Asian Scholasticism

After a lengthy prehistory of cross-cultural ferment, philosophy — as something that went beyond traditional wisdom and poetic insight to encompass significant rational development — emerged first in Greece. In the pre-Classical period, Greece’s strong involvement in long-distance trade already promoted the emergence of more cosmopolitan attitudes, leading to the kind of social environment in which philosophy could emerge. The period that is called Hellenistic for the Eastern Mediterranean world brought even more interaction between cultures as a result of Alexander’s empire. There was broad cross-pollination between East and West, so that in many instances it is difficult to say who influenced whom.

From Roman times, Greece was traditionally considered part of the East, in contrast to the Latin West. Greek philosophy in its last period came to be largely centered in Egypt and Syria. This fed directly into the amazing fluorescence of learning in Arabic during the 10th to 12th centuries CE.

But even before the Islamic golden age, various sorts of broadly scholastic philosophy flourished further East in southern, central, and eastern Asia, within Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, and even Taoist traditions. Although Arabic-language philosophy began to be eclipsed by the 13th century CE due to an ascendency of religious conservatism, intellectual culture in Asia was essentially continuous until the early modern period.

Initially much weaker in the Roman and European West, philosophy and general intellectual culture declined further after the fall of the Roman empire. In comparative terms, Europe only ceased to be a cultural backwater with the advent of the high middle ages.


Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

Linguistic Turn

It’s almost comical to me that modern philosophy had to undergo a linguistic “turn”. Modern philosophy began with a somewhat infantile rejection of discursive reasoning in favor of mathematics, intuition, and common sense. (Perhaps related to this history, I note with some chagrin that the first-listed meaning for “discursive” in several dictionaries is a pejorative one. I mean “pertaining to discourse”.) Even Leibniz and Spinoza had little interest in dialectic and meaning.

To me, meaning is the sea that we inhabit, the air that we breathe. Meaning permeates everything for us meaning-oriented creatures, including our experience of physical nature and matter. Meaning always requires interpretation. Aristotle and Kant were right that discursive reasoning is the true vocation of a philosopher. (See also What and Why; Dialogue.)

Vibrant Matter

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) by Jane Bennett received polemical mention in a Žižekian anthology I recently reviewed, and I wanted to take a closer look. Bennett’s work is an enthusiastic neo-vitalist ethical assertion of nonhuman agency and respect for material things. I’m generally sympathetic to such sentiments, but also responsive to criticisms of the neo-vitalist trend. Neo-vitalism does not crudely assert a life-force, but wants to break down boundaries between human and animal, organic and inorganic. Bennett sees this emphasis as standing in contrast to concern with subjectivity, the linguistic turn, and much classical philosophy. She is right up to a point, insofar as most of those pursuing the latter tend to neglect the former.

As usual, I find in Aristotle resources for simultaneously affirming both. Aristotle’s notion of materiality and material cause is broad enough to capture most, if not all, of Bennett’s concerns. Matter for Aristotle is always some particular, sensible matter that is deeply interwoven with form, and as such has its own rudimentary “ends”. I think on the one hand that all beings whatsoever deserve respect, but on the other that the possibility of dialogue with our fellow talking animals creates a whole host of more specialized responsibilities. From my perspective, neo-vitalism provides a valuable complement to more human-oriented hermeneutic and rationalist concerns. To an extent, each ought to inform the other.

Being, Consciousness

It is an intriguing fact that both the idealist Schelling and the materialist Engels recommended in similar language that we put Being before Consciousness. Schelling and Engels were each making a valid point that we should not attribute something like sovereignty to consciousness.

Nonetheless, I tend to think both these terms add more confusion than clarity. I prefer to dwell on actual meanings rather than Consciousness, and — opposite to the recommendation of Heidegger — on actual beings, rather than Being. Aristotle and Hegel both point out the importance of considering things in the full context of their actuality.

Meaning, Consciousness

I generally translate talk about consciousness into talk about meaning and related commitments. It doesn’t seem to me that anything is lost in the conversion; all the content is still there.

The notion of consciousness as a sort of generalized transparent medium of immediate presence that is somehow also tied to our sense of self and agency may seem intuitive, but it is actually the product of a long cultural development. It seems to belong to what Lacan called the Imaginary. Plato and Aristotle addressed the full range of human experience without any dependency on something like this. (See also Intentionality.)

Essential Goodness

By essential goodness I mean a kind of multiple potential that is always there. With Aristotle, I don’t assume there is a single Platonic form of the Good. I also don’t assume that the potential for goodness is evenly distributed, but it seems to be plentiful. As befits its potential status, it is simultaneously over- and underdetermined. There is more than one way for a situation to turn out well. This is not automatic, and usually requires our cooperation and active participation.

Part of what makes meanings meaningful to us is their involvement with contingency. Contingency means that what we do matters, but it also means there will always be things beyond our control that we passively experience.

A few of these may be terrible. We lose loved ones. After seeing horrors like the Nazi concentration camps, some people lost their faith, because God did not prevent those things from occurring. This was based on a wrong expectation of a universally present guiding hand in events. Enough wonders do come to us in life that metaphors of providence speak to us, and hope is a good thing. But providence does not necessitate anything, because goodness is a potential that typically requires a cooperating agent(s) for its realization.

Rational Faith

It seems to me that the most important kind of faith is a simple confidence in essential goodness that is independent of doctrine. It is up to us to help realize that goodness. (See also Fragility of the Good.)

An investment in meaning is fundamental to what we are as talking animals. It seems to me that talk about the “meaninglessness” of life reflects profound alienation or depression. What we actually have is a superabundance of meaning that frequently overflows univocal constructs.