Who has ruled the Middle East over the course of history? Lots of people, including Egyptians, Turks, Macedonians, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Europeans... Here is a visual overview in 90 seconds.
Go see the movie Moon. I rarely watch, let alone recommend, science fiction, but this one felt close to the classics of the genre, such as 2001, Blade Runner, and Solaris. What do they have in common? They're less about exploring outer space than the inner one, less about the gee-whiz-bang of science & technology than what it means to be human. Moon raises questions of identity, loneliness, corporate greed, and bioethics, with haunting landscapes and music to boot. No gratuitous explosions, crashes, chases, laser guns, femme fatales, or superheroes saving the day for planet earth. Instead, it offers a slow and deliberate unfolding of character through crisis—the crisis of self-discovery.
"For a long while, Western philosophy has had little to do with the philosophical traditions of India and China. A common view ... was that all thought in the Asian traditions was not philosophy, but religion or mysticism. But now, slowly, Western philosophers are starting to engage with Asian thought ... Graham Priest, Professor of Philosophy at Melbourne University, talks about what these philosophers are finding there, and why it's often challenging for someone who knows only Western philosophy."
"Philosophy aspires to universal truths but it has to do so in a
particular language. How does the language in which philosophy is
expressed affect what can and cannot be said, and how does translation
affect our understanding of it? ... we ask a Chinese philosopher
how different Confucius is in English and we consider attempts to make
Plato sound as though he came from Oxford."
Here is a thought-provoking podcast with British philosopher of science, Nicholas Maxwell. He has devoted much of his working life trying to get across the
point that we urgently need to bring about a revolution in the aims and
methods of academic inquiry, so the basic aim becomes the promotion of
wisdom by rational means rather than just the acquisition of knowledge, for knowledge without wisdom, or science without civilization, is extremely dangerous. We now have this problem, he believes, because ... well, listen for yourself (~52 minutes).
One should see one’s own home from far off. One should cross the seven oceans to see one’s home, in the helplessness of the unbridgeable distance, fully hoping to return some day. One should turn around, while journeying, to see one’s own country from another. One’s Earth, from space. Then the memory of what the children are doing at home will be the memory of what children are doing on Earth. Concern about food and drink at home will be concern about food and drink on Earth. Anyone hungry on Earth will be like someone hungry at home. And returning to Earth will be like returning home.
Things back home are in such a mess that after walking a few steps from home, I return homewards as if it were Earth. ____________________________________
The Greeks understood philosophy as the love of wisdom. They valued theoretical knowledge to the extent it contributed to practical wisdom. Inside Plato’s Academy was a grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. But philosophy today, at least as pursued by much of the Anglo-American academy, is markedly different. For the most part, its concerns have shrunk to sub-disciplines in epistemology, paving the way for the acquisition of theoretical knowledge as an end in itself. The pursuit of wisdom seems to have left the academy and alighted on the stormy shores of self-help aisles.
The First Philosophy
Aristotle described his major work, Metaphysics (not his term for it but of a later editor), as ‘first philosophy’ and called it a study of ‘being qua being’ and ‘the first causes of things.’ In it Aristotle sought to explore the issues that were most fundamental and most general, and which framed all other investigations. Suitably enough, he chose ontology to be the principal subject matter of Metaphysics.
Ontology is the study of the nature of being, existence, and reality. It explores the most fundamental of questions: what does it mean to be and to exist; what standards do we use to distinguish what is from what is not; what properties identify a thing; how do we decide whether a thing has merely changed or ceased to exist; what makes something concrete or abstract, real or ideal, independent or dependent; what interrelationships, boundaries, and classifications do we assign to things; do numbers exist; what is the relation between language and reality; and so on.
How we answer such questions shapes, and is shaped by, the basic concepts through which we conceive our world, concepts like force, energy, motion, nature, impermanence, truth, language, space, time, history, god, mind, evil, suffering, possibility, reason, spirit, etc. These ontological concepts arise from a combination of our senses, imagination, and our being in the world, and they influence what we make of the world, as well as how we investigate it. The Greeks, Gnostics, Aztecs, Confucians, and the Hindus all differed in their ontological assumptions. Not all concepts were shared by them or were given the same interpretations.
Three months ago, Namit and I traveled to Indonesia. One of the highlights of our trip was a daylong excursion to Borobudur, where we spent nearly 6 hours climbing it up and down, wondering at the history it represented, and admiring its sculpture and workmanship.
Borobudur stupa is the world's largest Buddhist monument (as large as a Giza pyramid) and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located near the city of Jogjakarta on the island of Java, it's a stunning remnant of the days when the Dharmic religions were politically ascendant in the islands. It was commissioned and built between 800 and 900 CE by the local monarchs so that devotees need not travel all the way to India for spiritual pilgrimage. Drawing Buddhist pilgrims from as far away as China, its grandeur would have raised the stature of the local monarchs in the eyes of the Buddhist world, which at the time encompassed the whole of southern and eastern Asia. Some say that the site was chosen for being surrounded by three volcanoes, which can be seen in the near distance, and the confluence of two rivers, meant to represent the Ganga and Jamuna of India.
It took two generations of workers to fashion the remarkable monument from over 2 million little blocks of lava rock, gathered from the nearby volcanoes, then grooved and notched to fit into place like a 3D jigsaw puzzle for the gods. The massive black stupa must have been impressive, rising above a sea of unbroken jungle, like a lotus floating on a green pond. When it was completed, the pious meditated as they slowly circumambulated its 10 levels.
Traveling upward from the bottom, levels 2-6 are covered by scenes from Buddha's life and teachings, carved in low relief, each one of the 3,000 panels entirely unique. These levels are meant to represent the concerns of this material existence. On the top 4 layers one sees only bell-shaped stupas and statues of the Buddha, which represent increasing degrees of perfection and proximity to Nirvana. Altogether, Borobudur monument is adorned with 555 Buddha statues. Its 10 tiers form a mandala when viewed from the sky (which no one in those days could have done). The resulting symmetries and geometries make for an immersive experience of entering a hallowed place. In those days there would have been thousands of monks from all over Asia, making it a great religious center.
A surprising feature of the monument is the degree to which the artisans mimicked the Indian style of sculpture and relief. They nearly replicated the look and feel of contemporary Indian Buddhist carvings, while creating an original design for the stupa as a whole. Many of the relief panels are simpler in scope than those from ancient India, yet the craftsmen reproduced very well the fine and nuanced expressiveness of the faces, similar to what one sees on Indian stupas and temples of that period. To accomplish this, legions of Indian craftsmen were brought in to teach, train, and work alongside the local craftsmen. Many of them married in and stayed on here for the rest of their lives.
The stupa at Borobudur was in use for only 150 years before the site was abandoned. The local populations fled eastward (probably to Bali), possibly because of insurmountable devastation caused by a volcanic eruption. Thereafter, the monument fell to ruins and was reclaimed by the jungle for almost 800 years. It was finally uncovered, during colonial times, by the Dutch and English, who began to restore the pile of tumbled stone to its former glory in a series of Herculean excavation and rebuilding projects, culminating in the most ambitious archaeological restoration project in history, between 1975 and 1982.
I've put together a short video tour (3:45) of Borobudur using the video and photos that Namit captured.
Here is Hilary Putnam, American mathematician, philosopher of science, and a central figure in analytic philosophy, in conversation with Bryan Magee. Dating from the 80s, I recommend this for all those who wish to challenge and broaden their understanding of science, objective truth, and the scientific method. Part one appears below, here are two, three, four, and five (total ~45 mins).
Continuing with this blog's recent focus on Heidegger, here is a "plain English" account of why Heidegger matters and what his magnum opus, Being and Time, is all about. This is a series of articles in the Guardian by Simon Critchley: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was the most important and influential philosopher in the continental tradition in the 20th century. Being and Time, first published in 1927, was his magnum opus. There is no way of understanding what took place in continental philosophy
after Heidegger without coming to terms with Being and Time.
Furthermore, unlike many Anglo-American philosophers, Heidegger has
exerted a huge influence outside philosophy, in areas as diverse as
architecture, contemporary art, social and political theory,
psychotherapy, psychiatry and theology....
Being and Time is a work of considerable length (437 pages in the German original) and legendary difficulty. The difficulty is caused by the fact that Heidegger sets himself the task of what he calls a "destruction" of the philosophical tradition. We shall see some of the implications of this in future entries, but the initial consequence is that Heidegger refuses to avail himself of the standard terminology of modern philosophy, with its talk of epistemology, subjectivity, representation, objective knowledge and the rest.
Heidegger has the audacity to go back to the drawing board and invent a new philosophical vocabulary. For example, he thinks that all conceptions of the human being as a subject, self, person, consciousness or indeed a mind-brain unity are hostages to a tradition of thinking whose presuppositions have not been thought through radically enough. Heidegger is nothing if not a radical thinker: a thinker who tries to dig down to the roots of our lived experience of the world rather than accepting the authority of tradition.
Here is a breezy talk in which Alain de Botton looks at our ideas of success and failure, the anxiety we feel over our careers, why it's harder now to feel calm than ever before. Is success always earned? Is failure? What role does snobbery and envy play in our lives? What is the flip side of equality, individualism, and meritocracy? Where do our goals and ambitions really come from? And more (via 3QD).
Ananya Vajpeyi reviews Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History.
From ancient times men have dominated the world of Sanskrit scholarship. Originally those men were Brahmins; then they became Europeans, then Englishmen, and finally Indians. It is only in the past 50 years or so that women have begun to enter this esoteric field of study, and in this regard, Wendy Doniger has been a pioneer and a force to reckon with. Her new book, The Hindus: An Alternative History brings 30 years of her rigorous and innovative scholarly practice to a fitting climax – and I use the word advisedly. Doniger has studied Hinduism in its erotic, aesthetic and corporeal aspects, making her the target of envy as well as criticism from her colleagues. Her work, which includes a translation of the Kamasutra and extensive writing on Shiva, the Hindu god of cosmic destruction, who is worshipped in the form of a phallus (linga), is often seen to be titillating. She is interested in asceticism, but also in sexuality; in the spiritual, but also in the carnal.
Hindu traditions are diverse and heterodox enough to incorporate a number of parallel doctrines, theologies and belief systems, as well as an enormous repertoire of deities, symbols, rituals and concepts that contradict one another and yet coexist. Doniger’s openness to the varieties of religious experience permitted under the accommodating and multifarious rubric of Hinduism has upset all manner of people, from devout Hindus, to the votaries of Hindu nationalism (“Hindutva”), from American professors to German philologists. Nearly all of them misunderstand her work, particularly her creative ways of exploring how Hindu thought connects mind, body and soul, rather than placing them in conflict with each other.