Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sartre v. Kant: Who's More Mahayana?

Over at Justin Whitaker's blog, there's a post on Kant with a detour of Viktor Frankl.  Justin writes:

... Perhaps the Buddha, Kant, Frankl and others will exhort ideals that seem beyond the reach of ordinary people. But it is exactly that ideal, and the striving we ordinary beings undertake to attain it, that allows us to become fully human. Think a bit about the “cross-winds” of society toward complacency, sensual enjoyment, blame, etc…
 I think several things about this:
  1. Of course it's kind of pointless to try to crow-bar Western philosophical constructs into  Eastern philosophical constructs, just as it is to say that Kant and Nietzche were saying the same thing.  But...
  2. That said, clearly the Buddha did not subscribe the Western concept of the ideal.  He had bigger fish to fry.
  3. If I were to map Western philosophers as "near" to Buddhist philosophy, I'd start with existentialists such as Sartre.   Sartre's concept of the human is void of an essence.  That is closer, I submit, to the Mahayana ideal of the aggregates being fundamentally empty than the presumption of an ideal to which one strives.  Striving's important, but not because there's a "goal" there, but because that's what we do.
All of that said, I think frankly that Viktor Frankl's kind of a poor metaphor for Buddhism for other reasons.  You can get a glint of why I might think so from a couple of  Amazon reviews of "Man's Search for Meaning."  The first:

I am a widow, and this book was recommended to me by a psychologist to help lift my spirits. I'm sorry, but I'm not sure how page after page of descriptions of life under the nazis is supposed to help anyone with anything. I was already aware that many people have had to go through even worse things than watching a beloved spouse die of cancer, awful as that is. Certainly Mr. Frankel's experience and response to it is a tribute to the human spirit -- proof that we are more resillient than we think. But uplifting? No, I don't think so. Depressing, with no new information, is my synopsis. More power to those who can comfort themselves with some "meaning" in suffering and get something out of this book. But if you don't, you won't be the only one. 


And the second:

What's proven here? That if you can convince youself you have something to live for: you will continue to live for it. So? If after getting hit on the head with a lead pipe 100x one is to receive ten million dollars, I suppose there are some who will endure that pain, too, in the hope they will survive. They won't.
Perhaps the real question is if there is *any* reward for enduring the brutality of life that is worth the suffering. Most, if not virtually all, love relationships are based on a thinly or not-so thinly disguised basis of psychology mercantilism, if not outright economic dealmaking. Other higher pursuits: art, philosophy, philanthropy, so-called spiritual attainment are arguably better, but, really, are little more than panaceas not much different, in their ultimate purpose, than devoting one's life to developing the perfect tennis game, for instance. They absorb one's attention and distract one's focus from the pain & dissolution to come, or even occuring, & keep one, perhaps, from ending it all at the very moment. In this manner, we all buoy each other up, but for what? The question remains unanswered. Life is a concentration camp and we are all going to the gas chamber in the end. What do we do in the meantime. Is it worth it?
Frankl, like any reasonably intelligent person, delineates the central problem well: Why live? But like every other professional philosopher or psychologist, he comes up with a reason (altho in this case the reason boils down to *find a reason*) because, well, what else is he going to do? The biological imperative compels us to go on with life at any price. The alternative: that there is no reason to do so--that is simply too terrifying to contemplate, would violate species survival, and be considered unpublishable. Just once I'd like to see a thinker have the courage to face the ultimate question and not flinch, escape to a flight of fancy, take a leap of *faith* or otherwise dissemble.
Life is not worth living. Don't blink. 

 These are two very good counters to the "living for the ideal/meaning" part.  Frankl's position is kind of an escape- the escape of turning one's life into some kind of essence.

Frankl got through the camps with this view.  But Sartre also got through his ordeals without that view. 

Moreover, you'll never develop the perfect tennis game by pursuing some kind of ideal, because it means you won't be doing it in the moment.

It is true that the things one tell's one's self can help or hinder their journey through or around or above obstacles and suffering.  But one is no less human for despairing.  It just is more suffering though.

Some folks don't strive and they do die. That is the reality, and that reality should be the seeds of great compassion and empathy.  Maybe that reality triggers a Sartrian "will to action" that helps those with that will help all beings. 

But when death is inevitable, when imperfection is inevitable, when the "goal" crumbles into dust, there are times when we must keep going even though it is painful and difficult, with no great likelihood of success. If death is our lot itself, regardless of the outcome, we can attempt to make our mark.












3 comments:

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Mumon,

I'm glad to see that you've picked this up and helped further the east-west dialog. I've got to be brief here, but I'll try to say more in a new blog post next week.

1. Yes, crow-baring is bad; BUT at times Nietzsche and Kant actually do say much the same things (Freud too, not to mention many others). In a sense this shouldn't be surprising. They were influenced by many of the same thinkers and some similar cultural surroundings, etc. And sometimes people like the Buddha or Confucius also said something remarkably similar to other eastern or western thinkers. The fun work (and it is *work*) for me is in finding out WHY they say some of these things and then why and where they (importantly) disagree.

2. The 'ideal' (or 'ideals') exists in Buddhism, under different names.

3. Existentialism is a great starting point.

The reviews thing is a bit off-putting to me because there are currently 468 5-STAR reviews and you quote two out of the 6 1-STAR reviews. But this isn't a popularity contest, if you feel that these 2 or 6 reviewers really understand Frankl and give good reason for dismissing him, okay.

Mumon said...

Hi Justin,

I do welcome - maybe you've already done by this point - an update based on some what I've thrown into the stew here. And admittedly I'm sure you've read more of philosophy than I have.

That said, I included the reviews because they brought a perspective the positive reviews didn't, as you inferred. (And yes, the fact that the book is so popular seems a bit argumentum ad numerum, if you catch my drift.)

It's easy to see the appeal of Frankl, but having been amongst those who have had to deal with the after-effects of the Holocaust, even that in the far removed abstracted social world of middle-class New Yorkers, (not to mention a Palestinian or two or three that were in the wrong place in the wrong time), I have to say this: It is more complicated than "Have some way to make sense of it all."

These types of events screw with the survivors' grandchildren. Or not. And oftentimes, the "sense" made of it just makes more of the same nonsense.

But I do appreciate the discussion.

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