution that philosophy continuously makes to our understanding of how things generally “hang together,” so to speak, what Wilfrid Sellars, one of the best and least known philosophers of the 20th century, conceptualized as the dynamic reconciliation of the “manifest” (i.e., the way things look like to us) and the scientific (i.e., whatever the latest science thinks its true) images of the world.

Indeed, Ethan himself comes close to this conclusion when he acknowledges that the skeptics do have a point, and that their position has survived challenges for more than two millennia. So perhaps modern philosophers should learn their lesson and avoid over-emphasizing the truth seeking aspect of their discipline. In my mind, they should simply avoid it, and leave that sort of business to science. Ethan raises the question of whether the truth seeking image of philosophy encourages the denigration of the field, and the answer is very clearly yes. The likes of physicists Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, as well as science popularizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, are on record as stating that philosophy is useless because it has not contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge. A statement that is both absolutely true and entirely irrelevant. Like saying that literary criticism, or art history, are useless because they have not advanced our understanding of biology.

Ethan specifically says that he is not claiming that philosophers should give up on the truth seeking image, but I do. It serves no purpose and it distracts us from what we should be doing instead. And what is that? Ethan himself has a partial list for us:

  • Cultivation of cognitive skills (critical thinking, intellectual imagination).
  • Lessening of dogmatism (especially scientific and religious ones, I’d say).
  • Therapeutic aims (mental peace, openness to life, reducing anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy).
  • Intellectual empathy.
  • Understanding of the history of ideas.
  • Fun! (Indeed!)

Notice, however, that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers don’t do most of the above, and in fact often positively disdain it. That, more than anything else, may be the root cause of philosophy’s damaged reputation at the onset of the 21st century.

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35 thoughts on “Shall the truth make you free? Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism and the nature of philosophical inquiry

  1. Douglass Smith

    Thanks for that Massimo, I’ve also come round to the view that philosophy is more about wisdom than knowledge per se. Of course, some knowledge is necessary for wisdom; but wisdom is something we can share with the ancients, even while we cannot similarly share much knowledge with them, at least at the limits. So: back to philosophy as philo sophia.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Plutarch

    Great post Massimo. Among the schools of Eastern philosophy I’d say you might actually enjoy Confucianism. There’s some line where Hadot compares Epicureanism and Stoicism saying one is more a path of relaxing our attention where the other is more a path of focusing it. Eg, Stoicism of used) focuses on ordering our will and Epicureanism on pruning our desires. I think a similar comparison could be made for Daoism and Confucianism respectively, which is why I think you might enjoy Confucianism.

    Zhuangzhi and Daoisms suspicion of language is probably going to be a turn off for you, just like you are unimpressed by Heraclitus’s same suspicion of language. Personally, I’m the same way as you on this, but I appreciate the point that language and concepts can distract us from actually being virtuous.

    The Confucians are, I think, more naturally your speed with their willingness to elaborate on their arguments, and their emphasis on self cultivation in our everyday relationships.

    Still, fact that the primary sources for Confucianism eg (Analects and Mencius) don’t sustain their arguments through one setting might be a turn off for you. But as you know, neither does Marcus Aurelius, and he doesn’t need to because there’s an internal structure to his writing provided by Stoicism. The same is true of Confucianism if you can be patient and consult a copy of the Analects or Mencius with a good commentary (which is how the text is supposed to be read anyway). There are abundant similarities between Stoicism and Confucianism that I think you would find help deepen your Stoicism. Eg, Stoicism and Confucianism

    See us as role bearing persons with social duties towards each other. Eg, both use metaphor we are all limbs of the larger social body.
    See that the usage of a perfect sage figure, or just cultivated exemplary persons is a good way for a Stoic prokopton or Confucian shi (practitioner) to imagine what they should do.
    See that we should ignore externals, wealth and fame are considered ‘preferred indifferents’. Of course the Confucians don’t use that word, they tells us to accept whatever fate (ming) brings and adapt ourselves to it because they are clear that anything aside from virtue (de) under our control isn’t worth our time.
    See that we should rely on the natural order and our best observations of it to understand virtue and perform our social roles. Eg, the Stoics have logos and the Confucians have (tian) the heavens. Some conceptions of logos or tian are more or less anthropocentric or mechanistic depending upon the Confucian or Stoic. Their metaphors vary accordingly. In any event, the metaphysics under determines the ethics.

    That’s just the tip of the iceberg really. In any event, great post and great blog. I think you’d love Confucianism, and if you’re interested I’d start with Bryan W. Van Nordens translation of the Mencius because it comes with commentaries that help you see the arguments that shape the text, just as Pierre Hadot makes clear Marcus Aurelius.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Douglass Smith

    I should add that I don’t think Nāgārjuna was from Malaysia. I’d be interested in knowing where that information came from. The wiki article you cite describes him as coming from south central India.

    The Nyaya passage reminds me more of scholasticism than let us say obscurantism. I don’t think it lacks clarity, though it may appear pedantic. Of course much contemporary philosophy is as well: this is what can happen when philosophy is done in a rigorous academic environment. What is refreshing about much of the earliest Buddhist material is that while it is repetitive (fodder for memorization), it is also often direct and clear in a way that non-academic philosophy can be.

    I do think that the “unclarity” you find in eastern philosophy is essentially a matter of unfamiliarity. After all, as you have noted, the Stoics were also fond of their own (quasi-)paradoxes, which could be confusing to the uninitiated. E.g.: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/ciceros-stoic-paradoxes/

    This is not to say that all schools of eastern philosophy are equally amenable to intellectual understanding, but certainly many of them are. I daresay there are certain schools of western philosophy that are also rather obscure.

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  4. SocraticGadfly

    This somewhat relates to my comment about deviant vs. orthodox schools within Brahmanism that I posted at Plato’s Footnote yesterday. Nyaya was an orthodox school.

    (And as I also noted there, many scholars prefer not to use the word “Hinduism” until Brahmanism completed its version of a Counter-Reformation in the CE era, not the BCE era.)

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  5. jbonnicerenoreg

    Good article. How would you classify it? It is not science, therapy, howtolive or how the world hangs together. To me, it is the self reflective examination that is the basis of philosophy.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    jbonni,

    I would classify this article as part of therapy and how to live as well as of how the world hangs together (we are part of the world, after all). And yes, self-reflection is definitely part of it!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Chuchu

    Dear Massimo,

    Thank you for this article, it truly challenged some of my existing understandings, in 2 points in particularly:
    1. I never thought Zhangzi’s set of Taoist philosophy was skeptical. Why is it seen as skeptical in western philosophers?
    In fact, Zhangzi’s philosophy was what led me to stoicism. In the first chapter of “Zhangzi”, roughly translated into “the journey of freedom” (this isn’t official, just my own translation), it describes a giant mythical fish living in the northern end of earth, who then turned into a huge bird with a wing span over miles. The bird started to fly to the southern end of earth. On the way there she was seen by 2 pigeons. The pigeons didn’t understand why the big bird had to fly such long distance while it could just get food a few meters away, like themselves. Zhangzi then made a remark about littlies can’t comprehend the purposes of those that are much grander. the big bird herself, however, though big and mythical, still needed air to fly, which is provided by the universe. I The universe was therefore a concept beyond our average comprehension, therefore we should live according to the natural order of the universe. I
    thought this was very similar to the stoic view on the universe? Please correct me if I’m wrong? Why has Zhangzi’s philosophy fall into the category similar as skepticism? Perhaps my understanding of skepticism was not right? Because Zhangzi’s philosophy was certainly more focused on living according to nature rather than giving up understanding things.

    I’ve always thought natural sciences were part of philosophy, rather than a competing category? Isn’t this why a PhD is a doctor of philosophy regardless of the displine? And the Socratic questioning approach has been universally used in all scientific studies, sometimes known as “critical thinking”. I struggle to understand why well achieved scientists would be found on record stating philosophy was hindering scientific development? Where are these records?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Chuchu

    I apologise for the lack of formatting on my previous post! It was difficult to write on my phone with the distraction of a little child.

    I’ve also read Zhuangzi’s reflection on the fishnet, but it was a while ago. It’s possible that many eastern philosophies make little sense to westerners because the meanings were lost in translation. My understanding was that this Zhuangzi’s reflection is precisely a demonstration of this lost of translation, but in a different sense. There’s a well know saying in Chinese stating “written language does not fully express what’s spoken, and spoken language does not fully express what’s thought.” A man who has truly got hold of his intend would not need words, because no words, spoken or written, can express his intends fully. If Zhuangzi finds a man/woman who truly “knows”, he would not be able to converse with them, as no words would be able to describe their intend. Zhuangzi was merely reflecting on the fact that one could never truly understand what a wiseman/woman thought – this is my interpretation only.

    For most of last year, I struggled very much to understand various central concepts of Stoicism, in particular “ignorance is the only evil”. However, I recently came across your post on “amathia”, which made things much clearer to me. Thank you! =) I also think my lack of understanding of Stoicism is often associated with the lack of understanding in the language itself!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Massimo Post author

    chuchu,

    I will letttttttt Ehan comment on Taosim and Skepticism, I’m absolutely no expert on the matter.

    Rgearding science, the reason “PhD” means doctor of philosophy is really a vestige of medieval times. Nowadays science is a completely independent area of inquiry with respect to philosophy.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Patrice Ayme

    “The likes of physicists Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, as well as science popularizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, are on record as stating that philosophy is useless because it has not contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge. A statement that is both absolutely true and entirely irrelevant.”

    Yet, philosophy keeps on contributing to science. Really big science. Harsh philosophical criticism of cosmological data, and theories, for many decades, by generations of maverick individuals finally brought a breakthrough in science spending and thus Dark Matter, Dark Energy were found.
    The demonstration of Quantum Entanglement was also the product of a philosophical approach (starting with philosopher Karl Popper in 1933, and then Einstein, Podolski Rosen’ “Elements of Reality”) Those three revolutionary concepts are arguably the three most important advances in physics in the last 50 years. Krauss, Hawking and deGrasse Tyson may have overlooked this. (And yes, there is a “Popper experiment” in physics!)

    I gave a seminar in Stanford Physics department on Black Holes, long ago. Hawking, Penrose, Yau were there. I pointed out that the usual theory had logical holes from neglecting Quantum Mechanics (a typical “philosophical” approach: the big picture!) Some were very unhappy with me, as the usual theory was not a sure thing anymore. I was accused of “meditation”. This approach, born from philosophical criticism, is now standard science.

    The philosophical approach is necessary for the largest mental re-adjustments. To believe philosophy will not contribute to science looking forward is tantamount to saying we have all the fundaments of science fully figured out. However, the latter is clearly not the case.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Chuchu

    Hi Plutarch,

    I can see where you are coming from when saying a comparison similar to Epicureanism and Stoicism can be made to Taoism (Daoism) vs Confucianism. However, I must point out that while there are elements in Taoism about relaxation, there’s much more about focusing on very small details of the natural world. I can quote a number of passages from “Zhuangzi” when he reflected upon the intricate compositions of nature that are generally taken for granted but should be further understood. This, in my opinion, resonant with the Stoic view on the universe. Please let me know if I may have misunderstood anything as I’ve only been introduced to Stoicism for a year.

    As to Confucianism, I will just say that Confucius did in fact say:”It’s the hardest to deal with women and those that aren’t gentlemen. They’d dislike you if you are too close and complain about you if you are too far away.” – ‘Lun Yu – yang huo’. Sorry about my translation if it’s not making a lot of sense. I was born a Chinese girl, and this was one of the things that was said to me repetitively when I was younger to shut me up, even by my teacher (female, who was teaching Confucianism at the time!), as I was one of those girls who kept asking why at what was considered to be inappropriate times. Now, I can now look at such past events as “indifference” and something totally outside of my control. However, I must point out that there are some aspects of Confucianism that impacted the entire Chinese society for two thousand years, in some very negative ways, while I’m not aware of many negative societal impacts from Stoicism. Please correct me if I’m wrong!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Joseph Voros

    Hi Massimo,

    with regard to your hesitation with respect to the more mystical aspects of Buddhism (which I feel I understand, as I was also trained as a scientist – PhD in physics), I wonder if you have come across the work of Stephen Batchelor? He was trained as a Buddhist monk and has been working for many years to formulate a “secular” form of Buddhism, stripped of the many metaphysical truth claims that are so troubling to the scientific mind and focused instead on pragmatic utility. It has a lot of resonance with Stoicism, as I see it, and it seeks to get to the very core of the philosophy developed by Gotama, which later developed into Buddhism as we know it.

    Two books of his you might find interesting are:

    Batchelor, S 2015, After Buddhism: Rethinking the dharma for a secular age, Yale University Press, New Haven. Also available as paired Kindle/Audible editions. See especially Ch. 3: “A Fourfold Task” which re-interprets the Four Noble Truths as pragmatic practices that have a very Stoic ring to them, indeed; and
    Batchelor, S 2017, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the dharma in an uncertain world, Yale Universty Press, New Haven. Also available as paired Kindle/Audible editions. See especially Part 2: “Buddhism 2.0”.

    Another author has also attempted to go back to some of what are considered by some Buddhist scholars as some of the very earliest teachings, “The Book of Eights” (Aṭṭhakavagga). It too shows a remarkable absence of metaphysics and has a strong focus on pragmatic practices. This one is:

    Fronsdal, G 2016, The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the early teachings, Shambhala, Boulder. Also available as Kindle/Audible editions.

    What these three books share is a view that, at its core, Buddhism was initially a pragmatic philosophy developed by Gotama focused on living well and virtuously. Of course, it took around four centuries before that oral teaching tradition was written down, and the initial core teachings that Gotama may have started with have been expanded upon over the intervening centuries by adherents, with further commentaries added, with further commentaries on those, etc, until the fully-blown system we recognize today developed.

    Given your discussion with Robert Wright not so long ago, I thought you might like to hear about these. I’m pretty convinced there is a (secular) core of Buddhism that is in perfect harmony with the core of Stoicism. I’m pretty sure there is (another) PhD in that idea… 😉

    Regards,
    Joseph

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Ethan Mills

    First of all, I’d like to thank Massimo for this post, and for getting in touch with me to encourage me to participate in the discussion. It’s always nice to see one’s work taken seriously and to have a chance to discuss it more widely.

    I’ll separate my responses into this comment on a few shorter points and then one longer comment on one point.

    Massimo rightly notes that I went through a lot of material. The talk was deliberately designed to take philosophers of various traditions side by side as equals in a way that I personally feel the discipline ought to do more of. In a different sort of talk, I would have done more to explicate the non-Western philosophers in Western terms, although my handout contains a bibliography for those curious to learn more. Perhaps I will make the handout available elsewhere. Stay tuned.

    Two minor issues that I didn’t fully explain in the talk: 1. The Sanskrit word “Nyāya” has a general meaning of “logic”, but it also refers to specific school of classical Indian philosophy. It is the latter sense that I meant in this talk. 2. Pyrrhonism and Academic skepticism are generally thought to be separate traditions. Although scholars continue to debate the intricacies of the relation between the two schools, as Massimo notes it was Academic skepticism that concerned the Stoics (and vice versa). Nonetheless, I chose to discuss Sextus because he so clearly articulates the goals and methods of (a brand of) Pyrrhonian skepticism, which represents (at least in my opinion) a purely therapeutic understanding of philosophy.

    Massimo wonders if I take the philosophy denigrators a bit too seriously. When I first saw the comments from Hawking and Tyson, it was clear to me, as it would be to any professional philosopher (or indeed, most of my introductory philosophy students), that these individuals simply did not know what they were talking about. My impression was strengthened, in fact, by reading some of the Massimo’s own articles on the insanely narrow criterion of usefulness at play. I continue to admire the denigrators as scientists, including Massimo’s friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose public persona and work as a science popularizer I like very much. Later, however, I came to worry not for personal reasons, but because of the intellectual and cultural capital of scientists in our current culture: their denigrations of philosophy will be taken far more seriously than, say, a literature professor who denigrates science (how often are any literature professor’s comments picked up in a general news story?). I don’t personally take their denigrations seriously, but many non-philosophers do. That’s why I think it’s important to address them.

    Perhaps this comes from my own experience as a member of an oft-denigrated sub-field (more on that in the next comment), but I’m not terribly interested in telling other philosophers how to do philosophy. My goal is to make room for alternatives. If other philosophers want to continue to engage in philosophy as a truth-seeing enterprise, I wish them the best of luck as I surreptitiously glance at philosophy’s millennia-long track record.

    Massimo and I are in agreement about the need to think of uses for philosophy beyond a narrow quasi-scientific search for truth. Highlighting some of these is perhaps the best response to the discipline’s denigrators.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Ethan Mills

    Massimo says, “Eastern philosophy never spoke to me (too prone to riddles and unclear statements)…”

    I choose not to take Massimo’s comment to be pugilistic (perhaps it is merely Pigliuccic), but as a specialist in classical Indian philosophy I feel that a response is perhaps required.

    First, it is worth noting that “Eastern philosophy” does not designate a single tradition. The South Asian and East Asian traditions developed largely independently of each other in different languages with different canonical texts, with the important exception of the influence of Buddhism from South Asia to East Asia.

    Next, to have a bit of that fun I was talking about as a use of philosophy, let’s engage in a thought experiment. Imagine a person completely unfamiliar with Western philosophy were to read the following quotes out of context.

    — “Immoral mortals, moral immortals, living the death of others and dying their life.”

    — “He said that he saw souls departing after judgment through one of the opening in the heavens and one in the earth … From the door in the earth souls came up covered with dust and dirt and from the door in the heavens souls came down pure.”

    — “In a man devoted to knowledge, pity seems almost ridiculous, like delicate hands on a Cyclops.”

    — ”The Humean condition is the human condition.”

    Imagine this person, after reading these quotes, says, “I just can’t get into this Western stuff. It’s so full of riddles and unclarity! That first quote is wooly-headed mysticism or maybe a linguistic riddle or something. The second is pure religious mythology. The third is empty literary bombast of questionable morality, and it mentions something called “a Cyclops,” whatever that is. And the fourth is some sort of riddle about a figure I’ve never heard of, so it can’t be important.”

    (Those playing along at home might recognize these as quotes from Heraclitus, Plato, Nietzsche, and Quine respectively)

    Of course I am well aware of the vagaries of personal intellectual taste, so please don’t misunderstand my point to be that everybody must study every tradition of philosophy equally. Rather, my point is that attempting to make pronouncements about something as vast and variegated as “Eastern philosophy” is no easier than pronouncing about something as vast and variegated as “Western philosophy” or “African philosophy” or “Indigenous philosophy.” One might wonder what sense it makes at all to pronounce much of anything about anything so vast. As some Austrian mystic and elementary schoolteacher once said, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” I’m not sure I have what it takes to benefit from the spiritual lessons of that sage of Vienna, so perhaps it’s enough merely to recommend some intellectual modesty in our grand pronouncements.

    (Again, for those playing along at home, the Austrian in question is the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein).

    To get to a more constructive point, anyone who reads more than one paragraph about the Nyāya school could hardly mistake its hardcore metaphysical and epistemological realism for obscurantist mysticism or riddle-crusted play time. Nyāya is serious philosophical business. Each of the logical and epistemological elements in the quote in my presentation is strenuously defined, defended, and refined over hundreds of years of philosophical activity. Aristotle (himself hardly the life of the party) would tell these guys to lighten up a little bit.

    Likewise, skepticism of any tradition might smack of self-contradiction (what do you mean you know that knowledge is impossible?). Yet every skeptic I mentioned in my talk presents arguments. For example, appeals to circularity, infinite regress, or irrational stipulation (what came to be called Agrippa’s Trilemma in the Greek tradition) can be found in Nāgārjuna and Zhuangzi. The sheer volume of hair-splitting argumentation in Jayarāśi and Śrī Harṣa could exhaust even the most ardent analytic philosopher.

    Again, my point is not to shame people into shedding their interests in favor of my own. That would be no fun! Instead, I mean to do a bit of what philosophy everywhere does so well: question some assumptions.

    Liked by 5 people

  15. Paul Alexander Bravo

    There are only two truths; the first of the two having been stated, it is sufficient to say that all truths are relative truths save for this one. This is the one view I hold, and it is not a matter of preference, or even of choice, but simply the natural result of having honestly investigated the “nature of things” freed from the attachments and aversions that necessarily attend mental states characterized by self-reflexivity (i.e. identity view). As for truth claims made by scientists, the nature and intensity of recent debates in the fields of cosmology and particle physics suggest that there’s more truthiness than truth in any such claims, all of which at best possess some sense of conventional truth and at worst are hopelessly infected by the particular error riddled views to which their their respective authors attach.

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  16. Massimo Post author

    Paul,

    in what sense is the truth of the Pythagorean theorem, within Euclidean geometry, “relative”?

    Same question fo the statement that the Sun and the Earth rotate around a common center of gravity, located inside the surface of the Sun.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Ethan Mills

    On the issue of Zhuangzi and skepticism, he has been favorably compared to Sextus Empiricus. See, for instance, this article.

    Kjellberg, Paul. 1996. “Sextus Empiricus, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi on ‘Why be Skeptical?’.” In
    Essays on Skepticism, Relativism and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, edited by Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe, 1-25. Albany: SUNY Press.

    While Zhuangzi is not exactly a Pyrrhonian skeptic, he is similarly interested in freeing us from our limited, dogmatic ways of seeing the world. However, many contemporary scholars disagree and put forward other readings like relativism, perspectivism, mysticism, and others. Of course this level of scholarly dispute puts Zhuangzi among fine company of other difficult ancient philosophers like Plato who is read as everything from a mystic to a skeptic to a nascent analytic philosopher. What I personally love about Zhuangzi is the way the text can be simultaneously whimsical and philosophically deep, whatever one makes sense of it.

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  18. Massimo Post author

    Ethan,

    thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated! But I do want to push back, just a little, about the difficulty of telling what, exactly, several Eastern writers are getting at (and yes, I’m definitely aware that “Eastern” is a broad and heterogenous category, and that there are lots of distinctions to be made).

    I have read more than a few lines of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist writers, and I think your cherry picking of apparently obscure passages from the Western tradition in your comment is a bit misleading. Sure, any technical writing can be made to look like an example of obfuscation, if taken out of context. But there are differences, even within the Western tradition(s). I can easily read and understand Hume, say, but I really don’t think much (though not all) of Derrida is significantly different from a word salad.

    And the reason I made that comment in the OP is because of your own choice of quotations during your APA talk: what you quoted Sextus or Marcus as saying is pretty clear, while your examples from Eastern traditions require quite a bit of exegesis.

    I hasten to say that this does not mean, of course, that such exegesis is not worth doing. Nor does it mean that there is easy and complete agreement on what Plato, or Nietzche, wrote. But to quote the Sage from Vienna to imply that one should shut up if one is not a scholar of a particular tradition is a bit of a cheap shot.

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  19. Chuchu

    Hi Ethan,

    I would love to see your handouts on philosophers. Please let me know if you ever make them them available. I’m particularly interested in parallels of different philosophical schools that were developed independently around the world.

    I discovered Stoicism through one aspect of Taoism, and it was the concept of nature and the universe as a whole. Very soon, I read Marcus Aurelius’ writing on retreating to oneself’s mind for peace and serenity, it reminded me of the famous Zhuang Zi’s butterfly dream. The butterfly dream is interpreted in many different ways these days, but I remember my 14 year old self finding much comfort in it: I can always find freedom and tranquility in my mind regardless of harsh situations in reality, because “reality” could just be the dream of a butterfly.

    Clearly Stoicism and Taoism are very different in many other ways. However, it did make me wonder about similarities in philosophies that were developed in different parts of the world, independently of each other. Is it because the development of human consciousness had reached a certain point, therefore people from different regions came up with similar ideas simultaneously?

    Through my non-guided self research of philosophies, I also found Pythagoreanism vs. Mohism. This is partly related to my own mechanical engineering background. However, I couldn’t really find an equivalence to Socrates, but again that’s mostly due to my limited knowledge in philosophy. Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom, his self-awareness and he method of critical thinking (Socratic questioning) is obvious in many westerners’ today, at least in my day to day living. A machine breaks down, the western engineer would go on an endless list of questioning on every possibility what may have gone wrong, whereas the eastern engineer would take the questions and come back with well organised and precise calculations. Of course this is generalizing quite a bit, as it’s a situation observed in one western product design and manufacturing firm partly owned by Chinese. However, it did make me wonder about the origins to such different ways of thinking. It’s hard to not wonder, isn’t it? After all, Socrates always ends his series of questions with “what’s the origin of this?” Isn’t it also difficult to not want to know more about philosophy?

    My personal day-to-day encounter of Socratic questioning was also why I was so surprised to hear well achieved scientists would make comments such as “philosophy is dead.” I do think Hawkins may have been trying to sensationalizing things a bit there, as most things can not be taken without context. It’s great that you made such presentation, and good on Massimo for writing this article. Philosophy allows one to question, to pursuit knowledge (not necessarily encouraged by Zhuang Zi, though) and look at things as a whole. It’s essential to our minds, and society would only develop if we choose to develop our minds.

    Please let me know if you decide to publish your handout notes! =)

    Victoria

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  20. Chuchu

    I love your example quotes! =) and I now finally understand a bit more about skepticism and why Taoism is compared to it.

    I wished I could have a conversation with Zhuang Zi upon reading “knowledge is endless, therefore the endless pursuit of knowledge is pointless.” How could it be pointless? The human existence goes parallel to human knowledge, surely if I can’t solve a problem, someone younger may solve it, right? till the end of our species, right? maybe not so right? maybe some other species would come along and keep pursuing knowledge, what’s the chance? Any biologist could answer this? Massimo maybe? =)

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  21. Chuchu

    Thank you so much for the citation. =)

    This will be the first time I read something written about Zhuang Zi (he was my childhood imaginary friend, haha) by a western philosopher. =)

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  22. Ethan Mills

    Thanks, Massimo, for your response to my response. First of all, I apologize if my invocation of the Sage of Vienna was perceived as a “cheap shot.” (I did, however, call him a sage just to parrot some of the ways people in general sometimes talk about non-Western philosophers). I certainly didn’t mean it as a shot, cheap or expensive, because I didn’t mean to state or imply that one should shut about things unless one is an expert in them. If I followed that advice, I wouldn’t talk about Plato, Marcus Aurelius, or indeed Wittgenstein! When I said I couldn’t quite follow his advice, I meant to say something like this: while some people might say non-experts have no right to speak, I can’t agree with that, but nonetheless we should all – expert and non-expert alike – be careful about making grand pronouncements about entire traditions, if indeed, we should bother making such pronouncements at all.” This is why I “cherry picked” the quotes I did, specifically to show that by “cherry picking” one can make a tradition into whatever one believes that tradition to be. The fact that so few contemporary philosophers pay attention to Book 10 of Plato’s Republic says more about contemporary philosophers than it does about Plato. We’re all in the cherry picking game to some extent (or we’d never finish anything!). The question is how to cherry pick.

    I would add that to audience members unfamiliar with Stoicism but familiar with Indian philosophy, the opinion about which quotes were clear and which quotes lacked sufficient exegesis would in all likelihood be reversed! In a different sort of talk, something like “Indian philosophy for Stoics”, I would have made more of an effort to do exegesis. Indeed, a valuable lesson in all this for me is that I could do better about figures that are likely (for various reasons) to be unfamiliar to a general audience.

    The way I structured this presentation, however, had a specific rationale: I was trying to model the type of cross-cultural philosophy that I would like to see. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and all that (it seems Gandhi didn’t actually say that, but whatever).

    By treating the figures on equal footing I’m specifically trying to undermine the old (false) idea that “the East” is “irrational, mystical, otherworldly, etc.” in opposition to “the West” as “rational, scientific, this-worldly, etc.” Aside from leaving out a good chunk of the world, the East-West dichotomy doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny: the West has plenty of mystics, the East plenty of rationalists. It’s all a matter of which cherries you pick. (I’m also trying to avoid the equally annoying opposite idea that “the East” is better, more natural, more intuitive, more holistic, etc. as the New Age crowd would have it).

    To avoid another misunderstanding, I am not saying that you (Massimo) or any particular person goes around explicitly thinking the East is all irrational or whatever. But like it or not, something like this view provides the backdrop against which even very well meaning people (of various cultures) look at a lot of Asian philosophy. It partially explains why Chinese and Indian philosophy are often taught in religion departments or area studies departments but much more rarely in philosophy departments. It might explain why the default assumption is sometimes that Asian stuff must be shown to be rational, rather than being given the benefit of the doubt. It also maybe explains why even some well meaning translators and encyclopedia writers often present the material as mysterious or deliberately vague.

    Working against all this is hard. But it’s what I’m trying to do. Again, I’m not trying to make any personal attacks here! I’m talking about the discipline and the wider culture.

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  23. Ram Tobolski

    I know very little about Eastern philosophy, so the following somewhat provocative statement might be wrong, but there seems to be one more relevant difference between Eastern and Western philosophies: Western philosophy is still happening, still continues to develop, in the academy, while Eastern philosophy developed in the past, but it does not develop now. And this supposition leads me to a related question: if Western academic philosophers concede the advice to stop pursuing truth, what will they concretely do instead, as academics? I mean, what will remain of the Western academic discipline called philosophy? Won’t it signal the end of Western academic philosophy?

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  24. Massimo Post author

    Ram,

    I don’t know enough about Eastern philosophy to comment in depth, but I’m pretty sure there is scholarship going on there just as much as in the West.

    As for what philosophers do if they don’t pursue truth, woud you ask that of mathematicians, logicians, historians of art, literary critics?

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  25. Ram Tobolski

    Massimo, before we travel to “mathematicians, logicians, historians of art, literary critics”, can you specify what do you expect, concretely, from academic philosophers? What specific activities that they are doing today would you recommend them to cease doing? What specific activities that they are not doing today would you recommend them to do?

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  26. Ram Tobolski

    Massimo,

    When I read the OP, I thought I understood what you meant by “truth” and by “pursuing truth”. But your previous comment confused me, in this regard.

    “As for what philosophers do if they don’t pursue truth, woud you ask that of mathematicians, logicians, historians of art, literary critics?”

    I don’t know what included in literary criticism, but surely mathematicians, logicians, and historians of art do pursue truth? So why would I ask them that question?

    So I’m not sure anymore what do you mean by “truth” and “pursuing truth”. Therefore I was hoping to get clarifications on that. Such as, which modern philosophers do you consider to have been pursuing truth, and which have not been pursuing truth, but something else instead?

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  27. Massimo Post author

    Ram,

    I don’t think mathematicians, logicians and historians of art pursue truth in anything like the sense in which the word applies to science. The latter uses a correspondence theory of truth; math and logic are in the business of coherence and logical entailment; historians of art in that of aesthetic judgment and understanding. Philosophy does a combination of the latter categories, but does not discover truths in the external world.

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