Deconstructing our common sense: Where did you get that idea? Barry Magid September 11th 2010

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I just sent around to the google group listserv a link to an interview with the philosopher Peter Hacker, whose work I’ll talk about this morning. If you happen to be writing your doctoral dissertation on Wittgenstein, you're no doubt very familiar with his work. If not, perhaps not so much. He’s the author of a four volume commentary on the philosophical investigations and also another book called the Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience which actually would have slightly broader appeal, probably, numbering in the dozens of readers, people who are interested in the philosophical critiques of cognitive science and neuroscience.

So since I don’t expect any of you to really take it up as beach reading, I’ll try to summarize a little bit what I think is relevant. What particularly struck me in the interview was the way he compared philosophy and science, and what kind of knowledge or insight we gain from each. The nice way of describing the difference, he said, is if you ask a scientist to list the greatest achievements of science in the last thousand years, there’s no difficulty coming up with an agreed upon list of great achievements. However, if you try to generate a list like that in philosophy, there isn’t any. There’s no such thing as progress in philosophy the way there is in science. In a way it’s analogous to the notion of progress in poetry. You can make a list of the great poems and poets of the last couple of thousand years, but you can’t say we’ve really advanced on poems like The Iliad. We don’t really know how to do that a lot better than they did then. You can’t write a better poem than The Iliad. What you can do now is write in more diverse styles of poetry, and you can write poems that may appeal to modern readers more than Homer does, but in terms of the mastery of the engagement with the material, it can’t be bettered.

Now philosophy, Hacker said, is a discipline in which each generation has to engage and untangle the particular conceptual muddles or conceptual categories of their time. It’s one of those fields specific to what people are struggling with at a time, but each generation has to do that struggle all over again for itself. The insights of philosophy cannot be passed down the way you can pass down formulas in mathematics and physics. In philosophy, it’s much more the case that we have to reinvent the wheel over and over again in every generation. It asks us to look at the conceptual categories or the explanations that we can give to things and why we usually unconsciously prefer one set of explanations or kinds of explanations to another.

A simple version of that would be to say, What are the explanations we give for the fact of difference or inequality in the world? See, it makes a big difference if we assume that difference in wealth or opportunity or power is a god-given natural order, if we assume that it is biologically based on innate capacity, or if we see it as the result of a political arrangement of power. At any given time one of those explanations may pass as absolute common sense and never even be questioned. It’s the job of philosophy to pay attention to our assumptions and ask, Where did they arise and is there another way to look at it?

Now the reason I bring all this up is that I think it is analogous to the way we function in therapy and how we function in religious practice, particularly Zen practice. A big part of therapy is asking, Where did you get that idea? It’s deconstructing our common-sense notions of what we can expect or not expect from the world or from relationships. Our Zen practice is one also in which we try to look at our assumptions about who we are and what this life is. It makes us look at our assumptions about what we call the meaning of our life or how we can come to terms with basic features of our life.

There’s been what I think of as a very unfortunate turn in some circles to think of meditation and practice as a form of cognitive science, where brain researchers are investigating the way the mind works and are figuring out the fine-tuning of our minds and of our brains. Think of information in a PET scan, what little parts light up if we do this or that. But I don’t think we discover anything very esoteric, really, in our practice, and there’s no information that we gain.

We might say there are three basic things about this life that we discover, or that we know, and we don’t need a lot of scientific input into. We know that we’re going to die. We know the reality of love and attachment and the centrality of relationship in life, and we know something about the centrality of the phenomenon of joy or play or simply a kind of vital, delightful engagement with the world that we have as children and that we see either growing or being stifled in the course of our life. How we understand those three things, what we do about them, how we try to control them or avoid them, such as mortality or impermanence, love, friendship or its absence, joy, creativity, playfulness, how we organize our lives around those possibilities or what we see opening up or closing off those possibilities is fundamentally all that we’re up to in this practice or therapy practice or anywhere else.

Now Hacker’s point in philosophy is that nothing can be transmitted generation to generation, that we have to figure it out over and over again for ourselves. I think it’s true in terms of the content but not exactly true in terms of the process. What we transmit is a tradition of philosophizing. What we transmit here is a tradition of a certain kind of religious practice. The shape of that keeps changing, and a big part of the internal discussions of philosophy or analysis or religious practice is the shape or the kind of container that one generation passes on to the next in terms of how we’re going to do this practice, how we’re going to carry on this investigation, what forms or hints we can give the next generation about how to do this in a way that we think is fruitful.

Sometimes one generation can’t tell the next a damn thing, and sometimes we can be overly attached to a traditional way of doing it, and if we can just stick to the way it’s described in the Shobogenzo, we can’t miss, right? Well, if you stick to the way of the Shobogenzo, some people won’t miss. The same way if you stick to certain poetry like The Iliad, some people won’t miss, but a lot of people will just not connect to it. So we both carry on or transmit traditional forms, then at the same time we constantly try to figure out in what way do we need to adapt them so that they really come alive for us in the present, because our goal is not just to transmit a form for its own sake, but to transmit an activity that has a certain function in our lives and it won’t have that function if it’s simply a museum piece or if it’s too disconnected from the experience of everyday life to really engage in.

Philosophy functions that way too. You have examples of somebody like Nietzsche who engaged his whole life trying to look at what are the fundamental assumptions we make about the meaning of our life in terms of religion and aesthetics and power, and he just went at it from every way, from every side possible, hammering away at what he thought were implicit assumptions that we carry around about who we were and what society was and how we operate. His kind of brilliant analysis can’t be superseded, but it also may not speak to everyone. Wittgenstein’s analysis of language is a fundamental critique like Nietzsche’s that can’t be superseded, but again it’s not a style that everyone will be engaged by. So over and over we have to rewrite it, reformulate the problems, go at them in another way.

I think our whole endeavor here is to find a right balance between the trust and transmission of an old form, where we’ve gotten this message, if you stick with this, this is going to work, trust me, and feeling like, well, wait a minute. This is not exactly 13th century Japan. Maybe we need to do it a little differently, right? So we both have to inherit the wheel and reinvent the wheel over and over again for ourselves. You can think about the two sides of practice that are particularly difficult here. One side is that kind of trust and complete surrender into a form and a tradition.

Now a big part of traditional practice was intended to bring about an end to self-centeredness through surrender, a kind of just do it, let the whole traditional form take you over, become you, wear out your own self-centered likes and dislikes and opinions about how it should go by just submerging yourself in the form. And even when we didn’t use the traditional forms back in San Diego, Joko used the metaphor of the grindstone -- over and over again -- in some picture of how we use difficulty and pain in practice to wear out self-centeredness. That’s something that every generation in a way has to surrender to in order to be able to make any use of the forms that we inherit.

At the same time we have to find a form that we trust and makes sense to us. It can’t just be submission, it can’t just be a kind of passive almost masochistic kind of, well, this is the way they’ve always done it so this is what I’ve got to do. That just becomes dreary. I guess the criteria for me is: How well does the practice that we come up with engage these three things in our life? How well does it enable us to face rather than avoid our mortality? How well does it allow us to face rather than avoid our dependence on other people? How much does it foster that sense of joy or wonder in life?

We say there’s no gain in practice, but there really is a difference between a practice that’s dead and a practice that’s alive. Looking at it from those dimensions is a good way of asking whether the form of the practice that we’re engaged in right now is alive or not. I can create and transmit a form that feels alive to me, but each of you has to be active as well as just passive participants in that. That’s the burden or the responsibility of lay practice. We are really much more responsible individually for our own level and form of commitment, how we practice and participate and engage in a sangha that is not defined in a rigid, monastic way where everything is set in advance. So I hope you’ll take a look at Peter Hacker’s interview and reflect on the nature of this practice, what it is we’re engaged in, how to tell if it’s alive or dead, and how to think of that in terms other than progress.

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