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.

Philosophical Silencing: A Follow-Up

In response to my post on an act of philosophical silencing, Wesley Buckwalter wrote the following comment (over at the NewAPPS blog, where I cross-posted):

As you know, I was the gentleman that made that remark in a private facebook thread with a close friend. If I recall correctly, people in that thread were asking about whether certain kinds of thought experiments were typically referred to as “Gettier Cases”. I said that they were, despite how inaccurate or uninformative it might be to do so, in part because of the alternative traditions you cite. I’m sorry you interpreted my remark as silencing my friends on facebook. Personally I believe that philosophers should abandon the notion of “Gettier cases” and that the practice of labeling thought experiments in this way should be discouraged. If you are interested, I have recently argued for this in two articles here ( and here (

Many thanks to Wesley for his clarification. His initial comment, which I cited, did not acknowledge the content of the other comment I had quoted, and neither did it mention the presence of “alternative traditions” as a reason for the stance that he takes in the first of the two papers he refers me to. Those papers, if I remember correctly, were not cited in the thread. So, in the comment he had initially made, it had seemed to me that the amendment offered by the first commenter had not been taken on board.(In the Gettier case paper, Wesley refers to the following article–Turri, John. 2012. In Gettier’s Wake. In S. Hetherington (Ed.) Epistemology: The Key Thinkers. Continuum Press–as citing the Indian philosopher Sriharsa as someone who has offered similar examples. I am obviously very glad to see such an acknowledgment made in a published work.)

Let me go on to say that the attitude I was interested in highlighting, even if not instantiated in this particular token, is an existent type. (As you can tell, I was trained as an Anglo-American analytical philosopher.) Which is why I was not interested in naming individuals but in pointing to the existence of an intellectual stance. To the commenter Chris, who thinks he was ‘misled’, let me direct the following question:  What were you misled about? That an unnamed individual indulged in silencing or that the silencing of academic conversations about alternative philosophical traditions exists in academic philosophy? Perhaps my excessive familiarity with such acts of silencing, thanks to twenty-three years of utter failure in provoking a conversation about Indian philosophy, led me to the kind of conclusions I drew. I don’t think the conclusion to be drawn in response to my original post is that all is good, there is nothing to see here, and that we should just move on.

I started studying philosophy twenty-three years ago. In that time, I’ve only managed to provoke conversations about alternative philosophical traditions with the following demographics: one graduate school friend of mine who asked me a few questions about Indian philosophy while we were drinking beers, one senior professor who teaches Buddhism (among other things), my dissertation adviser (an Indian) who is a practicing Buddhist, and the attendees at a conference on Eastern philosophy a few years ago. In that same period, I’ve initiated several conversations about Indian philosophy, and have had them all shot down with varying degrees of skepticism and disdain. My worst mistake was to try to talk about Buddhist theories of relational consciousness with the members of a class on consciousness who were going down the usual Nagel-Block-Rosenthal-Ramachandran-Churchland et al route.

I realized over the years that most people I talked to in philosophical academia conflated ‘Eastern philosophy’ with ‘mysticism’. In response, I would sometimes point to the ‘harder’ schools: Samkhya and Lokyata (or Carvaka). The latter, in particular, was materialist in its orientation; perhaps that would appeal to the hard-edged analytical types I hung out with, the ones so enamored of science? Sometimes I would try to talk about Nyaya;  you know, logic and inference, and all that good stuff that analytical types like and love? No dice. It never worked. I was perceived as either indulging in a kind of facile ‘We’ve done it all before!’–perhaps like someone invoking the glories of the Nubian empire in a modern conversation about technological and cultural achievements–or dragging in wishy-washy pale imitations of the real thing.  (Logic only started with Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, dontcha know?)

But, of course, those traditions were not the only ones so dismissed. Within ‘Western philosophy’ I have heard graduate students who had never read Foucault dismiss him as ‘useless’, describe feminist theory as fundamentally misguided, and the less said about critical race theory, the better.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of an old family friend, a former professor of philosophy, with the following caption:

A photo of my brother and myself with Dr. Dhirendra Sharma, a man I deeply admire and respect. He is the author of _The Negative Dialectics: A Study of the Negative Dialecticism in Indian Philosophy_, _The Differentiation Theory of Meaning in Indian Logic_, a critic of India’s nuclear program back in the 1970s, (when he was writing about “appropriate technology”), an environmental activist working to preserve the Garhwal Himalayas, and going back further, an anti-Vietnam war activist when he had tenure at Michigan State. He is now in his 80s, fit as a fiddle, bright as ever. I aspire to his health and wisdom.

Posting that photograph reminded me of an incident that occurred during my thirtieth birthday. On that day, many of my graduate school friends showed up to help me celebrate. Some of us moved to my room to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I then owned one of Professor Sharma’s books and I took it down from the shelves and thrust it toward one of my friends. Because it featured ‘meaning’ in its title, and because all of us, as analytical types, seemed suitably obeisant toward philosophy of language, I thought it might get someone interested in opening it and taking a look. Instead, it was contemptuously waved off, even when I desperately said that it invoked distinctions that were reminiscent of the Fregean distinction between sense and reference. No one accepted the book held out, and it remained unopened.

Silencing exists.

An Act Of Philosophical Silencing

A few months ago, I noticed an interesting and telling interaction between a group of academic philosophers. A Facebook friend posted a little note about how one of her students had written to her about having encountered a so-called “Gettier case” i.e., she had acquired a true belief for invalid reasons. In the email, the student described how he/she had been told the ‘right time’ by a broken clock. The brief discussion that broke out in response to my friend’s note featured a comment from someone noting that the broken clock example is originally due to Bertrand Russell. A little later, a participant in the discussion offered the following comment:

Even though the clock case is due to Russell, it’s worth noting that “Gettier” cases were present in Nyāya philosophy in India well before Russell, for instance in the work of Gaṅgeśa, circa 1325 CE. The example is of someone inferring that there is fire on a faraway mountain based on the presence of smoke (a standard case of inference in Indian philosophy), but the smoke is actually dust. As it turns out, though, there is a fire on the mountain. See the Tattva-cintā-maṇi or “Jewel of Reflection on the Truth of Epistemology.” [links added]

In response to this, one gentleman wrote:

[T]here are countless cases that are standardly referred to as gettier kinds despite author, radical diversity, historical inaccuracy

I found this response peculiar, and yet, interestingly revealing.

Naming a particular fact-pattern, one used in a standard pedagogical example, as a “Gettier case” is not an innocent act. It is fraught with significance. It attaches the name of a person, an individual philosopher, to an entire range of philosophical cases used to illustrate epistemological principles. That person, that philosopher, does not come unattached; his name brings in its train an entire philosophical tradition and serves to stamp its institutions and its personnel with the imprimatur of philosophical innovator, as worthwhile contributors to a hallowed–and well-established and recognized–tradition. Because of this naming process, in part, an entire area of philosophical work is marked off and stamped with a certain kind of ownership.

Of even more interest to me is the response I made note of. A philosophical discussion is underway, proceeding along familiar, well-worn lines. Names of well-known philosophers from well-known traditions roll off everyone’s lips. Then, an interjection is made: politely pointing out that the nomenclature in use has an etymology that is not always acknowledged. This reminder is provided, I repeat, politely. There is no snark, and pointers to references are provided for the interesting reader. It is the very model of a respectful academic contribution to a philosophical discussion; I dare say I’d call it a useful philosophical contribution for the interested scholar of philosophy.

The response to this contribution–the first one, before any welcoming acknowledgments can be made–is, roughly, to cease and desist. There’s a conversation going on; it’s following the usual well-worn path, and you’d like us to look elsewhere? The nerve. There is no acknowledgment of an alternative tradition.

This is what silencing looks like.

Addendum: In response to my post, Professor Alan Richardson of the University of British Columbia wrote to me saying:

I find it interesting that the stopped clock example, which Russell mentions in a sentence of his 1948 Human Knowledge (on p 154 of the 1948 Simon and Schuster edition) would have been known to Russell (indeed to have been derived by Russell, one imagines) from Lewis Carroll’s little 1898 essay “The Two Clocks.”

Here’s a version of the Carroll essay from the web. 

So, Russell’s example gets subsumed under “Gettier cases” and what I have to think is the inspiration for it (the Carroll essay) goes missing.  Yes, just another example of “the Matthew Effect” but given what your post was about, it seemed interesting enough.

In Praise of Alan Watts And ‘Popularizers’

I have a confession to make: I enjoy reading Alan Watts‘ books. This simple statement of one of my reading pleasures, this revelation of one of my tastes in books and intellectual pursuits, shouldn’t need to be a confession, a term that conjures up visions of sin and repentance and shame. But it is, a veritable coming out of the philosophical closet.

You see, I’m a ‘professional philosopher.’ I teach philosophy for a living; I write books on philosophy. Sometimes people refer to me as a ‘philosophy professor’, sometimes they even call me–blush!–a ‘philosopher.’  I’m supposed to be ‘doing’ serious philosophy,’ reading and writing rigorous philosophy; the works of someone most commonly described as a ‘popularizer’ do not appear to make the cut. Even worse, not only was Watts thus a panderer to the masses, but he wrote about supposedly dreamy, insubstantial, woolly headed, mystical philosophies. An analytical philosopher would be an idiot to read him. Keep it under wraps, son.

To be sure, I have read some original works in the areas that Watts is most known for popularizing: Zen Buddhism, Daoism, and Indian philosophy–especially that of the non-dualist Vedanta. I have even taught an upper-tier core class on Philosophies of India and China–my class covered the Vedas, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. My philosophical training enables me to grapple with the substantial metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political issues these writings so richly engage with. But I’m not a specialized scholar in these domains, and hardly ever read modern academic writing that tackles their areas of ongoing disputation and analysis. My current areas of interest–legal theory, pragmatism, Nietzsche–and my current distractions and diversions–mainly the politics of cricket–take up most of my time and intellectual energy.

So I enjoy reading Watts when I can. I always have. He was erudite, he wrote clearly and passionately, and if you’ll indulge me just for a second, I would even describe him as ‘wise.’ He tackles issues that are at the core of philosophical questioning and inquiry and attitudes; he often offers quite lucid insights into matters that emotionally resonate with me. Perhaps I do not have the background necessary with which to evaluate his claims about Zen Buddhism and the Vedanta; those more specialized in those domains have often contested his readings and explications. (Merely being of Indian origin does not, unfortunately, make me an expert on Indian philosophy.) But from my limited perspective, and with an acknowledgment of some expressions of only partial comprehension, and sometimes even disagreement, with his writings, I would venture that I did not find him guilty of too many philosophical sins. (For instance, his ‘The Language of Metaphysical Experience’ is a very clear piece of writing; this was first published in 1953 in The Journal of Religious Thought and later reprinted in Become What You Are (Shambhala Classics.)) 

I do not know if Watts ever featured on philosophy reading lists at universities; my guess is not. He certainly is unlikely to in the future; he is dated now, I think. Perhaps only ageing hippies–dunno if I qualify as one–continue to read him. But I think it would be a shame if our fastidiousness about a certain kind of professional philosophical hygiene were to prevent us from approaching writings like his–that is, those who set themselves to expounding for the plebes–with less than an open mind.

Hot, Bothered, and Devout: The Religious Policing of Sex

Yesterday, I posted a review essay on a pair of books by SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra that critique the field of “Indian studies.” In my essay I attempted to place into some context the recent controversy over the recall from circulation of Wendy Doniger‘s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Amongst the many charges leveled at Doniger’s writing is that she has “hurt” the sensibilities of devout Hindus. This accusation is often made against many modern scholars of Hinduism; Balagangadhara and Malhotra are part of this chorus. Thus, in my essay I noted the former’s critique of Jeffrey Kripal and Paul Courtright‘s  psychoanalytical takes on the mysticism of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the legend of Ganesha and his conclusion that Kripal and Courtright were “indulging in mischief” and doing “violence” to “the experiential world of the Hindus.” Malhotra, of course, has been vigorously accusing Doniger of a variety of sins: her treatment of sexuality and sexual themes is one of them.

So, rather unsurprisingly, a centerpiece of these critiques is the offense caused to religious sensibilities by that which is supposed remain between the sheets.

I think we are entitled to be suspicious that whenever Hindus—in India, or elsewhere— or other devout folks–all over the world–get offended by academic or cultural responses to their religion, it invariably has something to do with sex, the one business that gets everyone hot and bothered under their cassocks and lungis. Reading Balagangadhara’s language of “violence” against Hindus, one would imagine the darkest depths of anti-Hindu sentiment had been plumbed. Rather disappointingly instead, it turns out Hindus are like religious prudes everywhere: sex and their gods or their saints do not go together; they are chaste, virtuous, asexual creatures. What a letdown for the civilization that gave us Khajuraho.

By saying this, I do not mean to diminish the ascetic strains in Hinduism—like those pointed to, ironically enough, by Wendy Doniger—but rather to combat the impulses present in the responses to the scholarship of Kripal and Courtright that seek to cover up the erotic and sexual strains in Indian culture at large. Such stereotypical and clichéd outraged responses are, after all, not even in accord with Indian cultural mores. Risqué versions of tales taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata often make the rounds in India; there are too, among the young ‘uns, dirty ditties galore about its characters to be sung out loudly and coarsely. Those who sing them, and tell lewd jokes by the dozen about characters from the great Hindu epics, don’t seem to be hurt by their activities.

Balagangadhara and Malhotra owe us an explanation of why so many Indians do not seem perennially offended by such practices. Could it be the vaunted Hindu tolerance and syncretism—spoken so glowingly of by Malhotra—is found here in the implicit understanding that powerful cultural and mythological imaginaries are unlikely to be diminished by a few academic theses? Intolerant reactions do not sit well with the picture these two worthies paint for us of an endlessly patient and resilient tradition.

Unsurprisingly, Balagangadhara and Malhotra, and their fellow “outraged”, claim to speak for too many, and seek to control discourse. Some things never change. For all the exalted theistic conceptions that the supposedly devout seek to foist on us, they descend all too quickly from the sublime to the sordid, from lofty metaphysical conceptions to just good old scoldings about dirty talk. There is nothing new in this outrage; just a tired old policing of sex.

SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze

On 12 February, Penguin India announced it was withdrawing and destroying—in India—all published copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). Penguin’s decision came after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which, in 2011, had filed a legal complaint objecting to sections of Doniger’s book. Amidst the vocal expressions of concern over the damage done to free speech and academic freedom in India were also thinly-veiled suggestions that justice had been done, that the right outcome—the suppression and quelling of an academic work that supposedly offended Hindu sensibilities—had been reached. A prominent voice in this choir was of one Rajiv Malhotra, who noted on his Twitter account that Doniger was merely the ”idol of inferiority complex Indians [sic] in awe that white person studies Hinduism,” that Penguin’s withdrawal of her work was justified in a world in which “media bias” in an “intellectual kurukshetra [sic]” had led to a “a retail channel controlled by one side.”   

This dispute over Wendy Doniger’s work is merely the latest instance of a long-running contestation of how best to study India and all things Indian.

Continue reading

A Puzzle about Karmic Doctrine – Contd.

Reader theendlessknot3d writes in with an interesting comment to yesterday’s post on the doctrine of karma as explicated by Daya Krishna:

You say that karma is working, in the case of B, to bring retribution for a past action, Y, which B had previously inflicted on another, and that A is therefore potentially free of guilt/responsibility for having spilled the hot water on B. A would just be the agent who is ‘used’ by karma to bring about this retribution. But I think the paradox of such a situation is pretty clear: that there is really no such thing as freedom in action, despite the appearance of free will which we would all intuitively think exists. It’s an unfree freedom, since karma informs or utilizes our motivations to bring about the actions which we otherwise think we are freely performing.

But I’d probably say that karma isn’t only being exercised against B through A’s act of spilling the cup, because we know that A deliberately chose to do it. I’d think that, if karma is a true description of agency, there would be a potential argument of infinite regression, since B’s act in his previous or present life also wouldn’t strictly speaking be his act; it’d be another act of retribution directed at some third agent, C, which was caused by C’s act of Z-ing. So it seems that there isn’t a way out of this circular argument with its intrinsic paradox unless we either at least admit to a rendition of the theory of compatiblism or reject the theory of karma outright.

Both these points are useful in that they illuminate the puzzle I was raising. I think there is another facet to the doctrine of karma that arises when you consider that in my original post, I had relied on a too-neat slicing up of events, their causes and effects.

To see this consider that in the original example, A‘s action does not have one effect alone; it has several. It hurts B, but it also spills water on the floor, wets B‘s clothes, perhaps breaks a glass and so on. These effects may in turn impinge on other agents; again, in each case, these accrue because of the affected agents’ pasts. So A‘s actions are not determined by B alone but by a much larger assemblage. Similarly, A‘s action is not the cause of B‘s injuries; it is one of the events–the availability of hot water, fuel for its heating, a glass to hold it in, and so on–that may be causally implicated.  Each of those events’ effects contribute to B‘s injuries; each of them is due to B‘s actions in the past. In ascribing responsibility to A we rely on some ends to guide us: perhaps our society is interested in assigning tort liability and individual actors are the most appropriate loci of causal influence for it. But the presence of the other events  implicated in B‘s injuries means that the deserts for B’s actions flow through multiple channels.

These points do not affect the ones made by theendlessknot3d above; the puzzles of responsibility and free will noted there still stand.