The Essence of the Middle Way

Philosophy routinely finds itself charting a course between two seemingly irreconcilable positions, a middle way between extremes. The first update in a new series: a daily reading of Kant and Nagarjuna as two exponents of the 'Middle Way.'
Narasimha and Hiranyakasipu

The Middle of the World

Once upon a time, a demon terrorized the world. His name is unimportant for our story, but just for the record, he went by Hiranyakasipu. But in the first of many contradictions in this story, he too was a devotee of the creator, spending years seeking divine favor. Pleased with his tapas, Brahma appeared in front of Hiranyakasipu:

B: ‘ask and you shall receive’

HK: ‘make me immortal’

B: ‘That’s a bit much. Make me a better offer’

HK: ‘If I am to be killed, make it that whoever kills me is neither man nor beast, neither inside nor outside, neither day nor night.’

B: ‘Done’

Hiranyakasipu felt pleased with himself: where would the universe find a killer straddling so many worlds? How does one stand in the middle of all middles?

Vishnu knew better. He took the form of a half-lion, half-man. As Narasimha, Vishnu stood at the door of Hiranyakasipu’s palace, taunting the despoiler of worlds. Easily provoked, Hiranyakasipu stormed into the courtyard and in his anger, didn’t notice the sun slipping into the horizon, day turning into dusk.

Narasimha continued his insults.

‘Enough is enough!’ said HK.

Grabbing a pillar with his bare hands, he rushed at Narasimha. It was dusk. They were at the door to the palace. With his lion’s paws, Narasimha swatted the pillar aside and grabbed Hiranyakasipu. Placing the demon on his human thighs, the avatar tore open Hiranyakasipu’s chest and belly, scattering the entrails on either side of the threshold.

The demon lay dead in the middle of the world.

The History of the Middle Way

The Middle Way has a long history. Too powerful a weapon for everyday use, it’s indispensable in times of transition, when one era is being replaced by another. Aren’t we in such a time, when the anthropocene stares at cusp of the abyss? How might the Middle Way part the ocean for us?

Here’s a specific version of this challenge: how can we think the middle, the in-between space between human and non-human, between society and nature, between the globe and the planet?

We can build our raft by learning from previous efforts at reconciling the impossible, watching our predecessors pilot their ships between assertion and denial. As the Buddha said in his articulation of the middle way:

The Middle Way is uniquely revolutionary: it simultaneously dislodges an existing regime while constituting a new one step by step, like replacing the wings, the tail and the nose of a plane while flying it, so that an F-16 is replaced by an F-35 in mid-flight. Because of its gradual character, a middle way revolution may appear to be conservative, but that’s just a sign of its subversiveness.

Photographer: Mike Andersen | Source: Unsplash

The Kantian Middle Way

Kant’s Copernican revolution is an example of this seemingly conservative middle way revolution in thought. It’s a revolution that marks the transition in the role of reason in the 17th and 18th centuries. Reason was once married to faith and after a very long marriage, reason switched partners and started frolicking with experiment instead. Newton’s remarkable achievements sealed the deal: here was a form of reason that captured all known experimental phenomena, a new science of mechanics of unparalleled accuracy and explanatory power.

So where does reason get its power? Why is it so good at capturing the structure of the empirical world? Why is the world intelligible? Looking back to the reason’s first marriage: what do we do about faith and morals? And when reason wants some alone time: what are its limits? What can it do on its own?

As a philosophical Narasimha, Immanuel Kant recognized intelligibility as the key to the future of philosophy. In Kant’s view, the proper task of philosophy is to map the structures of intelligibility while keeping one eye on the second marriage (i.e., experimental science) and one eye on the first marriage (faith and morals). With that Copernican revolution in reason, Kant transformed the task of philosophy from discerning the structure of the world to discerning the structure of reason.

These structures of intelligibility, i.e, the means through which we grasp the world aren’t derived from experience or experiment – instead, they are imposed by the mind on the world and are the preconditions for making sense of anything at all. That’s what Kant means by ‘a priori’ concepts. With his map of the a priori, Kant carved a middle way between two marriages:

  1. He charted a metaphysical version of ‘you need an eye in order to see,’ i.e., that the intelligibility of the empirical world presupposed intuitions and concepts that can’t be derived from experience. These a priori concepts provide the scaffolding on which we can hang the body of the universe.
  2. At the same time, the mind’s eye can’t see beyond the realm of the senses – it’s not the third eye of Siva. And therefore, it has no knowledge of God. For that matter, it has no knowledge of objects as such; only objects as filtered through its own concepts.

In Kant’s scheme, the mind is a talisman, the lamp that sheds light on the abyss of existence. Future thinkers have other talismans: some look at logic, others language, consciousness or the unconscious. It’s also possible to historicize the a priori order and attribute it to the German state, social classes and means of production.

Nevertheless, whether it’s the revolutionary proletariat or the brain’s wiring diagrams, the philosophical middle way lies in discerning the structures of intelligibility.

The Myth of Reason

The myth of Narasimha avatar is obviously a myth – no one today will read it as a recounting of a real incident. The modern account of reason doesn’t feel like a myth at all – it’s both taught and understood as a description of the way things are. But what if the myth of reason is a myth like any other even as it resists being classified so? I will be honest with you: this myth courses through my veins; I fell for it when very young and never let go of its romance. I find it easy to roam from star to star and oppressive to kneel before an unseen God.

And yet, I know this modern order can’t hold. We have reached its limits and it will pass soon. To be replaced by what?

I am hoping Kant will offer us clues, he being the first cartographer of our terrain. But not in his self appointed role as a legislator, but a mythical Kant, the dreamer of reason. I once heard if you steep a dream in the world for too long, it turns into a nightmare. With the Anthropocene threatening to end life on Earth, it’s clear the Kantian dream needs an infusion.

From Robert Bringhurst’s “A Story as Sharp as a Knife” and Roberto Calasso’s “Ka”.

Another Infusion

And not just because of the Anthropocene and its horrors. Kant’s technical arguments also need a new infusion because science wasn’t sleeping at the wheel for two hundred years while letting philosophers appropriate intelligibility to themselves. With cognitive science, neuroscience and AI, we now have empirical disciplines loath to leave the a priori to pure reason; whether it’s space, time or concepts, there are plenty of researchers who study the psychological and neural basis for intelligibility.

We need a new Middle Way between the a priori and the empirical. How do we bring these two streams together?

That’s one question I want to address in this project, which I will do so by reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason line by line and bringing in modern sources and ideas as I see fit. My approach is ‘digestive’ rather than analytical. I am not interested in what Kant said per se, as much as using him as a tool for my own thought.

It’s not as if Kant has been completely superseded by the modern sciences. To take just one argument that will revolutionize the cognitive sciences if taken seriously (and if it’s true 😀): Kant says that the unity of experience follows from the unity of the subject, i.e., that every external cognition (say, me perceiving the tree outside my window) is accompanied by the cognition that indexes the ‘I,’ and that it’s the latter that lends unity to the former.

That’s quite different from the approach of cognitive science & neuroscience, which assumes that I can perceive the tree in the manner of a camera without implicating myself or any other subject and to the extent we perceive unified objects and scenes, it’s because we combine and bind multiple streams of information into a single entity, so that color and shape and texture are all bound into a mango I am holding in my hands.

CN-E 85mm Prime
Photographer: ShareGrid | Source: Unsplash

Here’s a teaser argument suggesting why the ‘I’ needs to get involved with the ‘Eye’:

  1. Space and time and other forms of intuition (Kant’s term for the a priori structures that structure incoming sensory data) are necessary for the chaos of sensation to be organized into meaningful unit of experience.
  2. Similarly, there has to be an a priori unity for those meaningful units to be cognized as unities, or else they will be perceived as indivisible layouts rather than a landscape of discrete and individuated objects.
  3. The I is the ‘ur’ unity which serves as the template for all other unities.

In short, just as there’s no seeing without an eye, there’s no understanding without an I. One of our targets is to articulate the dialectic between the I and the Eye in modern computational language.

On to our reading. Let’s keep this simple: I will read, reflect and riff on one page of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason every day, starting with the preface to his book. I am using the Guyer-Wood translation published by Cambridge University Press.

Photographer: Joel Muniz | Source: Unsplash

Page 1

Kant opens his book by saying that reason has a tendency to tie itself in knots, not because of external pressure, but from its own internal tensions. Kant says: there are questions which we can’t help asking because of being finite creatures thrown into the world and which our finitude prevents us from answering even in principle. Reason cannot prevent itself from trying to surpass the bounds of experience but it’s enmeshed in contradictions as soon as it achieves liftoff.

Philosophy walks the tightrope between spiraling speculation and pedestrian fact collection – the first ends in madness and the second in stamp collecting. We need a discipline that helps us walk, perhaps even run across this narrowest of paths. That discipline is metaphysics.

Page 2

Where we continue our reading of the Kantian fairy tale. Like every good one, this too starts with a kingdom and a queen.

I mean ‘fairy tale’ as a term of endearment

Hohenzollern Castle
Photographer: Sandra Ahn Mode | Source: Unsplash

The realm of knowledge is as rife with claims of legitimacy as the realm of power. That awareness has many strands, of which I will mention three.

  1. There’s the postmodern claim that knowledge and power are deeply intertwined, a claim that’s deeply contested and arguably demonstrates the workings of power in the realm of knowledge through that very act of contestation.
  2. There’s the obsession with certainty, proof and exactness from Descartes onward, which positions itself as a purely internal matter to knowledge but betrays anxiety about the legitimacy of knowledge itself.
  3. And there’s the question of the legitimate scope of science – are there any limits to its understanding or is everything open to its purview? In practice, science is an imperial enterprise that doesn’t accept any limits to its activity.

I was aware of these strands but it’s only when I paid careful attention to the opening myth of the CPR that I realized how important it is to settle those disputes. Knowledge hasn’t ever been a democracy, so it’s no surprise that Kant opens his campaign with a royalist claim: is metaphysics the legitimate ruler of knowledge?

Even by the time of Kant, metaphysics was a queen with a shrinking empire, with an ascendant physics sniping at the throne. That was two hundred years ago; today physics reigns supreme, and a physicist like Roger Penrose can write a book called ‘The Road to Reality.’

Reminds me of the quip about the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam – ‘Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam‘ – noting that the realm of the Emperor has been reduced to a few miles around the Red Fort in Delhi.

The power struggle in the kingdom of knowledge oscillates between total control in which reason claims direct access to reality and skeptical chaos in which it has no purchase of the truth whatsoever. Kant is setting us up for the Middle Way between the two extremes.

Kant thought that he had steered the ship between the two rocks and was back in the open ocean. He should have known better: neither the dogmatist nor the skeptic ever sleeps. Back in Kant’s time, the new empirical sciences were agents of chaos, destabilizing the certainties of reason handed down from Plato and Aristotle. Now they are agents of dogmatism, routinely saying they have captured the universe with direct access to reality, though this time it’s the mind of nature not the mind of God.

Odysseus steering his ship between Scylla and Charybdis

In their sovereign avatar, scientists routinely reject metaphysics as a science that commands their obedience – the queen of metaphysics has been replaced by an accountant, the bookkeeper who makes sure that loot brought home by scientists is counted and stored in the right shelf. At the same time, the very success of our grasp over nature has brought us to the brink of total collapse. We too have to steer our ship between dogma and chaos and we too need a wise captain at the helm.

Can a renewed metaphysics come to the rescue once again? If so, what form will it take? The good news is that the metaphysical impulse never disappears, we can’t be indifferent to its attractions for too long, for it’s in our nature to pose metaphysical questions.

Page 3

In reading a two hundred and fifty year old author, however relevant, we have to learn to discern themes that were raging controversies in his time but mere curiosities for us from features that we can adopt for our purposes. This first footnote of his book illustrates both aspects:

The political geography of science has been transformed beyond existence since Kant’s time. The traditional queen, Metaphysics, was still the nominal ruler and the natural sciences were the upstarts. Today the situation has been reversed: in academia, physics and mathematics are far more likely to be seen as unimpeachable, reality describing disciplines. At the same time, we are also in the midst of a crumbling order; the inadequacy of the existing means of ordering the world are most obvious in the political and planetary realm, but the critique can and should be extended to every domain, including the inheritors of religion’s holiness and majesty: physics and mathematics.

Who are our upstarts?

It’s only fair that when every other domain is subjected to the gaze of reason, it also turn its gaze inward and subject itself to the same treatment. Not only is that the right thing to do, reason’s claim to rule the kingdom of knowledge arises from its capacity to subject itself to a stricter test than it subjects every other domain.

As it so turns out, the quest to secure the foundations of reason is a quixotic quest, with every attempt to declare a permanent basis being undermined by the next generation of investigators.

Kant’s foundation was laid on the cement of Euclidean Geometry, which turned out to be only one geometric theory among many. With Geometry no longer secure, attention shifted towards logic, which too was shown to be inadequate to the task. Perhaps we should embrace the quicksand of reason, and declare once and for all that there’s no such as thing as an autonomous, self-existing domain of reason which legislates over other provinces of knowledge. Or to put it in two other ways:

  1. Reason is empty – empty not in the colloquial sense of being hollow and superficial, but in the Buddhist sense of not having self-existence.
  2. Knowledge should be democratized – again, not in the standard sense that we should all have access to knowledge (which we should) but that the traditional hierarchy of knowledge which runs from the exact sciences at the top to the inexact sciences and finally the arts and speculative disciplines at the bottom should be flattened.

Neither emptiness, nor epistemic democracy is Kant’s task; that will have to await a deep dialog between the Kantian and the Madhyamika traditions.

Kant wants to secure the first nation of knowledge, i.e., use reason to map its own extent and limits. As he says, he’s not critiquing ‘books and systems,’ i.e., his predecessor’s views on this or that, but the faculty of reason itself, though that critique of reason will also yield a critique of his predecessors.

It’s pure reason he’s after; reason untainted by experience. Physics makes the empirical world intelligible, so that the questions that can be answered by applying reason to data mark the boundaries of physics. For metaphysics to play an essential role, it should supply insights that can’t come from physics. For example, empirical research must obey the laws of logic; we can’t glean those laws from studying the physical world. By restricting itself to the structures and boundaries of pure reason, metaphysics becomes the storehouse of those universal concepts and intuitions that physics needs in order to render data intelligible.

In sticking to those concepts and intuitions needed by physics and those alone, Kant reveals himself as a consummate middlewayer – his revolution is motivated by a seemingly conservative claim that he’s not extending the realm of reason beyond its natural limits. In the very next page, he declares his modesty:

(I’m) incomparably more moderate than those of any author of the commonest program who pretends to prove the simple nature of the soul or the necessity of a first beginning of the world

Instead, he’s a unifier of its existing provinces, ruthless in his rejection of all secessionist tendencies within its borders while being humble enough to recognize that his kingdom shouldn’t be so greedy as to swallow the whole world. In his restrained ambition, the sage of Konigsberg is the precursor of another German: the Iron Chancellor, Count Otto von Bismarck.

Count Bismarck

I might argue that the middle path between rejecting all internal dissension and ruling the whole world is the basis for autonomy and success in all domains: in the kingdom of knowledge, in the sovereignty of nation states and in the creation of the liberal individual. Or to put it another way: the middle path is the producer of autonomy under the right conditions. Kant is the prophet of modernity for that very reason. Two summarizing points that will play a big role as we proceed further in our reading:

  1. The middle path, of course, is also the Buddha’s way. This Buddhist reading of Kant has much to recommend itself in my view.
  2. The triple analogy between the autonomy of the individual, the autonomy of reason and the autonomy of the state also has much to recommend itself.

Page 4

Ambition is often best achieved by accepting constraints. In fact, I am more impressive if I say I will climb Mt. Everest without an oxygen tank than if I hire a helicopter to fly me to the summit. It also helps deflate my critics who might otherwise complain about my boundless greed. Kant’s ambition is circumscribed by experience, i.e., he doesn’t consider thoughts unsupported by experience.

Kant’s skepticism about unfounded speculation reminds me of the famous story about the Buddha and the arrow (from the Culamalunkya Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya):

I read both the Buddha and Kant as saying: pay attention to the condition that’s right in front of you – could be an arrow piercing your flesh or a mechanical philosophy that predicts the motion of the planets – and restrict your account to the resources you need to explain that condition and no more. In the Buddha’s words:

remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared.

While denying certain claims, both the Buddha and Kant have positive explanations for the phenomena within their ken. The Buddha says the causes and conditions of suffering are available in meditative experience. Kant says the structures are reason are available directly, ‘it’s in myself I encounter them.’ Why not map and catalog the universe of pure reason before venturing into an explanation of unknown causes?

Some of Kant’s assumptions appear contingent to me. When Narendra (the would be Vivekananda) met Ramakrishna:

Narendra met Ramakrishna for the first time in November 1881. He asked Ramakrishna the same old question he has asked others so often, “Mahashaya, have you seen god?.” The instantaneous answer from Ramakrishna was, “Yes, I see God, just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense. God can be realized”

Ramakrishna might be remarkable in that his mystical experience was documented in late nineteenth century, in the middle of colonial modernity, but I would think the presence of God was unexceptionable to people in the middle ages, whether in Europe or in India.

So how do we discount their experience of God? Should we discount their experience?

At the same time, the idea that our reason is transparent to ourselves is no longer a plausible assumption. Ever since Freud, it’s commonplace to think we are opaque to ourselves, not transparent and since then the development of cognitive science and AI have revealed the complexities underlying the mental universe. Kant has been undermined on several fronts. But let’s give the man a chance to vindicate himself before jumping on his neck. His ambition is to describe the kingdom of reason as thoroughly as possible:

But Kant has to careful, for the path to the peak he wants to climb is treacherous and so he has to pick the right tools to aid his ascent:

He claims that he only considers concepts and faculties that are unimpeachably a priori, i.e., that it must be necessarily true. The central example of necessarily true knowledge is the law of non-contradiction: that there’s no proposition P so that both P and not-P are simultaneously true. Kant claims that his investigation will reveal all and only a priori cognitions with no hypothesis to marr their perfection.

Newton said something similar: ‘I don’t make hypotheses.’ Both Newton and Kant seem to adhere to the Euclidean model of scientific demonstration – deductive, based on necessary and self-evident truths. Unfortunately for them, Euclid’s truths turned out to be neither necessary nor self-evident and as of today with the immense expansion of statistical reasoning and machine learning, we might be ready to set aside necessity and certainty as important criteria.

We are now at the end of a week’s diarying: here’s are the main conclusions of this week’s reading:

Middle Way Metaphysics

Acharya Nagarjuna

Kant’s ‘middle way’ is about giving a characterization of pure reason:

  • Without overstepping the bounds of reason by making claims that can’t be supported by experience
  • Aiming for complete and comprehensive coverage of all the concepts and faculties that make experience possible

Kant doesn’t call himself a middle-wayer, and there’s no history of interpreting him that way, so to legitimize our efforts, we might as well introduce another tradition that explicitly calls itself the ‘Middle Way’ – the Buddhist Madhyamaka tradition, of which Nagarjuna is the most well known proponent. The middle way method seems especially powerful when facing metaphysical challenges of the kind pose by ‘hard problems.’ Today’s favorite hard problem is that of consciousness, i.e., how come there’s conscious experience in a universe of insentient matter?

Wouldn’t it be nice to grasp the essence of the middle way? One way to do so would be to answer the question:

What’s a meta middle way, i.e., a middle way between Kant and Nagarjuna?

I now realize that’s a question I have been wanting to answer all along. So I am going to add Nagarjuna to my daily bookshelf and read Nagarjuna and Kant in parallel. To make the Nagarjuna and Kant readings of roughly equal length, I will read the Ocean of Reasoning, which consists of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakarika (the root verses of the Middle Way) and a commentary by Tsong-khapa, the great Tibetan philosopher.

Starting next week, one page of Nagarjuna alongside a page of Kant every week day. Want to get this in your inbox? Then:

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