Don’t exclude ethics from philosophy

It is commonplace today for scholars of Indian philosophy to focus their attention entirely on theoretical philosophy at the expense of the practical. I think this tendency is a mistake. I see at least two grave problems with it. First: In my 2015 article I argued that (at least in the case of Śāntideva) our understanding of Buddhist ethics is incomplete if we ignore Buddhist metaphysics. I am now beginning to think this issue goes in the other direction as well: that we will misinterpret Buddhist metaphysics if we ignore Buddhist ethics. I will talk about that problem next time. This time, I will address the other problem: it can drop us into the all-too-familiar trap of treating some Indian inquiries as “not philosophical” even when they were engaged in by most of the great philosophers of the West.

Traditional Tibetan portrait of Candrakīrti, taken from Rigpa Wiki.I notice both problems most clearly in the writings of Dan Arnold on Candrakīrti. First some background. Candrakīrti was an Indian Buddhist philosopher with many similarities to Śāntideva: they were close to contemporary; both are said to have taught at Nālandā, although we don’t have any evidence that they knew of each other; both were affiliated with the Madhyamaka school and later considered to be part of the Prāsaṅgika subschool. They also both wrote explicitly about ethics as well as metaphysics, making arguments not only about the nature of reality but about how human beings should live – and as my 2015 article notes, they both draw inferences from metaphysics to ethics as well.

The main difference is that Śāntideva’s main works (the Bodhicaryāvatāra and Śikṣāsamuccaya) both focus on ethics – on how human beings should live. Metaphysics, the examination of the true nature of things, appears only in parts of each text. Candrakīrti’s reflections on ethics, however, are mostly found in the opening chapters of his commentary on the Catuḥśataka (Four Hundred) of Āryadeva, referred to as the Catuḥśatakaṭīkā (CŚṬ). Here, Candrakīrti argues for restraint of grief, bodily pleasures, lust and egotism –especially the egotism of a political leader – on the grounds that each of these derive from a metaphysical illusion, the illusions of permanence, happiness, purity and self respectively. Karen Lang has translated these chapters of the CŚṬ into English as Four Illusions. While this commentary integrates metaphysics and ethics closely (and should be studied more than it is, for that reason), Candrakīrti’s other major works, the Prasannapadā and Madhyamakāvatāra, articulate a Madhyamaka metaphysics in a way that leave its practical implications mostly undiscussed.

Arnold devotes several chapters to Candrakīrti’s work in his Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief. But there he only discusses the theoretical philosophy of the Prasannapadā and Madhyamakāvatāra; he doesn’t address the Catuḥśatakaṭīkā. But this is not because he takes the CŚṬ as unimportant. He discusses it in his 2004 review of Lang’s work, in Journal of Asian Studies 63(3). There he claims that the CŚṬ “is well known to have particular philosophical significance”, because it is a “watershed” in the differentiation between Madhyamaka and Yogācāra philosophical schools. But he attaches this importance only to the second half of the text, which defends Madhyamaka at a theoretical level. Despite Candrakīrti’s own insistence that the Catuḥśataka was meant to be taken as a whole, Arnold attaches far less significance to the ethical chapters that Lang translates. These, his review claims, “clearly reflect an approach that is more psychological than philosophical. Candrakīrti is here working on the reader’s affect, trying to engender a strongly felt conviction regarding the importance of these four cardinal errors.” (827, his emphases)

Them, as they say, is fightin’ words. In them, I see everything that is currently wrong with the study of Indian philosophy. Only the study of abstract theories of metaphysics and epistemology and logic, kept hermetically sealed from the concerns of human life and liberation and suffering, is allowed to count as “philosophy”. What deals with “affect” can be cleaved off and counted as mere “psychology”. But since when were Plato and Aristotle – let alone the Stoics and Epicureans and Skeptics – unconcerned with affect? Or for that matter, Hume or the utilitarians, who take as their central concern the increase of pleasure and decrease of pain? Whether it is Plato speaking on the nature of erotic love in the Symposium, Aristotle on proper anger in the Ethics, or Bentham on the maximization of pleasure, affect has been a matter of philosophical concern for just about as long as there has been something called philosophy – because, of course, it is a key part of ethics.

One reason scholars of Indian philosophy may neglect ethics is that many of the Indian texts we classify as philosophical are not clear about their implications for ethics – even when, as with Buddhaghosa, the implications are there. Yet here we have a clear case of a text making ethical claims and explicit arguments for those claims – and an august scholar of Indian philosophy waving it away as “more psychological than philosophical”. Something here has gone deeply, deeply wrong.

I suppose Arnold may disqualify the Catuḥśatakaṭīkā as philosophy less because it speaks about affect, and more because it is “working on” affect – that it is intended to affect its readers emotionally as well as logically. Candrakīrti also frequently relies on stories to illustrate his claims in addition to his explicit arguments. Now the arguments of Pierre Hadot about ancient philosophy as a way of life, and of Martha Nussbaum about the close relation between philosophical form and content, should make us skeptical of any division that says emotionally affecting or story-driven works are “not really philosophy”. But even without accepting Hadot’s or Nussbaum’s views, it is nevertheless clear that the Catuḥśatakaṭīkā does make logical arguments as well; it even regularly uses the standard Indian philosophical structure of introducing an opponent’s objection (pūrvapakṣa) and defending a reply. This is true in these early chapters of the Catuḥśatakaṭīkā, which make ethical claims, as well as the later chapters which focus on metaphysics as Candrakīrti’s other works do.

One could of course discount the significance of the Catuḥśatakaṭīkā to Candrakīrti’s philosophy on text-critical grounds, by arguing that that text did not have the same author as the Madhyamakāvatāra and Prasannapadā. But Arnold nowhere does this. In his review he freely throws around the name “Candrakīrti” to describe the author of the CŚṬ, and gives every indication that this is the same Candrakīrti written about in his book. In Arnold’s view Candrakīrti did compose the CŚṬ – and yet somehow it doesn’t matter to our examination of his “philosophy”.

As noted, Arnold is hardly alone in attempting to excise what I would consider the most valuable and time-honoured philosophical questions from the study of Indian philosophy. In doing so he is, at some level, following in the footsteps of B.K. Matilal, who attempted to banish questions of “theology and mystical experience” from the study of Indian philosophy – as part of what Ethan Mills called the Matilal Strategy, of trying to make Indian philosophy more acceptable to English-language analytic philosophers. But even if one agrees with that goal, it must be noted that reflection on ethics does remain a significant component of analytic philosophy – even if one sometimes viewed as less prestigious than epistemology or philosophy of language. It should also be remembered that Matilal himself had a great many things to say about Indian ethics. So I don’t think there can be any justification at all for Arnold’s bizarre attempt to remove Candrakīrti’s ethics from consideration of his philosophy.

Moreover, as noted, I think Arnold’s disregard of Candrakīrti’s ethics has grave consequences for his understanding of Candrakīrti’s metaphysics. But more on that next time.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

One thought on “Don’t exclude ethics from philosophy

  1. I wonder why any declaration of values and precept should be immune even in the often extreme abstraction of metaphysics. I would expect that even in a social environment where “spiritualization” routinely accompanies a process of lineage, little diffentiated from gilded dynastic assumption. The tantrika path I began within has presumed an intitutional continuity of priestly exception, even though the founder declared that the continuity of the ideology was enough. Within a broader context of nominal progressive movements, unfortunately the standard is even less transparent, which invites dark secrets and departures. Philosophy as occupied by tenured conceits should be no less transparent or established by sanctimony. thank-you Giambattista V. What is the sound of one hand or many grasping? More to the point is the level of lay literacy which would enlighten such shadows beyond a security of presumption by abuse.

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