Conze on Doctrine

-- Edward Conza -- (1904 - 1979)

Edward Conze was a Buddhist scholar (1904-1979) with a fascinating history (see the Wiki link).  I have a bit in common with this fellow.  He was a Christian in his youth, embraced Marxism and later, leaving both, studied Buddhism.  The man has lived in several countries and spoke several languages.  Conze also seemed to have a superstitious, idealistic inclination.  When I read Conze, I sometimes feel like I am listening to myself — albeit, a much brighter self.

I remembered Conze recently when reading Roger Scruton’s “KANT: A Very Short Introduction“.    Some of my friends are reading Kant so I have decided to re-familarize my self with the famous 18th century philosopher.    I was never fond of Kant — not that I ever bothered to truly understand him — so I thought a re-read may be interesting.  But even just a little into Kant’s story, memories of my day in philosophy grad school days came flooding back — the unpleasant memories.

-- Immanuel Kant -- (1724 - 1804)

What had disappointed me in philosophy school (which I pursued after leaving Christianity) was exactly what caused me to question Christianity.  Both in observing the variety of Christian theologians and now philosophers, I saw how a person’s own preference and social needs determined a person’s philosophy instead of philosophy being the result of pure reason.  Sure, I came to expect this of theologians, but now philosphers were guilty, heck, we are all guilty — no one can escape subjectivity.  Kant is a perfect example of such pre-thought bias.   Scruton tells us in his primer that ironically Kant struggled to combine with Hume’s Empiricism and Leibnitz’s Rationalism all with the goal of justifying his German Protestantism and giving rational arguments for its morality.   Back in philosophy school I saw this in Kant and now again in this book I read how Kant’s temperament, his upbringing and his preferences colored his philosophy.

As I did some tangential Wiki reading on Hume and Leibnitz to supplement my Kant read, I remembered how silly it was to discuss Western philosophy without discussing Buddhist philosophy.  Western Philosophers talk about their ideas as if they were the first to come up with them and certainly the only ones to consider them seriously.  In Western philosophy departments (at least in my day), Chinese, Indian and Tibetan philosophy were not weighed in the discussions.  Yet the blind spots in Western philosophy seemed so clear to me.  Today, I won’t go into the many fascinating aspects of these philosophy systems, but I do want to discuss two thoughts of Edward Conze.

Sterilizing Buddhist Thought

As Buddhist thought entered the West, scholars here sterilized it by comparing and equating Western philosophers to Buddhist philosophers.  Kant was one of those obviously brought up and compared.  Conze wrote an essay in 1963 exposing these misleading comparisons:  “Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy“.  In this essay Conze shows how his colleagues were contriving parallels between Buddhist and Western philosophies which he criticizes as being either (1) tangential, (2) preliminary or (3) deceptive.  Conze ruled the parallels to Kant as being tangential.  Take a look at the essay, if you are interested.

Conze’s Methodology for Doctrine Exploration

In his essay, while trying to illustrate to readers the mistakes his colleagues, Conze’s also discusses the importance of seeing behind the motivations of the doctrines of philosophers.

A philosophical doctrine can be viewed from at least four points of view: [1] as the formulation of certain propositions, [2] in terms of the motivation which induced their author to believe them to be true, his motives connected with the purpose he had in mind, [3] in terms of the argumentation through which he tries to establish their truth–the reasons which he adduces being rarely those which actually impelled him, and [4] in terms of the context in which the statements are made, a context which is determined by the philosopher’s predecessors and contemporaries, and by his social, cultural, and religious background.

To summarize, Conze calls us to be aware of four major streams that enter into anyone’s doctrines:

  1. Propositions
  2. Motivations
  3. Arguments
  4. Context

He then cautions us to see take these into account when evaluating a philosophical doctrine.  This advice is helpful whether exploring theology or philosophy.   I agree wholeheartedly with Conze.  Conversations often take place only discussing the propositions of a doctrine, but our webs of beliefs are held together with much more than mere propositions.


Endnote:  I often, and it is perhaps a bad habit, try to sneak in more than one thought in a post.  For instance, the photo at the beginning of the post is doctored.  For fun, I merged the two photos below.  The photo on the right is the Tenzin Gyatso (if you didn’t know).  I had never seen a picture of Conze before writing and researching for this post.  The photo below was the only good photo I found.   I laughed at myself when I was the photo.  I did not imagine Conze wearing the stiff suit of a 1950’s scholar — but gee, what was I thinking?  And I laughed further as I saw my mind knock Conze down 2-notches for his pedestrian appearance.  After all, Conze was suppose to be a sublime Buddhist scholar.  So I decided to make him into a sublime teacher to illustrate my silliness.   So, do you think I transformed Conze into a more interesting, authoritative and enlightened scholar?   Or have I just illustrated my own uniquely superficial mind ?  Please tell me I am not alone !


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Conze on Doctrine

  1. I find it interesting to draw parallels between different schools of thought. I have a couple of books looking at and comparing Christianity to Eastern traditions. Cool stuff. Good post!

  2. mdm11

    Thanks for the Conze post — cool stuff! If you ever do a follow-up, it’d be interesting to know the influence Conze has had on modern scholars of Buddhism.

  3. societyvs

    “Please tell me I am not alone !” (Sabio)

    It’s West vs. East in your brain – East won (with the picture). I thought I’d see a buddhist monk too to be honest.

    “To summarize, Conze calls us to be aware of four major streams that enter into anyone’s doctrines:

    Context” (Sabio)

    PMAC – I think I am going to reference this – maybe from now on when looking at biblical interpretation concerning a doctrine.

    I see the propositonal phrase – but rarely discuss motivation (which is huge). The arguments are the reasonong of the idea at hand – and context being key in reading the piece in it’s entirity. I really really dig this!

    This has just helped me immensely!

  4. I read this quote yesterday and thought of this post.

    “Reading a book is like rewriting it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.” -Angela Carter, novelist and journalist (1940-1992).

  5. Mike,
    That is a FANTASTIC quote. I have been thinking of the very same thing recently both because I have started reading some fiction again and my son is reading fiction.
    Of course it also holds theology, philosophy and other abstract works.
    Thanks much.

  6. @ Society — I am very glad you enjoyed. Like the rest of you, when I make a post, I actually put lots of work into them — sometimes several hours. So I truly love it when someone enjoys or even benefits from my post. Thanx for your kind words.
    Curious, have you ever read any Buddhist stuff?

  7. Sabio,

    sorry for the delay and i’m behind in your postings! hope you and yours had a good thanksgiving and if you don’t celebrate that, then a good thursday and a no-shopping Friday (rampant captalism, BLEH!).

    “I saw how a person’s own preference and social needs determined a person’s philosophy instead of philosophy being the result of pure reason. ”

    love this! i think our troll buddy doesn’t realize that there is no such thing as pure reason. we are all conditioned and enculturated… and that isn’t a bad thing! recognizing this limitation we can proceed… how very Taoist of me 😉

    which brings me to some biographical info i think you need to know: i was raised catholic but left the church and went to college. with the rise of bush (dated myself, frosh year was 2000), i renounced Christainity as “stupid” and “too Republican” and studied buddhism which my wife’s aunt is (nichiren buddhist). so i really went into it and read a ton yet something was off.

    i met Pema Chodron whose books i just adore. We talked a little and she told me that i filter everything through my Christian upbringing and that i should further explore aspects of that. well, i found the UCC and the rest is history. it was study’n buddhism that brought me back to Christianity (that i effectively never left in hindsight). but Eastern thought is SOOO different from ours in reasoning, support, and outcome. you’re right on in your assertion of western thought is just restated ancient Eastern ideals. we, for some reason, think facts are the way to go… Eastern mind understands that “it is the way it is” without feeling the need to define eacy word and concept (like what is “it” and how “is it”?) 🙂

  8. @ Luke

    (1) We celebrate Thanksgiving — one of our favorites ! Here is a short story of “thanksgiving in this atheist house

    (2) Indeed, it is very hard to leave the faith of your upbringing. Likewise, many people move back to the area of the world they were raised. I guess we have a bit of a salmon’s brain in us.
    And if there is something to “pluralism”, exploring on familiar grounds may be most effective.

  9. societyvs

    “Curious, have you ever read any Buddhist stuff?” (Sabio)

    Here and there – not in much detail though. It’s an area of religion I obviously need to study more.

  10. Pingback: Motivations…We All Have Them. « Losing My Religion

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