[L. 91 | 98] 4 April 1964

It would take more than a few remarks about the sterility of Western philosophy to dry me up. I am fond of the sound of my own voice, but, living in solitude, I rarely get the opportunity of hearing it, so I have to make do with the next best thing: if I can't enjoy hearing myself talk, I can at least enjoy reading myself write (if you get the idea). In any case, if I am going to correspond with anybody I assume that he wants my reflections in the original edition, not in a popularized version. If he doesn't love my dog, then he can't love me. (I have rather the same attitude towards the hypothetical readers of the Notes: they are given my thought whether they are likely to understand it or not. This may lay the book open to the charge of intellectual immodesty—which I don't deny—but nobody, I think, can justly call it hypocritical. Whether or not everything I say will be of use to the reader is another question, and I am quite ready to admit that some of it may be a positive hindrance. But, rightly or wrongly, I leave that for the reader to decide.)

When I said that the author of the Notes seems to have 'lifted passages from Bradley without acknowledgement', that must be understood as a pardonable exaggeration on the part of a heated (if imaginary) reviewer. In fact, even though I have now quoted Bradley (with acknowledgement), nobody will accuse me of having transcribed him literally in other parts of the book, though people may quite likely (if they are acquainted with Bradley) suppose that I have taken my ideas from him. But, personal vanity apart, this does not matter.

There is nothing very much new to report. Bradley makes a distinction that seems to have a certain (limited) application to the Dhamma. He speaks of the metaphysicians, on the one hand, who speculate on first principles and the ultimate nature of things; and on the other, of

those who are not prepared for metaphysical enquiry, who feel no call towards thankless hours of fruitless labour, who do not care to risk a waste of their lives on what the world for the most part regards as lunacy, and they themselves but half believe in. (PL, p. 340)
(What a cry from Bradley's heart!) This second category contains those who take principles as working hypotheses to explain the facts, without enquiry into the ultimate validity of those principles (this is the normal practice with those who study special subjects—physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and so on—and who are metaphysicians, if at all, only in their own conceit). In brief: those who look for first principles, and those who take things on trust because they work in practice.

In the Suttas, too, we find something of this distinction between those sekhā who are ditthipattā ('attained-through-view') and those who are saddhāvimuttā ('released-through-faith').[a] The former have heard the Buddha's Teaching, reflected on it, and accepted it after considering the ultimate principles on which it is based. The latter have heard the Teaching and reflected on it (as before), but, instead of seeking its first principles, have accepted it because it inspires them with trust and confidence. Both of them have practised the Teaching, and both have attained to sotāpatti or beyond, but one puts paññā foremost, and the other saddhā. But there is also a third kind of sekha, the kāyasakkhi ('body-witness'), who is quite without any corresponding category in Western philosophy: he is one who puts samādhi foremost—he develops mental concentration and gets all the jhānas, and needs not so much paññā or saddhā. In A. III,21: i,118-20, the Buddha is asked which of these three is the best, but he declines to discriminate between them, saying that any one of them may outdistance the other two and arrive first at the final goal.

It is actually on this question of samādhi that Eastern thought is at its greatest distance from Western; and the latter can certainly be charged with sterility on this score (and this will include the existentialists). The trouble seems to be this. Western thought has a Christian background (its individual thinkers can almost all be classed as pro- or anti-Christian, and rarely, if ever, as neutral), and, since the practice of meditation is normally connected with religious beliefs (in a wide sense), all states attained through such practices are automatically classed as Christian (or at least as Theist or Deist), and therefore as essentially mystical. Now, no philosopher who respects the Laws of Thought can possibly find a place for the mystical in his scheme of things, since mysticism is an act of faith in the principle of non-contradiction (i.e. that the Law of Contradiction does not hold)—in other words, God (who is, one might say, self-contradiction personified, and, being the Ultimate Truth, is therefore no contradiction).[b]

So samatha practice (ānāpānasati, for example), even were it known in the West (which it is not), would first be misunderstood as mystical, and then, on the strength of this, would be banished from the philosopher's system (except, of course, on Sundays). It was, indeed, the desire for some definite non-mystical form of practice that first turned my thoughts towards the East: Western thinking (of which I really know very little) seemed to me to oscillate between the extremes of mysticism and rationalism, both of which were distasteful to me, and the yoga practices—in a general sense—of India offered themselves as a possible solution.

Perhaps you remarked about the first appearance in my letters of the word 'metaphysics'. This word is now rather out of fashion; seemingly for two different reasons. Bradley calls himself a metaphysician, and my dictionary tells me that metaphysics are 'Speculations on the nature of being, truth, and knowledge', which seems to justify Bradley's claim. But Bradley was an idealist philosopher and was primarily concerned with the relation between 'appearance' on the one hand and 'reality' on the other. And, in fact, metaphysics has rather come to be associated with idealist philosophy, and in particular with the investigation of a 'reality' that, being what lies behind appearances, is necessarily hidden from our eyes (except at the present instant). From this philosophy there has been a two-fold reaction. On the one hand, there are the realists (Russell & Co.), who deny the idealist position by the simple expedient of ignoring consciousness, thereby conceiving all truths as statistical (which is the position of science). Extreme exponents go so far as to deny philosophy and metaphysics altogether—for example, Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, §6.53):

The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wishes to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his proposition. This method would be unsatisfying to the other—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method.
But difficulties are not overcome by leaving them out; and the realists provide no answer to the idealists' questions. Bradley accuses Russell of not facing up to certain problems, and he is right to bring this charge. But the idealist distinction between appearance and reality can be seen to rest on a circular argument; and the existentialists[c] have in fact seen this, though they themselves can provide only compromise solutions, since they are unable to resolve the 'subject/object' duality (which only the Buddha does).

Metaphysics, in consequence, understood as the investigation of a reality—a 'Really Real Reality' as someone has commented—behind appearances, is now discredited; and Sartre, to take an instance, though coming within the dictionary definition of a metaphysician, does not call himself one—indeed, he re-defines metaphysics as dealing with the general question, 'Why should things exist at all?' (B&N, p. 297). (The question 'Why are there other people?', for example, would be metaphysical in Sartre's sense. Metaphysics, so understood, lead eventually to the direct intuition 'It is so', beyond which it is impossible to go. One is perhaps tempted to remark that such metaphysics have something in common with feminine reason: 'I love him because I love him.') In view of the prevailing ambiguity of the word, it is probably better to let it sleep. (The word is ambiguous even in its origins. Aristotle wrote his 'Physics', and then after his 'Physics' he wrote another chapter or book, which, for want of anything better, he called 'Metaphysics'; but the word has commonly been taken to mean 'what lies beyond physics', i.e. a metaphysical world (reality) beyond the physical world of appearance.)

I confess that I don't altogether follow the tangle of names and addresses that you have sent me—would it help matters if we were to suppose that Mr. K. and Mrs. J. are one and the same person? There might be something in Bradley we could use to justify this assumption, should it be necessary. 'Where sameness is asserted difference is presupposed. Where difference is asserted there is a basis of sameness which underlies it.' (PL, p. 373) ('Whom Bradley hath joined, let no man put asunder', as the Anglican Marriage Service almost tells us.) But perhaps you will object that the mere fact of our supposing that Mr. K. and Mrs. J. are one person—even if it is convenient to do so—will not make them one person in actual fact, if they are really two. But we may appeal to Hegel, who maintained that thought and actuality are the same: what I think, that actually is; and what is, that I think. So if we care to think that Mr. K. and Mrs. J. are one person, then they are so in reality. But alas! here comes 'Gaunt Kierkegaard' (as Palinurus calls him) to tell us that Hegel's view is a 'lunatic postulate' (CUP, p. 279) and we are regretfully forced to admit that this is true.[d] However, I have no doubt that you see the situation more clearly than I do, and perhaps you will be able to assure me that no contradiction arises from supposing that Mr. K. and Mrs. J. are, in fact, two distinct people.

I have read Huxley's Brave New World twice already, I think, and I have no great desire to read it again. It is, I agree with you, not up to the level of his other books, though I believe it has been his best seller.

Ride-a-cock gee to Banbury T
To see a fine bathroom and W. C.
(Perhaps the 'T' puzzles you. I think it comes from the early and celebrated 'Model T' Ford car; and 'Ford', of course, takes the place, in the Brave New World, of 'Our Lord'. There is also the visual pun between T and †.



[91.a] These sekhā are sotāpanna and beyond. Before sotāpatti (i.e. after reaching the magga but not the phala)—see CITTAsekhā are dhammānusārī or saddhānusārī, between whom the same distinction holds. [Back to text]

[91.b] Some philosophers take advantage of this situation: they develop their system as far as possible, carefully avoiding self-contradictions; but when they encounter one that they cannot explain, instead of confessing defeat they proudly declare that they have proved the existence of God. [Back to text]

[91.c] Beginning perhaps with Nietzsche, who speaks of 'the illusion of hinder-worlds'; whereas Kierkegaard seems to have partly accepted the distinction: he conceded the idealist contention, but regarded it as irrelevant and a temptation—

The triumphant victory of pure thought, that in it being and thought are one, is something both to laugh at and to weep over, since in the realm of pure thought it is not even possible to distinguish them. That thought had validity was assumed by Greek philosophy without question. By reflecting over the matter one would have to arrive at the same result; but why confuse the validity of thought with reality? A valid thought is a possibility, and every further question as to whether it is real or not should be dismissed as irrelevant. (CUP, p. 292)
[Back to text]
[91.d] It is actually not so entirely lunatic as might seem at first sight. One who has developed iddhi powers is able (within limits) to realize (i.e., to make real, to actualize) what he thinks. By applying sufficient concentration to a thought, it can be turned into a reality (there are already indications of this in Prof. J. B. Rhine's experiments with people throwing dice and willing a certain result: statistical investigation shows that the fall of the dice cannot be accounted for by the simple hypothesis of chance.) But not even iddhi powers can make Mr. K. and Mrs. J. one single person if they are really two. (You may perhaps recall the discussion on 'possession' of one person's body by another, and of the 'union' of two people's minds, in Balfour's book on Mrs. Willett. In none of these cases do the people actually 'become one'; for if they did they would not separate again. There are satisfactory explanations for the 'feeling of oneness with some other person' that do not require us to suppose that there is any loss of individuality—indeed, a 'feeling of oneness' presupposes a duality, otherwise we should all have such a feeling all the time, since we are always one. There is a converse phenomenon sometimes reported, where one person has a feeling of duality—becomes a 'split-personality' in other words—and this presupposes a unity. [Back to text]