Monday, June 24, 2013

You thought no one could still say that there is an "Asian Philosophy" stressing order over single individuals?

Consider the following statements:

This paper analyzed different texts from the Buddhist, Daoist, and Hindu religions. […] It is clear, from the reading of all the texts that each religion tries to explain the human soul’s relationship to the cosmic order of reality. The spirit of a human being is under thesupreme control of the Tao, Universal Consciousness, dharma, or whatever a religion describesas the Ultimate Reality. This connection between the human being and the Ultimate Reality cannot be broken or crafted by a third party. This connection only exists between an individual human being and that person’s ability to empty his or her consciousness, for the purposes of enlightenment. That is the sole purpose of existence on this earthly plane. This is the universal message of all of the religions examined. The similarities far outweigh the differences.

Add the fact that the chapter on Hinduism has as single reference the Bhagavad Gītā, with no word of caution added. Where do these words come from? 
A 19th c. handbook for the primary schools? No, a paper just uploaded on Academia.
 I do not know the author and his/her university's website looks suspicious enough. Still, how did it happen that the scholarship on Buddhism, "Hinduism" (and Daoism) until now has not yet managed to eradicate such simplistic views?

Should we do more to explain that "Asian religious traditions" are more complex than that? Or are the authors of such essays biased by a too strong confirmation-bias?


andrew said...

i agree, although it's worth thinking about the preconditions and background of this and all other attempts to construct an "asian philosophy." in institutions lucky enough to teach any "asian philosophy" at all, it's almost always taught in religious studies or area studies departments. ask a student to write a term paper for their "asian religions" course, and this is probably what they'd come up with. (there may be some orientalist mysticism thrown in, too.)

another interesting question: are the generalizations sufficiently broad as to include non-asian philosophies as well? doesn't christianity (or stoicism or romanticism) "try to explain the human soul's relationship to the cosmic order of reality" too?

elisa freschi said...

You are right, Andrew. But this makes me think:

1. that the web is possibly full of crap written by undergraduates for their ter-assignments. This is risky, because future undergraduates will find this stuff through google (etc.) and produce even worse summaries of them.
2. that teachers (etc.) have the major responsibility of trying to teach some critical thinking (over and above the need to learn the names of the Vedic texts, etc.).

As for your second point, you are right, one should re-read one's conclusions and ask oneself whether they are so general as to be applicable to whatever topic.

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more with Andrew.
When I first read the excerpt you quote, I immediately thought "hey, what else did St. Augustine do?". Just as an example, but the point stands. That phrase is closer to a general definition of religion that to a definition of "Asian" religion.
By the way, it is very hard to break free of this of generalization (in my field, broad statements on lines such as "Islam has no sense of history" are quite commonplace). They may even catch some point of truth that is useful too analysis, though their breadth makes it difficult to pinpoint any of these. Relative to the "Asian religion" concept, however, I think it's particularly problematic because I can hardly see a meaningful generalizion on this kind. Common features in the emphasis of the overarching order and harmony (Dao, Dharma, whatever) but is exactly what the mainstream of Graeco-Abrahamic (I made this word up right now, but i'll reuse it) traditions did most of the time.
And, Elisa, early Middle Ages encyclopedias did not need the web to accumulate bad summaries.

elisa freschi said...

@Marco, yes, and this is one of the reasons for our next Coffee Break Conference (which in fact bears the name "There is no East").

As for Middle Age Encyclopedias and digital ones, I was just trying to point out that the contemporary easiness in acquiring materials does not necessarily point out to an overall increase of knowledge.

Unknown said...

"contemporary easiness in acquiring materials does not necessarily point out to an overall increase of knowledge."

This opens a very big conflation of large nasty cans of venomous parasite worms, so to speak. There are issues with access (just think how JSTOR works), the cathedral/bazaar models, training, and, at the bottom line, the web has made acquiring materials _overwhelmingly_ easy. One is discouraged by the sheer mass of stuff out there. And then, most of it is crap, and there no instrument tell the goodies out of it other than sifting through all that crap.

elisa freschi said...

Well, our studying testimony as an instrument of knowledge has (at least in my opinion) exactly the purpose of rationalising our approach to testimonies. To students and colleagues I tend to say:
1. be realist: testimony is unavoidable (don't insist that "sciences" are the realm of pure perception+inference)
2. deal with it: instead of denying its role and then using it in an uncritical way, learn how to deal with testimony in an epistemologically critical way (i.e., being aware of its problems and advantages).

In this sense, I do not think that there is no way to distinguish the goodies from the crap (hopefully!).

Unknown said...

Elisa, I wasn't saying there is no way at all. I was saying there is no way that is not difficult and time-consuming.

elisa freschi said...

you are right, it is time consuming. Fortunately, it is less time-consuming whenever it comes to what is really important for us, i.e., the topic we are already "experts" about (and for which we have, consequently, much background knowledge against which we can verify what we read).

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