Category: Philosophy
Does Buddhism Need Science

1. Introduction

Does Buddhism need science? That is to say, does Buddhism need the validation of science? Perhaps not, however, in order to lift the essence of Buddhism out of the cultural setting from which we as practitioners have learnt this science of the mind we call Buddhism, we need to test the claims presented. In this article, I want to explore the possibility that science and Buddhism need each other.

Most would agree I think when I say that calling Buddhism a religion is really a misnomer. For the Buddha himself urged his students not to believe what he taught merely out of respect. Like a philosopher he asked his students to test his claims as a gold smith would test the quality of gold before making a purchase. To put his claims to the blowtorch of empirical inquiry—direct experience. These were not clever tricks employed by a charismatic religious leader. He really did mean it. And it is, therefore, our responsibility as followers of this great philosopher, to do just that: think and investigate these claims for ourselves. It is not as if we have to reinvent the dharma-wheel, however we need to experience it for ourselves. After all, if something is worth believing in—the Four Noble Truths for instance—is it not worthy of critical, objective (in the sense of being free of bias) and rigorous investigation? So, let me ask you the question again: does Buddhism need science?

2. Asking Questions

To me the answer is an unequivocal, yes. For if Buddhism is to make a lasting contribution it must engage the predominate paradigm of its time. This is science. No question; no doubt. Science pervades the minds of ordinary people, so much so that marketers now use the term “scientific fact” to sell their products. Science is the religion of the non-religious. Yet, has anyone seen these magical products marketed under the guise of scientism, solve the problems of the world—stress, anxiety or loneliness? In a recent study, for instance, it was shown that the average age of patients being treated for clinical depression for the first time has dropped to the age of 15. The modern world needs something over and above the current pills it is being administered.

Buddhism as it spread from India engaged each new culture at the highest level of discourse. As it comes to the West, it must engage this culture fully—which of course includes the scientific tradition—if it is to find acceptance. For its part, science could play a role in helping the contemplatives to weed out untenable claims and ineffective practices (Wallace, p.146).

Some Buddhists may think: if science were to test the efficacy of Buddhist practice, there is the chance that the teaching of this ancient and refined tradition may be sullied. I say to those people: you are correct. This in fact is possible. However, most scientists—being well read people—already have some understanding of the Buddhadharma. Often their understanding is based on misinformation or even just plain wrong information, and it is for this very reason that it is vitally important that those trained in Buddhist theory and practice engage scientists and do so fully. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called such people hybrids. These hybrids are people trained in traditional Buddhist theory and practice, and moreover, have gained—to some extent—rigorous training in one or more of the following Western disciplines: science, philosophy or psychology.

While I cannot speak for His Holiness, I can imagine the reason why it is important for these people to be trained in both traditions. It is because the knowledge garnered from meditation is direct, immediate, perceptual and therefore only accessible via first-person inquiry. This knowledge must then be translated into information readily accessible to science. If it is not, it will remain the domain of those trained in the Buddhist tradition, period. For that reason, we need to learn their language, their theories, and their paradigms in order to accurately articulate the phenomenology of meditation. What’s more as Alan Wallace points out:

Tibetan Buddhism’s own Dalai Lama has stated firmly that if science can prove any Buddhist theory to be false, then that belief should be dropped (Wallace, p.147).

His Holiness is not joking. If science was to prove beyond at doubt that a particular doctrine is false, then we must drop that tenet. I, therefore, fully support this call to action. But it does beg the question: false for whom? If science is working off the wrong page, then this ancient and refined tradition could potentially be refuted without proper investigation. Being refuted is one thing; being refuted by simply believing Buddhist theory of mind and its methodologies of first-person inquiry must be wrong by virtue that it is not the same as current science, then setting out to prove just this, strikes me as rather unscientific. However, I did not become a monk simply to belong to a creed. I can say with certainty that in my case at least it was a search for truth—wherever that led. And it is this same spirit of inquiry, which drives science. In that regard in 1963 the physicists Richard Feynman lecturing on the scientific method had the following to say:

Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.

Anyone who has studied and meditated on the deconstructionist methodologies of such Madhyamaka philosophers as Nāgārjuna, Śāntideva or Candrakīrti, will see striking similarities here. Because our dispositional narratives—the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves—are such that we naturally reify our own existence, we in fact believe our on theories. Through this reification, the bifurcation of subject and object, us and them, ensues. The effect of which is the First Noble Truth—suffering. By applying the Madhyamaka dialectic, the explication of this root cause of dysfunctional states of mind—mental afflictions—can be stripped from our way of engaging the world. We, therefore, must “search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong”. Simply believing there is no inherently existent self will get you nowhere. It is only through critical analysis, which strips away our naive conceptions of ourselves, our tradition, our way of doing things that we can continue to move forward in our project of understanding the human condition.

Science, on the other hand, is a growing body of knowledge with practical applications. Applications such as quantum bits are so advanced that those working in these fields are the only people able to understand them. Yet, it seems to me that the real discovery of this scientific paradigm remains concealed to the very people who discovered them:

The most revealing characteristic of quantum physics is the role of the observer in measurement: it is the act of observation, intimately wrapped up in the point of view of the scientist—his or her beliefs—that determine outcomes such as wave or particle and other physical states. It seems that at the subatomic level, the level that supposedly underlies all physical reality, the mind acts as a potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality as we know it. Subatomic particles, the instruments that detect them, laws concerning their existence and expression, mathematics, and the mind all exist in dependence upon one another (Wallace, p.115).

Scientists, I believe, are yet to fully appreciate the possibilities their discoveries yield. Because mind is inextricably linked to the “role of the observer” and is a “potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality”, perhaps the question should be rephrased to: does science need Buddhism?

3. Does Buddhism Need Science?

Although physicists understand the observer plays a role in measurement, still they believe in an underlying reality beyond the mind—for them, there is still something out there. The quantum world—even for these scientists—is fuzzy, difficult to understand and has little direct relevance to the world of people, yet it is still really real. The most important discovery of the quantum world—to use Buddhist parlance—all phenomena are merely dependently arisen, existing in dependence on causes and conditions, parts and an imputing consciousness. This shows that the mind is inextricably linked to the creation of our world. Still, this fact remains somewhat in the domain of those working in the field of quantum physics. While these discoveries have provided the modern world with many benefits—I am writing on one such benefit—science has yet to find a way to integrate these discoveries into our own lives. Science has made the modern world an easier place to live; yet life has not become easier. Clearly, there is something lacking to modernity. Something beyond what is currently known to science.

This, I believe, is where contemplative traditions such as Buddhism can lend a guiding hand. By participating in research projects investigating such phenomena as consciousness, contemplatives can provide information that science does not have access to—albeit from a first-person point of view. That is, contemplatives can provide science with qualitative descriptions of various states of consciousness. Not just what is it like to experience non-referential compassion, but perhaps even non-dual awareness, and the cognition of phenomena as merely dependent-arising. Thus providing science with a motherly push in the right direction and perhaps even providing science with methods for integrating often, abstruse scientific findings, back into the lives of ordinary people.

We need a better understanding of the mind. That goes for those of us who follow a spiritual tradition as well as those with no such interest…[for] a mind made clear by self-knowledge will be better able to understand the message than one immersed in confusion (Wallace, p.164).

Such research has in fact already begun. In the 1960’s doctors from Harvard studied the effects of meditation on metabolism—showing that meditation may decrease the consumption of oxygen by up to 18%. In the 1970’s Jon Kabat-Zinn who has a Ph.D in molecular biology studied the effects of meditation on stress—as a result creating the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. In the 1970’s and 80’s Professor Herbert Benson—again from Harvard—studied tummo meditation—one tummo practitioner studied was able to reduce his oxygen consumption by up to 64%. Studies of the effects of meditation are not new. What is new is the concept of the hybrid. Someone educated in Buddhist theory and practice directly involved in the research project. Being trained in both traditions these hybrids can act as interpreters. By drawing knowledge of phenomenal structures of consciousness directly from their own mind, they can articulate this directly to scientists, and in their own language. Thus giving science—for the first time—ongoing access to new data and from here—new discoveries.

One such discovery is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to restructure itself from experience. Previously it was believed that neuron connections were fixed in adult humans, degenerating over time. Now we know through study of meditation that the brain can in fact continue to grow even in later life. It is through mind training that enables these neuronal features to reconnect—all this from collaborative projects between meditators and scientists.

Because research has shown we are capable of changing and improving our cognitive capacities. We can, over time, change the way we relate to ourselves in order to reflect something closer to reality—thus becoming healthier people as a result. This ability to change is something that has been recognized by Buddhists for over two millennium—even if it was not under the label neuroplasticity. Yet it is science, which can help us deliver this message to the general community. Not to convert; simply to help. Perhaps then we can begin to recede the trend of 15 year olds being treated for clinical depression.

4. Conclusion

For these reasons collaborative projects such as the Shamatha Project are vitally important. It is also why I have begun, in affiliation with the Santa Barbra Institute for Consciousness Studies, a project to establish a similar institute in Australia. The aim of the Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies is to:

  1. Establish collaborative research projects between scientists, psychologists, philosophers and contemplatives in order to investigate the nature of consciousness.
  2. Establish facilities for people from around the world to learn meditation and engage in short and long term retreats.
  3. Establish educational programs, which facilitate integration of the findings from the studies conducted by our research teams.

That is to say, the aim of the institute will be to serve others by way of arranging collaborative research projects, where contemplatives and scientists work together, in a combined effort to understand that which is the producer of human flourishing—the mind. As well as develop contemplative observatories for budding hybrids, allowing these people to refine their meditative skills in conducive and supportive environments. And most importantly to create educational programs whereby techniques for integration of this new information are developed.

Thus, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new era of human flourishing. As knowledge of the human condition is, for the first time, studied from the first, second and third person perspectives. This is something, which science and the world’s great contemplative traditions can only benefit. It is my hope, therefore, that institutions such as Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies and the Santa Barbra Institute will become templates for our future, a place for all people to learn to meditation and be well. I leave you to ponder this wonderful quote from one of the world’s great thinkers—Albert Einstein.

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited by space and time. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty (Albert Einstein, 1921).

References:

Wallace, A.B. & Hodel, B., 2008. Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality, Shambhala.


Is Wisdom Really Necessary In Order To Generate Compassion?

It seems that my assertion from the article Philosophy as Practice raised some eyebrows among Buddhists. Here is the section of in question:

…without the ability to analyze and use critical thinking, even the compassion spoken of in Buddhism cannot be fully developed. Therefore the wisdom lineage, as in “method and wisdom”, pervades the method lineage.

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot center in Florida

I was surprised by the doubt raised by this statement, as it seems to me to be quite clear. However, in order to practice what I advocate, that is, doing philosophy, since last Thursday when the doubt was surreptitiously raised during a discussion after class. I have been investigating whether this statement is in fact true, or simply an unchallenged assumption on my behalf. I consulted the following texts; Tsong Khapa’s Illumination of the Thought a commentary on Candrakīrti’s Supplement to The Middle Way; Tsong Khapa’s Lamrim Chenmo; Geshe Lhundrup Sopa’s commentary on Lamrim Chenmo.

My Argument

First of all, let us revisit the original argument and unpack it into its simplest form.

Premise: Great compassion cannot be developed without first understanding how sentient beings suffer, how suffering is generated and what are its causes.

Conclusion: You must therefore use analysis and reasoning to investigate the nature of conditioned existence and dependent-arising, in order to develop genuine great compassion.

The Contention

However, the doubt that compassion requires wisdom in order to be developed was raised as a question with a slightly altered form. Paraphrasing the question; “Is the wisdom realizing emptiness necessary in order to develop compassion”. Although this is not what I argued, I think this statement might also be a true statement but we probably should leave that debate for another day. So to make it clear then, I am not arguing that ordinary compassion cannot be developed without wisdom or that one must first realize emptiness directly, before developing compassion. I am, however, stating that without analyzing how suffering is experienced and its causes, it is impossible to develop great compassion. Ordinary compassion is a precursor to great compassion. Great compassion is the compassion of Bodhisattvas and is therefore the type of compassion we need to develop.

Ordinary Compassion Vs. Great Compassion

So the question could be raised: what is the difference between ordinary compassion and great compassion? While I do not know what the definition of ordinary compassion is, but at a guess, it could perhaps be characterized as; the wish for someone to be free from a manifest pain. Great compassion, on the other hand is defined as; the wish for all living beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. The difference is not just in how many beings are within the scope of compassion but rather, great compassion wishes all sentient beings to be free from the causes of all types of suffering. Great compassion, therefore, is not only concerned with manifest pain, but the potential for suffering. This is an important point and one that should not be glossed over lightly. Great compassion has a subjective aspect that wants to eliminate the potential for suffering. But, how can one wish to eliminate the potential for suffering, if you do not know what the causes of that potential are?

Therefore, if we genuinely want to develop great compassion, we need to understand what it means to suffer. We need to understand how suffering is generated, and most importantly, how to permanently remove these causes. Initially, we begin the process of developing compassion by inferring our own experiences of manifest pain, be it physical or mental pain, onto others. For example, when I see someone experiencing the pain of a headache, I recall the last time I had a headache, and I remember my wish to be free from that experience. Because I can infer my experience onto this person, the wish for them to be free from that pain will naturally follow. I contend, this is ordinary compassion, not great compassion. Ordinary compassion is an ability to empathize with others. However, this type of compassion is beneficial. In fact, without empathy great compassion could not be developed. Therefore, I am not belittling ordinary compassion. I am simply saying it is not the compassion spoken of in Buddhism.

Great compassion on the other hand has additional mental factors concomitant with the subjective aspect of ordinary compassion.
Kamalasila’s Stages of Meditation says:

When you spontaneously feel compassion which has the subjective aspect to completely eliminate (emphasis added) the suffering of all living beings – just like a mother’s wish to remove her dear child’s unhappiness – then your compassion is complete and is therefore called great compassion.

Three Levels of Suffering

So how do sentient beings suffer? Buddhism enumerates suffering in many different ways. One such presentation is the three levels of suffering.

1: The suffering of suffering: manifest pain either in the mind or body.

2: The suffering of change: This is subtler than the first. Put simply, it is the fact that pleasurable experiences carry with them the seeds for dissatisfaction. The bliss experienced from eating chocolate, for instance, will if you eat enough in one session, turn into an unpleasant experience.

Geshe Lhundup Sopa says (Steps On The Path To Enlightenment – P91):

All worldly pleasures are impure because they contain the seed of misery. They are not perfect sources of delight. From the yogi perspective, therefore, because ordinary enjoyment changes it is actually suffering.

3: Pervasive suffering: is the suffering of conditioned existence. It is the most subtle and the most difficult of the three to understand.

Just as it would be difficult for someone born into a prison cell who has never seen the ocean, to understand the depth of an ocean. It is difficult for ordinary people to comprehend the depth of our suffering. This does not mean, however, we can’t enjoy life. Just as a prisoner can enjoy a cup of tea, so can we. But understand that, just as a prisoner is locked in a cell, we to are locked in the cell of ego-grasping. By knowing this, we are motivated to do something about our situation and the suffering of others.

What are the Causes of Suffering?

The root cause of suffering is the fundamental ignorance grasping at an inherently-existent self. If we are to generate a wish for all living beings to be free from suffering and its causes, we must understand how we experience these three levels of suffering. For compassion that is spoken of in Buddhism to be fully developed, one must understand all three levels. We must understand just how the conception of an inherently existent self can be the cause of these sufferings. And we must understand the process involved in completely eliminating this conception.

Je Tsongkhapa has said ( The Great Treatise and The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment P45):

After you have thoroughly distinguished the objects of meditation according to the previous explanations – how compassion is the root, how the developments of the spirit of enlightenment is the entrance to the Mahayana, and so forth – you must then analyze these explanations with discerning wisdom and elicit the experience produced after sustaining them in meditation. You will not achieve anything with the unclear experiences that come when you make a short, concentrated effort without precisely clarifying the topic with your understanding. Know that this is true for other kinds of practices as well.

Summary

To completely eliminate suffering, is different than a wish for a living being to be free from a particular manifest suffering such as a headache.
In order to completely eliminate suffering one must eliminate the causes of suffering, otherwise this elimination will remain incomplete as the potential for future suffering is still present. The fundamental or root cause of suffering is ego-grasping. Therefore, you must understand from within your own experience the suffering related to ego-grasping, in order to infer it on others. To have the wish that all living beings be free from suffering and its causes, means you must know how sentient beings suffer and what the causes of that suffering are. Without that understanding your compassion will remain mere empathy.


Philosophy as Practice

Some think: meditators do not need to study; those who teach need to study. Actually, learning is more necessary for the meditator; teachers may just incur the fault of explaining something incorrectly.

It is vital for a meditator to study in order to properly understand what to meditate on. This may sound obvious, however, many people think that studying or the doing of philosophy gets in the way of real practice. However, the great Kadampa masters of old Tibet tell us it is more important for a meditator to study than a teacher, because all a teacher can do is say something wrong. A meditator who has not studied, on the other hand, could potentially waste years meditating on an incorrect object or misunderstanding of the nature of reality.

In this articles, I intend to argue that studying philosophy is a form of dharma practice in and of itself. That there are real and tangible benefits in the practice of studying philosophy. Moreover, studying philosophy is vital, if one is seriously engaging the Buddhist path. Without the ability to think deeply and clearly on subjects such as the nature of conditioned existence or dependent-arising, these subjects cannot be properly understood. Do you really expect to be able to meditate on subjects such as these if you cannot think deeply and clearly? In fact, I would argue that without the ability to analyze and use critical thinking, even the compassion spoken of in Buddhism cannot be fully developed. Therefore the wisdom lineage, as in method and wisdom pervades the method lineage.

A teacher of mine – the late Gelug lama Geshe Jampa Gyatso – a great scholar and meditation master (at the time of his death, Geshe Jampa Gyatso remained in clear light for seven days) once said:

The Kadampa Geshes have a saying:
‘Meditating without having listened to teachings
is like someone without hands trying to climb a snow mountain’.

In order to fully appreciate the benefits of philosophical knowledge we need to draw a distinction between studying philosophy and doing philosophy. Much has been made of the worthiness of Buddhist scholars, that perhaps, they are merely academics with little understanding of the utility of Buddhist thought. Up to a point I agree with this claim. For instance, some say their knowledge of the dharma is merely knowledge for it’s own sake and that they often misunderstand the implicit meaning of the canonical texts. This sentiment has at times, caused me concern, for I feel it can be used by some Buddhist practitioners as an excuse to do no study at all. Although there will be times when a practitioner must focus almost exclusively on meditation, this is only after gaining a proper foundation in Buddhist thought. While it is true that some people think that meditation is all that is needed, and that philosophy is for teachers and academics, upon reflection this can be shown to be incorrect. However for those who may not intuitively see the benefits of doing philosophy, I will attempt to explain the difference.

Studying Philosophy vs Doing Philosophy

Studying is generally thought of as the act of analyzing a given subject as a means of understanding that subject. However, more often than not, we engage this process by merely learning definitions and divisions. We then think we know the material. If we are studying computer programming this method of study is fine. We will find suitable work and earn a living. However, this approach does not work when it comes to the study of dharma. Why? Because the purpose of studying dharma is not merely the collection of information. Understanding the dharma is not merely the ability to repeat the definitions and divisions of a given text.

Philosophical truths are not things that we look up in books; they are truths we acquire by hearing, reading, thinking, contemplation and meditation. If you merely report what someone else says, then you are not doing the thinking for yourself. Moreover, doing philosophy requires analysis and an ability to think critically. As Buddhist practitioners, we need to unearth the wisdom of an ancient tradition for ourselves. Therefore we need to think for ourselves. We are not reinventing the dharma wheel; we are discovering that wheel for ourselves.

Doing philosophy, is therefore, an investigation into the fundamental ideas and concepts we hold as true. We must challenge our everyday assumptions of personal identity, free-will and even if enlightenment is possible! Doing philosophy, for example, is taking the concept that all phenomena are dependent on causes and conditions, parts and an imputing consciousness, and critically and rigorously investigate these assertions to see if, in fact, this is the case. Being able to merely explain dependent-arising is therefore not doing philosophy and therefore I claim it is also not studying philosophy as it is from within the tradition.

However, this rigorous investigation is only part of the process of doing philosophy. Developing responses to these questions is an important component in this process. In the Nalanda tradition of ancient India and in the monastic traditions of Tibet, doing philosophy was engaged through debate. However, this does require the participants be in one place at the same time. Something that for Westerners is not possible. On the other hand, in western philosophy this same conversation of the rigorous questioning of our unchallenged assumptions takes place via a written essay. The essay is the central communication device. It is a tool used to tease out from our subconscious these assumptions. To investigate them and to formulate clear and concise thoughts on them. The written essay speaks our ideas, if you like. There is also the tradition in of other philosophers responding to our claims via their own essays. Bringing points of difference, counter-arguments and objections to the conversation. A conversation of “call and response” takes place, albeit over a longer period of time, that is similar to traditional debates.

I would like to see more of this type of conversation take place between western Buddhists. We, as a tradition , can leverage our own cultural heritage in the form of essay writing, and use it to benefit both Buddhism and our own understanding of it. Lets not leave this conversation to university professors and those from academia that merely engage it because it is interesting. Let us learn how to communicate as they do, and use these tools to forward the project of presenting Buddhism to the west.

There are also other benefits by communicating in this way. The most powerful of which is; writing as a means of learning. When writing in your own words for example, what is meditation, your thoughts on the subject need to be very clear. Writing is therefore a tool for learning and engaging the tradition. The other advantage is that others may also benefit from your efforts. This is something that western university philosophy departments have been acutely aware of for some time. Much emphasis is placed on the ability to think critically and write clearly. Because of the importance of these skills, students of western philosophy in universities are taught how to read and write critically.

Raising Possible Objections

An objection cold be raised here: one might say that knowledge for knowledge sake is a waste of time, as it adds to conceptualization. I would agree. However, this argument assumes that doing philosophy is knowledge for knowledge sake. This argument fails to recognize the distinction between the doing of philosophyand knowing lots of different stuff. As to whether wisdom will naturally arise through meditation: I believe,  even the action of meditation comes from learning it, be that directly from a meditation teacher or even from a book. Therefore, if one needs to hear, read and contemplate about such things, how can the ultimate nature of reality dawn without any guidance?

Another objection might be: those who debate minute details of, for example, the view of emptiness or the meaning of cessation are missing the point. That ultimate reality is beyond conceptualization and therefore, speaking, debating and discussing such things will not bear fruit. This argument might claim: just meditate. However, this fails to understand that discussion is part of the process of hearing, thinking and meditating. While it may be true that the direct cognition of emptiness is beyond words. That does not negate the benefits of investigating. Moreover, I would assert that in order for the direct non-conceptual cognition of emptiness to arise, it must be proceeded by a conceptual cognition, which is a union of calm-abiding and special insight. This union in turn is proceeded by thinking about the meaning of emptiness. So you can see from this, an understanding of the ultimate truth of all phenomena starts by deeply, clearly and critically contemplating the meaning of reality.

Yet another counter-argument might be: combining western and Buddhist philosophy will weaken the Buddhist tradition. However, I would suggest that if something is worth believing, it is worthy of critical analysis. If the basic assertions of Buddhism are true, then, these assertions will be validated when placed under critical analysis. I would also suggest that we are not conflating two traditions but rather, leveraging the tools of one tradition for the betterment of the other.

Summary

In this article, I have tried to posit the benefits of rigorous investigation and critical thinking as a means of gaining insights. That is to say, studying philosophy is not merely knowledge for knowledge sake. That it can in fact be an actual dharma practice. As much of the Buddhist path is made up of insights and perspectives. So if we are to achieve the paths to enlightenment, we need to develop these insights and perspectives. In order to do that, we need to challenge our everyday assumptions on how things exist – we must do philosophy.


The Twisting of a Phrase For Clarity

A pithy turn of phrase, a quip engendering insight, all these linguistic devices are the tools of smarter men (and women) than I. Philosophy, for the most part, is not easy. It is not easy because of the hours spent frustrated by misunderstanding, or, as is more often the case, a sense of not understanding what the hell it is that you are reading. In the end, I must add, it is an experience for which one is better off for having. With the afore written in mind, and as good evidence of my point, I want to address the notion of clarity in philosophy.

photo taken from my widow sill

Some might argue there is, in fact, a lack of clarity in the very enterprise of philosophy. Is this true? Perhaps, for philosophy is inherently abstruse. After all, the ideas we are grappling with are difficult. Yet, is it their importance that renders these questions difficult , or is it their difficulty that makes them important? I think one could argue it is, in fact, both, and for that very reason, it is important for those engaged in the articulation of these difficult questions, to make certain the answers are accessible to as many inquisitive minds as possible. If philosophers, through wordiness, simply add to the abstruseness of their project, thus taking important questions and making them impenetrable, philosophy, turns into the “quibbling of vain men” (and women).

Having said all that, and in such a way as to highlight my very point, I want to ask the following question: Is misunderstanding the fault of the reader or the writer? Is clarity, merely comprehension? Or is understanding, “given” through the art of eloquence? This goes to the heart of a pedagogical dilemma: how do we get knowledge from the page to the heart? Is it the duty of a writer to forge understanding by presenting difficult ideas in plain English, even at the risk of cogency? Or is it up to the reader to lift up, so to speak, their intellectual arsenal, in order to encounter first hand the wisdom hidden behind the words? These question seem important ones to me, for freedom from suffering is at stake here.

If philosophy is to be important to future generations, it must be important for future generations. It must speak to them in such a way as to seem important, even when difficult. For it is only when we see the doing of philosophy as important to community, important to the future of persons, that we will be interested in investing in its comprehension. Therefore, I believe, clarity is dependent on both reader and writer. Writers should strive for clarity at every turn. Making certain, to the best of his or her ability, what is said is as clear as it might be. This means, using the language (up to a point) of the day. Indeed, if your writing does not “speak” you run the risk of becoming the intellectual equivalent of a drunken shadow-boxer ranting at passers-by. Yet, readers of philosophy, too, have a responsibility to do some heavy lifting  to bring meaning from the page. To borrow something of a Heideggerian turn of phrase: To bring Understanding to understanding is to bring Being to being.