[L. 89 | 96] 15 March 1964

The passage on Western philosophy that you quote from Lin Yutang is partly justified, but it must be remarked that it refers only to speculative (or abstract) philosophy, in other words the classical Western philosophies. Existential philosophy, as its name implies, is concerned with existence, and Lin Yutang could hardly complain that Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Marcel—to name only three—did (or do) not live in accordance with their philosophies (even though he would scarcely agree with them—they do not regard life as a 'poem').[a] Kierkegaard's views on abstract philosophy are quite definite; for example:

Now if we assume that abstract thought is the highest manifestation of human activity, it follows that philosophy and the philosophers proudly desert existence, leaving the rest of us to face the worst. And something else, too, follows for the abstract thinker himself, namely, that since he is an existing individual he must in one way or another be suffering from absent-mindedness. (CUP, p. 267)
(You can refer to some scathing passages from K. that I quoted in an earlier letter to you about the essays of Mssrs. Wijesekera, Jayatilleka, and Burtt;[1] and see also the passage in Preface (c).) Certainly, it is futile to look to speculative philosophy for guidance on how to live; and to follow such a philosophy is to be like one of the blind men of the Sutta in the Udāna (vi,4: 68-9) who were shown an elephant and told to describe it—one grasps a small fragment of the truth abstracted from the whole, and fondly imagines that one knows all.

On the other hand, a study of such philosophies, in certain circumstances, may not be a waste of time. Shortly before his parinibbāna, the Buddha told Māra[2] that he would not pass away before there were disciples who were capable of correctly refuting any outside views that might spring up, and this argues that for those who had themselves reached right view a study of wrong views would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage—that is, when dealing with people who did not accept the Buddha's Teaching. But here, it will be understood, these various speculative philosophies would be studied against a background of right view, with the effect that they would be fitted into their proper place—just as the king, who could see the whole of the elephant, was able to reconcile the widely divergent descriptions of the blind men and put them in the proper perspective.

It may also not be a disadvantage to have a fairly wide knowledge of various philosophies when one is in the position of having to understand the Suttas when no trustworthy (i.e. non-puthujjana) living teacher is available. If one has to find out for oneself what the Texts mean, such a background may—at least for certain people—be a help rather than a hindrance. And, finally, the development of a lucid understanding of these philosophies—of their virtues and their limitations—may become a real pleasure to the mind. (In my present state of health I myself, for example, get most of my pleasure from the smooth working—such as it is—of my intelligence when contemplating the inter-relationships of the various views that come my way. I confess that I should prefer to spend my time practising concentration (samādhi), but I can't do it; and so, faute de mieux,[3] I enjoy the consolations of philosophy.)

As it happens, I have just received the two volumes of Bradley's Principles of Logic. You will see that I refer to Bradley in ANICCA [a], and actually in connexion with the question of identity and difference in the process of change. I have started reading him and find him stimulating and perspicacious (and very sympathetic) in spite of certain limitations—in some respects the Notes almost seem to be a continuation of his work.

It[b] is identical, not because it is simply the same, but because it is the same amid diversity. In the judgment, beside the mere distinction of the terms, we have an opposition in time of A to B. And the subject of which A---B is asserted, being subject to these differences, is thus different in itself, while remaining the same.[c] In this sense every judgment affirms either the identity which persists under difference, or the diversity which is true of one single subject. It would be the business of metaphysics to pursue this discussion into further subtleties. (PL, p. 28)
And this is more or less what I have done in FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE. In any case, you will see that, though one does not reach nibbāna through reading Bradley,[d] a study of his views need not be totally irrelevant to an understanding of the Suttas.

So much for philosophy and Lin Yutang[e] except to repeat an anecdote from Plutarch (quoted by Kierkegaard, CUP, p. 34). It seems that when a certain Lacedaemonian by the name of Eudamidas saw the aged Xenocrates and his disciples in the Academy, engaged in seeking for the truth, he asked 'Who is this old man?' And when he was told that Xenocrates was a wise man, one of those occupied in the search for virtue, he cried 'But when does he then propose to use it?'

I can't tell you very much about the Eleatics—the Elastics, if you prefer—, except that (according to Kierkegaard) they held the doctrine that 'everything is and nothing comes into being'. Parmenides, I think, was an Eleatic, and you will see his views on pp. 14-15 of Russell's M&L. The doctrine of the Eleatics is the opposite of Heraclitus and his flux: but as K. points out, both are speculative views, abstracting from existence where change and unchange are combined (and so back to Bradley!).

As to Achilles and the tortoise, the problem as stated by Russell on p. 88 makes the assumption that all 'places' are the same size. But if Achilles is going faster than the tortoise each 'place' that he goes to must be correspondingly larger (i.e. longer) than the tortoise's 'places'. There is thus no paradox. But there is also the assumption that one can be in a 'place' in a 'point-instant' of time—i.e. no time at all. This is really the root of the trouble, both for Zeno and for Russell—they assume that time (or being, or existence) is made up of instants of no time, which is a misunderstanding. However many instants of no time you add together (or put contiguously) you still get no time. So Russell, seeing this, says (p. 82) 'there is no such thing as the next moment', which means that though his moments are 'in time' they are not 'part of time'. But he does not go on to explain what 'time' is.

The fact is, that one cannot use the word 'be' in connexion with a point-instant of time, and one cannot say that Achilles, or the Arrow, 'is' in a particular place at each 'moment' (understood as a point-instant). (The solution to the problem of time, as I suggest in FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE, lies in a hierarchy of 'moments', each understood as a 'unit of time', and each with a sub-structure of a plurality of similar moments but of a lesser order.)

But as to the problem of Achilles and the tortoise, all we need to say is that during each second of time both Achilles and the tortoise are within the boundaries of a certain extent or strip of ground, but since Achilles is moving faster than the tortoise his successive strips of ground (each occupied for one second) are longer than the tortoise's. So Achilles catches the tortoise. But note that since we decide upon one second of time (or whatever it may actually be) as the limit to the fineness of our perception, we are unable to find out what Achilles or the tortoise is doing within each second. We know that during any given second Achilles is occupying a certain strip of ground (he is in that strip), but we are not entitled to say whether he is moving or stationary. (This does not say what movement is—which needs a more elaborate discussion—, but it does solve Zeno's problem, or at least indicates the solution.)

As a solution to impermanence you suggest that we might forgo 'an impermanent use of what is impermanent'. Impossible! We are making impermanent use of what is impermanent all the time—and this is as true for the arahat as it is for the puthujjana. So long as there is consciousness at all there is the passage of time, and the passage of time consists in the use of things, whether we like it or not. The eating of food, the breathing of breaths, the thinking of thoughts, the dreaming of dreams—all are impermanent use of what is impermanent. Only in nirodhasamāpatti does this lapse for any living being.

In the last Sutta of the Majjhima (M. 152: iii,298-9) the desperate expedient is suggested of 'not seeing forms with the eye, not hearing sounds with the ear', but the Buddha ridicules this, saying that this is already achieved by a blind and deaf man. He goes on to indicate upekhā, indifference, as the proper way. The fault does not lie in the impermanence (which is inevitable), but in attachment to (and repulsion from) the impermanent. Get rid of attachment (and repulsion) and you get rid of the suffering of impermanence. The arahat makes impermanent use of the impermanent, but with indifference, and the only suffering he has is bodily pain or discomfort when it arises (and that, too, finally ceases when his body breaks up).


[89.a] Actually, Kierkegaard would appall Lin Yutang; and this perhaps shows up the weakness of both sides. Though they are agreed in rejecting speculation, Kierkegaard is for self-mortification whereas Chinese philosophy is for self-indulgence (and will not bear too close an intellectual scrutiny). [Back to text]

[89.b] I.e. the reality to which the adjective A---B is referred. [Back to text]

[89.c] This is thitassa aññathattam exactly. [Back to text]

[89.d] A recent Indian philosopher, de Andrade, was an enthusiastic disciple of Bradley's, and refused to consider Russell as a philosopher at all—with some reason. [Back to text]

[89.e] Lin Yutang is right in saying that if one pays court to a girl, it is ridiculous not to marry her and have a family; but perhaps the truth that the classical German philosophers were flirting with is not the kind that you can have children by. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[89.1] earlier letter: L. 42. [Back to text]

[89.2] Māra = The Evil One, a non-human being. [Back to text]

[89.3] faute de mieux: for want of anything better. [Back to text]