Wonder and Inquiry

“Son of Klinias, I think that you are wondering…”

Plato’s Alcibiades—the first Platonic dialogue that students in late antiquity, following the Iamblichean curriculum, would read—begins with Socrates speaking these words. From this manifest appearance of wonder comes the invitation to philosophy. Yet for Socrates, and for the Platonist following his example, philosophy never displaces wonder, never undermines the encounter with the cosmos which is philosophy’s own fons et origo, as we see throughout Plato’s portrayal of Socrates, and especially in the Parmenides and the Phaedo.

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The Three Questions in Indian Philosophy (with some reflections on ethics)

In a previous post, I explored the three-fold division of philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics which originated among the early Stoics, and which was widespread in Hellenistic philosophy. In this post, I’d like to explore how this same triple division can apply to Indian philosophy.

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Paying for Philosophy: Protagoras and the Gift Economy

The standard line in modern presentations of the history of Greek philosophy is that the Sophists were really horrible because they charged a fee for their teaching, but Socrates was really wonderful because he gave his teaching away for free. There might be a grain of truth to this, and it’s something that Xenophon in particular really plays up. But the picture may be a little more complicated.

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Divination: The Objective, the Personal, and the Intuitive

Where is the objectivity in astrology? Is there an interesting sense in which astrology is “more objective,” or “more impersonal,” than other divinatory arts?

While it’s certainly true that at any given moment, the stars are where they are, in a way that does not depend upon us in any way, the astrological houses have quite a few personal and subjective elements about them. And even the significations of the planets leave quite a bit of room for intuition and inspiration in their interpretation.

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Buddhism, dependent arising, and the erasure of polytheism

(No, we are not all trying to be atheists.)

In my last post, I discussed how a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic monotheism, and respectability politics have given rise to the false claim that “Advaita Vedānta is monotheism.” In the present post, I’d like to examine another, quite similar erasure of polytheism; namely, the false claim that “Buddhism is atheistic,” which arises from a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic atheism,1 and respectability politics.

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No, we are not all trying to be monotheists.

(Vedānta, monism, and the erasure of polytheism)

All too often, it’s claimed that “Advaita Vedānta is a form of monotheism.” Or even that Advaita Vedānta is a better, more pure, more refined form of monotheism than its Middle Eastern competitors, Christianity and Islam.

No, Advaita is not monotheism. It is monism,* the view that “there is only one thing.” But if there is only one thing, there is no more reason to call that thing “God” that to call it “cosmos” or “human being” or “chair” or “river.” I mean no disrespect or impiety here, but simply an entry into the core Advaita notion of “neti, neti”, “not this, not this.” Any label, any category, always functions by distinguishing X from what is not-X or what is other-than-X; in other words, by splitting things into different groups based on their defining features. No predicates, no labels whatsoever can possibly apply to Brahman, the one reality, since there is nothing other than itself from which it can be distinguished. Even calling it Brahman is ultimately problematic, for the very same reasons: ‘Brahman’ is a predicate/label, too.

Rather, the plethora of Gods and Goddesses, just like the plethora of humans, chairs, rivers, and other things that seem to populate the world, are all of them ultimately unreal to the monist/Advaitin.

But this is monism, not monotheism.

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Apotropaic Offerings?

I recently encountered the practice of making so-called “apotropaic offerings”: offerings made, at some distance from the site of one’s primary ritual practice, to placate potentially disruptive beings.

Such offerings as described above are not a part of my own religious or spiritual practice. And looking in from the outside, something very quickly seemed “off” or not-quite-right about this. Hence this blog post, which I present in the spirit of (a) working out a bit more precisely my own understanding of why we make religious offerings, and how such offerings work; (b) clarifying exactly what my concerns are with the “apotropaic” practices described above; and (c) opening a space for conversation, where others might help me refine this understanding and/or resolve some of these concerns.

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