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.