eastern philosophy

Hey all -

The discussion below was formerly an introduction, but as usual it turned out far too long, so I decided to break it up into two newsletters.

+ what I learned or rediscovered recently

* Eastern philosophy (rating: 4)

For most of my life, I dismissed Eastern philosophy as too spiritual, too intangible, too impractical. Western philosophy just seems so much more useful. Equipped with the instrument of reason, you can define, analyze, explain. There’s a consistency, a coherence to it all. Upon such an ironclad foundation, you can build to the sky. Age-old edifices of Math and Logic and Science tower above us.

What more do you need? What could Eastern philosophy possibly offer?

Well, Reason has its limits. Logic defines, and thereby divides. Taken to its limits, logic - this notion of dividing - can lead to entirely illogical conclusions.

Logically, I can define who I am: my name, my personality, my appearance, my upbringing and so on. This definition makes me unique - it makes me different from you. But here’s the catch: such a precise definition can also make me different from me. Should my face be disfigured from an accident, or my personality rendered unrecognizable after severe trauma, or my memory destroyed after brain damage - at what point am I no longer me?

The more precisely you can define - that is, the more you can isolate and separate and reduce - the harder it is to say what things are. It is hard to say precisely when "life" begins, or when someone officially "dies," because we can always further define, and divide. Again - taken to its limits - it’s hard to say what anything precisely is when you carry the tool of logic.

This presents a paradox: we know that things are, yet we can’t precisely say what anything is. Logic has reached its limits. We have reason to be suspicious of all this dividing.

If you could imagine a philosophical tradition that challenges this fundamental assumption - the primacy of reason - and by extension the ability to define, divide, analyze and clarify - you would have Eastern philosophy.

Absent the ability to divide, what remains? The thing that encompasses everything: a wholeness, a oneness, a unity.

This inverts our traditional Western ontology: we start not with the most reducible, but the least reducible. If we throw out the assumption that things must be logical and well-defined and divided, we see instead that everything blends into one. In a beautifully twisted irony, there is a sort of logic here.

It was enough to get me to dive deeper into Eastern philosophy[1]. When you challenge the most fundamental assumptions of everything you think you know, you can end up in some pretty novel places.

I am not sure these places are "better" or more "right" or more "useful," but they can certainly enrich our understanding of the world. I recommend this one-hour Google Talk with Sadhguru if you’re interested in learning more.

+ parting thoughts

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of this biweekly newsletter.

That’s 27 newsletters, which - when you put it that way - doesn’t seem like very much. And yet it’s been surprisingly hard to stick to! I’m in awe of people - such as Matt Levine or Tyler Cowen - who churn out quality writing nearly every day. That kind of consistency is admirable.

I don’t always enjoy writing the newsletter - sometimes I want to do other things instead - but I appreciate how it periodically forces me to reflect on deeper things. Over the course of a day, almost none of this seems important, but over the course of a life, I’d argue almost nothing could be more important. And that’s enough reason for me to continue writing.

(The numbers next to the terms indicate how much I’d recommend the reading(s) - 10 is most highly. Factors include complexity of topic, relevance to daily life, quality of writing, novelty and time to read.)

Thanks for reading, Alex

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