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.]
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
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
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
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
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!