Monday, October 29, 2007

Enlightenment? First Königsburg

It has been a while since I have delved into the riches of Kantian philosophy, mostly due to the burn-out of overexposure during my MA program in Montana. So it brought me doubled pleasure today to pick up Allen W. Wood's book Kant. I figured this general introduction would be a fine way to ease my way back into Kant's work. And it was perfect.

In the preface, Wood, whose works on Kant have been the backbone of my own knowledge of this great philosopher warns us of falling too much in love with Kant as a person. Our interest in his life "may be historical, or antiquarian, or it may be mere idle curiosity. But it has nothing at all to do with his philosophy."

Really? Does a philosopher's life really have nothing to do with his philosophy? In fact I just had a conversation with my flatmates, agreeing with one that a philosopher's life must have something to do with his/her philosophy. After all, how can one tell us the nature of the world having never experienced it, or how to live having led a terrible life?

Can't we take note of Sartre's wartime experience and bad luck with women as we try to temper his pessimism toward humanity and sexuality? Shouldn't Heidegger's refusal to repudiate his Nazi past give us some pause when reading his advocacy of a folkish ('focal things') based life. And of course there is Hume's admission that his own epistemology made no sense even to himself once he set down pen and went out for drinks with friends. And likewise, shouldn't philosophers known for their virtue, both intellectual and personal, deserve special attention?

Yet Wood persists, "It is unhealthy and completely unphilosophical to venerate philosophers of the past as gurus at whose feet we should sit in order to absorb their wisdom. Such an attitude toward any other person, whether living or dead, betrays a contemptible slavishness of mind that it is incompatible with doing philosophy at all." Wow, pretty heavy words. And he continues, "In holding that opinion, I am, incidentally, also being a good Kantian, since Kant regarded the practice of those who set up others as models for imitation as morally corrupt, tending sooner to produce either self-contempt or envy than virtue." He concludes that such a view, "should be held only because experience shows it to be true -- and true even about Kant himself." (p. x)

To conclude the preface, Wood admits, "that the boldness of Kant's insights and the power of his arguments sometimes awaken in me feelings of admiration..." even to the point of veneration. At that point he takes it as a sign to quit reading Kant and switch to another thinker such as Hume or Hegel, "regarding whom such exceedingly anti-philosophical sentiments are not presently sapping my critical powers and clouding my good judgment."

Any truly contemporary Buddhist thought must agree with this. It is so easy to read or listen uncritically, whereas it takes real work to listen critically and think for yourself. As an aside, it's also easy to be cynical and not listen at all! For a good example of a critical analysis of one of the earliest Buddhist texts - which itself calls for critical analysis! - see this recent post by (the other) Justin at Progressive Buddhism.

A lot of work needs to be done today: fighting the current of consumerism, the idolization of Hollywood and the Twiggy body-type (yikes) on the one hand and coming to a sensible understanding of karma, rebirth, hell-realms, and other sorts of Buddhist strangeness on the other. And at times it is difficult. But it is always rewarding. Sapere aude - Dare to know!

An Answer to the Question: "What is Enlightenment?"

Konigsberg in Prussia, 30th September, 1784.

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!

Was ist Aufklärung? in German (with audio)
What is Enlightenment? (English e-text)
What is Enlightenment? as discussed by Michel Foucault in 1978 (English e-text)


Saint27 said...

Hey I just wanted to let you know I posted a link to this entry on my page as well as some of my thounghts on the subject. I mean no disrespect and thank you for bring it up the subject. Kant has some good stuff out there and Wood seems to be a pretty knowledable guy himself. Thanks for putting me on to them.


Andy said...

The point about the gap between what a philosopher says and what (s)he is or does is a bit of moot point in Western philosophy. If I'm honest, I struggle to think of a single Western philosopher whose life I would want to imitate. I love Nietzsche, his ideas, his writings, his life story. But would I really want to live like he did? No!

It's only in the religious traditions that things start to get more interesting and appealing. I wouldn't, for example, mind having a life like one of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. The Christian philosopher Simone Weil had a tough old time, but she did at least live admirably, doing what she believed. Michel de Montaigne was a Christian of sorts, and I'd rather be him than Thomas Hobbes!

In Buddhism, there are many more examples of 'great souls' whose life I can more easily wish to emulate. Dogen, Shantideva. Asanga. (Probably *not* Bodhidharma!) But even here there remain those whose teachings didn't square with their actions. Think about D.T. Suzuki - in a not dissimilar position to Heidegger when you think about it (although Suzuki ostensibly recanted more than Heidegger ever did).

Sam Harris writes a little bit about the issue of a 'good life' in the last chapter of his book The End of Faith, comparing Western and Eastern philosophers. Like you he criticizes academic adulation of somewhat like Heidegger, whose Nazi sympathies put him, for Harris at least, beyond redemption as a philosopher.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Chris, good stuff, I'll respond on your blog. :)

Andy - Yea, few of the big names in Western Philosophy lived particularly great lives - if any. David Hume seems to have been a pretty great guy, Socrates as well and Charles Darwin (though we're getting out of philosophy proper I suppose with him).

Perhaps some of those great Buddhists, like some Christian saints no doubt, seem so great to us because most all that was writtin about them came from devout followers (who would hardly have spent much time noting their personal faults).

Ah, and thanks for mentioning the Sam Harris book, too - I've heard good things and have meant to read it but it's slipped off my list...