Suffering and Platonic Lives, Platonic Selves

How would you feel if you were never to read another book in your life? What about if you were never to ski, or if not skiing, then some other sport? How would you feel if you could not live in the city? What about the country? What about the suburbs? These are only a few questions that pertain to the kinds of lives we might live. Some of us would be unmoved by life without books and others could not bear not living in the country. But, I take it, most of us do not think that there is only one kind of life to live as a human being, as a person. We do not, in other words, think that there is some sort of Platonic form of the perfect human life. We acknowledge a variety of possibilities; moreover, it is part of our liberal heritage to see this as a good thing. If for no other reason than the fact that we think imposing a particular life on someone, particularly when it doesn’t fit, is to rob them of their autonomy and ultimately to make them suffer.

So we suffer when a life we do not choose is imposed upon us. But notice what happens when we shift from thinking about the Platonic form of the perfect human life, to thinking about the Platonic form of a particular life. I am assuming that what is true of me here is true of many, if not most, others. That is, I have a tendency to conceptualize the explicit form of my life; I think of myself as a philosophy professor, one who likes to hike, one who gets meaning out of the natural world, one who loves animals, one who is at least not half bad at writing, one who works on Wittgenstein, Dōgen, and Nietzsche, etc. These are all things that I have, if not explicitly chosen, then at least endorsed for my life. These are the things that go into making up who I am. Since I have chosen them, I do not suffer them. Or so it seems.

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The Fruitfulness of Using Aristotle to Understand Buddhism

One of the classes I teach is Ethics from a Global Perspective. I usually begin the course with selections from Aristotle‘s Nicomachean Ethics. As I tell my students, I think there is much that Aristotle gets wrong, particularly his views on women, but his overall ethical framework, and the concepts and distinctions he employs, are extremely useful. While Kant is an obvious exception, Aristotle’s teleological approach can easily be mapped on to the other views we consider such as Hinduism and Buddhism. As with Aristotle’s ethics which rotates around the concept of eudaimonia, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, are centered around clearly identifiable ends. Where Aristotle asks: What constitutes eudaimonia? Buddhism asks: What constitutes enlightenment? So there’s a nice parallel structure, and I want to suggest that we can fruitfully use Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia and virtue to help elucidate important aspects of Buddhism.

I take it one of the caveats that most writers and professors make regarding eudaimonia is to point out how problematic the translation of it as happiness can be. While happiness is not univocal in English, my impression is that most folks associate it with a certain mental state, or feeling; moreover, one that can be assigned a specific duration. And so, we find other translations of eudaimonia in terms of a lifelong flourishing or well-being. However, given liberal (in the classical sense) and capitalist influences, it seems to me even flourishing and well-being are likely to mislead.

Emphasizing that eudaimonia is something applicable only to a whole life is a helpful start. Aristotle eventually identifies eudaimonia, flourishing/well-being, with virtue. Importantly, virtue for Aristotle is not a passive state, but very much an active one. In fact, eudaimonia consists in a lifetime of virtuous activity (which includes a number of “external” goods—one interesting question about these external goods is whether they are needed in order to be virtuous or whether they are needed in addition to virtuous activity; and, of course, it could be both). So what it is to have achieved a life of eudaimonia is to engage in a certain activity one’s whole life. In other words, eudaimonia is something you do. This is not to say, of course, that eudaimonia does not involve certain mental and affective states. The virtuous person enjoys being virtuous, for example. Continue reading

Dōgen on Hearing Things As They Are…a Response to Okumura Roshi

One of my most beloved contemporary Zen practitioners and scholars is Shōhaku Okumura Roshi. One reason is simply the fact that he is in the lineage of Zen that I attempt to practice, namely Dōgen’s. But I also find his approach very human; that is, his approach to Zen is a Zen that a human could practice. This is not always the case, it seems to me, with other Zen practitioners and commentators. But this, of course, does not mean I don’t resist some of the things he says, though I suspect oftentimes that resistance is more a matter of my misunderstanding, or perhaps better, my seeking to understand and falling short. But I am convinced that there is much value in lingering in confusion and talking about it with others. So what follows is that sort of lingering.

In a recent blog post for the Dōgen Institute, Okumura translates and comments on the following poem from Dōgen:

声づから Koe zukara At the very time
耳の聞ゆる Mimi no kikoyuru when my ears hear
時されば Toki sareba the voice as it is,
吾が友ならん Waga tomo naran everyone I talk with
かたらひぞなき Katarai zo naki is my friend.

What Okumura focuses on in his commentary, and what I want to focus on, is what it means to “hear something as it is.” What I want to suggest by the end is that things are much less clear than Okumura (and othes) make them appear to be. To get there, let’s consider the sound of a barred owl. What could it mean to hear the sound as it is?

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Dirty Ontology: The Muddy Waters of “the” Self

“When the water is deep, the boat rides high. When there is much mud, the Buddha is large.”
—Dōgen, “The Indestructible Nature in Deep Muddy Water” in the Eihei Kōroku


“Know thyself” is the fairly famous injunction inscribed overhead at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. The meaning of this may be less obvious than it seems, but regardless of how it was intended, we can read it in different ways depending on what we understand by “knowing” and what we understand by “self.”

I originally became interested in thinking about different conceptions of self in the context of death. Consider the original reasoning that got me interested in philosophy: “If there is no God, then there is no soul. If there is no soul, then there is no afterlife. If there is no afterlife, then the self ceases to exist upon death. Ceasing to exist is not good. Thus, death is not good. Thus… fuck.” But that conclusion depends on a very particular conception of self. To use a turn of phrase from Walt Whitman, it presupposes a conception of self where the self is contained “between one’s hat and boots.”

It seems to me that this idea strikes us as obvious (where the “us” in question is quite Western). That is, if I am not a self-contained, independently existing soul, then I must be this flesh and blood that “I” haul around everywhere. Mustn’t this be true? How could I be anything else? Even if I, or even an entire culture, were to say that what myself is is something other than this flesh and blood, this lump of flesh, how can that make it so? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It couldn’t. After all, consider the most extreme case: if the entire earth were to be destroyed, I would certainly still survive entirely intact if I managed to get away on, say, a spaceship. If not a soul, then I am necessarily this lump of flesh. An analogy: Calling my cat a “dog,” giving it dog food, a dog bone, and making it sleep in the doghouse, does not make him into a dog. I cannot make my cat something he is not by my treatment of him.

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Epicurus, Dōgen, and Not Fearing Death

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of sentience,… Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.
(Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

Restating what I take to be Epicurus’ point, when we are alive, we are not dead and thus death is not an issue; when we are dead, we cannot know anything good or bad, since we no longer exist; thus, when dead, death is not an issue. The immediate objection, or the one that comes to my mind, is that I can now, while alive, justly fear death because what I am fearing is the cessation of all possible future “lived nows.” What life seeks and fears losing, we might say, is an endless succession of lived moments. So, sure, when I die and cease to be, I won’t be underground in a coffin hating every moment of it, just as before I was born, I did not lament not yet being born. But I sure as hell can not want THIS to stop.

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Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?”— What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

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Some Thoughts on Greatness

Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are not ends. They are variously fodder, grist, ports in the storm, and storms to be sailed into. The same for epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, logic—for philosophy.

Living well is an end, a goal, though it is not a final point. It is more like a buoy in the open ocean—it can perhaps be reached, but vast openness, danger, and uncertainty lie beyond.

Greatness means overflowing with a multitude. One must, for example, have a multitude of projects, not just one. Therein lies a central difficulty, a great obstacle. It is difficult to produce one thing worthwhile, much less produce multiple. Here, too, we see the danger of the siren call of comfort—the need to welcome discomfort with open arms.

How is one to foster, to foment (after all, greatness can be dangerous) such a multitude? Surely a multitudinous diet. Hence, the danger of being a scholar.

Greatness is an end that does not require recognition from without. It also has contributory value in regard to living well, assuming living well doesn’t simply mean decadent-happiness.

The Need for Outspoken Outrage and Disgust

A few people I’ve been close to have been very critical by nature, easily outraged and disgusted by the actions and character of those around them. It was this that caused one of them to leave Facebook recently. He couldn’t see the point in engaging in something that was bringing forth so much bile. However, none of the people I’ve known have been as vociferously outspoken as Wittgenstein was personally or Nietzsche in writing. All of this raises two interesting questions. First, is there something of greater value in being more sensitive to opportunities of indignation, as opposed to being “easy going” in the oblivious sense? Second, if there is greater value in it, does that mean that one should be more willing to express it? Should you merely feel indignant or should you readily express indignation?

The value of being sensitive to the outrageous and disgusting can be assessed along two lines—the value to oneself and to others. Presumably, if you are more sensitive to the follies and evils of others, then you will regularly be swimming in unpleasant emotions. You might either flourish in such waters or find them drowning your happiness, depending on your nature. Thus, such sensitivity could be seen as valuable or disvaluable.

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Possibility and Nonsense

Before talking about the nature of arguments in my Intro to Logic class, I start off talking about inferential relationships between statements more generally.  So I ask them to consider what else must be true , e.g., if “Todd is dead” is true and if “Bob loves Jill” is true.

Two of the claims that people said followed from “Todd is dead” were:

1) There is at least one dead person.

2) There is a reason for Todd’s death.

I used this opportunity to talk about the difference between logical and causal possibility.  I take it that 1) is logically necessary in relation to “Todd is dead” and that 2) is causally necessary.  We can imagine a world in which people die for no reason, or something like that.

This led to the students’ asking about whether claims following from “Bob loves Jill” were causally or logically implied.  Someone asked whether it could be possible for someone not  to be able to love someone else and if so whether it would be causal or logical.  I said we could imagine a person having some kind of chemical imbalance or the like such that it would be causally impossible for him to love anyone.  But this led me to ask the class whether my water bottle’s not being able to love anyone is a causal or logical impossibility.  It is not so clear, is it?

This reminds me of an interesting but difficult passage in “Part II” of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, where he writes:

“A new-born child has no teeth.”—”A goose has no teeth.”—”A rose has no teeth.”—This last at any rate—one would like to say—is obviously true!  It is even surer than that a goose has none.—And yet it is none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.—Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose. ((Connexion with ‘pain in someone else’s body’.))

So, we might say that it is obviously true that my water bottle cannot love anyone, but is that not more than just odd sounding?  Is it a causal impossibility that makes us say this?  We might imagine the water bottle imbued with a spirit by a magician or god mightn’t we?

What about these three statements:

A) Either it is raining or it is not raining.
B) Either there is a black unicorn or there is not a black unicorn.
C) Either there is a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.

In the context of asking about immediate inferences, we might say that you can’t infer anything about the world, so to speak, by the truth of A) and B).  But should we say the same about C)?  If the idea of a square-circle is incoherent, then what could C) possibly mean?  Is C) true?  If it is false, is it necessarily false?  Is it nonsense?

Thoughts on “Private Language” and Natural Expressions

I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true;
Men do not sham convulsion
Nor simulate a throe.

The eyes glaze once, and that is death.
Impossible to feign
The beads upon the forehead
By homely anguish strung.

(Emily Dickinson)

An important part of seeing what Wittgenstein is up to is to recognize that his starting point when “doing philosophy” is that there are all of these phenomena of life:  we talk meaningfully about dreams, the future, sensations, chairs, music, numbers, good and bad; we follow rules; we recognize the feelings of others, though sometimes people are good at hiding them; and much, much more.  We succeed in doing all of these things.

We are tempted to say “How is all of that possible?”

We then hypothesize things like intentionality of the mind, hidden mechanisms underlying meaning, reference, and feeling, and much more—ways of trying to explain how all the other stuff is possible, how it works.

Wittgenstein wants to expose the limitations of many of these theories and their pictures.  He employs various methods, e.g., the method of §2 mentioned in §48 of PI (all section references are to PI unless otherwise noted).  Part of that method, I think, is the trying out of what it would mean if X were true.  So, e.g., what if sensations were really private in the super strong sense of §243?

Since our sensation talk is intimately connected with sensation/feeling behavior (groaning, sighing, smiling, laughing, wincing, etc.), and it is through such behavior that we often know others are in pain (or happy, sad, bored, etc.), then a private sensation language would have to be one without sensation behavior (as Wittgenstein says in §256).

Part of what is going on with the consideration of a private language is that Wittgenstein wants to reorient us so that we see the vital importance that our natural expressions of feeling/sensations play in language’s being meaningful.  What are some examples of natural expressions?

Think of the behaviors and the appearances of the body/face when we feel:  tired, angry, happy, surprised, joyous, nauseous, annoyed, ill, wired, distant, etc.

Now let us consider a case that might show the importance of the natural expressions of feeling/sensations.  What if there were beings who had no natural expressions of feeling, who didn’t do or have any of the behaviors and appearances characteristic of the feelings mentioned above?

Can we really imagine the lives of such beings?

What would their language be like?  Could they talk about their feelings and sensations?

We can perhaps imagine them talking about having physical objects, e.g., books, clothes, etc., in their possession and they could describe their properties.

Would they still avoid fire with quick movements backward?

Couldn’t one move away quickly from a fire and another ask why he is doing that?  What could the other one say?  “When my hand is in the fire I have something—something like I have when I smash my thumb under a rock.”  Couldn’t the other reply:  “Ah, I also have similar things when my hand is in the fire and when my thumb is smashed by a rock.”  “Well, let’s call what we are both having in these cases ‘pain’”?

Isn’t the above possible?  Well consider:  with what right can we say of two such beings that they really have the same sensation when their hands are in the fire?

Well, they both back away from the fire and avoid smashing their thumbs.

But what if one did those things because of pain and the other because they cause too intense a sensation of pleasure (worse than being tickled say)?

But wouldn’t the difference come out somewhere?  One remarks that the hand in the fire gives him too much of what he has during sex.  The other says “What do you mean?  They are nothing alike!”  (And we couldn’t say that the one who says sex and fire give different things might possibly be feeling pain instead of pleasure during sex, since he doesn’t avoid sex.)

But can they properly speak of “like” and “unlike” things here?

Well they presumably take these concepts of “like” and “unlike” from their experiences of talking about physical objects—so why not give them “like” and “unlike” for what they have “on the inside”?

Perhaps part of the problem with the above line of thought is that we didn’t count the behaviors of avoidance and fleeing, and preference and embracing as natural expressions of feeling/sensations, but we should have.

So what about beings who have absolutely no behaviors or appearances that express feelings/sensations or that could mark differences of feeling, sensations, etc.?  Even though none would ever see in another’s face any feeling, couldn’t one who feels pain when his hand is in fire and when smashing his thumb ask another if he also has something similar in both cases, and then ask about other similarities and differences?

What if they agreed about all such similarities and differences of “what they have” in all the different cases?  Couldn’t they agree to call the fire and thumb smashing things they have “pain” and the sex and good food things they have “pleasure”?

Well is it possible that they could agree on all the similarities and differences (thumb smashed is similar to a hand in fire, both are different from sex and good food, etc.) and yet still have very different sensations from each other (In the same way we might wonder if whether all the things I see as blue you see as green)?  In which case, it is not the sensations that are important but their relationships of similarity and difference to each other, and that fact that they agree about these.

But couldn’t they say that they want more of what they have during sex and less of what they have when their hands are in fire?

Remember that we said they couldn’t reflect these preferences and aversions in their behavior.  Given that, how much sense would it make to say they want more of that which they have during sex than that which they have from their hand in fire?

And we should also consider what their form of life would really be like.  How would they behave toward each other?  How would a parent know when to feed a baby?  Could such beings actually evolve as a species over time from simpler organisms?  Could they evolve as a social species capable of speaking any language at all?  (What are some of the reasons that groups of social creatures evolve into language users?)

In our imagined case of the beings who could express nothing through non-verbal behavior, have we perhaps encountered a form of life that is so different from our own that we cannot, with justification, draw implications from it to our own?  If that is so, what does it say about language, pain talk, etc., and the place of natural expressions, and a private language?

Well we said that natural expression would keep a language from being private.  So in order to try to make sense of the possibility of a super private language, we imagined beings with no natural expressions.  But two things resulted:

1) Insofar as they could talk about their sensations, they had to use the public language—so they didn’t create a private language of sensation talk.

2) Their form of life is so different from ours that it seems irrelevant to our own.

Now because of 1), we are left to make sense of a private language along the lines of §258, where there are no natural expressions of sensation, nor some other language that can be used to help “create” the private language.  And in §258 there is the problem that one cannot name anything since there is no way to disambiguate the concentration of attention.

But couldn’t one point out now that Wittgenstein was wrong when he insisted that natural expressions were the only way to “connect” words with sensations?

Well, first, we should note that Wittgenstein does not say that natural expressions are necessary for speaking meaningfully about sensations.  Rather, he says that it is one possibility for connecting them (§244).  Second, it happens to be the case that for us (humans), natural expressions play an important role. Wittgenstein need not be seen as offering up the necessary and sufficient conditions for language’s being meaningful.  And moreover, it is just not clear at all in what sense the beings without any natural expressions are a real possibility.  (If they aren’t possible, is it a causal or logical impossibility?  Why should it matter?  Perhaps only insofar as philosophers tend to think they deal only with the “logical must.”)

Lastly, as in §§288-290 (and elsewhere), Wittgenstein seems to say that without natural expressions for sensations we would need a criterion of identity for our sensations, for talking about them, identifying them as the same at different times.  If that is true, then our imaginary beings would face that problem as well.

Regarding this issue of criteria of identity, it seems Wittgenstein wants to suggest that it so happens that we use the natural expressions of sensations to connect the sensations up with language.  We are trained to do so as we learn the language.

Hence we get in §290 the claim:  “It is not, of course, that I identify my sensations by means of criteria; it is rather that I use the same expression.”  By “expression” he means “linguistic expression” I take it.  This passage makes sense when we bring to bear §238:  “The rule can only seem to me to produce all its consequences in advance if I draw them as a matter of course.  As much as it is a matter of course for me to call this colour ‘blue’.  (Criteria for ‘its being a matter of course’ for me.)”  We “identify” our sensations as a matter of course; we don’t need to identify them and then name them just as we don’t identify a color and then say its name:  we just see that it is blue; we just feel that this is pain.  But this relies on the idea he mentions in §244, where the child is taught new pain behavior by replacing the natural expression of pain with pain talk.  This training is what makes it a matter of course that this is pain.