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“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…

Joy Walker: Three Boxes Three Ways, 2009

Nonbeing belongs to that category of concepts that seem self-evident and self-explanatory, but as FT explains, it has perplexed philosophers for ages…

Bertrand Russell’s 1951 obituary for Ludwig Wittgenstein is only a few paragraphs long, and the second consists largely of a single pointed anecdote:

Quite at first I was in doubt as to whether he was a man of genius or a crank…. He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: “There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.” When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.

The exchange is typical of the two philosophers’ relationship: Russell’s proper British demeanor was frequently ruffled by the Austrian’s dry humor. But it also illustrates two general approaches to philosophy: one that takes pleasure in complexities, absurdities, and ironies, and one that takes pleasure in resolving them. Just as Wittgenstein surely realized that there was no hippopotamus in the room, Russell surely realized that Wittgenstein’s objection could not be dispelled empirically by looking under each desk. At stake was not a fact of perception but the epistemological status of negation—the philosophical meaning and value of assertions about nothing.

Nothing, or nonbeing, belongs to that category of concepts—like being, space, and consciousness—that seem self-evident and self-explanatory to most people most of the time, but that for philosophy have been objects of deepest perplexity and millennia-long dispute. It’s a little like breathing, which happens automatically until we stop to think about it. To most of us, Russell’s statement “There is no hippopotamus in this room” is both easily understood and easily verified. We think we know what it means, and most of us would only need a quick look around to affirm or deny the proposition.

But here our troubles begin. If you look around the room and don’t see a hippopotamus, presumably you do still see something: some kind of perception or sensory data is reaching your consciousness, which allows you to make a judgment. What is it that you do see when you see a hippopotamus not being there? Are you perceiving a nonbeing, seeing a particular thing whose nature is absence, or are you not perceiving any being, seeing no “thing” at all? When you see a hippopotamus not being there, are you also seeing a whale and a lion and a zebra not being there? Is every room full of all the things that aren’t in it?

From an evolutionary perspective, one predator not being there is just as good as any other predator not being there, but dialectics and logic are a little more particular. If every possible animal is not there at the same time, what specific truth-value can the assertion “There is no hippopotamus in this room” possibly have? Hence Wittgenstein’s insistence, facetious or not, that all existential propositions are meaningless. In this manner the complications and implications of nothing spill into every area of philosophical inquiry, and we quickly come to sympathize with Aristophanes’ brutal satire of philosophers in The Clouds:

Socrates: Have you got hold of anything?

Strepsiades: No, nothing whatever.

Socrates: Nothing at all?

Strepsiades: No, nothing except my tool, which I’ve got in my hand.

Nonbeing, through the ages: “Apropos of Nothing,” from @ft_variations in @nybooks.

* Oscar Wilde

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As we analyze absence, we might send mindful birthday greetings to Mahasi Sayadaw; he was born on this date in 1904. A Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation master, he had a significant impact on the teaching of vipassanā (insight) meditation in the West and throughout Asia.

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