Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Anscombe!

‘Elizabeth Anscombe, [born Mar 18, 1919] was considered by some to be the greatest English philosopher of her generation. She was professor of philosophy at Cambridge from 1970 to 1986, having already, as a research fellow at Oxford in the 50s, helped change the course of moral philosophy. Also influential in philosophy of mind, she pioneered contemporary action theory, and the pre-eminent philosopher Donald Davidson called her 1957 monograph Intention the best work on practical reasoning since Aristotle. The philosophical world owes her an enormous debt, too, for bringing Wittgenstein, probably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, to public knowledge…. from Jane O’Grady’s obituary for The Guardian

Let us honor Elizabeth Anscombe on the anniversary of her birth by learning more about this important, influential, and trailblazing philosopher:

G. E. M. Anscombe (1919—2001) – by Duncan Richter for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe – by Julia Driver for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Elizabeth Anscombe – A BBC Programme Woman’s Hour episode in which Sarah Woolman speaks to Dr Rosalinde Hursthouse and Professor Philippa Foot

The Golden Age of Female Philosophy – A recent episode of Philosopher’s Zone which discusses Anscombe’s work along with the work of other great contemporary women philosophers

Anscombe Bioethics Centre – ‘a Roman Catholic academic institute that engages with the moral questions arising in clinical practice and biomedical research’

G.E.M. Anscombe Bibliography – by José M. Torralba for Universidad de Navarra

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Watsuji Tetsurô!

Tetsuro Watsuji, photo via Alchetron, Creative Commons CC BY-SA

Tetsuro Watsuji, photo via Alchetron, Creative Commons CC BY-SA

Let us remember the philosopher Watsuji Tetsurô on the anniversary of his birth, March 1, 1889.

Robert Carter and Erin McCarthy wrire for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Watsuji Tetsurô was one of a small group of philosophers in Japan during the twentieth century who brought Japanese philosophy to the world. He wrote important works on both Eastern and Western philosophy and philosophers, from ancient Greek, to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and from primitive Buddhism and ancient Japanese culture, to Dōgen (whose now famous writings Watsuji single-handedly rediscovered), aesthetics, and Japanese ethics. His works on Japanese ethics are still regarded as the definitive studies.

Influenced by Heidegger, Watsuji’s Climate and Culture is both an appreciation of, and a critique of Heidegger. In particular, Watsuji argues that Heidegger under-emphasizes spatiality, and over-emphasizes temporality. Watsuji contends that had Heidegger equally emphasized spatiality, it would have tied him more firmly to the human world where we interact, both fruitfully and negatively. We are inextricably social, connected in so many ways, and ethics is the study of these social connections and positive ways of interacting….’ Read the full bio of Watsuji Tetsurô here

… and learn more from and about this great philosopher who wrote extensively about personhood and our place in the world, and one who bridged Eastern and Western thought:

Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study – by Watsuji Tetsurô

Summary / SUNY Press page for Rinrigaku (Ethics) by Watsuji Tetsuro (translation by Seisaku Yamamoto and Robert E. Carter) – The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Tetsurô’s Ethics as ‘the premier work in modern Japanese moral theory [which] develops a communitarian ethics in terms of the “betweenness” (aidagara) of persons based on the Japanese notion of self as ningen, whose two characters reveal the double structure of personhood as both individual and social.’ (p 449)

Watsuji Tetsurō: Japanese Philosopher and Historian – in Encyclopædia Britannica

Watsuji Tetsuro – in New World Encyclopedia

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Q&A With Singer: A Philosopher On His Craft and Practicing it at Princeton, by Michael Hotchkiss

Peter Albert David Singer at The College of New Jersey in 2009, by Bbsrock, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Albert David Singer at The College of New Jersey in 2009, by Bbsrock, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Singer is one of the world’s best-known philosophers, recognized for his thought-provoking views on topics including animal rights, bioethics and the plight of the world’s poorest people.

Since 1999, he has been the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne in his native Australia, where he is Laureate Professor.

Singer’s influential books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics” and “Rethinking Life and Death.” His book “The Life You Can Save” challenges readers to help improve the lives of the world’s poorest people, and he is the co-founder of a nonprofit group by the same name that is devoted to effective philanthropy to serve people living in extreme poverty.

Singer also regularly writes brief essays on topics related to current events. A new book, “Ethics in the Real World,” compiles many of those essays with other reflections to explore, in an easily accessible form, some of the deepest philosophical questions.

Singer recently answered questions about his book, philosophy and teaching at Princeton.


Why do you write the kinds of brief, topical essays that are compiled in “Ethics in the Real World”?

Singer: I think it’s important to play a role in contributing to public debates and hopefully trying to improve the standard of those debates. In many areas of academic life — but perhaps particularly in ethics — there’s a lot of debate that goes on and a lot of it is to a rather low standard. If you can contribute to showing people how it’s possible to have reasoned discussion of ethical issues, I think it’s a valuable thing to do. A lot of people think ethics is all just subjective, a matter of taste. They think you can’t really say anything, therefore you might as well just abuse your opponents. I think there are other possibilities.

What does it mean to do philosophy?

Singer: I think doing philosophy really means learning to think more deeply and rigorously about hard questions that cannot be answered by straightforward empirical investigation. There are many things people think hard and rigorously about — physics, history or whatever it might be. In some of those fields you can answer questions by doing an experiment or finding the relevant documents. Generally speaking, you can’t run experiments to settle the kind of questions philosophers talk about. And you’re not going to turn up documents in some archive that are going to solve them either. So you have to think. The discipline of thinking, of recognizing good and bad arguments, of recognizing fallacies and where an argument is rigorous or where its weak points are, that’s something you can be trained in and can develop through practicing. That’s why we want people to do philosophy, to talk about it and write about it, not simply to learn what other philosophers of the past have said.

What does it mean to do philosophy at Princeton?

Singer: I think this is a great environment for doing philosophy, particularly for the area I work in, which is practical or applied ethics. Having the University Center for Human Values sitting alongside the philosophy department and the politics department produces a substantial body of people who are very good at discussing a range of practical and applied ethical questions. Plus, of course, we have really excellent students. For me, that’s one of the most rewarding things about being at Princeton. You get truly outstanding students who are very rewarding to teach, and that is just the undergraduate level. Many of them are also really enthusiastic about the role they are hoping to play in the world. When you get to the graduate level, you get yet another level of discussion. All of that makes a really exciting combination.

“‘Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter’ by Peter Singer” book jacket

In his new book, Singer compiles brief essays on topics related to current events that explore some of the deepest philosophical questions. (Courtesy of Princeton University Press)

What are the most important tools you have at your disposal to engage people?

Singer: The primary tool is the ability to express ideas. As a teacher, you will mostly do that using your voice, speaking, though sometimes you will get students to read things. As a public intellectual, I’m much more likely to do that in writing. Being able to express yourself clearly is the most important tool for what I do. I’m grateful for my education in analytic philosophy at the University of Melbourne and Oxford because of the emphasis placed on clarity of expression. If something you said wasn’t clear, then it wasn’t good even though there might be some deep thing lurking there. You had to try to bring that out. It’s a contrast that exists to this day between most English language philosophy that comes out of that analytic tradition and that which comes out of what you might call a continental tradition, where clarity is not really prized and it seems to me at least that profundity is hinted at through ways of expression that might be clever but certainly aren’t clear.

The course description for your undergraduate class ‘Practical Ethics’ is full of questions: Should we be trying to live our lives so as to do the most good? Does a human embryo have a greater claim to protection than a chimpanzee? Should we be able to choose to end our own life, if we are terminally ill? Why do you take that approach?

Singer: I ask questions because I see the role of the course as challenging students to think about issues that otherwise they might not think about a great deal. I do not simply want to get them to absorb the truth, whatever the truth might be on these ethical questions. I certainly don’t want to encourage the idea of professors as authorities from which they just take statements and write them down. I want to challenge their way of thinking so they may come to see that what they’ve been thinking is superficial and they need to go deeper.

What are the questions you find your students engage with the most?

Singer: We have a lot of spirited discussions. Probably in recent years the two topics that have been most spirited have been questions about the treatment of animals and whether we ought to be eating them, and questions about global poverty and what we ought to do about that. Do we, as comfortably well-off people in an affluent nation, have an obligation to actually do something, to contribute some of our wealth to people to whom it can make a much bigger difference than it makes to us?

Many academics have critics, and you have your share. In the ‘Practical Ethics’ course, you assign a book called ‘Peter Singer Under Fire’ that features essays critiquing your views and your responses. Why do you bring your critics right into the classroom?

Singer: That book is listed because it has critical essays about me. And if students are going to get my views from me firsthand they need to have ways of pushing back and seeing what other people have said that is different. Those essays are specifically written to criticize Peter Singer’s views. A lot of the reading, not just the essays from that book, is opposed to what I think. There are a number of other books on the reading list that are written by people who have a very different perspective, people who differ from me. Those views do get represented in my courses, always.

Do you find a lot of students become really engaged with your ideas and pursue them further? What’s that like for you?

Singer: I find a significant number of students do become engaged and continue to live in ways that are influenced by some of the thoughts that maybe they started thinking in my classes or reading some of my works. In fact, one example just came up recently. It’s not the majority of students who become as engaged as that, of course, but a few individuals can have a very big impact on many people. I find that rewarding. I find it really encouraging when I discover my teaching has made a significant difference, changed someone’s life in some important way, perhaps, or just reinforced them in going down a path they were going down anyway. If that’s a positive path, as it is generally, I feel pleased because I have indirectly made a positive contribution to the world.

In the book, you mention that you learned from some of your students about the racist parts of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. What else do you learn from your students?

Singer: I learn lots of things from my students. You get a range of people I would not ordinarily meet and get to talk with. You also learn a lot about the way young people think. I consider myself very fortunate to be always mixing with young people both in the classroom and out of the classroom because it keeps me fresh in terms of what’s going on in the world and what people are thinking about. I think it’s easy to be mixing mostly with people of your own age group and not really be aware of what 20-year-olds are likely to be thinking.

You came to Princeton from Australia in 1999. What have you taken from that experience?

Singer: It’s a pretty cosmopolitan campus, really. We have a lot of international students. We have other students who are immigrants or children of recent immigrants. I really value that. I think it’s tremendously important that we think about the world as a whole and that we be a truly cosmopolitan place. That connects with some of the essays in the book, which talk about how we should be thinking about the world, globalization, global poverty, what we should be doing about it. I value the “service of humanity” aspect of the University’s informal motto and the experience of Princeton because they point the way to getting beyond just a focus on the United States. When you come to the United States as I did, it’s one of the things you discover. Because you have come to a really big and important country, it’s natural that the media are going to be more focused on the United States here than the media would be on Australia in Australia, for example. Even having said that, I think the lack of attention on other parts of the world where America’s interests are not directly affected is something that’s pretty deplorable, and I think it’s important that universities try to counterbalance that by having international breadth and international understanding.

In one of the essays in your book, you describe the experience of learning to surf later in life. Why is that kind of experience important?

Singer: My experience with surfing shows that even if you think you might be too old to learn something new, that’s not necessarily going to be the case. Sure, you may never be really good at it. I’ll never be really good at surfing. But I can do it well enough to enjoy it and get a lot of satisfaction out of it. There is a lesson there for people at any stage of life: Don’t think things have passed you by. Obviously, objectively some things will have passed you by. I’m never going to become a footballer, but there are a lot more things that are still open as you go through life. More people are realizing that. You can change career directions later in life. If there’s something you want to do but you’ve thought it’s too late, think about it. Maybe it’s not.

Originally published in News At Princeton, at Princeton University’s website

~ Michael Hotchkiss, social sciences writer, went to Princeton in 2012 after seven years as an editor at The Wall Street Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2000 but really learned the ropes of writing and editing at Mississippi community newspapers… At Princeton, he develops news and editorial content about the teaching, research and service missions of the University, with a special emphasis on the social sciences. (Bio credit: Princeton University)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Jeremy Bentham!

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon at University College London, 2003 by Michael Reeve, GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon at University College London, photo 2003 by Michael Reeve

Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance.

Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Utilitarianism, then, is a type of consequentialism, which holds that a thing is right or wrong based on its consequent harms or benefits. Bentham did not invent the principles of utilitarianism; he discovered them in the writings of Cesare Beccaria (who authored the ‘greatest happiness’ axiom), David Hume, Claude Helvétius, and Joseph Priestley. But he spent a lifetime synthesizing these principles into a cohesive, fleshed-out moral philosophy founded on utility, whether a law or action increases or decreases pleasure or happiness. This principle can seem too subjective to apply to matters of law or public policy; after all, what makes one happy can make another less so, and how can we determine whether the happiness of one is greater, or more important, than the happiness of another? Bentham, careful and systematic in his approach to this as he was to everything else, devised his ‘Felicific Calculus’ to solve this problem. Bentham believed that pleasure, a natural phenomenon like everything else in the world, was likewise quantifiable. He hoped his method of assigning unitary measurements to pleasure, then determining their relative values through mathematics, was a way to make his moral philosophy practicable, conducive to real social reform.

To many, the idea that pleasure and happiness could be reduced to mathematical formulas seems very strange; some think he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another cognitive feature that caused Bentham to view emotion with such scientific detachment. But as socially awkward as he and his ideas often were, his utilitarian philosophy led to him to some moral conclusions that we now consider extremely progressive and much more caring than those typical of his times. For example, he was an early proponent of racial equality, women’s rights, and animal rights. As to animal rights, just as for all classes of human beings, considering only the pleasure and pain of some sentient beings and not others when it comes to morals is unscientific and therefore unjustifiably biased. After all, animals, like all human beings, have feelings too, and their feelings are just as important to them as ours are to us. So, a moral system based on feelings must consider all equally important, so that one unit of pig happiness, for example, is just as morally significant as one unit of human happiness. The only correct way to balance them out in matters of morals and public policy is to apply the Felicific Calculus to determine how much pleasure or pain each experience in any given situation.

At the end of his long and productive life, the committed naturalist arranged to have his body publicly dissected, both for scientific inquiry and to provide an example to others; he believed that a perfectly good body should never go to waste and that everyone should donate their body to science. He also arranged to have his head and skeleton preserved, dressed in his clothes and stuffed to look as lifelike as possible, to be displayed in some public place. The preservation of Bentham’s head, with its glass eyes he had purchased some years before, left much to be desired; the expression it ended up with creeped people out. So his Auto-Icon, as he called it, sits today in its glass case at University College, London with a nice lifelike wax head in its place. His real head is safely stored away where students, prone to stealing over the years in a series of pranks, can no longer get to it.

Read more about the brilliant and eccentric Bentham at:

Jeremy Bentham – by James E. Crimmins for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham – University College London website

Jeremy Bentham on the Suffering of Non-Human AnimalsUtilitarianism.com

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, by Eric Schwitzgebel

A Trail in Redwood Park, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsAs you may have noticed, I often recommend pieces by Eric Schwitzgebel; of course, that’s because his work is fantastic, and I’m always looking forward to his new posts.

This one’s about understanding why and how we believe, and especially, what our behavior reveals about the true nature of our beliefs. Schwitzgebel offers a succinct and to my mind, convincing criticism of the idea that we have certain beliefs but just often fail to live up to them. Instead, he places the emphasis on observing behavior as a more reliable and accurate indicator of what we in fact do believe.

This is a sobering thought, since it means that the way we like to comfort ourselves when we don’t behave as we think we should isn’t really valid: ‘I meant well! And I’ll do better next time because I really believe in….’ This kind of excuse it always readily available to us in the intellectualist model of belief as Schwitzgebel describes it, but really, what’s the practical use of saying we believe something something then if we consistently give ourselves this kind of ‘out’?  In this way, it’s closely related to the Socratic argument that there’s no such thing as weakness of will, since if we actually believe something, it makes no sense to think we actually could act otherwise. And it seems to me to go beyond pragmatism: if belief and behavior are considered separately, the former seems to lose a good deal of meaning, seeming a disembodied, impersonal thing that doesn’t seem so much to describe the actual world, or an actual person so much as something very abstract, very removed.

But it’s also an encouraging thought. For one, it helps us be more honest about who we really are and why we do what we do; as Schwitzgebel points out, this understanding of belief makes us more responsible for not only our reactions but our beliefs, and therefore gives us more control over them. Which ties into: this view of belief fits in neatly with the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to self improvement. Perhaps our intellect tells to us that there’s a better way to behave, or that there’s a proposition we should accept since upon consideration, it appears to be the truth, but the way we act so far doesn’t accord with this intellectual discovery. How to resolve this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance? Why, change our behavior! Not only will it change our habits over time, it helps turn our intellectual considerations into conviction, or part of our mental makeup as not only thinking, but believing beings.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Schwitzgebel, Eric. ‘Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, The Splintered Mind blog, April 07, 2016.

Stroud, Sarah, “Weakness of Will“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition) Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Confucianism & Daoism: The Basics

The following is a lecture I composed for teaching Confucianism and Daoism to my sister’s 6th grade History class at Star of the Sea School in San Francisco.


Confucius and Laozi, the philosophers who founded Confucianism and Daoism, lived just before the Warring States Period of ancient China (476 – 221 BCE), a time of war, tragedy and interest in philosophy.  Unfortunately, people’s lives are full of problems, but fortunately problems make people think about their lives, question the answers of authorities and experts, and reason beyond their understandings.


Each of us, as individuals, should use both belief and doubt to become better, wiser people, but how should we go about doing this?  Confucianism and Daoism, the two great philosophies of ancient China, gave people opposing ways to gain wisdom.  Many in ancient and modern times used both to compliment and extend each other.

The Confucians say we should build ourselves up to be educated, compassionate and civilized, while the Daoists say we should clear ourselves out to become open-minded, patient and peaceful.  The Confucians say we should learn from others, reason for ourselves, and do what we know to be right.  The Daoists say we should seek less for ourselves and gain perspective beyond our own interests, reasons and actions.

Confucius, the Golden Rule & Learning from Everyone

Confucius Latin

When Catholic Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 1600s, they were astounded to find that Confucius, the most influential and central Chinese philosopher, was incredibly similar to Jesus in his sayings and teachings.  First and foremost, like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and other revered teachers, Confucius taught what has been called the Golden Rule: Do for others what you would want them to do for you, and do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.  Confucius said that this was the single thing that should guide one’s life, and that compassion is the central thread running throughout his thinking.


Confucius’ student Zigong once told his teacher, “I do not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me.”  Confucius replied, “You have not come that far yet”, probably because none of us want others to simply tell us that they are amazing.  Another time, Confucius heard Zigong criticizing other people, and said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him leisure I do not possess.”  Confucius is being sarcastic, as he often said that no one is perfect, but anyone can be excellent by continuously working to become better.


Not only can anyone be excellent, but we can each learn from anyone about how to be better ourselves.  Confucius taught that when we see great people, we should seek to be like them, but when we see horrible people, we should seek how we are like them by examining ourselves.  Confucius said, “Put me with any two people at random and they will always have something to teach me, as I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning.  Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are.


Because no one is perfect and everyone can learn from anyone, there is no one who is above criticism, not even the prince of the state.  When asked by a duke if there is a single thing that could ruin a country, Confucius said that if the prince is never told when he is in error or contradicted, it could be the ruin of everyone.  About himself, Confucius said, “I am fortunate indeed… Whenever I make a mistake, there is always someone who notices it.”


Daoism, Perspective & Less is More


The legendary Daoist sages Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi taught that human perspectives are limited, and we should always keep this in mind.  Because we only have partial perspectives, we should keep in mind that others have their own perspectives which may not be the same as ours.  In one famous story, a turtle comes across a frog living in a well, and tells the frog about the sea, water that goes beyond the horizon with no walls in sight.  The frog refuses to believe the turtle, arguing that he has lived in water all his life and knows perfectly well that it comes in wells that are only so wide and have walls.  In Zhuangzi’s book, it says:


You can’t discuss the ocean with well frogs.  They’re limited by the space they live in.  You can’t discuss ice with summer insects.  They’re bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the greater way of things with cramped scholars.  They’re shackled by their doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, and so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the greater way of things.

japanese monkey painting

If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and they ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp?  If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey?  Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live?  We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice.  Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste?  Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish.  Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run.  Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?


Daoists also teach the idea of wu-wei, or non-action.  This does not mean that one should not act at all, but that often doing less is doing more.  Being patient and paying attention can save us from doing too much or having to do things over again.  In a Japanese story that illustrates this well, a local lord has three sons and must decide who should inherit his position.  He tests them by placing a pillow on the door to his room and calling them one at a time.  The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes.  The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in mid-air and catches it.  The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father.  The youngest son was paying attention, and so he did not even need to pull out his sword.


There are many passages In the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, the two central texts of Daoism, that similarly teach that wanting too much and trying too hard is the wrong way to be:

Sages do not boast, and are thus admired by everyone, do not want to shine, and thus will be enlightened, do not seek excellence, and are thus excellent, and because they do not argue, no one can argue with them.


Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.

Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike.  Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry.  Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them.  Whoever knows how to use others well keeps themselves low.


Those who divide fail to divide.  Those who judge are bad at judging.  What does this mean, you ask?  The sage embraces things.  Ordinary people judge between things and parade their judgements in front of others.  So I say, those who judge fail to see.

When you’re betting for cheap prizes in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.  When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.  Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.  They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Communitarianism, Writ Large

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

‘…I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life….’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well… Read original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Communitarianism, Writ Large

Ordinary Philosophy

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought…

View original post 1,483 more words

O.P. Recommends Freakonomics: Is Migration a Basic Human Right?

Airport Terminal in Salt Lake City, Photo 2015 by Amy Cools

I just listened to this episode of Freakonomics Radio podcast the other day, which I enjoyed very much and learned a lot from, and I think you’ll love it too. Freakonomics Radio is hosted full time by Stephen Dubner, one of the two authors of the famous book of the same name, published in 2005, with occasional guest hosting by its other author Steven Levitt. The book and podcast consider individual, social, and political situations from the view that human behavior is best explained in terms of the incentives that motivate us.

The podcast episode I’m recommending here is called ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’ and I can hardly think of a more timely question. As Syrians fleeing death and destruction flee their war-torn country, we are invited to consider this question: do nations’ rights to maintain secure borders trump (how funny …no, actually ironic that I need that particular word right here!) the individual human right to survive and to flourish?

I love Freakonomics, despite the fact that it adopts, at times, a dismissive and even scornful tone towards philosophy (as do some of my other favorite podcasts), but that’s okay: there’s so much good information and clearheaded processing of it that its informative values trumps (groan) what might be philosophically lacking. After all, I believe, philosophy is at its best when it’s informed and disciplined by evidence, and it’s such a firmly established, fascinating, and eminently useful discipline that it can withstand critique and dismissiveness from economists, science enthusiasts, and so on. But to my edification and delight, the guest in this episode, Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, gives a spirited defense of philosophy almost right off the bat.

Here’s a little excerpt for those of you in a hurry, but for the rest, I recommend you just skip this and go listen to the whole thing. Enjoy!

DUBNER: …As much as you may not like those reasons, aren’t they very much a symptom of the way humans have behaved throughout history? Borders, I mean.

TABARROK: So, borders are very common in one sense. As you say, when you look around, that’s the way the world is organized. And we’ve just gotten so used to them that we don’t even ask very much about their fundamental justification. And it’s when you come to ask about the fundamental justifications for borders that they begin to look very strange. Because they run counter to almost all of our moral writings and intuitions and philosophies. …

DUBNER: …I’ll be the skeptic for a moment — I could just say, “Well, that’s what philosophers do. Philosophers talk about ‘in a perfect world where all people were X, Y, and Z, things would go like this.’” But we all know that philosophers have no idea how the world actually works.

TABARROK: So, you know, our moral intuitions and indeed our laws today are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, because of their gender, their sexual preference or other issues. But for odd reasons, it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else …Now, to defend philosophy, for very long periods of time, racism was perfectly normal; people have been doing it for thousands of years. And then people began to ask, “Well, what justification is there for treating someone so differently just because of their race?” And when people couldn’t come up with an answer to that question, when they were forced into this discomforting area that they can’t justify this terrible injustice, things began to change. …


Sources and inspiration:

Dubner, Stephen. ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’, Freakonomics Radio podcast, episode 231.


Compassion, Emptiness, and the Heart Sutra, by Ryan V. Stewart

d1185-guanyin252c2bthe2bchinese2bexpression2bof2bavalokiteshvara252c2bnorthern2bsung2bdynasty252c2bchina252c2bc-2b1025252c2bwood252c2bhonolulu2bacademy2bof2barts252c2bpublic2b1One of the chief concerns of philosophy, since time immemorial, has been to properly address the question, “How do I live?” Namely, “How do I live well?” Naturally—for as long as our species has had the wherewithal to question its purpose and condition, the problem of ethics has found itself at the frontiers of human thought. Many moral philosophies have since rushed into that wide gulf between knowledge and truth, systems of understanding and action which attempt to conquer our ethical indecisiveness and color in a void where so much uncertainty exists.

Many traditions prescribe the ideal, virtuous, or noble life. From the ancient, academic, or political—e.g. Epicureanism, utilitarianism, humanism, or libertarianism—to the more mystical or overtly religious—e.g. Jainism, Christianity, or Taoism—many are concerned with how one acts (or can act), or at least how one views oneself in relation to others and to the world at large.

The Buddhist religion—though some prefer to see it as a philosophy—is one such tradition. An ancient and diverse faith, Buddhism is perhaps best known for its thorough and egalitarian moral philosophy. And while it is indeed diverse (containing a huge number of schools, most with their own interpretive methods and styles of meditation and ritual practice), compassion (or karuna) is treated as an important trait of an enlightened being, and a cornerstone of Buddhist thought, in all sects. Thus, throughout the various iterations of Buddhism—from the forest-monk Theravada of Thailand to the Zen habits of Japan—one finds a remarkably consistent system of normative ethics, and a conceptual framework for promoting the wellbeing of all sentient creatures.

That all being said, the ontological concepts which necessitate Buddhist compassion are perhaps most concisely expressed by the Mahayana (“great vehicle”) tradition—one of two or three major branches into which Buddhism is often divided. Buddhism maintains a unique connection between metaphysics and ethics, and the deeply profound philosophies of many Mahayana thinkers, and those presented in a number of the Mahayana sutras (Buddhist sacred texts), can be seen as an attempt to navigate and define that sort of connection.

Where does one begin in exploring such a notion? The corpus of Buddhist literature is impossibly vast, and anyone could spend a lifetime pondering so many mystical works and their commentaries. I would argue, however, that in order to form at least a basic understanding of the Mahayana ethical-metaphysical relationship, we need look no further than the ancient and seminal Heart Sutra.

Written as a dialogue and teaching, the Heart Sutra is a brief monologue on the part of a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who has postponed his or her salvation in order to remain in the world and aid sentient beings) by the name of Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara (known as Guanyin in China and Chenrezig in Tibet—the latter where the Dalai Lama is considered his living manifestation), whose name roughly translates to “the lord who looks down,”—that is, he looks down upon the world of the unenlightened with charity and love—is a bodhisattva representing perfect compassion. Befitting this disposition, the Avalokiteshvara of the Heart Sutra provides a mortal monk, Sariputra, with a profound teaching, a parcel of great wisdom intended to eradicate the suffering of sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara’s great revelation is that all phenomena are, in fact, “empty.” (Red Pine, p. 3.)

To clarify, the bodhisattva is saying that everything in the world lacks an inherent “self,” or essence. This concept finds its origin in the oldest, pre-Mahayana forms of Buddhism, and the Buddha himself noted that “no-self” is, along with impermanence (anicca) and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), one of three “marks” which constitute the nature of reality. Anatta, for the historical Buddha, and for the older Theravada school, mostly implies that nothing in the world can be said to be one’s “self,” (atman), and thus identifying anything as representing the essence of oneself—a “self” made up only of non-self parts (cf. Hume’s “bundle theory”)—is delusory. The self-concept, for the Buddha, is an illusion of essence which binds human beings to false worldviews and causes them to misrepresent reality, thus barring them from enlightenment.

The falseness of self-hood forms a bedrock of Buddhist philosophy. In the “emptiness” (sunyata) of the Mahayana, however, we find anatta further developed. (Nagao, pp. 173-174.) We owe this development chiefly to Nagarjuna, a first-century Buddhist philosopher who founded the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, and developed the philosophies (one most notably being sunyata) inherent in the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras. In his text, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna famously states, to this effect, “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.” Thus emptiness, in this sense, is not mere nothingness, but an open space in which all potential exists. Hence one cannot truly differentiate being and nonbeing, total emptiness and total “allness,” infinite nothing and infinite something. One implies, or necessitates, the other. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara explains this to Sariputra when he says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.” For the Mahayana school, emptiness is not merely the surrogate for essence, and a blank space where one imagines the self, but the numinous nature of all things.

Now, this emptiness implies another notion (this one common to Buddhism on the whole), “dependent origination.” (Pratityasamutpada.) According to this doctrine, all phenomena exist dependently, depending upon one another in order to maintain their existence. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.p.) Thus, there is no free, permanent, inherent, and individual existence for any beings or objects. Their causes and conditions are inextricably linked to the unending web of phenomena arising and passing away in the universe. One thing cannot be said to be truly separate from anything else when it exists, in time and space, alongside all else, and when it requires for its existence the (falsely!) extraneous forces of nature, matter, and energy. Thomas J. McFarlane, writing in his 1995 essay “The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,” sums this up nicely when he states, “According to Madhyamika, the root of all suffering lies in… the error of mistaking the relative for the absolute, the conditioned for the unconditioned. We take imagined separation as real, supposed division as given.”

An easier, less flowery way to illustrate these three ideas—no-self, emptiness, and dependent origination—in tandem may be to imagine something made up of familiar parts: A tree, for instance. We all know that trees are made of a variety of components—trunk, roots, branches, leaves. Where, then, lies the “treeness” of the tree, in the tree? Is the tree its roots? Is the tree its leaves? No? Why not? One may say, “‘tree’ is the name we give to the sum of the parts of the tree,” but then, of course, “tree” is reduced to a mere name and concept, not a thing-in-itself. Whatever can be called a “tree” is ultimately made up of non-tree parts, and thus there is no “treeness” at all. Similarly, the self, though imagined as one’s essence or “soul,” can be divided into mental phenomena and parts of the body. (All of which are subject to constant change, hence anicca.) There is no “selfness” for this self, only the experience of a very familiar concept by the same name. Thus Avalokiteshvara tells Sariputra, “Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form. The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.”

We now have a grasp on no-self (anatta), and can see how easily it translates to no-essence-anywhere-at-all (sunyata) by analyzing everything down into its (non-) fundamental components, components which themselves are also made up of other components, and so on and so forth. One can continue dividing things and concepts forever, down to an infinitesimal. (Granted, this is a conceptual exercise, and the author omits any claims about concrete physics for lack of sincere knowledge of the subject. Regardless of Planck lengths and fundamental particles, confer “infinite divisibility.”)

But how does emptiness translate into connection, into pratityasamutpada? Let us continue with the metaphor of the tree, and observe how the tree is not only constructed of non-tree parts, but dependent on the conditions of the world at large for those very constructs: A tree, like all lifeforms, requires a number of inputs from its surrounding environment in order to survive and thrive. Water, soil, and sunlight most readily come to mind. Water, for instance, rains down from clouds, which themselves are formed from atmospheric water vapor. Soil is produced over many years by the degradation of organic matter, and organic matter is contained by other lifeforms, which exist by dint of their evolutionary ancestors. Sunlight reaches the Earth from the Sun, which itself was formed billions of years ago from sparse bits of matter produced in the Big Bang.

What sort of philosophical quandary do we run into here, then? For our purposes it is best to put the question this way: “At what point is the tree no longer itself?” That is to say, “At what point is any “one” thing separable from the causes and conditions that give rise to it, or the causes and conditions that it gives rise to?”

If we take this notion—this pratityasamutpada—to its logical conclusion, we come to recognize that we are, in order to exist, dependent upon components and conditions outside of ourselves; that everything, in fact, is; that the entire universe is one integrated system, and in some sense an entity-unto-itself.

One response to such a situation—and an understandable one, at that—may be that of deep compassion: the fact that we are dependent upon all else, and all else upon us, in some sense (and albeit in a small way), gives us reason to care for the world (and other beings especially) as if the welfare of other things and beings was the same as ours… as if we have no “self” apart from that of the world at large, the welfare of which—from crabs to carpenters—is our concern as beings endowed with the capacity for both suffering and empathy. No doubt, it’s this very suffering which binds us to one another. We, knowing our own pain, can experience it vicariously, through others. Philosophers as diverse as Marcus Aurelius, Hume, and Schopenhauer understood the universality of pain and empathy, and thus their importance in morality.

The Buddha, of course, realized the same. And while you may not find a be-all-end-all answer to the big ethical problems in one particular system, opting instead (as many do) for an eclectic approach to moral philosophy, you have to admit that Buddhism provides one of the most intricate (and practical) answers to our moral quandaries.

As long as human beings have questioned the nature of their freedom and manners of life and livelihood, philosophy has helped fill the void inherent in the realms of “good” and “evil” and everything in between. Buddhism presents us with one particularly bright light, helping to illuminate the murky and ever-indefinite realm of philosophical inquiry.

About the author ~ Ryan V. Stewart is a writer and student from Connecticut. He has been actively writing since 2006, and blogs about everything from mysticism and philosophy to environmental issues, the arts, and personal peeves at The Grand Tangent. He’s interested in the intersection of mysticism, comparative religion, and philosophical analysis (among other things). 

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Red Pine, trans. The Heart Sutra. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. Print.

Nagao, Gajin. Mādhyamika and Yogācāra: A Study of Mahāyāna Philosophies. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications, 1992. Print.

“Paticca-samuppada.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Ed. Anonymous. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. .