comparative study

Authenticity and the Jennifer Dilemma

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Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (detail), 1897-98, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The word authentic comes from the Medieval Latin authenticus and Greek authentikos, meaning “original, genuine, principal”, from authentes or “acting on one’s own authority”. It derives from the term autos or “self, of oneself (independently)” and hentes meaning “being”, and the modern use of authentic implies that to be authentic, the contents in question should correspond to facts. In other words, authenticity refers to trustworthiness, reliability and consistency. An authentic document, for example, is understood to be genuine and original, or not a fake or copy, while authentic words are understood to come from the heart. Feelings and words should be aligned if they are to be considered authentic. Thus, a thing is authentic if it is what it professes to be. However, the question of authenticity becomes more complicated when authenticity becomes a characteristic attributed to human beings. After all, what does it mean to be truly autos-hentes or one’s own being? And is it even possible to truly represent oneself genuinely?

According to Varga (2020), although being oneself is somewhat inescapable, since whenever you make a choice or act, it is you who is making that choice or act, many of our thoughts, decisions and actions are not really are own and so they cannot genuinely express who we are. The issue here is whether we can ever be authentic in our day-to-day life in spite of influences that come from our families, friends, government, education, ideological affiliations, and even the language that we speak, which can affect the way that we think. If we are simply made up of these amalgam of influences, it would mean that our sense of self could not have existed without society. This argument goes so far as to make the metaphysical claim that our expressive self is only real because we as a society have made it real. So once we imagine it and give it a name and role, we cause it to be real. Consider the following dilemma: as far as we know, ‘Jennifer’ is a daughter, student, and friend. She is a Christian, an Australian, and only speaks English. We know of Jennifer as a kind girl. She was taught to express herself politely and has never in our presence made a condescending mark towards anyone. Do all these things point to an authentic Jennifer (where an authentic Jennifer would be one who acts in a way that reinforces her status as a kind, Christian friend and daughter), or is an authentic Jennifer the Jennifer beyond the labels and concepts, that is, the human that people happen to refer to by ‘Jennifer’? We will return to the Jennifer dilemma later.

Studies of contemporary Western culture are informed by conceptions of human agency, which emphasize individuality as the principal theme of personhood. Although the prevailing myth of individualism is that in eighteenth-century Europe, a few courageous men of reason fought against religious repression to set the individual free to find and express his authentic self, the development of individualism was gradual and much more complex than this myth suggests. The Enlightenment movement’s demand for liberty re-defined human beings as individual entities rather than as role-bearers in the system of social relations. People slowly gained an increasing awareness of what Charles Taylor (1989) refers to as “inwardness” or “internal space”, where the authentic self can be separated from public performance and perception. Furthermore, the growth of commerce created an expanding middle class of merchants, well-off farmers and urban craftsmen who advocated for private property and individual wealth accumulation (Foley, 2017). Underlying these developments was Christianity’s revolutionary idea: “we are all equal because we are all brothers” (Puyol, 2019). Although this concept of fraternity promised that every individual human being (whether child, woman, foreigner, poor, disabled, non-Christian, etc.) was equal in the eyes of God, fraternity did not translate into political equality because Christian equality was about the equal worth of souls and not the equal rights of men on earth. By the nineteenth century, these commercial, intellectual and religious movements and ideas promoted individualism and led to the development of capitalist entrepreneurism and Romantic individualism, where in the latter, the quest to find an authentic self translated into rejecting materialism and society and living solitarily in nature. A similar albeit mass version of Romantic individualism occurred in the 1960s, which Taylor (1998) called “an individuating revolution”. 1960s global youth culture produced expressive individualism, which rejected conformity and authority in order to discover or find your ‘true self’. The revolution promoted self-expression, equality and sensuality, but rather than simply being an excuse for self-indulgent hippyism (which 1960s youth culture is usually accused of), it was a way of shifting from the systems and times that suppressed individuality and creativity, resulting in the emergence of the Age of Authenticity.

Critics argue that the pursuit of authenticity and individualism has resulted in cultural decline as the preoccupation on one’s own feelings and attitudes is anti-social and destroys altruism and compassion towards others and community. Christopher Lasch (1979) has claimed that there are similarities between authenticity and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which are both characterized by self-indulgence and a lack of empathy. For Bloom (1987), the preoccupation with authenticity has made the minds of the youth “narrower and flatter” (p. 61), while Bell (1976) argues that the traditional economic processes, “based on a moral system of reward rooted in Protestant sanctification of work” (p. 38), have lost their legitimacy and are replaced by hedonism and the search for extreme experience or “kicks” and “highs”. The obsession with authenticity has also led to a time where we are losing our sense of truth and reality. Criticism of public institutions has gone so far as to legitimize alternative ways of knowing, where conspiracy theories and alternative medicine, schooling and journalism are all part of the larger conversation that characterizes the era of post-truth that we currently live in. On the other hand, as Watts (2019) states, there is a kind of nobility in the pursuit of authenticity. It is now common to tell children to follow their dreams and pursue their passions rather than stick to a dreary job all their lives that we believe would at odds with their true selves. There is also a kind of desperation to have authenticity around us, from our expectations of honesty and transparency in our closest relationships to how our leaders present themselves, for there is “nothing more despicable than a person who isn’t genuine…who betrays their feelings in order to save face.” There is also a tendency in Western society to avoid the monotonous nature of ritual, “which keeps us chained to the past.” (Watts, 2019). Meanwhile, the romanticisation of romantic love has stayed with us because it feels spontaneous and unmediated, which shows how authenticity has turned into the new cultural currency.

The emphasis on authenticity and transparency in Western culture sits well with the philosophical school of Existentialism. Existentialism arose with the collapse of the idea that philosophy itself can provide substantive norms and rules for existing by specifying particular ways of living, while authenticity was advocated as the approach where I can engage in my life as my own (Crowell, 2020). The need to live an authentic life to live meaningfully adds another important layer in moral evaluations. For instance, by keeping my promise, I act in accordance to a duty to others, and if I keep acting so because it is my duty, than according to Kant, I am acting morally because I act for the sake of duty. But, from the existentialist perspective, by simply keeping my promise out of duty’s sake makes the moral act of promise keeping inauthentic because I am only keeping the promise because I believe it is required and expected of moral people to do so. To keep my promise authentically, I need to take ownership of this choice and commit myself to the act of keeping my promise because it is my own decision and action, and not because it is socially or morally required of me. Only then can I succeed in being myself authentically. By choosing to do things on my own account, I recover myself from being alienated and absorbed into the anonymous self that uncritically engages in the world. Thus, there is a kind of integrity in acting authentically: I can either occupy a role and time that was given to me by others and drift in and out of these roles while feeling separated from myself, or I can autonomously commit myself and become whatever I choose.

In classical China, there was a similar prevailing interest in how to live an authentic life. The Daoist school, for example, actively rejected the Confucian idea that the good life comes from embodying traditional social norms and rites and instead focused on taking care of one’s own interest. Harisson (2013) refers to this as the ethical egoist argument, where the right thing to do is to pursue one’s own interests and maximize one’s own good. Because, it is argued, we are naturally inclined to prioritize our own interests, it follows that following societal ethical recommendations about doing the right thing distorts our selfish nature and therefore compromises our authentic selves. But, whereas the Confucian scholar Xunzi, who also recognized human selfish nature, argued that it is up to moral education and rigorous practice of rites to correct human behavior, the Daoist Yang Zhu claimed that to live an ethical life, we must maintain what is genuine in our lives by avoiding artificial moral and social obligations. So, rather than finding the good life in appropriate social relationships and roles, we should actively retreat from our social life and get rid of material goods and power. Thus, the best life can be can be lived away from society and in harmony with the natural flow of Dao (the Way). An authentic life can be found in the natural world, beside rivers and mountains, which is more conducive to living authentically, that is, as our true selves stripped from others’ expectations and from our artificial social roles.

So, there are various ways of answering the Jennifer dilemma. For the Confucians, Jennifer’s authentic self comes from how others see her and the roles she is expected to play in her social relationships. Jennifer is only Jennifer because she is a daughter to her mother, an Australian national, and a Christian follower. She becomes more herself the more she honorably practices these roles and carries out the appropriate rites and rituals associated with her identity. Existentialists would argue that she is only truly Jennifer if she autonomously adopts her role as daughter, Christian, etc. as her own. If she is simply following these roles mindlessly because others expect her to, then she is harming her authentic self and will never find the satisfaction of taking control over her own existence. Finally, the ethical egoist Daoists would claim that an authentic Jennifer can only be found if she rejects her social roles and obligations as daughter, Australian citizen, Christian. Only once she retreats from the socially constructed ‘Jennifer’ can the real, authentic Jennifer live in harmony and simplicity.

‘Sons of Heaven’: The Patriarchal God-Family and Global Violence Against Women

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Nicolas Poussin, The Abduction of the Sabine Women. Creative Commons.

We live in a man’s world. From the great discoverers, philosophers, artists and scientists, to the law-makers, conquerors, and gods who were created in the image of man, our cultures and institutions were created by men, for men. The ideology of male intellectual, cultural and physical supremacy was easily demonstrated in earlier times when it was still publically acceptable when a man physically assaulted his wife if she questioned him. Both sexes were prescribed ‘genders’ or particular behaviors, appearances and roles that reinforced a power structure that portrayed men as naturally physical, more reasonable than women, more inventive, less affected by emotion, while simultaneously claiming that men were naturally aggressive and unable to cook or wash their own clothes. The patriarchal gender ideology was a system of convenience for men. As well as enforcing heterosexuality, it made marriage, one of the most intimate forms of human relationship, a relationship of master and slave. Keeping women controlled and out of the public domain, where men could attend to worldly affairs while women would stay home and do the undervalued work of raising children and doing housework (or running errands for her husband if she belonged to a higher class), was a means of creating and institutionalizing the rule of the father, allowing men as a group to dominate positions of power in culture, politics, law, business, military, and policing for thousands of years.

According to Figes (1986), the main motivation for male domination over the female is intimately related to paternity. Once a man knows for certain that there is a physical link between him and the child in his woman’s womb, the born child is believed to be a continuation of himself. In this sense, by controlling woman and her reproduction, man could become immortal. His name, power and property could be passed down through his sons, and onto their sons, allowing man to cheat death. By making women act as a vessel to mans’ seed, he gains a new sense of power and control over his environment. On a political level, passing territory and power through sons is expressed through the god-ruler relationship. For instance, in ancient China, the emperor was understood to be the “Son of Heaven”, who was responsible for maintaining harmony between the human-earthly sphere and the spiritual-heavenly world according to the Mandate of Heaven. In the neighboring territory of Japan, the supreme ruler was likewise divine. It was believed that incarnation occurred when the goddess Amaterasu gave birth to the founder of the dynasty that has been ruling Japan ever since in different bodily forms while maintaining the “Son of Heaven” status. In the Russian empire, the status of Tsar continued the Byzantine tradition of combining supreme secular and church authority into one monarch. Orthodox theologians argued that the Tsar acted as God’s emissary and was imbued with both absolute power and absolute responsibility to God. Consequently, although the Tsar was expected to obey God’s laws, he could write and decide earthly laws himself. Coronation or anointment to Tsardom was believed to be a sign from heaven, where the ruler, a Christ figure transfigured, embodied the Russian nation-state, Rossiia. Peter the Great, for example, tried to distinguish the state and its institutions from his personal authority, but failed to do so and his legitimacy as Tsar was based on his performance of heroic acts, which proved his transcendence by advancing the welfare of the earthly realm (Wortman, 2013). Peter’s successors too justified their authority not only by inherited rights, but by performance of the hero-ruler and his saving of the state and nation.

For Daly (2001), the god-ruler relationship in patriarchal societies is about men trying to rid themselves of their faults and impurities by subliming themselves into God, who is so sublime that he is both nowhere and everywhere at the same time. In this case, male rulers reified their self-images into the sublime symbol of god, and “use this condensed and purified product as a mask to engender awe” (p. 73). The mask of the heavenly father-son was used to justify particular dynastic rulers and ensure that powerful men were not limited by their physical bodies. They became immortal as heads of state through books written about them and through images, statues, masks, icons, and other idealized portrayals. These men of power were also believed to transcend the limitations of the human mind by their ability to communicate with a higher spirit, allowing them to be omnipotent or “almighty, possessing infinite power”. The heavenly father-son mask is not only limited to its abuse by political leaders. Religious representatives like priests, rabbis and ministers, as well as non-religious men of power, including psychiatrists, physicians, judges, scientists, and businessmen attempt to elicit awe from their patients, clients, subjects and other subordinates (Daly, 2001). They all presented a kind of omnipotent, omnipresent masculinity because if God is a father-son ruling his people, then it is in the nature of things that, according to the divine plan, the order of the universe and of our society is and remains male-centered, while women are converted into vessels chosen to be filled with divine male offspring. In this society, “woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself” (Irigaray, 1985, p. 193). Works of art devoted to male sublimation portray, often in detail, female victimization and suffering. For instance, male rape fantasies are often reenacted and featured in works which depict religion, duty, patriotism and romantic love. Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines, Titian’s Rape of Europa and Botticelli’s Primavera, all depict “heroic” rape scenes that demonstrate the idealized traits of a new wife, including submissiveness to her husband and sacrifice for family and country. These scenes also show how sex can act as a weapon against women. As Andrea Dworkin (1987) stated, in intercourse women are “occupied−physically, internally, in her privacy” (p. 154). The material effects of the heavenly father-son masculinity can be seen in the different ways that violence is carried out against women in the home by domestic violence and marital rape; in the battlefield by military rape and prostitution; in religion by the exalted rape of Virgin Mary; and in pornography, where the rape of women is often depicted as ‘sexy’ and a ‘turn on’. In all of these depictions, the eroticization of rape, cruelty and other violence against women serves to ensure that men continue to gain access to women’s bodies to ensure male immortality and power.

In a world in which men hold most of the power, women’s status is argued to be in a state of dereliction, defined as a state of abandonment or “state of fusion which does not succeed in emerging as a subject” (Irigaray, 1991, p. 81). Women’s lack of a language in which they can recognize and love themselves and each other is reinforced by the systematic discrimination against women as a group in global political and economic institutions, in the continued practice of female genital mutilation, and in the religious and community wars against women and girls. Take the continued practice of female infanticide and femicide (the intentional killing of women because they are women) as just one example. Globally, the rate of femicide is significantly high. The Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015 database estimates that around 60,000 women are killed violently around the world each year. In El Salvador and Honduras, there are more than 10 female homicides per 100,000 women and the level of violence affecting women in these countries exceeds the combined rate of male and female homicides in the top 40 countries with the highest murder rates in the world, including Ecuador, Nicaragua and Tanzania (Global Americans Report, 2020). Between 2012 and 2015, there was an estimated 24,771 dowry deaths in India, while in Jordan, there are more than 20 reported “honor” killings each year (The Indian Express, 2015). Furthermore, at least 117 million girls around the world are estimated to demographically go “missing” due to sex-selective abortions, and in India alone, more than 10 million female births have been lost to sex selective abortion in the last 20 years (Asian Centre for Human Rights, 2016).

Thus, the heavenly father-son persona allows men to assume leadership positions and creates an environment conducive to male continuity and prosperity through male-centrered institutions, cultures and practices of violence against women. As a system of thought and being, the patriarchal god-family institutionalizes prideful masculinity and gives man and his sex the power of naming and of giving and taking, namely female, life. Women are placed on the other end of this system and are considered inferior and as financial liabilities to their families, while women themselves have, and in some cases continue to have, little or no say in the matter.

Quote of the Week from Zen Buddhist Stories

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Manjusri is symbolic of Buddha’s wisdom. He is usually depicted as riding a lion that can outrun all delusions, while his sharp sword is believed to cut through all attachments that prevent emancipation from the world of the senses. Zen stories such as that of Manjusri and the gate are stories about the problems of life. In this particular dialogue between Manjusri and Buddha, Manjusri cannot enter the gate because the gate represents the false concept of duality. Manjusri, who is wise and enlightened, realises that “in” and “out” are terms of comparison, and whatever objects of desire are inside or outside the gate are created by the mind’s egoistic standpoint. While Manjusri can still physically see the gate, he sees beyond it in terms of what it represents in the world of attachments and suffering.

The Confucian Way 10: Water, Stillness and the Mirror of the Sage

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This episode opens with a passage from the Zhuangzi that talks about water that is so still that it forms a mirror-image that can be used to reflect on human behaviour and relationships. The stillness and reflection of the mirror can be compared to the still and silent mind of the Sage, whose complete clarity of the world can accurately reflect on the nature of reality. By looking into the mind of the Sage, you can see yourself and your relationships as they really are, despite what might be thought or said by others. This idea of the mirror image is similarly explored in Western philosophy through the Greek and Roman myth of Narcissus, in Plato’s writings, as well as by St. Paul and Lacan, where the mirror can both reinforce hubris and act as a means of self-recognition and self-understanding.

Quote of the week from the Early Buddhist Schools

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Chan, W-T. (1963). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press.

Buddhism first arrived in China after an official received instruction on Buddhist scriptures from a foreign envoy around 2 B.C.E. The adoption of Buddhist beliefs was successful because it adapted to the beliefs of popular religious practices and what emerged was two Chinese Buddhist movements based on dhyana (the concentration school) and prajna (the wisdom school). The goal of the dhyana movement was to meditate to the achieve calmness and remove ignorance and delusions from the mind, while the prajna school was more concerned with gaining the wisdom that things with no self-nature possessed.

As time went on, Indian Buddhist concepts found their Chinese equivalent. For example, tathata (translated as “ultimate reality”) was translated by the Taoist concept “original non-being” (pen-wu or pure being). Thus, like the Neo-Taoists, Chinese Buddhists regarded ultimate reality as quiet and empty in nature and as transcending all being, names, and forms.

One of the early seven schools of Buddhism went further with the idea of ultimate reality with the theory of non-being of mind, where it argued that one should not have any deliberate or purposeful mind towards the many things around us. The inherent nature of reality or ultimate truth is believed to be empty because this enables our minds not to cling onto anything unreal or imaginary. However, the theory does not go into nihilism to say that the many external things outside of the mind are empty or meaningless, but rather that it is important to cultivate the non-being of mind to foster a tranquil spirit.

On the Politics of Metaphysics

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‘Metaphysics’ by Nikita Krivoshey. Retrieved from http://www.nikitakrivoshey.com/metaphysics.htm.

The term metaphysics derives from the Greek phrase ta meta ta physika meaning “the works after the Physics”, and it refers to the study of things outside of human sense perception. The name was originally created in c. 70 B.C.E. by the Greek philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. Misinterpreted in Latin as meaning “the science of what is beyond the physical”, metaphysics actually means the science of the inward or the study of the essential nature of things. It is a type of philosophy that uses broad concepts that helps define reality and our understanding of it, and as a mode of inquiry, metaphysics uses logic based on the meaning of particular terms to explain things which are not easily discovered or experienced in everyday life, including the nature of the human mind (and whether there is such a thing as consciousness or soul), the definition and meaning of existence, and the nature of space, time and causality.

The origin of the study of philosophy itself, beginning with the Pre-Socratics, was metaphysical. For instance, the philosopher Plotinus argued that reason in the world and in the rational human mind reflects a universal and perfect reality that exists beyond our limited human reason. He called this perfect reality “God”. For Aristotle, who named his collection of fourteen books Metaphysics, metaphysics refers to a number of things, including things that do not change, “being as such” and “first causes” (Van Inwagen, 2014). Nowadays, such points of inquiry are often positioned to be in conflict with the modern sciences that attempt to measure concepts like truth and reality from the physical world. Critics of metaphysics such as Francis Herbert Bradley (1952) argue that metaphysics is the “finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct,” and others have claimed that the study is simply full of “meaningless gibberish” and “downright absurd” (Peirce, 1905, p. 423). From this critical point of view, the attempt to prove the existence of a soul, spirit or other non-human realities that cannot become an object of scientific enquiry is seemingly impossible. However, the belief that everything can and should be explained scientifically in terms of natural causes, where only what is seen or sensed is considered real or meaningful to humans, is problematic because scientific observation tends to produce the reality which it hopes to explain. The so-called final “truths” of scientific enquiry and ability to know only that which physically is perceived to exist in a Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe fails to explain the existence of paradigm shifts, where scientific laws and realities are proven to be false in light of new research or technology, and how human interpretation and context-dependence influences scientific discovery and explanation. The idea that scientific knowledge is limited by human perspectives, cognitive biases and epistemic interests is highlighted by Jan Faye (2014), when he states that:

A human agent A understands a state of affair, P, in a certain context, C, in the terms of a theory, T, if, and only if, A’s belief regarding P connects (in the epistemically correct way for A; i.e., in accordance to A’s epistemic norms, N, of understanding) with A’s cognitive system, including A’s background knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions (A’s worldview) (p. 54).

In that sense, what we claim to be facts and truths is heavily affected by a variety of influences outside of our control and outside of human sense perception. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy (1977), in traditional civilizations such as in India, metaphysics provided the vision or theory to explain phenomena that was beyond the phenomenal plane since the aim of metaphysics is not to physically prove anything beyond reasonable doubt, but rather to make ideas and concepts reasonably intelligible and demonstrate their consistency. In modern philosophical terminology, metaphysical studies that have an important impact in research and general knowledge claims are ontology (the philosophical study of being where arguments are made for the existence/non-existence of X), cosmology (the science of the origin of the universe), and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

While there is no single word in the Chinese language that corresponds precisely to the term ‘metaphysics’, Chinese philosophy has a long tradition of examining cosmological becoming and the ultimate nature of reality, particularly through texts like the Yijing and Daodejing. Although there is a lack of historical evidence to explain who composed these scriptures, there is a general theme in both of the texts that suggests that all things, physical and non-physical, are interconnected and constantly in motion and changing. Everything arises spontaneously from an ultimate source (called the dao  道, “the way”), which cannot be objectified but is accessible to cultivated people (Perkins, 2015). To be alive is to be constantly changing, and nature shows us the consistent patterns of spontaneous movement, transformation, and flourishing that can be observed and followed, particularly through the patterns and interactions between the polar forces of yin 陰 and yang 陽. The two phenomena compromise the complementary opposites that make up existence, such as darkness and light, rest and motion, softness and firmness, dividedness and unbrokenness, female and male, which correspond to the physical realities of day and night, sun and moon, heaven and earth, and water and fire. Yin is always symbolized as the phase of difference, while yang is the phase of identity in the process of change. The implication is that every single relationship is based on difference, which creates the potential for change. Thus, there is always possibility for actual change and if relationships do change then they became an inevitable feature of reality.

An important part of the yin-yang relationship is the ability to accept change and embrace difference in the other. This basic outlook is fundamentally different from the assumptions of European metaphysical inquiry, which historically struggled to deal with the problem of difference. As Blaney and Inayatullah (2016) explain, difference was hard to incorporate in the West, which historically had to deal with violent religious schism and the ‘discovery’ of new continents and people. These events threatened the legitimacy of European cosmology by undermining its creation myths of a (white) anthropomorphic God who put things in the world through purposeful design. In response, theorists constructed an ‘empire of uniformity’, which understands difference as something that needs to be contained, denied, or dealt with through threats and violence. The end result was a knowledge and political system that constructed a reality where people needed to be homogenized, where places needed to be bounded into states, and where borders acted to keep the system intact. Such a Eurocentric design of the world had a profound impact on global politics, ethics and knowledge production. According to Quijano (2000), at the heart of this Eurocentric metaphysical worldview lies a binary way of thinking, which constructs a white, progressive, modern European identity in opposition to a black/indigenous/Asiatic, underdeveloped, traditional and barbarian ‘Other’. The organization of power along these lines, where resources and decision-making are in the hands of the former group, exists on both a transnational and national level in societies, and works to undermine and deny the spiritualized and connected relationship with the universe that the latter groups subscribed to.

Acknowledging the violence that is associated with denying, devaluing and destroying the cultural and social worldviews of the Other groups is part of the work of anti-colonial metaphysics, which seeks to deconstruct the dominant Anglo-European worldview and assumptions, epistemologies, and ontologies that influence how the majority of the world acts and interprets the world. For McDonnell (2014), it is about revitalizing these traditions and giving them application and due recognition in modern contexts. For example, working from an African development framework, McDonnell examines African epistemologies, where there is an emphasis on the whole, and where truth is negotiated between groups of people, rather than being something out there, dismembered, and atomized. Emotional and material knowledge in this context exists within many places, where both the physical and spiritual world coexist and are conceptualized as necessary for balanced and harmonious interactions in the world. In African ontologies, the nature of existence and understanding of reality is determined by both these physical and spiritual relationships which confirms peoples purpose and places in the greater cosmos, where nature, humans, and spirits are integrated and codependently interact with each other without exploitation.

In the Chinese philosophical tradition, knowledge is similarly centered on the harmonization of the self and world, which differs from Western and Buddhist philosophical perspectives where knowledge is for overcoming the world and the self. Cheng (1989) explains that in the Chinese worldview, people are constantly and continuously expected to seek enlightenment about things and themselves. Knowledge here is not just a matter of forming universal principles and abstract concepts, but about gaining direct insight into the nature of the self, of one’s relationships, and of things in the world. Thus, knowledge is a matter of self-fulfillment and informs a person’s network of relationships. A person’s state of being-in-the-world is both limited and controlled by the person’s past, but also freeing and spontaneous as the person has some power to affect the future through self and historical reflection. The existential experience places individuals in a position where they can feel both stability and instability, freedom and bondage, and confidence and uncertainty because she or he is situated in a network of relationships which are both essential for growth, but need appropriate strengthening and development by cultivating virtue through reflection.

Such understandings help open the way to re-establishing anti-colonial metaphysical worldviews that de-mystify and de-Orientalize the Other in order to allow other voices to enter the larger discussions and understandings about how societies should be governed and how nature can be incorporated into global development.

On Truth

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Socrates as the original skeptic. Library of Congress image from “The Life of Socrates”
London, 1750.

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate retorted to Jesus, before he went out to the Jews and declared Jesus’s innocence (John, 18:38).

For many, it would seem that truth is a universal, foundational, abstract, normative and shared concept in the human experience. Religions like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam claim to know the true nature and meaning of the world. Similarly, political ideologies like libertarianism, Marxism, liberal democracy, socialism, and fascism all claim to know the truth on how the world should be governed. Empirical science and mathematics use deductive proof and confirmation in their search for the truth about properties and sequences. The word ‘truth’ comes from the Greek altheia, meaning “unconcealed” or the state of not being hidden. In Greek mythology, Aletheia was the daughter of Zeus and a personified spirit of truth and sincerity, and she is thought to be essential for establishing justice, love, beauty, and wisdom in the world. Without altheia or truth, our legal, ethical, political and social systems would be based on deceit, deception, and lies, which would be potentially disruptive since social and institutional trust enables cooperation and allows society to function as a whole (Sonderskov & Dinesen, 2015).

For McLeod (2016), it is important to emphasise the universality of truth and while different cultures may have a different sense of this basic notion, all human societies are committed to a basic “correspondence intuition”, which allows us to understand how things are and how things should be. In the history of philosophy, there are four main theories which purport to provide a theory of truth. The first, the correspondence theory of truth, argues that truth consists of the relationship between the proposition and the facts that verify or confirm the proposition. As Plato wrote, “The true sentence states fact as they are…and the false one states things that are other than the facts” (Sophist, p. 263). In that case, the truth is something that is objective or independent of our thoughts. It exists outside of us. What you believe to be true is not true by wishful thinking or imagination. Instead, as Wittgenstein (1921) states, to be true “A proposition [should be based on] a picture of reality” (s. 4.01). Although facts (or states of affairs) themselves cannot be true or false, as they simply point to what is real, propositions that are based on facts are considered true, while propositions that are not based on facts are considered to be false. Take the following example:

  • The cup is full of water.

According to the correspondence theory, if and only if the cup is full of water, and we perceive that the cup is full of water, is proposition (1) true. The cup is either full of water or it is not, and if it is then the proposition is necessarily true. However, if someone drinks from the cup of water, spills it, or adds another liquid to it, then proposition (1) would be false. While some criticize the theory as being “trivial, vacuous, trading in mere platitudes” (David, 2015), the correspondence theory is straightforward in that it identifies truth as having a relationship with reality, and that reality is potentially always in the process of being discovered.

The second theory of truth is called the coherence theory, which argues a proposition or belief is true if it coheres with a system of other propositions or beliefs. Therefore, a true proposition is true by nature of its relationship to other propositions which are related to each other by logical necessity. A truth test can thus be devised to see whether a statement is consistent with every other known part of the system, and if the statement were true then it must not contradict what is already known. For example, many people believe in the ‘moon landing’ proposition that a person was sent to the moon in 1969. Videos and photos of space along with sightings of rockets travelling vertically into space as well as people testifying that they were in space and the videos and photographs of the moon landing could lead a person to believe in the plausibility that it is true a person was sent to the moon in 1969. In that case, the moon landing proposition coheres with other aspects of space travel and human possibility that one might accept to be true, which makes the moon landing proposition seemingly true also. However, if someone were to doubt that space even exists; that rockets could be sent to space; or that there were people in the rockets sent to space, it follows that it would be logically impossible for a person to believe in the moon landing proposition. It is important to note that in the coherence theory of truth, truth is never fully knowable. As finite beings with finite knowledge and resources, we can never know the whole truth of the universe, but only partial, fragmented truths that for the most part, fit and cohere to other systems of truth we believe for various reasons to be plausible. Some sets of beliefs/propositions better cohere with others, and we may change our beliefs of truth as time goes on, but no one can ever have a perfectly coherent set. The problem here is that two incompatible theories may seem true, and outright falsities like fairy tales could be taken as true as long as they are considered coherent. This raises questions about whether the coherence of propositions must only be considered true if they somehow correspond to facts of reality, and whether these facts of reality can ever be truly knowable. Perhaps the coherence theory is really only an assumption about truth that we can accept if we do not have solid evidence of reality that confirms our beliefs.

The third theory of truth is called the pragmatic theory. It states that a belief is true if it is useful to believe. In other words, if the belief helps individuals in any way, for example by believing in a higher guiding power like God, then it is true. Thus, beliefs that best justify our actions and promote success and happiness are true. As James (1948) states, “Grant an idea of belief to be true, what concrete difference will its being true mean in anyone’s actual life?… What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experimental terms” (p. 170). The idea that truth can belong to anyone even with entirely different sets of beliefs suggests that the pragmatic theory of truth is a form of cognitive relativism. That is, the pro-vaccinator and anti-vaccinator can ‘agree to disagree’ that they have different truths on the matter of whether it is right for children to get vaccinated, leading to the violation of the law of non-contradiction. Such approaches to truth suggest that truth is not objective and mind-independent, but subjective to each individual’s beliefs and justifications. There is an inherent mis-relationship between truth and facts where the goal is not to reach a single truth, but to aim for acquiring beliefs that are useful. This anti-realist approach would say that atomic theory is not true or false, but simply useful for predicting outcomes in experiments and explaining data in the same way that maps are not necessarily true but are useful representations of landscapes.

The inability to truly know an independent, objective truth was first put forward by Socrates in Plato’s Apology. When seeking a man who was wiser than himself in the marketplace, Socrates found that all the men he encountered thought that they were wise, but actually knew very little. He concluded that while everyone knew very little, they were ignorant of their knowledge unlike himself who knew very little and knew (or was aware) of how little he knew. Socrates’ conclusion suggests that he was part of a larger philosophical tradition called Skepticism, where the Greek term skeptic means “to inquire, investigate”. The Greek skeptic and physician Sextus Empiricus (1968 trans.) defined skepticism as the “ability to place in antithesis, in any manner whatever, appearances, and judgements, and thus−because of the equality of force in the objects and arguments opposed−to come first of all to a suspension of judgement and then to mental tranquility” (p. 32). While the skeptic accepts that the world appears to him or her a certain way, they recognize that appearances are simply passive aspects of perception. However, the skeptic actively refuses to draw conclusions to his or her perceptions and recognizes that states of reality are relative to the individual. Because perception, judgement, evaluation, habit and ability are different between humans and animals; between different kinds of animals; and between different kinds of humans, there are innumerable possible explanations on even the simplest observations, for example, on colour, taste, and distance, which means even the most basic sense perception is relative.

In the Chinese tradition, there is no word that is equivalent or synonymous with the English noun ‘truth’ or Greek word aletheia. Indeed, the absence of such a word in the Chinese language led Chad Hansen (1985) to conclude that there is no concept of truth in Chinese philosophy at all. However, as Harbsmeier (1989) states, there are more than ten words in the Chinese language that refer to factual truth, including ran (be so, be the case), dang (to fit, to fit the facts), zhen (be genuine, be genuinely so), and qing (inherent state, essence, genuine state of affairs). None of these terms corresponds exactly with the concept of truth and they are separated from ideas about the moral truth or dao. Thus, early Mohist scientific preoccupations with the truth in theoretical terms was very untypical in mainstream Chinese literature, where Chinese thinkers were mainly searching for dao or the right way of things. For Xu (2010), it is even appropriate to think of dao as the Western version of Truth (capital ‘T’), that is, as something that belongs to an unchangeable eternal reality (as truth is defined in Platonic Idealism). In the Xunzi, it states:

“We call it ‘being straight’ to declare something ‘this (or right)’ if it is ‘this (or right)’, and to declare something ‘not this (or, wrong)’ if it is ‘not this (or, wrong)’ (2.12).

In this passage, there is a discussion about rightness or truthness of a matter, but the passage reveals that the emphasis is not so much on the definition of truth or what is ‘this (or right)’ and how to define it, but on the social definition of being straight or telling the truth. So, the right way of telling the truth, the dao of speaking, is what is of primary concern. Furthermore, whereas in Western philosophy the idea of Truth is absolute and unchanging, the dao in Chinese philosophy is often depicted as many and changing. In Confucian texts, different daos are referenced, such as “the dao of sages”, “the dao of Junzi (morally superior person)”, “the dao of Yang Zhu and Modi”, etc. In the Taoist text Zhuang Zi, there is even a “dao of robbers”. For Mencius, “There are two daos in general: benevolence or not benevolence” (4A:2), highlighting the many-ness and diversity of possible daos. In these discussions, the dao refers to the right way of doing things, and as Mencius suggested, the Confucian dao was that of “timely correct” (shi zhong), which means the rightness of dao depends on different times, places, objects and people. In this sense, the dao is about the correct way of handling situations and relations between people under certain historic circumstances, rather than some permanent objective existence waiting to be discovered through discourse and scientific trial and error. The absence of theories of truth in Chinese philosophy makes the Chinese approaches to truth different from that of the West. Even in the Daoist school, which often questions and argues against conventional claims of knowledge, politics and morality by recognizing relativity, subjectivity and limitedness of human knowledge, the critique of morality and knowledge only acts to provide a way towards a view of life, reality and morality which are not skeptical (Cheng, 1977). Therefore, even in its critique of ideas of truth, the Chinese tradition established an ultimate anti-skeptical view of philosophy.

Quote of the Week from the Analects

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In the Analects, dao or the Way is always being communicated: it is heard (as in the passage above, 4:8), spoken and studied (6:12), corrected (1:4), walked (5:7), and wasted or absent (3:24). The dao can be born (1:2), can be strengthened (15:29), and it can be great or small (19:4).

While dao is a ‘general’ mass term (for example, X can be dao and Y can be dao, yet these two dao-things can still be distinct), this mass-like behaviour has led many in the West to translate dao as ‘being’ or “condition, state, circumstance, presence”. However, the way that dao is interpreted in Chinese is more practical than metaphysical, where writers change the usage of dao regularly. For example, certain people can be said to have dao (Confucius has a dao; kings can have dao; some villages have dao). Heaven or nature also has dao, and there can be different dao depending on the period of history.

For Hansen (1989), it is more appropriate to think of the general mass term of dao as the English noun ‘discourse’. Just like dao, the inner structure of discourse remains indeterminate. Similarly, X can be a discourse and Y can be a discourse that together form a combined discourse, while apart they remain as separate discourses. This interpretation provides a framework to understand the relation between dao and action and behaviour so that dao acts as a guiding or prescriptive discourse. That is, a ‘way’ to do something. A particular way of hearing, for example, where one listens but does not pass judgement of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful or ugly.

The Confucian Way 7: The Way of Water

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This episode deals with the meaning of water in Confucian texts. While nature is widely discussed in the Analects and The Works of Mencius, water and the flow of water is specifically used by Mencius to discuss the nature of human character and the origin story of humankind. The origin story in Chinese mythology differs from the Judeo-Christian tradition, where Genesis is presented as a story of violence and struggle against nature. In the Chinese version, humans do struggle against water, but they also learn from it and end up developing irrigation and systems of agriculture. Thus, rather than defeating nature, the management of water leads to a harmony between nature and the flourishing of human beings.

Sex, Misogyny and Female Inclusion in Tantric Buddhism

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Yab/yum or wisdom (female principle)-energy (male principle) in sexual union. A common representation in Tantric Buddhist iconography.

Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana in Sanskrit (meaning “Thunderbolt” or “diamond vehicle”) is a complex and understudied part of the Buddhist tradition that is of considerable importance to the history of Buddhism and Indo-Tibetan cultural relations. The term ‘Tantric Buddhism’ is applied to a type of Buddhist practice where Tantra plays a dominant role. The word Tantra is derived from the Sanskrit word tantram, meaning “loom, warp”, or figuratively, “groundwork, system, doctrine”, where tan means “ to stretch, extend” (Harper, 2020). In practice, Tantra doctrine refers to an expanded esoteric literature, both Buddhist and Hindu, that provides religious and practical instructions to becoming Awakened or aware of the true nature of reality. However, understanding the Tantric school has its challenges. For one, there is a lack of available materials to learn from. Although primary texts such as Tantric scriptures and commentaries survive in archives and museums in Sanskrit language or Tibetan translation, very few are edited or translated into modern languages. The Tantric tradition is also complex and multiform with its many different deities, practices, and symbols that sometimes challenge conventional understandings of Buddhism, especially that of the orthodox Theravada tradition (Williams & Tribe, 2005).

Another problem is popular and scholarly attitudes towards Tantric practice. For example, in Sir Monier-Williams book Buddhism, it is stated that after the Buddha’s death, “the Protean system called Mahayana arose, and grew, by the operation of the usual laws…[into] heterogeneous doctrines, including the worship of the Bodhisattvas, deified saints, and personal gods” (2006, p. 159). But “far worse than this, Buddhism ultimately allied itself with Tantrism or the worship of the female principle (sakti), and under its sanction encouraged the grossest violations of decency and the worst forms of profligacy” (p. 152). Monier-Williams’ claim is that the Indian and Tibetan cultural influences that affected Buddhist practice and tradition actually destroyed the original Buddhist teachings by falsely interpreting and distributing a new, sensual, and female form of practice. The “murky and macabre appearance” (Snellgrove, 1959, p. 9) of Tantra Buddhism, as Snellgrove describes, comes from Tantra’s association with sex. A simple google search of the word ‘Tantra’ shows websites with the link titles such as ‘Tantric Sex: 26 Tips on How to Practice’ and ‘What is Tantric Sex?’. In the book History of Buddhist Thought, Edward Thomas wrote that Tantric Buddhism “consists in giving a religious significance to the facts of sex” (1951, p. 246), while Young (2004) explains that the introduction of female and male Tantric consorts became important elements in Indo-Tibetan iconography and ritual, which was not entirely new, but a continuation of the highly sexualized female imagery found at earlier Buddhist archeological sites across South Asia (p. xxiii). In that case, rather than being an entirely new and profane version of Buddhism, as the mainstream scholarship suggests, Tantric Buddhism emphasized the prevailing attitudes about women, physicality, and sex that was already being practiced throughout the Indo-Tibetan region.

The inclusion of the female principle and depiction of human sexuality is particularly evident in Tantric Buddhist art. The yab/yum couple is one of the most common representations of the sexual union of divine beings with their consorts, and what these images often show is the necessary elements for becoming Awakened or Enlightened, including wisdom (Skt: prajna), which is depicted as a passive female principle, and skillfulness (Skt: upaya), which is an active male principle, and the two joining together in ultimate reality. The purpose of these visual forms is to support meditation practice by being looked at and chanted about in Tantric Buddhist mantras. The Hevajra Tantra, for example, states that “at one time the Lord dwelt in the vagina (bhaga) of Vajrayogini− the heart of the Body, Speech and Mind of all Buddhas”. Both Hevajra and Vajrayogini are male figures with great initiatory powers, and this first line of the mantra suggests that it is in the female genitals where mantras are preached and where initiations and realizations take place. Such texts are significant because they highlight the importance of the Tantric consort in helping initiates reach states of Enlightenment and how the body and sexuality play a role in this process. While women and the female principle is present, it should be noted that women rarely play a dominant role in these Tantric practices as the females are usually shown in art as unnaturally small and nimble, which is supposed to accentuate their femaleness (Young, 2004). The way the female body is turned away from the viewer (see example by the white female figure in the image at the top of the article) shows that the overwhelming majority of initiators are male and while the female body is used to reach Enlightenment, it is rarely ever the one that becomes enlightened.

The description of Tantric Buddhist practices as “degenerate” or a “contamination/adulteration” because they feature women’s bodies and sex plays into the nineteenth century historiography of Buddhism as morally declining due to its association with sensuality and physical pleasure (Wedemeyer, 2001). There is also a long tradition of sexism and misogyny in non-Tantric Buddhism where women and the female body are strongly despised. In the Flower Garland Sutra in the East Asian Mahayana tradition, women are described as “messengers of hell who can destroy the seeds of Buddhahood. They may look like bodhisattvas, but at heart they are like yaksha demons.” The Silver-Colored Woman Sutra also affirms that no woman can ever attain Buddhahood as they are eternally doomed to the five obstacles and three obediences due to their bodily nature. The negative view of sexuality and women was so prevalent that the first group of enunciates after the Buddha’s death formed a sangha (community) and taught that “any desire a man has for women must be cut off, lest it present an obstacle to his enlightenment” (Minamoto, 1993, p. 87). Women were also denied Buddhahood in the original sanghas (Kurihara, 2003), and Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, was quoted as saying that the desire to make love to women did not arise as women’s bodies were filled with urine and excrement: “Even with my foot I did not wish to touch [them]” (Thomas, 1993, p. 115). The impureness and sinfulness of women’s bodies is further reinforced by the Buddhist doctrine that women cannot achieve spiritual salvation unless they transform themselves into males, either literally, before a public gathering, or symbolically, by becoming a nun and renouncing the secular world (Ogoshi, 1993). The seventh-century Chinese monk Dosen also produced a document outlining the vices of women, which included arousing desire in men; being jealous, vain, deceitful; and lacking empathy (Jnanavira, 2004).

The depiction of women’s uncleanly bodies as an element of Buddhist discourse on sexuality and the impurities of the physical world is why the emergence of Tantric Buddhism, with its inclusion of sexuality and physicalness, is so significant. Importantly, the origins of this practice occurred outside of the great monastic institutions among the wandering yogis from a wide range of social backgrounds in the cultural basin of old Bengal (now Bangladesh and part of India). According to Young (2004), the Mahasiddha biographies show that several male siddhas practiced sexual union with actual women, where through meditation practice the sensation of sex is experienced as emptiness, allowing the siddha to adopt a specific mental state and realise that all beings and things, including the self, are empty. Although a female body is part of this process, “the instructions are completely phallocentric and almost always directed to the male practitioner” (p. 140). A common feature of the Mahasiddha biographies is that male siddhas often take female consorts that are young, attractive, and in their teenage years. This is also a common practice of modern siddhas. For example, the Tibetan Tantric master Chogyam Trungpa renounced his monastic vows and married a sixteen-year-old English girl who used to be his student. During his time as a teacher, many rumors circulated about Trungpa’s sexual relationships with younger, female disciples. In the 1990s, June Campbell, a former ‘consort’ of senior Tibetan Buddhist monk Kalu Rinpoche, revealed the decades of sexual abuse she experienced in secret at a Tibetan monastery (Vellely, 1999). As recently as 2017, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, a founder of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in New York, retired after allegations of sexual misconduct, and Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of the well-known book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, was also accused of decades of sexual assaults and violent rage (Newman, 2018). The unquestioned status and authority of older monks, along with the accepted and sometimes hidden practice of sexual yoga by male practitioners with younger, inexperienced women that act as vessels for male spiritual development provides an ideal environment for abuse and misconduct to occur.

In Buddhism, power lies at the hands of men. Men who were often traumatized by being removed from their mothers at an early age and brought up in all-male monasteries. Even though the existence and inclusion of the female principle and female deities in Tantric art and scripture is progressive by orthodox Buddhist standards, where women are often denied Buddhahood simply for being female, Tantric Buddhism still operates within a patriarchal context that often uses powerless women in predominantly male monastic establishments. The symbolic representations of female Tantric Buddhist figures as unnaturally small and marginal reinforces the idea that women are conduits for male fertility, power, and Enlightenment, where female inclusion alone fails to translate into something progressive or empowering for Buddhist women in reality.