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We can view philosophy through various lenses.

One way sees philosophy as a process of construction and destruction.

A philosopher constructs an incredible system of thought that transforms the way we understand reality. For instance, Rene Descartes constructed such a system. At his start point, he discarded any assumptions about the world and reality. Then, as he proceeded in his Meditations on First Philosophy he rebuilt our knowledge on the world with what he believed to be certain premises and inferences. If it were successful, it would have been a monumental achievement; he would have shown that, without unjustly assuming anything, we can be certain that the world, God, and myself exist.

But then comes the critical dialectic.

The second stage after the construction. Usually within two decades, throughout the history of philosophy, a critic comes to kick at the foundations of the constructed system. Although not his contemporary, David Hume eventually showed that one of Descartes’ initial and seemingly most concrete claims that “I am” did not follow his observation that “I think”.

This occurrence has been consistent throughout much of the history of philosophy. In India, Abhidharma Buddhists spent years as system constructers. They argued the most fundamental, truly existent, entities are dharmas. A vast corpus was written to catalogue how these dharmas persist over time, how they constitute larger objects such as chariots, and whether within them was any essential essence. The details of these investigations are not important for the present purposes, what matters is that the Abidharmists, like Descartes and other constructers, believed the fundamental features of reality could be understood through the system of thought they created.

Predictably, the critical dialectic emerged in response. Nagarjuna and the school that subscribed to his thought, the Madhyamikas, came to criticise everything Abhidharma constructed and taken for granted. The Abhidharmists, the Madhyamikas argued, would never find the fundamental features of reality because there is no fundamental reality. The arguments and justifications here are lengthy and complex, what matters is that it seems the Madhyamikas were victorious. Their “greater vehicle” (literal translation of Mahāyāna) gained the upper hand and the majority of Buddhists today are not Abhidharmists.

One of Nāgārjuna’s central claims was that there is no essential nature (svabhaba) to any part of reality. Svabhaba is a Sanskrit term which has a variety of meanings that are not quite captured by essential nature. But, even using a rudimentary understanding of the word, we can see that nothing having an essential nature seems to imply that everything has an essential nature, at least if we can use negative predicates. The essential nature of all things, it seems, are that they lack essential nature. A paradox ensues here and plenty of ink has been spilled about the issue. What is worth nothing, though, is that the Madhyamikas, despite their claims to the contrary, appeared to have advanced a thesis with their criticisms and thus had themselves constructed a rudimentary system.[1]

I say all of this to frame my reflections on my own life.

I get frustrated with many things about the world, as I’m sure you, the reader, does too. I get frustrated and angry about police brutality, about treatment of trans people, about the religion I love’s treatment of Muslims, and about my own inability to be the person that my friends and family deserve.[2]

One thing that frustrates me are the walls constructed in philosophy. The University of St Andrews philosophy department currently teaches only one module on continental philosophy (an inaccurate but helpfully brief definition: philosophy from the French and German world after the 1920s), next to no philosophy from the non-western tradition, and there are no modules which focus on philosophy that emerged outside of Europe, North America or the Antipode. By now there are plenty of papers which criticise this tendency; I take the conclusion to be that there are differences in focus in differing traditions of philosophy but most philosophers would get far closer to the truth of whatever they are investigating if they didn’t only engage with philosophers who are from a certain part of the world and who speak their preferred language. But still, philosophy is thoroughly Eurocentric and divided, and for the most part that is not changing.

In the third episode of Season 6 of Bojack Horseman entitled Feel-Good Story. Journalist Diane Nguyen and her partner and cameraman Guy spend much of the episode exposing the cruel workings of a large corporation named White Whale. They show how the White Whale corporation murders employees who try to expose exploitative workers’ conditions. In response, Jeremiah Whitewhale, the head of Whitewhale corporation, calls Diane and Guy to his office. Although scared, they decide to go. You would initially think White Whale is trying to stop Diane and Guy’s reporting, so as to stifle their story. But what ensues is even more disempowering. During the meeting, Jeremiah Whitewhale explains that when investors see that the Whitewhale corporation does is unphased by moral and legal limiting factors to business, stock prices go up. The message is easy to understand; nobody cares about your criticism, about whatever you’re trying to deconstruct. Whether you stay silent or speak up, nothing you can do will make any difference.

In the same episode of Bojack Horseman, Guy accuses Diane of having an “ideological objection to feeling good”. She knows what would be best for her happiness; she should move from Los Angeles to Chicago and move in with Guy. But her relations with others and her feelings about the way the world should be keep her from doing so. Diane’s mental health deteriorates throughout the series, and for a while she has an answer; she must write a book. It will be a book on her reflections life experiences as a Vietnamese-American woman.[3] Dian knows the criticism in her book won’t make a difference to how society is run, and it won’t take down the Whitewhale Corporation, but through constructing something she might at least contribute toward her own happiness and the happiness of other a limited group who read it. Perhaps happiness is the wrong word. It might help them cope.

Criticism of how things are run is all very well and good, and quite often is correct, but nevertheless things don’t change.

Despite the philosophical success of criticisms of system building, we still need to construct, even if that’s only for our own sakes.

The projects I have constructed recently are the Buddhist Philosophy Podcast, and a paper entitled Meaning in Gibberish. Each project is extremely critical of status quo philosophy and aims to deconstruct it. But, as my opening statements suggested, I believe that one can never deconstruct without at least creating, or assuming, something. In that sense, both projects are processes of construction. Everything we construct, I believe, will lead to a project later which shows its own misapprehensions and misgivings. Sometimes I worry about this, but perhaps it is the natural process. For better or for worse, I want to create.

[1] This is a disputed reading of Madhyamika. Nāgārjuna himself claimed to have “no thesis” See Jan Westerhoff The Golden Age of Buddhist Philosophy (2018): 128-9. At: https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780198732662.001.0001/oso-9780198732662

[2] "The religion I love" is a reference to Buddhism. For Buddhism and Rohyingya Muslims, see: https://www.lionsroar.com/what-does-buddhism-have-to-do-with-the-ethnic-cleansing-in-myanmar/

[3] Disappointingly, the character was played by a white woman.

Tom Burdge

Founder, Researcher and Podcast Host, buddhistphilosophy.co.uk

I am the founder of buddhistphilosophy.co.uk where I currently host podcasts with expert guests in Buddhist philosophical practice and theory. With this project, I am to contribute toward correcting the entrenched Eurocentric bias in philosophy by creating an inclusive space for learning about Buddhist philosophy. As a Laidlaw Scholar, I have researched on researched philosophy of time, Buddhist philosophy, and philosophy of language. My research output includes a paper entitled Meaning in Gibberish (forthcoming in Aporia). I have presented this paper and discussed related issues in talks and workshops at the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh. Language learning holds a high in priority in my studies and research. I have studied some Pali (OCBS levels 1 and 2) and I read French fluently. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any interest in the following: Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy, Ambedkar studies, women and Buddhist philosophy, cross-cultural philosophy, critical theory, French philosophy, Laruelle’s non-philosophy, non-Buddhism, philosophy of nonsense, philosophy of death.

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