Resolving cliffhangers in a book

For some time now I have realized: it is time for me to write a book. It’s time to take ideas that I have circulated in blog-post form and develop them into a more systematic, coherent constructive argument. It has now been about seventeen years since Robert Gimello told me that the project that I had wanted to do for my dissertation was a twenty-year project, and as it turns out, I have spent much of those ensuing years working toward exactly that.

The questions that drove my dissertation – the ethics of emotion around attachment, anger and external goods – have continued to drive my thoughts over the thirteen years since I finished it, through twists and turns like declaring myself Buddhist. The dissertation could not resolve them; it ended on a cliffhanger. Śāntideva had good reasons for his views; Martha Nussbaum had good reasons for hers; where do we go from here? By 2013 I’d been thinking here about ways to resolve that cliffhanger, but I now think the approach I took at that time was exactly the wrong one: I had tried to generalize Śāntideva’s and Nussbaum’s views, viewing them as exemplars of integrity ascent and intimacy descent worldviews respectively. As I said at the time, that approach helped me spell out my problématique – but it still didn’t bring me any closer to resolving it.

It was Alasdair MacIntyre who pointed me to a surer path, as I started to write a paper on MacIntyre’s methodology. At the heart of deep ethical disagreements like those between Śāntideva and Nussbaum are different standards of practical rationality) – standards by which we judge whether actions or feelings or habits are good or bad. The dissertation had explicitly restricted itself to endorsing only a thin standard of rationality (in which contradictions are bad), one on which Śāntideva and Nussbaum could agree. But that’s not enough. Śāntideva’s and Nussbaum’s views don’t make sense without their thicker standards of rationality, their first principles and foundations of ethics, which can each only be developed with the resources provided by their traditions.

I wrote that paper on MacIntyrean method and presented it at the Metaphysical Society of America in 2017, but I never published it. I did circulate it online at the Prosblogion blog; it appears that the Prosblogion no longer exists and the link to the paper no longer works. (Such is often the way of online writing – itself a big reason to write something that will exist in physical paper copies in libraries.) The reason I never tried to publish that paper is that, as written, it was still relatively close to MacIntyre’s view that traditions are incommensurable with each other. Since then, following Imre Lakatos, I’ve become more skeptical of that view of MacIntyre’s. I do expect to eventually revise and publish that paper in some form – which might turn out to be a methodological chapter in the book itself.

Key to that revision is this. In an excellent 1991 debate in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, J.B. Schneewind had criticized MacIntyre’s tradition-centred view of ethical inquiry as follows:

MacIntyre allows that traditions have beginnings. Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas, he holds, were founders of traditions. Why then might there not be among us today those who are originating new lines of thought? Their views may some day come to be seen as having started a tradition; but even if this occurs, it will not be right to describe an initiator as working within the traditions he starts. (166)

MacIntyre responded that “innovation in enquiry almost always involves drawing upon the materials afforded by traditions and self-definition in terms of those traditions. So it was with Descartes, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, as Gilson showed; so it was with Marx, as he himself would willingly have agreed.” (176) But the implication of this response, which MacIntyre doesn’t take up, is that “tradition-centred inquiry” is not as tradition-centred as it looks: one can start a new line of inquiry by means of a synthesis of the old, as long as one recognizes it as such, as Marx did and Descartes did not. MacIntyre’s own discussions of Aquinas’s method in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry show Aquinas doing exactly this. The problem is that when MacIntyre puts out his methodological injunctions for people who are not Aquinas or Marx, he tends to urge far more caution, advising us to be followers rather than leaders. We should be doing not as MacIntyre says, but as MacIntyre’s Aquinas does.

What does all of this mean for my book? Against the earlier approach that turned to general categories like ascent/descent and intimacy/integrity, I agree with MacIntyre that the book’s inquiry needs to be tradition-centred. Specifically, I need to acknowledge that the work is drawing above all on Buddhist and Aristotelian traditions – the latter including the works of both Nussbaum and MacIntyre himself, with some degree of qualitative individualist spin. The justification of its arguments needs to be in the context of Buddhism, Aristotelianism and qualitative individualism; I can’t expect to justify myself in terms that would be accepted by Muslims or Kantians or Vedāntins, who are beyond the book’s scope. By taking that approach, it’s much easier to come to a dialectical synthesis of the views I do draw on. And what I need to do now is explicitly build that synthesis, of an Aristotelian Buddhism. It needs to be a synthesis, as I think Damien Keown’s work is not; it needs to resolve the differences between the two traditions rather than pretending they’re already saying the same thing when they aren’t. It needs to get down to the very foundations of ethics, in order to say something true that is definite – not provisional, not a cliffhanger.

How to do that? More 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 Reply to “Resolving cliffhangers in a book”

  1. Side comment, but it seems that this post partly anticipates the points raised by Evan Thompson in his last reply. It’s going to be hard, but we look forward to reading your next book.

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