Central APA Coverage: Radical Philosophy and Buddhism

In addition to the Carus and Dewey lectures recently covered on the APA Blog, the 2016 Central Division Meeting featured many other exciting sessions with new and interesting research. I would like to focus this post on two that I found stimulating: the Author Meets Critics session on Radical Philosophy: An Introduction, and the session on Owen Flanagan’s work on Western ethics and Buddhism. Before getting into these, however, I want to mention some other sessions that were spoken highly of among the people to whom I talked.

Many of the sessions about which people were enthusiastic featured work that connects traditional epistemological, metaphysical, and ontological frameworks to the study of race, gender, LGBT issues, and politics. On Wednesday evening, several sessions looked at how best to conceive of the environment using philosophies such as Daoism and phenomenology. Later in the conference, other sessions explored feminist epistemologies, the philosophy of mass incarceration, health care ethics, how concepts like ‘truth’ and ‘space’ were expressed in Latin America, Ancient political conceptions of the soul, and Kant’s and Dewey’s contributions to political philosophy. Conceptual-issue focused sessions, such as Wednesday’s session on the nature of agency and Thursday’s session on perception, also received praise. Although from what I heard these sessions focused on how to properly think about these ideas, it is interesting to speculate about how the work done in these more theoretical sessions may in the future influence those of us inclined in a more sociopolitical direction.

Moving on to the two sessions mentioned above, I noticed an interesting theme running through both, concerning the question of how continuous or discontinuous our existence is. Many of the points brought up through presentations and questions were oriented around how similar or different the rules influencing different parts of our lives are.

The session on Chad Kautzer’s Radical Philosophy: An Introduction discussed the form critique should take. Since it is by critiquing the institutions in our society that we come to understand the nature of oppression and the possibilities for emancipation, each thinker felt this to be an important point to clarify. José Jorge Mendoza asked whether radical philosophy could be analytic. He felt Kautzer’s text focused heavily on continental philosophers, obscuring the radical philosophy of those from the analytic tradition. Mendoza discussed the ways continental philosophy has been used to justify conservative goals, and the numerous analytic philosophers who spoke out against oppression. Naomi Zack spoke second. After complimenting the work as a whole, she spoke critically about the dialectical method and its emphasis on conflict. Kautzer’s focus on the dialectic obscures methods Zack feels are more liberatory. Her main concern about dialectics is that it does not capture racial relationships, since it presupposes an equality between sides, one that may not exist. Finally, Tommy Curry shared his concerns. Like Mendoza and Zack, he believed the book to be an important contribution; nevertheless, he questioned its emphasis on the dialectical method. Curry’s concern is that the dialectic may reinforce the status quo rather than undermine it. Curry mentioned how black and female bodies are not necessarily liberatory, nor are radical philosophies immune to the problems of their day. Identifying as different than the norm, in other words, is not enough to create change.

Kautzer’s response to his critics was primarily a defense of the dialectical method. He emphasized that dialectics does not make problematic assumptions or demand the recurrence of the status quo, as Zack and Curry said. In response to Zack’s allegation, Kautzer argued that the dialectic does not assume equality, only division. Kautzer went on to say that the dialectic should not be viewed through the simple binary model that has defined it in the past, but as a combination of the ideas that things are formed by their historical context and that struggle coupled with critique yields transformation. In response to Curry, Kautzer said that the purpose of radical philosophy is not just to describe oppression, but to engage with the oppressed people of the world. While the poor may have a better sense of oppression than academics, this does not mean they will not need people who can articulate their plight and help them develop means for emancipation. So while it is possible for difference to reinstate the status quo, when used properly the dialectic will not do this, but will create the possibility for liberation. Finally, in response to Mendoza, Kautzer admitted that critique is possible using analytic philosophy, but emphasized that the type of critique utilized by analytic philosophy is different from that utilized by continental philosophy. The critique practiced by continental philosophy is radical, he said, because it appeals to change and emancipation in a way analytic critique does not.

The session on Owen Flanagan’s philosophy, Buddhism, and ethics focused on drawing out the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Western thought (specifically that of Aristotle and Derrida). Nancy Snow began by describing how Buddhism and Aristotle both articulate a set of virtues, yet advise pursuing them in very different ways. Aristotle emphasizes self-development, positing an ego which through practice and engagement with others becomes fulfilled. By contrast, Buddhism insists on self-renunciation, calling on people to see the self as an illusion that can be unmasked through mindfulness. Impermanence and interdependence are emphasized to show that the self is a fleeting thing with no real, substantial existence. This leaves Aristotle and the Buddha with significantly different notions of what one should do. One can be a fulfilled Aristotelian without knowing metaphysics, as one just has to act and develop the virtues in a friendly environment. Buddhists cannot be ignorant of the metaphysics that the Buddha puts forth, since mindfulness only arises when one is in possession of this knowledge.

Jin Park noted some similarities and differences between Flanagan’s account of naturalism, Buddhism, and Derrida’s non-foundationalist theory. Each philosophy resists describing the world in transcendental terms. “Truth” can only be said to exist if one ignores how the world provides no evidence of a permanent, supernatural structure. Thus Flanagan argues for a naturalism that opposes absolutes (all objects are defined by their relationships to other objects), Derrida claims meaning is always open, and Zen Buddhism resists static doctrines. Developing ideas about how things work, or what things are, is not bad, but these ideas must be open to change. The conclusion to be drawn from these philosophies is that true spirituality cannot be performed with absolute certainty. Buddhism, Flanagan, and Derrida all grasp that spirituality is more about practice in the face of doubt than about clear, unwavering belief. Doubt is an essential part of spirituality, as things of which one is sure are more properly classified as facts than beliefs. Spirituality, by definition, is not concerned with facts, but with what goes beyond the limits of facts. To be spiritual is to appeal to something transcendental (like God) that cannot ever be proven.

Much more could be said about both these sessions, but these summaries cover the main ideas. While the former session discussed politics and the latter spirituality, the degree to which we are constrained by our surroundings or can radically alter them was an important issue for each. The continuity or discontinuity of our existence, and how change occurs, produce significant differences in our engagement with the world of politics or spirituality. It seemed the contributors in both sessions were hesitant to heavily circumscribe our existence, but were more interested in understanding the ways in which the future (of our society and ourselves) remains open. In a world where the unexpected is a regular occurrence, this seems a productive avenue for philosophers to explore.

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