On Understanding

Our course is now turning its attention to a simple question: how do we know?

In this section of the course we’ll be considering responses to this simple question presented by René Descartes (born in France in 1596, died in Sweden in 1650), John Locke (born in England in 1632, died there in 1704), George Berkeley (born in Ireland in 1685, died in England in 1753), David Hume (born in Scotland in 1711, died there in 1776), and Immanuel Kant (born in what is now called Russia in 1724, died there in 1804).

Each of these men (although I will draw from their contemporary women, such as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, and Catherine Trotter Cockburn) has played a significant role in how the Occident has understood itself and the world around it and they’ve each contributed to laying the philosophical concerns of the modern era. During this two hundred-year period the concept of Christendom gave way to the modern nation-state, the move from the Age of Reason to the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. We will look on this period of transformation from a perspective heavily informed by the terms and language used by Immanuel Kant.

Kant categorized the thinkers who flourished during the period under consideration here as being in two camps: the Rationalists (here we will read Descartes) and the Empiricists (we look to the British wing, typified by Locker, Berkeley, and Hume). It should be recognized that each of the individuals I’ve named here had a multiplicity of concerns and what I am presenting here is for the purpose of better fleshing-out what the title of this course, “Ways of Knowing,” actually means. We’ve previously discussed the branches of Philosophy and you will likely recall that Epistemology is that body of our discipline that is concerned with how we can know anything.

How do we know that we don’t know something?
What kind of sense does that statement make?

Here, then we should reconsider how we understand the words we use to comprehend the world around us.

Understanding, as we typically use it today in the States, adequately describes what we intend by the term, of course. With the word “understanding” we typically intimate a sense of our mind’s grasping the things that our attention attends toward. But, just as we saw with the term “reason,” the term has a history and is a matter of cultural transmission.

Plato distinguished between νόησιϛ (noēsis) and διάνοια (dianoia). Noēsis included a sense of intellectual vision while dianoia pointed to the kind of knowledge that comes through principles like what we expect of reasoning. The distinction between intellectus and ratio in Latin also carries a similar sense to the Greek. In French the term for “understanding” is entendrement, but our English term is more like the German term Verstand (from stehen, “to stand up”).

From Denis Thouard’s “Understanding” in Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin, translations edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood (page 1186):

In English, “understanding” does a better job than French or German of preserving the idea of comprehension; thus in Hobbes, it is the capacity, “in a man, out of the words, contexture, and other circumstances of language, to deliver himself from equivocation, and to find out the true meaning of what is said” (Human Nature, chap. 5, §8). Similarly in Locke, although the more general sense of “power of perception” is dominant (Essay, bk. 2, chap. 21, para. 5), it can be analyzed as
1) perception of ideas in our minds,
2) perception of the meaning of signs, and
3) perception of the agreement or disagreement between our ideas.
The semiotic dimension remains, even in the dichotomy between understanding and will tends to mask it. Furthermore, while Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz consider finite understanding by distinction with, but also with reference to, infinite understanding, for Locke it it rather a matter of direct inspection of the understanding as a specifically human capacity, as the title of the Essay itself reveals. The same is true for Hume (Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, 1758). The understanding, in English, is decidedly human, and it is also as a finite power that it appears in Germany [….] We may note that Kant’s teacher in Königsberg, Martin Knutzen, had Locke’s essay translated into German by the orientalist Georg David Kypke, whose house Kant shared (Anleitung des menschlichen Verstandes, 1755).

Let’s turn our attention now to René Descartes and his the first two of his Meditations.

Earlier we read Zhuangzi and encountered his butterfly dream. The presentation of this dream forces us to ask why we feel so confident we know what mean when we say that our waking lives are real and our dreams are fantasies. On what grounds do we establish what is real? How do we know that this is real? It’s sensible to dismiss the question because obviously this is really happening right now. But how do we know that? What part(s) of us establishes this?

Click here to continue our lesson about Descartes. We’ll define ontology and discuss the distinction between extensional and intensional objects.


Danielle Allen’s “Rhetoric, a Good Thing”

In this chapter from Talking to Strangers, Dr. Allen points out that:

In political controversies, there will always be logical arguments for a counterposition, on the basis of exactly the same facts. In this circumstance, no amount of logical argument will determine which speaker to trust. Audiences will turn to assessments of character, and so our capacity to convey our habitual mindsets turns out to be directed not merely at concerns about interpersonal relations, but also at the distrust arising from factual uncertainty. […] People trust those who have the ability to make astute, pragmatically successful decisions in contexts of uncertainty and who can convey that practical levelheadedness through speech. (page 145)

The task Allen has set for us in this chapter is to practice new modes of our habitual citizenship. Although I’ve not assigned it, chapter nine of this book discusses political friendship, fraternity, and love and you may find it useful for your thinking.

Notice that the crucial dilemma in the above quote I’ve shared with you is that the people listening are presented with counterarguments from the same pool of facts. Said another way, in the above situation, Allen assumes that people are having a difficulty assessing the truth of what is said and want to know the truth only in so far as they want to make a decision based on evidence.

But is this really a widespread concern?

Recall our discussion of Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial” from earlier. Each of those men had their reasons or senses of justification for acting as they did. But, crucially, what Arendt points out is that ultimately these men are not only guilty of their crimes, but also of failing to live up to a standard of reasoning. “[W]hat is left of the humanity of a man who has completely yielded up to [their moods]?” she asks on page 253.

Let’s look at a contemporary model for this question, embodied by John Turano, the man embraced by the Alt-Right and whom they call “Based Spartan.”

In our next section of our class we’ll be looking to Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant to learn about how we’ve come to think we know what we think we know.

Why Does Socrates/Plato Maintain that Learning Is Recollection?

Learning objectives

  1. Analyze Socrates’/Plato’s theory of learning
  2. Discuss role of noumena and phenomena in their argument.

What do we recollect? In order to answer this, we must look at the trail left in the dialogue.

The initial premises are that souls (ψυχη, psyche) exist and that there is a dimension of Perfection and Truth (this is the noumenal dimension) where the gods and souls exist.

Not only do souls exist, but our souls are the part of us that grasps truth (65b), and, unlike our bodies, it is the part of us that thinks and has memories. (66c) The body imprisons the soul and confuses the soul. (79c) At birth our souls forget where it has come from and that it is made up of the same stuff as the Truth and the Perfect. (76c-d) The soul, when not intoxicated and imprisoned by the body, is able to pass into the realm of the True and the Perfect, and when it remains in that state, this is called wisdom. (79d) Through the practice of philosophy we can train our souls to liberate itself from our bodies and remain in that state of wisdom. (83b) What we call learning is the exercise of the soul recalling its true nature.

Here’s where you find evidence for this thinking:

Socrates tells Cebes and Simmias he thinks that “a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death.” (63e-64a) Socrates then tells them that, “true philosophers are nearly dead.” (64b-c)

Socrates asks Simmias, “Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?” to which Simmias states, “Certainly.” Socrates asks if death means that the soul departs from the body, Simmias affirms that this is the case. (64c)

Socrates then asks Simmias whether philosophers overly concern themselves with getting drunk, sex, food or other bodily pleasures and the two arrive at the conclusion that, by avoiding these bodily impulses, philosophers free their souls from association with their bodies. (65a)

Socrates asks (65b) if the body is an obstacle for in the search for knowledge, since the poets are “forever telling us that we do not see or hear anything accurately.” (65b) Simmias says he believes this is the case.

Socrates asks, “When, then, […] does the soul grasp the truth?” since, “whenever it [the soul] attempts to examine anything with the body it is clearly deceived by it.” (65b-c)

Socrates asks Simmias (65c), “Is it not in reasoning if anywhere that any reality becomes clear to the soul?” To which Simmias says, “Yes.”

Socrates further presses Simmias if it is the case that, “the soul reasons best when none of [the body’s] senses troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain, nor pleasure, but when it [the soul] is most by itself, taking leave of the body and as far as possible having no contact or association with it in its [the soul’s] search for reality.” (65c-d)

Socrates presents us with what he believes the “true philosophers believe and say,” (66b) that the body “fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and nonsense,” and as a result, “no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body.” (66c-d) All of this, these “true philosophers” would tell us, “makes us too busy to practice philosophy.” (66d) If that weren’t bad enough, the end result of this confusion and fear is that it, “prevents us from seeing the truth.” (66d-e)

Furthermore, these “true philosophers” would tell us that, “if we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain […] wisdom.” (66e)

We are then presented with a dilemma, “if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body, then one of two things is true: either [1] we never attain knowledge or [2] we can do so after death.” (66e-67a)

Cebes tells Socrates that other men will find it hard to believe that soul exists after the body dies, and it’s even harder to believe that the soul will possess intelligence after the body dies. (70a-b).

Socrates asks Cebes and Simmias to examine the “ancient theory” that the souls of men exist in the underworld after their bodies die and those souls come back from the underworld to inhabit the bodies of the living. (70c-d)

They establish what “recollection” means (i.e., recalling we knew something already. (73b-c)

They discuss that, in measuring things, we never get the perfect measurement (in our translation this perfect measurement is called “the Equal,” or “the Equal itself”—there is always, no matter how subtle, a discrepancy. (74e) “Our sense perceptions must surely make us realize that all that we perceive through them is striving to reach that which is equal but falls short of it.” (75b)

But, how do we have this sense of perfect measurement? If we’ve never encountered true perfection through our senses (because our senses tell us that there is always some shortcoming of the objects we encounter), then we must have been born with an awareness of perfection. (75a, 75c, 75d)

They agree that “learning” is acquiring knowledge and not losing it, and that forgetting is losing knowledge. (75e) “One of two things follows […]: either we were born with the knowledge of [perfect measurement, the ‘Equal’], and all of us know it throughout life, or those who later […] are learning, are only recollecting, [therefore] learning is recollection.” (76a)

But this leads us to wonder, if souls are the part of us that grasps Truth (the perfect form of truth) or perfect measurement (“the Equal”), “When did our souls acquire the knowledge of them?” (76c)

We don’t acquire that knowledge at our birth because then we’d have to establish at what time in our lives did we forget that we knew the Truth. (76c-d)

At this point Simmias and Cebes and Socrates return to asking about the nature of souls.
The soul makes use of the body to investigate things, but the body’s effect on the soul is like being drunk. (79c) When it is allowed to investigate things without interference from the body, the soul “passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal, and unchanging.” The experience of and staying in this realm “is called wisdom.” (79d)

Because the body makes the soul impure, Socrates reasons with Simmias and Cebes, “those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions.” (82c) To purify the soul, one must practice philosophy (67d), because the lovers of learning, “know that when philosophy gets hold of their soul, it is imprisoned” by the body. (82e)

All pleasures and pains and corporeal sensations that we revel in are like nails riveting the soul to the body. The soul comes to believe that the Truth is something found in the body, and because of this soiled state of affairs, the soul cannot return to the realm of the Perfect and True. (84d-e)

The practice of philosophy persuades the soul “persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses” and to trust itself to remain in the realm of the Perfect and True. (83b)

The Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of Existence

Week 11, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define karma.
  2. Explain Buddhism’s Three Marks of Existence.

As we mentioned previously, the Prajñaparamita (“perfect wisdom”) sutras were the first sutras to be translated into Chinese. The Prajñaparamita (“perfect wisdom”) sutras represent the earliest layer of Mahayana sutra literature. The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra belong to a period of Buddhist scholastic development (300–500 CE) in which the basic ideas of the much longer Prajñaparamita canon is condensed into shorter and versified summaries.

The perfect wisdom being articulated in these sutras is the cultivation of the practitioner’s insight into shunyata, the fundamental emptiness of all things and the purely relative existence of all dharmas. From this can then come the realization that all things in the world interrelated and share a nexus of causal conditions. Each thing is particularly-so, that is, they have their individuality, but reification (insisting on their independence from all other things) is an imposition that arises from attachment to our linguistic and conceptual categories. This objectification and reification is a product of our own ignorance (avidya), and obliterating our ignorance is what these sutras aim to accomplish.

In order to obliterate our ignorance it is necessary that we practice compassion (karuna) for all other beings in the cosmos. But, as Mu Seong points out, this raises a paradox in the Buddhist tradition: how can we develop compassion for all other beings in the cosmos if all other beings are insubstantial and fundamentally empty? Where do we direct our compassion then?

“This paradox has been one of the creative impulses in the Buddhist philosophical and practice traditions. For the practitioner, the understanding of wisdom and compassion—and the inherent tension between the two—is not to be resolved on a theoretical level, but to be experienced in one’s own mind and body. In this way one finds emptiness and compassion to be mutually supportive rather than mutually contradictory.” (The Diamond Sutra, 30)

Since wisdom and compassion are not simply theoretical problems that one can overcome through mental efforts alone, there is the need to identify the skillful means (upaya) by which we can liberate ourselves and others from the tangled web of self-deception and self-depredation. Among the practices one can undertake on this path to liberation is the bodhisattva vow.

“The bodhisattva vow provides the context and inspiration to motivate the individual to gain insight into shunyata (emptiness), the essential nature of all phenomena, which leads to an experience of tathata (of suchness), of things as they are in their essential nature, of the mutual identity of phenomenal and transcendent reality. At the same time they cultivate karuna (compassion) for all those still caught in delusions, and help them through upaya (skillful means) so that they too may become free and attain buddhahood.” (The Diamond Sutra, 34)

The Buddha’s Dharma (teaching) was very simple and based on the Four Noble Truths:

  1. All this is duhkha (“troubled” or “suffering”)
  2. There is a pattern to how duhkha arises.
  3. There is a pattern to how duhkha is resolved.
  4. There is an Eightfold Path for turning duhkha toward meaningful resolution.
    (This formulation of the Four Noble Truths is from Peter Hershock’s Chan Buddhism, 13)
Occupy Wall Street Sign
The First Noble Truth illustrated: sign from Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in New York, fall 2011

The first noble truth is not an abstract concept. Rather, we are encouraged to recognize that, as Peter Hershock puts it, “right now, from some present perspective, things are not going well.” (Chan Buddhism, 14) We can open ourselves to the reality that somewhere, someone has stubbed their toe, or someone is going through a divorce, or someone is burying their lifelong companion, or there is an animal being processed into food for us. This is likely not an abstract concept for each of us.

The second noble truth helps us to recognize that the suffering in the world is a result of overlapping mutual concerns. Typically there is not only one singular cause for our sufferings. Even in the example of our stubbed toe: we might say, “that person stubbed their toe because they were careless,” and perhaps that is true but if we pursue why it is that the person was preoccupied and did not take greater care before stubbing their toe why might see a tangled web of anxieties and fears clouding the person’s mind.

An individual’s pain may seem to be contained only in that person’s body (although perhaps the parents reading this might concede that when their small child is hurt, a part of the parent is hurt as well). Fortunately, in the main, the pain we experience in our bodies are temporary. But there are other modes of suffering we experience that are not so well-contained. For example the suffering of poverty, or the suffering one experiences when they feel trapped in their job. Or the suffering we feel as a result of our social relations. Consider this clip from the 1992 film Baraka:

As Peter Hershock states:

“Suffering arises, in other words, through a complex set of conditions that include easily observed ‘facts’ but also broadly shared cultural values, personal histories, and individual beliefs about what things can and cannot mean [….] Dealing with suffering requires understanding exactly what kind of cultural and personal impasse has been reached, what ‘normal’ expectations have been violated, and which parts of the situation are taken to be negotiable and which are not.” (Chan Buddhism, 15)

“At the core of all our troubled and troubling situations are our beliefs about who we are and who we are not. Underlying these are more or less conscious senses of what should and should not happen, our particular wants or desires, and the limits of these project for what we are responsible for and what we are not. In summarizing all this, the Buddha often remarked that the root of all our suffering is the conceit that ‘I am’—the arrogance of thinking that we are essentially independent beings and not intimately connected with and a part of all things.” (Chan Buddhism, 16)

Hershock characterizes our existence as wounded, a wound that results from our assumption that we are independent from all other things. But this is a false belief and one that we can do something to rectify. The third noble truth reminds us that we are always in a position to heal this wounded existence.

The method for achieving this resolution of duhkha is the Noble Eightfold Path, by cultivating and developing, through our sincere commitment to practicing the:

  1. right understanding,
  2. right thinking and feeling,
  3. right speech,
  4. right action,
  5. right livelihood,
  6. right effort,
  7. right mindfulness,
  8. and right concentration.

The Buddha’s dharma is not a description of how the world is, but rather a prescription for overcoming how the world actually is. He taught that our existence is marked by three things

  1. Impermanence,
  2. Absence of self, and
  3. Duhkha.


It is often the case that, when folks first here the Four Noble Truths they are shocked to hear how pessimistic this view appears to them. But it’s important to recognize that the first Noble Truth (that “all of this” is suffering) is not a condemnation: by seeing that we are suffering we are brought to an awareness that there is something that can be done.

And, as we all know, there is nothing that is permanently fixed in its place or its operations. Everything will and does change. This means that there is no problem that is intractable and so we are in a position to ask ourselves in which direction we wish to move with those changes and how energetically we will decide to participate in that movement.

Having No Self

Regard that clip from Baraka above once again. It’s true, there is a flurry of activity and yet we see that there is a pattern to that dizzying activity. Those bodies moving through those channels are doing so precisely because someone built those channels for them to pass through. There was an intention in building those situations, not only on the part of the individuals commuting, but also the city planners, the transit authorities, the mechanical and civil engineers, the policy makers who regulate the conditions of the workers, and so on. Those of you who are inclined toward economic thinking may note that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that establishes equilibrium across markets is the effect of the myriad actors supplying and demanding; those are intentional actions.

There arises from this swarm of discrete actions and dispositions a general tendency in the world. Who we are throughout our lives is often a matter of responding to these general tendencies and atmospheres into which we find ourselves thrown. When Buddhists discuss anatman (literally ‘no self’) what is being pointed to here is not that we don’t physically exist, but rather that who we are is empty of any permanence. Physically “who we are” is a matter of constant transactions with the world around us: our bodies are in a constant cycle of energy exchange, our cells die off and are replaced by new ones, our thoughts are in a constant state of flux and never ceasing. The Buddhist concept of emptiness (sunya) is there to invite us to recognize that the world arises interdependently and in a state of mutual influence.

We are emptied of our illusions about who we are and in that emptiness we are met with the fullness of our unceasing interconnectedness. Peter Hershock clarifies:

“By appreciating the emptiness of all things, we become aware that the world we live in did not arise randomly, according to inherently fixed principles, or according to the purely objective operation of natural laws. Rather, it has taken shape in conformity with our likes and dislikes, according to our values, through our intentions, to meet our needs and desires.” (Chan Buddhism, 19)


Recognizing that suffering of the world is attributable to our habitual misidentification of our interrelatedness means that we are always in a position to realize our mutual presence. To realize our mutual presence is to make real and efficacious our actions for one another. We all make a difference to one another. “Fundamentally, this means becoming aware that, in some way, we all make a difference to one another. We thus begin seeing that we have a responsibility for asking what kind of difference. In this way, seeing all things as troubled or troubling establishes the foundation or roots for cultivating the felt partnership of true compassion.” (Hershock, 18)


Karma is a matter of weighted moral action. Karma is a technique for helping us understand that the way our world presents to us is a matter of correspondence between our values and habitual ways of acting in the world. There are some who might experience some unfortunate event and announce, “dag, I guess that’s my karma,” implying that karma is a matter of exchange: we do good things and good things come to us, we do bad things and bad things come to us. This naive thinking of karma does have the virtue of getting us to recognize that how we act does impact how the world around us happens. As we go more deeply into our understanding of karma we can see that we share a responsibility to act in a way that can change our situation.

Let’s again consider Hershock’s considered thoughts on the matter:

“Seeing the world karmically is to see our world as irreducibly dramatic. It is a world in which all things are not only factually but also meaningfully interdependent. Intentions and values not only matter, they are an irreducible part of how things come about [….] In all Buddhist contexts, the teaching of karma is embedded in a cosmology that denies the simple finality of death. The term for a life of chronic trouble and suffering—’samsara’—literally refers to an unending compulsive cycle of birth and death [….] Seeing all things as having no self is to see that there is literally nothing to be reborn or to receive a new body. Nor is there anything that could carry karma forward from one life to the next.” (Chan Buddhism, 22–23)

“[A]lthough there is continuity in the dramatic pattern of lived experience from life to life, no soul or bodily substance crosses over the barrier of death [….] What connects a prior life to a present or future life are just patterns of meaningful relationship [….] Our life stories are part of a continuum of ‘performances’ in which shared and developing dramatic themes and values are embodied.” (Chan Buddhism, 24)

In this way we can see that the Buddha’s teaching encourages us to practice a critical evaluation not only of our actions and dispositions, but in order for this to be effective we must also recognize that our critical evaluations are also necessarily directed at our cultures as well.


Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss extensional objects vs. intentional objects
  2. Define ontology

We’ve previously discussed philosophical realism and understand that in the realist scheme there is the world we experience (phenomenal) and there is the realm of Truth (noumenal). According to this mode of thinking, we cannot experience things-in-themselves because what they truly are, their noumenal reality, is obscured by our phenomenal sense organs. We can have a physical engagement with things, but only our minds can accurately perceive what things actually are like.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been reading and discussing Buddhism and the call for us to experience the world as it is, free from our ego-motivated projections. The “Heart Sutra” implores us to meditate upon the emptiness of all things (shunyata) and cultivate compassion for all sentients so that we can reduce the amount of suffering in the world. Beyond the obvious sufferings of injuries and privations, what is the root of suffering? Our suffering is rooted in our belief that there is a noumenal dimension onto which the truth of things (and ourselves) adheres. As we cultivate compassion for the suffering of others and as we contemplate and gain insight into the nature of emptiness (shunyata) we can begin to experience and appreciate the fullness of our interrelatedness to all things.

With our reading of René Descartes we have a very different project. Descartes sets out, in his Meditations, to demonstrate that the existence of God and the soul are best demonstrated using philosophical rather than theological methods; he states this in his letter of dedication to the faculty of theology at the Sorbonne in Paris. He argues the necessity for his philosophical project because believers, by definition, have the faith and unbelievers do not. The Roman Catholic Christian readily accepts and practices a belief that God exists and they know that He exists because the Holy Scriptures state that He exists. Christendom must believe the Holy Scriptures because the Holy Scriptures are a gift from God to humanity. Descartes, rightly so, points out that the unbeliever cannot be compelled to join the community of believers by this circular argument. And so Descartes takes it upon himself to win the souls of the unbelievers.

But Descartes is concerned with not only the spiritual lives of the unbelievers, he’s also interested in demonstrating the power of his philosophical methodology for solving scientific problems and providing definitive proof of the existence of God and human minds (which appears to be synonymous with souls). He published his Discours de la méthode/Discourse on the Method in 1637, at the age of forty-one, and then published his Meditations in 1641. The Meditations, in his own words, proves “that God exists and that the mind is distinct from the body.” Descartes’ methodology entails deploying rigorous skepticism in the pursuit of reason.

In his “Preface to the Reader,” Descartes points out that the term “idea” has a double sense. On one register “idea” describes the material operation of an individual’s intellect (ἰδέα), but there is also the objective sense of the term in which our minds—by using ideas—grasp the truth of something (εἶδος). This brings us to a discussion of extension, a word that pops up in several places in the Descartes essay, and important for us to understand how philosophy has developed in the West since we last checked in with Plato and Socrates. This also gives us occasion to examine a significant field of philosophical exploration: ontology.

Recall that we have discussed metaphysics earlier this semester. It is the study of the nature of the universe, of the self, existence, cause and effect, and so on. At the core of metaphysical discussion are answers to two questions: 1) what is there? And 2) what is that like?

Ontology is the subfield of metaphysics which explores the nature of existence and being. The word is constructed using ontos– which means “being” and -logos, the study of. Ontology seeks to understand the nature of things as they exist-in-themselves.

Under philosophical realism we come to see that we cannot interact with things-in-themselves, only their phenomenal expression. Their noumenal core is always beyond our direct experience and we only grasp glimpses of what they “really” are through our ability to use our minds. We can reason about what they really are, but we can’t directly experience them.

In the Middle Ages period folks in European philosophy investigated whether or not things in our minds were real. St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093–1109, is credited with creating the first “ontological argument.” What was his ontological argument? Using ontology to demonstrate the existence of God; this is something that René Descartes attempts five centuries later.

Ontological arguments begin from a priori (Latin, “from the earlier”) statements, that is, statements that are understood to be true independent of our experience. For example, 3+2=5, whether or not we experience this or not.

Anselm’s argument goes this way:

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.

Anselm’s is an argument for the existence of intentional objects—mental objects, like Popeye, or Cthulu, actually exist.

Extension, by contrast to intention, describes the property things and that they exist in more than one dimension. They can be stretched, they can occupy space, they can do stuff in the world.

Descartes makes a significant use of what he calls “real distinctions.” Real distinctions illuminate how substances differ from one another. A substance, according to Descartes, is some object that can exist without another object, except for what God requires. We can imagine a mountain that exists whether or not people see them existing or not. Our imagined mountain exemplifies what Descartes means when he discusses substances. In contrast to substances Descartes presents what he calls modes of extended substances. For example, a sphere. “Being sphere shaped is a mode of an extended substance. For example, a sphere requires an object extended in three dimensions in order to exist: an unextended sphere cannot be conceived without contradiction.” (Justin Skirry, “René Descartes: The Mind-Body Distinction”)

The first version the mind-body problem is found in this excerpt from the Sixth Meditation:

“[O]n the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing [that is, a mind], and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it (AT VII 78: CSM II 54).”

Notice that the argument is given from the first person perspective (as are the entire Meditations). This “I” is, of course, Descartes insofar as he is a thinking thing or mind, and the argument is intended to work for any “I” or mind. So, for present purposes, it is safe to generalize the argument by replacing “I” with “mind” in the relevant places:

  1. I have a clear and distinct idea of the mind as a thinking, non-extended thing.
  2. I have a clear and distinct idea of body as an extended, non-thinking thing.
  3. Therefore, the mind is really distinct from the body and can exist without it.

“Contemporary discussions of the nature of intentionality are an integral part of discussions of the nature of minds: what are minds and what is it to have a mind? They arise in the context of ontological and metaphysical questions about the fundamental nature of mental states: states such as perceiving, remembering, believing, desiring, hoping, knowing, intending, feeling, experiencing, and so on. What is it to have such mental states? How does the mental relate to the physical, i.e., how are mental states related to an individual’s body, to states of his or her brain, to his or her behavior and to states of affairs in the world?” (Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality“)

“Why is intentionality so-called? For reasons soon to be explained, in its philosophical usage, the meaning of the word ‘intentionality’ should not be confused with the ordinary meaning of the word ‘intention.’ As the Latin etymology of ‘intentionality’ indicates, the relevant idea of directedness or tension (an English word which derives from the Latin verb tendere) arises from pointing towards or attending to some target. In medieval logic and philosophy, the Latin word intentio was used for what contemporary philosophers and logicians nowadays call a ‘concept’ or an ‘intension’: something that can be both true of non-mental things and properties—things and properties lying outside the mind—and present to the mind.” (Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality“)

Kant’s Ethics

Week 15, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss differences between hypothetical imperative and categorical imperative
  2. Discuss the role of reason in Kant’s principle of universality

Let me begin by setting the stage in this way: Kant’s argument for grounding our moral actions in reason is also part of his arguing that we have free will.

“‘Ethics […] is not the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy, but of how we are to be worthy of happiness.’ [….T]here is nothing morally admirable about a person seeking his own happiness, but there is something worthy of admiration about a person who, in the face of dangers, does his duty and does it for no other reason than it is his duty.” (Pessin Engel, 142)

Kant believes that what we need is to establish morality in a way that is beyond our everyday experience of personal inclinations. That is to say, we need to develop a metaphysic of morals that is independent of any particular moral belief or custom.

Fulfilling our moral potential
This can only be established by uncovering universal laws of moral action that are a priori—laws that are true regardless of whether humans ever experience them or not. Like a square is the polygon with four right angles, or 2+3=5, a priori laws are always the case.

But, for Kant, it’s not enough that folks know that they ought to do what their moral obligations are, they must choose to do what is morally correct. This is a matter of possessing a good will.

In order to fulfill our moral potential each of us must:

  • First come to an understanding of the necessity for universal moral laws and then,
  • We must cultivate our own “good will” to act in accordance with these moral laws.

In order to uncover these universal moral laws, we each have an obligation to use our reason to think through the logic of proposed moral laws. Only by embracing and enhancing our rationality can we thereby develop our “good will” and thereby meet the requirements of our universal moral laws.

The goodness of our will is the result of using our intelligence, courage, and wealth in the service of duty.

What does this mean?
Acting from duty is acting based on reason, not based on what we desire.

“It is the will of one who does the right thing not because that is what he or she wants to do, or because of the good consequences that will follow from it, but because it is what pure reason demands of him or her. And only actions springing from such a motive are deserving of moral praise and respect.” (Pessin & Engel, 143)

Let’s imagine how three scenarios and see if any of them meet Kant’s criteria for being morally commendable, shall we?

A homeless person appears before us and asks us for money. We don’t feel comfortable around them and give them money because it will get that person to leave us alone.

This one is less about morally correct actions, but illustrates a principle:

Imagine we are playing a game of chess and a child walks up to our board and moves one of our pieces. Not only does the child make a move that is permissible by the rules, but they make an excellent move. Is that move commendable?

Imagine that I am the kind of person who loves to share joy with others and do so without regard for what I am doing beyond the pleasure it brings me to share with others. Imagine I am this kind of warmhearted person. Now imagine that the same homeless person from earlier has approached me and I give them twenty bucks, happily.

According to Kant my donation is not morally praiseworthy—it may be an activity that we’d like others to feel encouraged to do, but it is not morally praiseworthy because I did it out of my own sense of satisfaction.

Another word for obligations is “imperatives.” Kant is committed to discovering a grounds for our moral obligations to one another. In this pursuit he makes a distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.

A hypothetical imperative is a command that we do something if we are trying to achieve a particular end. They are conditional. With hypothetical imperatives, we “ought” to do something only to the extent that we are committed to or motivated by a particular outcome.

A categorical imperative is a command that we do something because it is the morally-correct thing to be done; it is our duty and obligation, unconditionally.

For example, the statement, “You should pay your debts,” is a categorical imperative. But, if we add the phrase, “if you want people to trust you,” to that statement, then it becomes a hypothetical imperative.

Hypothetical imperatives embody the logical form, “If_______, then________.”

But, why should we act according to the categorical imperative? What’s in it for me?

Kant is on the side of Aristotle here. Humans should act morally and guided by reason because to do otherwise is beneath us. Humans are the unique animal in the universe that has reason and because reason exists we must fulfill what reason requires of us: consistency. To be human, according to Kant, “is to be rational, and to act as a human being is to act rationally. It is to possess a will that is motivated not by impulses or feelings but reason. Since the essence of reason (unlike impulses and feelings) is consistency, and since the test of consistency is universal validity, in order to be rational an action must be motivated by a universally valid and binding principle of conduct.” (Pessin & Engel, 144)

Kant believes that animals don’t have the power to reason, they are driven only by their impulses. Because they cannot use reason, they are innocent. On the other side of the spectrum there is God. What God wills to do is, by definition, always what is reasonable and good and there is never any tension between what He wills and what is reasonable and good.

Only humans are in the unique position to do either good or evil because we are the creature that is uniquely able to decide to follow either our inclinations and feelings or to follow our reason.

Kant’s “metaphysics of morals” is based on the assumption that people, exclusively, are rational creatures and because of this we must be committed to a belief in logical consistency. Accordingly, humans are (or they ought to) find it repugnant when someone or something acts irrationally.

Rationality requires that not only would we act in the same way across all similar circumstances, but so would everyone else. Reason is universal and applies to cases. There can be no exceptions to our universal principle because that is contrary to what “universal” means.

And this is what we see when Kant announces, “I am never to conduct myself in a way I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, Abbott translation, 119)

The translation here is awkward, I think Kant’s meaning here is better communicated by stating the point in a positive manner: “Act on that maxim and that maxim only, which you can at the same time will to be a universal law.”

Kant’s principle of universality requires us to ask the classic question: “What if everybody behaved this way?” For example, what if everyone refused to pay back their debts? First we should ask the question, why does anyone ever lend money? The answer, of course, is that people lend money because they expect they will not only get the money back but they will also be paid interest on the borrowed sum and the borrower understands that this interest is the cost that must be paid in order to borrow money. So, if everyone were to stop paying back their debts, then no one would ever lend anyone else money because the would-be lenders would know that they will never be able to recoup their losses.

Kant isn’t concerned that, if I lie, then others will stop believing me. He isn’t even arguing the point that if everyone lies then there will be widespread distrust and the destruction of promising. Those are, essentially, only utilitarian considerations.

Kant’s concern is with the logic of the situation: there cannot be both promises and no promises because that is illogical. There either are promises or there are not, it cannot be both simultaneously. This might seem like a circular argument, but Kant’s strategy here is not simply to ground moral action in reason, but also to argue that humans possess freedom.

We must be free since the obligation to be moral (to do what reason demands) would make no sense were we not free to carry out such demands.

Vedic and Upanishadic Roots of Buddhism

Week 10, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss four goals in Upanishadic life
  2. Define atman

During the sixth century BCE a group of nomadic Aryan people crossed the Khyber pass and entered into the Ganges river valley, crossing from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. These Aryan people recited and practiced rituals delineated by their ancient hymns, called the Vedas. Theirs was a highly stratified, caste-based society with the hereditary aristocracy, warriors, and priests dominating the people responsible for farming, herding, construction, and commerce. These folks in turn aggressively segregated and exercised domination over the people who butchered animals, made leather, and did the dirty work—these people are still thought to be “untouchable” because they are inherently unclean. This caste arrangement has historically meant that there is no mobility between the castes.

All members of each caste, however, are encouraged to aim for four goals in life:

  1. Artha: material goods and comfort
  2. Kama: sensual or aesthetic enrichment
  3. Dharma: the proper exercise of duty to family, society, and the gods
  4. Moksha: liberation

It was expected that all members of each caste would do the first three. However, only brahmins, the élite caste composed of the hereditary aristocracy, priests, and warriors, could hope to realize complete freedom from the limitations of having an individual existence, merging with the limitless and eternal cosmic principle known as Brahman. Everyone else would have to do their best to satisfy their obligations during this lifetime in hopes that they would accrue enough positive karma to cause their rebirth as a brahmin in their next rebirth.

As the power of the Vedic brahmins began to wane, a new class of people began to exercise tremendous influence on Indian religion and society; these were the sramanas, “strivers.” These strivers came from the non-élite castes and they led an ascetic lifestyle marked by disciplined exercises of reasoning and debate as well as a strict meditative regimen.

There were two poles of the Vedic philosophical perspective. On the orthodox side of the spectrum the general tendency was to believe that each individual exists only provisionally and the true reality of life is that we are all actually emanations of a singular consciousness-existence-bliss called Brahman. When we think that we are individuals we are suffering from the effects of maya (illusion) and karma (weighted moral action).

By releasing ourselves, through diligent training and perseverance, from illusion and the chain of cause and effect that binds us to vicious cycle of rebirth can we restore our true selves (atman) with the infinite absoluteness of Brahman.

At the other end of the spectrum were folks we would today call rational materialists. They argued that there is no immaterial godhead or divine force, nothing we call human survives death, good and evil are manmade constructs, and reality is material. For these folks moksha (liberation) is the result of people making choices and acting in accordance with their self-determination.

In between were a variety of practitioners who developed traditions for realizing liberation by cutting their adherents free from their worldly obligations to their castes, families, and so on. Others were more conservative and observed a philosophy more like what is found in the Bhavagad-Gita, where yoga (union with the divine) is achieved through strict adherence to doing one’s duty without care for whether it is right or wrong.

Buddhism rejects Hinduism
It was into this context that Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) was born. After rejecting the throne he was born to, he became a sramana and followed a variety of ascetics in his search for an end to the suffering of all beings. After years of skillful practice and determination he achieved his enlightenment and would translate the experience to those who followed him on his “middle way.” Unlike his contemporaries, he did not advocate cutting off ties to the rest of the world, but advocated for the good friend on the path, thus establishing the community of practitioners, or sangha. He opened his practice to anyone of any caste, men and women. Perhaps most radical, however, was his insistence that his patterns of speech and language should not be considered necessary to spreading his teachings.

As Peter Hershock states,
“the Buddha made it clear that great learning and intellectual sophistication were  not necessary for liberation. One did not need the ability to read sacred texts, the talent for reciting and understanding convoluted doctrines, or the means and institutional authority to perform complex rituals [….] One needed only to keenly attend to how things have come to be, just as they are. This alone was needed to see the way of fully and meaningfully resolving suffering.” (Chan Buddhism, 12)

Setting the Stage for Buddhism to Enter China

Week 10, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define ziran 自然.
  2. Discuss the role dao 道 played in translating Buddhism into Chinese.

Kongzi died in 479 BCE, just before the Warring States period began to rage. Over the next two centuries the states that had broken away from the Zhou dynasty fought one another for supremacy. Finally, in 221 BCE, the Qin dynasty conquered the what was left of the Zhou dynasty as well as the remaining seven warring states. Although the Qin dynasty lasted only fifteen years, their dynasty marks the beginning of the imperial system of China which has lasted for more than two centuries. Succeeding the Qin was the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).

Confucianism in the Han dynasty
Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, is considered to be the principal architect of the Han system, and formulated the cosmological need for an emperor that would rule over all of what we today would think of as China. Dong extended the earlier arguments between the Ruists and the Mohists and argued that  Tian 天, earth, and man are the origin of all things. “[Tian 天] gives gives birth to things, Earth then nourishes them, and man’s role is to consummately arrange them all [….] These three complement each other as arms and legs go together to  complete a body and none can be dispensed with.” (Chun Qiu Fan Liu, chapter 19; modified translation from Fung, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 194–195)

We’ve previously discussed this theory here and here.

Arthur Wright explains Dong’s argument in this way:
“The three spheres of heaven, earth, and man […] are linked together by the three horizontal lines in the character wang [王], ‘Prince.’ As Son of Heaven the ruler was concerned with the timely performance of ritual, with astronomy and the calendar, with responding to phenomena which could be interpreted as reflecting Heaven’s approval or disapproval. In relation to Earth, the ruler was to ensure its harmonious productivity by seeing that proper arrangements were made for agriculture; one way of doing this was by promulgating an agricultural calendar based on observations of the heavenly sphere. Another way was by establishing well-balanced programs for land use and taxation, for trade in the fruits of the earth’s bounty. And in doing this he moved into the sphere of Man. There he must first see that his subjects have an adequate means of livelihood, for man cannot perfect himself in virtue until his materials needs are met. Once this is done, the ruler is to educate and civilize his people, by teaching the proprieties (li [禮]), music, and the moral norms.” (Buddhism in Chinese History, 13)

The Ascent of Daoism in the Han
During the Han dynasty Ruist philosophy had dominated the bureaucracy.  But as the Han dynasty began to deteriorate in the late-first and early-second century, there was an earnest desire to find alternatives to Ruist thinking. There then came a resurgence in Daoist philosophy.

This renewed interest in philosophical Daoism brought the promise of explaining how to overcome an empire in dissolution. A central concept that was engaged with and elaborated during this period was ziran 自然 “naturalness” it literally means “self-so.”

Étienne Balasz  explains that ziran 自然  has three associated meanings:

  1. nature without human intervention—the self-perpetuating balanced order of nature;
  2. the spontaneous liberty of the individual—the endowment, as it were, of the natural man, free of restraints of convention; and
  3. the ‘Absolute’—another name for [dao 道], the principle of harmonious vitality which informs of all phenomena. (Wright, 29)

Translating from the Indian to the Chinese

From Arthur Wright’s Buddhism in Chinese History:

“No languages are more different than those of China and India. Chinese is uninflected, logographic, and (in its written form) largely monosyllabic; Indian languages are highly inflected, alphabetic, polysyllabic. Chinese has no systematized grammar; Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit, have a formal and highly elaborated grammatical system. [….] In their attitudes toward the individual the two traditions were poles apart at the beginnings of the invasion of Buddhism. The Chinese had shown little disposition to analyze the personality into its components, while India had a highly developed science of psychological analysis. In concepts of time and space there were also striking differences. The Chinese tended to think of both as finite and to reckon time in life-spans, generation, or political eras; the Indians, on the other hand, conceived of time and space as infinite and tended to think of cosmic eons rather than of units of terrestrial life. The two traditions diverged most critically in their social and political values. Familism and particularistic ethics continued to be influential among the Chinese even in an age of cataclysmic change, while Mahayana Buddhism taught a universal ethic and a doctrine of salvation outside the family. Whereas Chinese thinkers had long concentrated their efforts on formulas for the good society, Indian and Buddhist thought had laid particular stress upon the pursuit of other-worldly goals.” (33–34)

“Early efforts to translate Buddhist scriptures were carried on under difficult conditions. Patrons of this work were superstitious and fickle; wars and rebellions disrupted many such enterprises. The early missionaries knew little if any Chinese, and their Chinese collaborators knew no Indian or Central Asian language. There was little communication among scattered Buddhist centers, and hence little chance for one translator to profit from the experience of others. [….] Little by little the technique of translation improved. But it was not until 286 [CE …] that a translation appeared which made the speculative ideas of the Mahayana accessible and reasonably intelligible to literate Chinese. This was the work of Dharmaraksha, who had been born in [Dunhuang] ….” (35)

This first work to be translated into Chinese was the Prajñaparatmita. In our class you are reading Thich Nhat Hahn’s commentary on the “Heart Sutra” section of the Prajñaparatmita.

In order to facilitate communication of these Buddhist ideas to the receiving Chinese language speakers, the early translators of the Buddhist canon relied heavily on terms and concepts that were indigenous to China. For example, dharma (meaning “teaching”) became dao 道. But dao 道 also became useful for translating bodhi (meaning “the enlightenment that allows all things to be as they are”), and dao 道 also was used to translate yoga (meaning “union with totality”). We also see that wuwei “effortless or non-coercive action” came to translate nirvana (meaning ultimate release from illusion).

Water and Daoism

The image of water is frequently invoked in Daoist texts. Water is of the greatest efficacy because it mirrors the world around it but does not impose onto the world its own values. Think of water filling a jug. Water embraces the emptiness, rapidly, and effectively demonstrates the shape of its container.

In the classical Chinese context this is not a problem. Rather than the body (auton) being distinct from the mind (psyche ψυχή) there is xin 心, heart-and-mind. Mengzi tells us in 6A15:

“It is not the office [guan 官] of the ears and eyes to reflect, and they are misled by things. Things interact with things and simply lead them [our ears and eyes] along. But the office of the heart is to reflect. If it reflects, then it will get Virtue [de 德]. If it does not reflect, then it will not get it.” (Van Norden translation)

Ames and Hall state that xin 心 intimates what we understand as the functioning of “knowing,” “acting,” and “feeling.” (Thinking Through Confucius, 300) They further argue that because of the sheer volume of characters in Chinese that index “thinking” include xin 心 in them, “there are many passages in these classical texts that would not make sense in English unless xin 心 thinks, as well as feels.” (Focusing the Familiar, 82)

Unlike in our own tradition, where “who we are” is a battle between our ability to rein-in or temper our fiery passions through cold reasoning, in the classical Chinese context our feelings are dispositions toward acting.

In Ruist philosophy “who we are” is a matter of skillful and prolonged attention (zhong 忠) to our relationships with others, marked by shu 恕 “sympathetic understanding.” We previously discussed shu 恕 and Analects 15.24, “not imposing on others that which we would not want imposed on us is shu 恕” and dictated by the proper performances of our prescribed ritual activities (li 禮) so that we can become a junzi 君子.

In the Daoist philosophical project what is of utmost importance is cultivating and practicing a deferential disposition that establishes and maintains relationships with the “ten thousand things (wanwu 萬物).”

In the Daoist tradition our task is to allow our xin 心 to mirror the way the world actually is, free from our impositions onto it. We defer to it all and find a dynamic balancing with the way the world is. We see this in the Zhuangzi:

“When the sage is still, it is not that he is still because he says, ‘It is
good to be still’; he is still because none among the myriad things is sufficient to disturb his heart. If water is still, its clarity lights up the hairs of the beard and eyebrows, its evenness is plumb with the carpenter’s level: the greatest craftsmen take their standard from it. If mere water clarifies when it is still, how much more the stillness of […] the heart of the sage! It is the reflector of heaven and earth, the mirror of the myriad things.” (Graham translation)

The world, from the Daoist perspective, is not a jumble of dumb stuff, it is, as Lau and Ames state, “a flow of events which belies any discriminations that would lay claim to fixity or certainty.” What the Daoist sage advises is that we attune ourselves—we become aligned with, one with—and this means recognizing “the parity and continuities that obtain among them [….] reveling in the bottomless particularity and sustained uniqueness of each passing event made possible by the transformation of things (wuhua 物化).” (Yuan Dao, 50)

We see this demonstrated in chapter 16 of the Daodejing:
“Returning to one’s destiny [ming 命] is known as constancy.
To know constancy is called ‘enlightenment’ [ming 明]”
(Ivanhoe translation)

Ames and Hall explain the above passage in the following way:

“It is not through an internal struggle of reason against the passions but through ‘acuity (ming 明)’—a mirroring of the things of the world as they are in their interdependent relations with us—that we reach a state in which nothing among all of the myriad of ‘the goings on’ in the world will be able to agitate our hearts-and-minds [xin 心], and we are able to promote the flourishing of our world.” (emphasis added)

Note the use of paronomasia here. Ming 命 is how the world tends to be. One translation of ming 命 can be “mandate,” or “command,” or “destiny,” but it can also be “the propensity of things.” All four can be valid translations because the situations in which we find ourselves largely determine what is likely to occur. It’s not that anything can happen, but given the constellation of things that are conditioning our present, a certain range of events are more likely to transpire.

Our ability to work with the world as we find it is called ming 明 which can mean “bright” as well as “enlightenment.” The character明 presents us with both the character for “sun” or “day” ri 日 and the character for “moon” and “moonlight” yue 月. Putting together two characters that refer to the brightest objects in the heavens recommends us to thinking with the self-so-ness (ziran 自然) of the Daoist position.

That is, when we come to a relationship with the world that is free and at ease with the flux of the world as it undergoes its changes, we are in a better position to effect our flourishing with the world. To let the world “do its thing” presents itself as the obvious solution, or common sense, to many of us at different times. It’s perhaps for this reason that Ames and Hall translate the selection of Daodejing 16 above as,
“[R]eturning to the propensity of things [ming 命] is commonsense.
Using common sense is acuity [ming 明]…”

If we continue to reflect on the use of paronomasia, if we are willing to riff on the theme of ming, then we might be reminded of Daodejing 1:

“A way that can be followed is not a constant Way.
A name [ming 名] that can be named is not a constant name [ming 名].
Nameless [wuming 無名], it is the beginning of Heaven and earth;
Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.”
(Ivanhoe translation)

Let’s look at this character for name and naming, ming 名 because again there is a moment of ziran 自然 at work here. The character is composed of xi 夕”crescent moon” and ko 口 “mouth.” When it is dark out and there is not much light from the moon (because it’s not a full moon) and we hear something in the darkness we ask, “who’s there?” expecting that the thing we’ve heard will name itself.

If we get too hung up on how we name (ming 名) something, we run the risk of mistaking the menu for the meal. If this transpires, then we’ve lost our way dao 道.


Philosophical Realism and Xin 心

Week 9, lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss philosophical realism.
  2. Define xin 心.

Realism, as we use the term in Philosophy, generally means that things, stuff, “the world out there” exist independently of whether or not we observe it. If what is real does exist independently of whether or not we observe it, then how do we explain the existence of universals?

Recall in the Phaedo that the body is phenomenal and the psyche (ψυχή) is noumenal. According to Plato’s story, in the Phaedo, Socrates spends his last moments alive discussing the existence of a realm beyond human experience that is the proper home of our psyches (ψυχή). The phenomenal world, the one that we experience with our bodies, is a shadow of a more real—the True—world, the world of Forms.

If I draw a triangle, according to Plato, my drawing is participating in the idea (ἰδέα) of the Form (eidos εἶδος) called triangle, our psyches observe this shape I’ve drawn and are reminded or recollect the True Form of a triangle back in the noumenal dimension. We’ve touched in this matter previously (you can review it here).

In this Platonic sense, the Forms are real, but they exist outside of space and time (because space and time are phenomena). To be accurate, I would say that this thing (res) I’ve drawn has the property of being triangular in shape, but it is not The Triangle. If I draw a series of triangles, they will each demonstrate the property of being triangular, and here I now have evidence of what is meant by “universal.” A universal is what particular things have in common.

I’ve led you to a major philosophical problem: does the universal exist in this phenomenal dimension or is it noumenal? The Forms (eidos εἶδος) are communicable through their ideas (ἰδέα) which demonstrate the character of the Forms but are not the same thing as the Forms.

The result is that philosophers can agree that people talk about properties, but it’s not clear of the ideas being exchanged between those people are real or not.

Plato’s theory of Forms informed a tremendous amount of thinking among people in what we would call the West for millennia. Later this semester we will read Immanuel Kant, largely because, next to Plato, it’s hard to imagine another philosopher who has so fundamentally reoriented our thinking in the West.

Kant follows the lead of Aristotle and holds that our knowledge comes from our experience of the world. This means that our knowledge is always imperfect, because experience is phenomenal, not noumenal. We can think up and imagine a noumenal world, but it is not the noumenal world in itself, only a device for our imagination. Our ability to use reason enables us to uncover degrees of truth about the universe, but ultimately our ability to reason is limited.

Kant’s “Copernican revolution” has us shift our model of thinking: since the reality of things-in-themselves are always is always hidden from us, our model of reality needs to shift from asking about “what can we know about stuff” to asking “since our minds are the faculty that enables us to know about stuff, how do our minds operate?” The model shifts from “stuff out there” to “what is going on inside here?”

We’ve read the assigned selections of the Daodejing and my notes to this point have been prepared for you to consider a fundamental problem that the Daodejing proposes to overcome: How should we act and what should we do?

Following the Kantian set-up we arrive at the problem of other minds. Since we cannot know things-in-themselves, we can only know what we observe, and since we cannot see the minds of others, only their actions, how can we be so sure that others do in fact possess minds?

This is a perennial issue present in the West which we term the “mind-body” problem. The Phaedo is fairly explicit about the mind-body problem: the mind (psyche ψυχή) has a body and that is the problem: “we” are trapped in these bodies.

Despite this “revolution” brought forth by Kant, the Western tradition still holds that “what is true” is a matter of correspondence between what we see and what we think. The mind mirrors the world. The world is a matter of representation, and its image is possessed by an individual’s mind.

There is a danger in growing too enamored of our mind’s own image, though; isn’t there? We look to the story of Narcissus to illustrate. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who loved to hunt and was cruel to his peers who would try to love him. One story tells us that Echo, so lovestruck by Narcissus, followed him through the woods. Narcissus, hearing he was being followed, called out, “Who’s there?” and the smitten Echo found she could only reply, “Who’s there?” Finally she approached him, he rejected her, and she wandered away into the woods. Heartbroken and determined to be alone, she withered away until all that was left of her was her voice repeating what it heard. Narcissus himself, later, came across a still pool. When he went to gather water he saw his beautiful reflection and fell hopelessly in love with this image. Realizing that he could never have his love reciprocated, he killed himself there.

Reflecting on water, in this story, is a source of death and water is a different kind of image in the Daoist tradition. Click here to continue our lecture and learn more about Daoist philosophy.