Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction / Richard H. Robinson -- Belmont, Cal.: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1970

Richard Robinson's short history The Buddhist Religion is a mixture of facts about the rise and fall of various schools of Buddhism and some of the main tenets of their faiths.  It is, unfortunately, not as detailed as one might like on the latter score.   Two short chapters -- one introductory and one concluding -- describe the current state and potential future of Buddhism, but the bulk of the book examines Buddhism from its origin with the Buddha to roughly the second millennium C.E.  Twenty-six pages are devoted to Buddhism during the life of the Buddha, forty-three are devoted to Buddhism in India, and thirty-five are devoted to Buddhism outside of India.  What we know of the life of the Buddha is, of course, colored by myth and legend.  Robinson is not shy to recount many of these.  Of the later two topics, much of the work describes various religious beliefs, including celestial bodhisattvas, celestial buddhas, and the magical beliefs, particularly of Tantric Buddhism.  Consequently, his title, The Buddhist Religion is appropriate. Anyone looking for a history of Buddhist philosophy should go elsewhere.

His treatment of the rise and fall of various schools is worthwhile, though.  The reader gets a fairly clear outline of Buddhism's genealogy, but again, there is scant  treatment (not to say no treatment) of the details of the doctrinal disagreements that led to various schisms.  His treatment of the ideas characteristic of Buddhism outside of India is especially weak.  One is presented instead with brief descriptions (in the style of biographical reference book entries) of important Buddhists in China and Japan.  More print is devoted to the political fortunes of these figures than their doctrines.  The treatment of Buddhism in Southeast Asia is even more cursory.

Robinson provides no bibliographic footnotes to his work, and only a few textual notes.  The reader must be content with a list of "selected readings."  No doubt, the selection is good and the list is not short, but anyone looking to confirm some bit of information or expand one's understanding of a topic is not well served by it.  Robinson does provide a clearly organized list of Buddhist scriptures for the Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan canons.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I / Surendranath Dasgupta -- Chapter V: Buddhist Philosophy -- Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1922

In 1922, the young Indian scholar Surendranath Dasgupta published the first volume of what would become a five volume history of Indian philosophy.  It is a magisterial, encyclopedic work.  Chapter Five is a noteworthy summary of Buddhist philosophy in India, substantial in both length and depth.

Dasgupta begins the work as one might expect, describing the state of philosophy in India just before the time of the Buddha, recounting the legends associated with the life of the Buddha, and outlining the literature of the early period of the Buddhist tradition, but he quickly moves on to a more substantive treatment of Buddhist philosophy, detailing a wide variety of doctrines held by numerous schools.  At first he provides a general account of a number of concepts that are central to the early schools of Buddhism, e.g., causation, consciousness, rebirth, the khandas (Sk: skandhas), theories of matter and sense contact, morality, meditation, kamma (Sk: kharma), and nibbana (Sk: nirvana), providing rather mainstream interpretations.  He goes on, though, to indicate how various schools have reinterpreted these ideas.  Later, Dasgupta takes up the contributions of the Mahayana schools -- Madhyamaka and Yogacara -- and ultimately takes up the views of the Sautrantikas.

The work is an excellent overview of Buddhist philosophy; however, the reader might be somewhat puzzled by its organization.  It is not always clear which views are being attributed to which schools and which views are taken to be shared by numerous schools.  It is notable that his treatment of Madhyamaka was written before the work of Fyodor Stcherbatsky and T.V.R. Murti.  Consequently, he takes the Madhyamikas to be nihilists and does not provide the more sophisticated account of sunyata (emptiness) that characterizes later works on Buddhism. 

Regardless of its shortcomings, Chapter Five of A History of Indian Philosophy is an extremely valuable treatment of Buddhist philosophy which can serve both as an encyclopedic reference source and a valuable continuous text.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna / Andrew P. Tuck -- N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1990

Understanding an alien tradition poses enormous obstacles. Many concepts that one takes for granted from one's own tradition turn out to be culturally specific, even ones that seem so fundamental to one's understanding of a subject that we think that they surely must be universal. Nonetheless, if we are to gain a cosmopolitan understanding, we must do what we can to understand what falls outside of our established world views. Success is always partial and it requires long and arduous study or total immersion in the alien culture.

In Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship Andrew Tuck illustrates the changing fashions among Western scholars in their attempts to understand Indian Buddhist philosophy, particularly the views of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school that Nagarjuna is said to have founded. Tuck distinguishes three phases in the Western interpretation of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school: German idealism, Anglo-American analysis, and post-Wittgensteinian linguistic functionalism. Previously understood as little more than nihilism, serious study of the Madyamaka school did not begin until the 20th century. A landmark in this development was Fyodor Stcherbatsky's book Buddhist Logic which agreed on the illusory nature of the empirical world, but did not reject the reality of a transcendent world of the thing-in-itself. By this, Stcherbatsky advanced a distinctly Kantian conception of Buddhism which recognized the apparent duality of the phenomenal and the noumenal. The approach is further developed by T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.

As the idealist view of Nagarjuna was coming to maturity, Western philosophers were beginning to abandon idealism and speculative philosophy in general. Instead, the techniques of logical analysis of Anglo-American philosophy were gaining prominence and a number of Nagarjuna's Western interpreters were employing these techniques to understanding his work. According to Tuck, Richard Robinson is foremost in this movement. Given Nagarjuna's criticism of competing philosophical views and the nearly syllogistic passages in his works, it is no wonder that the techniques of the logician would be applied. During this period of interpretation, Nagarjuna's tetralemma [neither A, ~A, A&~A, nor ~(A&~A)] became the focus of study. Nagarjuna's primary project was taken to be refuting all competing philosophical positions, thus rendering all conceptions of "own being" meaningless. According to Robinson, Nagarjuna failed in this project, but in any case, the approach to Nagarjuna's work was analytic, not speculative.

The final phase of interpretation came after the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to the post-Wittgensteinian philosophers, Nagarjuna's task was pursued via a careful examination of the function of language, not its mere logical relations. Here a pragmatic, soteriological enterprise was afoot. Nagarjuna was showing his contemproaries how the fly might escape the fly bottle.

Tuck does not endorse any of these readings of (or approaches to reading) Nagarjuna. He merely seeks to show how the philosophical dispositions of Western philosophers have influenced the understanding of Nagarjuna. His work is in its detail interesting, but the larger point seems trivial. He does, however, seem to imply a more significant point.  Beyond merely observing that interpretations of alien traditions necessarily are shaped by the assumptions of the interpreting culture, Tuck seems to suggest that while no prior cultural assumptions are better or worse than another, each can generate a new and interesting mixture of ideas that will illuminate and advance human understanding.

Wei Shih Er Shih Lun or The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas on Representation-Only / Vasubandhu -- Clarence H. Hamilton, trans. -- New Haven, Conn: American Oriental Society, 1938

Over the long history of Buddhism, many schools of thought developed.  Precisely when one school or another appeared is usually controversial. So it should come as no surprise that establishing the date of the foundation of the Yogacara school is controversial.  It is believed that the school was founded by two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu.  According to Louis de La Vallee Poussin, the brothers lived during the early 4th century.  Other scholars place them in the latter half of the 5th century.  In either case, their school of thought is among the last to develop in India.

Vasubandhu is deemed responsible for two treatises that present the central ideas of the Yogacara school:  the Viṃśatikā-vijñaptimātratāsiddhi and the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratāsiddhi.  These Sanskrit texts are now lost to  us, but both were translated into Chinese numerous times.  From these translations we now have English versions:  The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas on Representation-Only and The Treatise in Thirty Stanzas on Representation-Only respectively.  The edition of the Viṃśatikā reviewed here contains both the Chinese translation by Hsuan Tsang and the English version by Clarance Hamilton.

The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas defends Yogacara doctrines primarily by addressing critiques advanced by other Buddhist schools, thus clearing the way for the acceptance of the Yogacara doctrines.  It is in The Treatise in Thirty Stanzas that Vasubandhu presents a fuller, positive treatment of his thinking.  The central doctrine which Vasubandhu seeks to make tenable is that all that exists is, according to Hamilton's translation, is "representation."  Others translate "representation" as "thought," "mind," "consciousness," or "discernment."  The Yogacara view has often been described as a form of idealism. 

Most broadly speaking, Vasubandhu frames his arguments by considering the relationship between objects of representation, representations, and the ego to which objects are represented.  Of these, only representations are real.  Vasubandhu argues against the Sarvastivadin view that both objects and representations are real, against the Madyamikan view that both objects and representations are equally unreal, and against the Sautrantikan view that representations are merely modes of mental functioning. 

The main target of his arguments are the objections of realists, i.e., those who posit an objective world, independent of thought.  As nearly all Buddhists deny the existence of the self, a refutation of the ego to which objects are represented isn't necessary.  To refute the objections of the realist's, Vasubandhu attempts to show that his idealism can explain adequately that (1) sense objects (representations) can be fixed in space and time, (2) they can be shared in a publicly among numerous steams of consciousness, and (3) they can have a practical function. 

In a more positive attack on realism, Vasubandhu argues that the elements that might make up an objective world are insubstantial.  Of course this view could be extended to the representations that Vasubandhu asserts are real.  His defense against the insubstantiality of objects and representations relies upon the distinction between ordinary cognition and the cognition of an enlightened being.  Ordinary cognizers might easily reject the substantiality of representations and adopt a kind of nihilism; however, a fully enlightened cognizer will recognize a supramundane realm of elements.  By availing himself of this supramundane reality that is intuited only by the enlightened, Vasubandhu comes down squarely in the camp of mysticism.  This is not meant as a refutation of his views, but merely that the methods of ordinary perception and reason are not sufficient to reveal absolute truth.  To discover this, one must adopt the yogic practice that leads to transcendent knowledge; hence, his school of thought is called "Yogacara."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Vedanta Philosohy: Self-Knowledge (Atma-Jnana) / Swami Abhedananda -- N.Y.: Vedanta Society, 1905

Perhaps the central concern of Hindu philosophy is attaining a spiritual union with the divine.  This is sometimes understood theistically and other times not.  What is common in both traditions is the idea that we ourselves must find a path to union with the divine.  To do this, we must first understand who (or what) we are.  In the West, we often seek self-understanding through introspection and psychoanalysis to uncover an authentic identity as opposed to one that has been created for us by our family and social conditions.  "Finding one's self" is about understanding our true values, true passions, or true life projects.  One should contrast this self knowledge with the self knowledge that Swami Abhedananda calls upon us to discover in his book Vedanta Philosophy: Self-Knowledge (Atma-Jnana)

The self knowledge at issue here is less a question of "who am I" and more a question of "what am I."  It is a more fundamental inquiry.  Abhedananda begins this inquiry by examining the concepts of mind and matter (especially matter).  He asserts that three relationships have been posited between these ideas:  (1) that mind exists only as a product of matter (materialism), (2) that matter exists only as a product of mind (idealism), and (3) that each is dependent upon the other as two poles of a magnet (monism).  Abhedananda presents a number of arguments against materialism.  He goes on to simply assert that idealism is "as erroneous as the materialistic theory."  His preference is for monism. 

The true self or "atman" is then equated with God.  This is Advaita Vedantism.  By understanding that the true self is neither the ephemeral material self nor the individual mind, one comes to know that one's true self is an eternal, cosmic, universal "Soul of our souls" and that "those who do not realize this true Self, dwell in the darkness of ignorance and go through the misery and sufferings which exist in that darkness."  Critical to understanding one's true self is to recognize that at the base of all experience is "prana" or the life-force which animates the world and makes all experience possible. It is "inseparable from intelligence and self consciousness."  Later, Abhedananda employs the traditional analogy for the true self saying that it is like the sun, creating the possibility that all things can be visible.

Perhaps the most critical idea here is that the question that vexes the materialist and the idealist is that the relationship between the self and the world, the subject and the object, Atman and Brahman, is obscure.  Abhedananda, in line with the Advaita Vedanta tradition draws the conclusion that Atman is Brahman and that recognizing this allows us to escape our suffering and become fully actualized.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Fall of Arthur / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Christopher Tolkien, ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

When most of us think of Britain's mythopoeic tradition, the legends of King Arthur and his knights come quickly to mind.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien found them "too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive," but Tolkien did enjoy them as a child.  His appreciation for them as an adult was great enough to move him to edit (with E.V. Gordon) a Middle English version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and later to translate the poem into modern English, retaining its alliterative verse form.  It is not clear exactly when, but roughly around this stage of his career, Tolkien also began writing an alliterative poem "in the Beowulf meter" (according to his friend R.W. Chambers)  entitled The Fall of Arthur.

The poem was never completed by Tolkien, but numerous manuscripts survived.  Much to our benefit, Tolkien's son Christopher has assembled the best of these verses into a striking version of the story of the death of Arthur.  Tolkien is a master of Britain's traditional poetic meter and "Norther" alliterative verse, having composed numerous works in this style, so it is a pleasure to read Christopher's edition of his father's work, and to see how Tolkien chose to tell a story often told, but often told out of the context of the time.  Tolkien's knowledge of the literature and history of medieval England makes him especially equipped to give us what seems to be an authentic version of legend.

Along with the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien provides us with three essays of his own.  The first is the most interesting.  It recounts various tellings of the events that are included in Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur, including those by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Mallory.  Christopher Tolkien ably puts his father's imaginative treatment of the story into the context of this tradition, allowing us to see what Tolkien retained from that tradition and what is new in his narrative.  Perhaps the most interesting addition that Tolkien brings to the legend is his treatment of Guinevere (or "Guinever" as Tolkien chooses to spell her name.)  While modern treatments of her character make her out to be a beautiful, but star-crossed, heroine, Tolkien's Guinever seems more akin to Lady MacBeth.  Possibly less sympathetic, Guinever seems a good deal more autonomous and powerful than the more popular Guinevere.

Christopher Tolkien's second essay seeks to draw connections between The Fall of Arthur and Tolkien's larger legendarium, The Silmarillion.  While this essay includes a good deal of interesting paragraphs and valuable insights, it is largely disconnected and confused.  One is never sure if there are any broader points to be made by the essay.  The third essay amounts to little more than a record of various alternative drafts of the version that Christopher Tolkien chose to make "canonical" as The Fall of Arthur.  We are provided with page upon page of alternate passages that serve little purpose than to let the reader know that Christopher Tolkien needed to make numerous editorial decision in creating the canonical version.  Given these alternate passages, one could, in principle, re-do the work of the editor and create a number of very different versions of Tolkien's work, but it is hard to imagine who would want to bother.

In all, The Fall of Arthur is a welcome addition to the compiled work of J.R.R. Tolkien, it illustrates Tolkien's poetic genius, and tempts one to further explore both Tolkien's other alliterative poems and the treatments by other authors of the Arthurian legends.    

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self / Stephen Cope -- N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1999

Stephen Cope's book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is a combination of memoir and an account of Cope's understanding of the essence of yoga, particularly the form of yoga that he experienced in his ten-year residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.  The result is an idiosyncratic interpretation of yoga, shaped by Cope's history as a psychotherapist.  On the whole, the work is well-written, presenting composites of characters from his years as a therapist and yoga practitioner. 

Cope decided to take up residence at the Kripalu Center for a one year "sabbatical" shortly after his partner of fifteen years left him for a very much younger man.  It appears his own motivation was less spiritual and more psychotherapeutic.  Consequently, it is no surprise that he interprets yogic practice (his own and others) as a means to deal with personal psychological turmoil.  It is only at the end of the book that he gives any indication that the "true self" for which he is searching is without the empirical characteristics that are the objects of psychotherapy.

Much of the book describes various residents and visitors at the Kripalu Center and the psychological motives behind their yogic practice.  Cope at least initially presents yoga to be the effort to recall the self from exile and create a "royal road home."  Search for the "true self" often means coming to terms with unconscious motivations and psychic states that make one's life painful, unfulfilling, inauthentic, or simply lacking in some respect.  Among the insights that Cope finds helpful is that one's mind and body are importantly connected.  The practice of yoga allowed Cope to understand that his false constructions of his identity were reflected in how he experienced his body.  He often makes much of how yoga practitioners will find a pain or tension in some specific part of the body and draw the conclusion that it is there because of some mental or psychological unease.  Undoubtedly, there are connections between ones mental states and physical states, but the connections that Cope often asserts seem highly speculative.

Cope admirably recognizes that one should approach claims made by yogis with not only an open mind, but also with a skeptical mind, and true to a pragmatic approach to psychotherapy (and spiritual liberation), whatever succeeds for the practitioner/patient should not be denigrated; however, for anyone steeped in 20th century scientific realism or pretty much any moderately exacting criterion for the justification of beliefs, much of what is "successful" seems a bit like so much snake oil.  It's great if a placebo works, but if it involves accepting unfalsifiable claims about the empirical world, it's hard not to listen to one's skeptic mind.

Toward the end of the book, Cope provides an account of a crisis within the Kripalu Center, when the Center's spiritual leader is discovered to have been having sexual relations with some of its residents.  Cope's account of the explosive anger among the residents indicates that the submissive guru-follower relationship that often characterizes spiritual seekers could not contain the individualist, egalitarian, and free-thinking attitudes among the Center's residents and visitors.

By the end of the book, Cope comes to resolve for himself a question that he raises throughout the book.  In the face of the trials and tribulation of the world, how can the assertion by his guru that "everything is OK" be correct.  The answer comes from Cope's realization that his true self is not the empirical self that experiences trials and tribulations. It is an eternal self that embraces all the universe, or at least all consciousness.  He writes, "For several sublime moments, the boundaries that separated us [Cohen and his friends], our complicated personalities, our struggles, our tragedies, all receded into the stillness of Lake Mahkeenac.  We were together on the ladder, in the meditation hall, on the mountaintop.  We were young.  We were old.  We were successful.  We were failures.  We were at the end of our lives.  We were at the beginning of our lives. And everything was absolutely OK....In the shimmering stillness, the world of space and time became transparent, revealing a hidden world in which we were all parts of one another."  It is this identification with a transcendental self that is different from, or at least indifferent to, the self that suffers the trials and tribulation of the empirical world that offers spiritual liberation and one is pleased that Cope appears to have reached beyond his fixation with psychotherapy to understand this.

Yoga and Quest for the True Self concludes with an informative appendix on the "metaphysics of yoga" which describes a number of important ideas in various schools of the Indian philosophical tradition.  Many of these ideas are divergent, even contradictory.  Consequently, Cohen calls it a "stew."  According to Cohen, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health synthesizes many of the elements of the stew.  He notes, however, that it is heavily influenced by the nondualism of the Vedanta and Tantric traditions, the eight-limbed path of Patanjali, and hatha yoga techniques, a raja yoga context.  Most of all, Cohen is impressed with the idea of the "sacredness of the moment."

In all, Yoga and Quest for the Ture Self is a worthwhile account of one man's experience with yoga, but the reader will need to have a high tolerance for reading about the psychological trials of Cohen's characters, not all of whom are well enough drawn to earn one's sympathy and sustain one's interest.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems / Sir R.G. Bhandarkar -- Strassburg: Verlag von Karl J. Trubner, 1913

Religion in India is significantly different from Christianity.  By the fourth century, Christianity had established a fairly stable canon of sacred literature.  Not long after that, two institutional churches, the Catholic and Orthodox churches, came to dominate all Christian doctrine.  There were, of course, heterodoxies that arose and variations within these churches, but they were, by and large, insignificant variations that never took hold.  The Protestant Reformation did manage to create new, lasting theological doctrines, but again, the differences were slight, at least in comparison to the differences that one finds in the religious experience of India.

In Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems, Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar gives a dense account of a huge number of religious systems that arose in the course of India's long history.  Indian religion has its roots in the ancient Vedas and came to a philosophical apex with the Upanishads.  These texts were filled with numerous and contradictory theological and cosmological doctrines.  They simultaneously portray a pantheon of countless gods along with views of God as both transcendent and immanent in the world.  The concept of incarnations and avatars helped to make sense of these contradictions, but one must see the Vedas and the Upanishads as a collection of contradictory religious and spiritual insights written by numerous authors over many centuries.  They are early drafts of the religious and spiritual insights that India has been interpreting and revising to this day.  Two strands of thinking have, however, gained prominence:  Vaisnavism and Saivism.

Bhandarkar's account of the history of Vaisnavism begins in the latter half of the first millennium B.C.E.  During this time, Buddhism and Jainism arose in the east, while in the west theistic systems became popular, particularly one devoted to the worship of Vasudeva.  Bhandarkar highlights references to Vasudeva in the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavadgita.  In time, Vasudeva became identified with a Narayana, a supreme being that evolved from the early concept of Nadayana, the "resting place or goal of men."  Vasudeva also came to identified with Vishnu, a rather minor god in the Vedas that appears supreme in later literature.  Thus Vaisnavism came about as a combination of "streams of religious thought, namely the one flowing from Vishnu, the Vedic god at its source, another from Narayana, the cosmic and philosophic god, and the third from Vasudeva, the historical god."  From that time, a wide variety of systems have emerged, among the most important is the worship of the Cowherd God, Gopala-Krishna. 

In the eighth century, Samkaracarya and his followers began promoting a doctrine of spiritual monism and world-illusion.  This was seen to be in conflict with Bhakti, or the love of God, which Vaisnavism required.  In succeeding centuries, more pronounced and fanatic version of Bhakti evolved in which a "single-minded and devoted love of God" became necessary for attaining eternal bliss.

Bhandarkar observes that Vaisnavism celebrated God in his beneficent form, "The lovableness of the works of God, his greatness and majesty and his mysterious nature are...matters that strike the mind of man; and these appear to have operated in bringing Vishnu into prominence.  What contributed to the formation of Vaisnavism were the appearances and occurrences which excited love, admiration and a spirit of worship," but these are not the only sources for the theological inspiration. Bhandarkar also writes, "Many are the occasions in the life of man, which excite fear; there are epidemics and other diseases, poisons, serpents, storms, thunderbolts and wild and awful scenes, and consequently the god who brings on these occasions and protects when appeased will be thought of oftener then other gods."  Fear is the sentiment behind this theology and it is the god Rudra-Shiva and Saivism that evolved from it.

Rudra makes appearances in the earliest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda, and unlike Vishnu, is a relatively important god.  There and in subsequent literature, he is given  additional names including Shiva.  According to Bhandarkar, the Saiva system has three principles and four parts.  The principles are the lord (Pati), the individual soul (Pasu), and fetters (Pasa).  The parts knowledge (Vidya), action (Kriya), meditation (Yoga), and conduct (Carya).  Vidya provides an account of the three principles and amounts to a set of theological and metaphysical doctrines, along with a description of the fetters which inhibit us from salvation.  The actual spiritual path of Saivism involves the religious ritual and yogic practices, and moral discipline outlined in the last three parts.  Much of the section on Saivism includes descriptions of the practices of various Saiva sects.

In the final pages of Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems, Bhandarkar revisits the debate over the immanence or transcendence of God.  His conclusion is that the distinction is not relevant to Indian religions.  For both Vaisnavism and Saivism, God is understood to be both immanent and transcendent.  His explanation as to how both can be true is cryptic; however, one might begin to understand this by thinking of the individual self as a deluded and alienated fragment of the Godhead.  Our delusion and alienation is what makes God transcendent relative to our earthly circumstance. Our task in life is to overcome the fetters that separate us from the Godhead and realize its immanence.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age / Sven Birkerts -- Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994

In 1994, the Internet was mainly a text-based medium.  "GUIs" or graphic user interfaces were relatively uncommon.  The first major web browser "Mosaic Netscape 0.9" was not released until October of that year.  Still, the prospect of the ubiquitous use of the Internet to browse linked documents was being discussed with great excitement, at least within academic circles.  Luddites were hard to find.  For that reason alone, Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies now appears to be a remarkably prescient warning of the downside of our new device-obsessed society.   At the same time, many of his observations seem quaint.  Birkerts got the main picture right, but he can hardly be faulted for mistaking the details or not seeing just how far down the road to digital hypnosis we would traveled.

The first half of the book tells the back story.  Birkerts, in an early chapter, recounts how he became attracted to books and writing, including his attempts to become a novelist and how he ultimately discovered his aptitude for writing essays.  In any case, we learn early on that Beikerts is devoted to print books, reading, and writing.  He goes on to describe the phenomenology of deep reading or reading in which we become thoroughly immersed in the text.  He provides an account of how reading can be instrumental in "self-formation," how reading and interpreting texts is related to our life activities apart from reading, and how the activities of reading and writing are not so very different.

In the second part of the book, Birkerts explores the coming new world of digital reading and as you might guess, he greets it with apprehension.  Birkerts fears that the beneficial habits and frame of mind created by deep reading will be undermined by the new electronic media.  He predicts the erosion of language.  He writes that "the complex discourse patterns of the nineteenth century" are becoming "flattened by the requirements of communication over distances.  That tendency runs riot as the layers of mediation thicken.  Simple linguistic prefab is now the norm, while ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit are fast disappearing....Verbal intelligence, which has long been viewed as suspect as the act of reading, will come to seem positively conspiratorial.  The greater part of any articulate person's energy will be deployed in dumbing-down her discourse."  It's hard to deny that his prediction has come to pass.  The 140 character twitter message has joined the 30 second sound byte to dominate much of our communication.  Worse yet, the cell phone text has returned us to the age of brief telegraphic wire messages, except everyone is able to send these messages hundreds of time a day. 

Birkerts fears that with the loss of physical books will undermine our sense of the past.  No longer will the past be represented to us in surviving artifacts, but it will be stored in databases "flattening" our historical perspective.  The extent to which university students are turning their backs on physical books is, indeed, striking.  Their work relies very significantly on texts that can be viewed online.  This is, perhaps, a product of the ready availability of electronic journal literature.  Not long ago, libraries had access only to a limited number of journals and student research relied significantly on books.  Now, back issues of journals are sold to libraries in extremely cost effective packages.  Money is made mostly on expensive access to recent issues.  This is a boon to humanities research, but Birkerts's point that our historical perspective is flattened seems credible, particularly when one views a pdf of an 80 year old journal article in contrast to an original paper version of it. 

Perhaps Birkerts's most worrying prediction is of "the waning of the private self."  He detects "a process of social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual."  He writes, "for some decades now we have been edging away from the perception of private life as something opaque, closed off to the world; we increasingly accept the transparency of a life lived within a set of systems, electronic or otherwise....One day we will conduct our public and private lives within networks so dense, among so many channels of instantaneous information, that it will make almost no sense to speak of the differentiations of subjective individualism."  I'm not entirely convinced that we are losing the notion of subjective individualism.  Much of our social networks are designed to create at least an image of ourselves as individuals, but at the same time we are becoming conduits for memes that waft through the electronic social space; and if Birkerts's concern about "the waining of the private self" was really a concern about the waning of privacy itself, he could not have been more prescient.

The more quaint aspects of Birkerts's work appear in this latter half, where he describes Perseus 1.0 as the "hot new thing in the classics world." Perseus 1.0 was an early an interactive multimedia database for the Classics.  The "Perseus Project" is still going, but it has been overtaken by so many new and more sophisticated databases.  Still, Birkerts's "curmudgeonly" remarks about the use of such tools in education, particularly humanities education remain worth considering and continue to be discussed among teachers and researchers.  Birkerts also has chapters on hyperlinks and audio books.  The observations about how hyperlinks change the character of writing and reading are worthwhile; however, his prediction that audio books would supplant print books is obviously mistaken.

The third part of The Gutenberg Elegies laments the demise of literature and the educated reader.  My knowledge of literature is far too shallow to comment on his points, though they seem a tad overstated.  Regarding the disappearance of the educated reader, I suspect he has a point.  In decades past, reading had far less competition.  Now, finding an avid reader is rather difficult.  This is surely a function of the time we spend looking at text messages, screen-shots, and Youtube video clips, not to mention downloadable movies, audio files, and much more.  The ubiquity of cell phones means that people seldom find themselves separated from people with whom they would like to converse and so carrying around a pocket sized paperback to fill the odd empty 20 minutes isn't something we do.

All in all, The Gutenberg Elegies is becoming (or has become) a classic, early work in the expanding debate over the social and personal consequences of our new digital culture.  Any one interested in this debate would do well to read it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings / Matthew Dickerson -- Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003

A common criticism of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is that it glorifies war and violence.  It is not hard to draw this conclusion in light of the numerous battle scenes depicted in the work and the military heroism of many of its main characters.  According to Matthew Dickerson, such a reading is superficial and a more discerning reader will see exactly the reverse.  War and violence are not glorified.  They are portrayed as the horrible acts of evil forces.  The wisest of the characters are repelled by war and violence and only resort to it out of desperate necessity.

Central to Dickerson's argument is an examination of the words, actions, and motivations of Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Frodo, and Faramir.  Dickerson rightly observes that the most thoughtful and insightful commentary about war and violence come from these "wisest" characters.  Each exhibits a deep reluctance to engage in violence and in the case of Gandalf, Faramir, and Frodo, the characters overtly recognize the moral  value of their adversaries. Gandalf is noted as saying, "Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends."  Gandalf pities Sauron's slaves, Faramir regrets the death of a man deceived by Sauron to fight against Gondor, and Frodo shows mercy, time again, to Gollum.

One of the most telling passages in condemnation of war comes from Faramir:  "War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.  Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise."  And against violence, Frodo is noted as saying, "Fight?" said Frodo.  "Well I suppose it may come to that.  But remember: there is to be no slaying of hobbits, not even if they have gone over to the other side.  Really gone over, I mean; not just obeying ruffians' orders because they are frightened....And nobody is to be killed at all, if it can be helped.  Keep your tempers and hold your hands to the last possible moment!"

One might wonder if these statements by characters that are certainly portrayed as wise by Tolkien are enough to contradict the general martial tone of much of the story, but Dickerson does an admirable job revealing nuances in the story and its telling that strengthen his conclusions.  After reading Following Gandalf one understands how The Lord of the Rings became so popular among the anti-war college students of the 1960s and 1970s.   War was upon us.  What was morally significant was how we dealt with it.

There is much more in Following Gandalf that deserves attention:  the importance of moral victory as opposed to military victory, mediation on freedom and creativity, power, hope and despair, and the Christian elements in the work.  There is, however, at least one current in Tolkien's work that is overlooked (or at least under-examined and that is what Tolkien thought of as the a great virtue of Northern European peoples: the willingness to remain true to one's duty in the face of certain defeat.  Certainly this virtue is most clearly revealed in times of war, but it is by no means inapplicable in other circumstances.  So too the nearly pacifist wisdom of many of Tolkien's characters hold lessons for us beyond the obvious circumstances of the novel.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics / Daniel Coleman -- Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2009

Daniel Coleman's In Bed with the Word is a collection of five short essays on the joy and value of reading.  It is simultaneously unsurprising and ideosyncratic.  That is, Coleman's personal reflections on and experience of reading are employed to draw conclusions that are no doubt widely held by serious readers.

In the first essay, Coleman describes how reading allows us to become connected to experience wider than our own.  Two stories make this point.  The first is of his six year old brother deciding to spend the day "in bed with the Word."  Hence the book's title.  Though not yet literate, his brother understands the way in which books connect us to something beyond our immediate world.  The second story is of an eight  year old girl in Trinidad who, by discovering a book about the 1791 Haitian Revolution, is connected to her own cultural history.  Coleman writes these stories in a compelling way, but their subject is by no means unusual and Coleman brings little new insight to it.

The second and third essays present related ideas.  According to Coleman, serious reading is "countercultural."  It fosters our inclinations toward democratic citizenship and requires that we open ourselves to the prospect of new experiences and learning. Here, Coleman seems to disregard the possibility that we might read deeply in works that we know or expect to confirm our existing beliefs.  Whatever is new in our reading is little more than filling details or adding additional weight to our worldview.  Such an approach to reading might be far more common than Coleman would like to believe.  Coleman's discernibly liberal politics are likely what leads him to his conclusion about reading.

In his fourth essay, Coleman discusses the relationship between the reader and the author, which he describes as one initiated by absence.  The absence, however, is to a great extent overcome when the reader become immersed in the text. The reader becomes to hear the voice of the author intimately in the reader's head and comes into the presence of a "companionable ghost."  It is in this essay that Coleman does reach beyond commonplace observations and makes many interesting points.  He compares the absence relationship, overcome in the act of reading, with the relationship that a theist has with their god, particularly the direct experience that Sufis have of the divine in the course of their whirling dance.

The final essay continues to reflect on the connections between religion and reading in a discussion of reading as "eating the book," an actual practice of some Jews. His point here appears simply to be that to gain the real benefits of reading we must read books "wholly, fully, and slowly, so they become parts of our bodies, the very structure of our lives."  It is an unsurprising claim, but in a world in which our reading is brief, quick, chaotic, and unconnected, it is worth remembering.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Preparing for Climate Change / Michael D. Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider -- Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010

Mastrandrea and Schneider's little book Preparing for Climate Change presents the case that adaption strategies to climate change must be driven by accurate assessments of local vulnerabilities.  For local adaptation strategies to work, they must be informed by global climate predictions, refined to distinguish local variations.  All of that seems uncontroversial; however, a discussion of climate change adaptation -- while critical in specific circumstances -- has the danger of playing into the hands of those who have denied climate change and continue to seek ways to defend the fossil fuel industry.  Consequently, any book such as Preparing for Climate Change should first of all emphasis the need to take drastic actions now to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Without such action, any effort to adapt is likely to be futile. Unfortunately, Mastrandrea and Schneider do not make this clear enough.

For a couple decades now, the fossil industry, related industries, and their apologists have worked hard to cast doubt first, about the fact that our climate is changing and then, about the fact that human activity is a significant -- if not leading -- cause of climate change.  Their misinformation campaigns have been surprisingly effective.  It is, perhaps, a testament to people's desire not to read the writing on the wall.  The truth is, as Al Gore has observed, just too inconvenient.  The evidence, though, is becoming clear to even the most casual observers:  loss of sea ice, Greenland's melting surface, glacier retreat, extreme heat waves, droughts, forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and superstorms.  Furthermore, the evidence from these obvious phenomena are buttressed by an avalanche of scientific studies measuring sea level rise, ocean acidification, coral reef bleaching, the mountain pine beetle plague, and numerous other consequences of climate change.

More and more, climate change deniers are having to come to terms with the fact that the day they can cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change is ending.  Already we can see them changing their tactics in defense of the fossil fuels. "Adaptation" is becoming the preferred approach among the former denier community.  Their main argument is that while it is true that the climate is changing, the best way to deal with it is through developing the technologies and infrastructures that will minimize the harsh consequence of change.

Among the most famous proponents of this approach is the Danish political scientist and adjunct business professor Bjorn Lomborg.  According to Lomborg, the problems of climate change can be solved with the expenditure of a mere 250 billion dollars worldwide per year and that this expenditure would along the way help resolve poverty, educational deficiencies, disease, etc.  To be fair, Lomborg also is advocating investment in research into alternative energies, but he does not advocate deploying it just yet.  Deploying alternative energy systems and reducing carbon energy consumption certainly would mitigate the unfolding crisis, but for Lomborg, the cost of deploying wind and solar energy generators currently is too great.  Consequently, he believes money would be better spent on seawalls and storm-proofing buildings.

Lomborg's optimism about our ability to adapt to the coming changes does not take seriously the growing body of data that reveals potential threats far beyond our abilities to adapt.  Nonetheless, he has captured significant media attention for his views.  This is likely due to the fact that by minimizing the harms we face and overstating our ability to adapt takes the fossil fuel industry off the hook and allows us to believe we can continue our high-carbon lifestyles.  It is in the face of this that we should judge Mastrandrea and Schneider's Preparing for Climate Change and take care to place it in the limited context that it deserves, lest we add support to the fossil fuel industry's continuing campaign to profit at the expense of all of us and our descendants.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion / Jonathan Haidt -- N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 2012

There is an extremely good motive behind Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, i.e., a desire to get people of good will, both conservative and liberal, to see past their own moral perspectives and take one another seriously.  To do so, one needs first of all to see one’s moral perspective as being in some sense subjective and also to assume the legitimacy of the perspective of those with whom one disagrees.  In short, Haidt is calling on us to exercise a little humility and charity when it comes to moral debates.  His main approach for inculcating these virtues is to connect our moral thinking to emotions that are generated by a set of pre-established values.  By examining the moral psychology of liberals and conservatives, he hopes that we will be able to recognize the causes of our differing moral attitudes and find a vocabulary that will allow us to disagree constructively.

The central metaphor for Haidt's moral psychology is that of someone riding an elephant.  The rider is the reasoning/rational aspect of a person, while the elephant is the emotive aspect.  By and large, the elephant goes where it wants to go and the rider provides an after-the-fact justification of the elephant's actions.  At best, the rider can inflect the elephant's movement.  For Haidt, emotions are doing the main work in moral behavior.  Against this, view he poses "rationalist philosophers" or often simply "philosophers."  Setting aside his view of moral psychology, his critique of his alleged opponents is quite misguided.  His mistakes comes from thinking that normative philosophical theories are moral psychological theories.  I'll say more about this later.

The most intersting aspect of his work is his analysis of the sets of values he finds in liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.  According to Haidt, the values of each are based on six "foundations:"  care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation; but the importance of these foundations (or values) is different for the different political groups.  Again, according to Haidt, the moral judgments of liberals are dominated by care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating (in that order of importance.)  The moral judgments of libertarians overwhelmingly dominated by liberty/oppression with some influence coming from fairness/cheating.  The moral judgments of social conservatives are, however, motivated equally by all six of the moral foundations. 

These conclusions are by no means surprising, but on first glance, one might question how Haidt has quantified his results.  By looking at the copious references to psychological studies and the number of surveys available on Haidt's website,, one can be reasonably convinced that his work on this score is of high quality.  One might object, however, to an overly general assessment of the regulating relationship between emotion and reason.  While it is true that much that goes by the name "reason" is in fact rationalization, reason nonetheless has a role in moral judgments -- a role that might differ among different people.  Some of us drive elephants while others of us drive horses;  Some of us are assertive drivers while others are passive.  Haidt glosses over these distinctions between the varying strengths of emotion and reason among individuals in a population.

It is important to make these distinctions as without them, one is left without an ability to evaluate moral judgments.  If we are stuck with pre-established values which drive us in spite of reason, it becomes impossible to constructively discuss moral differences.  Our moral conclusions are no more amenable to review and change than our culinary tastes.  That Haidt largely overlooks the significance of applying reason to moral decision making turns his work, at best, into a recommendation to apologists on how to address and persuade people with different moral perspectives and not an appeal to see past one's own initial moral perspective and to seriously entertain reaching more valid conclusions about moral questions.  Haidt needs to put aside deterministic psychology and take seriously the moral questions we face.  His antipathy to and misunderstanding of normative philosophy makes it unlikely that he will ever do that.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master / Dogen -- Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt, eds. -- Boston: Shambhala, 2013

Among Buddhist traditions, Zen stands out as the synthesis of the best aspects of the two most important early traditions:  Theravada and Madhyamaka Buddhism.  Among the most important aspects of Theravada Buddhism is its emphasis on meditation.  A clear expression of this comes in Buddhaghosa's work entitled the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purity).  The personal ideal for the Theravada tradition was the arahat, a monk, who achieves enlightenment, in part through a dedicated practice of meditation.  Among the most important aspects of Madyamaka Buddhism is the concept of sunyata (emptiness).  Sunyata is a conclusion drawn about the world that rejects all metaphysical views, particularly the existence of permanent entities and the non-existence of permanent entities.  By coming to understand this view of the world, the Madyamika becomes poised to escape the ensnaring attachments to the world.  Meditation is, of course, an important aspect of Madhyamaka practice and the notion of sunyata is not completely absent from early Buddhist traditions, but no tradition brings them together so deliberately as Zen Buddhism.

The synthesis of these ideas is made clear in the writings of the thirteenth century monk, Dogen.  According to Dogen, zazen or sitting meditation, is "the authentic gate to free yourself."  When sitting in meditation for long periods of time, one is easily brought around to focus attention on the spatial and temporal present and acquire an intimate or immediate relationship with the world.  For Dogen, such a relationship is at the heart of the Zen approach to enlightenment.  Equipped with the understanding of sunyata, that all things exist dependently (each dependent on the other) and that the conventional understanding of existence is illusory, the person meditating obtains "wisdom beyond wisdom."  The illusion of the duality of the self and other, the subject and object, is revealed.

In The Essential Dogen, Tanahashi and Levitt bring together an engaging collection of Dogen's writings.  The passages are short, seldom more than a single paragraph and sometimes only sentence of two.  They are often enigmatic, though for someone with a background in the Mahayana tradition, the central ideas slowly surface.  It is both a virtue and a failing of the work that Dogen's words are left to speak for themselves.  Without interpolated commentary, one comes away with a direct appreciation for Dogen as a writer; however, the uninitiated would greatly benefit from occasional commentary.  Levitt does provide a brief introductory essay to the work, but he touches on only a few ideas.  Personally, I would direct the reader to essays by D.T. Suzuki before picking up The Essential Dogen

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Winning the Presidency 2012 / William J. Crotty, ed. -- Boulder, Col.: Paradigm Publishers, 2013

The 2012 presidential campaign arguably was one of the most important campaigns in recent times.  The campaign pitted a status quo candidate (Barak Obama) against a candidate (Mitt Romney) who was fronting a party that was intent upon making sweeping changes to the role of government in American life.  That Obama came out the victor can be attributed to many things.  It is easy to suggest that the American people (or a slim majority of those who voted) rejected the Republican Party's libertarian agenda in favor of Obama, but that misses two more profound lessons of the election.  The 2012 presidential campaign was the first campaign to be waged under the campaign finance rules set by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and it was the first campaign to make truly effective use of "big data."  In a collection of essays edited by William J. Crotty entitled Winning the Presidency 2012, both superficial and profound elements of the campaign are examined with uneven success.

Most of the articles provide analyses that are well-known to anyone who paid moderate attention to the campaign and the post-election media pundits.  The demographic shift in the American body politic and the gender gap are reviewed as is the trouble that Mitt Romney had gaining support from the Tea Party elements during the primaries and through to election day.  Many of the widely covered watershed events are brought into the spotlight:  Romney's refusal to release his tax filings, Obama's "you didn't build that" and Romney's "47%" remarks, Obama's poor showing in the first debate, and Chris Christy's praise of Obama for his leadership following superstorm Sandy.  All of these were, of course, important conditions and events of the campaign and so it is valuable that the essays memorialize them.  After all, most will be forgotten in ten years.  A good, clear record will be useful, but it certainly isn't the stuff that will reveal the true historical importance of the campaign.

The first big change from previous elections that would seem to make more than a marginal difference was the ability to form  "super PACs."  Winning the Presidency 2012 contains an essay by Dowdle, Adkins, Sebold, and Stewart that admirably discusses the role of super PACs.   In short, super PACs are political action committees that are able to raise unlimited amounts of money from donors.  This money can be spent directly on election activities as long as they are not "coordinated" with the candidate's campaign.   The prohibition against coordinating with the campaign quickly became meaningless and the assumption was that the candidate that was able to make use of the largest super PACs would destroy the competition.  This did not turn out to be the case as Karl Rove's massive super PAC campaign chest failed to deliver results for Romney or for candidates down ticket.  The lesson, however, has not been made completely clear.  It is not that money will not win elections, but that is is important how that money is spent.  The Republican spending strategy focused on negative media buys, and while these were not without effect, it appears that a saturation point was reached long before the money ran out.  In contrast, Obama's campaign money and sympathetic super PAC money was spent building a highly "data driven" retail campaign organization, particularly targeting swing states.  Though outspent by his opponents, his more sophisticated strategy was able to turn out the votes necessary to prevail, particularly in the electoral vote.

The employment of data was the crucial difference in the 2012 election.  In an essay entitled, "A Transformational Political Campaign: Marketing and Candidate Messaging in the 2012 Election," Wayne P. Steger describes the Obama campaign's use of massive pools of data gathered during the 2008 election campaign and in the period leading up to 2012.  These data were effectively used to segment the voting public in complex ways so that messages could be tailored to fit the audience in ways never before possible.  The segmentation of the voting population went well beyond determining likely voters and persuadable voters, it was able to test messages and funding requests to ensure that the audience would be maximally receptive to the campaign's appeal.  This is the future of campaigning, and we can only expect the science to be developed well beyond the techniques of 2012.

Campaigns certainly will make use of what has come to be known as "big data," i.e., data sets that are so large that traditional means for storing and processing the data are insufficient, and campaigns increasingly will make use of distributed repositories of data, possibly owned by corporations and organizations other than the campaign.  Computer programs will then be written to reveal tendencies within the voting population that will allow highly effective campaign messaging.  Imagine, for example, that a campaign is able to acquire the records of automobiles owned by a voting population and segregate them according to gas guzzling vs. more efficient vehicles.  The campaign might then match the gas guzzlers to voters who have long daily commutes.  The resultant population likely would be quite sympathetic to a message promising to keep gasoline prices low.  Other similarly devised messages could be tailored to other sub-populations of voters.

That SUV owners would be gratefully receive promises to keep gas prices low would not be surprising, but other "big data" mining techniques are thought to be able to reveal extremely surprising and powerful results.  A campaign that can acquire massive amounts of data about voters and can employ talented computer programmers could become extremely effective in reaching and motivating voters.

And so we can put together the two most important developments in the 2012 campaign: money and data.  The disappearance of limits on campaign contributions means that large, valuable, and privately held pools of data, will be able to empower campaigns as never before.  The 2012 Obama campaign was the first to reveal this dynamic.  It will mark the dawn of a new era of political campaigning in which the owners and managers of our society will be able to employ their vast repositories of data to ensure that their candidates win primary competitions and ultimately general elections.  Crotty's book, Winning the Presidency 2012 only hints at this future.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves, & Spies / Claudia Floyd -- Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2013

Most histories of the Civil War have approached the topic either from the perspective of a limited military campaign or battle or from a national military-political perspective.  Some, of course, examine specific themes related to the war, e.g., the emancipation of slaves, international relations, or political intrigue.  Others focus on the biographies of key historic figures.  Many of these approaches overlook how different the war seemed to people in different states.  The people of Virginia experienced the war quite differently, of course, from how it was experienced by the people of Wisconsin.  Ohio University Press has begun a very interesting series of Civil War histories that recognize the importance of these state differences.  Included in their offerings are Ohio's War, Indiana's War, Illinois's War
, Missouri's War (reviewed in this blog), and Kansas's War.
In this vein, The History Press has published Maryland Women in the Civil War by Claudia Floyd.  The work treats exactly what you would expect from the title.  Examining the role of women in Maryland's war is particularly interesting, in that the Maryland was a slave state that was secured by the Union in the early months of the war.  Consequently, a large number of southern sympathizers found themselves going about their normal domestic lives under what they perceived as a hostile occupation and resisting that occupation or supporting the southern cause often involved covert activities and not open, armed Resistance.  Both men and women could and were fully engaged in these activities.

By and large, Floyd's book examines the roles of a handful of women who we might assume are representative of larger groups of women.  We learn about Anna Ella Carroll, a prolific pro-Union propagandist; Elizabeth Phoebe Key Howard, a member of a prominent Baltimore pro-secession family; Madge Preston, a diarist and southern supporter living outside Baltimore; and perhaps the most famous woman from Maryland during the Civil War era, Harriet Tubman; but there are a host of other women who's lives and views make brief appearances in the work.

Floyd does an admirable job of illustrating how different women reacted differently to the war, not just based on their sympathies for the Union or Confederacy, but due to their station in society and particularly due to the effects that the war had on their families.  One gets the sense that more than in many other states, the women of Maryland were driven to engage in politics because of the high stakes that existed for families living in a slave state, that bordered the nation's capital and separated free states from slave states.  The controversial suspension of habeas corpus by the Lincoln administration mostly affected men living in Maryland, Maryland's geographic location made it particularly important to the underground railroad, and Baltimore's large free black population complicated race relations in ways that the rest of country did not experience.  Again, elements of this sort meant that the war reached into domestic life in a way that was not common in other states.

If there is a weakness in the work, it is that it appears to rely too completely on diaries and letters.  While this gives the work an admirable immediacy, it is not clear how much the experiences of the women who are the subjects of the book can be generalized to the rest of the women in Maryland.  Many of Floyd's women are socially prominent, making it less clear that working class women experienced the war in the same way.   For what it is, though, Maryland Women in the Civil War is an engaging and informative work.

Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists as the Earth Heated Up / Raymond S. Bradley -- Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011

In 1998, the journal Nature published an article by Michael Mann, Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes (MBH).  It included a graph that showed a recent, steep rise in the Earth's surface temperature.   The article presented evidence that the recent temperature was as high as it has been since the fifteenth century.  In 1999, the journal Geophysical Research Letters published another paper by Mann, Bradley, and Hughes that extended the data back to 1000 A.D.  In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, included their graph in its third Assessment Report.  While the graph illustrated only one piece of research that supported the claim that the Earth's climate was rapidly changing, it was a striking "infographic" which helped to focus attention on the developing climate crisis.  It also triggered a surprising backlash from conservative pundits and politicians.  Global Warming and Political Intimidation is Raymond Bradley's account of the ensuing controversy over the MBH or "hockey stick" graph.

From time to time, conservative pundits and politicians seize upon a minor error, a cautious qualification, or a poorly phrased statement made by climate scientists to discredit the growing body of research that has demonstrated that our climate is changing at a catastrophic rate.  Their attacks also are sometimes tied to the work of a small number of contrarian scientists or others with vaguely related academic credentials.  In this instance, the excuse for criticism of the MBH graph came from an article written by Stephen McIntyre (an economist) and Ross McKitrick (a mathematician).  Their article was initially published in an obscure journal Energy & Environment and latter published in Geophysical Research Letters, though GRL did not apply its normal review process before publishing the article.

Since then, MM's critique has been shown to be unfounded, but it was sufficient to prompt the Wall Street Journal to publish an article making reference to the critique.  This, in turn, prompted two conservative congressional representatives to Joe Barton, chair of the House Energy Committee, and Ed Whitfield, chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, to write letters to Mann, Bradley, and Hughes asking for an enormous amount of information related to their research and its financial support, not just for their 1998 Nature paper, but for all the work they had conducted in the course of their career.  Clearly, a frivolous investigation was now underway, aimed at obstructing their work and possibly smearing their scientific reputations.  It was comparable to a lawyer's massive discovery motion aimed at burdening the opposing litigants. 

In the end, Mann, Bradley, and Hughes were able to avoid the worst  possible outcomes of this partisan governmental intrusion into science,  because the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, Sherwood Boerlert, objected to Barton and Whitfield's harassment of scientists.  The standoff between powerful Republicans was widely covered in the national and foreign press and eventually led to the National Academy of Science investigating the issue and larger issues related to climate change research.  Unsurprisingly, the National Academy of Science found the MBH graph supported by "an array of evidence."  Barton continued to harass Mann, Bradley, and Hughes over the graph, but the real threats to their work were largely over.

This incident is merely one of many efforts by the climate crisis deniers to attack the scientist who are working to understand the dangers we face with the continued pollution of our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  While it is quite valuable to read Bradley's insider account of the "hockey stick" debate, one is left wishing he had included more information about other incidents.  He does provide some detail on the theft of emails from several climate scientists (most prominently Phil Jones) that were made public just prior to the Copenhagen UN climate summit in 2009.  Bradley also briefly describes the harassment of Ben Santer, the lead author of Chapter 8 of the second IPCC Assessment Report (1996). Chapter 8 focused on the causes of climate change.  Its qualified conclusions were that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate."  We now know this beyond any doubt, but this was one of the first times that anthropogenic climate change was so publicly endorsed.  The reaction was swift and ruthless from the carbon industry lobbyists and libertarian bloggers.  Santer's work was said to be the result of a "corruption of the peer-review process."  Fortunately for Santer, the criticisms did not result in governmental harassment as occurred in the "hockey stick" and stolen email affairs and the overwhelming evidence of the human impact on the climate has made his critics look utterly foolish, but not before causing him a great deal of headache and unnecessary distraction.

It is commendable perhaps that Bradley sticks to his first hand experiences with his Nature graph, but asking Jones and Santer to give him a brief account of their experiences that he could fold into his book would have helped establish his main argument that partisan political intrusions into the conduct of science is common and significant and that in order for public policy on climate change to be based on an accurate understanding of the physical world, we must insist that politicians stay out of the scientific debates.  We must allow the tried and true methods of scientific enquiry to light our way toward solutions to our mounting environmental problems.

Bradley's book is a welcome contribution to understanding how politics is interfering with science.  Perhaps the best book on this subject,however, is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (reviewed in this blog).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe / Marcelo Gleiser -- N.Y.: Free Press, 2010

One way of understanding the object of science is that it is to establish theories about the empirical world that are most explanatory.  An explanatory theory will first of all accurately accomodate past observations and it will predict future observations; however, this alone will not be sufficient to establish a theory.  After all, given a finite set of observations, several theories may be capable of providing equally successful explanations.  In such circumstances, other considerations come into play.  Commonly, "simplicity" is included among those considerations.  A theory which posits fewer independent elements (forces, entities, etc.) is preferred by most scientists, and so, in the course of the Copernican Revolution, the Aristotelian idea that the universe is composed of two different entities, terrestrial and celestial, and that these entities obey different laws of motion was rejected for a theory according to which all physical bodies obey a single law of motion.  In the 19th century another simplification of physical theories took place when electrical and magnetic forces were unified in a single theory of electromagnetic forces.

In A Tear at the Edge of Creation Marcelo Gleiser accepts the view that the desire to simplify physical theories into a single, unified "theory of everything" can be traced to the ancient Greek Ionian philosophers.  Following Gerald Holton and Isaiah Berlin, Gleiser calls this impulse "the Ionian Enchantment" or "the Ionian Fallacy." Gleiser attempts to "unmask" this fallacy.  He suggests that there is no reason to think that all phenomena in the universe can be explained by a single theory -- that the universe is "asymmetric" and "accidental."

His book is composed of five chapters.  The first chapter is a relatively breezy introduction to the Ionian Fallacy, with a healthy dose of autobiographical passages thrown in. The second, third, and fourth chapters are general introductions to cosmology, particle physics, and the origin of life respectively.  In each chapter, Gleiser seeks to underscore the oddity and irregularity of the universe.  By this, he believes he is able to establish his claim that there is nothing common about our universe.  Instead, its existence, particularly the existence of intelligent life is extremely rare and possibly unique in the universe.   The final chapter emphasizes this conclusion and draws the moral from it:  because we are so special, cosmically speaking, we should take greater care to protect the survival of life on our planet and especially our species.

In his introduction, Gleiser explicitly excuses his readers from reading the three chapters on science.  Clearly, he recognizes that a lay reader, particularly one with only a slight background in science, is likely to be overwhelmed by the blizzard of detail he provides.  He attempts to cover so much ground that he can not give sufficient explanation to many, if not most of the science in any of the three science chapters.  Some might call it a "slog" to get through these chapters; however, anyone with a moderate background in science and an interest in building on that knowledge will probably appreciate Gleiser's attempts to highlight the difficulties that theoreticians have had in developing a unified theory in any of the three fields Gleiser examines.

Setting aside the intelligibility of the science chapters, the general claim is one that seems curious and possibly untestable.  The main thrust of Gleiser's argument is that science has failed to uncover a single "theory of everything."  Furthermore, the  more  we learn about the universe, the more we learn that we have more to learn.  Gleiser concludes that this is evidence that the universe is not amenable to explanation by a theory of everything.  That there is not a "oneness" in the foundation of the universe.

Perhaps there are scientists who have a romantic attachment to the oneness of the universe, but I suspect most merely seek simpler theories on the grounds that they are theoretically superior to needlessly complex theories.  Scientist reasonably employ Ockham's razor when confronted with two theories that equally well describe and predict observations.  Curiously, Gleiser dismisses the importance of Ockham's razor when deciding between theories by asserting that is should not be employed when one theory is observationally superior to another.  Of  course not, but that misses the point.  Ockham's razor or the preference for simpler, but empirically equally good theories is an operational principle.   Granted: going beyond this and asserting that the world will ultimately be amenable to a unified theory is a step  too  far, but so too is making the opposite assertion that the world will never be amenable to a unified theory.  Early in his career, Gleiser was a "unifier."  He seems to have swung to the opposite pole.  He needs to find a resting place in the middle ground:  science explains the world through theories which cannot reveal the absolute truth, but should always strive to explain the world according to simpler theories.  To do otherwise would be to spin out any number of fanciful entities that are no more testable than the most crass religious dogma.

Gleiser's final conclusion, that the rarity (and possible uniqueness) of our existence can be a powerful force to motivate protecting our survival seems a rather weak contribution to the a argument.  Humanity is certainly arrogant enough -- self-absorbed enough -- to want to continue the species regardless of the presence or absence of other intelligent life in the universe, but if it motives Gleiser (or anyone else), that's all for the good.  I suspect the real challenge will be to impress upon people the mechanisms through which our collective behavior is undermining the conditions for our children's survival (or even just our own continued well-being.)  Such an understanding will do much more to address our global political and environmental crises than the threat of the extinction of a unique intelligence in the universe.

All in all, Gleiser seems to have been an idealistic "unifier," who has lost his faith and instead of simply accepting the utility of simple theories, he has embraced a new religion based on an assumption of the "asymmetry" of the universe.  Happily, from this, he has found a new reason to value humanity, but humanity is hardly in need of hightened valuation.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Desire: Why We Want What We Want / William B. Irvine -- Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006

In the introduction to his book On Desire, William Irvine writes, "My goal in investigating desire was to turn it inside out -- to understand how and why desires arise, how they affect our lives, and what we can do to master them."  This goal is (or these goals are) certainly worthy, and Irvine does deliver in many respects; however, he begins with too many conceptual confusions to make the work entirely satisfying.

Early on, Irvine asserts that "we are awash in desire at virtually every waking moment."  Some of these are "terminal" and others are "instrumental."  If this is true, then Irvine's definition of desire is so weak as to be nearly useless.  Later, he backs off of this claim to some extent, but it nonetheless haunts his work to the end.  What is missing here is any serious consideration of behavior that is habitual or proceeding from efficient causes.  This is particularly true in his treatment of instrumental desires.  Desiring a meal (a terminal desire) an agent will experience a sequence of instrumental desires, e.g., desiring one's car keys, desiring to open the car door, desiring drive to the restaurant, to find a parking place, to get a table, etc.  While one might categorize these as desires, one might also treat them simple as actions that unfold from a prior decision to go to the restaurant.  The ad absurdum analysis would posit a separate desire for each foot step along the way.  Irvine also fails to examine the distinction between actions and non-actions.  Do I desire to continue sitting in my chair or am I simply still sitting in it?  The answer is probably different in different circumstances, e.g., sitting while the "yeas" are counted in a parliamentary vote vs. sitting in the waiting room of a bus terminal. 

Irvine distinguishes between desires that are born of emotions and those born of the intellect.  The former is particularly effective in establishing terminal desires, while the latter is effective in establishing instrumental desires, but the correlation is not perfect. Acording to Irvine, the intellect can create a terminal desire to "click one's tongue." Such terminal desires are, of course, rare and weak in comparison to emotional desires.  According to Irvine, his treatment of desires follows from most of what Hume says about the sources of our motivations.  I suspect this is incorrect.  Hume famously wrote that reason is the slave to passion.  Reason is able to assess truth and falsity, but action is generated by passion. 

Setting aside whether or not Irvine is correct about Hume, his treatment of the intellect and its power to act deserves a much fuller explanation.  In some instances, "intellect" amounts to the ability to comprehend language, but it is hard to separate such a fundamental ability from other fundamental abilities, e.g., simple sense perception.  Is understanding that certain sounds have a meaning much different than understanding that certain other sense perceptions have a significance?  If not, then is it an excercise of the intellect to understand that the colors and shapes appearing before me are a tree?  And to what extent are simple sense perceptions components of our emotional states?  If perceptions are implicated in emotions, then it would appear that the boundaries between the intellect and emotion are blurred and they may not bear the distinction that Irvine purports. 

Irvine would have done better to avoid the emotion-intellect distinction and examine instead the passion-reason distinction that is made by Kant.  It is noteworthy that he makes no mention of Kant at all.  If he had, his treatment of desires and mental faculties likely would be more insightful and engaging.  As it is, his treatment relies too heavily on a naive hedonism, dressed up in a not terribly useful discussion of what he calls a "biological incentive system."  Irvine points out that we are born with and presumably naturally develop specific likes and dislikes that have served our survival over evolutionary time.  This seems true enough, but he offers no persuasive account as to how we might overturn or even resist these natural tendencies.  Having such an account is critical to the final chapters of his work which seek to explain how people have learned to "master" their emotions.

Irvine's last six chapters (out of thirteen) explore "dealing with our desires."  He examines the advice and practices of Buddhists, mainstream Christians, the Amish, Hutterites, and Shakers; Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics; as well as people he calls "eccentrics."  In each instance, the practices amount to "mastering" our desires, but again, Irvine does not explain the psychological basis upon which this is made possible, beyond noting that our desires do not preclude our freedom.  Of course, presenting an account of freedom would expand the work considerably, but it is nonetheless central to the questions he seeks to answer.  At very least, a more detailed treatment of the ecology of desires as they fit into the various (sometimes conflicting) long and short-term projects which each of us have probably would be consistent with Irvine's overall approach and would deepen his treatment of the questions at hand.

Root of the Middle Way / Nagarjuna in Ornament of Reason: the Great Commentary to Nagarjuna's Root of the Middle Way -- Dharmachakra Translation Committee -- Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2011

The Dharmachakra Translation Committee has provided us with a new translation of the Mulamadhyamaka-karikas, translating the title as The Root of the Middle WayThe Root of the Middle Way is among the most important texts in all of Buddhist literature.  Written by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna in the second century, it explains the concept of sunyata or "emptiness," upon which the important school of Madhyamaka Buddhism is based.

While historically important, The Root of the Middle Way is a difficult and work to understand.  Consequently, one would be well advised to read several works in the secondary literature to gain good understanding of The Root.  It is, however, brief in comparison to many seminal Buddhist works, so a quick initial reading will give the reader a flavor of the work.

The central idea of sunyata is arrived at in the work through a dialectical process in which all logically possible metaphysical views are said to be refuted.  The force of the work is rather like recognizing the validity of both the Heraclitean argument against stasis and Zeno's argument against change. However, the resulting view is neither nihilism nor agnosticism.  Nihilism, the view that nothing exists, is among the refuted metaphysical views and that all possible metaphysical views are refuted does not preclude us from reaching an understanding of what is true.  Instead, it demonstrates that conventional truth is distinct from absolute truth and that the techniques of argumentation and analysis are incapable of reaching the absolute truth.  Understanding the absolute truth comes only after one has set aside conventional truth and come into direct experience of the emptiness of the phenomenal world.

This particular translation of The Root is by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee.  The Committee does a fair job of presenting the work in an idiom that is largely intelligible to contemporary English readers; however, it does not seem especially more readable than the translation by Jay L. Garfield, reviewed in this blog.  The Dharmachakra Translation Committee also includes with The Root their translation of Ornament of Reason, a commentary written by Mabja Jangchub Tsondru (twelfth century).  Mabja's extensive commentary has had a profound influence on the understanding the The Root over the centuries and remains a lucid explanation of the work today. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation / Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. -- Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010

The following are excerpts from a review that is forthcoming in The Journal of Information Ethics.

Most of us learned at an early age that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never harm you,” but we also discovered that the saying was often cold comfort. Disregarding verbal abuse or defamatory remarks is not easy. Fortunately, we usually are able to find a more or less adequate way of responding to insults, if only to allow the passage of time to dull the pain. The Internet has made this much more difficult. On the web, insults, defamation, and invasions of privacy can immediately spread to a world-wide audience and last seemingly in perpetuity. The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation, edited by Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum, presents thirteen chapters that address harm, speech, and privacy issues raised by the Internet. The authors are, with a few exceptions, law professors at some of the leading U.S. law schools. So unsurprisingly, the chapters are consistently of high quality. They approach the issues at various levels of abstraction, ranging from philosophical discussions to examinations of concrete instances of harm. Most of the authors advocate specific legislative or judicial remedies for the harms under discussion.


First Amendment absolutist certainly will find the treatment of free speech in The Offensive Internet inadequate. Their judgment is likely to be based on a high assessment of the importance of speech and the slippery slope that regulation poses. Some may downplay the gravity of the harms that occur on the internet, making the dangers of censorship relatively greater. Their critique, however, needs to address the important distinctions made in The Offensive Internet, particularly in the section on speech. An important hurdle that the critics will need to overcome is the growing maturity of the Internet. In its initial manifestation, the Internet was shielded from regulation in order to promote its promise for enhanced, democratic communication. Today, however, it is perhaps the primary medium of mass communication around the world. As such, it no longer needs special protections. It is now appropriate to employ the widely accepted methods of holding Internet posters accountable for speech that would otherwise fall outside of First Amendment protection.


In general, The Offensive Internet is a valuable exploration of some of the more unpleasant aspects of unregulated speech and the consequences that follow from situations in which people can be unaccountable for their behavior. Fortunately, the authors offer us an impressive variety of means to address the problems. The volume does not, however, adequately address two important issues. The first has already been mentioned: protections against harms, protections of the freedom of speech, and protections of privacy can only be established equitably when the relative vulnerability of the parties is recognized. The early chapters’ emphasis on harms to women and minority groups is a move in the right direction, but the recognition of power dynamics tends to disappear in later chapters which seem to assume a power-blind approach. This is particularly clear in the chapters on privacy and reputation. An equitable legal regime should more completely protect the privacy of individuals, while leaving powerful institutions, like government agencies and major corporations, open to public scrutiny.

The second important issue that is not sufficiently addressed is whether the internet entrenches false information or exhibits self-correcting tendencies. Several of the authors acknowledge the fact that assertions (true or false) reside on the web indefinitely, that misinformation is often intentionally posted on the web, and that people tend to post (or re-post) what they wish to be true rather than what is well-justified. At the same time, the on-going activity of editing and re-editing wikis and blogs can also allow for the slow construction of reliable information. If this latter feature of the web becomes more dominant, then the concerns over false information undermining corporate or even personal reputations should decreased. Addressing these epistemic questions, however, would enlarge significantly the scope of the work, but much could have been gained by including at least a chapter or two on the broader philosophical background that lies behind the legal concerns that are central to the work.

In all, The Offensive Internet is a valuable contribution to the understanding some of the effects the Internet is having on individuals and society, and it offers important critical analyses of the current speech regime that may be too liberal for the good of individuals and society. Above all, free speech absolutists would do well to read and reflect on the work.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized / Owen Flanagan -- Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2011

In the spring of 2000, Owen Flanagan participated in the Eighth Mind and Life Conference, sponsored by the Dalai Lama.  The Mind and Life Conferences are a series of dialogs among "scientists, philosophers, and contemplatives" to develop a greater understanding of psychology and the philosophy of psychology, to advance the understanding of the nature of reality, and to promote the well-being of people around the world.  Flanagan had a passing familiarity with Buddhism prior to attending the conference, but between his experiences at the conference and the media attention he received following it, Flanagan's passing interest developed into something more serious. The result is The Bodhisattva's Brain.  It is an attempt to naturalize Buddhism -- to pare away the magic, superstition, and untestable theses that is common within popular Buddhism. 

Flanagan is what some might call a "hard headed" analytic philosopher, who has no patience for the "woolly minded" thinking that generally characterizes popular religions.  So it is noteworthy that he would take the time to see what he might find valuable in Buddhism.  Unsurprisingly -- though Flanagan himself seems surprised -- he finds much that is valuable.  His surprised reaction indicates a prior lack of appreciation for the pragmatic nature of Buddhism and his final conclusions about what is valuable in Buddhism betray an immovable commitment to what Buddhist's would call mere "conventional" knowledge.   Despite this, he shows a good understanding of many of the most important Buddhist concepts.  The Bodhisattva's Brain is a landmark examination of Buddhism from a Western analytic perspective.

There are, however, a few concepts that seem overlooked or underdeveloped in the work.  Flanagan appears to construe karma as a mysterious causal relationship in which what goes around eventually, magically comes around to an actor's benefit or detriment.  Moreover, to escape what seem to be counter-examples, Flanagan claims that Buddhism employs the doctrine of reincarnation.  This may be an accurate popular conception of karma, but Flanagan overlooks a more plausible account.  Buddhism maintains that all things have a dependent existence, i.e., nothing exists separately from all other things.  An aspect of this is causation.  Simply put, all things have a cause and cannot exist apart from their cause.  This is uncontroversial enough for physical events, but controversial when extended into the moral realm.  It even seem unlikely that one's fortune or misfortune always is caused by something one did previously or in a past life. 

The problem, however, evaporates when one abandons -- as Budhism does -- the idea of a distinct, persisting self.  Without a self to which beneficial or harmful consequences are expected to return, the law of karma merely asserts that compassionate or harmful acts propagate in kind through the world.  My greedy act will cause harm to others who will become afflicted by jealousy and subsequently will become disposed to act in harmful way themselves.  Conversely, my compassionate act will erase affliction and dispose others to do the same.  I suspect that Flanagan might object that this interpretation of karma departs too much from the popular conception, but it is grounded firmly enough in the doctrine of the non-existence of individual selves to claim a respectability within broader, more charitable interpretations of karma.

Flanagan is impressed with the Buddhist doctrine of anatman -- the idea that our individual selves are fictions.  It is, essentially, a denial of the existence of an individual soul or at very least an immortal, individual soul.  No doubt, stressing this doctrine places Flanagan's understanding of Buddhism on very firm ground.   He does, however, overlook in important critique of this doctrine that lies within the Buddhist tradition itself. Around the second century A.D., Buddhists began articulating critiques of metaphysical claims of this sort. The movement became known as Madhyamaka Buddhism.  Its most important exponent was Nagarjuna, and its most important metaphysical claim was that all things are sunyata or "empty."  Flanagan appears to understand emptiness to involve either (or both) the dependent arising (dependent origination or dependent existence) of all things or else the infinite divisibility of all things.  In either case, the existence (or at least independent existence) of objects is refuted. Flanagan does not seem to appreciate, however, the dialectic nature of Madhyamaka Buddhism.  Emptiness is not merely an assertion of the doctrine of anatman and the non-existence of objects, it is the conclusion drawn from the refutation of all metaphysical doctrines, including the doctrine of anatman.  Perhaps the closest that Western philosophy comes to this observation is Kant's antinomies.  For an excellent treatment of this and Madhymika Buddhism generally, see T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, reviewed in this blog.

Flanagan further betrays a disposition toward an early form of Buddhism by his lack of attention to the six perfections of a bodhisattva:  generosity, morality, vigor, forbearance, concentration, and wisdom. These perfections are outlined in detail in the monumental work, the Prajnaparamita, also reviewed in this blog. The Prajnaparamita is perhaps the most important sutra in the Mahayana tradition.  Flanagan makes no mention of it. He does discuss aptly the four divine virtues: compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and these virtues are clearly connected to the perfections of the bodhisattva, but they are limited largely to the moral aspects of the bodhisattva.  To succeed in following the path of the boddhisattva, according to the Prajnaparamita, one needs to cultivate certain non-moral traits or dispositions.  That Flanagan misses this link leads to his skepticism that embracing the doctrine of emptiness will naturally lead one to acquire the four divine virtues.  Of course, it is not certain that if he (or anyone) were to focus attention on and accept the arguments in the Prajnaparamita that he (or anyone) would be led from the non-moral claims in the Madhyamaka tradition to the moral dispositions, but Flanagan's lack of appreciation for the importance of wisdom as laid out in the Prajnaparmita might well explain the extent of his skepticism on this score.

Flanagan would do well to explore more deeply two other concepts in the Prajnaparamita:  (1) the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth and (2) "skill in means."  He certainly recognizes distinction between conventional and ultimate truth, but consistent with his desire to keep Buddhism bounded within a naturalistic world view, he seeks to make sense of Buddhism only within the conventional realm.  Here again, the Prajnaparamita's critical approach to all metaphysical claims helps one understand the futility of a full understanding of the world in strictly naturalistic terms.  Naturalism assumes a metaphysics which cannot withstand the Madhyamaka critique.  By letting go of all "absolutes," including naturalism, one achieves the wisdom (prajna) which is essential to enlightenment.

Finally, Flanagan would do well to appreciate the importance of the concept of "skill in means."  The bodhisattva becomes a bodhisattva by perfecting the perfections.  For example, by continuously practicing generosity, the bodhisattva hones his or her habits to the point that he or she is unaware that there is a giver, gift, or gift recipient.  The bodhisattva does not think, "so-and-so is in need of this gift, so I will give it."  Instead, giving becomes so natural that the "gift" is "given" without thinking of it as a gift.  In such a case, the bodhisattva has achieved skill in means with regard to giving.  The same skill in means is to be developed for the other perfections. 

Enlightenment cannot be achieved without perfecting the perfections, but as only a Buddha has reached this level of spiritual development, it is impossible for us to assess the effectiveness of the path of the bodhisattva.  This leaves the Buddhist open to the possibly reasonable criticism that his or her claim is untestable, but in fact, it only shows the limits of testability as a characteristic of truth.  To see this, one might compare the claim that perfecting the perfections leads to enlightenment to an extremely adept mathematician's proof of an extremely difficult theorem.  No one but the adept is able to understand the proof.  Consequently, some faith is required of lesser mathematicians, if they are to accept the theorem; but this does not make the proof dogma.  Similarly, the validity of the path to enlightenment may only be understood by those who have achieved "skill in means" and those of us with less skill must take it on faith, but that does not make it dogma.

There are a number of other complaints one might raise against Flanagan.  For example, his criticism of most Western Buddhists as being self-absorbed and uninformed often seems uncharitable and condescending.  He also too forcefully dismisses the importance of meditation to Buddhism.  This is perhaps a function of his lack of appreciation for, again, the Prajnaparamita and for the dedicated pursuit of enlightenment by non-lay Buddhists.  Some degree of meditation is crucial, if one is to go beyond the study of Buddhism as a scholarly discipline.

The foregoing criticism of Flanagan's treatment of Buddhism should not lead the reader to think that his work is fatally flawed.  On the contrary, it is a brilliant work of comparative philosophy.  Flanagan shows a remarkably deep understanding of Buddhism for someone who has only given it serious study for a decade or so.  A classic story about the Buddha describes the Buddha as tailoring his teachings to the abilities and understanding of his students, and so his teachings about the path to enlightenment were different and at times contradictory.  What is important is to find ways to advance the student along the path.  Flanagan's work, whether he intends this or not, is an excellent expression of the insights of Buddhism geared for the skeptical, naturalistic, Western mind.  All that might be needed  to achieve a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy is a commitment to the path -- a commitment to reach beyond Flanagan's naturalistic Buddhism.