Newsletter: June 2021
Welcome to the month of June! I’m celebrating the first of the month by diving into the second week of classes on the philosophy of love and friendship, where we’re wrapping up our discussion of Plato’s Symposium. Are we persuaded by the vision Socrates claims to have received from a mysterious woman according to which all love is ultimately directed at a divine, unchanging, and non-physical beauty? And what do we make of the disruption of this rarefied vision by a drunken Alcibiades who proclaims a very earthbound love for Socrates?
This session of classes is delightfully international with participants either in or from Canada, the United States, Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Ghana, Iran, and India. One of the great pleasures of this online format is the way that it brings together people of such diverse backgrounds. And what better topic on which to do so than love and friendship?
I’ve also been doing a bit of philosophy outside the world of online classes. Earlier in May, an article I wrote was published in the online magazine Psyche. The article starts with the observation that we often invoke animals in our insults (“he’s a pig”; “she’s a cow”; “they’re filthy animals”) and ask what human attitudes toward animals are revealed through this sort of language (answer: not good ones). This short essay is part of a larger project I’ve been working on over the past year concerning humans’ attitudes and relations to non-human animals. Beneath the well-trodden ethical questions (is it okay to eat them?) I think there’s a complex set of issues about what it means to be human and how we make sense of ourselves in relation to and alongside other animals.
I’ve also moved into an apartment in Vancouver! Everything is still in a state of disarray but hopefully students in the class on love and friendship will slowly see some bookshelves take shape in the background of my Zoom screen in the coming weeks.
I’d probably be farther along in that project if I weren’t also enjoying the beautiful weather and getting up into the mountains around Vancouver.
The full moon in May (this year it fell on May 26th) is Vesak in Theravāda Buddhist countries, an occasion to celebrate the birth, death, and Enlightenment of the Buddha. Many other Buddhists celebrate the day as the Buddha’s birthday. In the course on love and friendship, we’ll read the great Theravāda sage Buddhaghosa in mid-June on the ideal of loving-kindness. But I thought this might be an occasion to offer a brief introduction to Nāgārjuna, who is arguably the greatest Buddhist philosopher of them all.
Those of you who took my course “How Should We Live? Answers from the Ancient World” will have encountered a puzzle in the Buddhist teaching of not-self. According to the Buddha, there is no substantial and enduring entity that is rightly called a self. When we talk about the self, says the Buddha, we’re really talking about a constantly changing conglomeration of different aggregates. A famous simile in an early work of Buddhist philosophy compares the self to a chariot, which is composed of wheels, axle, chariot-body, reins, and so on. The chariot is no single one of these parts and its essence resides in no single one of these parts. When the parts are broken up and scattered across a battlefield we say the chariot has been destroyed and yet none of its parts has gone out of existence. Likewise, what we call the self is a conglomeration of simpler parts, says the Buddha, none of which on its own is the self.
Words like “self” and “chariot” are what Buddhist philosophers call “convenient designators.” They don’t denote anything ultimately real but it can be convenient to talk about them for certain practical purposes—so long as those practical purposes don’t mislead us into thinking that we’re talking about something ultimately real.
So what is ultimately real, then? Presumably you could say about the chariot wheels what you say about the chariot: they, too, are made up of parts. And each one of those parts is made up of smaller parts, and so on down. So what are the fundamentally simple parts? If selves and chariots aren’t ultimately real, what is?
Early Buddhist philosophers developed a kind of atomic theory, claiming that reality is ultimately composed of dhammas, atom-like constituents of matter and mind. Statements about selves and chariots might not be ultimately true, since they talk about things that aren’t ultimately real, but they can qualify as conventionally true so long as they align with what’s ultimately real. If I say, “I rode in a chariot yesterday,” that statement is conventionally true if the conglomeration of dhammas associated with what I call a self and what I call a chariot were indeed arranged in a certain way yesterday. Ultimate reality, on this picture, is the guarantor of conventional truth.
Nāgārjuna challenged this whole picture. Very little is known about him—he probably lived in the Deccan plateau of central India and estimates about his dates range from the first to third centuries of the common era—but he was active at a time when a new school of Buddhism was starting to take shape. This school is called Mahāyāna (“the great vehicle”) and has since become the dominant form of Buddhism (slightly over 50% of Buddhists today identify as Mahāyānists). Nāgārjuna laid much of the philosophical groundwork for Mahāyāna Buddhism and was foundational to the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy.
Mahāyāna is famous for its doctrine of emptiness. A number of early Mahāyāna texts claim that all things—including dhammas—are empty of essence. In other words, Mahāyānists say of even dhammas what earlier Buddhists said of selves and chariots: the terms we use to talk about them don’t correspond to anything ultimately real. In his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way), Nāgārjuna engages in a series of dazzling logical manoeuvres, considering various items we might take to be ultimately real—causation, motion, space, and so on—and showing how a commitment to the ultimate reality of these items entails unacceptable consequences.
This process yields a further interesting result. On the traditional view, conventional truths about selves and chariots are a kind of second-best truth, since they deal with entities that aren’t themselves ultimately real. But if no statements are true of ultimate reality, then statements of conventional truth no longer have this second-best quality, since there’s nothing compared to which they’re second best. Our talk about selves and chariots no longer has to feel provisional.
Instead, we’re left with the world as we find it, untethered from any question about what is or is not “ultimately” “real.” In effect, Nāgārjuna finds a tremendously sophisticated way of persuading us to abandon metaphysical speculation altogether. To my ear, trained in 20th century European philosophy, Nāgārjuna sounds a lot like Wittgenstein. As a Buddhist, of course, Nāgārjuna has a further spiritual purpose. If the Buddha teaches us not to cling to views, disentangling us from metaphysics might be a step toward our spiritual liberation. Wittgenstein was no Buddhist, but I also don’t think it far-fetched to suppose that his philosophy might have had similar spiritual aims.