moralobjectivity.net, copyright Robert M Ellis 2010

 

The endless voyage

 

Robert M. Ellis

 

A review of Finding our Sea-legs by Will Buckingham, published 2009, Kingston University Press

 

First I must declare an interest. Will is a friend whom I have admired, but seen too little of, for some years. As philosophers both still exploring the margins of Buddhism, we obviously have something in common, as well as some similarity of history. Like me, Will has moved restlessly from one discipline to another, and like me he withdrew from commitment to the Buddhist tradition for what seem like broadly philosophical reasons. I first met Will in the circles of the FWBO (now re-named the Triratna Buddhist Community), and was impressed by the clarity and determination with which he then chose to leave behind the reassuring support of the religious group. It took me a bit longer to summon up the courage to take the same plunge. Since I first met him, Will has become a published novelist and established a stimulating blog called Thinkbuddha, on which I have found myself becoming a regular commentator. Being influenced and impressed by Will, however, does not prevent me from disagreeing with him whenever necessary, as I’m sure he will testify.

 

So I was quite ready not to be too impressed by Will’s first published philosophy book, Finding our Sea-legs. However, as a piece of writing I have no hesitation in singing its praises. Combining storytelling with philosophy in a highly engaging way, Will manages to give a bigger context to the stories and allure to the philosophy. It is also a book that draws on Will’s wide reading and experience, of travel in Indonesia and other parts of Asia, of both Buddhist and Western thought, and of both philosophy and literature. All of this feeds enticingly into a rich, lucid feast of a book.

 

My problems with it are certainly not with the writing or the presentation, but rather with the philosophy. Philosophically, I would classify this book in the category of near-misses. It comes close enough to the mark to be well worth reading and to suggest roughly where the mark may lie (at least when shot at from certain directions), but it certainly does not hit it. Of course, part of Will’s message in the book is that there is no mark to hit, but this is the very point on which I find Will’s thinking incoherent, however lucidly it may be expressed.

 

The central metaphor of ‘Finding our sea-legs’, as the title suggests, is that of the sea as a way of understanding ethics. We begin and end with this metaphor. We are navigating on an endless sea of stories, fruitlessly seeking dry land and feeling ill at ease upon the sea. However, there is no dry land (i.e. ethical certainty) to reach, so the best course for us is to ‘find our sea legs’ through developing our relationship with stories. The bulk of the book examines different ways that we can fruitfully move between stories, accepting that there is a plurality of stories rather than one single one, and that stories are irreducibly particular and cannot be turned into mere abstract interpretations of their ‘message’ without crucial loss.

 

Philosophers such as Levinas, Serres, and Kierkegaard help to provide some intellectual ballast for this exploration of the role of stories – without, in my view, adding anything crucial to the argument. Levinas is a point of departure because his ethical phenomenology is said to offer one possible story about ethics, but not the only one. Kierkegaard provides the wonderful developed example of his exploration of the story of Abraham in ‘Fear and Trembling’ to show the irreducible particularity of stories. Serres just gets frequently quoted, as do a number of other continental philosophers. So, this is not just a development or interpretation of any existing philosopher’s argument about storytelling. We hear Will’s very individual voice throughout, but nevertheless it is a voice that relies on certain questionable assumptions that remain in the background, unstated and apparently unexamined. These assumptions are broadly those of postmodernism – a term that Will never mentions, but one which in my view nevertheless applies aptly to the position taken. In many ways even Will’s central metaphor is classic postmodernism – we live in a world of surfaces; there is no more certainty because metaphysics is dead; we need to renounce meta-narratives and construct our own narratives of particularity.

 

The reason that postmodernism is never mentioned is perhaps that Will wants to wriggle free of these philosophical debates to concentrate on ways that he thinks philosophy can interact usefully with storytelling. He warns us at the outset (p.xiii) that this is a book for foxes, who know many things, rather than hedgehogs, who know one big thing. But the hedgehog/fox distinction (made by Isaiah Berlin) is only one story about the differences between ways of writing philosophically, and not one we need to accept too easily. Foxes, surely, need to try to understand hedgehogs and vice-versa. A book that uses some selected philosophical approaches without attempting any kind of philosophical consistency is, at the very least, a missed opportunity. To my mind, it also misses the central point of doing philosophy at all. What is philosophy worth without the freedom to question any premise? A more consistent philosophical approach would not in the least rule out the exploration of particular stories which is the great strength of this book, but rather give them a wider purpose and context.

 

So let me now explore some of the postmodernist assumptions that underlie this book. I hope that in doing so I can show how Will’s book could be even better if the philosophy was up to the standard of the storytelling. At the end, also, to show that a more philosophically rigorous approach is not in the least incompatible with Will’s use of the power of storytelling, I will try a little storytelling myself.

 

Generality and moral certainty

 

The first problem I want to address is the treatment of ‘dry land’ in Will’s central metaphor. ‘Dry land’ is equated with certainty, and certainty with the unattainable goal of moral philosophy. All of this rests on assumptions about what kind of things can be certain or uncertain that are (rather oddly) supported by reference to Plato. On p.5, Will quotes Plato’s Euthyphro in illustrating how matters of value give rise to disagreement and hostility, because they are allegedly not open to the same kind of investigation as the basis of agreement as are empirical matters. He then asserts:

 

The problem is clear: there is no yardstick by virtue of which we can agree on right and wrong, good and bad. It is not just that we have not yet reached common agreement in ethics, but that we don’t even know the method we might use to get there.

 

The unjustified philosophical assumptions pile up here. He assumes the fact-value distinction evidently assumed by Plato in the passage quoted: that facts are amenable to some kind of objectivity that values are not amenable to. He assumes that we do not in fact have any common agreement in ethics – a point that does not follow simply from the fact that we argue about it. He assumes, like Plato, that the only possible ethics we could agree about is a perfect ethics. He assumes, without any argument whatsoever (and contrary to Aristotle whom he subsequently quotes) that we don’t know any method of reaching agreement. He also seems to assume (here, and also in his conclusion, where he turns his back on an overwrought philosophical discussion for a quiet drink with a practical man) that there is some kind of necessary link between philosophical debate and negative mental states. ‘As Socrates makes clear,’ he goes on, ‘it is precisely when it comes to questions of ethics…that we find ourselves becoming angry and hostile to each other.’

 

If it is experience that we wish to consult, rather than the very philosophical dogmas that Will wants to avoid, there are no grounds for absolutising the fact-value distinction. Either scientific or commonsensical claims about facts are certainly open to doubt (just examine the philosophy of science to engage with the sceptical debate there), whilst moral claims can be supported through experience which is no more nor no less necessarily subjective than the experience that supports factual claims. On the basis of experience we may be able to justify claims about a greater degree of common agreement in factual matters (though I am even dubious about that, once habitual fact-value assumptions are really examined and stripped away), but not the absolute distinctions Will makes here. Why are imperfect ‘facts’ readily admissible in this common way of thinking, but an absolute level of demand always laid upon ethics, which it is bound to fail? Surely we should be more consistent in the respective demands we lay on factual and moral beliefs?

 

An over-pessimistic view of moral disagreement is also assumed when the high degree of moral agreement that we do often have is completely discounted – at  a single dogmatic stroke: “we have not yet reached common agreement in ethics”. What about the universal declaration of human rights, or widespread human kindness, or the widely shared recognition of the value of hospitality and generosity? Not only Aristotle, but Kant and the Utilitarians, offer systematisations of many widespread ethical attitudes which are often the basis of moral agreement. So why do we need to focus only on the disagreement as somehow definitive of the nature of ethics? From the fact that moral disagreement can lead us into anger (if we do not engage in it with sufficient awareness) we also do not need to pessimistically infer that anger is essential to the nature of moral disagreement. Can we not tolerate each other’s healthy opposing energies, working towards the shared goal of getting closer to truth through the agon?

 

The most basic philosophical mistake here, which Will’s approach shares with postmodernism, is the conflation of generality with certainty and justification with knowledge. We do not know even the correct method of reaching moral certainty, if knowing is taken to require certainty. Basic sceptical arguments well known from ancient Greek times can establish this easily. However, this does not imply that we cannot justify one method over another, or that one such justification may not have more objectivity than another. The absence of certainty also does not prevent general claims about ethics from being valuable and justifiable, though provisional, contributions to the ongoing clarification of an increasingly objective ethics.

 

Postmodernism is thus based on an over-interpretation of doubt, of a kind which has been going on since Carneades’ ‘Academic’ scepticism over-interpreted the more open sceptical arguments used by Pyrrhonists in ancient Greek times. From the absence of certainty about x we cannot assume that x doesn’t exist. In everyday terms this is obvious. If I’m not sure where Ulan Bator is, that doesn’t stop it existing. If we cannot assume that x doesn’t exist, neither can we assume that assertions about it are unjustified, or that all assertions about it are equally invalid. The assertion that Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia is a justifiable one, though not absolutely certain. So it is with general assertions about ethics.

 

Postmodernism begins with doubt, but is not content to dwell in it or to accept the provisionality of doubt. Similarly, we could take Will’s metaphor of the sea and the need to find our sea-legs as one of coming to terms with doubt. But if we are really coming to terms with a lack of certainty about land, surely we should also be open to the positive possibility of land? Surely the debates about the possibility of land that take place on the ship have the potentiality to become less raucous and more open-minded? And surely the idea of navigating on the sea implies somewhere to navigate to, or at least a direction to set course by, with deviations or obstacles to avoid? With the very idea of obstacles – rocks or sandbanks, perhaps – the idea of dry land unavoidably creeps back in, just as generality unavoidably creeps into any examination of ethics.

 

This relates to another feature of postmodernism that Will also fails to avoid – the hypocrisy of generalising about the impossibility of generalisation. In his conclusion Will simply cannot avoid general moral prescriptions: and indeed, the book would become completely incoherent without them. Phrases like ‘We need to…’ or ‘Anyone worth their salt would…’ (pp.127-8) are pretty thin cloaks for general prescription, and we even get an appeal to the virtues of ‘kindness, patience and care’. There’s no point in pretending that you’re not prescribing, Mr Postmodernist, because we all do it – it’s part of our moral experience. But why not be honest and upfront about it, and while we are at it, recognise the need for some justification of these general prescriptive assertions?

 

Belief and meaning in stories

 

Another area where Will’s central project fails to avoid the quagmire of postmodernism is in his very treatment of stories. We are given many examples (in chapter 6) of the irreducible particularity of stories, particularly those of Abraham and Isaac as discussed by Kierkegaard, and of King Sivi from the Indian Jatakas. Attempts to reduce these stories to interpretative beliefs fail to do them justice, Will argues.

 

And yet these seem also to be stories that carry with them a certain kind of ethical force, if we could only work out how. So we need another approach, one that does not seek to resolve stories into propositional understandings, one that pays attention to the embodied nature of our experience and that does not miss the shudder of thought. (p.84)

 

In other words, stories are important to our sense of meaning (a sense that has a directly physical impact on us, as Will describes rather well in his subsequent account of the ‘shudder of thought’), but this sense of meaning cannot be reduced to belief. Instead of distinguishing the moral impact of stories as working at a different level from that of moral beliefs, however, Will interprets the power of storytelling as giving ethics an irreducible particularity that supports a denial of general ethical beliefs. This conflation of belief with meaning is another symptom of postmodernism, amongst other philosophical prejudices.

 

Belief needs to be distinguished from meaning because meaning forms a condition on which belief is built, but belief develops new features not shared with meaning. We could not form beliefs unless we had some sense of the meaning of the words or symbols out of which these beliefs are formed, and thus we cannot appreciate and respond to another’s belief beyond the extent to which we find it meaningful in the first place. However, beliefs are explicitly expressed in propositions, whereas meanings are not. Will’s work shows very well how the moral value of stories cannot be said to consist in their contribution to our beliefs (and indeed, if they are reduced to beliefs, the effect of them can be to narrow our moral response). “The moral of the story” is usually an impoverishment of what it has to offer us. However, this in no way implies that we cannot construct justifiable moral beliefs in other ways, nor that the value of stories cannot be differently articulated – in terms of their contribution to meaning.

 

My own view is that the value of stories consists in the way in which they can extend and integrate meaning. Stories do not primarily give us a justification for believing that such-and-such a proposition is correct, but rather make it possible for us to articulate new propositions in the first place, by widening our imaginative range and sympathy. We may learn of new concepts, or enter into a deeper understanding of the different ways existing concepts can possibly be understood, or gain greater sympathy of a kind that enables us to understand the beliefs of others more fully. This process can be a cognitive one of learning new language, an imaginative one of extending its significance, or an emotional one of feeling such significance to be worthy of our attention. All these aspects of meaning can be based, as George Lakoff documents, in the physical body. Finding our sea-legs offers a mine of material to support this point, the problem only being that it is interpreted in an unhelpful philosophical context.

 

Balancing the perspective

 

There are places in the book, however, where Will shows signs of having an alternative understanding of the justification of the ethics he is in fact putting forward. These signs are extremely undeveloped, but they are there. For example, Will writes:

 

There is a course that can be steered between dreams of solid ground on the one hand and the cycles of endless equivocation on the other. (p.126)

 

Just as Will confesses not to be able to tell a story about a cave without thinking of Plato, I cannot read a sentence like this without thinking about the Middle Way, and wondering why we are not told anything else about the nature of the Middle Way that he seems to be proposing that we steer. We are told a great deal more in the book about how to avoid dreams of solid ground than we are about equivocation, why it is a problem or how it is to be avoided. The balancing of perspective here and the recognition of the need to avoid equivocation also seems to be in direct contradiction to the postmodernist assumptions that inform much of the rest of the book – for what does postmodernism offer us ethically beyond endless equivocation? If, on the other hand, this is an indication that Will is not really a postmodernist at heart, then it shows that he needs to examine much of the rest of the book much more critically to distance himself from postmodernist assumptions.

 

Elsewhere, we also get a glimpse of the possibility that this balanced course may be understood in terms of the development of awareness, which is what Will in fact seems to get out of phenomenology: ‘an attentiveness to experience, to the question ‘what is x like?’ (p.127). It seems odd to characterise something as universal as awareness in the terms of a philosophical movement like phenomenology with extremely limited cultural currency (and much unnecessary baggage), but nevertheless the central point seems to be to alert us to the way in which awareness may help us to chart a course between absolute and relative. As to how we should develop such moral awareness, what kinds of beliefs may be provisionally consistent with it, or what signs of perils along the way we should avoid, however, we are given not a hint. Appreciation of storytelling is presumably intended to help us develop this awareness in an indirect and unconscious way – which is an important and helpful point – but  storytelling is nevertheless of no help at all in the explicit process of making moral decisions, which are a persistent demand of moral experience.

 

These undeveloped hints and glimpses of a balanced perspective are not unique to Will’s work. I also find them in many other Buddhist or “Buddhish” writers, such as Sangharakshita, Michael McGhee (whose work rather parallels Will’s, but from an analytic starting point) or Stephen Batchelor. I also find it in many great Western philosophers, including contemporary ones such as Derek Parfit or Christian thinkers such as Don Cupitt. Everywhere there are hints and implicit reliances, but nobody, it seems – apart from me – is prepared to give their proper attention to the Middle Way, and devote themselves to a critical enquiry as to what it may all be about, even Buddhist thinkers to whom it is nominally important. I’m quite prepared for others to disagree with me about what the Middle Way may be about, but nobody else even seems to be turning their thoughts in that direction, even when their conclusions seem heavily reliant on it. Why on earth is this? I remain completely baffled.

 

A philosophical counter-fable

 

In the spirit of Will’s book I would like to close with a story, which is a development of the central philosophical fable that Will offers. A fable is a type of story that does not have such an elusive or irreducible relationship to belief as some of the other stories that Will considers. Nevertheless, it offers a richness and imaginative power that a straight exposition of argument cannot.

 

Once upon a time (and it was every time) there were three ships sailing on the ocean of stories. The captains of these ships were called Benedict, Christopher and Siddhartha. All three of these ships seemed to have been sailing on the ocean forever, without any clear evidence of dry land.

 

On Benedict’s ship, all the crew believed devoutly in the existence of dry land and searched for it constantly. Benedict’s navigation was based on speculative, but strongly-held, beliefs about the location of such dry land. On Christopher’s ship, on the other hand, all the crew completely denied the existence of dry land. They thus paid little attention to their navigation, unless it was to avoid a storm or seek out a fishing-ground. They were devoted only to adapting themselves to a purely maritime life. On Siddhartha’s ship, the crew were open to the possibility of dry land, but had as yet seen no clear evidence of it. Siddhartha rejected both the naïve faith of Benedict and the negative scepticism of Christopher, thinking them both narrow-minded.

 

One day, the ships were sailing close together, and the captains were arguing with each other, as they often did. Then suddenly, a lookout called ‘Land ho!’ Benedict knelt in thankfulness, Christopher scoffed, and Siddhartha got out his telescope.

 

Increasingly, as the ships drew nearer, the evidence of their senses became less ambiguous. They saw not just land, but towering cliffs surrounded by jagged rocks. However, at one point amid the otherwise uninterrupted cliffs they glimpsed a narrow channel fringed with dangerous-looking rocks, leading through to what might possibly (though uncertainly) be a safe landing place. They could not reach the possible landing place, though, or even confirm its existence, without first going through the dangerous channel. The captains argued, then separated, and steered their respective ships each according to his beliefs.

 

Benedict was overjoyed that they had reached land, and believed that all they had to do was to leap ashore. The idea of land being dangerous was completely alien to him, because he had always thought of land as the final fulfilment. He steered his ship straight at the nearest cliff, and his ship was immediately wrecked. His devout crew tried to leap exultantly to land, but were dashed against the rocks by the violent waves.

 

Christopher, on the other hand, was convinced that the dry land they observed was entirely illusory. He was determined to prove his point by steering straight through the non-existent land and thus proving that it was just a fairy tale. He too, wrecked his ship directly against the rocks, with the immediate loss of all hands, who were dashed to their deaths.

 

Siddhartha, on the other hand, concluded that although he was not certain of the real existence of the land after all this time, he should provisionally assume its existence, and avoid the dangers that his senses informed him of. The only way he could find out more about the land was to make landfall, and the only way to do this was to dare the narrow channel. Carefully navigating his way through and avoiding the rocks on either side, he seemed to get closer to the safe landing place.

 

However, at that point Siddhartha vanished from the ocean of stories. Nobody knows for sure if he ever safely reached the land, for no confirmed reports have reached us.

 

 

Related discussion on moralobjectivity.net:

 

Narrative and archetype from thesis (scroll down to e.iii)

 

The postmodern condition (scroll down to sub-section vi)

 

The nature of Middle Way ("Buddhist") ethics

 

A Palace made of Sand (Review of Michael McGhee's 'Transformations of Mind')

 

 

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