Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Some poems by Rabindranath Tagore:
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? to be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?
All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on.
Keeping steps with that restless, rapid music, seasons come dancing and pass away---colours, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy that scatters and gives up and dies every moment.
When I go from hence let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I blessed---let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come---let this be my parting word.


  1. A thought provoking and moving poem. And yet why should our picture be as he paints it here, of life ever coursing through the many strands of the universe, united with us in our particularity and uniting us to the rest? Why not a different picture, that we are all, every life form, every living breathing, aware creature a part of a universe that is fundamentally mechanistic, giant, intricate mechanism of things that we cannot conceive of it in full but, finally one that is not life but something more basic, the source of all material form including that which is alive? Why not think of the universe as a giant, literally inconceivably gigantic physicality so vast and deep we cannot hope to understand it and yet on its surface, for a time, boils up some forms which do try to comprehend, have the capacity, however limited, of comprehending? And yet, in the end, even the comprehending forms are no different, at bottom, than that which they struggle, vainly, to comprehend, to think about. In the end thought is just another ripple on the surface of a fundamentally lifeless reality, an ultimate existence such as physics paints for us, of dynamic interplays of quantum level or deeper "things" which we can only manage to think about in abstractions, as energy, as pure flowing potentiality? Why should Tagore's picture of life as the throbbing core of the universe, of all existence, be a better one than a picture of a great mindless, purposeless interplay of unfathomable (because they are so unlike us) forces?

    Schopenhauer argued that it was the realization of the fundamental deep unity of all existence that ushers in compassion in the individual because all the distinctions between I and them fall away. And it was compassion, the feeling we sometimes have for the other which this enables, that underlies all moral valuation. But Schopenhauer suggested one could not argue for this. One needed to experience it, to open one's eyes so to speak and see the world in this way. What he was after, of course, was a picture not so unlike the one Tagore paints with that poetry. And yet it is not the only picture to be painted and not necessarily the best one (the most accurate conceivable). If moral valuing is contingent on having such a picture, why does this picture commend itself to us? Why must we find it compelling and, if we don't, are we without hope of making morally sound judgments as autonomous agents?

    1. These three poems (and some of the others in the book) reminded me of Schopenhauer too, which I suppose should not be surprising since he was a fan of what he knew of Indian philosophy. Tagore offers no argument in defense of his view (so far as I know) and others, of course, are quite possible, and might be more compelling.

      Hopefully it is possible to be moral without seeing things as Tagore does. I like these poems though.

    2. Yes, the poem is quite nice. And it does point to a way of seeing the world that is fundamentally in line with what we take being moral to be. It's also possible that having this particular experience does underlie the moral impetus at least in some sense and in some arenas. But in the end, if it's just about a picture of how things are, then there is more than one picture we can have and a materialistic one is as compelling, in its way, as is the one offered by Tagore in this poem. So if I want to tell someone why he or she should act with more compassion, I might recited this poem and say, now do you see? But they might not and they would be quite reasonable in saying they didn't. To make the moral choice (at least of a certain sort) one has to have a certain picture of things, I think, but to argue for such a choice one has to have a reason to offer as to why one picture is better than another, no?

    3. Well that sounds right, but you have to start from somewhere. If we share a certain picture of things then perhaps there's no need to justify that picture. And if we don't share a picture of things then it could be hard to argue persuasively that one picture is better or worse than another. Not that it couldn't be done, but we seem to need some common ground for any argument to get anywhere.

    4. Yes, I agree with that. But the thing is, at least as I see it, moral discourse presumes the activity of giving and assessing reasons to act or not to act. And that implies the possibility of argument, of preparing, offering and considering conflicting reasons, finding the better ones and discarding the less good ones.

      To the extent we share a picture in large part, there is little reason to concern ourselves with deep level reasons. We can invoke factual claims and reminders as to what action counts as what. These stand on how the world is and how we think about those things. But sometimes the argument goes deeper as it does with serial killers or ISIS type terrorists or Nazis or white supremacists like that recent killer in South Carolina. Certainly these may be unreachable for various reasons. Unresponsive to reasoned argument or unbalanced or just too far away from any picture of how things are that we happen to hold. Moral argument doesn't, I think, presume success with every possible interlocutor we may have, if argued thoroughly. But unless we are to grant that there's no moral baseline, that it's all a matter of whatever picture anyone holds and that any picture is as good, in a moral sense, as any other, we have to be able to say this picture is better than that one.

      If our only basis for saying that is that it happens to be our picture, then nothing's gained in the push for moral argument at this fairly basic level. And if nothing's gained, then moral relativism and nihilism obtain and moral judgments, as such, are merely illusory. Anything really goes.

      I think the moral game cannot work that way so either we give up on the game or discern some basis for comparing and judging between pictures. You've offered the coherentist approach, I think, i.e., that our moral picture must somehow fit with our overall belief system or be revised by us so that it does so. But what if we have an unsound belief system, a larger picture that's wrong, as it were?

      I liked your use of the Tagore poem. I think it does show the kind of picture we associate with moral behavior a lot of the time. But it can't be enough, it seems to me, to get us over the relativist hurdle. We need an affirmative reason to adopt and maintain a picture like Tagore's, which evidences compassion and joy in the life of others, rather than a picture like the South Carolina racist's, who shot nine people to death in a church because he didn't like their racial affiliation, or that of ISIS beheaders and rapists. To avoid cultural moral relativism there has to be a way to justify holding a picture that's more like Tagore's than theirs (though I'm not saying that Tagore's is necessarily the right one or the best one).

    5. I think there are things that could be said to a Dylann Roof or an ISIS member, but what I think they need is to go through a process of conversion. That won't be simply a matter of doing philosophy with them, at least not as philosophy is generally understood. Syllogisms won't be enough. There are reasons to adopt a picture like Tagore's (broadly understood), but I think these will have to be given or understood only from within life, from within some normative approach to things. It's a matter of changing the course of a stream, not of getting a stream moving in the first place. Or at least I can't imagine what an ultimate justification that took one from norm-free facts to fully grounded norms might be.

    6. Yes, something akin to conversion, but we can argue for conversions, too.

      A syllogistic argument is out though for reasons we share, I think. What else then? Something that redirects the other's attention to something about him or herself.

      A reminder but not a reminder about what counts as what (like saying to another, look, this thing you want to do is a bad thing because it does X which you agree is wrong, e.g., this counts as murder, this as theft, this as lying). Rather, a reminder about what we are and what it means to be that.

      Not all arguments are syllogistic in form so we don't always expect our arguments to lead to logically unassailable conclusions (which a few lessons in logic will address). Sometimes they're about showing the way, pointing out, or reconstructing a picture.

      It's this kind of argument I have in mind but, I think, there must be something to show, to point out, to remind others (and sometimes ourselves) about. An argument which just says this is my picture and it's better than yours doesn't do the job. We need something to show why the recommended picture IS better (if it is).

    7. Yes, that sounds right. No guarantee that the recommended picture will be seen to be better, but no guarantee that it won't be either.