Skip to main content

PHILOSOPHY BY ETHNOGRAPHY: A Tibetan Case Study of Formal Analytic Reason

Kenneth Liberman
Department of Sociology
University of Oregon

(Please Note: Items in <brackets> are borrowed from the discourse of conference participants.)
The Conference Abstract summarizes: <What post-modernism teaches us is not all new .... The ancient Eristics already showed the unreliability of logic alone.> The mad 19th century Tibetan scholar Gendun Choepel (at least mad enough to be placed in prison for a time), wrote:

"As much as one approaches the nature of a thing,

So much do the words of scholars become dumb.

Hence it is said that by nature all subtle phenomena

Pass beyond proposition, thought, and verbalization."

Note that "beyond proposition" does not mean that propositions are done away with. In fact Choepel's own tradition emphasizes the importance of learning how to think formal analytically, first according to logical syllogisms and years later according to more dialectical practices of reasoning. One doesn't pass beyond without first serving one's apprenticeship to formal analytic reason. Pass beyond to what? To an immanent experience of emptiness ['emptiness' has been translated as both 'being' and 'deconstruction,' as Westerners learn how to get a hand-hold on something that is not supposed to have holds, not supposed to be a merely a concept at all, an anti-concept if anything, yet a strategy for wisdom and peace not a nihilistic void.]- The Tibetans rely heavily upon logic - too heavily? - and they are a curious blend of the premodern and the postmodern (Hatab) in that they question all grounds yet continue to accept their tradition.

Happily, it seems all of us here recognize <the practical value of dialectic> (Buchanan). This would involve making the effort to COMMUNICATE - not merely conceptually but also ethically and bodily - though the conceptual is a vital component of the process of listening to the other. The dialectic breaks our path, institutes <crossings>, throws us off our saddle again and again. This listening entails clarity, no fudging of real differences beneath diplomatically exploited ambiguities (not to deny indeterminacy its centrality). But to communicate one must be clear enough to permit the other to HEAR us. Here formal analysis assists. But do we tend to over clarify what must also be left open? How do we keep this search for clarity from becoming our European cultural obsession with <certainty> (Hans Reichenbach via Neto), a straight jacket that renders truth objectified, leaving it then only for us to get on the bus.

What does <the rule of reflection> provide for us, and for the Tibetan whose journey is also a spiritual one (Question to ponder: is the journey of a scientist a spiritual one?). And what does it close off, specifically (ethnomethodology insists on this "specifically")? I had set out to show how Tibetans, despite a thoroughgoing negative dialectics become entrapped within the structures of their own formal analytics; yet to date the most amazing discovery I'm making is that the formal analytic machine that Tibetans devise during their formal public philosophical debates clarifies their thinking and helps them to communicate to each other, helps them to LISTEN, and collaborate. Yet they, too, recognize that <language cannot swallow everything up> as Bordo advises us. The <theoretical pasta machine> (Bordo) they develop and employ is brilliant as it permits them to dance and sing their logic, both together and in contestation, but <word-use governed only by distinctions> is a dead-end (Gendlin, "Nonlogical Moves," p. 387). They know that, too, i.e. that reasoning becomes alienated by its own forms. But do they avoid the dead-ends? Knowing and avoiding are different.

Tibetans employ decentering and undecidability to unravel their affixation to their conceptual reductions, they admit - nay celebrate in their live dialectics (and sung prayers) - a prominent role for negations, the exclusionary process by which terms and thoughts operate. Their negative dialectics explode adherence to

"truth habits", beliefs that things (the self, trees, truth) exist independently according to inherent essences. This adherence has a'gross'form, which is conceptual, and a'subtle'form, which is so thoroughly integrated into one's bodily constitution that mere philosophizing cannot undo it but according to Tibetans it requires 'many lifetimes' of practice guided by this philosophizing (and this philosophizing must undo itself as well). This negative dialectics was termed "doing the emptiness analytic" during one debate by senior graduate student Ngawang Tsondro at the Tibetan monastic university where I spent two years. This tfemptiness analytic," he says, must be applied to the way one customarily apprehends a referent object, and on each and every occasion. In the Highest Yoga Tantra of Guyhasamaja [Lord of the Secret], a 120 page daily meditation guidebook, the climaxing mantra is OM SHLTNYATA JNANA VAJRA SVABHAVA ATMAKO HAM ("My nature is indivisible from emptiness wisdom"). This "emptiness wisdom" (Shunyata Jnana) is deconstructive in force, but it is also <more than> this (<In what way does logic involve more than the pretense of clear-cutting pattems.>).

This Shunyata Jnana, then, is not only analytic. one follows up the analysis to the point where it itself is revealed as a truth-habit, exposed - and the processes of one's thinking are laid bare. Their "consequence logic", or the reasoning by absurdities by which this Shunyata Jnana proceeds, shares with deconstruction its humor, ridicule and irony, inevitable when fundamental concepts are revealed to be merely contingent and derived <what post-modemism teaches is not at all new>. This undoing of truth-habits can induce a calm-abiding, in which one loosens one's affiliation to one's conceptual formulations without denying them altogether. Negative dialectics can be an "epoche" that induces a not-so-fastness, a contentment, certainly no <Western drivenness> (Hatab via Gendlin) but it is there in Husserl's own meditations, and in the best of postmodern dialectics. The Shunyata Jnana involves how the mind relates to its own understanding, rather than what it understands. Kestenbaum commends <vigilance> for its being <quiet and gentle...not an engrossed or absorbed attention>. Similarly, Levin speaks of <a thinking which can actually take us in to the depths of our topological attunement>. That is, this calm is an embodied practice, not merely philosophy from-the-neck-up. Why do the Tibetans retain their strategic analytic praxis, and how does it further their philosophical interests? In part, because this Shunyata Jnana, the emptiness analytic that follows the mind's self-negations until they become self-unravelling, is a conceptual analytic that leads to a non-conceptual state. By doing not by explaining. Mad Gendun Choepel explains (from Tibetan Arts of Love, p. 108):

Obeisance to the sphere of self-arisen bliss,

Seen by the eyes of Buddhas that never close, [no nihilism here]

Experienced by the educated upon severance of propositional statements,

[no harm in being educated either] Comprehended by a non-grasping mind.

So what IS formal analytic reasoning is my ethnographic investigation. Not merely in philosophy as docile texts but in and as the lived practices of philosophers engaged in the business of thinking with each other. Formal analytic reasoning, too, has its extra-rational properties. Among them are (1) the abiding presence of invocations to accepted notions and ways of reasoning, that is, the rhetorical pressure to conform with confirmed tradition; and processes of objectivation, authorization and disengagement from one's own 'universal' philosophical productions; (2) <the ungroundedness of grounds>: the negotiation of when, and where, the giving of grounds for one's reasoning comes to an end; this is a social event as well as a logical one; the Tibetans <do not want to stop with relativism>, yet the local contingencies are always compelling; there is always a local context of collecting warrants and ad hocing truth - "or what else is there that is driving them towards the logic of their deepest insights?" (Liberman, Human Studies 1996, p. 293; and (3) the embodied production of philosophical reflection relies heavily upon a rhythm or choreography of the dialectics; <coordination, organization and rhythmicity (and hence sociality) are possible even without mutual understanding about what is going on> (Schieffelin, thanks); and even with the mutual understanding, and it can contribute to the mutual understanding; it is a dance that is a celebration of logic, a celebration of their living within a philosophical culture, a culture that is said to somehow lead them not to truth but to enlightenment. But how?

<We are neither ruled by logical forms nor do we merely abandon them> (Rosen.) We use them, but "how"? How do we <move beyond> them while relying upon them? How do we use them to <carry forward> our own truths? So our task is how do we live-with logical forms and yet carry the deeper direction forward? And how do we institutionalize even this <after post-modemism> without being alienated or "betrayed" (Levinas) by our formalizations once again? This is our historical task, so many centuries after the Eristics.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]