Philosophical texts for philosophers

In my continuing response to Evan Thompson I now turn to another methodological question that Thompson raises: what sources should we be using in a discussion of karma? I claim that my eudaimonist interpretation of Buddhist karma is congruent with existing Buddhist tradition in important ways, so it matters what that existing tradition has to say and how we determine it.

When I had previously said that the traditional core of karma had to do with future results of action – with that basic idea that good actions improve well-being – Thompson had asserted in response that “this idea isn’t the core idea of karma, if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.” To support this claim he linked out to Obeyesekere’s Imagining Karma, which studied the formation of the concept through philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. In his new reply, however, Thompson now says that “exegesis of philosophical texts… isn’t the right method for a concept like karma.”

Here, it seems to me, goalposts may have been moved. In his previous post, when he was first trying to make the claim that the “core” of karma “is to explain why bad things happen to good people”, Thompson was happy to cite, as his only source, Obeyesekere’s study, which relies largely on the exegesis of philosophical texts like the Upaniṣads. This was hardly a surprise, given that both of us are self-professed philosophers, and that Thompson himself had said, “my aim is to lay bare the philosophical problems with Buddhist modernism.” Emphasis added. But once I pointed out that Obeyesekere said nothing of the sort, then Thompson declared that the right method for thinking about karma didn’t have to do with philosophical texts but must be in the way they “function psychologically and socially” in everyday people’s lives.

Now I’m happy to be charitable and assume that Thompson had believed all along that we should be talking about ordinary people rather than philosophy and just had neglected to mention this fact, however odd such a neglect might be in a conversation that he had himself proclaimed was about philosophy. I will proceed on that more charitable assumption, because even on that assumption I still disagree with him. Again, Thompson and I are philosophers, and we engage in the activity of philosophy for a reason. Philosophy seeks truth – in Buddhist terms, to see things as they are (yathābhūtadassana) – and it engages in sophisticated reasoning in order to get beyond the delusions in which ordinary people are mired. Remember, Thompson’s major injunction to one who is supposedly cherry-picking is “don’t claim to be congruous with your sources.” I do not claim that my Buddhism is congruous in general with everyday traditional Buddhist practice, except to the extent that relates to the philosophy, and I don’t see why I should. (It’s not as if traditional Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka is particularly congruous with traditional Buddhist practice in Japan.)

I do not accept populist definitions of what traditions are, because I’m trying to learn from them at their best. I apply this view to the sciences just as I do to historic traditions like Buddhism and Christianity. Ordinary Americans are more likely to believe in creationism than evolution; that does not mean that biologists should take creationism as the “beating heart and lifeblood” or the “concrete, functional, and living core” of American biology. The important question for philosophers is not how biological ideas “function psychologically and socially” in everyday life (though they certainly do that, all the time) but which biological ideas, on systematic investigation, have turned out to be true or false. So we study the biological ideas of biologists, not of everyday people. And so if I were a Christian trying to advance a constructive conception of God, of course I would try to determine the core of the concept of God by reading the likes of Anselm and Aquinas. They were the ones who put the most thought and learning into considering what God could be in reality. I wouldn’t settle for less.

Now I have indeed come to start learning more from nonphilosophical Buddhists myself lately, and that is because I think they’re right about one thing that the Buddhist philosophers usually aren’t: namely that a good life includes ends other than the reduction of suffering. I am happy to draw from them as a way to correct what I think is a gap in the philosophers’ writing, as I draw from non-Buddhist traditions. What I’m not prepared to do is say that their beliefs necessarily trump those of people who thought about the issues more deeply, just by virtue of there being more people who believed them. When we are engaging with traditions as philosophers, we should be focused on a dialogue with their philosophers who had a project like ours.

For these reasons, even if it could be shown that karma’s main function among nonphilosophical Buddhists was to explain why bad things happen to good people, I would not accept that that was the concept’s core – not for the kind of philosophical inquiry that Thompson and I have been involved in since the beginning of this debate, and participate in in our lives more generally. And yet having said that, I don’t even think that it actually can be shown that theodicy is karma’s main function among nonphilosophical Buddhists. Certainly the sources that Thompson cites establish nothing of the sort, and I will discuss that point on Sunday.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *