Warning! What follows is a brief critical overview of philosophy in the East and West. Like any overview, it makes generalisations in order to make a colossal and extraordinarily complex subject edible — and, more importantly, to make a few points generally about the nature of thought and emotion. If you can’t read a generalisation without exploding in a rage of counter-examples or if you believe that the word ‘philosophy’ must mean ‘rigorous academic text ’ (the more complex the better1) rather than something which makes you actually look at your actual life, then stop reading now…!
WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: POST-TRUTH SINCE PLATO
Our tradition of classical philosophy could really be said to have began with Plato, who believed that real things in the real world are not as real as ideas (a.k.a. ‘Platonic forms’) and with Aristotle, who believed that the rational mind is the true self. This demented conflation of rational thought with the conscious experience of thought (or who I really am) continues to be the standard assumption of modern philosophy; which started with Descartes, for whom the thinking ego is all that can be said to exist; and, more recently, of postmodern philosophy; the work of thinkers such as Lyotard, Lacan, Foucault and Rorty, for whom reality is a fabrication — only language, thought and power are real.
The philosopher Roger Scruton in his Short History of Modern Philosophy, summed up the past few hundred years of professional thought, with the outrageous claim that ‘there is no point of view outside human reason from which reason can be judged’. Like the celebrated thinkers he comments on, Scruton goes no further than Descartes’ classic formulation of schizoid horror, ‘I think therefore I am,’ which, as Kant reasoned a century and a half after Descartes, means I can never know anything or anyone; I am forever alone in the cage of my thinking brainself, struggling to survive in a reality, out there, which at best is indifferent to me, in here — and at worst actively hostile.
Kant discovered that time and space — which is to say all objects in the world — are created by the mind; and so we can never experience anything as it really is (or anyone as they really are) only the time and space the mind brings to experience. This does not mean that the mind literally invents time and space — there must be something ‘timespacey’ out there for us to be able to meaningfully think, reason and communicate with each other — but we can never step beyond our temporal-spatial minds.2
There were two responses to this shocking discovery. The first, modern response, was to decide that it, like all problems of thought, reality, being and so on, is created by language, which just needs to be tidied up in order to straighten everything out. This was the strategy adopted by the school of analytic philosophy.
The second, postmodern response to the problem posed by Kant, known as continental philosophy adopted the position that if nothing can be known in the mind, then nothing is real; reality, existence, experience and truth do not exist. Everything is shifting, subjective, unreal… which is to say everything is up for grabs.
As is always the case between prominently ‘opposed’ schools of thought (capitalism and communism, theism and atheism, etc), the actual difference between modern-analytic and postmodern-continental thought is wafer-thin. Both assume that the mind can grasp or clear up the problems of the mind, both rule out reality or declare that it is somehow synonymous with thought (and therefore, as thought can be controlled, with power), both view truth as a specialised (and therefore professional) concern, to which outsider interference must never be seriously recognised and both are boring, difficult to understand and, to anybody who lives an ordinary life with ordinary problems, besides the point (although, to be fair, this applies to much, if not most, of academia). Modern and postmodern philosophers, like capitalists and communists, live the same kind of lives as each other, have the same kind of jobs, the same kind of problems, the same kind of fears, the same kind of desires — all dusted over with a particle-wide layer of thought which the academic world obsessively and aggressively focuses on.
But back to Kant’s problem. Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to take it seriously and to point towards a sensible solution to the mind-elusive mystery of reality. He realised that there is one exception to Kant’s unknowable ‘things of the world’, one thing that can be directly experienced; and that is conscious experience — the conscious experience of the reader of these words. I can know my conscious experience ‘in itself’ because I am it.
Schopenhauer was the first Western philosopher to explore this experience non-rationally, through observation, experience and, for want of a better word, ‘being’. This is why, despite his dreadful biases, errors and outright vileness, he is readable, human, funny, messy and interesting—as were many of those who followed Schopenhauer’s lead; the existentialists. Kierkegaard is readable and recognisable, as is Nietzsche, as is, very occasionally, Sartre. Hegel most certainly is not, nor Russell, nor Rorty, nor Lyotard, nor Lacan nor Derrida, nor any of the hyper-clever idiots who make up the analytical and continental hyper-rational po-mo professional philosophic canon.
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche called their pre-rational experience will, which they recognised as being prior to thought, Heidegger (who was none too readable, but still concerned with existentialist problems) called it mood. In exploring and expressing this ‘radical subjectivity’ from within, rather than merely thinking about or trying to prove it from above, they produced more fascinating, penetrating, unsettling and sometimes joyous psychological insights than anything that had preceded them in the field of philosophy, at least since Socrates; in fact their work more often than not was closer to literature, myth or art, which they spent a great deal of time fruitfully considering.
There was a fundamental and tragic problem however, best understood by considering Heidegger’s ‘mood’ which he considered primary. He pointed out, correctly, that we do not have feelings, we are feelings. A feeling doesn’t just enter us from outside, we are it and this ‘it’ I am feeling here is actually indistinguishable from that ‘it’ that is happening there. The mind might usefully separate the atmosphere of the sky from the atmosphere of the bellymind—but the experience is one.
What Heidegger missed, however—as did all the existentialist philosophers, as do very many people in their ordinary lives—is that there is a kind of feeling that we do have. While feelings and sensations (which Heidegger called understanding) come naturally, out of blended conscious experience, or the context, emotions are specifically created by the self-informed-self — our thinking, wanting, not wanting identity which is comprised partly of genetic programming, partly of social or familial programming and entirely of its own isolated ‘intelligence’. While feelings and sensations are subtle, vivid, varied, creative and, as Heidegger says, intimately part of us (of our conscious experience), emotions are crude, etiolated, very similar to each other, predictable, violent (Schopenhauer’s negative will) and removed from our conscious experience. I can feel my violence, there, in my chest, but I am the peace around it, here.
The reason why few people perceive the difference between feelings and emotions is that they are trained to be themselves; to be the self. They are unable to separate from emoting and confuse it with feeling. Most people when they have anger are angry, when they have anxiety, they are anxious, when they have boredom they are bored (and so on through fear, shame, unease and all the other wants and not-wants) — which is why they defend their emotions with all the existential tenacity they can possibly muster; for to be anything else, anything prior, feels like death. Their ability to experience their emotions as a sensation happening in the body — something happening to the conscious feeling that I am — is the same as their ability to be the consciousness that witnesses thought; nil. They are unconscious.
And so existentialism (and romanticism) chucked out the grotesque lunacy of the classical philosophic tradition (‘I am my thoughts’), thereby opening the door to psychological truth, the ecstasies of passion, genuine human feeling and even comedy, and for that they should be read; but the romantics and the existentialists kept another kind of madness for themselves. Schopenhauer’s dreadful negativity, Keirkegaard’s fear and trembling, Nietzsche’s overblown self-importance, Heidegger’s Fascism (and nutty obsession with the future), Sartre’s schizoid fear of matter and woman and all the pornographic art of modernism and postmodernism can all be traced back to mistaking feeling for emotion (‘I am my emotions’).
EASTERN PHILOSOPHY AND HOW TO CO-OPT IT
The great Eastern philosophers never took our turn into severe abstraction and rationality. A vast literature of excessively abstract literature has certainly flowed from the East, but their celebrated teachers would have treated Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz and Žižek as in need of help. This didn’t preclude the technological development of the East, or its scholastic obsession with theory; and there’s no reason to suppose we couldn’t have developed vulcanised rubber and ball-bearings without assuming that truth was an idea. Nor did it prevent the people of the East from behaving with genocidal cruelty and stupidity. The East has had the same faults as the West, but on the whole, they have been more concerned with a more important philosophical problem than the difference between one kind of idea and another; namely what is the difference between the true self and the false self (or between bondage and liberation), and what practical steps might be taken to head towards the former?
Other ways to put this question include; how to build a society in which everyone in it creates enduring works of transcendent genius, how to fathom the depths of consciousness while strolling to the paper-shop, how to face the end of all things over breakfast, how to bodily love one’s partner into the sixth dimension, how to build a spiritual rocket-pack and blast out of the zone of evil, how to become a glorious beacon of the unfathomable glow, how to meaningfully play with plasticine while tumbling into the abyss, how to get over this morning’s moody and how to feel at home in an alienating unworld.
Such genuine philosophic problems are never asked by Western philosophers, who never even propose meaningful solutions to those questions they do ask. This is because genuine philosophical questions all refer to what is beyond the thinking-emoting self and so they cannot eo ipso be solved by taking the classical Western philosophic approach — by thinking about them — or by taking the modern Western philosophic approach — by emoting or existentially willing a solution into actuality — or by taking the postmodern / analytic philosophic approach — by pretending that the problem doesn’t really exist. If there is that within conscious experience which is not a thought and not an emotion, it cannot be experienced by thinking (agreeing, disagreeing, theorising, comparing, contrasting, seeking evidence and verifying it, arguing, remembering or analysing) or by emoting (wanting it or not wanting it, getting angry, getting excited, getting bored…); and it certainly cannot be experienced by putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and chanting a codified version of ‘nothing is real, nothing exists, all is shifting and subjective, and that’ll be £250,000 please Mr Saatchi.’
If there is a solution to troublesome thoughts, painful emotions and to all the violence, addiction, anxiety, boredom, guilt, mediocrity and despair they engender — true philosophical problems — it is in that which is conscious of thought and emotion, that which thinks thoughts (‘I’) and that which feels emotions (‘the body’). The experienced reality of this truth is the central insight of Thomasine Christianity, Advaita, Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Taoism, which, rather than give the mind more things to think about, or the emotions more things to want or not want, or the ego more reasons to justify or feel pleased with itself (much less expend futile energy on trying to prove that the problems exist in the first place) focus on practices which reduce thought and emotion.
There are two interconnected components to these practices; one is self-mastery and the other is world-mastery. Self-mastery involves inhabiting the non-thinking source of thought (‘meditation’) contemplating certain kinds of mind-and-emotion-stilling art, satsang (sitting with someone whose mind is still) and ‘mindfulness’ or practising presence during ordinary activities. World-mastery involves dealing with the manifold challenges of living with other selves (through love), of living in a society or system designed by and for selves, (through revolution) of sex and romance (through sacrifice), of handling pain (through courage) and so on.
Such practice has no place in the institutional philosophy of the West. You are not supposed to do things in institutions — real things, that is. Investigating the nature of consciousness with your consciousness — rather than just thinking about it — dealing with the unspoken limits of academic investigation, jeopardising a juicy tenure, resisting authority, addressing society, giving away surplus and making ecstatic love on the photocopier are all as unlikely in a philosophy department as they are in an accounts department. The problems of the mind are supposed to be solved with more thinking — just as the problems of management are supposed to be solved with more management and the problems of economics are supposed to be solved with more money.
The practice of Eastern philosophy therefore begins where Western philosophy has arrived. The authors of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Dogen and, more recently, Ramakrishna, Sri Ramana Maharsha and Krishnamurti all address questions which precede the lunatic speculations and ‘systems of thought’ of our celebrated classical thinkers and which follow from the equally insane output of our celebrated postmodern theorists. The greatest Eastern philosophers all address the actual reality and ordinary confusion of ordinary people living ordinary mortal lives — which is why they can be understood by ordinary people (something else which doesn’t get you very far in academia).
But there are also problems with Eastern philosophy, as countless hippies, new-agers, drop-outs, acid-casualties, lunch-hour yogis and shuffed-out artists have discovered: not necessarily a problem with any particular teaching, but with the nature of teaching itself. Any philosophic truth which is expressed by a particular person and which addresses a particular society is inherently co-optable. When the teacher dies and the society moves on, the teaching automatically becomes incomplete and dead (scripted or memorised) and so able to be subverted and assimilated.3
This is why true philosophers (and artists) — those who express consciousness and address the context as it is — are never widely acknowledged while they are alive (very often actively reviled in fact) and then honoured to high heaven the moment they die. While they live they accurately criticise the unconsciousness around them. The moment they die the criticism itself becomes unconscious.4 It no longer quite applies and the prestige of the critique can be yoked onto whatever bandwagon is on the up and up without fear of authoritative denial. Such official acceptance guarantees that a teaching or a movement has now been bent out of shape and that a new truth offensive to it is now somewhere being ignored or ridiculed
What happens is that yesterday’s outsiders become today’s elites. Excluded and ridiculed Christians become the catholic church; excluded and ridiculed humanists become Jacobins and Bolsheviks; and excluded and ridiculed hippies and civil-rights campaigners become Democrats and Guardian columnists. Any ideas from the originating source that don’t quite tally with ‘the new reality’ are quietly dropped with a silent prayer of gratitude that Jesus isn’t here to see the gold thrones in the Vatican, Nietzsche isn’t here to see the holocaust, Marx isn’t here to see the purges or that Buddha isn’t here to see Google courses in mindfulness. It’s annoying, to be sure, that undisciplined writers and thinkers seem dead set on quoting their putative authorities back to elites, but it’s an irritation that can be lived with.
What tends to be embarrass elites most of all about their sacred texts is that spiritual and artistic prophets very often made biting critiques of power. The greatest philosophers of the East are unequivocal about worldly power: it is inherently corrupt, as is the means of acquiring and maintaining it. Wealth in particular comes in for a hammering, as does usury and intellectualism.
Best pretend these bits were mistakes eh? He couldn’t have been talking about us!
But here we come to another shortcoming of Eastern philosophies: their attitude to resistance. Imagine if the Buddha had said ‘yes, you must find Nirvana within by following the eight-fold path, but sooner or later you’ll come up against and be forced to resist coercive authority; here are a few tips to subvert that…’ — would this comment have survived the transition to official ideology: i.e an ideology guarded by authority? Unlikely. Jesus was clearly pretty cheesed off with money-lenders and the professional academics of his time, yet by the time we reach St. Paul we find the Christian message has transformed into ‘obey your husbands and submit to the government’ — could the fanciful regard that the New Testament Jesus has for the Romans be coloured by St. Paul’s sucking up to them? Likely.
Add to these kind of distortions the clear truth, expressed by all great Eastern philosophers, that any kind of worldly striving — including social revolution — is ultimately futile or at least secondary to an inner revolution, then add the fact that Eastern philosophy also contains a great deal of mediocre, reactionary or cultic claptrap (such as the teachings of Confucius, most of the Abrahamic prophets, Sai Baba and a long literature of intensely abstract doctrinal musings), then add the fact, already mentioned, that we live in a completely different world to the celebrated spiritual teachers of the East and you end up with a canon of literature that is curiously anaemic on questions of social justice, and a body of followers, disciples or yogis who are quite happy spending a month in a Sicilian ashram on a de-tox or an hour a day practising Ashtanga, but not quite so keen on redistributing wealth, deprofessionalising society or seizing the means of production.
But downplaying rebellion is not the only escape-clause that Eastern practices of world-mastery contain. As well as not applying very well to our world — they also have an inherent inability to tackle your world. It’s so easy to pick up the Bhagavad Gita, the Shōbōgenzō or Freedom from the Known, apply those parts you like to your life and go on your way, one level of superiority up on the ladder of spiritual advancement. Do a nice bit of meditation, get a few weird insights, qualify in shiatsu, backpacking in India? Bingo! Walking godman! A classic case of guruitis — wise, grounded, loving and a bit creepy, no?
You might be able to meditate for four hours and suck water up your anus, but then you have to go to work, live with your parents, have sex, raise kids, use a computer, submit to professional authority and commute. You also have to deal with your unique situation, your unique matrix of shames, guilts, fears and compulsions. On all these precise matters Lao Tzu, Patanjali, Kamo no Chōmei, Jeez of Naz, Meister Eckhart and George Gurdjieff have little to say. This doesn’t invalidate their teachings; but it does show why they can be so easily misunderstood. It’s easy to study the masters — not quite so easy to be one. It’s easy to be a nun — try living with a husband that doesn’t really love you, doing a shit job in Watford and having your benefits cut. It’s easy to be Mr Enlightenment, until you lose your house, or the wrong guy wins the election, or your girlfriend transforms into the fiendess, or the doc puts his hand on your shoulder, or you realise that, actually, amazingly, you are still discontent. Then you discover that knowledge is not enough, nor even the Eastern practices you’ve chosen. Then you are confronted with the one philosophical problem that no book or tradition or teaching can ever know or solve; being you, in your world.
Next in this series: A Peanut History of Art
See also my philosophy of everything.
1 The highest value of the aspiring technocrat (scientist, philosopher, economist, etc); one whose pay depends on perception (‘ooh, complicated, must be important’) rather than result.
2 Please note, I have not read Kant’s critiques. My understanding of Kant comes from Gardner, Guyer, Scruton, Ouspensky and Schopenhauer. Kant is just too difficult for me — so if you are superhuman enough to have read and completely understood his work, and you find some error with this short account, please forgive me, or even let me know. I’m stone cold certain my basic point stands, but I could well be mistaken about the details.
3 This is particularly true today, in a market-driven world which is built on co-option; which demands that truth be commodified. It may be that, in Thoreau’s lovely words, ‘the oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision…’ — yes, yes and an everlasting yes; but the statue for us stands in a bewildering hall of mirrors the like of which Mr Hindoo never had to contend with, and the veil of accumulated knowledge and manic mental-emotional activity which we must lift to see it is a hundred pounds of ballistic nylon.
4 As unconscious as the mediocre writers, false prophets and substandard artists celebrated and honoured by the world.