Philosophy

Making Sense of “the Meaning of Life”

Most of this article was written in 2017. I never finished it, but rather abandoned the project halfway §12 for reasons explained below. Until the horizontal line separating old from new, the following is the unchanged text of the 2017 draft. §1. There is a common idea that philosophy is concerned with figuring out the meaning of life. Although there are exceptions, such as James Tartaglia, most academic philosophers will deny this. But when I ask my students during the first day of class of my “Introduction to Philosophy” course what philosophy is about, then “the meaning of life” is...
Philosophy

On Hedgehogs, Koalas, and Other Animals

Outside academia, Isaiah Berlin is probably best known for his distinction between “foxes” and “hedgehogs” based on Archilochus saying that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. When I first encountered a reference to this distinction I assumed that it had something to do with broad versus narrow knowledge or learning, with the Renaissance/​Enlightenment ideal of the homo universalis (or polymath) versus the academic (hyper-) specialist, or with Thomas Aquinas’s fear of “a man of one book” (homo unius libri), that is, someone who knows one book/​thing really well, but doesn’t know much else. I...
Climate Change

Carbon-neutrality by 2050 (version of June 2022)

(Originally published on December 15, 2020. This version: June 13, 2022. The latest version can be found here.) In the year before publication of the original version of this article (2020) several governments announced that their countries will be carbon neutral by 2050. (Since then, other countries have joined them, but often with different target years. China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, aim for 2060 and 2070, respectively, for example.) This is a cheap promise, as the target is so far in the future that it doesn’t commit them to do any significant now, but even if...
Buddhism

A Note on the Pāli Canon

(Originally posted on April 27. Major revisions on June 3, 2022.) In chapter 5 of A Buddha Land in This World, I wrote that until the sūtras in the Pāli canon were written down they were recited in periodic meetings of monks, but we have no consistent evidence about the nature, form, and frequency of these meetings, nor about how reliable this process was. However, when I reread this, I wasn’t entirely happy with this sentence because it seems to suggest that I think that oral transmission is the biggest problem for the authenticity of the content of the Pāli...
BuddhismPhilosophy

A Buddha Land in This World (New Book)

My new book, A Buddha Land in This World: Philosophy, Utopia, and Radical Buddhism, has just been published. Here is the abstract/back cover blurb: In the early twentieth century, Uchiyama Gudō, Seno’o Girō, Lin Qiuwu, and others advocated a Buddhism that was radical in two respects. Firstly, they adopted a more or less naturalist stance with respect to Buddhist doctrine and related matters, rejecting karma or other supernatural beliefs. And secondly, they held political and economic views that were radically anti-hegemonic, anti-capitalist, and revolutionary. Taking the idea of such a “radical Buddhism” seriously, A Buddha Land in This World: Philosophy,...
Buddhism

Nan-in and the Professor — A Western Zen Parable

“A Cup of Tea” is a short Zen story that is quite famous and popular among Western (Zen) Buddhists. It’s a bit of a peculiar story, however, as I hope to make clear in the following. Before we turn to that, let’s start with the story itself: Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.The professor watched the [cup] overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”“Like this...
Philosophy

Mythos, Wisdom, and Scavenger Philosophy

According to Karl Jaspers, philosophy arose in the “Axial Age” as a kind of critical reflection on myth and tradition. Nowadays, there is widespread agreement among historians of ideas that the notion of an “Axial Age” is itself a myth, but I think that the other part of Jaspers’ idea is right, that is, philosophy indeed originates in critical reflection on myth and tradition. This doesn’t mean that this defines the scope and purpose of philosophy, of course – as a “mature” discipline, philosophy mostly reflects on itself – but I believe that reflection on this idea about the origins...
Social Issues

“Do Your Own Research”

There has been considerable push-back against “doing your own research” recently, and I’m not entirely happy with that. I’m aware, of course, that the phrase “do your own research” tends to be used by and/or associated with rather delusional people who believe that watching a Youtube video or googling something counts as “research”, but pushing back too hard (or in the wrong way) against such silliness risks ending up with the other extreme: elitism and counterproductive conformism. There are (at least) two aspects of “doing your own research” and the push-back that are worth paying closer attention to. One has...
Philosophy

Is “Philosophy” Racist?

The term “philosophy” without any adjectives or other qualifications is generally understood to refer to Western philosophy. Introductory philosophy or ethics courses typically don’t pay any attention to non-Western philosophers (or merely drop a name once or twice in an attempt to feign a broader perspective), and one can easily get a philosophy degree without ever seriously engaging with Chinese or Indian philosophy. While there has been some pressure to broaden the scope of “philosophy”, thus far very little progress has been made in this respect. One might (and should) wonder: What explains this resistance to a more inclusive understanding...
Climate Change

The New Denialism

The old denialism denied the reality of climate change. Funded by the fossil fuel industry it spouted disinformation and lies and fostered doubt. It changed climate change from an objectively observable fact into a political “opinion”. The old denialism is dead. Not even the fossil fuel industry denies climate change anymore. A new denialism has replaced it, however. The new denialism doesn’t deny climate change. In the contrary, it emphatically affirms it. The new denialism doesn’t deny that climate change is a serious problem either – it admits that too. What the new denialists deny is how big the crisis...
Climate Change

(Not) Too Late for What?

Some people seem to believe that it is too late to fight climate change. Others seem to believe that this kind of fatalism is as dangerous as climate change denialism (because both effectively advocate not doing anything). It’s hardly a secret that I’m rather pessimistic about climate change and its effects – just have a look at what I’ve written about the topic before – but that doesn’t mean that I think that it is “too late” to fight climate change. Rather, I think that the notion of it being “too late” (or not) in this context is nonsensical. The...
Philosophy

Technological Immortality

Seven years ago I published a paper arguing against afterlife beliefs and various other kinds of “death denial” titled “The Incoherence of Denying My Death”. The denial of death in this sense is not a denial of physical or biological death so much as it is a denial of annihilation. In that paper I distinguished two ways of denying death, which are distinguished essentially by which word in the short proposition “I die” they deny. Strategy 1 denies the dying part – that is, it argues that I somehow (can) survive my physical/​biological/​bodily death. Strategy 2 denies the “I” in...