Rhetoric, Modality, Modernity


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More Books by Nancy S. Struever

Don't have an account? All Rights Reserved. OSO version 0. University Press Scholarship Online. Sign in. Not registered? Sign up. Publications Pages Publications Pages. Search my Subject Specializations: Select Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Rhetoric, Modality, Modernity Nancy S. The superimposition of science on Buddhism is also presupposed by the fact that the expert monks involved in the experiments are paternalistically referred to not only as 'subjects', but also as 'collaborators' Houshmand et al.

To this may be added that, as is well known, no scientific theory as such is ever connoted by certainty, because it would be necessary to demonstrate that all of its consequences are true: an impossible operation, since the consequences are infinite. As the history of science teaches us, theories that have resisted for decades can crumble under the weight of new evidence. Buddhist 'scientific-religious' doctrines, including for example 'compassion' Houshmand et al. From a logical point of view there is another possible interpretation of the conjunction between Buddhism and science: an interaction in which Buddhism is in a dominant position, or in which the two are equals.

Again, this is absurd.

One need not dwell upon the fact that the formulation of models and scientific theories, by its nature, does not tolerate external influences: a theory or a scientific model cannot be correct on the basis of a Buddhist theory or model. That is due to the simple fact that while science lends itself to generating a broad consensus within society through public verifiability, Buddhism, however positively characterized it can be in the collective imagination, does not.

Moreover, science is unable not to project its light onto whatever gets into a structured and organized relationship with it.


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In fact, scientific discourse has its own protocols, and must examine all that is subject to science and which will then become part of an explanation or theory. And how many aspects of Buddhism can survive "in the light of scientific knowledge", how many can be constituted as experimentally verifiable theories?

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Perhaps some physiological changes produced by meditative practices can be proved cf. Benson et al. Yet, how much is specifically Buddhist in these physiological alterations? Buddhism, in any event, risks having to abdicate its own specificity. Now, Lopez , p. These elements cannot simply be removed, as the Dalai Lama would like, because they are "essential to what Buddhism has been, and is".

Nevertheless, this does not explain why Buddhism should not give way to science, as the Dalai Lama openly asserts.

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On the contrary, this seems all the more a theoretical justification for why contemporary Buddhists should let go of their belief or practice, which is, at least in part, reduced to the rank of superstition. The description of Buddhism as 'premodern' does no more than confirm its subordination to science, which is 'modern' by definition.

Can we be satisfied with this description of the relationship between Buddhism and science, i. As a matter of fact, the very idea of the plausibility of a conjunction between Buddhism and science is in itself contradictory, if examined up close. Indeed, this idea has an important implication: that science and Buddhism are, at least partially, homogeneous. In fact, one does not expect the possibility of a structured and direct interaction between heterogeneous domains, as we would not expect one, for example, between art and law.

And the heterogeneity of Buddhism and science appear incontestable at first sight. From a phenomenological point of view, it is evident that the paradigms that shape the two spheres operate very differently. Instead, a scientist, contrary to a Buddhist, cannot permit himself to ignore the introduction of a new paradigm: how do many scientists reject the Copernican system in favor of the Ptolemaic model? Science is, indeed, sustained by broad agreement, including non-scientists as well, which springs from experimental control and reproducibility.

Science, for better or worse, shapes society: for example, a doctor cures a patient according to the state of the art of medical science, namely in accordance with scientific progress. He could not do otherwise, at least not without the intention of breaking the law. It is evident that the same cannot be said for Buddhism: everyone in our society is free to make use of the oldest or most recent Buddhist paradigms or to ignore Buddhist doctrine altogether - at least while science and Buddhism are different.

Therefore, from this point of view, Buddhism and science appear to be heterogeneous. As there is no reason why an affinity between Buddhist and science must be supposed, so there is no reason why a structured relationship between the two must be programmed. Paradigms in the domain of Buddhism tend to operate like those in the realm of religions: new paradigms, despite being the product of 'revolutions', can coexist with the older ones for millennia. In other words, with a somewhat approximate synthesis one can say that, for Buddhism, the 'truth' springs from the discussion about which texts or traditions contain the genuine 'word of the Buddha' buddhavacana , while for science the 'truth' lies within a general consensus that is constantly renegotiated, usually through the mechanism of experimental verification, by peer reviews, etc.


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  • Only science, as a point of fact, is entitled to generate a broad, negotiable consensus in the contemporary world and is therefore less inclined to produce coercion - even if unfortunately it does so at times, especially when the historicity and finiteness of its language are not recognized. It is not sufficient to point out that the premises of Buddhism understood as more or less essentially scientific are unstable. It is also necessary to highlight how the consequences of the adoption of this narrative can become undesirable. Lopez does so, in part by recognizing that the alleged scientific nature of Buddhism has a cost.

    According to Lopez , p. He tries, in essence, to save the 'premodern' elements of Buddhism. That which Lopez defines as 'premodern' is, in other words, that which is antithetical to science. And science is precisely that which qualifies modernity. If one more or less implicitly accepts a hierarchy of values based on greater or lesser modernity, it is obvious that Buddhism conceptually takes up an inferior position to that of science.

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    Nevertheless, Lopez omits a fundamental point here, namely how our 'modernity', to which the 'premodern' elements of Buddhism are opposed, should be considered. What is the role of science in our current modernity? When, with the intent to exploit the intellectual prestige that Western science enjoyed, the idea of a conjunction between Buddhism and science was born, that prestige was still far from being questioned. Today, instead, it is more and more difficult to question "the simple fact that technological progress is leading in so many instances straight into disaster" Arendt, , p.

    Despite the disappearance of the fundamental historical presupposition of the conjunction between Buddhism and science, namely the absoluteness of the prestige of science, few voices have been heard, on the part of Buddhologists or scientists, against the bizarre idea of the scientific nature of Buddhism. Such an idea is the expression of a hoary conception, typical of scientism, which puts into a global order all of the expressions of human knowledge, including Buddhism and science, on the basis of the criterion of their greater or lesser approximation to an extra-linguistic reality.

    The supposed affinity of science and Buddhism does not respect the specificity of the rules that govern each of the two linguistic games. The obvious danger of not recognizing the difference between Buddhism and science is that the experimental aspect, which is the specific domain of science, takes the place of what is the specific domain of Buddhism. However, it is true that the idea of the conjunction between Buddhism and science, as McMahan , p.

    Harrison, , p. In other words, the process of hybridization with science is actually changing Buddhism. Nevertheless, the fact that the process is already underway does not mean that its premises are solid or that we must abstain from pointing out the dangers. In fact, for example, every totalizing meta-narrative is generally the tool of, or at least tied to, authoritarian pretenses. Its bearers tend to adopt coercive measures against anyone who does not share the narrative. This is exactly the case with those who maintain that the hermeneutical orientation is to be considered outdated by now for example Baggini, ; De Caro, Ferraris, ; Ferraris, Due to its particular history in the West, Buddhism seems to lend itself particularly to a legitimization of the pretenses of hierarchical dominance on the part of science.

    That re- narration, when enlivened by Buddhism, proves to be much more convincing, in so far as Buddhism is positively qualified in the average Western imagination and frequently tied to environmentalism and a commitment to social causes e.

    Nancy S. Struever

    Seager, , pp.

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