On Life, Style, Buddhism, and the Peculiarities of Western Philosophy

Back when I was teaching, in every class I ever taught, there was always one student who would raise his hand or approach me after a lecture and say, "That's like Buddhism."

Now, I wonder if this is a distinctly California phenomenon. Somehow, I can't imagine the same thing happening at U Penn. But perhaps times have changed and Buddhism — or some version of Buddhism — has penetrated the American vocabulary, its psyche, its sense of its self.

The ideas that define and shape my thinking may share certain notions with Buddhism — a critique of the ego, the collapse of a subject/object dichotomy, a sense of participating in life rather than standing at a critical remove. No doubt, there are more commonalities.

And yet an enormous abyss yawns between Deleuze's The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque and the writings of Chuang Tzu. One experiences that difference immediately and palpably in their respective styles: while both are somewhat cryptic, one is exacting, dense, conceptual; the other is poetic and light.

This difference — what we can call their style — is not irrelevant. On the contrary, it is precisely what matters. Style is thought rendered as a life, as a way of going in this world. It is a posture and predilection, a mode, an operation: a living through.

I think it is safe to say that more people can reference some Buddhist notion — perhaps erroneously — than can reference Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida, Bergson, or Deleuze. The density — and, often, the absurdly pedantic prose — of Western philosophy is prohibitive. Buddhist writings, on the other hand, while complex and at times cryptic have a certain accessibility.

And this accessibility has to do with that fact that Buddhism concerns itself with how to live, how to operate in this world. Kant or Hegel, on the other hand, read like aliens: it's hard to imagine what these impossibly complex texts have to do with living life.

And, no doubt, this is a valid critique of Western philosophy: it is "academic." And yet....

And yet this conceptual approach to life is still an approach to life. And I, for one, happen to enjoy concepts. I happen to enjoy the elaborate, bizarre, beautiful conceptual structures of Kant and the careful, considered density of Deleuze. And this enjoyment is a life, is a posture, is a style. This is how I roll, and I dig it.

This is to say that I read all texts — Bergson or Buddha — as modes of living. Of course, the fact that I read this way — that I read philosophers for their style as much as for their ideas — places me outside of the academic community. And as I am not part of the academic community, I could care less. But my point is this: just because the academic approach to Western philosophy doesn't understand or concern itself with concept as style, as life, doesn't mean we need to critique Western philosophy for missing life.

Rather, it obliges us to find the life in Hegel and Kant and Derrida and Foucault. Perhaps we find that life distasteful. I, for one, have found Heidegger unpalatable. And Hegel, well, I could never digest dialectics. And, jeez, Kant is so hilariously uptight and reasonable that he's gloriously insane. I, for one, love that delirium — even if I am not a Kantian disciple.

I am a thinker. Such is my being. Such is my becoming. And so I roll with those who think aggressively, beautifully, thoroughly, baroquely: Deleuze, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, Foucault, Burroughs. This is my style. This is my life. Not the serenity or peace of Zen; not the quiet, cryptic piety of Buddhism; but the intellectual beauty — and at times crankiness and pedantry — of my Western cohorts.

This is not a critique or negation of Buddhism. It is an affirmation of me. Peace.


T. said...

Dear Daniel,
I listened to your lectures on iTunesU and discovered a whole new world of what as I now understand is a postmodern philosofy, or as you like to call it rhetoric.

I would like to recomend you a modern russian writer, who probably has similar views on reality as you do - Victor Pelevin, specially his book Chapayev and Void, in translation its called Buddha's Little Finger (aka Clay Machine-Gun). Pelevin is probably the most influential writer in modern Russia, however he is very little known outside Russia.

One more comment on your Rhetoric lectures. There was one thing that bothered me about them, that somehow spoiled overall impression. That is your critics of conventional medicine versus homeopathy. I think we should distinguish between sciense and pseudoscience. Homeopathy's efficacy is unsupported by the collective weight of modern scientific research, therefore it probably is just a placebo treatment, which as we know can sometimes work, specially if patient believes in its efficiency. I mean, if homeopathy is a science it has to use scientific methods to proove that it really is science. In this case its much easier to prove then in case of psychoanalysis for instance. Just take 100 people with infection, give 50 antibiotics and 50 homeopathy and compare results, as far as I know anthibiotics work better.

Sorry if I am being rude,
thank you very much for your inspiring lectures and texts,

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks for the note. As for homeopathy vs. allopathy, I fear you may have missed the point:

- I was trying to reveal the "environment" of science and medicine, that the things we take for granted are arguments, not the truth

- The very notion of "scientific" research was precisely what I was critiquing

- To consider homeopathy as 'placebo' effect is to a) patronize — medical research is as full of shit, if not more, than any other institution; b) underestimate what a placebo is (not that homeopathy is a placebo); c) underestimate the very nature of the body.

-Antibiotics do work, sometimes, on treating a issue. But the rebound and ill effects are often disastrous whereas homeopathic treatments, while no doubt slower, tend to have much more thorough, long lasting effects.

In any case, the point of the lectures — and of speaking about medicine — was to make the point that EVERYTHING is an argument.

T. said...

Thank you very much for your answer!
I totaly agree that everything is an argument, and no theory is ever considered certain.
I agree that most physicians don't give a shit and many of them don't know a shit about my body.
It's the same in my country, Russia, although the Soviet medical practice was less mechanic and technocratic but more personal then in US I guess.

However, I noticed that you speak very sceptically about conventional science, medicine in this case, while praising alternative medicine:

"- The very notion of "scientific" research was precisely what I was critiquing"

But a scientific theory hinges on empirical findings, knowledge in science is gained by gradual synthesis of information from different experiments, by various researchers. In contrast, a myth may enjoy uncritical acceptance by members of a certain group.

I mean, people used to think that deseases are caused by demons, and may be they really are, but it seems that its more likely that deseases are caused by viruses or bacteria, or cholesterol.
Of course nothing is 100% certain, and science will never explain everything, but some things are more certain than others. It seems that there is more evidence to believe in conventional medicine then in alternative, while doubting both.

P.S. It would be also very interesting to hear your thoughts on the existance of soul. I have just listened to Shelly Kagan's lectures where he argues there is no such thing as a soul.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I have to tell you: I'm not sure viruses and bacteria "cause" sickness. They are constitutive, part of it. But the cause? In some sense, that's silly: we are exposed to lots of viruses and bacteria all the time. Some make us sick; some do not. It seems a bit limited to give all that power to one microbe — even if that microbe is quite powerful. It's just hard to ignore the systemic nature of human being, its fundamental ecology, an eco-system that is part body, part bug, part desire, part dream, part mood.

So, well, I tend to focus more on demons than on bacteria and that works much better for me. Focusing on bugs only makes me sick.

As for souls, I'm not sure what you mean by this word. I tend to believe we are operational, local metabolic structures, singular nodes within a cosmic network. So a soul? Probably not. If that makes any sense at all....