Sunday, January 05, 2020

Eating and Idealism

James Chastek recently had a comment about eating and idealism that I thought interesting:

Eating and the idealist self. In both cases something is taken as cut off, appropriated to the self, and purely subjective. Would it be a parsimonious view of eating to imagine the food was simply part of us?

It reminded me (in broad way, in the linking of the topics) of Xiong Shili's discussion of eating in the Xin weishi lun, usually translated as New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness, although Xiong is going in the opposite direction. Xiong Shili (1885-1968) was one of the most influential Chinese philosophers of the twentieth century; he is generally considered one of the founding members of the New Confucian schools, but his work can perhaps best be seen as arising out of a mutually critical dialogue between Buddhism and Confucianism. In any case, he is an idealist in a broadly Buddhist sense. As he puts it, "To insist that cognitive objects are separate from consciousness and exist externally amounts to dividing one's own life and the cosmos into two slices -- is this rational?" (p. 58). That is, he rejects the idea that we are reasonable in drawing a line between 'internal' and 'external'; neither an external world nor an internal mind exist, if understood as in opposition to each other. But this raises the question of why people do in fact insist on these things. To this he responds, based on the idea that cognitive errors arising from craving for or attachment to things:

Human life cannot abandon actual living. All people rely on the myriad things in order to pursue growth in their life....Because human beings rely on things for their nourishment, they become habituated to drawing on things...and so erroneously presume that things are cognitive objects external to the mind and in all sincerity run about in pursuit of them. After a long period of habituation, they regard these habits as their own mind and relentlessly pursue things without growing sated. (p. 58)

Thus the diagnosis is that human beings take there to be an external world separate from themselves (or alternately, take themselves to be selves separate from the world) because they take their regular nourishment-taking to be their self and therefore take the nourishment to be nonself. (As Xiong later (pp. 287-288) notes, the point is not that eating is a problem -- properly understood, it is just a thing that goes on -- but that craving is a problem; it is not the eating but the craving for nourishment that we develop in response to this that leads us to divide mind and world.)

Of course, one could tollens Xiong's ponens and go in the opposite direction, taking eating as an evidence of a world distinct from the self; it is on its own a diagnosis rather than a demonstration.


Xiong Shili, New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness, Makeham, tr., Yale University Press (New Haven: 2015).

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