Lecture Review: How well did Hume Read the Buddha?

St John’s has a weekly lecture on Wednesday afternoons for the summer semester; last week I wrote about Mr. Cohen on Miracles and Belief. This week we heard How Well did Hume Read the Buddha? given by St John’s Tutor Michael Bybee.

The Saint John’s Graduate Institute, which hosts these lectures has, as you might already know, two programs; I would call them departments, but they have most of the same tutors. They want both these programs to be equally part of the college community, but sometimes this is difficult. That is especially the case in their public lectures. Last summer from the EC side we heard Arjuna’s Dilemma and Shakuntala’s Solution from, I think, the Mahabharata (a massive Hindu classic), and then one on Nishida Kitaro, a 20th century Japanese philosopher, alsodelivered by Mr Bybee.

In trying to describe the work of that Japanese philosopher last summer, and in trying to compare Hume to Tibetan buddhists, the tutor faces a difficult challenge. Eastern philosophy depends on a very long, difficult to understand, sometimes convoluted Buddhist philosophical tradition that cannot be summarized in ten minutes with any accuracy. For one thing, not all Buddhist believe the same thing. Mr Bybee said, think of a story like this: Americans are engaged in the Vietnam War, and are doing reconnaissance to find out where they should attack; there are four helicopters between the army and a village. The first helicopter radios: “the vietcong are not there; do not burn the huts!” Then the next hears it and radios on: “If the vietcong are not there, do not burn the huts.” The third hears this and radios on: If the vietcong are there, burn the huts.” The last, hearing this, reports: “The vietcong are there: burn the huts!” Buddhist history, he said, goes something like that.

Mr Bybee was trying to address two major points besides that quality of philosophical flipping that occurred in Buddhism through time. The first was to suggest that Hume was influenced by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and that in at least four ways his philosophy is very similar to theirs. More broadly he wanted to ask: is comparative philosophy possible between Eastern and Western traditions, wanting to say that it is not only possible but necessary. It was a complicated lecture, excerpted mostly by memory from a 60 page essay he wrote recently (and has on reserve in the library). I’m not used to listening to things that complex without being able to read them as well; it almost seemed like trying to fit three different lectures into one (and Mr Bybee admitted that it would take three hours if he were to be thorough).

The lecture began and ended with the question of comparative philosophy. In a 1971 lecture Huston Smith tried to convey how eastern and western philosophical traditions have vastly different preconceptions. For one thing, they grow out of different central questions. European and Mediterranean questions tend to take material objects or intellectual ideas as the most real things, and then ask of these things: what is it? How did it come to be? What is it’s ousia? and so on. China, on the other hand, begins with questions of social order: what is the difference between a stable society and one always on the verge of chaos? How do people best work together? What are natural human interactions? How did society come to be? and so on. India begins with more psychological questions: how is it experienced? How is the dissatisfaction of our experience to be cured? and so on. As a result of the different character of these societies and their philosophies, each has certain concepts that are either not present or philosophically meaningless in the others. Mr Smith said that conceptual tracks peculiar to the West are time, matter, space, progress, individualism, natural sciences, and ideology, as we understand each of those things. Someone asked him: how then can we do comparative philosophy and try to understand one another? He answered: first, spend as much time learning another tradition as you have on your own. say, four or ten years. But even then, it may not be possible. It’s not so much like comparing apples and oranges as apples and chalk.

A Japanese professor in Hawaii likened the way in which most Americans learn Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies to himself describing Christianity entirely as a cannibalistic religion descending from Osiris worship, bringing in everything from the Bible to the Romans to Montaigne to support that assertion. On the one hand, it makes logical sense; on the other hand, it’s crazy. But, Mr Bybee asserts, it is nonetheless an important enterprise, for it is only in looking into the preconceptions and reasonings of others that we can, perhaps, see some of the basic underpinnings of our own intellectual tradition.

Nestled within that argument was another argument in favor of the influence of Buddhism on Scottish philosopher David Hume. There has apparently been a debate amongst scholars regarding some buddhist elements in his work. There are four areas in particular where Hume shared a similar understanding: 1) that all knowledge is from experience; 2) that there is no such thing as a “soul,” or “self,” or ousia of a person; 3) a shared understanding of the nature of causality; and 4) most religious questions are meaningless or beside the point. Some people say that, yes, they are strikingly similar, but that’s simply because humans experience the world in similar ways, and so come to similar conclusions about the nature of human existence. Scientist Alison Gopnik, on the other hand, says that Hume wrote his Treatise on Human Nature at a college in France that was run by Jesuits who had recently spent 30 years as missionaries in Tibet, learning about the people, culture, and (especially) intellectual tradition there, who had recently been recalled by the Pope and had brought all their collected research back with them. Mr Bybee’s summary of Ms Gopnik’s conclusion was “Hume would have had to have been a particularly stupid and insensitive person not to have studied Tibetan Buddhism” at that college.

Within that argument, in turn, was the third thread of this lecture: a very brief outline of the history of Buddhism. It was similar to last year’s brief overview leading up to the coolness of Nishida Kitaro, only it was Buddhism making its way to Tibet, rather than to Japan, with corresponding differences of emphasis. This is the most trying, the most interesting and expansive, and also, perhaps, the least successful part of both lectures. It’s like trying to explain the importance of Descartes by first spending forty minutes explaining as best one can the Western traditions of mathematics, Christianity, and metaphysics, quoting Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Aquinas, and on and on. Or like trying, before trying to prove something about Kant, to first explain what we in the West mean by time, matter, space, and self. It could, perhaps, be done, at least superficially (which is all a speaker in this venue can ever hope for on so broad a topic anyway); it would, however, be spotty and exhausting, which is the affect of this section of the lecture. On the other hand, everything Mr Bybee mentioned was interesting, exotic, and delivered in a lively way, as though he were really invested in conveying them as truthfully as possible.

How Well Did Hume Read the Buddha? was a lively, entertaining, fairly well structured, and reasonably accessible lecture, with a number of helpful examples and anecdotes to emphasize important points. It was also complex, broad, and relied heavily upon a foreign tradition, and therefore was rather more than I could grasp in one sitting. Rating: 4/5

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