The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

I have just concluded, in one of my classes this semester, my teaching of William James‘ classic Pragmatisma bona fide philosophical classic, one richly repaying close reading and elaboration of its central theses. My admiration for James’ writing and thought continues to grow, even as this semester, I encountered a passage that is remarkably incongruous with all I know about James’ sensitivity and appreciation of diverse religious traditions–this is after all, the man who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Lecture IX, ‘Pragmatism and Religion,’ James says:

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure….Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

[I]f you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer…Yet perhaps some would not; for there are morbid minds in every human collection, and to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal. There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving….We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.

The peace and rest, the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. [emphasis added]

The total misunderstanding on display here of these two great religious and philosophical traditions is acutely disappointing. James seems to have absorbed, uncritically, the most facile and reductive view possible of the claims they make; he reduces the diversity of Indian thought to a quick caricature. ‘Nirvana’ is not nothingness; it indicates a state of living in this world that is not afflicted by the pointless suffering that is the lot of all those who do not practice the kind of ‘ironic detachment’ the Buddha preached and practiced. The ‘hindoo’ for his part does not retreat, afraid of this world; nowhere in the diverse philosophical systems that make up ‘Hindu thought’ is retreat from the world the central prescriptive claim. At best, it might be one of the practices that lead to enlightenment, one of the stages of life that we must pass through.

James betrays here a parochialism that still infects the modern academy; the misunderstanding on display still reigns supreme.

Robert Morrison And Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche And The Buddha

Two recent books on Nietzsche and Buddhism–Robert Morrison’s Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities, and Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy–do an exemplary job of examining, sympathetically and rigorously, some related questions of enduring philosophical interest: What is the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism? What were Nietzsche’s views on Buddhism? Was he grossly mistaken in his reading–if any–of Buddhist texts?

The answers these two texts provide are roughly similar.

First, Nietzsche had mixed views on Buddhism: he praised it for sounding the same alarm he was to a decadent culture confronting the loss of its most cherished ideals and ‘fictions’; he criticized it for what he saw as its nihilistic, world-denying aspects. This latter viewpoint, as both Morrison and Panaioti are at pains to point out, rests on a systematic misunderstanding of key Buddhist concepts and theories. Nietzsche was handicapped in this regard, ironically for someone who was a philologist, by his lack of fluency in the Indian languages–Sanskrit and Pali–essential for reading original Buddhist texts; he had to rely, perforce, on indirect access to the Buddhist corpus. Some of this indirect access, notably, was provided by Schopenhauer, who extracted from Buddhism a pessimism that Nietzsche ultimately found untenable and defeatist.

Second, Nietzsche and Buddhism share points of resonance or ‘affinities’ at several points: they both are committed to: a no-self theory of the self that denies the substantiality of an enduring self, a theory which they describe as a ‘delusion’ and which serves to underwrite many other species of pernicious theorizing; a metaphysics that eschews ‘substance‘–indeed, the no-self theory of the self serves to underwrite a no-object theory of objects or no-substantiality theory of substance (Buddhism employs the notion of “co-dependent arising” to deny independent, non-contingent existence to any thing or substance); a rigorous practice of self-overcoming or self-mastery, a key component of which is the mastery of perspectives that are free of the various illusions and delusions that contribute to ‘world weariness’ or ‘pointless suffering.’ Moreover, both can be understood in ‘medical’ or ‘therapeutic’ terms; they both aim, through their philosophizing, to ‘cure’ a certain kind of perplexity that has led to intellectual and physical ill-health. And they both do it with an emphasis on practice, on modifying and altering the very ways in which we think and live.

Both Morrison and Panaioti know the relevant literatures exceedingly well; they’ve clearly mastered the Nietzschean corpus, and engaged rigorously with original Buddhist texts. (They both seem to be fluent in Pali and Sanskrit and often contest older translations of technical terms in these languages.) They write clearly and do a wonderful job of making difficult Buddhist material more accessible. Morrison does this to a greater extent as he engages in several attempts to provide new interpretations to Buddhist terms and theses–not all of which will find approval with scholars of Buddhism, but they will applaud the attempted rigor of his interpretations anyway.

Much academic writing these days is sterile and unreadable; these two books provide a much-needed counterpoint to that claim.

The Most Valuable Philosophical Lesson Of All

I’m often asked–by non-academics, natch–if anything in my philosophical education has been of value to me in the conduct of my lived life. I have found this question hard to answer in the terms my interlocutors demand, largely because is because posed to me in what I call ‘lock-key’ form: is there a lock you have been able to open with a philosophical key? The locks and keys of our lives and education do not quite match up in the way that is imagined here.

Still, if pressed, I will say that one philosophical lesson whose value and import seems to me to be considerable, and one which I have with only limited success tried to integrate in my daily conduct is quite simple. Its basic form can be found in the following lines often attributed to the Stoic, Epictetus:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
This simple ‘ancient’ wisdom is not to be found in Epictetus–or the Stoics–alone; the Buddha’s sermons include many variants of it, it arguably forms the heart of existentialist philosophy, and further afield, in poetry, Cavafy’s ‘City’ and Milton’s Paradise Lost point to it as well. (You can even find it in Buckaroo Banzai: ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’) It’s lesson is not easy to internalize for the radical agency it grants us is simultaneously empowering and frightening: we make of this life what we will.
Still, having found over the years that I would come across it again and again, its import was undeniable, and I have sought to integrate it into my daily living. This has been a non-trivial task, but I can at least say that I have succeeded to the extent that I can feel its presence acting as a constraint on my inner and outer reactions on the most important of occasions: those times when I am tempted and ready to curse and rail against circumstance or misfortune or another person for having denied me material or psychological comfort and  happiness. It is then that I often find myself pulling up short, and putting a brake on my tongue and mind: is there blame to be assigned here to an externality, or is there rather, an opportunity for me to think and do things differently?
As I noted above, this is not an easy lesson to take to heed. Certainly, many who know me–friends and family–will not think that I have been very successful in my efforts thus far. I remain, like most humans, all too easily inclined to imagine my happiness, my psychological and affective state of being, is at the mercy of the world ‘outside’–events, material objects, people’s actions. But in my more lucid ‘philosophical’ moments, I see through this misapprehension. And I resolve again, to keep that vision close by, at hand, ready to be summoned up when I am tempted again. I think we can ask no more of our philosophy–that it worm its way into our hearts and minds, reminding us again and again, of its relevance for our life.

Teaching Self-Evaluation For The Semester That Was (Almost)

Classes for the fall semester ended last week; finals and grading lie ahead of me. It’s time for another self-evaluation of my teaching. As usual, I find myself earning a mixed grade for my efforts.

This semester I taught three classes: Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, and Introduction to Philosophy. (Interestingly enough, this is the first time in my thirteen years at Brooklyn College that I’ve taught Introduction to Philosophy.)

Let me get the bad news out of the way. I do not think I did a good job in my Philosophy of Law. I was unable to make headway on the oldest problem of all: getting students to do the assigned readings. And neither was I, by sheer dint of effort and pointed interactions with my students, able to get a robust discussion going in class. I was also too easily distracted and put off by some of the body language on display–bored expressions, slumped posture. It was all too clear to me I was not being able to make the material interesting or engaging and as the semester wore on, my sense of futility grew; I could sense my interest in the class lessening. My students and I were not helped by a classroom that was alternately too hot and too noisy. In an effort to shake things up, I changed the seating arrangement in class, going from the traditional ‘teacher-in-front’ to a square configuration with me sitting down with my students. It did not work. Perhaps I gave up too easily; I should have been more unconventional, and I should have tried individual interventions–by email, or in my office hours–with some of the students most clearly in need of one.

In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I adopted an unconventional tactic to introduce students to philosophy: I would do so via the Stoics. My syllabus consisted of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius; through their writings I would introduce students to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and social and political philosophy. I would begin each class by asking my students to write a brief reaction to a verse/chapter/section from the assigned reading; we would then use their responses as the foundation for the class discussion. I had mixed results in this project. I was teaching at night, in one of those terrible 150-minute slots, which are a pedagogical disaster. My students were tired, and sometimes unable to summon up the energy to participate in class discussion. They did, however, find plenty to provoke and intrigue them in the Stoics, and by virtue of connecting Stoic nostrums for a good life to their own personal experiences, I was often able to evoke vigorous responses from, and interactions with, them. Many students spoke with a great deal of feeling about how Stoic insights resonated with them; these responses would, in turn, provoke other students to speak up. Thanks to the Stoics, I was also able to introduce the students to Buddhism (they found the Buddha‘s ‘no-self’ theory of self utterly fascinating.) In retrospect, I would say that I could have dropped one of Seneca or Epictetus and brought in some other readings to supplement this unrelenting diet of the Stoics. I look forward to conducting a class like this again with a modified syllabus.

My Political Philosophy class was greatly aided by a classroom which featured a seminar table, thus automatically introducing a more informal, less hierarchical spatial structure to the class discussion. I was also aided by interesting and provocative readings, by the idiocy on display this election season, and by many students being diligent about the assigned readings. I stayed very close to the texts, and read aloud many passages in class, stopping again and again to discuss them with my students. These class discussions were easily the best I had all semester in any of my classes.

I continued to struggle with grading writing assignments but was happy to note that at least on a couple of occasions students took advantage of my offer of resubmission opportunities and came to see me with revised papers, after working on which they secured higher grades. Some of these personal interactions were very rewarding as I could sense students were able to learn something about the difficulty and the pleasures of the writing process by working with me.

Thus endeth another semester of teaching. (Grading remains though.) More mixed results; more food for thought for the future.

Babies and Personal Identity

As a professor of philosophy I have taught personal identity several times; almost always in introductory classes; mostly via John Locke, David Hume, and the Buddha, and by relying on standard examples in the literature (the Ship of Theseus for instance). Invariably, I begin my class discussions of  personal identity by saying something along the lines of, ‘We are used to pointing to a photograph and saying “Hey, that’s me when I was three years (or six months or six weeks) old” and our listeners will believe us in most cases. But what is it that licenses such a claim? The entity we are pointing to doesn’t look exactly like us; it sure doesn’t behave like us; its physical composition is entirely different. So what gives?’ And then, we’re off and rolling. Brain transplantation, teleportation, and the movie Big (among others) follow. I have much sympathy for the ‘forensic’ aspects of personality that Locke alludes to, and for Buddhist and Humean no-self theories, and some of my students, gratifyingly, do cotton on to what it is about these theories that is simultaneously insightful and perplexing. Teaching personal identity allows me, most pleasurably, to delve into topics that are the most close to our hearts but which are often condemned to the margins in the more rarefied regions of philosophy; it is where metaphysics and ethics come together.

These days as I spend most of waking–and sometimes half-awake–hours with my almost-seven-weeks-old daughter, I’m reminded–again and again–of that introductory example of the baby in the photograph. I am aware of her changing, rapidly, all too rapidly. I marvel at her transformation from just-more-than-fetus to infant, as pounds and inches add on, as she starts to respond to more environmental stimuli like sound and light and touch, dishes out ‘social smiles’ when confronted with the cooing expressions of her father, mother, and aunt, and emits sounds, which in the grand imaginations of a hopeful parent, are not just stifled cries but genuine attempts at communication. And I wonder what she will ‘turn into,’ what she will ‘grow up to be’, what she will ‘become.’ I try to extrapolate, sometimes, from her current features, to what she might look like a year from now or even later. I speculate about the friends she will make, and how they will ‘transform’ her so that the girl who leaves home in the morning for school will come back a ‘different’ one in the afternoon.

These speculations run out soon enough, and I urge patience on myself. For I am dimly aware that the girl I play with now, whose crying sometimes almost reduces me too to tears, will not be the ‘same’ girl years later. The one I play with now, who has a nickname I dare not share for fear of being considered soft in the head, will be replaced by someone else. That other girl will look at the gigantic collection of photos her parents put together and perhaps say the same thing: ‘Lookit me – I was kinda cute, wasn’t I?’ She’ll be right, of course. But for now, I want to make sure I make the most of my limited time with this special guest, one who will soon be replaced by another one, as yet another stage of the inevitable process of ‘her growing up’ comes to be.

Note: Here is a post in which I describe a childhood thought experiment with personal identity.