Monday, October 22, 2018

Work & Blogging Update

[Apart from posting this for reasons intrinsic to the material, I want to let readers know (although we never hear from you, I trust there’s still some out there) that my blogging will be a bit light for a spell while I’m doing this research and catching up on some tasks at the home front.]

The research I am doing on Lokāyata/Cārvāka philosophical views (for an introductory presentation of same) and the preparation for a guest post at the Indian Philosophy blog on “Indian/Indic darśana(s) and hedonistic egoism” substantially and thankfully overlaps, although I am also quickly discovering the extent of my ignorance. One thing I have learned to date comes by way of the late philosopher B.K. Matilal (the link does not list all of his writings), who has pointed out the varied treatments of ethical virtues and ideas in Indian epic literature (e.g., the Mahābhārata, which of course contains the Bhagavad Gītā, and the Rāmāyana), in particular to the sundry meanings of dharma and the role of dharma in moral conflicts, some of which amount to moral dilemmas. Philosophical discussions of ethics or moral philosophy as such is virtually absent from the Indic darśana-s or philosophical schools (there are notable exceptions on occasion and especially in Mahāyāna Buddhism), be they orthodox or āstika (i.e., Vedic/śruti in inspiration if not justification) or heterodox (nāstika),* despite their ability to treat topics in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and language with—comparatively speaking—considerable philosophical sophistication and insight. The epics falls under the heading of smti (memory; that which is remembered; worthy to be remembered) texts, or non-śruti (‘revelatory’) religious literature, which also includes the Dharmaśāstra-s (e.g., the Manusmti) and the Purāna-s (e.g., the Viṣṇu Purāna and the Śiva Purāna). Matilal urges us to examine these sources, as well as Indic literature generally for discussions of ethical ideas and principles or moral philosophy.

I am entertaining some possible reasons as to why ethics or moral philosophy was not systematically addressed in the philosophical schools, some of which I suspect are related to the fact that many people in contemporary society do not, of course (and for better and worse), learn their ethics or about moral philosophy from philosophers. Rather, as Colin McGinn writes in Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (1997), “literature is where moral thinking lives and breathes on every page:”

“Stories can sharpen and clarify moral questions, encouraging a dialectic between the reader’s own experience and the trials of the character he or she is reading about. A tremendous amount of moral thinking and feeling is done when reading novels (or watching plays and films, or reading poetry and short stories). In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that for most people this is the primary way in which they acquire ethical attributes, especially in contemporary culture.”

Or, in the words of Martha Nussbaum, “the terms of the novelist’s art are alert winged creatures, perceiving where the blunt terms of ordinary speech or of abstract theoretical discourse are blind, acute where they are obtuse, winged where they are dull and heavy.” The political scientist, Nobel laureate, and pioneer in the field of the psychology of judgment and decision making, as well as the computational modeling of human reasoning, Herbert A. Simon, put it rather more awkwardly this way: “most human beings are able to attend to issues longer, to think harder about them, to receive deeper impressions that last longer, if information is presented in a context of emotion—a sort of hot dressing—then if it is presented wholly without affect.”

A corollary obligation would seem to follow: novelists (or playwrights, poets…) have to get it right. In other words, if we look to the arts for our lessons in morality or ethics, it presumes or assumes we have some prior ability (or at least the critics are in possession of such) to discriminate morally knowledgeable, insightful, or significant literature from that which is unavailing, ethically speaking (as a product of family upbringing and early socialization and education). In brief, readers must have, minimally, a conscience, in combination with some level of ethical individuation and moral development and awareness that sets the stage for further moral understanding and growth such that these non-philosophical sources can indeed serve as “alert winged creatures.” This does not render the work of philosophers on ethics and moral philosophy irrelevant or redundant, let alone unnecessary; it only means we might recognize philosophy does not have, nor will it ever likely have, at least for most of us, pride of place when it comes to education in moral philosophy and virtuous living (that may seem obvious in many circles, but I think professional philosophers, for the most part, are reluctant to acknowledge this). 

* The six orthodox (āstika) schools of Indic philosophy: (Navya-)Nyāya, Vaiśeika, Sākhya, Yoga, Pūrva Mīmāsā, and Vedānta. The schools are often grouped in pairs, thus: Nyāya and Vaiśeika (Logic and Atomism); (Classical) Yoga and Sākhya (Yoga and Discrimination or Distinctionism); Pūrva Mīmāsā and Uttara Mīmāsā or Vedānta (Prior Exegesis [of the Veda] and Later Exegesis or End of the Veda-s Metaphysics). The so-called nāstika schools (sometimes referred to as the śramaa tradition) include Ājīvika, Jainism, Buddhism, and Lokāyata/Cārvāka. (There are more than a few sub-schools in several of the above as well.)


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