Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A Comparative Study of Early Buddhism and Kantian Philosophy - reviewed

Originally posted at American Buddhist Perspective here and here.

This is essentially the topic of my doctoral thesis, and here it is, all in 88 pages plus a glossary and index. Sadly though, I can't really recommend the book. Even though it's short (usually a plus in my world) and covers topics quite dear to my heart, it also has more than its share of flaws. To start, it's written from something of a Buddhist triumphalist standpoint. Statements like "Early Buddhist philosophy is a royal highway for all those who wish to attain the summum bonum. the ideal of human life. It is a remarkable religio-philosophy complete in every respect" (p.11) are nice, but they're a clear sign that scholarly objectivity (an ideal, never actualized) is not going to be present.

On the other hand, the suggestion that "The perfection of morality cannot be achieved without an innumerable number of rebirths (in saṃsāra). Thus the idea of rebirth is implied in Kantianism" (p.9) also shows a total lack of sensitivity to the context of Kant's writing. Particularly appalling is the claim, a few pages later that Kant's "kingdom of ends" is a "fairy tale" from a Buddhist point of view. The Kingdom of Ends is for Kant a sort of heavenly ideal - not a blissed-out happy-go-lucky heaven, but simply one in which all beings treat each other out of respect, i.e. all beings act fully morally.

There are many commendable points though. 

The comparison of Kant's antinomies (pairs of opposing propositions that both cannot be true but could not be proved either way) and the Buddha's silence on certain metaphysical questions is helpful and informative. In Kant's works these include the propositions that
  1. the world is infinite or finite, 
  2. all composite things are made up of simple parts, or there are no simple parts,
  3. free-will or determinism is true, and 
  4. there is or is not a necessary being (God).
Discussing Kant's response, Weerasinghe writes:
Kant shows that both thesis and antithesis in the above ‘four pairs’ can equally be supported with a (seemingly) valid proof (CPR., A 426 B 454 - A 463 B 491). Therefore he concludes that they are all pseudo-rational assertions (Ger. vernünftelnde Behauptungen) appearing to rest on an empty concept (Ger. einen leeren Begriff ) (CPR., A 494 B 518). In other words Kant implies that they are all wrong propositions (i.e. judgements) originated from a wrong assumption (i.e. the concept of the world) based on the category of totality (CPR., A 426 B 454 - A 428 B 456) and consequently are having no validity in themselves. (p.31)
This sounds much like the analyses of Buddha's response to the wanderer Vacchagotta  in The Grouped Sayings by the Buddha. Samyutta Nikāya. Book III 257-263 The Vacchagotta section 33. Thread on Not Knowing: Aññānā Sutta (1-55). As he points out, Vacchagotta posed similar questions to the Buddha out of "curiosity without any ethical aim" (p.33).

The chapter comparing the Epistemology (theory of knowledge) of Kant and the Buddha also furthers the Kant-bashing and Buddha-loving of previous chapters, while not failing to point out some central ideas of each. 
Thus our empirical knowledge, according to Kant, is a reconstruction of what we experience in our daily life. In other words, it is a distortion of the true picture of the external world or, for that matter, anything which is experienced as knowledge. (p.41)
This is well-compared to the Buddha's concept of ignorance (avijjā) giving rise to our perception of the world of compound objects. To see without ignorance is to see the voidness of all things.

I'll stop there for tonight. Tomorrow I'll finish up with the Epistemology and the largest chapter, Ethics. Then, maybe, I'll get back to Buddhism, Brain, and Mind, a thought-stream I started over a week ago and left hanging. Oh, and then there are some Buddha-barn pics to post... Should be a fun Monday. :)

Part 2:

One of the first things that drew me both to Kantian and Buddhist ethics was the notion of a morality that is at once transcendent and imminent. This means that there is a sense in which morality lies beyond our normal conceptions of the world and yet it is accessible to us always. In Buddhism it is beyond our normal conceptions because of egoic ignorance, fed by our clinging to pleasures and pushing away of negative feelings. Insofar as we are unenlightened, we all do this. Moments of awareness help break the habit-cycle.

In Kant's works we are dominated by heteronomy - other (hetero) laws (nomos). To be ruled by heteronomy is to be subservient, subservient to our desires for power, addictions, and even moral and political rules set down by others. It is by employment of reason that we begin to untangle ourselves from these laws - choosing those we follow instead of blindly following.

But hitherto I have seen little or no mention of the Pāli term papañca (Skt. prapañca), explained by Weerasinghe here in relation to Kant's use of 'phenomena':
The Kantian concept of phenomena immediately reminds us at the doctrine olpapa4ca in early Buddhism The word papañca (Skt. prapañca) derived from pra+√pañc, to spread out, conveys the sense of expansion, diffuseness and manifoldness (cf: PTS., Dic. q.v.). In doctrinal use it signifies expansion, diffuseness or manifoldness of the world we perceive with our senses. It may also refer to the ‘phenomenal world’ in general, and to the ‘mental attitude of worldliness.’ (p.48)
Keown's Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism (Danny Fisher informed me in January that "there's an App for that" - you can download the whole thing to your iPhone/iPod) has no entry for papañca but does have prapañca on page 220: "Term meaning 'proliferation', in the sense of the multiplication of erroneous concepts, ideas, and ideologies which obscure the true nature of reality...." NYANATILOKA MAHATHERA's great Buddhist Dictionary has a more detailed explanation, including references here:
Dhp. 254: "Mankind delights in the diffuseness of the world, the Perfect Ones are free from such diffuseness"(papañcābhiratā pajā, nippapañca tathāgatā). - The 8th of the 'thoughts of a great man' (mahā-purisa-vitakka; A. VIII, 30) has: "This Dhamma is for one who delights in non-diffuseness (the unworldly, Nibbāna); it is not for him who delights in worldliness (papañca).
So in Buddhism papañca appears to have a clearly negative flavor not found in Kant's understanding of phenomena, which in Caygill's Kant Dictionary is given a much more nuanced treatment than either Weerasinghe or I have presented. But they are similar in suggesting a 'this-world' (understanding) and a transcendent understanding - one which is fully in the flow/flux of reality free from conceptual proliferation.


The opening assertion that the:
Buddhist revolution in ethics consists of the discovery that "one is responsible for ones deeds (kamma)". That is that one is the cause of ones predicament. Hence one is the creator of oneself. So the solution to the problem of suffering is within oneself and not in the hands of a supposed creator-God. (p.58)
does indeed seem to resonate well with the teaching of Early Buddhism (later forms of Buddhism rely on the logic of not-self to move away from this teaching somewhat).  Weerasinghe is unfortunately caught up by Kant's insistence in a belief in God even more than usual in this section. For Kant, God is simply the agent necessary for ensuring that deeds do have moral consequences, i.e. that good ultimately comes to those who are good and vice versa.  It is quite different from karma but it serves much the same role in moral thinking. After ranting on about this for a couple pages, we find this conclusion:
Thus we may notice that the Kantian view of ethics is not consistent and systematic in comparison to the moral philosophy of early Buddhism which is consistent, systematic and founded on an ethico-psychological basis. (p.61)
In fact most modern scholars would say the opposite, that Kant is systematic and Early Buddhism is somewhat lacking in clarity (though clearly filled with various 'moral' teachings). Back to Early Buddhism, we find:
(i) Morality needs no religion to support it. (ii) This idea is well established in EB. which maintains that dhamma or morality is something independent and is discovered by the Buddhas from epoch to epoch. (iii) Morality in EB. [is] atheistic to the core has nothing to do with any divine being. (p.62)
And likewise in both Kant and Buddhism is found a teaching of morality as a discovery (not an invention, social norm, revelation, etc.). "According to Buddhism morality means, inter alia, to live in accordance with what is implicit in the nature of things" (p.64).

While Weerasinghe goes on to be overly harsh on Kant (and outright wrong in too many places to address) and praising of early Buddhism, his criticism that Kant is missing the applied aspect of ethics seems fair (cf. p.70). Kant was at the same time perhaps too confident in humanities ability to use reason to evaluate motivations and break free from superstition and manipulation, as well as pessimistic that one could ever truly do this in this lifetime.

But beyond this, Weerasinghe's accusations and confusions only continue - for instance lambasting Kant for his thoughts on human evil (suggesting that Kant painted a "pathetic picture of man"(p.65)), and praising him for his philosophy of the Good will, which is by it's own nature good as "a great teaching apparently unknown to, and unheard of in the then Western philosophy" (p. 77). One assertion, which would be merely amusing if it weren't in a supposedly academic text is that those aspects of Kant that are good and useful are "not European, but Indian in spirit" (pp. 85-86 emphasis in original). Sigh.

As I suggested in my last post, it's a hard book to recommend. The book didn't make any real splash in the Western academic world, so even academics seem to have ignored it. It has a fair number of typos, is not terribly easy to get ahold of, and sadly hacks up Kantian philosophy.  Between the last comment I quoted and the one starting the book in my last post, "Early Buddhist philosophy is a royal highway..." you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Selected Q & A from the Comments:

From Tom:
Speaking of "kingdom of ends," the local library here tells me "Creating a Kingdom of Ends" is ready for me to pick up. I ordered the book based on a post in one of your other blogs from 2 1/2 years ago that reread a handfull of days ago.

Kind Mr. Whitaker, since you are more of a Kantian than Mr/Ms Weerasinghe, can you give me your response [on behalf of Buddhism] to the "kingdom of ends?"
Great book, Tom - let me know what you think of it. If I understand your question correctly, you'd like me to give a Buddhist version of the Kingdom of ends. Such a kingdom would simply be the end result of the Bodhisattva's vow - where all beings are awakened from suffering and ignorance. Is this technically possible? Not really in any of our lifetimes - so some could call it an empty wish. But it's an ideal we do well to strive for, in this lifetime and, if there are more, in those as well.
OK. I know I stupid as dirt, but put up with me for a moment.

Can you expound on this: "For Kant, God is simply the agent necessary for ensuring that deeds do have moral consequences, i.e. that good ultimately comes to those who are good and vice versa."
How does Kant perceive God!? A guy-like superbeing on a cloud with an intense aversion to sin? How does this agency function? Are gears or computers a part of God?
Worldliness is "diffuse," you say. I am trying to understand the sense in which that is so, employing my probably-diffuse mind. A good mind, then, is more focussed? Attentive? Won't have typos in his book?

Oh much wiser than dirt, Tom: "How does Kant perceive God!?"

That's just it. He doesn't perceive God at all, for God (like morality) lies on the other half of the noumenal/phenomenal divide from perception. God is just an "idea" of perfection that we *need* to believe in in order to do the often hard work of being moral. In that sense he's more like the Buddha (as a perfectly awakened being, not just a great teacher) than he is like the action of karma.

A good mind, I think, is focused, and able to balance both the manifold world (conventional reality) and the world of flux and no-self-natureness (ultimate reality).