Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Arthur Danto on Mysticism and Morality

Danto, Arthur C. Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and Moral Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Orig. 1972.

1. Factual Beliefs and Moral Rules
2. Karma and Caste
3. Brahma, Boredom, and Release
4. Therapy and Theology in Buddhist Thought
5. The Discipline of Action in the Bhagavad Gita
6. Conforming to the Way
(+ Prefaces, Suggested Readings, Index)

Danto concisely picks out the problems with the world views of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, as illustrations of a general problem. If I had known about this book in 1972, maybe I could have saved myself a lot of grief in the 1970s.

Danto begins his 1987 preface with a quote from Hume on the uselessness of asceticism. Danto notes that a hypothetical dispute between Hume and a monk would not be over moral issues, but over rival claims concerning factual truth. Ironically, Hume argued that there is no logical connection between is and ought. There is more than a strictly logical issue at stake, however. Moral disagreements when matters of fact are not in dispute will still occur, but certain moral arguments and practices tend to collapse if based entirely on truth claims that can be shown to be false. Danto states this as a general principle, though its application in this book’s original 1972 edition was to the dependence of the moral outlook of imported mysticism on its view of reality. (viii-ix) It’s one thing to import dietary and yogic practices from the East, which fit in quite nicely with Western consumer practices, but the belief systems that undergird them are not viable.

In his 1972 preface, Danto writes as an analytical philosopher arguing that Westerners cannot adopt the moral beliefs of the Orient without adopting the factual beliefs on which they are based. Danto’s point of departure is the is-ought problem as conceived by David Hume and G.E. Moore, both of which Danto rejects. Danto accepts bits and pieces of other moral theories to construct his own, predicated on the notion that “moral propositions presuppose factual ones.” (xvi)

In the first chapter Danto reviews the fact-value dichotomy. Moral propositions might be considered to be disjunct from the logic of factual propositions because the former consist of rules, which are prima facie neither true nor false. (9) However, rules must have application conditions, i.e. presupposed facts of the world and circumstances under which they are to be applied, which also provide the basis for admitting of extenuations and exceptions. (11) Various religious commandments and supernatural beliefs are given as examples. Some moral disputes can be largely reduced to factual disagreements. Thus tolerance of differing moral beliefs may necessitate tolerance of the factual beliefs on which they are based. (13) While moral beliefs cannot be justified in the manner of factual beliefs, they can be falsified by the removal of false factual beliefs and thus the application rules on which they are dependent--analogous to the falsifiability of scientific theories. (15)

The Indians, like Socrates, predicated morality on knowledge of the Good. The difference is that in the East, free will is not a primary concern. (16-7) Indian thinkers see no gap between knowledge and its application. (18)

While much of Western morality has survived its theological basis, Danto surmises “that if the factual beliefs of India to which I refer are false, there is very little point in Indian philosophy, and very little room for serious application of Indian moral beliefs. . .” (21)

Chapter 2, on karma and caste, gets right to the point. Reason in Indian thought never separated itself from its peculiar religious notions of salvation. (22)

Danto argues, as did Max Weber, that the caste system of Hinduism resists universality, as members of different castes are regarded as members of different species. This leads to a peculiar kind of toleration, just as we tolerate animals because they can’t be like us. Hindus will tolerate the actions of others so long as their behavior is defined as licit for their caste. Therefore, the morality operant in this scenario stands or falls on the presupposed factual beliefs about caste. (34-5)

The doctrine of oneness does not imply respect, consideration, or care for one’s fellow man.

And so, the Hindu is likely to feel at one with the entire universe without necessarily feeling at one with any special portion of the universe, viz., that portion consisting of other humans. Respect for life as a whole is consistent with a not especially edifying attitude towards one's fellowmen, who, for all that they may be one essentially, nevertheless remain lodged at different stations on the surfaces of the world. That they should be where they are is, as karma teaches, very much a matter of just desert: they are there because they deserve to be there. (38)

Ethics is external, belonging to the body that is separate from one’s essential soul. (40) The essential impersonality of Brahma, atman, and karma is also reflected in Indian art and literature. The existence of karma is not argued or proved; it is simply accepted as a fact. (41) The one philosophical school that rejected karma was Carvaka materialism. (42ff)

Danto begins chapter 3 with the issue of cosmic boredom and a comparison of the Hindu undesirability of rebirth and Nietzsche’s eternal return. (47) Danto draws an interesting contrast between the scientific mediation (reduction) of appearance/phenomenon and reality/underlying material entities (e.g. heat is explained not by heat but by molecular behavior) and the Indian dismissal of phenomena as illusion. (54-5) He then attempts to analyze the state promised by meditation. The bliss promised by the Gita is undifferentiated, contentless, and passive. (60) The downside of yogic asceticism is explored: exceptional individual seen as endowed with exceptional powers transcends conventional moral bounds, while the schema of social control is preserved. (61ff)

In chapter 4 Danto analyzes the Buddha’s Middle Path and the Noble Truths, but there is a brief diversion on the appeal of Zen to artists, non-intellectuals, and the lower classes. (66) Danto finds the notion of desire as the cause of suffering dubious. At this point, Buddha gets caught up in the general Indian cosmology of karma, the most critical desire, even while rejecting the theory of atman. (69) Danto analyzes the Buddhist conception of consciousness as the cause of the bodily self. (71) He finds the Buddha’s claim to reject metaphysical questions disingenuous, as some serious metaphysics (hardly comprehensible to the average peasant) is a prerequisite to the acceptance of his central claims. (72) Much of the Buddha’s doctrine is couched in parabolic form, but the metaphysical underpinning gradually takes over, relegating this world to illusion. (73) Buddhism runs the gamut of levels of intellectuality from the simplest to the most esoteric and abstract. (74)

The Mahayana tradition is oriented toward collective not merely individual salvation. Danto detects a paradox: the bodhisattva cannot pass over into Nirvana for selfish or unselfish reasons. (76) The disproportion between the exalted and the ordinary inevitably transforms the Mahayana into yet another religion, and the Buddha takes on godlike status. (78) If Samsara becomes Nirvana, then all of life becomes religious, and thus the world becomes aestheticized without alteration. Hence don’t change anything about the world, change your attitude. This will not do for Danto as a moral philosophy. (80-81) We must have an ethics, not of salvation, but of how to treat one another. (82)

In the next chapter Danto turns to the Bhagavad Gita. The infamous story of Arjuna is the key, the sophistical argument that Arjuna fight and kill with detachment. (88) One must perform one’s actions according to one’s calling, to be true to it without extraneous motivation. (91) This attitude is enabled by the detachment of self from body, so that one does not identify with the necessary actions of one’s body. Danto finds this to be bone-chilling, Nietzschean, and inhuman. The factual beliefs postulated are radically at odds with morality. (94-5) Danto ponders possible points of comparison of this notion of detachment with Kant, but insists that morality has no meaning without systems of rules. (96) Intention is decisive; it ties the agent to the action. The Gita robs actions of their moral qualities by detaching them from their agents. (98) This has some resemblance to Nietzsche’s position. (99)

Danto thinks that Chinese philosophy will help illuminate the essential Indian position, and so he turns to Taoism in the final chapter. I find this transition startling. He finds Westerners attracted to the Tao Te Ching on account of their distrust of intellect and language. There is a tacit assumption, to be found in Wittgenstein as well, that “the structure of the world must be antecedently linguistic.” The notion of an ideal language that mirrors the structure of the world is chimerical. This notion not only pervades Western philosophy but can be found in the Confucian rectification of names. (101-2) The Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu devalue prepositional knowledge and are practice-oriented. Danto objects to the conflation of the two. (103-4) “There is in any case no possible way of assimilating discursive to practical knowledge or conversely. . .” (104)

Knowledge as performance and representation is irreducibly duplex, and Lao Tzu is essentially correct when he implies that words, used at least descriptively, are logically external to the reality they record, and that there is a dimension of existence that could not possibly be put in words. The rest of his teaching is a deprecation of one sort of knowledge in favor of another. (105)
Practical knowledge admits of gradations of mastery. “The Way is smooth to those who know it.” The Taoist landscape is misty, and doesn’t lead to a definite goal. (105) Lao Tzu is contrasted to Dante: the former has no particular destination, nor can he get lost, nor does Lao Tzu struggle against the grain. (106)

Danto interprets wu wei (non-doing) as immobility, a notion he finds most explicitly developed by the Legalists, the ideal social architecture being a rigid hierarchical structure. Taoism vaguely promises a superior philosophy of government, paradoxically insinuating a superior capacity to dominate. It was inevitable that Taoism would degenerate into yet another superstition-saturated religion. (108-9) Comparisons are made to Indian religion.

The Tao Te Ching naturally appeals to artists, especially in reference to those moments of peak creative flow in which “struggle and externality” vanish. Hence the perpetual tendency, also religious, to glorify simplicity, charity, the lowly, and anti-intellectualism. (110-1). The Taoist literature recommends a minimalist approach to government while orienting itself towards the eccentric, independent individual. This is a form of romantic escapism in contrast to the duty-bound Confucian mind. No wonder then the eventual symbiosis between Confucianism and Taoism, the former longing for the life of the latter. (112-3)

Only when we come to Confucianism do we finally encounter genuine moral ideas. (114ff) Confucianism is moralistic in character and light on metaphysical concerns. It is the least “oriental” of the philosophies concerned. The others are inappropriate for moral guidance, and perhaps this is true for all religion. (120)

I find Danto's conclusions concerning Chinese philosophy disturbing. He places a reactionary philosophy like Confucianism ahead of the others because of its moralism and social orientation. What then of critique of the social order? Danto offers shrewd observations all the way through the book and he is correct about the weaknesses of Taoism, and perhaps he even draws some valid parallels to the Indian philosophies discussed. But the most influential texts of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu, abstracted from the traditions in which they became embedded, are the most doctrinally and metaphysically minimalist of anything passing for a sacred scripture ever written. Granted, they are inadequate as a positive guide to life and they offer no determinate negation of the feudal order. Their advocacy of naturalness implies a static world view, but then a return to nature is characteristically a reaction of protest against a corrupt civilization. The genius of these two Taoist texts lies in irony and critical orientation, a via negativa that abstractly addresses the problem of reification. Nowhere does one find the demented justification of violence one finds in the Bhagavad Gita. While I understand the abstract parallels, equating these two works to Buddhism and especially to Hinduism is almost tantamount to an obscenity. Of all the belief systems discussed, only these two Chinese Taoist texts stand out as gems shining amidst the filth of their civilizations.

Danto wrote this book in the thick of the counterculture of the '60s-70s, from a distant though needed vantage point. In another book perhaps he might have said more about the contemporary appeal of these ideas. The more carefully you read between the lines, the more clues you will find as to why some of the general ideas behind these systems, if to a much less extent the specifics, were able to diffuse in the contemporary West as they did. The impersonal, mechanistic, and amoral aspects of these world views, with a good percentage of their original mythic, superstitious, and social content conveniently downplayed or metaphoricized into oblivion, could readily be contoured to the discontents of a modern, mechanistic, depersonalized society disillusioned with conventional moralism, legalism, and deliberative rationality. So much so, that the majority of mystic-minded consumers, naive and ungrounded in historical consciousness, could be manipulated, cajoled, or sold on extremely pernicious, sociopathic notions without recognition of their implications.

Christopher Lasch's The Minimal Self: A Portrait of Psychological Terrorism
Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West)
Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography
Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism
Secularism, science and the Right” (Review of Meera Nanda, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva)

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