I recently finished a critical essay on comparative philosophy and comparative religion for Gereon Kopf’s forthcoming Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy [I would like to thank Gereon for inviting my contribution to his collection]. While doing this project I realized that my approach to such critical undertakings is in (large?) part motivated by a pedagogic intent. Having taught introduction to logic, symbolic logic and critical thinking for over a decade and a half, part of what motivates me is providing an opportunity for others to learn, not simply the analysis, but also what might be called the meta-analysis. That is, some critical tools that will enable them to conduct their own critical analysis.
This most recent project led me formulate some principles of critical inquiry (certainly none of which are entirely new), expressed in forms that may make the critical issues more easily remembered (that is, snappy slogans):
1) “the authority of origins”: this is familiar from the reflections of others, especially regarding the Enlightenment quest for origins, but in the case of the Western representations of Buddhism, this is the tendency to privilege the Pāli canon as most authoritative, on the grounds that it is claimed to either directly represent or at least be closest to the original words of the Buddha (buddhavacana). As Glenn Wallis has noted in his blog, “Speculative Non-Buddhism,” we really don’t know anything about what the Buddha as a historical person may or may not have said, and there are plenty of conflicting stories that can be made up out of even just the Pāli canonic sources. (This points to the principle of “authorial selectivity.” See below.) In some works reviewed for the essay in question, this led to the total invisibility of Japanese Buddhisms. This is not, obviously, unrelated to the privileging of the words of the founder more generally, a pattern foundational to contemporary Western popular religious culture with its assumption of Christianity as the model for all religions. It is also of interest that in religious matters, it is the earliest expression that is taken as most authoritative, while in scientific matters, it is the most recent (unfortunately leading to a disregard of history, including the history of science). The presumption in the first case seems to be that of decay or deviance, while in the second it is progressive self-correction.
2) “privileging the insider”: this is taking someone’s interpretation as authoritative simply because they are a member of a group; the converse, of course, is “privileging the outsider.” Either is epistemologically unsustainable. An informed outsider may in fact have a better grasp of a religious tradition than an ignorant insider. And an educated insider may be more nuanced than an outsider repeating the received view. (See Bacon, Idols of the Theatre, this is an interesting treatment.) The contemporary tendency in religious studies to privilege the insider is itself informed by the Romantic emphasis on personal experience as indubitable and irrefragable.
3) “suppression of deviance from the expected”: a rather long winded way of saying that if something doesn’t fit with one’s already held expectations, it is ignored or discounted. For example, the centrality of Zen in the image of Japanese Buddhism that was propagated by D.T. Suzuki continues to be the expected, and any evidence to the contrary in a sense just doesn’t make sense, and so quickly drops away. This becomes instantiated and habituated in certain phrases, such as “Zen gardens.” While these may be gardens at Zen temples, there is nothing particularly Zen about them. There are similar gardens at temples that are not of Zen lineage, so, what then? The easiest course, instead of revising our conception of which Buddhist tradition manifests the essence of Japanese religion (mind, genius), the garden is taken to demonstrate a “Zen influence.” (See Michael Baxandall, The Patterns of Intention, for a thorough critique of the concept of “influence.”)
4) “displacement of agency”: by this I mean the rather constant use of phrases such as “Buddhism says this or that” or “Zen holds such and such.” (While a common enough expression, it is an instance of what is technically known as the “pathetic fallacy.”) Neither Buddhism nor Zen are agents, they cannot say, claim, hold, assert anything at all. On the one hand this conceals the interpretive role of the author under the assertion that it is not s/he who says this, but rather the tradition. Thus the authority of the tradition comes to bear on the claim that the author is making, rather than depending on the authority of the author. This can also make claims seem inevitable, and not capable of being contradicted.
5) “matrix model of religion: this is a way of representing religions as if they all can be described in terms of the same list of characteristics, the matrix is formed if you arrange the various religions (which ones is another selective process evidencing—either explicitly or more often implicitly—values and prejudgments) along one axis, and the list of characteristics along the other. Fill in the blanks: Founder: Christianity/Jesus, Buddhism/Buddha (don’t ask which one, presume in light of #1 above, the “historical” Buddha, Śākyamuni), and Daoism/Laozi (qualify by saying “legendary” but at least you’ve still got something to fill in the blank with). But what then about “Hinduism?”
6) “commodification”: while commodification has a variety of meanings (including that of Marx, for whom it has to do with the expropriation of the value of labor), I am simply intending here the way in which radically divergent things are made to fit into the same structure, making for a neat and systematic and ultimately distorting presentations. Think of the way in which items for sale are packaged in uniform boxes and sizes. More concretely, we find Buddhisms being commodified in the already familiar forms of the self-help culture: guidebooks on how to attain awakening in twelve weeks, or weekend workshops, and the like. Readily consumable products which provide an experience. Perhaps the experience of being happy. Such experiences constitute the ultimate consumerist product—evaporating in the moment of consumption, creating ongoing demand for more, and indefinitely reproducible at relatively low cost.
7) “power of the interrogator”: this has long been known, but is too little acknowledged—the person asking the questions determines the answers, questions carry presumptions which any answer reinforces (the classic example, of course is: Have you stopped beating your wife?). This is why many of the questions that are asked of Buddhism should not be answered, but rather be interrogated in turn. “What is the Buddhist view on abortion?” for example. This both assumes that there is a univocal “Buddhism” and that it should have an opinion regarding abortion (and, of course, that all Buddhists should share this opinion). Most of engaged Buddhism as practiced in the West falls into this pattern. The presumption is that, like nineteenth century liberal Protestantism, Buddhism ought to have a social action mandate. 7b) Hence, religious identity becomes a reason for doing/believing: “Because I am a Buddhist, I oppose war.” Why should religious identity trump one’s obligations as a citizen (cf. neuroskeptic on identity)? Why should an identity that has been put on be allowed to determine what one does or thinks?
8) “authorial selectivity”: the control an author wields over the representation of Buddhism being created goes beyond simply asking the questions, but extends to the choice of texts employed to answer the questions. Thus, one can construct wildly divergent representations of Buddhist praxis depending on whether one is employing sources from the Pāli canon, the Tibetan, or Chinese, or the writings of Buddhaghosa, Longchenpa, Zhiyi, or D.T. Suzuki. Indeed, as should be evident from intra-Buddhist contestations or debates, even within “the same” tradition, divergent interpretations can be propounded.
Of course, if we think of the intellectual and academic world (including the ideologies motivating those who eschew such consciously reflective undertakings in favor of “meditation only”—perhaps the name of a new school of Buddhist praxis comparable to “mind only”) as a kind of organism, then both the questions asked and the texts selected function much like autonomic processes—like digestion, or breathing. They sustain the organism without attention by the organism. Thus, critical thinking may be seen as a kind of mental yoga, a learning to take conscious control over the processes of thought.
One should note that disagreements, contestations, debates have multiple motivations, as well as multiple consequences. They are not exclusively intellectual, but also institutional and economic. The tendency to sublimate such conflicts into the realm of the intellect alone has the same effects as the denaturalization of philosophy or religious thought—avoiding certain kinds of evaluations of the ideas, such as for their effect on the lives of people. At this same time, such evaluations do not warrant the active propagation of falsehoods. Such denaturalizing is itself an instance of decontextualizing. The issues surrounding context and the unhappy consequences of decontextualizing deserve a separate post, and will be dealt with accordingly.