Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Geography of Philosophy

Copyright © 2006 by Joel Marks

The following essay was originally published in two installments in Philosophy Now magazine, issue nos. 41 (“The Geography of Philosophy,” August/September 2004, p. 41) and 42 (“The History of the World, Part 2,” October/November 2004, p. 38).

The typical philosophy curriculum in my country completely ignores non-Western traditions of thought. Apparently the latter are viewed as primarily religious in nature and so not properly philosophical, when in fact the very distinction has little significance in those other traditions. Or perhaps they are simply not considered at all; after all, if the teachers themselves were never exposed to such material in graduate school, they are not likely to incorporate it into the syllabi they devise for their students.

I am fortunate to have had a graduate advisor, Joel Kupperman, who was very much "into" Asian philosophy, and so I came to know a thing or two about it. Ever since, I have made it my business to acquaint my charges, who are mainly at the introductory level, with a true introduction to philosophy -- by not ignoring two thirds of the world's great traditions! For just as "The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality) and so traces back to ancient Greece, there are two other towering traditions that trace back to ancient India and China.

This is the geography of philosophy, if you will. I do not doubt that there have also been native traditions worthy of note in Africa, the Americas, and Australia, but the scope of my own competence is "only" the Eurasian continent (and there too it is perforce spotty, given the enormous extant literatures). It is also a tragic fact of history that those other traditions were suppressed and perhaps decimated by colonialism.

In an attempt to restore some balance to the very conception of philosophy, therefore, I will summarize Western philosophy in twenty-five words or less (as it were), and then provide a longer, but still whirlwind tour of Asian thought. I will also present a number of nonphilosophical factoids to keep the narrative moving along pleasantly. The reader is advised, however, to take everything I say with a grain of salt: This is the World According to Marks. My main intent is to motivate you to explore the philosophy (and history) on your own; it turns out to be quite accessible. Finally I will end on a meet note, in an effort to have the "twain" of East and West meet.

The History of the World, Part 1

East and West have always "met," of course: They are on the same continent, are they not? The very terms are relative. I ask my students (in America): Which direction would you travel to reach the Orient? The correct answer is to stretch out your arms to the sides and point in opposite directions. So why did Asia get pinned with "East" and Europe "West"? (Let us ignore that most of Europe resides in the Eastern Hemisphere!) I presume it had to do with the prevailing trade routes: To get from Europe to Asia, Marco Polo had to go east, and to return home, west. This is also why Asia is the Orient, as oriri is a Latin word meaning "to rise" (old Sol, etc.). (My students are surprised to learn that most of them are Occidentals [from occidere, "to set"].)

The same was true of travel by sea: Vasco da Gama went south around the Cape of Good Hope, but was heading eastward to India. Of course Columbus had another idea: Why not go west to reach the East? He was wrong: Oh yes, the Earth is round -- never any doubt about that -- but it is ever so much larger (or Eurasia ever so much smaller?) than he suspected. To his dying day, Columbus insisted that he had reached India. That is why American cowboys and cavalry were fighting Indians all those years. (We Americans refer to citizens of India as "India Indians.") Columbus had accidentally “discovered” the Occident.

Now for the history of Western philosophy: Ancient, Middle, Modern. Let me amplify! The Ancient period lasted roughly a millennium, from around 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.; Greece and the Mediterranean were the venue. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle constituted its most impressive dynasty, perhaps in all of philosophy, but those who came before and after were hardly mere "preSocratics" and Platonic "footnotes,” respectively! Parmenides, from the pre period, is a particular favorite of mine.

The next millennium is often skipped entirely in introductory philosophy courses, as, again, indecently consorting with religion. Indeed, it used to be called for this reason the "Dark Ages." Probably that was just a lot of (so-called) Renaissance propaganda, trying to stake out its own novelty and superiority to what had transpired just previously. In fact you will find every kind of philosophy during this period, and outstanding thinkers, such as Augustine and Aquinas. Nowadays the era is designated the "Middle Ages" -- a more honorific, if not exactly brilliant appellation -- based on its having existed between now and before!

Finally, we come to the Modern period. It may seem odd to call something five hundred years old "modern," but everything is relative; and there is something to be said for the idea that our way of looking at things today is largely due to preconceptions first conceived by folks such as Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Kant (not to mention Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc. ad inf.). Some people think we have now stepped into a new epoch: the Postmodern. I myself think it's too soon to tell whether the most recent period of philosophy will have lasted only half the millennium of each of the two preceding.

Running parallel to this Western philosophical tradition has been the Western, or Abrahamic (Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed) religious tradition. What's the difference? In keeping with my thumbnail sketch, I will simplistically pronounce that philosophy and religion deal with the same questions -- Where did everything come from? What is the nature of reality? How shall one live? -- but approach them differently: Each religion provides an answer that must be believed, on pain of being deemed irreligious, while each philosophy provides an answer that must be questioned, on pain of being deemed unphilosophical.

So much for the preliminaries. The discussion of Asian philosophies is taken up in earnest in the next section below.

The History of the World, Part 2

An Asian philosopher once explained the layout of Oriental philosophy to me quite succinctly: Chinese philosophy is Far Eastern, Indian is South Asian, and Islamic is Near Eastern. I shall try to expand on that at slightly greater length below, which carries on the project I introduced above of, you might say, orienting Occidentals to Asian traditions of thought that rival our own in pedigree and scope. (I have, however, relegated Islam to the "Western" tradition due to its Abrahamic lineage.) Although not all Westerners are as geographically challenged as one of my college students who asked, "Where's Asia?" -- many Americans, at least, do show amazingly little recognition of the great philosophical traditions of the rest of the world. I'll offer a few tidbits herein that will, I hope, whet the appetite.

Let us begin with Mother India. As far back as Abraham in the "West" (Near East? Middle East?), the rishis meditated in the forests. Their communions with ultimate reality were eventually written down as the Upanishads, the ne plus ultra of the world's metaphysical philosophies. A very accessible translation into English was rendered by Christopher Isherwood and his Hollywood guru, Swami Prabhavananda. (Isherwood was also the author of Berlin Stories, on which the musical Cabaret was based.) The book is short, as are most of the editions of Asian texts I will recommend for the novice; and all of them, in one version or another, can be found in any half-decent bookstore and on the Internet. Thus, a person can establish his or her first familiarity with the essential Eastern corpus in a few evenings or in a weekend.

The tradition of India is also known as Hinduism (both names from the same root, referring to the Indus river valley where this civilization began). Midway in its history was born a prince, Siddhartha Gautama. The story of how he became the Enlightened One -- the Buddha -- is one of the world's treasures. (A depiction is contained within Bertolucci's charming 1993 film, Little Buddha.) His function as a reformer and then a founder is reminiscent of Jesus, whose anointment as the Christ would come half a millennium later. Both were princes of peace. However, the Buddha is not God, or a god, or a prophet of God, or an oracle of a god. He is, perhaps, a psychologist! I recommend Irving Babbitt's translation of the Dhammapada.

In India, Hinduism eventually embraced Buddhism (as it does all things), and the result was the Bhagavad Gita. Considered a kind of Hindu Bible, it is, again, quite short, and the Isherwood and Prabhavananda version is fine. The text is actually an excerpt from the Mahabharata, the world's longest epic poem, full of gods and heroes and great battles. Interestingly, its philosophical nugget, the Gita, was an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi's epochal campaign of nonviolent action, by which he accomplished what George Washington had required the spilling of blood to do. Gandhi's deeds and thoughts in turn inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement in the U.S., and both Gandhi's and King's successes were models for Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland, whose achievements eventually led to the end of the Cold War.

Returning to ancient times: China gave rise to two great schools of thought, Taoism (or “Dowism”) and Confucianism. Their seminal (and short!) works -- the Tao Te Ching (also called the Lao Tzu, after its purported author, a near contemporary of Confucius or “K'ung-Fu-Tzu,” who was himself a contemporary of the Buddha) and the Confucian Analects -- are a study in contrast: the one mystical and paradoxical, the other straightforward and conventional. Both pay heed to the still earlier tradition of yin/yang: the harmony of opposites. These two "opposites" (Taoism and Confucianism) themselves harmonized (this being an Asian trait, it seems, as witness also Hinduism and Buddhism, and contrasting to the bloody relations among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their relations with the others), although Confucianism became the titular creed of the Chinese civil service for over two millennia, until Mao.

Meanwhile, Buddhism had spread eastward out of India. This fact became very belatedly known to Americans of my generation when we saw images on television of Buddhist monks and nuns in Vietnam immolating themselves to protest repression. This made a lasting impression of the power of meditative self-control (or selfless nonattachment, as the case may be).

A very different face is presented by the Ch'an philosophy of China, which resulted from the blending of Buddhism with the indigenous Taoism of such carefree sages as Chuang Tzu. Thus, Ch'an is a kind of culmination of the two great traditions of India and China. Ch'an continued the eastward migration of Buddhism, to Japan, where it became Zen -- as distinctive and delightful a philosophy as the world has known. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a nonpareil collection of stories and wisdom, compiled by Paul Reps.

But the eastward journey of Buddhism was still not over: In a kind of reverse-Columbus, it struck out towards the rising sun to reach the West (perhaps abetted by the American occupation of Japan after World War II). For in the 1950s on the shores of America there appeared the Beat Generation, whose main figures, such as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, were heavily influenced by Zen. Kerouac's novel about "dharma bums" -- On the Road -- also became the defining metaphor of the hippies of the following decade, eponymously known (with affection by some) as the Sixties.

To conclude this wild road trip of my own, I note that the beat-niks were Buddhists and the Beat-les were Hindus (courtesy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). Thus, from island nations on either side of Eurasia, Asian philosophies migrated to the U.S., where they helped to create the current generation of my students, who have never heard of any of this stuff (except the Beatles).