Slippery truths

Wednesday December 10, 2008

Slippery buggers

When dealing with a set of traditions as extensive and long-lived as those within Buddhism, the same terms crop up again and again, doing different jobs at different times and in different places. This terminological slipperiness is something that can sow a great deal of confusion, because a term transplanted from one context can mean something entirely different in another context. But at the same time, slipperiness is, I like to think, sometimes something of a virtue, and there is nothing more dismal than dour philosophical attempts to pin down language, once and for all, to absolutely fixed, determinate meanings. Slipperiness, although it may vex certain kinds of philosopher, also ensures a kind of liveliness of thought that is, at best, decidedly bracing.

Of all the slippery concepts in the traditions of Buddhism, perhaps one of the slipperiest of all is that of the “two truths” – conventional truth and ultimate truth. This is a distinction that is sometimes made in a rather dull and clod-hopping fashion, but that has also at times led to some interesting philosophical perspectives. In its broadest form, it might be possible to suggest, this is a distinction that hinges upon the hunch that there is a difference between those things that are true, and things that are truly true; or, put another way, the hunch that there are many things that we say and think and believe about the world that, whilst not absolutely or ultimately true, are nevertheless not absolutely false, and have a degree of conventional truth.

A few days ago I heard that (after the kind of extensive faffing around that is common in academic publishing and that makes trade publishing look curiously sharp-witted and on the ball) my article on Mark Siderits’s excellent book Empty Persons was at last being published in Contemporary Buddhism journal. Siderits’s book is not only impressive in its philosophical rigour, but it is also exemplary in its demonstration that philosophy can be an entertaining business as well. If you are a member of an academic library with a subscription to the journal, you should be able to access the review here.

Siderits’s book is a book in two parts. In the first part, he looks at how the Abhidhammists – the early Buddhist philosophers – break down persons into more fundamental dhammas, or constituents of reality, claiming that whilst persons are only conventionally or apparently true things, dhammas are ultimately true things. Having mounted a defence of this kind of reductionist approach, Siderits goes on to use the Madhyamaka philosophers to call into question the idea that there are any ultimately true things at all, a position that he refers to (perhaps rather unfortunately) as “global anti-realism”. This position is not one that does away with truth altogether, leaving us in a relativistic morass, but rather one that does away with the idea that there is such a thing as ultimate truth.

Where might such giving up on the idea of ultimate truth lead us, other than mercifully delivering us from the clutches of the armies of loons who claim that they possess such a thing? I suspect, although I am conscious that I am making far too many steps here at once to satisfy the philosophers (but when are they, poor wee souls, ever satisfied?) that it leads, or can lead, to a kind of empiricism, or a modified empiricism in which we might come to value careful, systematic attention as the best possible means to understanding the world and ourselves, but an attention that is itself aware of its own limits, aware that our understandings have about them a kind perpetual provisionality.

For those who haven’t read Siderits’s book, it’s well worth getting hold of. And if you want to get a flavour of it, then the APA Newsletter for Fall 2006 has some interesting papers on it, and a response from Siderits as well (see the link here).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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#1 · Ned

11 December 2008

The attachment to the intellect may be one of the most insidious attachments for a Western Buddhist. Perhaps it has something to do with people leaving their traditional religion on the basis of intellectual discrepancies: the existence of God, salvation through another being, etc.

In a strange, sad and funny way, these same people become the most dogmatic about semantics in the Buddha’s teachings. They make the question, “How many angels dance on the head of a pin?” look like “How much is 2+2?” It’s easy to count angels, but what do they mean? ;)

In regards to your question, I wonder what happens when we give up the opposite assumption of relative truth. If all things are impermanent and empty of self, where can relativity be established? Between what and what?

I haven’t read the book you refer to, but I’ll have to give it a look.

#2 · Will

11 December 2008

Whether you call it attachment to the intellect, or simply intellectual rigour, I’m not sure that this is a specifically Western tendency. Buddhism has always had it’s own hardcore thinkers. So whilst we can debate whether such activity is necessary or useful or not (and it depends, of course, on what you think about, and how), at the same time, it is by no means entirely Western.

The question of whether the idea of conventional truth needs the idea of absolute truth to have any meaning (conventional as opposed to what?) is, perhaps, an interesting one. But as it’s time for lunch, it’s not one that I’m inclined to pursue:

Since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds [of skepticism], nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther.
David Hume

#3 · Ed Knight

14 December 2008

“Think not thinking. How do you think non-thinking. Not thinking. This is the essential art of zazen” Dogen

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