“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Contemplative Studies

The neuroscientist I interviewed about studies of meditation, last week, told me something very interesting that affects my sense of the audience for Buddhaphobia.

There's a brand new field of "contemplative studies" opening up, which will play a big part in the American Academy of Religion's conference next year. It involves humanists and scientists working together to think about practices such as meditation.

Looking at Brown U's new contemplative studies page I see my work would fit in. Clifford Saron (the neuroscientist) invited me to present my work at the AAR next year.

So the big question is, why is this happening? Here's a big answer.

I'll talk about it philosophically here, but you could easily talk about it socially or economically. I really believe that it's the kind of sea change that Latour has been talking about (if you'll recall I'm a recent enthusiastic convert). I believe that we have finally exited the modern. This means:

"Sincerity" is okay again. Not a regression to a non-ironical state, but a taking seriously of the truth that "there is no metalanguage." This implies that the "Anything you can do, I can do meta" kind of scholarly game is over. I can't prove I'm smarter than someone by seeing through them...This means that the foundation for "contemplative studies" is now in place. Since I can't jump out of my universe (experientially or physically), there is "no escape" from my mind, but this doesn't mean I'm an isolated island. Even when I'm going meta meta meta (studying my access to my access to things...) I'm right there, doing it.

Why is this happening now? I blame ecology. That is, I blame nonhuman entities and our interaction with them. This is part of my larger project but I think that nonhuman entities including nonsentient ones such as climate and radiation and pollution have finally pushed us out of our funk. The funk in which we decided somehow that:

1) the "inner" has no value. (Foucault's "face on the sand" type stuff and its ramifications.)
2) the "outer" is just processes or atoms or whatever (undermining real objects in the name of some reductionist materialism). (Many humanists hold this default ontology, absurdly.)
3) There is no bridge between the human and the nonhuman world. Everything we do is within our human cage. Talking about what's outside that cage is anthropocentrism or whatever.

If you join all these together you get a very sorry state, especially for humanism. We don't believe in the "human" yet we don't believe we can talk about the nonhuman either. Or rather we didn't.

I truly believe this is a big moment. I think this is the end of a two-hundred year moment, delineated by Kant and Hegel and bookended by Derrida and De Man, who started to see past it, through a glass darkly. The end of this moment has resulted in a breath of fresh air coming in, resulting in various other symptoms, such as contemplative studies, viz.:

Some scholars seem to be just dropping an even older legacy: orientalism, which separates what "western" thinking from "eastern" quasi-thinking (contemplation). This includes the reverse orientalism of confining yourself to a Western box.

And behind that, the taboo against contemplation, which is really a Church Fathers mission against Neoplatonism. And behind that, there is a whole lot of strange stuff in Plato that now needs to be rethought: philosophy as a contemplative practice, reincarnation, the after-death state. I mean, why did he put that strange stuff in at the end of the Republic? For a joke?

Just look at Marcus Boon's use of Buddhism in his new book. I mean that was almost forbidden just recently. "That" being the use of Buddhism as a heuristic tool, not an object of study.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Great post, Tim. I was never quite sure why contemplation all but died out in Christianity.

Speaking of philosophy as a contemplative practice, what's needed now in the west is something like Nalanda… a monastic university. See my new post: http://wp.me/p11Tis-oO