Friday, December 3, 2010

You Don't Say

It's that time of year again.....


I dug out the David Loy article that i was talking about yesterday. It was called The Difference Between Samsara and Nirvaṇa and is well worth reading if the topic interests you. The section i was remembering as i wrote yesterday's post was:

The fundamental difficulty with craving is that it generates a sense of duality — "I" desire that "thing" which, more fundamentally, I already am. The problem of re-presentation is that it widens the gulf between the "I" and the "object." I re-present a particular "object" by calling it, say, an "urg." This enables me to refer to the "object" even when it does not immediately appear. But when the appearance is again introduced, the re-presentation "urg" does not disappear, as having no more function. It still re-presents the appearance. Now we know what the appearance is. It is "urg"; or it is a particular instance of a universal: "an urg." Now I experience the appearance "through" the re-presentation. The problem is that, the more successfully a system of representation functions, the more likely we are to confuse the representation with the appearance. So tathata, the "thusness" quality of things as they really are, is subjected to vitarka, conceptualizing, and to vikalpa, false imaginings, which filter and distort sense experience; we are urged to "cut through" this "fog of concepts" if we want to realize the true nature of the world. Mahayana emphasizes this problem of conceptualizing more than Theravada, which emphasizes craving generally. In fact this is the source of much of the quarrel between them: Mahayanists criticize Theravadins for reifying the Buddha's words into a doctrinal system, and the paradoxes of the Prajnaparamita sutras may be understood as an attempt to avoid that pitfall.

But there is a serious confusion in the above analysis. It is not the case that the presented world is divided up into grasped "objects" which we later re-present; rather, we divide up the world the way we do (that is, learn to notice what is present) with a system of representation. John Searle, a contemporary philosopher of language, explains this well:

... I am not saying the language creates reality. Far from it. Rather, I am saying that what counts as reality... is a matter of the categories that we impose on the world; and those categories are for the most part linguistic. And furthermore: when we experience the world we experience it through linguistic categories that help to shape the experiences themselves. The world doesn't come to us already sliced up into objects and experience: what counts as an object is already a function of our system of representation, and how we perceive the world in our experiences is influenced by that system of representation. The mistake is to suppose that the application of language to the world consists of attaching labels to objects that are, so to speak, self-identifying. On my view, the world divides the way we divide it, and our main way of dividing things up is in language. Our concept of reality is a matter of our linguistic categories.

Such an approach is reminiscent of Kant's distinction between things-in-themselves and phenomenal things-as-we-perceive-them — the same distinction we have made in order to distinguish samsara from nirvana. In place of Kant's twelve "Aristotelian" categories Searle offers language, "our system of representation." Searle and Kant both doubt that it is possible to experience "things-in-themselves," but the contemporary view seems to leave the door open in a way that Kant did not: Is it possible to get behind language? Is that not what occurs in meditation, when one "lets go" of all ideas and concepts?

"Our concept of reality is a matter of our linguistic categories." That's so true and, i think, one of the biggest problems we deal with today as a civilization. Every culture, every religion, every political party, every you-name-it has their own linguistic categories that define what "reality" is. These categories are so fixed in stone that they preclude almost any chance of compromise with others who believe differently, and because the categories are so tightly locked, their owner's minds are just as closed, for fear that they could find themselves in a position where they could be labeled as traitors to their cause.

In fact, i might go so far as to say that i think a great many people no longer think on the level of ideas. Instead they think solely down on the level of language, where the words alone define their reality. Every idea, at least every credible idea, allows that there will be, must be, compromises inside the idea in order for it to be held by groups of people. Words alone don't allow this possibility. If we hope to survive as a civilization we need to come back to the realization that ideas are of more value than simple words.

Words can not, do not, and never will define reality.

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