Apr 302012

We have on occasion had reason to call attention to our former professors and colleagues from UT.  Yesterday I was hit with a blast from the past when I heard R.J. “Jim” Hankinson interviewed on The History of Philosophy podcast.  He was, of course, talking about Galen.  I’m pretty sure he’s the world expert on Galen (he was already 15 years ago I think) and he sounds every bit the unbelievably knowledgeable and amusing guy he was back then.  Hankinson was quite a character – tall, lean with thick glasses and a crazy wizard beard – super educated and smart but funny and down to earth.  I recall distinctly his complimenting me on my understanding of ‘football’ (the European kind) because of my appreciation for a particularly deft 30 yd outside foot pass in a game I was describing.

I took one seminar from him, I think on Ancient Phil but I’m sure we mostly read Galen, and we always retired to the pub afterwards for extended discussions.  In a sense, that seminar represents the epitome of what we set out trying to do here at PEL.  The conversation rarely stayed on philosophy and rarely lasted less than two pitchers.  It was striking to me at the time that Hankinson studied ancient philosophy and could be so fun to hang with, particularly when contrasted with the other ancient folks – nice guys, but not who you would pick to fill a seat at your dinner party (Mourelatos, Woodruff).  I house sat for him and his totally cool wife Jennifer one summer as well.  I categorically deny throwing any parties.

It’s too bad there aren’t any good picture of Jim on the web that I could find and the picture on the HoP podcast page is too dark to be of any use, cause he’s what you think of when you think ‘crazy philosophy professor’.  In any case, listen to what he has to say about Galen, learn something and be amused.  Good to see he’s still kicking around and having fun.


Apr 292012
Jason Hartman, a Guy Who Apparently Thinks PEL Can Make Money
Jason Hartman

I was interviewed last week for the Speaking of Wealth Show, which I don’t know much about, but the person who contacted me listed other guests that the host Jason Hartman had interviewed, and that list started with Pat Buchanan, so how could I say no?

On PEL itself, we try not to just go on and on about how we make the podcast and how many downloads we’re getting this week and how much money we’re (not) making, but here that was entirely the point, so you can hear what I sound like without my brutal PEL editing and apparently, without stopping to take a breath for several long portions of this. I guess I was a bit hyped up.

Listen to the interview.

Apr 272012


Watch on YouTube.

I liked the meta-discussion that kicked off the second PEL naturalized Buddhism episode, specifically on what knowledge we gain by assessing the supernatural “rules” contained within “religious” Buddhism. Even after rejecting a supernaturalist stance, there’s value in reviewing the form of life revealed within Buddhism’s supernatural tenets. In that spirit, I enjoyed Boddhisatva’s Brain most for its comparison of different philosophical worldviews. Reading the book, I asked myself how Owen Flanagan’s purely philosophical Buddhism meaningfully differed from, say, the Roman Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. But Flanagan might respond that juxtaposing a “naturalized” Buddhism against Roman Stoicism is inherently interesting for its own sake. Flanagan says that comparing Eastern and Western traditions…
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Apr 262012

I’m writing this as an open letter to the DharmaRealm guys, but am hoping to garner some responses to this question from Buddhism fans of various stripes.

To say someone is “deep” typically means that the person thinks long and hard about philosophical problems. It’s not a term that philosophers themselves tend to use about each other, as the concept seems less substantial the closer you look at it, i.e. the “deeper” you get into philosophy. Within Buddhism (and perhaps Eastern religions more generally), however, I gather that something like this concept is absolutely central to what hierarchy there is: a master is profoundly more wise and contemplates more deeply than a mere novice, much less an outsider.

So, my question is what can “depth” really mean in this context, and can it even be understood by those who have not attained such depth. To be clear, obviously if there is such an achievement, then those who don’t have it don’t have it, but that doesn’t mean that even the meaning of the term should be cut off from the rest of us.

My context and illustration here is our talk with Owen Flanagan, an accomplished analytic philosopher who spent some time studying Buddhism and wrote a book on it. The accusation against him is that not only is he not an accomplished Buddhist (which he doesn’t claim to be), but that despite spending 300-or-so pages philosophically analyzing common Buddhist themes such as suffering, impermanence, no self, emptiness, nirvana, karma, and the various Buddhist virtues like compassion and lovingkindness, he just “doesn’t get it.”

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Apr 252012

Harry and Scott from DharmaRealmBack in December or so when we were originally prepping for the date we thought Owen would be joining us, I listened to several episodes of the DharmaRealm podcast, which is a series of discussions based out of Berkeley, CA between Harry Bridge, a Jōdo Shinshū (i.e. Shin, a popular form of Buddhism from Japan similar to Zen) minister (with a masters in Buddhist studies) and Scott Mitchell, a professor of Buddhist studies who also studied philosophy and religion.

The discussions are loose and relaxed (per usual, I listen at double speed, and don’t know if I could bear it otherwise, but that’s just me), typically into a major area of Buddhist teaching like suffering, karma, no self, reincarnation, etc., with more recent episodes covering topics like creativity and Buddhism in film. The two obviously read/prepare for the discussions, but don’t lay out systematically what they’ve read, and a lot of the references to particular thinkers and schools are not done in such a way that reveals much to the listener about these sources (“now we’re getting into heavy Abhidhamma territory”), though they could give you some search terms to follow up with on your own (their web site includes some links too).

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Apr 242012

[Editor's Note: Here's a post by Chris Mullen, one of our frequent Facebook group posters.]

Not too long ago I purchased a cheaply priced, used copy of Vico’s The New Science, which I recently started to read (there are two things in life that I can always find justification for spending money on: beer and books). While doing some research on Vico, I came across an interesting lecture given by Timothy Brennan of University of Minnesota called “Vico, Spinoza and the Imperial Past.”

Watch at CornelCast.

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Apr 202012

Stephen BatchelorIn preparation for our Flanagan discussions, I listened to several episodes of both The Secular Buddhist and Buddhist Geeks. I still don’t feel like I’ve really at bottom decided what I think of either of them, but both have articulate hosts and interview lots of people apparently big in the Western Buddhist community (I can’t comment on how representative or penetrating a sample they really represent), so I can recommend either for people who want to immerse themselves in that world. The obvious difference is that the Secular Buddhist has a specific agenda compatible with Flanagan’s (he appeared on the show), while Buddhist Geeks seems more of a catch-all to expose the wonderful world of different and disparate approaches.

For example, one of the more big-name guests on Secular Buddhist is Stephen Batchelor, who appeared first on this earlier, August 2010 episode to describe his approach: Similar to Flanagan, he focuses on the early Pali canon and remarked about the promising connections between Buddhism had Stoicism/Epicureanism. However, he mentioned the Abhidamma specifically as part of the later accretions that may have obscured what the Buddha actually advocated and he casts the emergence of secular Buddhism as political, i.e. in breaking from the exclusive teacher-to-student-through-the-generations traditions that constitute what little counts as religious authority in Buddhism to turn instead in sort of a Protestant Reformation-type move to go look at the texts yourselves and work with other secular-minded people to use the ethical tenets of Buddhism to create positive political change. Flanagan in our discussion with him did not seem so optimistic about the potential of Buddhism to yield adequate political philosophy given its history (and I’m wondering if any of our listeners took great issue with his claim that there’s never been a successful Buddhism-driven government).

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Apr 192012

introspectiveIf the dialogue between Buddhism and American intellectuals like Owen Flanagan is part of a fashionable trend, then it has to be one of the longest lasting fads in history. Henry David Thoreau published the Lotus Sutra in the first issue of The Dial in 1844. William James was absorbing Transcendentalist ideas at the family dinner table, where his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson often held court. Later in life, James’s friend and neighbor was a Scholar of Sanskrit and his friendly rivals on the faculty at Harvard, Josiah Royce and George Santayana, were dabbling in Buddhism. (The Theosophical Society was also “channeling” Buddhism in the 1870s and 1880s, while a kind of proto-New Age occultism was all the rage in the parlors of Boston.) Chicago held a Parliament of World Religions in 1893, bringing Zen Buddhism from Japan and the Theravada tradition from Sri Lanka. Such was the intellectual climate in William James’s America.

Now, almost exactly one century after James’s death, he might be astonished to find that scholars are debating the convergence of relativity theory, quantum mechanics and brain imaging technology with Buddhism’s anti-essentialism, its anti-metaphysical stance, and its denial of what we’d call the substantial (Cartesian) self. If Alan Wallace is right, William James’s work is not only still relevant to this ongoing dialogue, it’s just what the Doctor ordered.

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Apr 192012

Harry PotterI’ve written a couple of posts in the past on philosophical themes in Tolkien (Incidentally, there’s a thread going at the Philosophy Forums/Online Philosophy Club discussing philosophical themes in Lord of the Rings right now), and had fun going off on the supernaturalism tangent on our last episode, even though I don’t see the force of Wes’s objection to Harry Potter over the “magic” used in, say, an action film. So long as you set up the rules enough so that the reader/watcher understands enough, then you can have suspense/drama. I read the Oz books to my kids (yes, there are many more than one), and though they’re very creative, there’s pretty much no suspense at all, though that may have more to do with the tone of the books than to how the magic is unexplained or inconsistent.

In general, I buy into the fantasy theory (maybe I heard this from a Stephen King article? or an article about him? I can’t recall) that more explanation is not always helpful; leaving something mysterious means we fill it up with our darkest fears and deepest yearnings, whereas laying it open makes it mundane and potentially not that cool (witness Dylan’s fury re. midi-cholrians). With all these supernatural elements, I think the trick is to artfully match the detail exposed to these competing audience needs (to understand what’s going on and so feel invested vs. having the magic elements remain magical). This is not inherently a futile enterprise; the conflict is not grounds for dismissing the genre as such.

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Apr 172012

Erik Ringan DouglasErik was the very first PEL guest participant, acting as our more-knowledgeable-than-we-about-Eastern-philosophy go-to guy, and was actually one of those I’d spoken to before launching the podcast altogether as a potential host, but I thought that having to adjust to his British time zone would complicate things too much.

Here he is on our Taoism episode, and on our first Buddhism one, on Nagarjuna (Note that his funky, non-phonemic pronunciation–Nargoojana–was confirmed/repeated by Flanagan, so I lose that one.)

He was also a philosophy grad student at U. of Texas, though a couple years behind Wes and me, and I don’t remember him so well from those days, nor did we really correspond all that much beyond planning the couple of episodes he was on. A primary interest of his was Zen/Chan Buddhism (i.e. the more anti-language kind that Owen Flanagan discounted in our interview with him), and I was just now tracking him down to talk to him about an eventual episode in that area, and to get his perspective as part of this round of Buddhism discussions. I discovered on his Facebook page that he passed away last December 5th. I don’t know the details, but got the impression from a comment that he made in an email a while back that he had some recurrent health issues; he said that he was surprised to be alive at that point.

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Apr 162012

Watch on Vimeo

One way to naturalize Buddhism is to discern the moral lessons it might offer after shedding its metaphysics. Another way is to scrutinize the physiological effects of its practices. As Owen Flanagan explained on PEL’s first “naturalized Buddhism” episode, not all Buddhist sects practice meditation. But of course, many do, particularly within the Japanese Zen tradition so popular in the West. The lecture above comes from Dr. James Austin, Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Austin believes Zen meditation has discernable physical benefitsthat can be studied neuroscientifically. His numerous books reviewing the neuroscience behind Zen meditation receive both positive and dismissive reviews. Owen Flanagan (who, like Austin, publishes through The MIT Press), gives the following cautious praise for Austin’s work:
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Apr 152012

Lucy LawlessLongtime readers may recall a flurry of so-called Personal Philosophies let loose from this site ’round the end of old ’10. While every one of these was cherished and beloved and wrapped in a special extra-thick paper and put in the bottom of an ornate chest and filed under “H” for “heirloom,” that does not mean that everyone liked the idea of a web site attributing something offensive or silly to them.

So I’m rebranding this to make it clear right here in the not-fine print that these screeds are not to be mistaken for the actual alleged beliefs of the recipient/target, but are rather a special gift, a free service, providing a philosophy to said individual, which does not imply that this individual is in need of this service or would be dumb enough to adopt this, or that the philosophy in question is meant to comment on his or her character, visage, or soul.

Today’s entry is dedicated to Lucille Lawless, who wrote a provocative tweet about us and donated some cash.

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Apr 122012

Check out this video: Buddhism and Science: A Brief History from The Berkley Center.

Often reading Buddhism into science and vice-versa can be very misleading. This talk by Thupten Jinpa is in dialogue with David Lopez’s excellent book, Buddhism and Science: A Guide For the Perplexed. Dr. Jinpa pretty much states the historical Tibetan relationship to science as it came late to encountering “scientific modernity.”

While I am a former practicing Theravada Buddhist who could not honestly reconcile it with my knowledge of the way various things worked, Lopez’s book actually made me even most skeptical of attempts by the likes of Sam Harris to claim Buddhism as a non-theistic and rationalistic creed. It does not traditionally seem to be either. Ironically, Ajahn Geoff, a Theravadan monk, has said similarly that a lot of the scientific popularizations of Buddhism have more roots in William James and Japanese cultural outreach than in traditional Buddhist doctrine.

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Apr 102012

[Editor's Note: This post is a follow-up on some of the discussion near the end of ep. 52.]

I have often found that great comedy can be deeply philosophical. Wittgenstein once said that one could write a substantial work of philosophy consisting only of jokes. This is certainly true when it comes to philosophy of race. The following are some of the things I show in class to both entertain and spark conversation. Who knew racism could be so darn funny?

White Privilege:

Watch on YouTube.

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Apr 092012

John DerbyshireJohn Derbyshire has been fired from the National Review for an openly racist column on how white people should advise their children with respect to “blacks”: for the most part, avoid them. Because on the whole, they are unintelligent, antisocial, hostile, and dangerous. Or as he puts it, avoid “concentrations of blacks” or places “swamped with blacks,” and leave a place when “the number of blacks suddenly swells,” and keep moving when “accosted by a strange black” in the street. The language is alarmingly dehumanizing: black people come in “swamps” and “concentrations” (and presumably also in hordes, swarms, and just plain gangs). And it’s clearly meant to be a dismissal of the notion — much talked about recently in light of the Trayvon Martin shooting — that African Americans should be able to walk down the street without being shunned, much less attacked.

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Apr 062012
The Buddha

Continuing our discussion of Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized (2011).

Are the basic tenets of Buddhism compatible with a respect for science? In episode 53, Owen Flanagan outlined a science-friendly project of comparative ethics, and touched on Buddhism’s empiricist theory of knowledge and its metaphysics of impermanence. If that was the lecture, this episode is the discussion section, where the regular foursome expands upon these themes and hopefully makes some of the previous discussion more understandable to folks new to philosophy.

Folks that like hearing us free associating among anecdotes and rants about movies and discussion of our ground rules will enjoy this, whereas those impatient to hear about Buddhism are free to jump past the first 20, or even 40 minutes, at which point we get down to business and talk about karma, nirvana, emptiness, no-self, and the four noble truths. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: “Who Wants to Love Me,” a new song by Mark Lint (with some elements recycled from 1992 or so)

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Apr 042012

Over two episodes, we discussed Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations,Part I, sections 1-133 and 191-360. Here’s a version from the web. The full crew was present along with Philosophy Bro for episode 55, and that group minus Seth (who went to Portugal) was there for #56.

The Investigations was published posthumously in 1953; book one was originally ready for publication in 1946 (but Wittgenstein pulled it). The book reverses many of the positions laid out in his earlier work, The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where he conceived of language as providing a picture of reality, where in basic cases, a word directly stands for a thing we experience, and a sentence expresses relations between those things. On that conception, to understand that particular sentence fully, you only need to see which things in the world the words hook to and what relation is being asserted.

Wittgenstein argues, instead, that the meaning of a word can best be understood by its role in the actions with which it is associated. So “red” is not a raw sense datum with a word attached to it, but a property of things we deal with every day, helping us to communicate about them. A philosopher might ask whether my red is different from your red, but so long as this supposed possible difference has no effect on our practices (i.e. we both call the same things red), then it’s a confused question. Wittgenstein thinks that all philosophical problems are a result of taking words out of the context in which they are established and understood in daily life and being confused by that.

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Apr 032012

Here’s a conference-lecture by Dan Zahavi (of the “Center for Subjectivity Research” at the University of Copenhagen/Danish National Research Foundation) that asks whether it’s a good idea to try to “naturalize” phenomenology.

Watch on YouTube.

He distinguishes early on what Flanagan means by phenomenology (referring to Owen by name), i.e. reports on what things seem like to us, and what Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and the rest of that tradition meant by it.

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