Philosophy on the Edge

I’ll attend the Pacific division meeting of the American Philosophical Association later this week in San Francisco. Even though it’s only a division meeting (not national), it’s a massive event nonetheless. There are a few panels I’m very excited about, including one with Al Lingis and Tony Steinbock, focusing on Steinbock’s recent book, Moral Emotions, which is something like a sequel to his Phenomenology and Mysticism.

I’ll be presenting Friday evening in a panel about philosophy on the edge. Preview: I’ll say something about how coexistence in the Anthropocene is without center or edge. With the ongoing and inevitable erosion of anthropocentric subjectivity, countless beings are crowding into center stage. Everything is a center, being centered amidst multiplicities of centers with a circumference that is nowhere; but this could also be formulated by saying that everything is not a center, being on edge in a world whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. In some sense everything is both a center and an edge, but in another sense, everything is neither a center nor an edge. What this means it that coexistence in the planetary era is fundamentally ironic, ambiguous, and uncertain. My main point will be that this situation does not just call for humans to give up anthropocentrism. It calls for philosophers to give up philosophy, to give up the power of philosophy so that philosophy might become possible again, and still for the first time. Giving up power is about becoming vulnerable to intimate encounters outside of philosophy and outside of the occidental context of philosophy.

I’m thinking with Foucault here, specifically this remark he made in an interview during a stay at a Zen temple in Japan in 1978. “The crisis of Western thought is identical to the end of imperialism,” which is also “the end of the era of Western philoso­phy. Thus, if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts be­tween Europe and non-Europe.” Adding some specificity to his comments, I want to make a couple of small incisions to open up some possibilities for a philosophy of the future. The incisions use the cutting edges of deconstruction and Buddhism, that is, the blades of the mohel and manjushri. There are a few different lines of thought to bring together here, at least three, including Keiji Nishitani’s work on the encounter between nihilism and emptiness (shunyata), the work of Robert Magliola, Jin Park, and others facilitating an encounter between Derrida and Nagarjuna, and Tim Morton’s invocations of Derrida and Nagarjuna in his dark ecology. The point is not to help solve any problems with some Buddhodeconstructive tag team. The point is to become vulnerable, weak and powerless. The point of the blades of the mohel and manjushri is this: surrender.

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Deconstruction and Buddhism: The Mohel and Manjusri

Although I’m not a specialist in Buddhist studies, Buddhist discourses and practices are definitely included among my general research interests.  One of the things I’ve been following for years now is the developing relationship between Buddhism and deconstruction (specifically Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction).  The groundbreaking work to forge that relationship came in 1984 with the publication of Derrida on the Mend, by Robert Magliola.  For Magliola, the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is staged through a comparative analysis that shows a lot of affinities between Derrida and Nagarjuna (a “founder” of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, the path of the middle way).  Subsequently, Magliola’s work has been a key reference point for further discussion.

Along with Magliola’s text, another important resource is Harold Coward’s Derrida and Indian Philosophy (1990), which situates Magliola’s Derrida-Nagarjuna comparison within the broader context of Indian philosophies.  Coward focuses too much on speech (a typical problem for deconstructionists), but there are some good chapters connecting Derrida not only with Nagarjuna but also with nondual Vedanta of Shankara and the evolutionary spirituality of Aurobindo.

It is interesting to note that Magliola and Coward published their works before Derrida’s ethico-religious turn (before the messianic without a messianism, before the apocalypse sans apocalypse, before his allusive piece on religion for a conference on the island of Capri, before the regular reiteration of tout autre est tout autre).  The writings from the last decade of Derrida’s life are much closer to Judaism than Buddhism, making him look more like a “young Jewish saint” (Cixous) than Nagarjuna, or in other terms, more like a mohel than Manjusri.  This doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to say about Buddhism and deconstruction.  Quite the opposite.  Derrida’s religiously oriented writings provide even more points of Buddhodeconstructive contact.  Along those lines, one of my ‘forthcoming’ books is titled The Mohel and Manjusri.

Much has been written in this century on Buddhism and deconstruction.  Some of it still stays with language and semiotics, as in Youxuan Wang, Buddhism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Semiotics (2001).  Other works focus more on ethics and religion, like the essays in Deconstruction and the Ethical in Asian Thought, edited by Youru Wang (2007).  That anthology includes discussions of Derridean and Levinasian ethics in relation to ethics in Buddhism and other Asian religious traditions.

Another notable anthology that highlights ethico-religious dimensions of the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is Buddhisms and Deconstructions, edited by Jin Y. Park (2006).  That book includes an afterword by Magliola, reflecting on how the dialogue between Buddhism and deconstruction has developed in the decades since his groundbreaking work on the topic.  Park has subsequently become the most prolific and influential writer on this topic, with the wide reception of Buddhisms and Deconstructions along with her articulation of a Buddhist postmodern ethics in Buddhism and Postmodernity (2008).  As the latter title indicates, Park is extending the discussion beyond Buddhist connections to Derrida/deconstruction to the wider field of Buddhist connections to postmodern philosophy.  This extension is further evident in her work with Gereon Kopf editing the anthology, Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism (2009).

In close proximity to this whole discussion of Buddhism and deconstruction is the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy, which brought continental philosophy into contact with Buddhism starting in the early twentieth century with Kitaro Nishida.  My own thinking has been deeply influenced by the Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who studied under Heidegger for a short time before completing his PhD at Kyoto University (his dissertation is on Bergson and Schelling).  I’m far from catching up on recent research regarding the Kyoto school, but I’m looking forward to checking out the anthology Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conservations with the Kyoto School (2011), edited by Bret Davis, Brian Schroeder, and Jason Wirth.  Quot libros quam breve tempus!

Speciesism and Philosophical Botany

I’m participating in a couple of events in March.  First, I’m a panelist in a session on “Religion and Culture: How Self-Perceptions and Scientific Literacy Influence Political Views,” which is part of an ongoing seminar, Speciesism and the Future of Humanity: Biology, Culture, Sociopolitics, taking place at the University of California, Berkeley.  The specific time isn’t listed on their site yet, but my session is March 14, 5-7pm in Boalt Hall room 132 South Addition. 

I’ll be responding to a couple presentations on the roles of religion as it relates to conservation, sustainability, and the sociology/politics that surround our solutions to major environmental problems, particularly in light of questions regarding how or if Western religion promotes the belief that humans are different, or potentially better than, other organisms in the planet.

A couple weeks later, I’m presenting a paper on philosophical botany at the American Philosophical Association’s pacific division annual meeting, which will be held in the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco’s Union Square.  I’ll be speaking on Friday the 29th in the evening, but the whole event runs from March 27-31. 

I’ll be speaking about a comparative philosophical botany, touching on indigenous, Hindu, and Buddhist perspectives on plants along with some occidental philosophy (especially Aristotle and Theophrastus).  I’m following Matthew Hall pretty closely, whose work on philosophical botany takes its cue from the ecofeminist philosophy of Val Plumwood and from a multicultural comparative orientation.  I like Michael Marder’s work on plant-thinking, but I probably won’t engage much of it in this talk.  His focus is on hermeneutic phenomenology, deconstruction, and weak thought, which have plenty of internal critiques of the anthropocentrism and zoocentrism of occidental philosophy, but he doesn’t touch on external critiques from non-Western traditions (aside from acknowledging the importance of those critiques).

Growth suspended in ecstasy, the ideal flowering for you. 
The plant will have nourished the mind which contemplates the blooming of its flower. […]
Untouchable because it does not touch itself in its centre.  Only its edges will lightly touch — there where already it is no longer held in that suspended becoming — the interruption of its unfurling.
—Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions.