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.

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

A Thank-You Note This Philosophy Teacher Will Treasure

Teachers love thank-you notes from students; they, along with great classroom interactions with students, are easily the highlights of our careers. Here is one I received recently, which as a teacher of philosophy, I will particularly treasure–because it cuts to the heart of the enterprise I take myself to be engaged in. It comes from a student who took Core Philosophy with me last year–in that class, I tried to teach an introduction to philosophy via the Stoics. My student was one of the best in my class; but he did not hand in his final as he had started to struggle with some mental health issues by then. He passed the class in any case, and then we lost contact. A week or so ago, I heard from him again:

Professor Chopra, I don’t how much this means, if anything, coming from an ex-student you taught but I feel compelled to write this message: Thank you. Over the past year, I’ve gone back to the Stoic readings we did in that class and reread them. They really helped me through some rough times with my mental health. They have helped change the way I think about a lot of things. Today, in a journal entry, I was thinking about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the day working my way through that collection. It really resonated with me.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your class greatly benefited my life. I was going to respond MUCH earlier in the year, but I was hesitant about doing so because so much time had passed. I wish you all the best. [links added]

In a follow-up he writes:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CUNYs do insist on a core curriculum, an introductory philosophy class such as yours, focusing on philosophy as a means to live a better life, should certainly be a requirement.

I unapologetically admit that I began studying philosophy as a kind of therapeutic method to help me deal with personal unhappiness, to find meaning in a life that seemed to have lost its anchors and become adrift, lacking in mooring and direction; like my student, I was anxious and apprehensive and melancholic. Academic philosophy was not what I imagined it to be, but I’ve never lost sight of that original impulse that drew me to philosophy. It is an impulse that animates my teaching of philosophy: I hope that the study of philosophy will make a difference to the way my students live their lives, and how they see the world, and themselves within it. I’ve lost some hope over the years that I can compete in any meaningful way with the various influences in my students’ lives but my personal relationship with philosophy ensures my teaching remains hopeful it can make some difference to my student’s lives, that it can introduce new, and hopefully, helpful, perspectives to them. This email assures me that my efforts are not entirely in vain; I should continue.

Note: I requested my student’s permission to quote his email to me anonymously; he agreed, adding on the note I have quoted in the follow-up.

Straight Trippin’: Sartre, Mescaline, Nausea, Crabs

In a previous post, I had wondered whether Jean-Paul Sartre‘s description of Roquentin’s ‘vision in the park’ in Nausea was an indication of psychedelic experiences in Sartre’s past: Continue reading

‘Nausea’ And Psychedelia: Was Antoine Roquentin Tripping?

My re-reading of Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre‘s existentialist classic, for this semester’s independent study on existentialism has now prompted me to blog on it two days in a row.

Today, I find myself returning to a question which I had first considered a couple of decades ago during my first reading of Nausea: Was Antoine Roquentin tripping? Alternatively, did Sartre ever do psychedelics and incorporate some of those visions and experiences into his writing of Nausea?

This question should seem eminently reasonable to anyone who has either experienced psychedelics himself or read about the visions and experiences of those who have ingested psychedelics. For it is all here in Roquentin’s reports: the sheer, stark, apparently unmediated access to reality and being and existence, the sheer particularity and uniqueness of things, and yet at the same time, the dawning realization that reality and appearance are woven together, that–to use Dewey‘s words, “thought is intrinsic to experience,” that consciousness is constructive and constitutive. Like those who set out on psychedelic trips, Roquentin is overpowered and awed by his noticing, as if for the first time, his and the world’s being and existence.

This psychedelic aspect of Roquentin’s visions is most manifest in his famous “vision” in the park, the most philosophically rich section of Nausea. (I do not think it is a coincidence that Sartre uses “vision” here to describe Roquentin’s experiences here.) Here the “individuality” of things melts away, leaving them “naked.” Objects begin to exist so “strongly” that their very existence is almost painful to experience–just as in psychedelic visions, trippers report the almost painfully sharp clarity they now suddenly possess of the world around them. The black roots of the chestnut tree present themselves to Roquentin in all their sensuality, an overwhelming and overpowering one.

Like those who trip, Roquentin comes to realize the world is simultaneously absurd and yet potentially filling to the brim with meaning. Like them, he realizes the interplay of word and world, even as he realizes “the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions.” The tripper comes to realize his sight is not innocent, providing unmediated access to reality; instead, it itself is conditioned by a particular state of consciousness so that “sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas.” He realizes that he cannot stop thinking, that “my thought is me; that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think…and I can’t stop myself from thinking.” Those who have tripped are very often amenable to the idea that through meditative experiences, through flirtations with the no-thought experience that might be possible therein, they will experience the no-self the Buddha spoke about.

Huxley spoke of the psychedelic vision providing access to Heaven and Hell. Roquentin speaks of the “horrible ecstasy” he experiences in the park; it is frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. It leaves him “breathless” and makes him realize that up until that moment, he had not “understood the meaning of ‘existence.'” (Unlike trippers, of course, Roquentin does not feel the urge to have the entire mass of humanity share the experience with him.)

The thoughts I offer here, and the parallels I note, are merely suggestive, but I find them intriguing enough to make them explicit. A much closer read of Nausea accompanied by a comparison with classics of psychedelic literature–like Huxley’s The Doors of Perception–should be very rewarding. More on that anon.

Turgenev’s Hamlet And Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man

This semester, I’m running an independent study on existentialism with a pair of students from the English department here at Brooklyn College. Our reading list includes seven novels, four plays, and extracts from several philosophical texts. We kicked off our readings two weeks ago with Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground. Because my students had purchased the Norton Critical Edition (second edition) of Notes from Underground, I did so as well. This Critical Edition–like others on Norton’s list–includes some background and sources, examples of work that are inspired by, or are imitations of the novel under study, and finally some critical notes. While reading it, I found a fascinating foreshadowing of Dostoyevsky’s themes in Turgenev.

Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches includes the story ‘Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District,’ in which “the narrator spends the evening at a party of a landowner.” His roommate for the night considers himself cursed by his lack of “originality” even as he is considered an “original” by his contemporaries:

“My dear sir,” he exclaimed. “I’m off the opinion that life on earth’s worth living only for originals: only they have the right to live. Mon verre n’est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre [My glass isn’t large but still I drink from it], someone said. You see” he added in a whisper, how good my French pronunciation is. What does it matter to me if your head’s large and capacious, and if a person understands everything, knows a great deal, keeps up with things–but knows nothing of his own particular individual self! There’s one more storeroom for leftover luggage in the world–what good’s that to anybody? No, it’s better to be stupid, at least in one’s own way! Have your smell, your own smell, that’s what! And don’t think my demands are too great…God forbid! There’s no end to such originals: wherever you look–there’s an original; every living person’s an original, but I have yet to be counted in that number!

Underground man, of course, considers himself just such an ‘original,’ a fact he sets out to establish in excruciating and agonizing detail, much to the discomfiture of not just his fictional companions, but also his readers. Turgenev’s character, like him, has made introspective self-knowledge central to his life’s projects, acknowledging in his case that all the worldly knowledge of libraries and the commerce of men will be of little use if this self-knowledge is lacking. (A classic Stoic, Buddhist, and existentialist dictum.) If the ‘facts’ uncovered in this inwardly directed journey of exploration turn out to be unpleasant, well then, so be it. Better the ‘originality’ of the odious than the inauthenticity of the ostensibly socially desirable.

Crucially, Turgenev’s character points out that the fact of this ‘originality’ is already manifest “wherever [we] look”: we cannot help but be ourselves, even as we struggle, under the misapprehended weight of social expectation, to be someone else. This conflict, this discordance, cannot but be destructive.  The price for this discordance, as the underground man’s companions find out, is shared with others.