Monday, November 21, 2011

Thinking about Thinking



There was a discussion recently on Barbara's Buddhism blog regarding the uses and drawbacks of philosophy, especially Western philosophy, in Buddhist practice. Barbara was a bit ambivalent about it, having come across plenty of smartass know-it-alls who are all too eager to explain how Buddha got it wrong.

That got me thinking about thinking, and the uses thereof. Philosophy is, to a great extent, thinking about thinking.

I find thinking about thinking a useful exercise in many ways. For one thing, it's challenging, and practicing it will help you think about other, more practical things as well. It gives you more things to relate and connect to, which makes it easier to get a grasp on new ideas and even new fields. It can be a drawback as well, naturally, since there's often a superficial familiarity to things that causes you to assume you understand them before you actually do. "Oh cool, Nagarjuna is just like Baudrillard. What about Vasubandhu?" Except he isn't, even if the two have some overlaps.

Another benefit thinking about thinking has given me is a degree of ability to switch conceptual frameworks on the fly, as it were. "What is true depends a great deal on your point of view," as some Jedi or other put it. Conceptual frameworks are always incomplete, but they can be very useful, and it's often helpful to switch between modes. For example, I find the Marxist conceptual framework highly useful for understanding "big picture" history, whereas I find classical economic theory highly useful for understanding how markets work. This can also help communicate ideas, since I can attempt to understand what kind of conceptual framework my interlocutor is using and then try to express whatever I want to express in terms of those concepts.

However, I don't think this is quite all there's to it. There's a particular experience related to thinking about thinking that's been very meaningful for me. It happens rarely, and when I'm struggling with some conceptual framework I don't yet quite understand. There's a moment when things start falling into place: everything shifts, I manage to drop free of the framework I've been using to understand the new one, but I haven't yet adopted the new one either. There's space and freedom in that moment of not-understanding, like standing on the edge of an unexplored continent.

It never lasts, though, regrettably. Very quickly, I end up with a new framework to think in, which is often enriching, interesting, and useful.

But I think that there is something more to that moment than just learning new things. After all, that monk who knew the Diamond Cutter Sutra inside and out did eventually see through it too, when the candle went out. Perhaps he wouldn't have, without having twisted his mind around that text so intensively before.

Philosophy can be skilful means too, I am quite sure. All those mountains of sutras and commentaries would be a bit of a waste if it wasn't, really.

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