A Promising Emptiness Site

A common theme in many of my articles is examining Buddhist-style philosophy from different angles.  Specifically I try to:

  1. Remain sympathetic without being gullible.
  2. Focus on the parts that are likely to improve our well-being.
  3. Leverage Western philosophy where it is compatible.
  4. Keep it simple.

Well, this site looks very promising.  It focuses on Emptiness, but approaches it from a wide variety of traditions, including Western ones, and it offers book recommendations.

Anyway, rather than index into various pages in that site, I’ll wrap up here.

I hope you find that site useful.

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27 thoughts on “A Promising Emptiness Site

  1. I’m a nonbeliever, but one of the things I’ve sometimes wondered is if the Buddhist ’emptiness’ is anything like the dreamless sleep, non-consciousness, I expect after death. If so, this emptiness is the birthright of all conscious creatures and all will receive it, regardless of what happened in life.

    1. Thank you. I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying and practicing Buddhism, but went in with enough skepticism that it framed my studies and experiences — which in this case, I believe was a good thing.

      I really like the approach of looking to the West for parallel concepts that may resonate more powerfully with Westerners.

      I read some of the Social Construction book mentioned on the site, and enjoyed it, and I hope to dive into Rorty’s book — also mentioned on the site. Approaching emptiness from that perspective is really rewarding.

  2. Just had a look. The book list for western authors is ridiculous in my opinion. . It looks like a few books picked out a hat. I suppose it doesn’t matter, one can learn something from any book. But I fear these suggestions may waste of lot of your time. Wittgenstein is certainly best avoided for a clear head.

    Which books might be appropriate for a particular person would be impossible to know, We’re all coming from different places. But my booklist, which I must get around to doing soon, would suggest Kant and Hegel for a way into the idea of ’emptiness’. Certainly Bradley’s ‘Appearance and Reality’ would be close to the top of the list, and so would be Jay Garfield’s translation and commentary for Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’, which is a deliberate attempt to discuss the theory of emptiness in western terms. As far as I know it is the only such discussion at any length.

    The first book I read on the topic, which was a very lucky break, was ‘Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illuminations of Zen Master Hongzhi’ by Taigen Dan Leighton. This goes straight the heart of the matter.

    For a philosophical teenager it might work to begin with ‘The Matrix’ and Beaudrillard’s idea of the ‘Desert of the Real’, which features prominently in the film, and which connects directly to the idea of emptiness.

    1. I’d love to see your full book list, and I’ll have to check out some of those titles.

      I can see approaching the Emptiness/Kant angle via the Categories of Experience, although the Categorical Imperative would seem to throw a monkey wrench into the works.

      I think the problem with a lot of Western authors is that they hit upon many of the same findings, but they either (a) Try to shore up their previously held views or (b) Ignore the sotoriological implications of their findings.

  3. I’d rather say that they often simply ignore their findings in order to shore up their previously held views, but then I suppose I’m more cynical.

    How would the Categorical Imperative cause a problem? .

    1. I don’t know if you’re cynical, as I often get that impression. I got it reading Descartes, and I got it reading Kant. Even Kant’s impetus (reading Hume) seemed like a panicked reaction to a view he didn’t want to accept.

      The Categorical Imperative (and all Deontological Ethics) seem to be a problem because they posit some universal norm that’s right just because it is. That seems contrary to emptiness. Not only is it dancing really close to the kind of permanent essence or substance that emptiness denies, but it also rejects acting out of the needs of the situation, which is a way of living more in tune with emptiness.

  4. Is it not precisely the instruction to act according to the needs of the situation?

    Kant’s Categorical Imperative says we should act in the way we would want everyone else to act were they to be put in the same situation. This would not imply a norm, other than the Imperative itself. It suggest we should act as if we cared about all human beings equally.

    His CI might as well be a Buddhist teaching. It does not imply a list of rules for behaviour. It implies that we should abandon our selfish desires and act for the good of all. Nagarjuna, in line with his teachings on emptiness and form, and Buddhism as a whole, teaches that we all share a single identity, and thus that Kant was correct to say that his imperative is ‘Categorical’, which is to say derived from the absolute truth of our nature and situation.

    His imperative is what Schopenhauer, explaining altruistic behaviour, calls ‘the’breakthrough of a metaphysical truth’;. It would be the appropriate response to the recognition that by reduction we are all one, as the teachings on emptiness assert.

    Kant would not have known Nagarjuna’s refutation of all extreme views in support of his theory of emptiness, but I’m sure he would have recognised it immediately as an earlier version of his own refutation. .

  5. I’m not sure how you come to see it meaning this, or what lying has got to do with emptiness. The Imperative does not say a word about how to behave, only how our behaviour should be motivated, and lying has not moral value independent of context.

    We seem to be in very different places on this one.

    1. Kant admitted to as much in his reply to Benjamin Constant’s “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives”. Constant pointed out that the Imperative would require a person to tell the truth to a murder who was looking for a victim. This was Kant’s chance to deny this interpretation of his imperative. Instead, Kant defended his views.

      If you read that essay and Kant’s response and come up with a different interpretation, I’d love to hear it.

      Emptiness applies to everything, from objects to views. This means any action motivated by substance or essence thinking runs contrary to emptiness. If one takes a deontological view of any act (including lying) then one is imputing an essence or substance to an act in and of itself, which is contrary to emptiness.

      The emptiness view is to act out of the needs of the situation, out of the motivation to alleviate suffering/increase happiness. Such an act would be much more in keeping with the emptiness (interdependent/process) view of things.

      I can think of little to nothing that is more anti-emptiness than serving an abstraction over alleviating the suffering of sentient beings.

  6. Here is the CI.

    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

    I would want it to be a universal law that we lie to murderers looking for a victim. Where’s the problem?

    So I see no contradiction between the CI and a view based on dependent-origination.

    It would be a mistake, I would say, to see the CI as implying rules like ‘Do not lie’ as applying to all situations. It would be the entire point of the CI that it is completely general and allows us to respond appropriately to any situation. No reification of phenomena would be implied.

    It would only lead to problems if we, in our heads, add additional clauses to the CI, such as ‘Thou shalt not lie’. But there are no additional clauses. Legend has it that the Buddha committed a murder in a past life, for altruistic reasons, the legend illustrating that ethical behaviour depends entirely on circumstances and cannot be abstracted into a set of unbreakable rules saying ‘Thou shalt not do this or that’. Thus lying, or even murder, may or may not contravene the CI, depending on the circumstances.

    1. While Kant provided multiple formulations of his imperative (5 I think), he also made it clear his imperative was categorical, not hypothetical. The example you provided was hypothetical; any results — even “good ones” were not to be taken into account. Yes, Kant said the results don’t matter, which is why many people consider his moral system to be morally bankrupt and even offensive.

      In any case, let’s agree to disagree on this one.

  7. Ho ho. One thing I do is answer questions on the site ‘askaphilosopher@wordpress.com, Here’s a question (obviously homework) that’s just been posted.

    On Mon, Nov 18, 2013 at 04:08:14 Alyssa asked:

    “Devise an ethical scenario and apply the 1st and 2nd formulations of the Categorical Imperative. Do they both come to the same moral conclusion about the right course of action?
    Explain in 150 words.”

  8. I must admit I’m baffled by this objection. Of course the CI is categorical, and of course any example would be hypothetical. Your hypothetical case was telling the truth to murderers. The CI states that you should not do this. I don’t see how it would be possible to interpret it so that you should. Kant was no fool.

    But yeah, I’m okay to leave it there.

    1. Kant said so. Explicitly. Again, feel free to read Constant’s letter and Kant’s response. If you could come up with an explanation for how the CI allows lying to save a life when Kant himself prohibits it, I’d love to hear it.

      Or we could drop this 😀

  9. Well, I don’t want to fall out over it, but I feel that the situation is worth trying to resolve.

    The CI can be stated in one sentence and I can’t see how it is possible to misinterpret it. It says we should act in such a way as we would want everyone to act.

    When Kant argues that we should always tell the truth this is plainly additional to the Imperative. It is his right to argue for this, and for him the Imperative would imply this, since this is how he would want people to always act. Fair enough. But this view of lying it is not implied by the Imperative. It is an idiosyncratic and unnecessary addition. I’m not endorsing Kant’s view on lying. I’m endorsing his Imperative.

    I’m suggesting that there is nothing wrong with the Imperative, but that human beings will not always agree about which actions should be universalised. A lie would be a violation of Kant’s ethics, not of his Imperative, since we will all have our own ideas about universal behaviour. .

    The Cat. Imperative states we should lie or tell the truth in a situation depending on which we believe will lead to the greater good if we were to universalise our decision (in that situation). Our beliefs will determine our actions in this respect. However, the Imperative stands apart from our beliefs. That is to say, Kant is applying the Imperative when he condemns lying, and I am applying it when I say that sometimes it is best to lie. The application is belief-dependent, but the Imperative functions properly in both cases.

    Does that make more sense? It allows us to agree about the categorical-ness of the imperative while disagreeing about what it would imply in any given situation. I reckon I could have answered Constant more effectively than Kant if he did not make this point. I presume he didn’t make it because he was so certain that lying was wrong in all circumstances. This has nothing to do with the CI.

    It is the strength of the Imperative that it allows us this freedom of view on what we should do for the best. A rule book couldn’t possibly work, just as you say, since it would take no account of context. The law, if it is rigid and detailed rather than a general principle, is bound to be an ass some of the time.

    Is this progress?

  10. Why would we fall out over a disagreement? If worse comes to worse, we disagree — so what? We’re not going to agree about everything (that’s what makes discussions informative).

    First, a Categorical Imperative is not concerned with outcomes; Hypothetical Imperatives are. So right off the bat, the CI is deontological, not consequentialist. This is how he defined Categorical, so his lack of concern with consequences is by definition. He even went to some lengths to differentiate hypothetical acts from categorical ones.

    Having said that, I can understand objecting because one of his formulations (remember, he had multiple ones) was: “Act as though you will your act to be a universal law”. This sounds a bit hypothetical. In fact, it sounds like a hypothetical imperative writ large. So yes, there is room for debate.

    One could even argue that his argument was that morality should derive from A Categorical Imperative (whatever that may be), and the formulations were just samples. One could then go on to support your views. For instance, an imperative such as “Act such that happiness is maximized and suffering minimized” could be seen as a Categorical Imperative for Utilitarianists, who could be seen as Kant’s polar opposite.

    That could be tenable, but for his response to Benjamin Constant. Again, we’re back at impasse. Had he not made that response and committed himself to EXPLICITLY saying that one should not lie to a murderer (and hence showing that the consequences did not matter to him), there’d be some wiggle room. As it stands, this is a powerful problem. Here’s an overview of the controversy that ensued. I’d love to know your opinions on this, because that’s the sticking point, and as long as it’s not addressed, there’s not much room for debate:
    http://myweb.brooklyn.liu.edu/mcuonzo/gennuso1.htm

    His response has to be reconciled with your view of the Categorical Imperative. One philosopher simply said Kant was basically not thinking straight (thanks to age among other factors) and that response should simply be ignored as an aberration. If you want to go that route, that’s fine with me, but his response to Constant can’t be ignored, even if dealing with it means explicitly disregarding it.

  11. Sorry, but I genuinely don’t understand your objections. The CI is supposed to be applicable for anybody at any time, and to me it is. I don’t see how Kant’s views on lying can be relevant to anything, or see Constant’s objection as being an objection to the CI (as opposed to Kant’s ideas on lying). But I’ve explained my thoughts so I think after all we’ll have to agree to differ. I can only say that his Imperative works for me with no problems.

    1. The Categorical Imperative states that consequences (even moral ones) don’t matter; morality is in an act’s nature.

      Hypothetical Imperatives state that consequences do matter and morality is in an act’s consequences.

      Kant asserted the Categorical and rejected the Hypothetical.

      Constant came up with the obvious objections. By the Categorical Imperative, one should never lie (for example), even to a murderer to save the life of a victim.

      Kant agreed and thus made the Categorical Imperative’s implications obvious.

      I don’t think we’re even talking about the same thing, so we can drop this. In case you are interested in the official interpretation of Kant:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative#Good_will.2C_duty.2C_and_the_categorical_imperative

  12. That was very helpful. I think I can see now why we’re both so sure we’re right 🙂

    For a start, I misunderstood your point about hypotheticals, thinking you were referring to situations rather than consequences. Sorry about that.

    I’m going to do some checking around about one or two things. I’m wondering if we’re allowed to argue about how to interpret Kant, or whether one interpretation is compulsory.

    I read the CI as one simple sentence and take it at face value. For me ‘categorical’ would imply that it is rooted in an absolute truth, thus universally applicable. not that consequences should not be considered when we act. If I’m wrong about this then I will henceforth consider Kant to be an idiot.

    Would not ethical behaviour be impossible if we do not consider consequences? It would be value free. An act can have no intrinsic nature, no ethical value, unless one takes into account its consequences.

    We cannot place a value on the motives of the actor. He could have no motives if he believes his action is without consequences. The action would be causally invisible. Nobody bothers to act when they believe that their action will have no consequences.

    So all in all, for me your first sentence above does not compute. For me, if an act has no hypothetical consequences then it can have no hypothetical ethical value. So I’d have two questions.

    Is it possible to put an ethical value on an act for which the actor deliberately did not hypothesise its consequences? It would seem the opposite of mindfulness to me.

    The entire functionality of the Imperative seems to depend on our considering the consequences of universalising our act, so how would we decide how to implement the Imperative in any given situation, as a way of deciding how to act, if we are not allowed to take the consequences of the act into account?

  13. You bring up good and valid points. For me, ethics is about consequences, and Kant’s multiple formulations of the imperative confuse things. Are they five different ways of saying the same thing? Five different things? Five different examples? What’s more, that his universalization seems to be a hypothetical justification for a categorical seems a blunder on his part. Heck, lots of people have read Kant as re-iterating the Golden Rule, so confusion seems to be the rule :).

    While there’s a standard interpretation of Kant, alternate interpretations exist, so why not interpret him differently? All I ask is that you clarify your interpretation so I don’t get confused :).

    One interpretation is that the CI as a meta-ethical principle, and the formulations are simply examples. His response to Constant then becomes tracing the implications of one example. It’s still troubling, but it’s more defensible and allows for a variety of ethical systems.

    Ironically, the CI’s apparent failures may be its values. Treated as a thought experiment, it can clarify assumptions about what ethical systems must be. For instance, must an ethics entail consequences, or is an ethics any system whose guide for action is not self-interest?

    I’m not sure I’d call Kant an idiot, but he seems to have stumbled, or at least not clarified himself enough. The idea of a single universal principle seems essential to put anything on a formal footing, and it’s hard to argue for a hard and fast formalism while still allowing for hypotheticals. As such, the CI may reveal the implications of a purely formal ethics.

  14. Got it! I see what’s going on here now. Both of us are right,.

    I was wrong to assume that Kant had his thoughts in order. The reasoning that leads to his Imperative seems basically sound, and the Imperative itself seems basically sound. But he then adds all sorts of interpretative provisos to it that reduces it to absurdity.

    Thus I feel that I can stick to my guns on the Imperative and say that it is perfectly in accord with a Buddhist world-view, while you can also stick to your guns and say that Kant’s application and interpretation of it would make it utterly inconsistent with that world-view.

    Our disagreement was caused, I think, by my assumption that Kant was thinking straight. Taken at face value the Imperative is categorical and does its job. Taken in conjunction with Kant’s interpretative additions, however, it is not even a coherent idea. Thus your point about lying is spot on. It would be insanity to make truth-telling an unbreakable universal rule. But so also would be my point, which is that the CI does not require any such rule.

    I cannot understand how Kant could not have seen that his view on lying depends completely on taking into account the consequences of lying. If we ignore the consequences then lying has no moral implications, and a person who does not lie would be no more or less ‘moral’ than an always-lying Cretan. But there it is. It seems that Kant did not properly read his own Imperative, or did not formulate it as he meant to, for as it is written it would not imply universal truth-telling. I don’t know why he would have thought otherwise, or why, if he did, he did not formulate the CI in such a way as to make it a necessary implication.

    So, in short, as it is written I would defend the CI all the way. As Kant elaborated it, however, I would share your opinion of it. It would simply make no sense.

    My apologies for not seeing your point earlier, I made the mistake of over-estimating Kant.

    1. ROFL! Hey, I can get behind that :).

      I too thought Kant was confused. The thing that kept getting to me was how he argued against a Hypothetical Imperative, but then seemed to phrase his Categorical Imperative in Hypothetical terms. He even made this mistake in his response to Constant, where he couldn’t even consistently keep his indifference to consequences straight 😀

      I can buy that Kant got into trouble when he started getting concrete/elaborating his imperative.

  15. You know, I’m dead pleased we sorted this out. So many of disagreements never go anywhere, and yet they can teach us more than any amount of agreeing with each other. I think we did a good job there. .

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