Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Digging Down to the Foundations

Lately I'm reading Michael Millerman's book Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political. Dugin is the target of the book, and the main reason I'm reading it. I'm in the middle of the Rorty chapter at the moment. The overall notion seems to be that Dugin is the one who has picked up Heidegger's ball and is running with it. Strauss and Rorty have either misread Heidegger or anyway have refused to pick up his ball, for opposite reasons. Strauss is more fundamentalist than Heidegger, and Rorty is more historicist.

In a curious coincidence, my wife has been reading The Great Bliss Queen by Anne Klein. She tells me that Klein is discussing a debate within feminism between essentialists and constructivists. It sounds pretty much the same as the debate between Strauss and Rorty - or their followers, anyway. These debates are a bit like the conundrum, "Why not tolerate intolerance?" It's like a dog chasing its own tail.

This brings to mind a simple analogy that I use to illustrate the potential for Buddhist thinking to provide a way to escape the deadend represented by these debates. We're trying to investigate the true reality underlying the diverse appearances that we experience in the world. We start digging down through the shifting sands of the surface, looking for the solid bedrock that holds everything up.

The fundamentalist essentialist vision is that indeed, we can cut through the fog and confusion, and whether we land on the Bible or the U. S. Constitution or Feynman's Lectures on Physics, we will find solid ground. The constructivist historicist vision is that we can dig our way straight through to empty space on the other side. The web of appearances is free floating. It might be a fair amount of work to move the whole mess, but it is quite possible, and perhaps a worthy project. We have that freedom.

The middle way of Buddhism, or of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism at least, is a third alternative. It's not that we find some third sort of thing once we have dug through appearances. The vision is that we can dig and we can keep digging and actually we can just keep on digging endlessly. The investigation of appearances never reaches any kind of point where further investigation isn't possible. Of course we might run out of the resources needed to keep investigating. But we can also relax our desperate search for foundations once we realize that every layer of appearance is supported by yet another layer of appearance. There is no bottom. It's not that the bottom is hollow - that's the constructivist historicist vision. There is no bottom.

What are the practical consequences of this vision, that's hard to say. Mostly it's a matter of avoiding futile and destructive projects. The MAGA crew seems to want to scrape away the shifting sands to return society to whatever solid ground they put their faith in; once they've killed off all the liberals they can start killing each other over transubstantiation versus consubstantiation etc. The progressive crew seem to want to pick up the whole mess and move it to a less strife-filled place; maybe an annual cycle of presentations from the Human Relations department will do a lot, but the inertia of the entire system will assert itself long before we start knocking up against the constancy of the speed of light and the limits it imposes on interstellar colonization.

Buddhist practise seems to be mostly a matter of letting go of grasping. The subtle details come from a deepening perception of how we are grasping. The extremes of eternalism and nihilism are classical mirages at which we grasp. Fundamentalism and constructivism are modern manifestations of these philosophical extremes.

I've become interested in Dugin because he seems to be a major philosophical inspiration behind the right wing movement. Recently I read an observation, that the right wing extreme in the USA is not really philosophically grounded. It's basically a gang of street thugs. There's this character in the movie A Fish Named Wanda, this thug who lies around reading Nietzsche and shooting his pistol. Perhaps this is a good model for someone like Steve Bannon.