Saturday 1 May 2004

Dukkha, Inaction and Nirvana (2004)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXII No. 1 Spring 2004

A Look at Nietzsche's Critique of Buddhist Philosophies
By Omar Moad

Comparisons between Buddhism and the various schools of existentialism have revealed a number of parallels. Such studies have frequently centered on each tradition's metaphysical approach and the fact that they all appear to share some form of phenomenological methodology. In the area of ethics, however, existentialism and Buddhism generally seem to differ radically. This difference is the most marked in the case of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche is interpreted nowadays as having been a major pioneer of existentialism in the western world, and certainly deals with many of the same problems and even takes positions similar to those that emerge in Buddhist philosophy. In places, however, he explicitly attacks the Buddhist ethical prescription as diametrically opposed to his own doctrine of life-affirmation. For Nietzsche was not uninformed when it came to Buddhism. Some scholars claim that he was 'probably one of the best read and most solidly grounded in Buddhism for his time among Europeans'. Be that as it may, when philosophers juxtapose their own views against others, it becomes imperative to determine to what extent they understand and accurately depict the ideas they are attacking.

When it comes to Nietzsche's criticisms of Buddhism, such an investigation uncovers what seems to be a misunderstanding of the real meaning of Buddhist doctrine; and one not limited to Nietzsche alone, but common to much of the lay-level understanding of this religion in the West. My goals here, then, will be to address this misunderstanding by examining three important Buddhist concepts at its center: dukkha, inaction, and Nirvana. By focusing on the meaning of these concepts for Buddhists, I do not hope to reconcile Nietzsche with Buddhism in any way, but only to identify a few areas wherein his understanding of it was misconceived. Furthermore, by selecting these three areas for analysis, I do not mean to preclude that there are other important elements of Buddhism that need analysis in light of Nietzsche's critiques.

At the end, I hope it will be seen that the possibilities for comparative study between these two philosophies are rich and numerous, even if the present project is meant only as a beginning look into the relationship between them with a view to a clearer understanding of the Buddhist concepts in question. The first step necessary to this analysis will be to briefly outline an important position that is shared by Nietzschean and Buddhist doctrine. Next, I will present Nietzsche's criticism of the Buddhist response to this position, his description of this response and how it differs from his own. Lastly, I will examine the concepts of dukkha, inaction, and Nirvana and show how Nietzsche's understanding of these concepts plays a part in his misconception of Buddhism.

An interesting thing about the comparison between Nietzsche and the Buddha, as just alluded to, is that they begin from a common notion about the nature of the world and the human condition. These commonalities have to do with their epistemological views and their nihilistic attitudes toward metaphysical issues.

A dialogue in the Sutta-Nipata presents the Buddha responding as follows to an enquiry on competing metaphysical theories. 'Apart from consciousness', he says, 'no divers truths exist. Mere sophistry declares this 'true' and that view 'false'.' A similar notion appears in Nietzsche's Will to Power.
'Judging is our oldest faith; it is our habit of believing this to be true or false, of asserting or denying, our certainty that something is thus and not otherwise, our belief that we really 'know' what is believed to be true in all judgments?' 
 The products of this 'habit of believing', for both Buddha and Nietzsche, include substance, self, universals, and duration. Both philosophers radically deny the reality of these things in favor of a dynamic, interdependent stream of phenomenon that lacks any objective basis whatsoever. Instead, underneath our perceptions there is only what the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna called sunyata, and what Nietzsche referred to as the 'abyss', a void beyond the categories of being and nothing, true and false.

This 'emptiness'is the human condition to which both Buddhism and Nietzsche respond. The subtleties and complexities of this view in both philosophies run deep enough to write volumes about, and the focus of this study is limited to the controversy over their respective responses; the answer to the question of appropriate praxis in the face of such an existence. The Buddha is said to have become aware of the fleeting, temporal nature of reality through his first encounters with a sick man, an old man, and a dead man. Nietzsche refers to what he interprets as the Buddha's reaction in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
'There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and to long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins! They encounter a sick man or an old man or a corpse and immediately they say, "Life is refuted". But only they themselves are refuted, and their eyes, which see only this one face of existence.' 
Nietzsche criticized Buddhism for many of the same faults he attributed to Christianity, though he showed more respect for the former as being more realistic and opposed to revenge (he believed Christianity was a manifestation of latent resentment). He praised Buddhism for setting out to treat 'suffering'as opposed to 'sin', but believed the treatment itself represented a surrender of life, and ultimately a weaker response to the human condition than his own. In the following passage from Beyond Good and Evil, he contrasts his interpretation of Buddhism (along with Schopenhauer, a major contributor to this interpretation) with a general sketch of his own ideal response:
'Whoever has endeavored with some enigmatic longing, as I have, to think pessimism through to its depths and liberate it from the half-Christian, half-German narrowness and simplicity in which it has finally presented itself to our century, namely, in the form of Schopenhauer's philosophy; whoever has really, with an Asiatic and supra-Asiatic eye, looked into, down into the most world-denying of all possible ways of thinking - beyond good and evil and no longer, like the Buddha and Schopenhauer, under the spell and delusion of morality - may just thereby, without really meaning to do so, have opened his eyes to the opposite ideal: the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity...' 
These passages illustrate Nietzsche's interpretation of Buddhism as a life-negating philosophy that seeks to escape an existence dominated by suffering. In The Gay Science and Will to Power, Nietzsche comments on Buddhism further, characterising it as an effort to withdraw from pain into an 'Oriental Nothing - called Nirvana', by way of following the maxim 'One must not act'. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche categorizes Buddhism as one among a group of ideologies that promote '...nihilistic turning away from life, a longing for nothingness, or for life's 'opposite', for a different sort of 'being'' According to Nietzsche, Buddhism can be described as an effort, through restraint from action, to escape suffering and pass into absolute non-existence. But is this description accurate?

Dukkha is the Sanskrit word commonly translated as 'suffering'. Its full meaning, however, is much more extensive, and this has important implications for the interpretation of Buddhist doctrine, because it is an integral constituent in the articulation of the fundamental Buddhist doctrine, the Four Noble Truths, as expressed in the Vinayapitaka:
'And this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, and old age is dukkha, and disease is dukkha, and dying is dukkha, association from what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what you want is dukkha - in short, the five aggregates of grasping are dukkha.' 
Understood simply as 'suffering', the word dukkha in this central Buddhist passage expresses only simple pessimism. The common translation of dukkha as suffering has quite likely been the cause of a great deal of misunderstanding on the part of the non-Buddhist world. In fact, 'dukkha'comes in three flavors. The first is dukkha-dukkhata, suffering qua suffering in its direct physical and mental manifestations. The second is vapirinama-dukkha, or suffering through transformation. This refers to the awareness that one's happiness is highly contingent and dependent on factors beyond one's control. Though you may be happy now, it could change at any moment, and this is due to the ungrounded and fluctuating nature of existence itself.

The most important type of dukkha, however, is sankhara-dukkha, an existential incompleteness due to spiritual ignorance. This incompleteness arises from being limited to one's own contingent and unenlightened perspective. Panna is the word used to refer to the transcendental consciousness of those who have attained enlightenment and are thereby free from sankhara-dukkha and existentially complete. For those who have attained Panna, even the most blissful existence as a deva in one of the Buddhist Heavens would seem to be a miserable Hell. This is because any of these existences of a relative nature (more or less blissful, painful, etc.) are only results of the spiritual ignorance that results in sankhara-dukkha.

Interpreted in this way, it is easy to begin to see how the statement of the First Noble Truth takes on a much deeper meaning than was assumed by Nietzsche. Not only are birth, death, and disease painful, they are products of spiritual ignorance. To say that they are 'dukkha'implies that they are, as co-dependently arising oppositions, ultimately unreal. It is not, therefore, merely pain that the Buddhist wants to overcome, but the perspective within which these illusions (as well as their happy counterparts) are taken to be real. Perhaps the most compelling evidence that the primary motivation behind Buddhism is not simply suffering qua suffering is the fact that out of the 121 classes of conscious experience listed in Buddhist psychology, only three have to do with pain, while 63 are joyful. Both the joyful and the painful, however, are considered sankhara-dukkha - products of spiritual ignorance.

Kamma-niradha is the Sanskrit word for 'cessation of action'. This state is achieved through adherence to the eight-fold path, which guides the Buddhist into kusula, or 'skillful action'. Therefore, it is not simply ceasing to perform actions that the Buddhist believes will eventually lead one to his or her goal. Rather, the type of actions that are performed is the deciding factor. Likewise, it is wrong to conclude that just because one has attained Nirvana that one ceases to act. Such a conclusion implies a misconceived interpretation of kamma-niradha, as it is understood in Buddhism. This is the misconception Nietzsche seems to have made in characterising Buddhism as being centered on the guideline not to act. That such an interpretation is indeed misconceived is apparent when we consider the life and words of the Buddha. After attaining enlightenment and Nirvana, he continued to lead an active life for the next forty-five years. Again, it is the nature of the action that differentiates the enlightened, described in the following passage from the Vinayapatika:
'I, monks, am freed from all snares, both those of devas and those of men. And you, monks, are freed from all snares, both those of devas and those of men. Go, monks, and wander for the blessing of the manyfolk, for the happiness of the manyfolk out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the blessing, the happiness of devas and men. Let not two (of you) go by one (way). Monks, teach the Dhamma which is lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the end.' 
As this passage illustrates, there are certain kinds of actions that are enjoined on the enlightened. However, it is inaccurate to use the word 'enjoined'in this context because the skillful actions are naturally done by the enlightened Buddhist, and are no longer performed as if they are obligations in a code of behavior. Following the Buddhist 'code', the eightfold path, is merely a means to the end of making it obsolete upon enlightenment. This is because of the way 'skillful action' is defined in Buddhism. The action that ceases is not activity in general, but only the unskillful actions that originate in spiritual ignorance. An action originates in spiritual ignorance when it is affected by one of three biases. These biases are sense desire, desire for some future form of existence, and spiritual ignorance. Buddhism further classifies actions into three categories. Wrong actions run counter to the goal of enlightenment and are driven by one or more of the biases. Of right actions there are those that tend toward enlightenment but are still driven by one the biases and those that are completely free of the biases and based on the correct understanding of the enlightened agent.

Examples of the former are actions performed by aspiring Buddhists who have not yet attained enlightenment and behave according to the Buddhist guidelines because they are enjoined on them by the religion itself. Upon enlightenment, the cessation of action that takes place is a cessation of the actions that are driven by the biases and, hence, unenlightened.

By interpreting the Buddhist conception of inaction as a cessation of all action, Nietzsche presented Buddhism as an escapist, and 'weary' ideology. Rightly understood, however, the Buddhist ideal of kamma-niradha actually comes closer to Nietzsche's ideal - being, in his own words, action that is 'beyond good and evil', or outside the moral categories of a dogma. Now that it has become clearer that Buddhism does not involve a retreat simply from pain, and that it does not prescribe complete inertness, we must ask ourselves about the goal toward which its genuine recommendations are directed. The most crucial point of contention over Nietzsche's criticisms of Buddhism might be the question: is Nirvana really an 'Oriental Nothing?'Do Buddhists really seek, by developing panna and performing kamma-niradha, to exterminate themselves beyond the possibility of re-birth?
'Since a Tathagata, even when actually present, is incomprehensible, it is inept to say of him - of the Uttermost Person, the Supernal Person, the Attainer of the Supernal - that after dying the Tathagata is, or is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not...' (Majjhima-Nikaya)
It is hard to imagine that Nietzsche misinterpreted the concept of Buddhist Nirvana completely inadvertently, given the sheer amount of Theravada literature that exists on the topic. In so many passages, the texts insist that Nirvana transcends the difference between the four sets of categories given above (being, non-being, both, and neither), and that it is therefore inaccurate to say of Nirvana that it is nothingness - and just as inaccurate to conclude that it must be something. Nirvana is postulated as a state quite beyond the realm of reason and language. In the Suttanipata, the Buddha explains:
''There is no measuring of one who has gone to his setting, Upasiva,' said the Blessed One. 'That no longer exists for him by which people might refer to him. When all conditions [dhammas] are removed, then all ways of telling are also removed.' 
All points of reference by which one makes descriptions and explanations are products of the unenlightened perspective. Nirvana, since it is beyond this perspective, is beyond description by way of these relative concepts and categories. It can only be understood by way of attainment ? of losing spiritual ignorance in exchange for enlightened understanding. That, according to Buddhism, is why it is so problematic to give an explanation for it. The Buddha replies to the bewilderment expressed by a disciple, Vacchagotta:
'It is enough to cause you bewilderment, Vaccha, enough to cause you confusion. For this truth, Vaccha, is deep, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. It is hard for you to understand when you hold to another view, accept another teaching, approve another teaching, pursue a different training, and follow a different teacher.' 
Admittedly, having not attained the state of enlightenment described by the Buddhists, I find it perplexing to conceive of. It appears that in order to understand the concept one must transcend rationality itself and operate on some plane completely outside of anything we can imagine. In other words, only the enlightened can understand the goal they have achieved (at which point it ceases to be anything like a 'goal'). 
Though only a fool denies the reality of a thing based solely on the fact that one has not yet experienced it, it is quite understandable that in so many cases a concept that requires such direct experience should be completely misunderstood by those who have lack the experience. In such a case, one unenlightened onlooker has really no point of reference by which to test the accuracy of another unenlightened explanation. Indeed, it appears that any words used to explain Nirvana, according to the Buddhist postulations, would be horrendous mistakes. And so it is with this in mind that we should examine a statement by Schopenhauer (in The World as Will and Idea), who was a major influence on Nietzsche, regarding the subject.
'We must banish the dark impression of that nothingness which we discern behind all virtue and holiness as their final goal, and which we fear as children fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the Indians, through myths and meaningless words, such as reabsorption in Brahma, or the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Rather, do we freely acknowledge that what remains after the abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky ways - is nothing.' 
Obviously, Schopenhauer, after being so influenced by Hindu and Buddhist ideas about the effect that desire and will has on binding us to continued existence, completely dismissed the perplexing descriptions of Nirvana as 'meaningless words'. Unable to conceive of a state beyond the categories of being and non-being, he concluded that the final state that is entered into after dissolution of the will is complete non-existence. Hence, his diagnosis that the philosophers who postulated inconceivable states were merely 'evading'the nothingness that they feared. Diagnoses of 'psychological dishonesty'such as this became, in some form or other, staples of later existentialist thinkers. Nietzsche, of course, made similar attacks against Christianity as well as Buddhism.

The fact is, Nirvana can only be explained to the 'unenlightened' by negation. The Buddhist texts tell us what it cannot be thought of as, but the only positive descriptions of it tend toward non-existence. An example of this is the simile of the fire that the Buddha uses in his dialogue with Vacchagotama. He asks whether the fire, when it is extinguished, can be said to have gone north, south, east, or west. Of course, the obvious answer is that the fire no longer exists. Nirvana, however, cannot be described as existing, not existing, both existing and not, or neither existing nor not. For Buddhism, even nothingness is constituted by the relative contingencies that arise co-dependently as samsara.

For Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, nothingness is what is left when these illusions are removed. This explains their sharply opposed responses to the human condition as they understand it. Schopenhauer and, according to Nietzsche, Buddhism, prescribe a surrender into nothingness that can only be actualized by extinction of the will. Nietzsche, on the other hand, asserts an affirmation of the illusion by becoming the creator of it. His ├╝berman, by accepting the groundlessness of his own 'truths'and yet maintaining them and continually creating them - wanting to create them over and over again (as opposed to wanting to escape the cycle) - represents an ideal response to existence.

So both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer greatly misunderstood Buddhism,by interpreting Nirvana as non-existence. The Buddhist response to them both would be that they failed to understand the system fully because they failed to adopt Buddhist practices aimed at enlightenment - at which point they would have developed the capacity to conceive of Nirvana. 'Sire, Nirvana is', says the Buddhist disciple, Nagasena, 'cognizable by mind: an aryan disciple, faring along with a mind that is purified, lofty, straight, without obstructions, without temporal desires, sees Nirvana.'

Address for correspondence:

Omar Edward Moad, 
University of Missouri-Columbia

The Moral Regard for Others (2004)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXII No. 1 Spring 2004

By Ana Lita

In her essay, "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited," Iris Murdoch explains how it is that great art fosters aesthetic sensibility by revealing the world as it truly is.
"Of course great artists are 'personalities' and have special styles ... But the greatest art is 'impersonal' because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all."*
Iris Murdoch's creative new approach to ethics restores its link to aesthetics and arose from her dissatisfaction with previous developments (liberalism, romanticism, existentialism and linguistic empiricism) in the concept of the moral self which lacked, she felt, an adequate account of regard for others. She wishes to renew our sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life in dealing with particular persons. And to achieve this regard the moral self must perform an imaginative construal of the particular goodness and/or their suffering. Attentiveness to as well as acceptance of people in their particularity defines love.

Hence, love is a sensibility to others, which can best be explained, she argues, in terms of a close analogy between aesthetic perception and a morally adequate perception. Such a regard is not respect for a universal humanity in each person as Kant thought. But Iris Murdoch does reinterpret Kant's concepts of the beautiful and the sublime in an attempt to clarify the notion of "seeing" others in a morally suitable way.

Aesthetic perception involves sensitivity to beauty, both natural and moral, during contemplation of a particular object (thing, event, and other persons) as a unique whole. The object rises in sharp relief from the rest of the world and we appreciate it for its own sake. The object being contemplated (the thing of beauty) becomes - for the time being - our entire conscious world. Therefore, art transcends selfish limitations of personality and enlarges the sensibility of those who contemplate it. This aesthetic perception leads to a realistic vision of others that inspires compassionate love.

To persuade us of the importance of the connection between aesthetics and ethics, Iris Murdoch appeals to Kant's theory of art, which closely accords with his theory of morals. This may be surprising since Kant's aesthetics is well known for the view that judgments of taste are "subjective," but these subjective judgments are universal claims. Furthermore, in the case of dependent beauty, as defined by Kant, there is an objective orientation to the experience, which will justify her use of terms like "seeing", "vision" and so on, in her theory. Her analogy between moral sensibility and the sensibility of the novelist as manifested in his act of creation explains how the goodness of others can be revealed. This analogy is developed in terms of the writer's love unconditionally displayed toward his characters, a love that seeks to see goodness in them and understand their suffering. The novelist's sensibility disrupts his natural selfishness, thus releasing him from self-concern to make him capable of loving the real others from a detached, unsentimental and objective viewpoint. 

“Loving others must involve also forgiveness and hope as long as we see them not only as they are, but as they might become...”

Beauty is what attracts such an unselfish contemplation, be it for objects of art, nature, or human beings. This feeling of beauty takes the form of a spell which is not available to abstract, theoretical reasoning. It is important for Iris Murdoch that the beauty in question is not subjective but is objectively seen in the character of others, the particular virtues that exhibit their goodness. Thus, the respect for individuality in the sense of particularity and contingency becomes the virtue of love. The beloved is other and distinct from the loving subject. This is seen in the novelist who, tolerant in his endeavor to display a real apprehension of characters whose existence is separate from himself and crucially important and interesting in themselves, sets free his characters. Great art brings us, if only for a brief moment, into a world more real than our own and such an attitude is equally required, states Iris Murdoch, in our daily moral situations. Art is the only available, unbiased method that increases one's capacity for understanding and loving other people. 

Kant's theory of "aesthetic perception" gives distinctively different accounts of the feeling of the beautiful and the feeling of the sublime and is not oriented toward perception of things as such; it is subjectively oriented. The beautiful is the experience of the conceptless harmony between the imagination's effort to grasp an object as a whole and the faculty of understanding. This feeling of harmony is, as Kant posits, the feeling of a purposiveness without purpose, the form of finality without finality. For Kant, art does not reveal impartial truths; it is rather the production of a certain quasi-thing with its own inherent justification. Kant's favorite examples of this purposiveness without purpose are drawn from nature. To see the beauty of a flower is not to see any perceptible quality in the flower but is instead to subjectively organize its perceptible features as if it were a thing with a purpose or defined in terms of a purpose. For Kant, the feeling of the beauty of a flower comes in the sense of a purposive unity in the lines, colours, shapes, fragrance etc. However, this is a feeling for which no concept can be supplied; rather, the unity is attributed symbolically or metaphorically.

Kant called this kind of beauty, "free beauty." The pure judgment of taste concerns free beauty. This feeling of beauty is truly disinterested and is not tied to an idea of the good or common sensory pleasure. The experience of free beauty is not driven towards some end and involves no emotion tied to desires. Flowers, birds, all music that is not set to words are examples of free beauty for Kant. The song of a bird can have more freedom in it than a human voice singing according to all rules that the art of music imposes.

On the other hand, dependent beauty, as defined by Kant, contains a purposiveness of form directed at or oriented toward an idea of the goodness of the object apprehended as beautiful. The beauty of a man or of a building presupposes a concept of the end that defines what the thing has to be and therefore a concept of its perfection. For example, in the form of a vase, the feeling of its beauty is to be oriented toward the idea of the fulfillment of its purpose as a vase. Thus a vase whose size, colours, lines etc. are so spectacular as to dwarf the bouquet of flowers which has been placed in it will be felt to be lacking some way. Either the bouquet calls for a different vase or the vase calls for a different bouquet.

This feeling of dependent beauty, for Iris Murdoch, is something very close to the feeling that we have for others in our loving regard for them. There is, however, an important difference: when we strive to see the goodness in others, we begin without a clear idea of their goodness that will critique their speech and actions; indeed, we seek out a purposiveness of form in their lives with respect to an idea of goodness we have not yet understood. Iris Murdoch does not present a strict standard of perfection by which to judge the purposiveness of all human actions, character and motives. Because no general pattern for morality exists, each person must struggle to form an idea of his own goodness, an idea that changes and is constituted in the very struggle of becoming a good person. Thus, regard for others does not refer to a concept of moral perfection as the ground of the goodness or virtue seen in the other.

In the case of "dependent beauty," the purposiveness of form in the lives of others is properly seen. While such qualities are objective and hence have an objective truth condition, this does not mean that one simply learns a rule for recognizing the virtues of others. As with beautiful vases, we should rather expect the virtues of persons to be unique and therefore uniquely realized. What is important is not learning to apply secondary moral terms as a matter of rule, but learning to extend moral language to fit ever new cases. Hence we can see why Iris Murdoch thinks that the novel is the art form which develops moral language, for when we read a good novel, we learn not rules but the art of seeing characters and by extension, the people around us. While reading novels, readers find some characters to be morally good, while others are not; additional characters might not appear to call either for moral approbation or opprobrium. But it is not the function of the novel, Iris Murdoch claims, to support rules of behavior, through which characters are evaluated. Instead, the novel applies Kant's concept of dependent beauty to evaluate characters based on a purposiveness they choose for their lives.

At this juncture it might be objected that a pure regard for others is not solely a matter of respect for their virtues. Common moral intuition tells us that perhaps the most important regard for others is that which we should have when people suffer or fail to come up to a supposed standard of virtue. This is where Kant's concept of the sublime should be brought to bear on the reflection about the regard for others, for with the sublime, Iris Murdoch thinks we can apply the concepts of fear and sympathy (which are considered to be traditionally "tragic") to our sense of the misfortunes, failures and blindness of others and of ourselves.

The feeling of the sublime should be viewed as a sort of negative image of the feeling of the beautiful, for when we find ourselves unable to synthesize our capacities and the specific contingencies of our lives within a sense of purposiveness oriented toward the good, we feel broken an defeated in the absence of such joyful harmony. Kant develops the concept of the sublime in a very different context which must now be examined before seeing Iris Murdoch's effort to make it the basis for understanding the "tragic" element in life. The feeling of the sublime is what we have when we are unable to exhibit by imagination a vision of the whole, as reason demands. As described by Kant the sublime is not connected with art at all. While the beautiful is an experience of the imagination and understanding in harmony, the sublime is an experience of the imagination and reason in conflict. The sublime is an emotional experience resulting from the overwhelmed yet revitalized attempt of reason to compass the boundlessness and shapelessness of nature.

When we look at the starry sky, reason demands that we comprehend the cosmos as a whole and indeed we are able to form an idea of the cosmos as a whole, but not a concept that can be empirically justified. What we cannot do as human beings is rationally comprehend the totality of the starry sky, as we experience it at some particular time, in order to truly see it or apprehend it as an "object."

In Kant's view, the sublime is connected with emotion. Thus, objects may be beautiful but no object is ever sublime. Some aspects in nature occasion feelings of sublimity in us provided that we are not actually afraid (For instance, the contemplation of Mont Blanc, the starry sky or Niagara Falls). Still, in our confrontation with the starry sky, the imagination fails to satisfy reason's requirement for systematic wholeness.

This inability to synthesize the object of our experience, as reason demands, engenders a challenge to our powers initially felt as fear, albeit a pleasurable one if we know ourselves to be safe. This experience, Iris Murdoch interprets, blends distress, given the failure of the imagination to cope with the demands of reason, with elation, which comes from realizing the powerful nature of reason, that goes beyond what mere imagination can achieve. This experience is very much like Achtung, a mixture of pleasure and pain we feel in our respect for the moral law. On one hand, we feel pain while contemplating a moral requirement; on the other hand, our rational nature, in the sense of freedom to conform to the absolute requirements of reason, makes us feel delight in our consciousness. The sublime therefore resembles moral experience because reason, that is the moral will, is active. On deeper reflection, the sublime brings us to focus upon reason itself - the power in us to form an idea of infinite wholes-- conceived as the capacity to give a law to our actions that explains the course of our lives to ourselves. Thus drawn, we experience, instead of fear, a respect for the law-giving power within us, which Kant holds is aesthetically pleasing.

Iris Murdoch views Kant's application of the concept of the sublime to nature as trivial. She disagrees with Kant's notion that the feeling of the sublime is fundamentally a respect for human self-confidence given by reason. On the contrary, for her, the sublime provides no occasion for pleasure, no impulse to elevate us above the world; rather the feeling of the sublime registers the frailty and sometimes even comical blindness of human life. It is filled with uncertainties and contingencies, which sometimes disrupt one's effort to give life purposive form with a view to goodness. Often one becomes pathetic when he blindly projects himself as a triumphant hero in his own life story and in the world of others. This is the mistake which both romantics and existentialists make in response to the "tragic" element in life. They presume that they can make sense of the tragic even if it is at the expense of monumentalising their own suffering (showing themselves as heroes against the world). Aristotle thought that the "tragic" emotions, fear and pity, provide a catharsis for the tragic in life, a temporary relief purchased by a few hours spent at the theater, but for Iris Murdoch the tragic emotions represent what ought to be a sustained readiness for the inevitable failure of some of our life prospects, ready also to be morally expressed in fear and sympathy regarding tragedy in the lives of others.

The moral regard for others fundamentally comes from attempting to see their goodness and their tragedy through the experience of the sublime. Seeing others properly incorporates emotions of respect and compassion that characterize love and such seeing is cognitive love. Love is a dual concept based upon the analogy between artistic sensibility and moral sensibility. Its two components are a contemplative one and Achtung. Iris Murdoch interprets Achtung as an expression of compassion towards the tragedy in people's lives. Thus for her Achtung is not only a mixture of pleasure and pain while contemplating the moral law; it is also part of the love we manifest for others in our regard for them. She connects the sublime via Achtung with Kant's ethical theory in that his theory of the sublime has to be a theory of tragedy, even though Kant's theory of ethics contains no place for the idea of tragedy.

Despite its apparent strength, her view of regard for others poses several interrelated problems which must be addressed. She claims that to see others through aesthetic perception is to see them as they really are. This "realism" contrasts to the deficiencies in sight or the illusions implied in previous accounts of the moral self, deficiencies of abstraction in the cases of liberalism and linguistic empiricism, or neurotic illusion in the cases of romanticism and existentialism. This claim about realism is also the way in which she would have us understand what constitutes true realism in the novel. Iris Murdoch's concept of love for others and the way in which she develops and applies this concept in her novels extends her concept of regard for others beyond what is merely a matter of aesthetic perception. This fact seems to undermine the claim that regard for others, as she conceives it, is fundamentally a kind of "seeing."

For example, characters presented by Iris Murdoch in a comical light are, almost always redeemed elsewhere in the novel by their good attitudes, such that even their moral faults are exhibited to some degree as re-describable in terms of goodness. However, one needs to ask whether these re-descriptions are actually realistic characterisations so much as expressions of forgiveness and hope for redemption. It may be that a truly loving regard for others includes such attitudes, that is to say, such as forgiveness and redemption. If so, though, it becomes difficult to see how such a view of regard for others is adequately characterized when it is spoken of as a kind of realism.

A critic might go further and suggest that the effort to describe such regard for others as "seeing," simply masks an idealization, a determination to see the world through rose-coloured lenses. If it is, then Iris Murdoch's theory ironically falls under the weight of the very criticism that she makes of romantic and existentialist conceptions of the moral person. Instead of "seeing" a dependent beauty in a person, the kind of re-description she envisions may turn out to be a merely subjective projection of the form of a purposiveness which, as such, is not there in what is "seen".

Nonetheless, Iris Murdoch might be correct in thinking that a regard for others should be loving in the way she suggests, because loving others must involve also forgiveness and hope as long as we see them not only as they are, but as they might become. Her problem may lie in claiming that aesthetic re-description is a sufficient condition for revealing a virtue where before one had seen only fault or vice.

The essential challenge for Iris Murdoch is to ask, what does it mean to apprehend a virtue in oneself or in another? While this is too broad a question to answer completely, the answer encompasses something more than aesthetic description. It must include learning how to see which, according to Iris Murdoch, is also a kind of knowledge. The visual knowledge obtained through aesthetic perception that she is trying to persuade others to embrace is equally useful as a guide in the moral world. The insight we have into the other through love acts upon us and draws us to see goodness in that person, independent of the need to provide an evaluative rationale endorsing that person's behavior.

As a result of such insights, moral principles become something that we must ever learn anew, in and through particular cases. The other's goodness exists and can be grasped by our imagination. But it requires unconditional love in which attention and imagination play a crucial role. I am inclined to think that individuals have a fertile imaginative nature and can truly "see" despite the intrusion of bias or accident into their lives. Our systems of values alter to a lesser or greater degree but always in a potential harmony with what has gone before bringing into the focus qualities in a person that we did not previously recognize. For the novelist, the power of description and imagination is, of course, greater when it comes to developing characters. On the other hand, for real persons to develop moral character depends on more than a vivid, even plausible, aesthetic imagination of what the course of one's life is or might be like.

At the core of Iris Murdoch's assumptions about the moral regard for others lies a reflective shift in developing moral sensibility through an enhancement of aesthetic perception. Her account makes for the concept of the particular individual as unique rather than for the rational agent or citizen central to contemporary liberal theory. The moral perception of the particular individual essentially involves an aesthetic component, the imaginative construal of the goodness of others (a qualification of beauty), and of their tragedy, as their free powers fail to fulfill a purposive wholeness in life (a qualification of the sublime).

*The opening quotation is from Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, edited by Peter Conradi (New York: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1997, p. 352,).

Address for correspondence: 

Further reading on Iris: 

Conradi, P. J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist, New York: Saint Martin Press, 1986.
Dipple, E. Iris Murdoch: Work for Spirit, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 

The Laws of Thought (2004)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXII No. 1 Spring 2004

By James Danaher

Western philosophy to a very large extent has been founded upon laws of thought. We believe that our thinking should strive to eliminate ideas that are vague, contradictory, or ambiguous, and the best way to accomplish this, and thereby ground our thinking in clear and distinct ideas, is to strictly follow Laws of Thought.

Ones like:
  • the Law of Identity (A=A),
  • the Law of Non-contradiction (A does not equal ~A),
  • and the Law of the Excluded Middle (either A or not A but not both A and ~A).
In spite of how dominant these laws of thought have been, they have not been without their critics, and philosophers from Heraclitus to Hegel have leveled powerful arguments against them. But the issue does not seem to be whether the laws are applicable or not, but where and when are they applicable? Certainly, the laws of thought have a place, but what is that place?

Both the laws, as well as opposition to them, can be traced to the Pre-Socratic philosophers. It was Parmenides who first formulated the law of non-contradiction. 
"Never will this prevail, that what is not is."
Plato also refers to this in the Sophist: "The great Parmenides from beginning to end testified . . . 'Never shall this be proved - that things that are not are.'"

It may seem strange that the principle of non-contradiction was not part of a natural way of thinking that had its origins deep in our prehistory, but rather was introduced by Parmenides in the 5th century B.C. Even more surprising is the fact that Parmenides' law of non-contradiction represented a radical break from the Ionian philosophy of nature which preceded it. The Ionian philosophy was based on observation or experience in the ordinary sense. On the basis of such experience, Heraclitus argued that contradictions not only existed but were essential and the basis of a thing's identity: 

"Not only could it be stated that identity is the strife of oppositions but that there could be no identity without such strife within the entity." Heraclitus argued that since things changed, they had to contain what they were not. Only such contradictions could account for change. As Heraclitus says: 
"Cold things grow warm; warm grows cold; wet grows dry; parched grows moist."
In direct opposition to Heraclitus, Parmenides claimed that identity involved the idea of non-contradiction. What made for the difference between Heraclitus and Parmenides was what they respectively believed were the proper objects of thought. For Parmenides, the things we encounter in our experience make for poor objects upon which to fix our thoughts. Indeed, the things we experience are not suited to provide the kind of knowledge that Parmenides, and so many others who were to follow him, wanted. The kind of knowledge they desired was a knowledge that was fixed and certain. Such knowledge would require objects of thought that were equally fixed and certain. Thus, Parmenides settled on the idea of being itself into which all change would collapse.

The Pythagoreans too desired objects of thought that were fixed and certain. For them, mathematics provided those kinds of objects. Plato too sought similar objects of thought and settled on otherworldly forms that were eternal and immutable. With the Platonic forms, as with Pythagorian numbers and Parmenidian being, the laws of thought are certainly applicable. Thus, Plato endorsed the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle in the Republic when he has Socrates say:
"It is obvious that the same thing will never do or suffer opposites in the same respect in relation to the same thing and at the same time." (Republic 4:436b) 
Of course, Plato was well aware that in order for the laws of thought to work they needed to be restricted, for if left unrestricted they could lead to absurd conclusions. In the Euthydemus, Euthydemus' brother Dionysodorus argues that Socrates must be the father of a dog, since the dog had a father, and Socrates has admitted that he is a father. Since one cannot be a father and not be a father at the same time, Socrates must be the father of the dog. Although Socrates is obviously not the father of the dog, it was not so obvious in Socrates' day where Dionysidorus' thinking went wrong. Thus, Plato attempts to sort out where and when the laws of thought apply and where and when they do not apply.

The restrictions Plato places on the laws of thought (i.e., "in the same respect," and "at the same time,") are an attempt to isolate the object of thought by removing it from all other time but the present and all respects but one. Thus, although we are involved in many relationships, when we think about ourselves relationally, we must restrict our thinking to one relationship, at one time, in order for the laws of thought to be applicable. Thus, it is not only the Platonic forms that are abstract and apart from the world of experience, but any idea to which the laws of thought are to be applied must also be abstracted from the reality of our experience which is multi-relational and multi-temporal.

Like Plato, Aristotle also believed that the laws of thought, in spite of being controversial, were cornerstones of all right thinking. He argues for them in several places (Metaphysics G, 3&4; De Interpretatione 11, 21a32-33; Topics IV 1, 121a22-4; Sophistical Refutations 5, 167a1-6). It is, however, not so much that he argues for them as he sets them in a proper light. That is, he shows were they are appropriate and where they are not appropriate. Basically, what he says is little different from Plato. He argues that such laws apply only to attributes and attributes at a particular time and in a particular respect.
"The same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect."  
(Metaphysics G, 3,1005b18-20)
By limiting the laws of thought in this way, Aristotle overcomes Heraclitus' claim that identity contains contradictions because the attributes of a thing change over time. By isolating identity in one moment of time, Aristotle abstracts the objects of thought just as Plato had done. Thus, identity is set in a different light than it had been for Heraclitus who understood identity as dynamic and thus involving change and equally contradictions.

But Aristotle also introduces another element to further support the laws of thought. The principle he introduces concerns the way we formulate our concepts or ideas of kinds. According to Aristotle, our idea of a kind or species is best conceptualized by uniting the genus of a species with its differentia or the characteristic that differentiates that species from the other members of the genus. To establish a clear concept of the species "man," we combine the genus "animal" and the differentia or that characteristic which distinguishes man from other animals * for example, that he is rational. Thus, the species "man" is conceptualized as, "rational animal." It may be true that our clearest concepts are those which proceed from, and are members of, a single genus. 
Our desire for clear and distinct concepts has made Aristotle's model for conceptualising species enormously influential in Western thinking. In biology we classify and understand species under a single lineage whereby each concept or idea of a species belongs to only one genus. Every family of living things belongs to only one order, and every order belongs to only one class, and every class to only one phylum and kingdom. Such ordering gives us neat and clear concepts and satisfies our desire to conceptualize things in as simple and clear a way as possible. But the platypus does not fit neatly into a single genus or more precisely into the class designated as "mammal." In fact, many species do not seem to fit such a neat Aristotelian model, and might better be conceived if we understood them to belong to more than a single genus.

This Aristotelian model for conceptualizing species has not only been applied to biological species, but we attempt to organize all of our experience in a similar fashion. In spite of the fact that many of our concepts might be better conceived if we understood them as descending from multiple genuses, the Aristotelian model of concepts which descend from a single genus is deeply entrenched in our thinking. One of the reasons behind its entrenchment is that such a principle allows the laws of thought to work consistently and appear universal. On another model in which concepts are thought to descend from multiple genuses, the laws of thought are not as applicable because, as a member of more than a single genus, a concept could contain contradictory attributes.

Materialism and the Corpuscular Philosophy

With the modern era, a mechanical view of the universe replaced Aristotle's biological paradigm. With such a model, things were no longer organic wholes but composites of parts and, as such, more compatible with an analytic way of thinking that broke things down into ever smaller parts until all contradictions disappear, and the Laws of Thought prevailed. Basic to this mechanical view known as the corpuscular philosophy, was an apparent distinction between the kinds of qualities that we attribute to physical entities. Qualities such as shape, extension, motion, etc. were thought to exist within the objects themselves, while tastes, smells, colors, etc. were said to exist within us. The former kind were referred to as 'primary' and the latter kind 'secondary'.

The explanation the corpuscularians offered was that these secondary qualities were produced in us by the arrangement and motion of the insensible corpuscles which were made up of primary qualities and constituted the internal structure of a thing. So a physical thing like a strawberry, while not actually possessing anything that resembles the taste or smell of the strawberry, does have the power to produce those sensations within us because of the arrangement and motion of the insensible corpuscles that make up the strawberry's internal structure. By contrast, when we perceive that the strawberry is extended, we are perceiving a quality that represents the thing itself, since the strawberry is made up of corpuscles and corpuscles are extended.

Thus, the claim of the corpuscularians was that primary qualities were more real than secondary qualities. Of course, what is meant by "more real" is that primary qualities seem to be more objective than the subjective, secondary qualities. But why should we privilege the objective over the subjective? One reason, perhaps the most important reason, is that the laws of thought are more applicable when subjectivity is removed. Subjectivity certainly undermines the Laws of Thought. While a thing can be sweet and not sweet at the same time, it cannot not be square and round nor in motion and at rest at the same time. Consequently, primary qualities make better objects of thought in the sense that the laws of thought better apply with them than with secondary qualities. What has in fact taken place, however, is that the objects of thought have been made ever more abstract and removed from the reality of the world we actually experience.

The idea of primary qualities, like the objects of mathematics, Plato's otherworldly forms, or Aristotle's idea of species that are members of single genuses, are enormously abstract and artificial notions and not like anything we actually experience. The pure objectivity of primary qualities is something we create rather than experience and we create it for the sake of having clear and distinct objects of thought to which the laws of thought might be consistently applicable. By the 18th and 19th centuries, such abstract notions of objectivity would come under attack from a phenomenological perspective which would take up the Herclitian theme and argue that the phenomenal world of experience is more real than the abstract world we have come to think about.


Berkeley's phenomenalism privileged the world of experience over the abstract world of objective matter which the corpuscularians had introduced. Berkeley thought that abstract ideas of any kind were inconceivable (set out in the Principles of Human Knowledge), and that primary and secondary qualities were inseparably joined in the phenomenal world and could not be separated even in thought.
"I desire anyone to reflect and try, whether he can by any abstraction of thought, conceive the extension and motion of a body, without all other sensible qualities. . . extension, figure, and motion, abstracted from all other qualities, are inconceivable."
For whatever reason, Berkeley did not explore the consequence of his phenomenalism upon the laws of thought. Hegel, however, certainly did. Like Berkeley, Hegel's phenomenalism attacks the idea of abstraction, but Hegel seems to have had more of an understanding of how much the idea of abstraction was at the very base of traditional logic and metaphysics. Hegel seems to understand that the focus of traditional logic was to make "Abstract identity its principle and to try to apprehend the objects of reason by the abstract and finite categories of the understanding." By so doing, traditional logic secured a realm over which the laws of thought could sovereignly rule. 
Once proper objects of thought have been created through abstraction, the laws of thought certainly apply. Hegel would argue, however, that these laws of thought do not apply when the objects of thought are not such abstract entities. Thus, the laws of thought do not universally rule over all thinking but are only universal when the objects of thought are abstracted from the reality of the phenomenal world. If we turn our attention upon the world of experience, "everything is inherently contradictory." Thus, Hegel posits the law of contradiction, rather than the law of non-contradiction.

As it was for Heraclitus, reality for Hegel is something that moves, thus making any fixed, abstract identity impossible. Things are always becoming and so they must contain within themselves that which they are not. Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

A little later, he says something that is even more shocking to those who strictly adhere to the traditional laws of thought and imagine them to be the basis of all right thinking. 

"Something moves, not because at one moment it is here and at another there, but because at one and the same moment it is here and not here, because in this "here", it at once is and is not." This is an obvious contradiction, and the laws of thought would say that something cannot be here and not here at the same time. Of course, what is behind Hegel's statement is the matter of how we conceive of time. If we think of time and motion analytically, and the continuum of time moves from one fixed, analyzable point to another (i.e., t1, t2, t3 . . . ), thus constituting a present or here, then Hegel is certainly wrong. If that is the case, then something is here (e.g., t4) and not any other place. If, however, there are no fixed points on the continuum that is time, and time is continually moving, then it cannot be stopped and analysed without making it something other than what it is. If the nature of time, like motion, defies arrest, then Hegel is right and analytic thinking is not suited to understand such things. To think of time as an ongoing continuum forces us to think contrary to the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle, and understand that something is both here and not here at the same moment.

If motion defies the traditional laws of thought, then all living things violate the laws of thought in so far as they are in constant motion * not in the sense that they experience constant local motion but in the sense that all living things experience perpetual internal motion. This internal motion of all living things prevents them from having any fixed, analyzable point of identity.
"Abstract self-identity is not as yet a livingness....  Something is therefore alive only in so far as it contains contradictions within it." 
Hegel even attacks the law of identity and claims that the law of identity says very little in itself.  The fact that A = A is no more than a tautology and has little meaning.  It tells us almost nothing about the identity of a thing.   The only way a thing truly takes on identity is through its otherness or what it is not.  What a thing is not is as necessary to the identity of a thing as what it is in that what it is not is what gives boundaries, definition, and meaning to a thing.  Thus, its otherness must be contained within the very identity of the thing. 
What is at the base of all that Hegel has to say is a logic that is synthetic rather than analytic.  With a synthetic logic which joins things into ever greater wholes rather than analyzing them into ever smaller parts, the Laws of Thought are not the universal principles they are with analytic thinking.  With a synthetic logic that examines wholes rather than parts, contradictions are natural and to be expected.  The way to eliminate contradictions is to employ an analytic logic which divides things into ever smaller parts until the contradiction disappears.  When Plato and Aristotle qualify the law of non-contradiction and say "in the same respect," and "at the same time," what they are doing is breaking a thing down into its parts.  If we focus on ever smaller parts, we can eventually eliminate all contradictions and thus preserve the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle.  When, however, we deal with the whole, rather than the parts, we are treating all the respects or parts together and then we certainly may encounter contradictions and the truth is often both/and rather than either/or.
When we say that life is full of joy and sorrow, we can eliminate that contradiction, or any such contradiction, by analyzing life and dividing it into joyous parts and sorrowful parts.  That is, in one respect, it is joyous and in another respect it is sorrowful.  If, however, we leave life (or anything else) whole and do not analyze it into this respect or that respect, we see myriads of contradictions because that is the nature of the reality in which we live.  We have been taught to think analytically about abstracted parts of our experience in order that the laws of thought can be neatly applied, but that is only one way of thinking.  We can also think about wholes rather than parts and when we do, the laws of thought do not always apply.
This does not mean that there is no place for analytic thinking and the laws of thought.  Analytic thinking is a mode of thought we use all the time.  The problem lies in the fact that Western intellectual history has been intent upon creating an understanding that is founded upon universal laws, and, in order to create such universal laws, we have attempted to eliminate all objects of thought to which such laws do not universal apply.  This, however, is irrational since there obviously are dynamic and holistic objects of thought to which the laws of thought do not universally apply.
Twentieth century science has discovered the bicameral nature of the human brain, and although pop psychology might be too quick to draw hard and fast lines between the two hemispheres of the brain and assigns analytic thought to the one and synthetic thought to the other, there certainly is something to the fact that the physiology of our brains allow us to think in different ways.  Analytic thinking, based upon one hemisphere of the brain, has dominated in the West.  Thus, it is no wonder that the laws of thought seem so absolute to so many. Yet, to strictly apply the laws of thought to all of our thinking is perhaps to use only half our wits. 

Address for correspondence:

James P. Danaher, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Head, Department of Philosophy