Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reinventing The Wheel

I did manage to get a fair amount of reading done over the holiday weekend, and not of the study hall kind - a friend gave me Les Trois Mousquetaires a while ago, and I took the opportunity of last week's spaciousness to really immerse myself in that. I also read the recent New Yorker that featured a long profile of an English thinker called Derek Parfit "thought by many to be the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world", as the article dubs him.
The article starts with some philosophical questions about the nature of self - I am chagrined that I cannot link to this, as things being what they are these day, you have to subscribe to read the whole thing, and linking to the abstract is not worth the effort - and draws the conclusion that "the self, it seems, is not all or nothing but the sort of thing that there can be more or less of".
At which point I, as I suspect some of you might, rolled my eyes and wondered where the orginality lay.  The author continues, "Parfit's view resembles the Buddhist view of the self, a fact that was pointed out to him years ago by a professor of Oriental religions. Parfit was delighted by this discovery"; the tone of the article seemed to suggest that this was just validation of how brilliant he was to have thought of it, which led me to that uneasy feeling I often get reading about Western thinking that, to paraphrase the blunt words I heard someone use about another 'original thinker', here's another white guy thinking he is at the pinnacle of evolution.
For me, part of the consolation of philosophy, when it comes to Buddhist thought, is that people have been struggling with the same concepts of what it means to be human ever since there was enough leisure time to devote to thinking, and for the most part, the ideas that were first circulated about 2,500 years ago are still relevant and have not been improved upon (though I could charitably concede that Buddha always urged people to find this out for themselves).  Bernd gave a talk here last night on the self that ably covered much of the same ground, without any of the fanfare.
From reading the article it is clear that Derek Parfit has quite a distinctive mental framework, but I could only sigh again at the end when the author mentions that Parfit is currently grappling with ideas around time, and wonder if anyone has suggested that he save himself the trouble, and just read Dogen's 'Uji'.


Mike said...

Ah yes, this made me smile..... Did you see Brad's post about George Carlin and Louis CK....connections?

alan sailer said...

I also read that article by Parfit and thought it was interesting.

Although most of what I have tried to read of philosophy goes right over my head.

I was fairly dismayed by your tone regarding Buddhist thought vs Western thought. Your attitude seems to me to be somewhat condescending.

Understanding of the nature of self and time just doesn't happen by reading Dogan do they?

As I understand it, you gotta spend a lot of time facing a wall to figure some of this stuff out.

The fact that Parfit is coming to some of the same conclusions as Dogan by just thinking is, to me, damn impressive.

I think that David Foster Wallace is another guy who figured out some pretty fundamental Buddhist principles from an entirely intellectual direction.


Shundo said...

Hi Alan, Thank you for your comment. It's true that there is a big difference between reading this stuff, understanding it and actualizing it. My experience of sitting is that the brain isn't the most important element in this discovery, and my opinion is that Western thinking is predicated on trying to wring truth out intellectually. I think what comes up for me right now is the implicit irony of saying: oh, I have understood the empty nature of self, aren't I clever?

alan sailer said...


Fair enough.

I don't know the attribution of this paraphrased quote, but here it goes :

"If a fool persists in his folly long enough, even he can reach understanding"

My life story :-)


Shundo said...

Thanks Alan, that's a nice quote.

LWA said...

I also found it delightful that Parfit enjoyed discovering the resonance between his work and Buddhism.