Friday, November 01, 2013

Pillaging the east

[As we struggle towards the end of the semester at 'Atenisi, cramming lessons about everything from Eastern philosophy to Tennessee Williams to sociology into the drowsy heads of students, Dr Maikolo Horowitz and I have taken to sitting in on each other's lectures, and helping or hindering each other with sage words from the back of the class. I give Maikolo a hard time about his affection for the Tibetan Book of the Dead; he ridicules my romantic pseudo-Marxism.

This is an excerpt from some notes I recently made for a student in one of Maikolo's papers who is writing, or attempting to write, an essay about the relationship and differences between the Eastern and Western philosophical traditions. I'm putting my comments, which probably reveal more about my own obsessions and oversights than they do about either Eastern or Western philosophy, on this blog in the hope that some learned reader might like to offer his or her own thoughts. I'll be sure to pass on any comments.]

Hi T,

I think that your attempt to define a Western philosophical tradition beginning with Thales and other pre-Socratics and then to compare and contrast that tradition with Eastern forms of thought makes a sort of sense, but I do wonder if it doesn’t risk becoming a little abstract.
By defining the Western philosophical tradition, with its myriad schools and controversies and schisms, in terms of a couple of characteristics – a commitment to rational argument, a distaste for appeals to the authority of the supernatural – you risk obscuring as much as you reveal. How does the Diogenes the Cynic, who repudiated rational thought, lived in a barrel, and ran through the Athenian marketplace naked, fit your definition? What about Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Derrida, who in their different ways insisted on the limitations of reason?
There are also problems inherent in any attempt to make a general definition of Eastern thought. What does Hinduism, with its swarm of luridly coloured gods, have in common with Zen Buddhism, a religion so austere that it has sometimes been mistaken for atheism? What does Confucius, a thinker so focused on the problems of life in this world that he dismissed the supernatural almost entirely from his mind, have in common with Siddhartha, who gave up worldly power and tried to starve himself to enlightenment?
If you were worried that your approach might be too abstract, you could complement your attempts to define Western and Eastern thought by looking at some of the concrete ways that ideas from the East have influenced individual Western thinkers.
Consider, for instance, the influence of certain Eastern ideas on Martin Heidegger, a man generally considered, in spite of his odious personality and disastrous politics – as the Rector of Freiburg university in the 1930s he sauntered about in a Nazi uniform, and presided over the burning of books by Freud and Thomas Mann – as the most innovative philosopher of the twentieth century.
You have studied Descartes in the past; Heidegger’s philosophical career can be considered as an extended struggle against the influence of Descartes on Western thought. Descartes brought a radical individualism to philosophy. In his famous meditations he tried to doubt the existence of everything in the universe, including himself, before deciding that the reasoning part of his mind was the only object whose existence he could ascertain with certainty. From this minimalist beginning Descartes built up his philosophy piece by piece, proposition by proposition. He took for granted the notion that the individual mind is an isolated unit of rationality, and the view that statements about reality have to be assessed individually as true or as false. 
We can see Descartes as the father of a sort of ‘philosophical atomism’ that reached its peak early in the twentieth century, when analytic philosophers like Bertrand Russell tried to build up complete pictures of the universe one logical proposition at a time.
Karl Marx argued that Descartes’ approach to philosophy was linked to the rise of capitalism. Just as capitalism encourages us to see human societies as aggregations of individuals, each of which makes rational independent decisions in the economic marketplace, buying this and selling that, so Descartes encourages us to consider human minds as discrete units of rationality, and to consider human knowledge as the sum of the efforts of those individual minds.
More than any other thinker, Heidegger overturned the Cartesian approach to philosophy. He did so by shifting the focus of philosophy from epistemology, which examines the basis for our beliefs, to ontology, which examines the nature of being. Heidegger insisted that human beings had to be understood not as isolated rational minds, but as the products of the worlds around them. Human consciousness is, he argued, formed by culture, language, and nature.
Because the individual human is born and raised in a particular place and time, he or she is made by a particular culture and language, a culture and language which is itself rooted in a particular natural ecosystem. Whenever we think, feel, or speak, we do so in the context of ‘primeval’ presuppositions given to us by our human and natural environment. It therefore makes no sense to consider the individual human as an abstract unit of rationality, or to imagine that human knowledge can be built up piecemeal by a series of disinterested, rational observations.
Heidegger used the phrase Dasein, or Being in the World, as a synonym for human, because he believed it summed up the situation of the human being. We exist not in our own minds, but in a world of objects and relationships. Our consciousness is not a cell closed off from the world, but a ‘clearing’ where the creatures and objects of the world manifest themselves. Arguably, Heidegger’s notion of Dasein and of human consciousness as a clearing echo Marx’s claim that ‘in humanity nature becomes conscious of itself’.
In a famous passage of his early masterpiece Being and Time, Heidegger picked up a hammer and used it to illustrate what he saw as the absurdity of the individualistic, Cartesian approach to thought. How, Heidegger asked, can we grasp the nature of a hammer? If consider the hammer in isolation – by examining it from every angle, or weighing it, or placing it under a microscope – then we can never hope to understand it.
We can only comprehend the hammer if we consider it as part of a set of human relationships and practices – relationships and practices which occur inside a larger natural environment. The hammer’s shape makes sense when we consider that it must fit snugly into the hand of carpenter; the hammer’s head of steel is explicable when we remember that it must strike nails; and the hammer’s importance becomes clear when we consider the necessity of human beings sheltering from the elements.
Just as we cannot understand a hammer without grasping a whole set of relationships – without grasping what Heidegger’s early mentor, Edmund Husserl, called the ‘lifeworld’ – so we cannot understand more abstract concepts, like being and truth, in isolation.
In Europe, especially, Heidegger’s ideas revolutionised philosophy. Instead of considering humans as individual units of rationality, thinkers influenced by Heidegger began to consider the self as something inextricably tied up with the wider world. They developed an approach to the self which is sometimes described as ‘philosophical anti-humanism’.
Instead of considering philosophical propositions in isolation, philosophers influenced by Heidegger began to consider how the meanings of these propositions were determined by  complex cultural and linguistic contexts. They developed an approach to the study of meaning which is sometimes called ‘epistemological holism’.
Heidegger was an egotistical and compulsively evasive man, who often covered up his borrowings from other thinkers. It is only in the decades since his death that scholars have realised what a debt he owed to certain Eastern philosophical traditions. We now know that Heidegger was fascinated by both Taoism and Zen Buddhism, that he spent years working on a translation of the Book of Tao, and that he hosted and conversed at length with Zen philosophers visiting Europe. In his 1989 book Ex Oriente Lux, Reinhard May argued that Heidegger’s borrowings from the East were extensive, and faulted him for never admitting them.
It is apparent that the Taoist and Zen traditions helped Heidegger to develop his alternative to Cartesian thought. As Maikolo Horowitz has shown you this semester, and as Richard Von Sturmer emphasised during his recent visit to Tonga, Zen Buddhists reject the notion of a discrete self, insulated from the world. Many Zen practices, like meditation and the writing of haiku and koan, are intended to make students realise that the self is an illusion.
(As I said when I sat in on Maikolo’s class, I think the notion that the self is an illusion is extreme, and can have negative practical consequences, when it is exploited by charismatic and unscrupulous religious leaders, like the fanatical Zen masters who trained Japan’s kamikaze pilots, and the leaders of New Age cults. I’d like to think that we can reject Descartes’ notion of a very isolated self without embracing the Zen position, and I’m not sure if Heidegger himself goes as far as Zen.)
Taoism and Zen Buddhism ask us to view the creatures, objects and acts that make up the world as inextricably connected, and thus suggest the sort of epistemological holism that Heidegger developed.
When Heidegger acknowledged other thinkers, he tended to look not to the East but to the very early days of Western philosophy. He believed that Western thought had taken a wrong turn when Plato and Aristotle had started trying to categorise and systematise reality in their great and weighty books. By doing so, he thought, they had forgotten about the pre-rational ‘lifeworld’ that grounds all thought. Later philosophers like Descartes were, Heidegger insisted, simply adding to the mistakes made by Plato and his students.
Heidegger presented his work as an attempt to revive the spirit of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who had supposedly remained free of the rationalism that tainted Plato.
It is worth noting, as an aside, that Heidegger’s attitude to the pre-Socratics is radically different from that of Futa Helu. Where Futa Helu believes that Heraclitus laid the foundations for the whole tradition of Western thought, from Plato to Descartes to Einstein, Heidegger sees him as an alternative to the route taken by later Western thinkers.  Your own attempt to make Thales and the other pre-Socratics the fathers of the Western tradition implies an acceptance of Helu’s perspective.
Personally, I think both points of view are equally plausible. I think that Heraclitus’ writings have come down to us in such a fragmentary form, and that so little is known about his life, that one can make him exemplify almost any philosophical position. But my mate Ted Jenner, who knows a good deal more than me about Heraclitus (he can actually read Greek), and about many other things, likes Futa Helu’s angle!



Blogger Richard said...

I'll read all this tomorrow or when I can but the first thing I saw was a ref. to Tennessee Williams. I'd just finished reading 'The Glass Menagerie by him. That is a moving play: coincidentally I was interested in reading that as it was talked about in a book of essays by Daniel Mendelsohn who is a Classical scholar in the US and who comments on various books and plays with an eye for example to Thucydides. He wrote of the Pelopennesian war - and it was during that war that many of the great Greek plays were written - and these dramas and writings are indeed philosophy in action. Ted's view of politics (read philosophy really) and history were affected by reading of that (Athens was finally defeated: Sparta won and that was more or less the beginning of a decline in Greek culture, I think).

One other one - I think it is philosophers in many cases who are liable to the kind of antics and stances Heidegger could reach. That is because, like mathematics, it is in many ways using a very "symbolic" and abstract language; many of the ideas are difficult to fix - which can be great - but it has this "dark side".

Heidegger and Pound. Goebbels also studied philosophy.

12:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1:49 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

Maikolo's been teaching Suddenly Last Summer: an unnerving piece of writing!

1:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Romano's recent essay from the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he uses the sordid evidence of Heidegger's Nazi enthusiasms compiled in a just-translated book by French philosopher Emmanuel Faye to argue that the time has come to excommunicate Heidegger--or rather his writings and ideas--from the university. In Romano's view, "the pretentious old Black Forest babbler," the "provincial Nazi hack," should be considered "a buffoon" whose ideas are "the butt of jokes, not the subject of dissertations."

I've long admired Romano's essays for the Chronicle and the Philadelphia Inquirer. But this column is an intellectual disgrace, and one that the Chronicle should be ashamed for having published. I say this as someone who's very far from being one of the "acolytes" who "bizarrely venerate" Heidegger and his ideas. I've written critically about his thought on a couple of occasions myself and am in complete agreement with Romano about the moral obscenity of Heidegger's actions (and of some of what he taught and wrote) during the 1930s. But moral disgust does not relieve a reader--let alone a critic--of the burden of intellectual engagement.

2:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Faye is hardly the first to demonstrate continuities between Heidegger's thought and his political enthusiasms--or even to argue that the philosopher went out of his way in the mid-'30s to collapse the distinction between his philosophy and his public actions. Where Faye, according to Romano, goes further is in his efforts, using unpublished lectures from the Nazi period, to implicate Heidegger's entire philosophical corpus.

But this is absurd. Unlike many other philosophers, Heidegger was relentlessly, obsessively interested in a single question--the question of "Being." And his interest in that question--as well as his characteristic ways of posing it--can be traced back to the period of his first lectures courses (1919 to 1923), which took place well before the rise of National Socialism as a serious political force in Germany. While there can be no denying a striking and deeply troubling convergence between Heidegger's ontological investigations and Hitler's political movement--a convergence that very much deserves to be pondered and probed--those investigations pre-dated Hitler, just as they survived Hitler by several decades, as Heidegger's philosophical project continued on its way through the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Yet even if distinguishing between Heidegger's philosophy and his politics were as impossible as Romano (and Faye) would have us believe, that still would not justify excluding Heidegger's thought from serious reflection, study, and a place in the university. On the contrary, it would serve as an additional reason to wrestle with the challenge it poses.

I'm a liberal democrat and a humanist who considers totalitarianism in general, and Nazism in particular, to be moral and political abominations. I believe in the truth of science, and I like many things about technological modernity. I accept logic as a valid means of determining many forms of truth. And I happily accept the vision of Being that has prevailed in the Western world since the time of the ancient Greeks. In other words, I'm not inclined to follow Heidegger in its efforts to prepare the way for a more "primordial" encounter with Being by subverting these and other aspects of our world. But what a breathtakingly exciting experience it is to be forced to think about and make a case for, rather than lazily accept as self-evident, our most fundamental assumptions about the world and ourselves!

That is--or should be--what philosophy is all about.

2:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for more

2:07 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott - re Tennessee Williams I hadn't heard of the play. I see it was a film. I recall some of his plays and also films (from plays) by Albee. It is interesting (or is it?) that so many of the creative people I admire such as Ashbery and these two playwrites and many others are as we say here in Panmure: "As queer as dogs."!! And I don't like homosexuals but they exist, perhaps I am a repressed one maybe we all are in some way...

And officially "pansy" things in such places as (where T Ws grew up) and in Tonga etc are not liked by many fathers who want their sons to be rugger buggers - or is that ruggerrybuggery buggerers!

But I still haven't read the rest of your post.

Following on this sideline I must get a copy of that play.

I love reading plays: my father took me to many when I was a teenager. Drama has a special magic. Maybe I could write a play.

I thought of it when I was "on stage" in 1992 at The Little Maidment and did my 'Tin Drum' act which went down brilliantly when I got it all together...

3:21 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I think your depiction of Descartes is quite wrong. He used the method of doubt, he did what Einstein did - thought experiments - and his contribution to the development of philosophy, mathematics and science cant be underestimated. In particular science would not really work without Cartesian coordinates etc that is he combined algebra and geometry. He died relatively young: he had been a soldier.

His point was to show clearly that existence was provable. By introducing the "Evil Genius" idea that the Universe world is run by that and we are either in that world or in some kind of dream is actually very hard to disprove - but by using this skeptical position, and finding one way of (seemingly) showing that there was a "real world" he was in fact probably more rigorous than Marx whose theories range too wide. I don't see any atomism. His "Cogito" is essential. Sartre (from Heidegger and Husserl who was Heidegger's prime influence) acknowledged his debt.

The inference that his skepticism was a conclusion is as wrong as those who see Plato's arguments (really those of Socrates etc) as propouding eternal truths. The point is they are always starting points. The need is for a continuing dialectic: but one cannot dialect against thin air.

Heidegger investigated, in a kind of semi-mystical poetic way, the nature of being which Sartre and others continued (they all owed to Nietzsche's great poetic-philosophic insights) and in fact there is a degree of confluence between these "idealist" thinkers and poetry (or art) itself. Heidegger incorporates poems in his writing. He writes about van Gogh and such as Georg Trakl and
Holderlin. His writing interested Smithyman perhaps our most philosophic-lyric of poets.

It is true that his work on Being and phenomenology began well before he came under the influence of Nazism.

There are 2 good films on YouTube: one about Nietzsche and one on Heidegger. Celan admired Heidegger. I'm not sure if I like the import of his writings but he is interesting. Before the 2nd WW his writing was popular world wide. I think people were seeking some kind of "spiritual" way of living while avoiding default to simplistic formulae of many of the existing religions.

4:08 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I've finally read it all through. Overall a good summary although I'm not sure the reasons for Heidegger's way of approach were only 'holistic'. Descartes lived in a different time, and he is centrally important in the development of Western culture. So are the Post-Socratics. The pre-Socratics, in philosophic and also discussions on mathematics, knowledge limits etc are less central than Plato and Aristotle (although they are important): Aristotle contributed enormously to knowledge. What he and many of the Greeks lacked was a way to do research as we know it, although some was done. Galen, Archimedes later etc Philosophy and Science and indeed culture and Religion cant be separated out. You twist it all as if it were leading to The Great Revolution to Save Us All.

Rather than leading to Socialism or Pie in the Sky there is the move to Existentialism.

But this said Heidegger was certainly significant as is Marx and others. And your posts are interesting as always.

12:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:03 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Ta muchly for those comments, Richard, which I'll pass on - you're right that I'm stereotyping Descartes a little! Stereotypes are so dangerous when we 'do' the history of ideas!

Are you getting fan mail in the wake of the latest issue of brief?

4:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Descartes is important in that he tries to establish a fundamental truth. The Empiricists were opposed to his way but it gets complex as Berkley Hume and Locke are locked in the same battle: so Descartes kind throws down the gauntlet in a time less "enlightened" then later Kant does what he thinks is a correction but no one solves Hume's problems. Menwhile all these philosophers are influenced by ideas from Greece and religious struggles in Eurpope. Descartes are as much scientists or mathematicians as philosophers as was Liebnitz (discovered calculus same time as Newton) and Berkley has cogent criticisms of Newton and Leibnitz's us of "infinitesmals" (as these were not too satisfactorily defined - in a way Archimedes had used this idea - he used the idea of an "actual infinity", it seems, but that idea comes later with Cantor): then there are the "idealist" or Idealist philosophers such as the dialectic of history man...increasingly science (direct knowledge proof) and religion-philosophy are separated (for practical reasons), Capitalism begins to accelerate and Engels and Marx revolutionize economic, political, sociological and philosophic thinking and prior or at the same time Nietzsche's ideas attack what he sees as the passivity of Christianity (his ideas are misappropriated by the Nazis), and Husserl evolves Phenomenology: influencing Heidegger and Sartre as well as such as Simone de Beauvoir and Camus. There seems to be these dialectics inherent in the history of ideas: the position of Descartes is set against that of say Locke or Hume who are set against Hegel.

A lot of this is in e.g. Bertrand Russell 'History of Philosophy' and a book I have called 'The Rise of Modern Philosophy' by Anthony Kenny, as well as some popular books on maths etc I have read. John D. Barrow writes fascinating books, and also the book 'The Ascent of Man' by Jacob Bronowski (he also wrote on the history of Western Civilisation as well as a book about Blake): but there is also the influence of Eastern philosophies which is often overlooked (I didn't realise Heidegger was so influenced) - but then on reflection this is the history really, we all learn from each other. That is what seems to inform Gordon Childe's classic 'What Happened in History'. I also read (it used to be a text book for Anthropology students) I think it was 'The Descent of Man' ["Man" was always used until recently to mean "Humanity"] and it was fascinating on the evolution of humans biologically and socially.
At university I wrote and essay or two on Descartes's theories and "challenges", as well as one on Plato's idea that knowledge was inherent (the slave boy seems to know already the solution to certain maths problems despite no or little education but that is dubious basis of a theory of a priori knowledge). But Heidegger moves also too much into abstract theories and indeed most of those philosophers are often incomprehensible in their writings as they provide few concrete examples. But even a philosopher psychologist such as Foucault, while his conclusions are shaky, produces some fascinating writing, if only from a literary point of view, and again they initiate debates which are useful in themselves or can be seen to be. Hence also the pre - versus the post Socratics.

7:45 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Fan mail for Brief 49!? There has been a deafening silence but I believe Kommissar Brett has tried to rectify things a bit by posting something on the 'Writer's Group' on FB. I was pleased to see that but at the same time a poem I sent to Landfall was rejected - mind you I sent it in before I had really worked it out - I had tried to write (unusually for me) to a sujcect and a defined theme, and I tried many revisions but there were so many the thing got too large and I knew it wasn't right but sent it in as the theme of the last issue was 'Hell' and the poem was re work of Rodin who did the sculpture 'The Gates of Hell'. In the end I was almost relieved it was rejected, it almost seems I can only work in a kind of intuitive, immediate way. But it was an interesting exercise which I may resume until I find a good result.

But one idea in EYELIGHT was the fascination with the many versions of a work and that this totality of the work indeed was the work itself so it might get pushed back into that processional category: recycled, multiplied and or chopped up as most of everything else I do is!

Meanwhile I await the hoards of reporters, and the emails and missives from my colleagues (Nobel Prize winners, sexy and horny teenage girls with stars in their lovely innocent but depraved eyes) and others: acknowledging my enormous, Joycean, nay Miltonic-Shakespearean genius. The silence is clearly a ruse by God to keep me in suspense so that when I do win the Booker, the Pulitzer, The Lotto, and the Nobel (I expect to win at least 10 of those): then my fame will necessitate that I refuse interviews and become wonderfully 'outside' like Alan Loney or such as Beckett, Salinger, Pynchon etc Clearly though all of them, and you can throw in Martin Edmond, Shakespear, Ted, Ern Malley, Bob Orr, Bill Manhire, Morrissey, Witter Bynner, Barry Crump, Sam Hunt, Kapka Kassabova, C. K. Stead and all the others are a bunch of bunnies compared to me...Brett has acknowledged my immensity by showing my wonderfully engaging, charming, and excruciatingly sexy image on the cover.

(At least I don't grin like an inane monkey out of the cover as Manhire always does.) [Perhaps I should do a modern 'Dunciad'.................?

8:16 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

As far as fan mail goes, don't forget the spontaneous ode to Taylorism which I sent you a week or so ago, Richard!

Great art show opening last night, here in Nuku'alofa: old doorless house full of computer-generated images, kava and guitars out the back, an installation-room full of old lanterns and tapa, the Kesey-like painted truck of the Toilet Club parked outside...

9:07 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Oh yes, I didn't read the last 2 lines closely. It's a great poem by you. Oswald? I only know some of Ponge's poems and some were translated by Ted. I started reading a book 'Signeponge/Singsponge' by Derrida that I borrowed from Ted. I got a book (library) by Rich. She is a good poet. Would like to have books by her Well that brings the fan mail to 1!

Be interested to see the art. Around here the local Polynesians are either sunk in the mire of 20/21 st Century corruption. Ironically, though, a few days ago, there was an armed robbery, by Pakeha or Palangi (!!),
of the Tongan Pawn shop! Police
helicopters and drama but no one was hurt...

But the creativity is here for sure it is as problematic here as in Tonga though whether young people stay clear of crime and get into science or art or whatever: or just become 'ordinary' "good citizens" whatever that means.

Sports, art, literature and science and trades etc and education: is (are) certainly if not "the way", one good way. Clearly Atenisi has its place.

But just as one is despairing. It was a revelation to meet Andy and others at my 'Poetry Club' in Panmure (that was a (very good) idea of Frank Lane's by the way, and there is lot more to that I will explain one day). One clue, rather indirect I am just now reading 'Pnin' by Nabokov as I saw a discussion re that by David Lodge. In that comic-tragic novel poor Pnin [or Nabokov's alter ego] discusses a poem by Pushkin (I have a trns. of it by D. M. Thomas)...

Thanks for the poem!

11:12 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:52 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

I still don't agree with you that Helu saw Heraclitus as being some sort of 'father of western thought or science'. The fact that the empirical achievements of modern science tend to corroborate him does not entail this.

I think Futa saw him as a quite anomalous epistemological holist. As I tried to argue in my essay on 'Atenisi Realism and the I Ching, Futa saw Heraclitus as a visionary early 'ontologist'.

Heraclitus seems to have understood the characteristic outward gaze of the pre-Socratics as well as the non-linear holism characteristic of 'Eastern thought' and Heidegger.

These 'schools' tend to want to transcend language and society, toward the 'natural' or 'embodied'. This has been a source of consternation among writers and mythologists. Much as I love words and am inspired by our shared cultures, I fear that Heraclitus and Buddha et al may ultimately be correct. Non-human nature is the limit... and everything else, if not an illusion, is at least temporary.

8:55 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home