About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
On the pseudo-profoundity of some Eastern philosophy
Consider the first question: it is, in fact, utter nonsense, since clapping – by definition – requires two hands (no, you are not clapping if you bang your hand on another source, you are just making noise). The second question is nonsense on stilts, since I did not exist before my ancestors were born, and I need to exist in order to have a face. These are not questions to which it is difficult to find an answer because they are too deep, there is no answer because there is no question, and if you spend decades of your life seeking enlightenment this way, I feel sorry for all the waste of human potential. (And no, I don't believe in metaphorical or allegorical questions, in case you were wondering.)
More generally, it could be argued that there is no such thing as Eastern philosophy – though certainly not all output in that area is so useless as the two questions discussed above. That is because philosophy is an activity of a particular kind, invented 25 centuries ago in Greece. Bear with me, I'm not trying to be Euro-centric, or deferring only to DWM's (Dead White Males). Philosophy, as it has been understood ever since Plato and until pretty recently, is a form of inquiry into the nature of the world and the human condition. Such inquiry is supposed to be conducted by the use of logical reasoning, where possible informed by empirical evidence (hence the origin of science, initially called, appropriately enough, experimental or natural philosophy).
Now, we can find plenty of interesting and stimulating Eastern texts produced over the last couple of millennia, from a variety of traditions including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and so forth. But none of these texts is philosophical in nature because they do not attempt to argue for a position by using logic and evidence. On the contrary, they are more alike to ancient Jewish (and then Christian) mystical writings, and are therefore not philosophy under any reasonable understanding of the term.
Look, it's like saying that soccer and (American) football are the same thing because they are both played with balls, they simply originated on two different continents. They are certainly not the same thing. They are different sports, using different rules, requiring different skills, and with very distinct histories. To say that American football isn't soccer is not a criticism or a value judgment (ok, I admit that I will be watching the World Cup next month, while I skipped the Superbowl ever since they made it impossible for Janet Jackson to show her breasts again). To claim a difference is simply to state a matter of fact about the two sports. Similarly, Eastern thought – whatever it is, and however useful it may be – is not philosophy. And when it consists of asking questions about sound made by trees falling in forests where nobody listens, well, just answer 42 – it's as good an insight into the question of life, the universe and everything as you'll ever find, and it won't require decades of meditation staring at a wall.