Category Archives: philosophy

bootstrapping value commitments

On the third day of the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research), I am thinking about the normative commitments of engaged scholars–their theories of justice or social ethics.

All research requires and reflects normative commitments. Even a highly positivistic study addresses specific topics and questions for a reason, whether or not that reason is acknowledged. We should be accountable for these normative commitments, willing to defend them in public, respond to criticisms of them, and modify them when the criticisms seem valid.

I don’t believe we have a right to “outsource” that process to other people. For instance, it’s not acceptable to say that the community you study has certain values and that you simply report them without influencing them. Whether you are right to study this particular community in this way is a question about you, and you are responsible for answering it to the best of your ability.

On the other hand, we can acknowledge our frailties and limitations as individuals. We have cognitive and moral limitations–in fact, we are foolish and selfish. It can therefore be wise to consider questions of justice in the company of others and to make oneself open to their views.

That raises the question: Which others? In the projects I briefly described yesterday, the community is the border region of metropolitan San Diego/Tijuana. Making oneself part of that community, and accountable to it, directs one’s normative reasoning in particular ways. That choice is debatable: some people would say that employees of California’s state university system should make themselves accountable to that state, whose southern border runs between San Diego and Tijuana.

Reflection on justice is a bootstrapping process. We begin in communities; we refine our sense of which communities we belong to; we explore what is right with other members of those communities; and then we reflect on whether we want to remain fully engaged with those communities or redefine our memberships again.

This process reminds me of a Reformation debate. In contrast to the Catholic view that the church mediates between the individual soul and the divine, Protestants said that each sinner stands alone before the Maker. Why then should people belong to churches at all? The canonical Protestant answer is that we are individually accountable yet we should also be humble. We need other people to help us see, or remember, what is right.

Perhaps this Protestant heritage biases my thinking (even though I am not of that faith). Although the moral individualism inherent in what I have written here is not accurately described as “Western”–it contradicts Western Catholicism–it does have a specific European heritage. Still, this combination of individual accountability with humility seems about right to me. And perhaps it roughly resembles the combination of dharma and sangha and other hybrids of truth and community from around the world.

notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism

(With several colleagues, I will be teaching a pilot course on religious pluralism and civic life this fall. This post is one of several that reflect my pre-reading and thinking.)

In 1998, in a generally enthusiastic overview of Buddhism in the USA, Charles S. Prebish noted the “bifurcation” between Buddhism as the “native religion of a significant number of Asian immigrants” and “an ever-increasing group of (mostly) Euro-Americans who [have] embraced Buddhism primarily out of intellectual attraction and interest in spiritual practice.” He described the latter group as urban, highly educated, and “even elite in its lifestyle orientation”–and growing very rapidly.

More than 20 years later, the tensions seem more evident. Rev. Christina Moon critically assesses “the erasure of Asian cultures, and of Asian and Asian American people, in mainstream Western Buddhism.” She writes:

Over the fifteen years before coming to Chozen-ji [a temple and monastery founded by Asian Americans], I sat with more than a dozen different Buddhist communities where I was often the only Asian and sometimes one of the only non-white people in attendance. When non-Asian Buddhists (particularly at American Zen centers) wore Japanese clothes, bowed to me theatrically, referred to me as “Cristina-san”, responded to requests in English with “Hai!”, and expressed rigid attachment to the technical accuracy of certain Japanese and Buddhist forms, it looked more like cosplay [dressing as a character from a movie] than a means to enter Zen. 

I find this situation troubling, but it’s also a provocative case for thinking about culture, religion, and racial identity: how to define them in general, how they relate to each other, and what we should do as a result.

Before suggesting some general ideas about these issues, I should recommend Moon’s specific guidance related to Buddhism in the USA. She identifies a set of practices that are common across Asian and Asian-American communities, such as bringing food to share and helping people who are more experienced or older do menial tasks. She writes that “Asians do not own these behaviors,” but they are notable in Asian communities and are consistent with Buddhist ethics as described abstractly. Thus they are “ways to bring the dharma alive.”

For similar reasons, there is value in practices like “maintaining a shrine, prayer, prostrations and pilgrimage, engaging in the arts, [and] offering alms” that some converts to Buddhism might dismiss as “merely cultural.” More generally, we might identify virtues of respectful curiosity, fallibilism (i.e., any of my ideas can always be wrong) and mild self-abnegation. I think it is fruitful to understand these virtues in a specifically Buddhist way, but also to endorse and use them in other contexts–for instance, when one encounters an Abrahamic tradition.

I would propose some general propositions that extend beyond this case:

  • A religion is not best understood as a coherent set of abstract beliefs that are necessary and sufficient for membership and that contradict some of the beliefs of other religions. That is not a complete description even of the Abrahamic faiths; it is even less accurate for other religions. Instead, any religion is a whole body of accumulated beliefs, stories, values, practices, and institutions. It always encompasses a great deal of diversity and has porous and indefinite borders. In that sense, religion is very much like culture, or is even a category used–often by outsiders–to name certain aspects of culture. (See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, discussed here.)
  • A culture is not something to which individuals belong, and it does not affect individuals. A culture is a name for a large set of beliefs, values, skills, habits, etc. that individuals have and can use. Everyone has a unique set at any given moment. However, we sometimes gain insight by categorizing people within a culture when we notice that they share a lot of the same repertoire and differ from others whom they encounter. Often, what is salient about a culture is its tension with other cultures that it interacts with. (See “a mistaken view of culture“).
  • A race is a social construct that arbitrarily makes some extremely superficial attributes, such as skin color, falsely seem important. It originated in a desire to dominate and exploit. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored, because centuries of racial oppression have taught people to see in terms of race and have created injustices that require remedies. One result is that the loose categories that we name as “cultures” very often have racial overtones as well. In situations like the ones that Christina Moon describes, people should be mindful of race. (See “what would happen to race in a just world?“).
  • Specific ideas can be good or bad, right or wrong. For instance, I would defend Moon’s guidance for behavior in an Asian-American temple as good advice, not merely as an expression of a specific group’s values. Because we think–and sometimes correctly–that some of our own ideas are important and good, we are motivated to spread them, including to people who come from very different backgrounds. We are also motivated to absorb and adopt new ideas from diverse sources when we find them persuasive. Evangelism is not limited to Christianity and Islam and should not be equated with cultural imperialism. The traditions that originated in Asia, like those from the Mediterranean and elsewhere, have been deliberately propagated to outsiders and sometimes willingly received. In fact, we might say that all people have a human right to all sources of wisdom, regardless of where the ideas originated. (See “a richer sense of cultural interchange.”)
  • Whether the spread of a given idea is good depends on whether that idea is good. This is a question that each of us must consider with the resources we happen to have: the other ideas, values, skills, etc. that we have already absorbed. We should not be biased in favor of ideas that cohere well with what we already believe; that is “motivated reasoning.” On the contrary, we should try to be open to ideas that trouble our existing beliefs.
  • All cultures are hybrid. Nothing human is pure, and the desire to keep national cultures distinct, coherent, and homogeneous is pathological. It is the root of much cruelty and exclusion.
  • East and West are not useful categories. Although sometimes we gain insight by categorizing people, these particular classifications are far too vague to shed any light, and they have problematic histories and motivations. Besides, specific traditions that seem classically European or Asian have long been intertwined. For example, one of the most influential seedbeds of Buddhism was Greek-ruled Northern India after Alexander, when coins literally had Greek imprinted on one side and Sanskrit on the other. (See “avoiding the labels of East and West.”) Two concepts that can be more useful than East and West are imperialism and modernization. But these are not simply “Western” phenomena. Japan was imperialist, and all Asian countries have experienced modernization. (See “don’t name things Western but call out imperialism.”)

In the US, there is a certain tendency–I don’t know how widespread–to see Buddhist thought as ahistorical. The Buddha is treated as a contemporary; the meditating mind lives only in the immediate present. There is also a tendency to acknowledge Buddhism’s roots in Asia but to depict Asian or Eastern “culture” as monolithic, apart from superficial aesthetic differences that people can browse like consumers.

Thus it’s possible that the white/European-American Buddhists whom Rev. Moon has encountered differentiate between the transcendent truths of the Buddha and optional traditions and behaviors that they label “culture.” They then pick and choose from the traditions without recognizing that they (highly educated, mostly White Americans) are every bit as immersed in their own stream of inherited behaviors, aesthetics, beliefs, and values, which influence their choices about what to borrow from Asian contexts. Linda Heuman writes:

The French philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour famously described it this way: “A Modern is someone who believes that others believe.” A modern Buddhist, in Latour’s sense, is someone who believes that Asian forms of Buddhism carry the “baggage” of their host cultures but who remains unreflective about the assumptions that shape his or her own modern adaptations.

Any mind is ineluctably historical. As we develop from speechless infants into adults, we absorb a vast array of classifications, assumptions, and values that other people invented before us. We can never escape this historical contingency. You might think that you can have an unmediated experience of nature, but your tastes in nature, your words and concepts for nature, and even your physical location in front of a specific patch of nature are all historically conditioned. (See “the sublime and other people” and “the sublime is social“.)

History is highly complex, diverse, and often cruel, whether we happen to know the details or not. Evils are widespread–consider, for example, the use of Buddhist ideas in imperial Japan or in Myanmar today. Human beings widely and blatantly violate principles that they expressly teach, such as nonviolence and compassion. On the other hand, people all over the world also create practices and institutions that reflect wise goals and choices. What we think we know is a result of this complex, globally interconnected, and fraught past.

An ahistorical approach may actually contradict important Buddhist ideas. For one thing, the assumption that you can have an authentic, personal experience of nature or of your own body contradicts the idea of no-self, whereas to acknowledge that all your ideas originated with other people and will outlast you seems consistent with rebirth.

Besides, Mahayana Buddhists have presented the development of Buddhism as a series of “turnings of the Dharma wheel.” This story–rather like Hegel’s idealist history–understands the truth as we know it today as a historical achievement that reflects logical development over time. Idealist histories can offer insight by explaining the development of ideas as deliberate mental work. But it’s usually worth bringing materialist considerations into view as well. What we believe today may be a result of other people’s good thinking, or the outcome of power and self-interest, or both.

Unfortunately, analyzing the mind as historically conditioned–and history as rife with power and injustice–requires a lot of knowledge. My understanding of Mahayana Buddhist historiography could fit on an index card, and I would be hard pressed to learn a lot more, if only because I don’t know the relevant languages. I am supposed to know more about German idealist philosophy and historiography, but there too, I am woefully ignorant. And there are so many other traditions to learn.

Christina Moon’s description of cringy behavior at Zen centers is a portrait of people who want to pick and choose ideas and practices that they find comfortable without taking seriously the historical development and interconnection of those ideas, without being genuinely open to practices that might challenge them, without being careful about their own status and impact, and without wrestling with the connections among racial hierarchy and exclusion, everyday culture, and the abstract beliefs that we might classify as Buddhist philosophy or theology. Yet the solution is not to declare these beliefs off limits (nor does Moon suggest that), because everyone should always be looking for good beliefs to adopt. We just have to do it with a lot of care–not only about the ideas and their affect on our inner lives, but also about the other people we touch.

See also: a Hegelian meditation; diversity, humility, curiosity; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; Buddhism as philosophy; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; what is cultural appropriation?

the sublime is social–with notes on Wordsworth’s Lines Above Tintern Abbey

In secular (and probably upscale) reaches of our society, two suggestions are common for restoring mental health and equanimity: we should experience nature and reconnect to our bodies through meditation or exercise.

Of course, prayer is also an option, and activities such as walking in the woods and yoga have roots and analogues in religious traditions. Here, however, I focus on practices that are open to non-believers.

Such experiences are supposed to be authentic, personal, and at least somewhat distinct from the everyday world of conscious thoughts, words, social roles, organizations, and transactions. Although you can have these experiences alongside other people, an important aspect is inward and often literally silent. Something like the pure or raw self is thought to emerge.

This post is a modest contribution to the argument–which others have also made–that it is a mistake to understand such experiences individualistically. Other people are always integrally involved, and it is wise to be maximally conscious of them.

Although practices like hiking and meditation can be routine or even trivial, they bear at least a distant relationship to notions of the sublime. That word has been defined in diverse and incompatible ways–producing an interesting debate–but a common feature seems to be an aesthetic experience that lastingly improves the self and that would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey in ordinary words. Either a sublime experience exceeds human language or else it requires particularly excellent words (such as verse by Homer or Wordsworth) to convey. The natural or religious sublime is sometimes presented as beyond speech, while the literary or rhetorical sublime defines superior speech.

The premise that a sublime experience cannot be shared using ordinary language contains the germ of the conclusion that we do not need other people to experience it. That conclusion is especially problematic in a consumerist culture with relatively loose social ties and high levels of inequality–a society that generates headlines like this one from Wired in 2013, “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead.”

Most thoughtful analysts are aware that words, conscious thoughts, and other people do not go away when one experiences the sublime. For one thing, we are always morally indebted to other people. We can’t go for a walk in the woods unless someone has preserved that forest and built those trails. In the Americas, the land was previously conquered from indigenous people. The shoes on our feet and the food in our stomach were made by other human beings. In many cases, the aesthetic experience was skillfully shaped by people: landscapers and foresters, yoga instructors, or whoever else is relevant. It is wise to thank those who made the sublime possible, yet empty expressions of thanks can be worse than nothing.

In addition, we acquire our tastes, our aesthetic values, and our ability to process experience from other people. As I wrote in a previous post, “I do not simply see the snow; I see it with things already in my mind, like Christmas decorations, paper snowflakes on second-grade bulletin boards, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow,’ Han-shan’s Cold Mountain lyrics, Robert Frost’s ‘lovely, dark and deep’ woods, Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of wintry Japan, Rosemary Clooney with Bing Crosby. In short, I have been taught to appreciate a winter wonderland, a marshmallow world, and a whipped cream day.” None of us understands all the ways that our experiences have been shaped by our predecessors, but we all absorb the development of our societies as we develop from infants into adults. There is no raw self.

In fact, many have sought to combine explicit records of past human experiences with direct experiences of nature and one’s body. Thoreau says of his time alone at Walden Pond, “My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world.” And David Morris reminds us, “Whether meditating by the sea, contemplating the night sky, or crossing the Alps, eighteenth-century enthusiasts for nature rarely forgot their reading: the classics were Addison’s guidebook to Italy, while Joseph Warton’s vision of unspoiled nature comes straight from Lucretius and Shaftesbury” (Morris 1972, p. 7).

Whether to combine introspective experience with literature is a personal choice; it is surely not the only path. But I do believe that the current tendency to see the sublime as purely personal is self-centered, in a consumerist way, and we must bring other people in.

With that in mind, let’s consider one of the most famous depictions of a restorative experience in nature, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. The narrator says that his memories of this spot on the Wye River have given him a “gift / Of aspect more sublime,” a “blessed mood” …

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This seems like a perfect example of what people nowadays might call self-care through nature.

The story told in the poem is a little complicated. We learn, but not in chronological order, that Wordsworth first came to the Wye River Valley “in the hour / Of thoughtless youth,” when he could still enjoy nature spontaneously, almost as a part of it, “bound[ing] o’er the mountains … wherever nature led” with “animal movements.” In those days, he did not need concepts or words (“a remoter charm, / By thought supplied”) to filter his experience.

Memories of those “boyish days” sustained the narrator while he was busy in the human world of “joyless daylight; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” hung over him. Now he has returned to the same spot and finds that he cannot again feel the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of the place, but he is compensated by a new insight. Now in nature he hears “the still sad music of humanity” and realizes that “the mind of man, a motion and a spirit … rolls through all things.”

At the outset, he is eager to portray what he sees as nature, not as culture. For instance, he mentions “hedge-rows” (which are planted and maintained by human beings) and then corrects himself: “hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild,” as if they were nature’s free creations. But by the midst of the poem, he acknowledges that mind and nature are “deeply interfused.”

And then a third person appears in the poem (counting the narrator as one and the reader as two). This is a “you” who is “with me here upon the banks.” This “dearest Friend” emerges as his sister, Dorothy. The poet’s objective becomes to record her experience of the natural scene so that she can better recall it as her life proceeds, and so that she can vividly remember sharing this experience of nature with her brother. His poem will be a mnemonic (see Rexroth 2021) to give her “healing thoughts” amid the “dreary intercourse of daily life.”

Thus Wordsworth’s sublime is not private or individualistic in a simple sense. But perhaps it is not admirably social, either. In an influential 1986 article, Marjorie Levinson noted that Wordsworth not only chose not to describe Tintern Abbey in this poem (even briefly), but he also omitted many obvious features of the Wye River at that time: “prominent signs of commercial activity” such as “coal mines, transport barges noisily plying the river [and] miners’ hovels.” Tintern was a mining village, and the woods were full of “vagrants” who “lived by charcoal-burning” or begging from tourists (Levinson, pp. 29-30). The abbey was a literal ruin–albeit picturesque to some–because it had been suppressed in the Reformation and sold to landlords who had dispossessed the agricultural population, creating whatever unpopulated vistas one could see in 1798.

Levinson argues that Wordsworth knew all this well, and that “the primary poetic action” of the whole poem “is the suppression of the social.” It “achieves its fiercely private vision by directing a continuous energy toward the nonrepresentation of objects and points of view expressive of a public–we would say, ideological–dimension” (pp. 37-8). The poem is a sign of Wordsworth’s retreat from political engagement in the late 1790s.

Levinson’s 1986 article has provoked some responses in defense of Wordsworth; I have not tried to assess the controversy. For me, these are the key points: Wordsworth exemplifies a currently popular way of addressing discontent or even anguish–enjoying nature–and he is conscious that “humanity,” human language, and human relationships are part of that experience. Yet he is notably apolitical. An analysis of why nature looks as it does–who has profited and suffered from it–is missing from the poem. And this seems to foreshadow many contemporary versions of the sublime.

Sources: Marjorie Levinson, “Insight and Oversight: Reading ‘Tintern Abbey,’” in Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems (1986), pp. 14-57; David B. Morris, The Religious Sublime Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th Century England (University Press of Kentucky 1972); and Grace Rexroth, “Wordsworth’s Poetic Memoria Technica: What ‘Tintern Abbey’ Remembers,” Studies in Romanticism 60.2 (2021): 153-174. See also the sublime and other people; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; Foucault’s spiritual exercises; and when you know, but cannot feel, beauty

a mistaken view of culture

Until the 1800s, culture was not a “count noun,” a noun that can take a plural form. It was a “mass noun,” which identified a quality that could come in degrees. In English, people did not speak of “cultures” but saw individuals as having more or less culture.

Europeans’ awareness of cultural diversity was generally superficial. For instance, they could not perceive their distance from ancient Greeks, Romans, and Israelites, whom they viewed basically as their contemporaries. They disdained non-Europeans because they wanted to exploit them, but their ethnocentrism also fit with their notion that culture referred to a single scale–and they had more culture than other people. A similar linguistic shift also affected the word “religion,” although it became a count noun somewhat before “culture” did.

Since ca. 1800, a new theory has been available and influential. Here are statements of this theory by quite diverse authors:

“Each nation has the center of happiness within itself, as every sphere has its center of gravity.” – Johann Gottfried Herder, “This, Too, a Philosophy of History,” from Herder On World History: An Anthology, edited by Hans Adler and Ernest A. Menze. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 1774, p. 40

“The constitution of a people, with its religion, with its art and philosophy, or at least with its ideas and thoughts, its education [Bildung] in general (not to mention other external powers, as well as the climate, the neighbors, the state of the world) forms one substance, one spirit [Geist].” – GWF Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte. Reclam publishing company 1924 (original 1837), p. 25; my trans. I owe the reference to Michael Rosen, The Shadow of God (Harvard 2022).

“Never did one neighbor understand another: his soul always wondered at his neighbor’s madness and evil. A table of values hangs over every people. Behold, it is a table of their overcomings; behold, it is a voice of their will to power.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, “Of the Thousand and One Goals,” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885. (my trans.)

“A language, with its expression and its evolution, is not the work of scattered units, but of an historical community: only he who has unconsciously grown up within the bond of this community, takes also any share in its creations. But the Jew has stood outside the pale of any such community, stood solitarily with his Jehovah in a splintered, soilless stock, to which all self-sprung evolution must stay denied, just as even the peculiar (Hebraic) language of that stock has been preserved for him merely as a thing defunct.” – Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music, (1850) trans. William Ashton Ellis

“By ‘tradition’ is not meant the dead weight of outlines, of superficial laws and customs–but an inward spirit, the genius of a people, a harmony with the most constant expressions of our country.” – Eugenio Montale, Stile e Tradizione (1925) p. 153 (my trans.)

“[Class struggle is] always specified by the historically concrete forms and circumstances in which it is exercised. It is specified by the forms of the superstructure (the State, the dominant ideology, religion, politically organised movements, and so on); specified by the internal and external historical situation which determines it on the one hand as a function of the national past (completed or ‘relapsed’ bourgeois revolution, feudal exploitation eliminated wholly, partially or not at all, local ‘customs’ specific national traditions, even the ‘etiquette’ of political struggles and behaviour, etc.), and on the other as functions of the existing world context …” Louis Althusser, “Notes for an Investigation,” Part III of “For Marx” (1962) trans. by Ben Brewster

“Human beings differ, their values differ, their understanding of the world differs; and some kind of historical or anthropological explanation of why such differences arise is possible, though their explanation may to some degree reflect the particular concepts and categories of the particular culture to which these students of the subject belong.” – Isaiah Berlin, letter to Beata Polanowska-Sygulska (Feb. 24, 1986), in The New York Review of Books, Sept. 23, 2004, p. 24

“A modern democratic society is characterized … by a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines.” “A reasonable doctrine is an exercise of theoretical reason: it covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner. It organizes and characterizes recognized values to that they are compatible with each other and express an intelligible view of the world.” – Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia, 1993), pp. xvi, 59

I have chosen quotations by thinkers–from the radical left to the radical right, plus two or three liberals–who share the assumption that there are many cultures in the world, and each culture is reasonably coherent and distinct. An individual belongs to a culture in a similar way as a citizen with a passport belongs to a nation-state.

This model of culture (which is, more broadly, a new account of thinking itself) first arose in response to a growing empirical awareness of ancient and foreign ways of life, plus a desire to protect local traditions against universalistic ideologies. These two reasons explain why the most important source of the new model was Germany in the Age of Revolution. Germans were particularly advanced in historical scholarship (ranging from classical philology to Germanic folklore to an early interest in Sanskrit), and they faced the tangible trauma of a French army with universalistic values.

The new (I would say, “modern”) model has advantages. It makes some sense of the actual diversity among humans and sometimes offers insights about specific ideas or works of art. It can inspire new works when creative people believe that they comprehend the inner spirit of their own people and try to communicate it. And it rationalizes struggles for independence and self-determination, which can be appealing, especially when the protagonists are oppressed.

The modern model also has major disadvantages. It implies that boundaries can be drawn between and among peoples, but any actual boundaries must leave minorities at the mercy of local majorities. It overlooks the heterogeneity of individual opinions, which has illiberal implications. It leads liberals like Berlin and Rawls to advocate a government that is neutral among the incompatible cultures within its boundaries, which is probably impossible and blocks worthy policies. It favors national self-determination not only for oppressed and marginalized groups but also for big and powerful populations. It leads to vexed and often unproductive discussions about who has a right to which cultural forms.

The modern model can generate a profound form of skepticism. If all our beliefs about what is true and good are phenomena of our culture, yet other people have other cultures, how can we be correct about anything? As Berlin suggests in the quotation above, how can we even know which other cultures exist, since our disciplines of history and anthropology must themselves reflect our own culture?

Fortunately, the modern model is false as a description of our human world. Culture is not something to which a person belongs. It is not a thing that has causal power. Culture is a large and usually quite heterogeneous set of ideas, beliefs, memories, skills, and values that a person has and can use.

There is a certain tendency to make the beliefs, values, and skills of a given population increasingly coherent. For instance, Catholic theology, baroque architecture, and monarchical government seem to cohere; as do Buddhist philosophy and Japanese aesthetics. People want their various beliefs to be consistent, and they want other people to agree with them. However, successful efforts to make beliefs and values cohere often require violent political force, because they counteract other tendencies that are also pervasive–tendencies to innovate, to borrow from afar, to distinguish oneself from others, and to complicate received ideas. All populations demonstrate some degree of heterogeneity and incoherence.

To be sure, we are all limited by culture. We have finite time and mental capacity to learn things. Besides, some people won’t allow other people to have access to what they know and can do. (For instance, they may deny access to schooling, restrict the curriculum in various ways, or censor certain ideas.) As a result, each of us only knows some things, and what we know helps to explain what we do. In that sense, culture is causal. Even the aspects of culture that we do use often fail to give us what we want, because nature or other people get in our way.

But we all have somewhat different culture. Indeed, the list of any individual’s ideas, beliefs, etc. is constantly changing. In that sense, culture should not actually be a count noun. There is no number of cultures on our planet. There are more than 7 billion people with constantly changing and circulating bodies of culture. People differ–sometimes profoundly–yet they resist classification. And that means that certain implications of the modern model, from relativist skepticism to hyper-nationalism–are wrong and not only bad.

See also: individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; everyone unique, all connected; what is cultural appropriation?; and Putin’s cultural nationalism. (This post repeats many points I’ve made before; any added value lies in the list of quotations, which is new.)

a Hegelian meditation

This is a breath: in and out.

That sentence is true; if the mind knows anything, it’s the reality of a breath.

By the time that thought has formed, it is false. This is not a breath—that thing is gone; it does not exist. Perhaps there is a new breath, and the sentence is true again, but it has a new object. It is true and false that “This is a breath.”

The mind turns to an abstraction: breath in general. Surely there are many breaths, all exemplifying one concept. In contemplating that concept, the mind can only think of a breath, and by the time it has that thought, that breath is gone. It is false that this is breath and that there is breath.

Nevertheless, a new breath comes. This one has a certain sound, familiar since the cradle. This breath has a certain feel, swelling the chest. The sound is not the feeling, yet the breath is one thing. Its aspects are distinct because of the nature of the one who perceives them.

The mind perceives the one that hears and feels the breath. It finds a subject that perceives and forms the sentence: “I perceive my breath.” That sentence is false. The ‘I’ is what perceives the breath, but that breath no longer exists. The ‘I’ that perceived the breath is no longer. The ‘I’ that perceived the ‘I’ is no longer. What no longer is, is nothing.

Surely there is a very general concept, thisness, of which this breath and this I are examples. In considering this concept, the mind can only think of this breath and this mind, and the concept that this mind forms of this breath is false by the time it forms it. That mind, too, is gone by then.

The mind conceives a mind in motion, a restless mind, a mind detached from the things it perceives and from itself, yet always compelled back to them. The mind had sought to calm itself by reflecting on its breath, but close inspection of its own experience has opened a whole box of things, none of which stays still when examined separately. Experience has revealed itself as something complicated, which the mind somehow already knew and which it cannot ever quite grasp. It strives to embrace and accept this manifold complexity, of which it is part.

These words are about a mind; a mind has been the subject of many of these sentences. Yet that mind is not the subject that reads these words. That subject is you, the reader. When you read the words “I perceive my breath,” they are not about your breath but somehow about a writer’s thoughts.

What you directly perceive is a string of words. I, the writer, had thoughts that I wanted to convey and had motives for writing them. You are entitled to question my motives. (Self-promotion? Self-indulgence?) But my motives are gone now, and so are your thoughts about my motives, like the words above the ones before your eyes right now.

You may have new thoughts, and they may happen to look identical to your previous thoughts; but they are not the same thoughts, because each thought occurs in time. You can form the idea of thought in general, but the only way you can think of that idea is to form a particular thought, which occurs in time and is then gone. You both have a thought about me and you do not have that thought about me.

I presume that I know who I am and what I think. Since this text is published on a public website, I don’t know who you are and may never have even heard your name. For your part, you know who you are, but not much about what I am thinking, except for whatever these words may mean to you. Yet in reality, I do not know what I think until I express it, trying to make meaningful sentences for a “you” that I envision in vague ways. And you do not know what I have written except insofar as you make your own sense of these sentences.

You may chafe at my control. I chose and arranged the words that might influence your mind. Yet I would not write at all if not in hopes of being read. The writer needs the reader as much as the reverse–as much as the mind needs its objects and the objects need the mind. You know that I need you. I know that you know that I need …

The topic of this text is meditation on the breadth, anapanasati. That practice is widely prescribed to address a restless, unsettled, unhappy mind. If we ask why it is recommended today, one kind of answer cites its effectiveness. Perhaps people teach and practice anapanasati because it works. In that case, the test is to try it, as we do here. The results will depend on what specific thoughts the specific mind generates.

Another kind of answer is a long story that could involve Californian beat poets who turned into Dharma bums after encountering GIs home from Japan, and General Tojo meditating in Zen monasteries while conquering China and attacking Pearl Harbor, and Dosho bringing Chan to Japan as Zen, and Bodhidharma bringing Buddhism to China, and the Buddha teaching breath-mindfulness in the Anapanasati Sutta, and people teaching Siddhartha Gautama the words and ideas that he used as he became the Buddha, and people teaching those people. We know just tiny fragments of this story, to which unsung thousands have contributed, both for good and for evil, yet it is inherent in the fashions of our moment.

Each mind recapitulates the work of countless minds, from which it derives all its words and ideas. A mind without history would be empty. For example, “This is a breath” is a sentence in English with thousands of years of thought embedded in it.

We can say that the Buddha already knew everything under the Bodhi tree, but to say what he knew requires explicating the various schools that have analyzed experience into its components, and then declared the components also to be illusions of the consciousness, and then declared the consciousness to be an illusion, and then analyzed negation, and so on, in a logical progression like the one accomplished by stoicism, skepticism, and their successors. To explicate the truth requires excavating this “conceptually grasped history” (begriffne Geschichte), these successive turnings of the Wheel that constitute the present.

Although my topic here is anapanasati, my method and structure come from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Why? Because I studied that text in a seminar at age 20. Rereading it 35 years later, I find that I had forgotten most of it, although certain familiar phrases signify that it has been there all along, even when I was reading Shantideva or focusing on my breath. Perhaps you know Hegel better than I. Perhaps you have never heard of him, but his mind has already influenced yours by way of Marx and Dewey and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the tangible structures that those three, and many others, have inspired.

Each mind, all minds, and nature are one.

That is a vacuous cliché and false, in just the same way that “This is a breath” is false. It is also true, in the same way. To know it requires unfolding what the mind already knew and can never fully know, one stage at a time, recapitulating the work of many minds with many objects, which are also one mind with one object.

Sources: GWF Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. & ed. by Terry Pinkard (Cambridge University Press, Kindle Edition, 2018), especially the Preface (sec. 72) and sections A.I, B.IV.A-B, and DD; and Shantideva, The Bodhicaryavatara, translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, especially chapters 8 (on meditation) and 9 (dialectics among the Buddhist schools). See also: Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; on philosophy as a way of life; my self, your self, ourselves; Buddhism as philosophy; freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism); how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; compassion, not sympathy; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; and the sublime and other people