Last time I examined Andrew Ollett’s distinction between “decision-oriented” texts like Kant’s Grounding and “capacity-oriented” texts like Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, and the ways in which that distinction might suggest a “philosophical” versus a “historical” approach to those texts. I discussed what I found problematic about that application of the distinction, but noted Andrew’s quote that points beyond it:
Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.
For me, this claim calls our attention to an important point, related to my recent methodological reflection on religious studies: one of the key things valuable about religious studies is that it steps beyond the text itself to ask about practice. Buddhist texts certainly lend themselves to being approached this way. Buddhaghosa is not merely trying to argue that his statements are true; he wants them to be put into practice, in action. But then – and I think this point is key – one could say the same thing about Kant. If a reader read the Grounding and concluded intellectually that its claims were all true, yet continued to make false promises and harm others without shame, I think Kant would himself have concluded that the text had failed to do something that he had intended it to do. Indeed, I believe Kant wrote his later Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone for just this reason: Kant there takes up a chastened intellectualism, arguing there is a “radical evil” within human beings that prevents them from doing what is good even when they know it to be good, and some form of practice – perhaps a community – is required to deal with it.
The important thing to me, though, is that a proper approach to ethics requires both of these elements – as I think Buddhaghosa and Kant both provide. We need practices to make us better people. But we also need a vision of what being a better person actually is! And if we are to avoid delusion, we cannot simply absorb this and take it for granted; we must think about it, reason about it. For of course texts disagree with each other about what the good life is. The Jaina kevalin, seeking a solitary transcendence of worldly things, would look to Confucians like a monster, and a Jain might think the same of the Confucian life, entrapped in the delusions of family and politics. Practices leading toward one may hinder the goal of the other. Buddhaghosa and Sundarapāṇḍya would themselves not have seen eye to eye on the nature of the good life. And that is where argument matters: we need to identify the right practices, to be as sure as we can that our practices are making us better and not worse.
Now Andrew rightly refers to Michel Foucault as an inspiration for the “historical” approach to ethics. And for Foucault there is a deliberate, programmatic reason not to ask whether any text one studies is true, whether it is Christian or otherwise, for truth claims are best understood genealogically as effects of the operation of power. But it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not the approach taken by Indian texts themselves, which tend to be quite concerned, one way or another, with satya or sacca as something inherently good and worthy of our realizing. A Foucauldian approach is always already Western. And while any approach we moderns can take will be at some level Western, our approach does not have to be only Western. If we ourselves ask what true dharma is, we are now asking non-Western questions as well; but if we limit ourselves to interrogating the power dynamics behind questions of true dharma, such a purely Foucauldian approach will be Western and nothing more.
Instead, I think it is helpful for us to meld the “historical” and the “philosophical” questions – making the historical more philosophical and vice versa. As I said in my original comment to Andrew, we should modify the “historical” questions to make them more philosophical, such that they can apply to us. “Am I among the subjects addressed here? What is the text supposed to actually do to me? How do I myself understand the relations between the social, the ethical, and the aesthetic, how does the text understand these relations, and does the latter understanding speak to the former? Should I use this text in the way it would have been used in the past?”
But just as much, we should modify the “philosophical” questions to make them more historical, aware of context. When we ask “What is the argument here?” and “Does the argument work?” it is also fundamental to ask “What are the argument’s assumptions? How do those assumptions affect whether the arguments work or not? How dependent are those assumptions on the work’s historical context? Could they be assumptions we now share as well? Should they be?”