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How many are there, anyway?

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The other day I was trying to remember a pluralization rule in Tibetan when I started to wonder if there could be a language that had no concept of plurality. The concept of individual instances of general types is so deeply ingrained in my concepts and language, I can’t conceive outside of it.

In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche reflected on the formation of abstract concepts on the basis of individual unique experiences:

Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted – but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model. (1)

If this is so, where does this idea come from, this phantom “leaf” concept that seems so compelling? What is it in our experience that so persuades us that there exist, in the world, many instances of particular kinds of things?

Thinking about experience, and perhaps influenced by my long familiarity with Nietzsche’s fine leaf example, I think about the biological world first – we encounter many apples, but they are all so similar by reason of their biological similarity, that they vividly give the impression of all being the same thing.

But a moment’s reflection suggests that it’s more than that, because long before there were apples, there were galaxies and stars, which exist on a continuum, but there are a great many stars of similar size, composition, color, and life cycle. Trillions of stars, stars without end.

So what is it about our universe, that things are organized in this way? Things are composed of atoms, which are more or less the same. And I wonder, are they identical? That is, if you take two helium atoms and compare them, is there any way whatsoever that they can be differentiated from one another, other than, say, their temperature and location? What about electrons? Do electrons have hair? I have no idea.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, Vidagdha Shakalya asks the sage Yajnavalkya “How many gods are there?”

Yajnavalkya replied, “Three thousand, three hundred, and six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Thirty three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”


“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”


“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One and a half.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”


1) Nietzsche F. trans. by Daniel Breazeale. Philosophy and Truth; Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Humanities Press. 1979. p. 83.


Written by Mesocosm

November 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Philosophy

Digital Humanism; a Response to Byung-Chul Han

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Fernsehturm Berlin

Fernsehturm Berlin

I’ve been reading the German social theorist Byung-Chul Han’s critique of digital culture with interest since I first stumbled upon his arresting concept of the Transparency Society, of which he is not a fan. I wrote about the Transparency Society here, but to briefly recap, the term refers to a culture of digital disclosure and mutual voyeurism that embraces openness and connectedness as intrinsic goods. In Han’s analysis, this leads to a devaluation of true intimacy and connection, which require an interplay of disclosure and concealment.

As a guy who works in Menlo Park for one of Han’s favorite targets of criticsm, it’s valuable for me to engage with a forceful critic of the new model openness, which he associates with social media and Big Data in the US and with the fringe Pirate Party at home.

When Han declines to differentiate between different forms of exposure – for example, between voluntary self-disclosure in social media and government surveillance – this signals his intentional flattening of the various conditions by which societies become transparent to technology. This strategy reflects what I believe to be a staunchly anti-humanist philosophy.

What do I mean by anti-humanism? Han is interested in the ways that information networks constrain and shape human action and experience, which puts him in the lineage of Continental anti-humanists including Derrida and Foucault.

Foucault’s career was dominated by his interest in the ways in which individual subjectivity is molded by social discourse, particularly discourses of alterity and power, into which we are assimilated and by which we perceive and value the world.

Derrida focused on deconstructing the European metaphysical tradition, especially its prejudice in favor of presence, which has historically been regarded as the ideal, pure forms of being, as opposed to contingency, lack, and absence, which are negative states of imperfection.

Han’s debt to these critiques is clear. In his fascinating book Abwesen, he contrasts Western and Eastern modes of metaphysical discourse, citing Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and contrasting it to the Buddhist and Taoist concepts of emptiness and non-action. While the Platonist conceives of ultimate reality in terms of an everlasting and pure realm of being, the canonical expression of ultimate reality in China and Japan is the sage who embodies its realization. Such a sage is frequently depicted as a wanderer without a home, who leaves no trace. This ideal sage is mobile, embodied, enigmatic, and composed of the play of light and shadow.

This strategy of valuing the hidden, the absent, and the transitory is central to Han’s critique of Transparency Society, which he diagnoses as a classical expression of the Western inability to tolerate these “impure” states. The voyeur has an insatiable need to know, to unmask, and to unconceal, and thus devours the hours reading news and paging through Facebook updates and microblogs.

By this unmasking, the spirit of the encounter is lost, and wisdom is exchanged for the accumulation of facts. Other casualties of the Transparency Society include theory and ideology.

Han persuasively argues in his “Digital Rationality and the End of Communicative Action” that online political activism is post-ideological. Because of its characteristic methods of interaction, the Internet does not give rise to collective ideology or the formation of mass political parties. You may see mass action rising out of the Internet, but we have not yet seen real mass movements, because the Internet fractures discourse and exerts a “centrifugal” pressure by which individuals increasingly speak in isolation to micro-audiences. This does not encourage the formulation of mass ideology, or support the development of long-term political platforms.

Although Han makes this argument on a theoretical level, it’s worth noting that this closely agrees with the findings of sociologists examining the role of social media in the Occupy movement as well as mass protests in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. It’s beyond the scope of this post to analyze that point in depth, but I can refer to a few examples.

I was struck earlier this year, when reading about massive protests in São Paulo, when the Guardian had this to say:

Lucio Flavio Rodrigues de Almeida, a sociology professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, said the authorities had so far responded only with repressive actions against protests that had morphed in character and size and were being organized by an amorphous social network rather than political parties. (emphasis added)

This is just what we find in similar cases – political action is triggered by a catalyzing event, such as an AdBusters campaign, or protests over bus fares, which avalanche into massive, loosely-organized protests reflecting variety of complaints, often having little relationship to the initial cause of the action. Where such movements fail is their recurring inability to consolidate a sustained platform, or to create mechanisms for long-term advocacy.

In short, we have sound empirical evidence that Internet-based political activism has indeed thus far been post-ideological, in Han’s sense. Let’s have a closer look at how he uses this concept.

In “Digital Rationality,” Han cites a notorious screed by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. This widely-criticized opinion piece argues that with the rise of Big Data, we no longer need to look for underlying principles, because we no longer need to understand – we have enough data simply to act on the basis of correlation, and we can leave theorizing to philosophers and children.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Big Data, then, destroys synthetic linkages that organize individual actors into political parties, and that organize individual data points into theory. The overall movement is simultaneously one of aggregation and fragmentation.

Han recently published an opinion piece for Die Zeit called Data-ism and Nihilism, which inspired me to collect my thoughts and to write this response. He briefly summarizes a number of the points I’m recounting here, and reads the post-ideological stance of Big Data as a new form of nihilism, in Nietzsche’s colorful sense of the term – that is, as the character of a degenerate culture that is incapable of positing and realizing its own sense of value from out of its own creative potentialities.

Han’s Data-ism is a culture of facts without meaning, of iPhone confessionals, in which dazed wanderers interpret the Delphic Oracle’s “Know thyself” as an injunction to post their weight automatically to Facebook with newfangled watches. It’s fragmentary and alienating, but at the same time is intolerant of distance or unknowing. It is a dark digital age.


In reading this editorial, I came to realize that my interest in Han was born largely out of honing my own perspective in stark contrast to his critique, and this leads me to posit and argue for a counter-balancing position that I’ll call digital humanism.

I like the way that Han brings Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence into dialog with Buddhism and Taoism, and I find him to be a sensitive and cogent expositor of texts, even if he is not a profound theoretician. And I find his critique of techno-culture refreshing, surrounded as I am by so-called futurists, technology optimists and Utopians. The further you get from Silicon Valley, it seems, the more critical and conservative you find the prevailing attitudes about Internet culture. Stuart Brand, Ray Kurzweil and Mark Zuckerberg are of California, while Han is of Western Europe.

Where I differ sharply with Han is his anti-humanist posture. In Han’s account, technology is not a means to human ends; it is something that happens to people, like the weather. It shapes and binds us to certain channels and procedures, but it doesn’t liberate us or put us into contact with knowledge or ideas.

This is only half of the dialectic, and by studiously ignoring the uses to which intentional actors put technology makes a caricature of modern digital culture.

My own studies of culture, philosophy, and history have been enormously augmented by information technology. The gains are so pervasive and profound, it would be an exercise in the obvious to catalog them. I’ll just note as one of countless examples that the free, instantaneous availability of several German newspapers allowed me to discover Han’s critiques, and this blog is where I can publicly respond.

If Han can only regard media culture in the light of its systemic effects and its constraints on human agents, and he can make no allowance for human agency or design, then surely we must ask, who is the nihilist here?

As a counterpoint to the digital anti-humanism that Han embraces, I suggest a digital humanism, which values technology insofar as it is a means to legitimate and moral human purposes.

There is a long tradition among European intellectuals of demonizing technology, visible in the work of theorists such as Marx, Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Heidegger. But technology can liberate as well as bind, and can open as well as close. Technology is not a mere accidental accretion of human civilization, it is a product and tool of human endeavor and deliberation. It cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, disregarding the uses to which it is put.

We can critique technology without rejecting human agency and value, just as we can value technology without subcoming to blind Utopianism. It begins by reflectively evaluating our own values and needs, and considering the uses to which we put technology in our own lives.

Know thy digital self, and monitor where your hours go.

Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Quote of the Day

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“Now, when we said, ‘Minds are simply what brains do,’ that should have made us ask as well, ‘Does every other kind of process also have a corresponding kind of mind?’ This could lead to an argument.” – Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind

Written by Mesocosm

June 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Philosophy

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Do Buddhist teachings of selflessness contradict the doctrine of reincarnation?

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Sleeping Muse, Constantin Brâncuşi, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

In the years that I’ve been involved with various Buddhist communities, I’ve heard versions of this question many times. The Buddha taught that all things are without a permanent, abiding self. But many Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. How can both be true? Does reincarnation not imply the existence of something like a soul, or an eternally-abiding essence of the person?

I do not subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation. However, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, I don’t believe this is an actual contradiction, because the self that reincarnates is a phenomenon like any other, persisting for as long as the causes and conditions that keep it going continue.

Most Buddhist schools teach that everything lacks a self. There is no permanently-abiding table any more than there is an eternally-abiding blogger writing these words. But that does not mean there is no table there – it simply means that the table doesn’t have the kind of persistence that it appears to have, at first glance.

We don’t need to appeal to metaphysical speculation to establish the selflessness of the table, we simply have to look closely at it and try to find its essence. By a process of reasoning and analysis, we can determine that it has none.

There is no invisible line around the table that separates it from the floor and the air, there is only a semi-stable lattice of particles interacting with its environment. If you crank up the electron microscope and really look hard at the thing, you’ll find that what we think of as the bits that make it up are themselves almost entirely empty space – atoms are simply tiny flashes of energy orbiting an equally-tiny nucleus in a vast gulf. If an average atom’s nucleus were the size of a basketball, an orbiting electron would be nearly 8 miles away.

So where is the solid table that we imagine? The table that we experience is a collection of perceptions and ideas all mixed together, and by the time we have an image of it in our consciousness, the concept of what things are like has gotten so mixed up with the perception of the table that there’s no disentangling them. In the language of one epistemological tradition within Buddhism, the conceptual image, or meaning-generality, of the table, is fused with the sense impression of the table itself.

The table exists from one moment to the next as long as the causes and conditions that go into arranging that particular configuration of matter and energy into something we can call a table persist. Once the causes and conditions cease, the table will cease. If, for example, we turn the heat up a few thousand degrees, poof! No more table.

No Abiding Self
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiter, Pablo Picasso, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, the self that reincarnates is like the table. The fact that it continues after the time of death is immaterial (no pun intended). Minds continue to exist in basically the same sense that tables still exist. They are conventional phenomena that abide for as long as the causes and conditions that sustain them abide.

One can ask other questions of reincarnation, though, and I think they should be asked. Let’s take the issue of mind/body dualism.

The term “dualism” in philosophy is used in different ways, but it frequently refers to the mind/body distinction posited by René Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind and the body are two different kinds of things, which fundamentally distinct in their character. I think his model basically affirmed what most people assumed to be true, based largely on the Christian belief in the persistence of a personal soul after the time of death.

You will often hear it claimed that Buddhism is a nondualistic tradition that rejects the mind/body split. It seems to me that nothing could be further from the truth. Buddhist philosophy traditionally makes a sharp distinction between the mind and physical matter. In the language of early Buddhist ontology, for example, the world is divided into different constituent elements, called aggregates, which include mind, perceptions, and perceptible objects or forms. These aggregates are of different ontological types, much as in Descartes’ distinction between res cogitans and res extensa.

One contemporary Tibetan scholar-yogi put it thusly:

Mind and body, though associated, are not inseparably linked; they have different substantial causes. That this is so means that the increase and development of the mind is not limited to that of the body; though the continuum of the body ceases at death, that of the mind does not. This difference stems from the fact that whereas the body is composed of matter and as such is anatomically established, mind is not. It is an impermanent phenomenon … changing in each moment, and having the nature of clear light. (1)

One could not ask for a clearer statement of mind/body dualism.

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, generally speaking, the mind does not have intrinsic existence, and so it has no eternally-abiding self. However, it does have a different substantial basis from material phenomena, and as such, it does not depend on the body for its continued existence. In the Gelukpa tradition, represented in the quote above, the substantial cause of each moment of the mind’s existence is the preceding moment of the mind’s existence, and nothing further is needed to sustain it.

I do not have a problem reconciling an eternally-abiding mind with the doctrine of emptiness, but I do have a problem with mind/body dualism, and with the idea that the mind is constituted of a mysterious, self-perpetuating stream of some sort. After all, we have learned a little about the mind in the last 2500 years, and I do not see how the existence of the mind can be differentiated from the behavior of the brain at this late date.

1) Lati Rinbochay and Napper E. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Press. 1980. pg. 11.

Written by Mesocosm

April 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

The Big Picture: What it Is, and Why it Matters

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FractalContemporary academics and intellectuals tend to reject theories dealing with the Big Picture. In the next couple of posts I will explore why the Big Picture still matters, why it became so unfashionable, and how we can work with it without falling into the old traps.

Part I: The Big Picture and its Critics in the Sciences and the Humanities

A few years ago a graduate student friend of mine in the Computational Neuroscience department at the University of Rochester was told in all seriousness by his adviser that he should not spend more than fifteen minutes a month thinking about the Big Picture.

He was referring to the meaning of my friend’s findings, beyond the immediate context of measurement and technical analysis. That is to say, my friend was warned against considering the implications of his research for understanding ourselves and the world. That is not what the research is for, argued the adviser, and it is not what the data can tell us.

What I will call the Big Picture refers to the attempt to systematically describe and explain patterns of events or broad categories of phenomena at a high level, such as we find in comparative and interdisciplinary studies. In the current intellectual climate, this approach is usually framed in opposition to close empirical study, which often has little to say about the world as a whole, or what things mean in the larger sense. The frequency with which the value of the Big Picture is dismissed out-of-hand might surprise someone unfamiliar with the academy, but it is extremely common, and most comparative work these days begins with a lengthy defense of the approach.



One still finds occasional advocates of thinking in large-scale terms, but the heyday of grand theorizing is long past. Few scholars take more than a historical interest in Durkheim, Frazer, Spengler, or Hegel, and entire disciplines that smack of interdisciplinary or comparative analysis have all-but vanished. Intellectual history is increasingly considered old-fashioned, and comparative work by pioneers such as the ethnographer Adolf Bastian, or by comparative religion scholars like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, are routinely dismissed by specialists who are frequently unfamiliar with their work.

For those of us who still believe that what things mean is important and worth analyzing, the rejection of global theories is unfortunate. The issue is not black and white, however, because the demise of grand theorizing was in many ways a healthy and necessary development. The increasing insistence that scientific claims be falsifiable, for example, has done much to constrain dangerous and misleading forms of pseudo-science. That is to say, we should be able to submit any scientific hypothesis or theory to empirical verification, or the fundamental rational-empirical premise of science is undermined.

On the one hand, then, we must take these advances seriously, and try understand what was wrong with so many of the old-style global theories. On the other hand, we should hold open the possibility that the Big Picture is not an unsuitable topic for study in principle. New strategies exist for dealing with global theories, and new classes of empirical phenomena are known to require such a perspective.

Let’s begin with a look at two of the most pervasive critiques of the Big Picture that have shaped our current intellectual climate over the last century: logical positivism in the sciences, and postmodernism in the humanities.



Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Christiaan Tonnis

In the sciences, global theories linking findings from different disciplines have been almost entirely displaced by close empirical observation, formal analysis, and experimentation. My anecdotal sense is that among working scientists, this theoretical orientation is typically inherited and is rarely the outcome of an analytical process of methodological reflection. But such analysis is present, what I generally find among scientists is a form of logical positivism.

In essence, logical positivism is a theory of science that holds that there are only two kinds of meaningful claims we can make about the world: empirical claims that can be either verified or disproven, and the terms of formal operations that are structured by rules, such as math or logic. In the view of logical positivists, most theory building is merely a thinly-disguised form metaphysical speculation, and speculative theories have about as much to do with truth as theology does – that is, nothing at all.

The epistemological stance of logical positivism has often struck me as naïve, as many logical postivists seem to regard the relationship between the knowing subject and the world as unproblematic, which ignores the keen insights of two hundred years of philosophy and at least sixty years of psychology. The practical consequence of this orientation, however, has been beneficial on the whole. Positivism orients scientists to stick close by the data, which counter-balances the innate human tendency to formulate theories prematurely, and to shape their subsequent findings to fit their ideas – a problem known to cognitive psychology as confirmation bias.


In the humanities, postmodernism has trained decades of students to view global theories with suspicion. Postmodernism, as formulated by the French theorist Jean-François Lyotard, rejects external overarching systems as the ground for determining the meaning of elements within the system. Lyotard suggests a cursory definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” referring to the lattice of epistemological assumptions and beliefs which legitimate any particular form of discourse. For example, he characterizes the basic narrative of science that grounds the discipline in a cultural and epistemological sense of legitimacy as “the hero of knowledge work[ing] toward a good ethico-political end — universal peace.” (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition; A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, xxxiii-xxiv)

The related critical-theoretical approach of poststructuralism analyzes texts through deconstruction, a technical approach to reading texts that excavates and destabilizes the implicit conceptual frameworks that organize textual meanings. A deconstructive reading exposes and undermines the hidden metaphysical assumptions implied by the conceptual framework upon which a text is based. Such a reading brings the metaphysical assumptions of its author to light, determining their influence on the text and unraveling their contradictions or limitations.


The Foxy Monsieur Foucault

As a rule, postmodernists emphasize difference over unity, polysemy over analogy, and deconstruction over metaphysics. As such, the very concept of a neutral conceptual sphere that allows different and manifold phenomena to be analytically grasped in terms that render them all alike with respect to conceptual judgments is viewed with suspicion. The postmodernist is likely to question many common strategies for conceptually organizing the world as based on anachronistic metaphysics that hearken back to Plato’s idea of the world as constituted by eternal, timeless truths.

The postmodern rejection of global narratives often constitutes a political critique of the control mechanisms encoded in the conceptual distinctions shared by members of a society, which both determine and reflect sociopolitical interpretations. Historically speaking, the coordination of social belief is often intertwined with tacit or overt mechanisms for enforcing conformity. As such, revolutionary or marginalized groups have often employed deconstruction to subvert social constructions of identity based on characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, or race. Critiques of this kind, which one might find in the writings of Michel Foucault or Luce Irigaray, destabilize the covert tactics by which conceptual distinctions organize humans in typologies that suppress differences on the level of concept formation.

Here we have the strangest of bedfellows: positivism and postmodernism, which could hardly be less alike, nonetheless share a deep suspicion of grand theories. Largely as a result of these philosophies, an intellectual climate has arisen in the United States in which few academics take the possibility of looking at the big picture seriously.

My purpose here is not to call either positivism or postmodernism into question. Both have made important contributions to culture and society. I believe that the positivists are right to push science toward painstaking empirical engagement with the world, and the postmodernists have offered important criticisms of some very bad ideas.

But when these philosophies reflexively reject global theories, their putative target is often out-of-date.

In the last fifty years we have developed important new conceptual tools for dealing with complexity, and we have established strong empirical grounds for taking such theories seriously. There are species of global theory today that have little in common with the architectonics of, say, Marx’s dialectical materialism.

One of the most important conceptual frameworks for organizing such theories is general system theory. In the next post in this series, we’ll have a look at systems theory, what it deals with, and how it works.

Coming Soon:

Part II — General System Theory, Self-Organization, and Emergence

Written by Mesocosm

August 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Posted in Musings, Philosophy

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Nondualism as First Philosophy

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Western philosophy can no longer avoid the formidable challenge posed by nondual philosophy derived from India.


The philosophy of India has been known to the west for well over two hundred years. The first scholars to approach the topic in a serious way were philologists and comparative religions scholars of the German universities of the nineteenth century. Through that milieu the stamp of eastern thinking left its mark on our larger culture, through the far reach of Germany’s influence on philosophy, theology, religious studies, and psychology.

It is well known that the post-Kantian philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was profoundly influenced by the Upanishads, and their influence can be found all over his work, including his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation. Some of the sense of the Upanishads entered mainstream post-Kantian philosophical discourse through Schopenhauer and then through his admirer Friedrich Nietzsche, whose parable “How the ‘Real World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Twilight of the Idols bears a deep resemblance to eastern anti-metaphysical ideas.

In Integral Psychology Ken Wilber traces the route by which eastern ideas found their way into German experimental psychology. These ideas helped shape core constructs such as the unconscious and psychodynamics, and I would refer the interested reader to that book.

Apart form historical influence, we also find a deep philosophical affinity between post-Kantian Germany and the east. It was first pointed out to me by an Oxford student vacationing in Kathmandu that the basic arguments of Kant and the Tibetan exegete Je Tsong Khapa are extremely similar. Both of them are empirical realists and transcendental idealists.

In Kant, we find this duality embodied in his famous distinction between the appearing object, or phenomenon, and the thing-in-itself, or noumenon. The phenomenon that we perceive, Kant argued, always appears to consciousness having already been structured by categories that constitute the necessary conditions for any possible experience, like space, time, and causality. Of the thing in itself, we can neither know nor say anything.

This is remarkably similar to Je Tsong Khapa’s interpretation of the central Buddhist doctrine of the Two Truths, which distinguishes between the conventional object of experience and the ultimate truth of that object. The conventional object is the appearing phenomenon, and like Kant’s phenomenon, when it appears to the mind it has already been structured by categories that are active in the mechanisms of perception. Drawing from the great Indian epistemologist Dharmakirti, Je Tsong Khapa argues that the object that appears to consciousness is always fused with its “meaning-generality,” or the conceptual framework by which we associate objects with comparable phenomena of their category. Whenever we see a leaf, for example, we perceive not just the image of the leaf, but also the concept of “leaf” by which we immediately recognize it as a leaf.

And as with Kant’s noumenon, Je Tsong Khapa affirms that the nature of the thing-in-itself, its ultimate truth, is, by virtue of its transcendental status, unknowable and ineffable. The ultimate truth of a phenmenon is its intrinsic nature, prior to its formulation by conceptual or perceptual terms.

Where Kant and Je Tsong Khapa part ways is that Kant believes the absolute truth of any phenomenon to be beyond human reach, while Je Tsong Khapa believes that ultimate truth can be directly perceived through yogic contemplation, and this direct perception has the power to liberate from suffering.

The German Romantic zeitgeist, then, bears deep affinities with several perennial themes of eastern nondualism. These ideas found their way from Germany into mainstream Liberal Protestant theology in the nineteenth century by way of Friedrich Schleiermacher. While not well-known today, Schleirmacher exerted a deep influence on the American Transcendentalists, and through them, on the whole of Protestant theology, especially in the United States.

Schleiermacher was a post-Kantian theologian who argued that the concept of the subject as something that is ultimately separate from its object is a mere concept. The sense of a non-specific and all-pervasive deity that you find in the Transcendentalists owes much, I believe, to his influence, though it was no doubt confirmed by their experiences. One can see the obvious similarity between this neo-Kantian Liberal Protestant doctrine and the deconstructive posture of Buddhism.

What we have here then is a high western culture that is receptive to and influenced by ideas from the east over the course of two centuries. Little wonder, then, that when Asian teachers began to arrive in the west in the early twentieth century, they found a receptive audience that welcomed them with enthusiasm and curiosity. I believe that a major reason that westerners have been receptive to philosophical and religious traditions such as Buddhism is because our own intuitions have been prepared for these teachings for more than two hundred years by constant cultural assimilation. These internalized ideas have come round again from the outside, through what James Joyce called a “commodius vicus of recirculation,” and are recognized as familiar and intuitive concepts when they re-arrive.

A lack of familiarity with intellectual history has led to a widespread inability to recognize this process, by which an estranged influence returned home from without. This failure lends itself to interpretive distortions of a rather serious nature — that will be the topic of a future post. For our current topic, the essential point here is that it is both inaccurate and misguided to regard eastern philosophy as a remote path from our western intellectual tradition. The two streams have been intertwined for a great stretch of modernity.

Nor can it be argued that the nondual traditions of India are irrational, mystical, or religious in their character, based on radical forms of experience and opposed to western logic. This idea holds no water, as a close analysis of the rational arguments of Buddhist philosophy will quickly show. To a large degree, this mistaken view comes from a problem of taxonomy. By various intellectual vicissitudes, relating largely to who studies what in which university department, Nagarjuna and Shankara are regarded as religious thinkers, while Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Berkeley are considered philosophers. This specious distinction does not withstand scrutiny, and I submit that any definition of “philosopher” that excludes Chandrakirti, Dharmakirti, and Je Tsong Khapa also excludes Thales, Parmenides, Zeno, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato.

The question of whether or not Indian Buddhism rejects western logic, particularly the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle, has been dealt with at length in a previous post (see Reason and Its Limits).

We have good reason then, on the grounds of intellectual history, to engage seriously with eastern philosophy. Fortunately, this is now quite easy to accomplish. We have reached a critical mass of excellent translations of primary source material and commentaries, which are widely available and may be analyzed by philosophers who lack knowledge of Sanskrit, Tibetan, Classical Chinese, and other difficult languages.

I realized that we had crossed a threshold a few years ago when I saw an excellent translation of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyeltsen’s Treasury of Advice offered for sale by a homeless street vendor in downtown San Francisco. This material is everywhere.

The main tradition of scholarship from which I have most benefited is the work of the great Tibetologist P. Jeffrey Hopkins and his students, who have produced an integrated body of translations and exegetical work based on the Gelukpa tradition of scholarship. Reading a dozen of the books they have published through Snow Lion Press will give any careful reader an extremely good grasp of how the system hangs together.

The study of nondual philosophy is not only historically warranted and practically feasible at this date, it is also philosophically essential. I recently stumbled on a reminder to this effect when reading Jürgen Habermas’s introduction to his Theory of Communicative Action, in which he states that western philosophy has “withdrawn self-critically beyond itself” and abandoned its posture of attempting to articulate general claims about the world and its nature. “All attempts,” he claims, “at discovering ultimate foundations, in which the intentions of [Descartes’] First Philosophy live on, have broken down.”

Not so. The philosophical nondual traditions of India are alive and well, as religious constructs integrally tied to the soteriological project of meditation, and as potent philosophical arguments. There is no longer a legitimate basis for avoiding its challenge.

Although I have compared nondualism to Kantian post-idealism and German Romanticism, it would be a serious error to reduce the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna to a western analog. In recent years it has become common to interpret Buddhist philosophy through a phenomenological lens, such as the effort by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch to read Nagarjuna in this way (see The Embodied Mind). A worse example is Herbert Güenther’s Heideggerian reading of the Dzogchen tradition, which has fortunately already become anachronistic. Understanding by analogy is a dangerous practice, because comparisons both reveal and conceal. Nagarjuna is not a phenomemologist any more than Kant is a Buddhist, and their arguments must be assessed on their own terms.

Buddhist philosophy makes a case for an ultimate truth that may not be expressible, but can be sufficiently understood to serve as the ground for a subsequent logic, epistemology, and general model of the world. How that argument works is beyond the scope of this post, but it is worth noting that after centuries of fierce debate, the Hindus of the first millennium were unable to refute Nagarjuna’s arguments. Many of the great masters of Hindu Vedanta eventually integrated his core beliefs.

This is not to say, of course, that Buddhist philosophy is superior to Hindu philosophy – clearly Nagarjuna himself owed a great deal to the Upanishads. My point is simply that it has been the experience of many philosophers, myself included, that Nagarjuna’s fundamental position is unassailable.

Written by Mesocosm

June 30, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism

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Buddhism is widely perceived as a mystical tradition that rejects logic and focuses on an inexpressible ultimate reality. It that correct?


1. Inexpressible Dharma

HakuinMy first exposure to Buddhism was through Paul Reps’s book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of koans, or riddle-like stories that exemplify points of practice. In some schools of Zen Buddhism, koans are taken by monks as objects of contemplation. These evocative stories can be quite straightforward, but often seem to be crafted to bewilder students with their provocative and paradoxical qualities. Consider this koan from the classical collection The Gateless Gate:

“Wukuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma: ‘Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?'” (1)

On the surface there appears to be little to this story other than the obvious contradiction. Why does Wakuan describe the bearded image as beardless? Does he in fact believe that Bodhidharma does not possess a beard in some sense? Is he trying to provoke his audience by asking a question with a premise that is clearly false? Or is it a comment on the fact that this is a picture of a man with a beard, and not a man with a beard?

Other koans seem to have a kind of logic to them, but it is the logic of a poem or a dream.

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out,
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water! (2)

Like a poem, this little story beautifully renders a direct image of Chiyono’s experience. But at the risk of being pedantic, we can note that a comparison is implied between the water holding the moon and the mind holding an image. The nun’s experience of liberation is somehow like the evacuation of water from the bucket, suggesting that the ordinary mind and its images are vacated, leaving a clarity deeper than ordinary perception.

In Mahayana Buddhism this kind of clarity is described as emptiness. Most Mahayana schools identify the direct realization of emptiness as the central experience that liberates Buddhists from the otherwise-endless suffering of the mind, which is bound by appetites and fears to the ceaselessly-turning wheel of time.

In 1893 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Soyen Shaku introduced Zen to an English-speaking audience. It was a major milestone in the transmission of Buddhism to the United States, and a first step in establishing Zen as one of the dominant Buddhist traditions that would flourish in the New World.

Soyen Shaku’s presentation was translated into English by his student D. T. Suzuki, who himself went on to write several books introducing Japanese Zen Buddhism, including the classic Zen and Japanese Culture. These works inspired young authors like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who incorporated Zen ideas into their writing and helped them to reach a wider audience. Kerouac’s notebooks clearly convey the seriousness with which he took his study, and the sincerity of his thinking about its implications. (3)

Zen is a unique tradition with deep roots in the native cultures in which it flourished, in this case China and Japan. It is distinctive for its enigmatic and poetic writing style. So reticent is Zen that the first manual of meditation was not written for several centuries after the school’s founding in China, despite the fact that the word “Zen” mean “meditation”, and Zen is the Meditation School. I know students who have spent an entire year in meditation, during which time the only instruction they were given by their Japanese teachers was “Just sit.”

The enigmatic style of Zen teaching is particularly striking in contrast with the Indian Buddhist schools from which it ultimately derives, which are frequently extremely verbose and scholastic. The earliest schools of Buddhism produced thousands of extant texts presenting techniques, practices, stories, precepts, and ethical teachings.

Zen came early to America, and the experience of Zen as a non-rational or even anti-rational tradition has taken hold in the popular imagination. Douglas Hofstadter’s widely-read Gödel, Escher, Bach, for example, discusses several koans, commenting that “[t]his type of paradox is quite characteristic of Zen. It is an attempt to ‘break the mind of logic.'” (4)

For those whose primary exposure to Buddhism has been through Zen, it can be tempting to speculate that Buddhism as a whole eschews rational analysis and logic. Some have mistakenly argued that Zen is rooted in a larger context of mystical “Eastern religions” that all reject logic as a veil obscuring the inexpressible final nature of the cosmos. This view has been popularized by books such as by Fritjof Capra’s facile The Tao of Physics, which falsely states that the religious teachings of Asia constitute one essential message, pointing to a world beyond words.

This view fails to account for the great diversity among various Buddhist traditions, which vary dramatically in style and content. That is to say nothing of the so-called “Eastern religions” as a whole, about which no generalization may safely be made. Consider, for example, that Sanskrit and Pali, the great literary languages of Indian Buddhism, are Indo-European languages, and have more in common with English, Greek, and Latin than they do with Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.


2. The Plot Thickens – Tibetan Scholasticism

Monks DebatingHaving based my own rudimentary concept of Buddhism on Zen, I was surprised when I began to study Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the teachings of the Dalai Lama. I remember the shock I felt when he stated that if a point of Buddhist doctrine conflicts with scientific findings, then the doctrine must be revised or discarded. In reference to the ancient cosmology of Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma, the Dalai Lama observed that “Buddha was not here to teach the distance between the Earth and the moon.”

The Dalai Lama follows the Gelukpa (dge-lugs-pa) school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is on the far side of the analytical continuum from Zen. Perhaps more than any other school of Buddhism, the Gelukpas embrace rational analysis as the key to practice. The school’s founder Je Tsong Khapa (1357–1419) wrote thousands of pages of scholastic instructions and doxographical works analyzing countless points of practice (in addition to founding what would become the largest monasteries in the world, and mastering yogic practices of extraordinary difficulty). His colossal overview of Buddhist practice The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment is properly regarded as a masterpiece of world religious literature, and has been recently translated in its entirety into English by an excellent committee of scholars. (5)

As with Zen, the Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelukpas is oriented on the direct experience of emptiness, which is an experience that somehow transcends ordinary rational thought. However, the Gelukpas believe that logical analysis is key to generating that experience, which arises through the focused application of a kind of deconstructive analysis during meditation. Then, like a fire consuming fuel, the realization of emptiness consumes the conceptual mediation that serves as its base.

The tension between rational insight and the reason-transcending epiphany that is its final aim is a primary theme in Gelukpa doctrine. In one recent study of Gelukpa epistemology and logic, the scholar-practitioner Anne Klein observed:

Gelukbas [=Gelukpas] must remain cognizant of the fact that inexpressibility as an epithet of the ultimate is frequently mentioned in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts. As generations of scholars have noted, this description has in no way impeded a massive scholastic tradition that has grown up in an endeavor, presumably, to be informative about the ultimate truth. And in the Buddhist context … this is not really an irony. The Dalai Lama once remarked, having cited the importance this textual material has for realizing the inexpressible ultimate, “After all, it is not that inexpressible.” (6)

That line conveys a great deal of the Dalai Lama’s remarkable intelligence and wisdom, as well as his humor.

3. Indian Mahayana Buddhism and the Law of Contradiction

If we arrange Buddhist teachings on a continuum then, with Japanese Zen on one end, representing the apparent rejection of philosophy and logic, we might place the Gelukpa school on the other end, representing the acme of rational scholastic analysis. Yet both traditions are based on the same goal: the direct experience of emptiness, which somehow frees the mind from the grip of suffering through a surrender or transcendence of ordinary conceptual thought. The final realization may not be that inexpressible, but it is inexpressible, and even for the Gelukpas it cannot ultimately be described by logical terms.

NagarjunaThe doctrine of emptiness is relatively late in Buddhism. While the historical Buddha probably gave some teachings on the roughly comparable concept of selflessness around the sixth century BCE, emptiness became a core teaching much later, in the work of the earliest-known proponent of Mahayana Buddhism, the Indian philosopher-sage Nagarjuna (c. 2nd Century CE). Zen and all of the Tibetan schools of Buddhism regard Nagarjuna as a central figure in their lineage.

In his great work Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Nagarjuna systematically analyzes several different aspects of ordinary perception and conceptual thought, such as our sense of agent and action, objects in motion, time, and so forth. For each category, Nagarjuna deconstructs the conceptual basis which we depend upon in order to think of things as … well, things.

Generally if I think of a table, I think it is a “thing” that has its own separate existence and identity, a solidity, persistence, and independence that we might describe as its “inherent existence.” This assumption about the nature of existence of any thing we might name underlies our perceptions and pervades the concepts by which we describe, imagine, and remember phenomena.

Nagarjuna argues that if we carefully examine the implications of our innate sense that things exist in and of themselves, that sense will lead us into contradiction. For example, Nagarjuna inquires “Is fire the same as the fuel it consumes, or are they different?”

If fire is different than the wood – that is, if fire has its own independent existence completely distinct from wood – then the fire could burn without wood. If it exists in and of itself, it would burn without relying on fuel. However, if fire is the same as the wood – if they are one and the same object – then you could never find wood without fire. Nor can they depend upon one another AND possess that quality of inherent existence, for if they exist in a relationship of mutual dependence, how can they exist independently?

Having considered and rejected all the possible ways that inherently-existing fire and inherently-existing wood might relate or not relate to one another, Nagarjuna concludes with this koan-like verse:

Fire is not dependent on fuel
Fire is not independent of fuel.
Fuel is not dependent on fire.
Fuel is not independent of fire. (7)

Now we approach the heart of our topic, for deep in this key argument, in which he establishes the crucial doctrine of emptiness that defines many Buddhist schools, we have an apparent statement of contradiction. Do Buddhists following Nagarjuna reject logic in the western sense?

For millennia, western logic has been based on the law of non-contradiction, described by Aristotle in his Metaphysics as “the most certain of all principles.” The law holds that a thing cannot be both X and not X. The sky cannot be dark and not dark at the same time, a box cannot weigh a hundred and twenty pounds and also not a hundred and twenty pounds. Yet Nagarjuna apparently states that fire is X and fire is not X. Does this constitute a rejection of one of the central tenets of classical logic?

Zen Buddhism and the Gelukpa school of the Tibetans offer two rather different ways of interpreting this kind of statement, based on on their substantially different frameworks. Generally speaking, the Zen position is to take this as a matter of contemplation, not analysis.

This verse of Nagarjuna’s does not differ much from Wukuan’s question “Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?” In that sense, it is not a thing to be reasoned, it is a point of practice. Holding the apparent contradiction firmly may generate a tension that propels the mind forward, past the concepts upon which the contradiction is based. Then, perhaps, the bottom will fall out of the pail. No more moon in the water!

The Chinese master Wu-men said “To have a Buddha view and a Dharma view is to be enclosed by two iron mountains.” Robert Aitken comments, “The Buddha view is that all is empty. The Dharma view is that all is karma. One is the First Principle, the other is the Second Principle. You are caught in principles. What is the way out? The eucalyptus trees stand motionless in the night air. Only a faraway rooster can be heard.” (8)

The Gelukpa approach is to analyze this apparent contradiction until it resolves into a coherent proposition. In their view, the statement only appears to be contradictory on the surface. Clearly Nagarjuna is not arguing that there is no such thing as fire. You could easily refute such a position by lighting his socks on fire.

Nagarjuna is making a deeper and more subtle argument, that the fire does not exist in the way that we usually think. Fire does not exist inherently, in and of itself. His teaching is not intended to refute fire, it is to refute our exaggerated sense of the substantiality of things, which is inextricably interwoven with the appetites and fears that turn the wheel of suffering.

By this reading, we could rewrite Nagarjuna’s verse as follows:


Fire is not [ultimately] dependent on fuel
Fire is not [ultimately] independent of fuel.
Fuel is not [ultimately] dependent on fire.
Fuel is not [ultimately] independent of fire.

In other words, fire and fuel exist in a relationship of mutual dependence, and they cannot be coherently posited as existing independently. Thus, there is no contradiction. (9)

One might argue that this is a cheap move on the Tibetans’ part, one that neuters the contradiction of Nagarjuna’s verse by reinterpreting it, resolving the koan and thus depriving it of its force. But Nagarjuna gives us clear evidence that this is what he has in mind. In the chapter “Examination of the Four Noble Truths,” he explains that he is not refuting existence, he is refuting independent existence.

“That which is dependent origination
Is explained to be emptiness. (10)

In other words, things should be though of not as independent objects, but as dynamic patterns that cannot be extricated from the webs of cause and effect in which they are expressed, and by virtue of which they gain their characteristics.

These are only two possible points of view with respect to logic and analysis, and it should be noted that these traditions are not monolithic. We have focused on doctrinal analysis made for the most part by educated monastic elites, but the picture of practice and its meaning changes dramatically when viewed from the perspective of the laity. For the great majority of lay Buddhists in Asia, Buddhism has served the same basic functions that most religious traditions serve, providing cosmological and ethical support that enables people to accept life’s sorrows and to give a sense of meaning to their experience.

Although the main aesthetic thrust of the tradition is poetic, not analytical, there is also a wonderful tradition of study and analysis in Japanese Zen, and its single-minded focus on non-rational epiphany should not be mistaken for anti-intellectualism. The learned scholar Okumura Shohaku once memorably protested to an group of students, “Sometimes I hear American students saying that they do not need to study. I do not know where they get this. This is totally wrong!”

The Gelukpas have long been criticized for intellectualism and are sometimes caricatured as Buddhists who do not meditate, or monks who would rather read about enlightenment than achieve it. One of the most interesting critics of the Gelukpa was the twentieth century savant Gendun Choephel, himself an unorthodox Gelukpa scholar and one of the great religious minds of his day. Choephel criticized the canonical Gelukpa interpretation of Nagarjuna in his gripping Ornament of the Thought of Nagarjuna. (11) He argued that the systematic insistence of the followers of Tsong Khapa on qualifying and limiting every statement made by Nagarjuna threatens to soften the impact of his teachings to the degree that it loses its transformative power.

Choephel argues for a less-qualified interpretation of emptiness that radically confronts every thought and perception, leaving no aspect of your life untouched. His willingness to critically engage his own tradition was highly unusual, and tragically contributed to making him a political target later in his life. But that fascinating story is best left for a future post.

Ultimately the image of Buddhism as a tradition that holds the power of reason side-by-side with reason’s limits presents us with a grand koan to which we must provide our own answers.

Update: I added a brief addendum.


1. Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Doubleday. p. 93
2. ibid., p. 34
3. Kerouac, Jack. Some of the Dharma. Penguin. 1999.
4. Hofstadter, Douglas. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Basic Books. 1999. p. 249.
5. Cutler, Joshua et al. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment; Volumes I-III. Snow Lion. 2000-4.
6. Klein, Anne C. Knowledge and Liberation. Snow Lion. 1998.
7. Garfield, Jay. Ocean of Reasoning; A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarikia. Snow Lion. 2006. pg. 258
8. Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier. North Point Press. 1991. pg. 289
9. Readers interested in formal logic are referred to the outstanding technical commentary “Is Buddhist Logic Non-Classical or Deviant?” in:
Tillemans, Tom J. Scripture, Logic, Language; Essays on Dharmakirti and his Tibetan Successors. Wisdom Publications. 1999. pp. 187-205
10. Garfield; op.cit. pg. 503
11. Lopez Jr, Donald S. The Madman’s Middle Way. The University of Chicago Press. 2006.

Written by Mesocosm

June 3, 2011 at 12:59 am