Philosophers and Cats

I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior.”
– Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893)

Most readers are old enough to remember the term “egghead.” It dropped out of common usage years ago, replaced by “geek”, although a geek is not quite the same as an egghead. In a recent article on Slate, “The Way of the Egghead Is Hard,” Rebecca Onion shared the classical definition of egghead provided by Louis Bromfield in a 1952 issue of the libertarian journal “Freeman”:

Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions. … Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. … Emotionally confused in thought. … a self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot.”

The article discusses a new book by Aaron Lecklider, Inventing the Egghead, and mentions that in “his influential 1963 work on the topic, historian Richard Hofstadter argued that anti-eggheadism—or, to strip the term of its slang, anti-intellectualism—had been pervasive in American life all along.”

einstein-lightbulbI don’t think that it is any great revelation that American culture has always had an anti-intellectual bent. At the same time, we have been a nation of thinkers and dreamers. But the sorts of dreamers we have traditionally championed are those whose visions produced tangible and practical results. Someone like Thomas Edison is a good example of what I mean. Einstein may have been one the greatest physicist the world has ever known, but Edison’s light bulb has benefited far more people than the Theory of Relativity.

Occasionally I see the question raised as to whether Buddhism is anti-intellectual. Indian Buddhism seems pro-intellectual for a couple of reasons. One is that Indian philosophy is a system of thought that, as described by Yensho Kanakura (Hindu-Buddhist Thought In India), “takes as its object of study the philosophical thought which arose in India . . .” It is to some extent a philosophy about philosophy. Secondly, like Western philosophy, it relies heavily on inductive reasoning, an empirical approach where progress is made step by step until the conclusion is reached. East-Asian Buddhism, on the other hand, appears to be almost entirely anti-intellectual because it is based on the deductive method of reasoning where the conclusion comes first and explanations follow.

One of the bridges between these two modes of reasoning is Nagarjuna. Taking his cue from what he inferred from the story of the silence of the Buddha, he maintained that philosophy should have practical value. He maintained that the Buddha offered a form of practice first, and philosophy second. In this respect, the Buddha’s dharma is both deductive and anti-intellectual. As Nagarjuna saw it, the Buddha didn’t feel the need to prove his declaration that existence is suffering, he simply stated it. He didn’t see that it needed to be proved or disproved.

Douglas Berger writes, in the entry on Nagarjuna on IEP,

Nagarjuna appears to have understood himself to be a reformer, primarily a Buddhist reformer to be sure, but one suspicious that his own beloved religious tradition had been enticed, against its founder’s own advice, into the games of metaphysics and epistemology by old yet still seductive Brahminical intellectual habits. Theory was not, as the Brahmins thought, the condition of practice, and neither was it, as the Buddhists were beginning to believe, the justification of practice. Theory, in Nagarjuna’s view, was the enemy of all forms of legitimate practice, social, ethical and religious. Theory must be undone . . .”

Philosophy to Nagarjuna was a tool. He used the reductio ad absurdum method (prasanga) to refute all views whether negative or positive on any subject. One is tempted to think that because he was so skillful at this, he might have gleaned some pleasure from the process. However, I suspect that he viewed it as a necessary task and was not attached to his own method. It was necessary in order to clear the air and remove the ground for philosophical contention (upalambha). Not only did he see endless philosophizing as non-practical and futile, he also considered it the root of suffering.

Philosophy has two fundamental purposes: to answer certain basic questions, and to formulate clear and comprehensive views of life and the universe. To be practical, philosophy should lead to an increased understanding of life, and when philosophy is little more than hypothetical conjecture and not directed toward the accomplishment of a specific end, its value is deceased significantly. In Buddhism, increased understanding of life comes from the realizations gained from practice, and in the hands of Nagarjuna, the philosophy exists not to theorize or justify or even really to explain those realizations but to untangle the conceptualizing that hinders practice.

This, I feel, is why Dogen, who viewed Nagarjuna as a spiritual ancestor, said, “Zazen is enlightenment.” Here is a statement that defies classification. It is neither intellectual nor anti-intellectual. It transcends reasoning, ontology, epistemology, and methodology. If you practice it, you will probably understand. If you try to analyze it, you probably won’t.

And here are the cats:



6 thoughts on “Philosophers and Cats

  1. I’m really enjoying the Nagajuna posts! WRT the reasoning of dharma derivations, I tend to get confused. Agreed that Buddhist thought is anti-intellectual (as in don’t rely on just the thinking process) and derived from premises like “Dukkha exists.” Yet the Buddha’s teachings lay very much on the “go and test this out” which makes it an inductive process. Neither yes, neither no.

    1. Thanks Lynette. I didn’t really intend to post this or another one about Nagarjuna so soon after the last one, but things occurred to my mind that I had to get off my chest (?!)

      You make a good point, and actually trying to label anything strictly this or that doesn’t work because there are always exceptions, etc.

      Unfortunately, I don’t know what WRT means. I’m sure however that when you tell me, I’ll feel so dumb.

  2. WRT – with respect to
    I was being lazy.

    Inductive/deductive reasoning are the left/right brains of processing information, I guess. What I glean from Buddhist thought is that skillful reasoning is the ability to allow each to do its job unhindered and unfettered. Where Buddhism takes a weird turn is when it gets all New Age-inductive which is just a way of saying “I don’t want to really think this through. I just want to do what feels good.”

    I’m headed to a retreat given by John Dunne on Nagajuna so I’ll be feverishly reading your posts!

  3. WRT – gotcha.

    I don’t think Buddhism takes a weird turn, its the New Agey influence that sometimes bends it out of shape. I also don’t think Buddhism in whatever form asks us not to think, but just to think differently, not so much with a questioning mind, as we are wont to do, but with a processing mind, if that makes sense.

    A retreat on Nagarjuna sounds great. I hope you will share some insight on your blog.

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