I am fresh back from the “Buddhism and Social Justice” conference hosted by Leiden University, The Netherlands.
This will be the first in what I hope will be a number of posts in the coming weeks about individual papers and ideas flowing from the conference, posted both here and/or at my own blog, American Buddhist Perspective(s). This post has to do with methodology and how we approach our sources, so I think it is something everyone here can appreciate and, I hope, offer feedback on. At the conference Prof. Steven Collins made the very interesting plea:
Don’t touch early Buddhism. It doesn’t exist. We don’t know anything about it. Anything you say about it is a complete fantasy. But, if you start out a lecture course or a book with early Buddhism, necessarily, whatever your fantasy, the rest of the book is going to look like a degeneration, or an accommodation, or something else.
So then we get this strange thing in Buddhist Studies, which you don’t get in Catholic Studies: theory vs practice. Nobody would think of giving a lecture course on Catholicism with: ‘here’s the theory, but here’s the practice.’
And it seems so natural for us in Buddhism, because of the essentially 19th century Romantic ideas that both Buddhists and Western scholars had about ‘the early period’. So it is not only that it is difficult to fantasize about early Buddhism, it is positively harmful for your health.
Prof. Jonathan Silk, who spoke earlier on the same day, made the similar observation that many of our common assumptions about Buddhist ideologies and communities are challenged by the reality of Buddhist history and of contemporary Buddhist societies (e.g. records of slave ownership by Buddhist institutions in various times and places – specific instances in Tibet, China, Burma, and Korea were all discussed separately in the conference).
After outlining some other instances of Buddhists behaving badly, Silk asked the very important question: “Just what is the relation between our expectations and the materials we study?”
And it is this question I hope we might ponder as a collection of students and scholars of Indian Philosophy.
Silk went on to note that much work on Buddhism begins with an examination of the ideas of the Buddha himself; notably Richard Gombrich’s 2009 book “What the Buddha Thought.” He then said, “Speaking for myself, I am entirely convinced that we have no idea, and never will have any idea what the Buddha thought, or believed or did. But I am equally convinced that, from the point of view of disinterested scholarship, this of absolutely no importance whatsoever. What we do or can know is what Buddhists, or at least some Buddhists, thought the Buddha thought.”
This leads me to the natural question, “What are your thoughts on what Silk thinks about Buddhists thinking about what the Buddha thought?” (insert grimace)
Some of you, I hope, will have done some comparative work on thinkers roughly contemporaneous to the Buddha such as Plato and Aristotle. I didn’t get too far with either of these, but I do seem to remember that Aristotle’s work disappeared from the Western (Latin) world for some time and only survived through Arabic sources which then had to be translated into Latin and eventually European vernaculars.* Apparently, at least some Greek sources also survived to be transmitted directly into Latin, etc. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle’s Biology reports:
The surviving corpus of Aristotle derives from medieval manuscripts based on a 1st century BC edition. There were no commentaries on the biological works written until they were collectively translated into Arabic. The first appearance of Aristotle’s biological writings in the West are Latin translations of an Arabic edition by Michael Scot, which forms the basis of Albertus Magnus’ De animalibus. In the 13th century William of Moerbeke produced a Latin translation directly from the Greek. The first printed editions and translations date to the late 15th century, the most widely circulated being that of Theodorus Gaza. In addition to the three works traditionally referred to as History of Animals, Parts of Animals and Generation of Animals, there are a number of briefer ‘essays’ on more specialized topics: On animal motion, On animal locomotion, On respiration,On life and death, On youth and old age, On length and shortness of life, On sleeping and waking, On the senses and their objects (the last six being included in the so-called Parva naturalia). Whether one should consider De Anima (On the soul) part of this project or not is a difficult question. What is certainly clear, however, is that there are important connections between the theoretical approach to the relationship between body and soul defended in that work and the distinctive way that Aristotle approaches the investigation of animals.
Our foundational edition dates to the 1st century B.C.E., some 200 to 300 years after Aristotle’s death. How can we have any faith that this edition accurately maintain’s Aristotle’s ideas? Prof. Martha Nussbaum, in her work on De Motu Animalium (MA), gives a compendium written by Nicolaus of Damascus (b. ~64 B.C.E.), paraphrases in the works of Themistius (317-390 C.E.) and Simplicius (c. 490- c. 560 C.E.), and a reference by Philoponus (490 – 570 C.E.) as being the evidence that there is “as much early external evidence for the authenticity of the MA as there is for any of the major works with whose tradition it is associated” (p.5).
It is worth noting that, according to wikipedia at least, our manuscript evidence of the first of these itself only goes back to the 14th century C.E. It seems then, that hard evidence about anything that Aristotle thought is completely lacking given the strict criteria that Silk and Collins seem to espouse.
Perhaps we could attribute greater fidelity to them because the Greeks used writing rather than oral tradition, but there is at least some scholarship that shows that texts preserved in writing fair no better than teachings that are orally preserved (I think here of various books by Bart Ehrman on the evolution of the Bible, but suggestions closer to our purposes, either pro or con, would be greatly welcomed).
That brings us to the next problem, the connection between those 1st century B.C.E. foundations and what existed in the 9th century. We know that the Bible was altered over the centuries as manuscripts were copied, and for skeptically minded scholars, it will seem almost certain that at least some elements of the Pāli Canon and Aristotle’s works were as well.
So can we talk meaningfully about “Aristotle’s ideas” or is this merely a projection of 19th century Romantics, as Collins suggests was the case with the lingering interest in “early Buddhism”? How about other Indian philosophers? How much of what we “know” about their ideas comes down only through now-long-lost manuscripts and only very late extant materials which may or may not accurately reflect their thought?
I must admit that when I studied ancient philosophy, there was no skepticism of this sort in my professors. Certainly, when it came to the Pre-Socratics for whom we have merely fragmentary evidence to begin with, our understanding is also fragmentary, but we were never told that, for instance “the fragments of Heraclitus tell us more about what philosphers, or at least some philosophers, thought Heraclitus thought.”
Those of you familiar with Gregory Schopen’s “Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks” (1997) will know these arguments well enough. In the first chapter of that book, entitled “Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism” he writes:
When Europeans first began to study Indian Buddhism systematically there were already two bodies of data available to them, and the same is true today. There was, and is, a large body of archaeological and epigraphical material, material that can be reasonably well located in time and space, and material that is largely unedited and much of which was never intended to be “read.” This material records or reflects at least a part of what Buddhists-both lay people and monks-actually practiced and believed. There was, and is, an equally large body of literary material that in most cases cannot actually be dated and that survives only in very recent manuscript traditions.) It has been heavily edited, it is considered canonical or sacred, and it was intended–at the very least–to inculcate an ideal. This material records what a small, atypical part of the Buddhist community wanted that community co believe or practice. Both bodies of material, it is important to note, became available to Western scholars more or less simultaneously. The choice of sources for the scholar interested in knowing what Indian Buddhism had been would seem obvious.
The choice, of course, is the archaeological material, which turned out to be the road not taken, by and large to this day.
To me this marks an at times rather sharp division between historical and philosophical (sometimes called phenomenological) approaches to the study of religion. I’d like to be charitable and say that both approaches are valid and are capable of yielding new and complimentary understanding of ancient thought and ways of life. We can debate the thought of Aristotle based on quite late evidence, holding out that perhaps a discovery will add to his body of works or, contrarily, somehow show that some of what we have taken to be “his” work is in fact an invention by later authors. However, this last week I was reminded once again that for at least some, this charitable approach will not do, and only one way of approaching philosophy – or intellectual history – can produce results worth pursuing.
So, my questions for philosophers is: how do you work with historians, especially those who are sceptical of the possibility of understanding what early philosophers meant or thought? Is the analogy with Ancient Greek thinkers fatally flawed for some reason? Or are we just decades behind our counterparts in this area when it comes to carefully debating the merits of the authenticity of texts?
* Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium: Text with Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1978) by Martha Nussbaum offers insight into how a contemporary philosopher approaches these questions.
De Anima by Nussbaum and Amelie Rorty presents much the same picture.