64. IBP: Adam Robbert on Philosophy as a Way of Life


Podcast meets Podcast. Adam Robbert from the Sideview boards the Imperfect Buddha to discuss the work of Pierre Hardot, author of Philosophy as a Way of Life, along with a long list of our shared favourite topics. We get into the nitty-gritty of the practising life, contemplation, reflection, embodied consciousness and martial arts, the path ahead, challenges on the way, and more.

This is most definitely a Great Feast conversation.

The Imperfect Buddha site: https://imperfectbuddha.com/
O’Connell Coaching: https://imperfectbuddha.com/authors-notes/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/imperfectbuddha
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Imperfectbuddha

More on Adam’s philosophically minded work can be found at the Sideview: https://thesideview.co/


  1. There was a lot of ground covered. A couple of questions come to mind. I have the impression you both see a major increase in interest in these topics (maybe a label would be “transpersonal practises”). Do you have any data supporting that?

    My guess is that the internet does have the beneficial effects you both mention. But we are still talking about a nearly insignificant fraction of the population interested in these concepts. That would be expected from the staged model and perhaps we should take those models more seriously from a relational perspective.

    A very simple staged model is Kegan’s 5 orders of consciousness and I have seen old studies indicating only a very small fraction of the general population at order 5. Kegan claimed that the transformation into order 5 typically does not happen before 40 years of age.

    If someone is dealing with an order 3 environment (e.g. a teenager) then it is probably inappropriate to interact in that environment from order 4. Maybe the lessons/insights are best gained through the appropriate order of consciousness.

    From a relational perspective using transpersonal insights to address systemic issues to help the vast number of people at pre-personal and personal stages of development seems appropriate. Especially in a modern democracy with the vast majority of voters at order 3 or 4.

    Adam is a philosopher, so he probably has a precocious cognitive ability, he is young to be demonstrating such insight. Perhaps this is a good thing? Does Adam notice that colleagues who have not transformed their practises from personal to transpersonal have advantages navigating the pre-40’s “personal stage” of modern life? Perhaps I am a slow learner but I feel the decades I spent “stuck” in stage 4 were not wasted.

    An interesting point that comes across in the podcast is a desire to build a unique path, to integrate the insights into “my” perspective. There is something that does not sit right there, it seems that relationalism should be pushing toward group work and organising, but transpersonal practitioners often seem to reflect modern individualism in regards to their work. The desire to share insights is also likely to spread misunderstandings for people who are not ready or trying to go too fast. A podcast like Matthew’s seems appropriate given its limited audience, but the idea that everyone (even children!) needs to hear about transpersonal practices might be a mistake. Kegan is direct about warning not to expose people to an order of consciousness too early, I’m not sure how wise Kegan is. Certainly I see a huge amount of confusion in western buddhist online communities, where concepts like non-self are misinterpreted in a way that limits the chance of transformation.

    The above probably comes across as too negative, sorry. It was an interesting conversation. I would like to see transpersonal development leading toward a privileging of group relationships over each individual’s theory. But it is not clear to me where that can happen (or is happening), something like non-foundationalists anonymous at the great feast 🙂 I am not imagining a framework or belief system, more like practises for communicating across different perspectives to allow collaboration and cooperation in ambitious social goals (e.g. introducing ongoing adult education – not job training – as a social agenda). Any recommendations that are not cults ? 🙂


    • Hi Mark,
      I’ve got this comment first as its fresher in my mind. I will respond to your email in time though some of the great questions in it will require some further reflection on my part.
      Firstly, I’m not one t ask for data! Sorry. That’s purely anecdotal, though the slowly increasing popularity of my podcast and that of folks thinking alongside these topics may be one proof here. I also agree that those of us engaged in such practices are minute but we are also producers of culture and there is a slow process of leakage into material culture that was resistant just a few years back to more critical thought. The Buddhist glossies are beginning to include more critical material and old Ron Purser’s critique of neo-liberal Mindfulness has gone relatively mainstream.
      I’m a definite fan of Keegan’s work and I am all too aware of the challenge it presents. It’s an ongoing question for me to attempt to understand just how much can be done with experientially poor or immature minds, hearts and bodies. Whatever I say here is going to be inadequate because it’s a vast topic. I think his model is necessarily a reading of culture at a specific time and that it may not be so accurate today. Some of his observations may approach something akin to timeless in the majority of cases, but other aspects may be reflective of specific culture in a specific time and place. There are generational shifts that take place after all and new generations can pick up forms of awareness extremely easily.
      I work with small groups and individuals so my thinking runs in those two directions. I don’t think I have much to contribute to a discussion of society. Like Adam, there are plenty of young folk who are mature beyond their years and have the pleasure of teaching and coaching enough of them for me to assume that there is great potential for people to be assisted into higher order consciousness, thinking skills and relational practices.
      I would be tempted to see what happens to his model when placed into a relational grid rather than a hierarchy. I’ve met enough folks stuck in adolescence in their 70s to know that linear progression as an absolute is a myth. I do think that these models highlight why the abandonment of the individual in favour of a collectivist reading of humanity is problematic.
      The themes in your email are clearly connected to themes you bring up time and again here. As someone who works with groups constantly, I can say that in practical terms, the group and its elements are an ecology. It can hold as long as the elements have enough reason to stay within the ecology. They are both formed and formed by and forming the ecology.
      I think the question of what to teach comes back to the dichotomy that Richard brought back up, which in this context is more or less expressed by the nature Vs nurture debate. I just assume it’s both. The Great Feast would have it that way after all. Therefore, it’s not a case of teaching inappropriate levels of knowledge or practice to an individual or group, but rather a skilful engagement with the group, which is wilder and less bound than any model will have it. Some pre-adolescent kids are highly intelligent and grasp higher levels of thought or even insights most adults don’t possess. Others not at all. My operational assumption, as one of those precocious kids myself, is that this knowledge should be available to those who need it or are looking for it. Considering how much of my time was spent in the kinds of things I now critique, I feel it’s my duty to make knowledge available and I trust that most folks will switch off if it isn’t appropriate for them. And, yes, this does mean I highly value the individual; modern or otherwise. The idea the individual didn’t exist before modernity is suspect. The idea that individuals are passively formed subjects is suspect.
      Finally, this may appear to contradict what I said above, but I don’t believe we really have individual theories. We are participants in an ongoing history of emergence and decay which includes ideas. We are participants in knowing. I suspect there is very little true originality in this regard, but there are degrees of uniqueness in how we may experience, think, construct afresh. I do think your final desire is fantastic and all power to you in doing your part to explore that. For me, at least, I have found it only possible in small group dynamics where it is not at all easy all the same. If anything, it brings up the question of to what degree it is necessary for indoctrination to take place for mass participation to take place in anything. The history of our species seems to suggest that mass scale participation ends up being problematic, as individuals are absorbed into being ideological subjects, and that well-trained individuals are the antidote to being captured by those movements.
      Therein lies the rub.
      Lots more that can and needs to be said but that’s all I can mange for now.
      Thanks as always.


      • Hi Matthew, please take your time. I think you will like the concept of heterarchy instead of hierarchy, this is close to what Daniel was describing. I don’t buy a higher order as “transcending and including” (which implies a hierarchy). For example, when I operate from order 3, I am not doing that from within order 4 consciousness, it is more like a dynamic hierarchy (i.e. heterarchy) and order 3 is running the show.

        I believe that Kegan does not see these orders of consciousness related to biology – he works in “constructivist developmental psychology” and “constructivist” is informed by similar lines of thought to social constructionism (except constructivism holds onto the individualism).

        If we make the leap of connecting Kegan’s order 3 with pre-modern subjects, this is not saying that pre-modern subjects do not have a concept of self, it is saying that the self at that order is a “socialized-self”. We see this in typical adolescents, they look after their own interests but they do this in line with social expectations. As you mention plenty of adults are navigating life from order 3. If we continue the analogy then order 4 aligns with a modern subject, for example people who are interested in “self development” – probably many of those attracted to buddhism. Clearly there were people in pre-modern times at order 4/5 but I would guess they were a much smaller fraction of the population than today.

        The idea of a passively formed subject makes no sense to me, at order 3 there is still an active ability, but regarding the self it will be a co-construction of a socialized self. There needs to be some level of transformation to start objectifying the self and embody self-authoring.

        One direction might think about relationalism from these different orders of consciousness (Kegan’s model – not a truth claim). It seems relationalism as we understand it requires order 5 consciousness to be embodied, but maybe there needs to be a different story for order 3 & 4. For example the stage 3 as “dependent self” and stage 4 as “interdependent self” then stage 5 as “non-self”

        Thanks for the chat.


  2. A great conversation… I have been meaning to delve a bit more into Hadot, Foucault, Sloterdijk on practice etc.

    One thought comes to mind that I just wanted to raise…

    Adam raised the point that philosophy is always already inherently a kind of practice, in that it involves certain modes of thinking, writing, engaging in dialogue which in come to form one as a subject at their relation to the world as such. A point that I entirely agree with and I think is vitally important to re-iterate in the context of Buddhist and ‘spiritual’ practice in the West, a milieu that is all too often aggressively anti-intellectual.

    It strikes me that this axiomatic delineation between theory & practice so to speak, that is taken as given in much of Western Buddhism and ‘spiritual practice’ betrays another basic assumption grounded in what we might refer to as a ‘naive’ understanding of phenomenology that common circulates in this context. This assumption is I think tied up with the notion that we can make a discrete delineation between ‘discursive’ (or ‘conceptual’ etc etc) and ‘immediate’ (‘sensory’ etc etc) experience. And as such, that we can have access to un-mediated experience of the world, and that such experience is intelligible to a ‘subject’ (that would of course themselves have to not be a subject of discourse so to speak).

    Phenomenology is (in its various forms) in a sense a mode of philosophical inquiry that gives emphasis to our being in the world, sense experience, and embodied and practical forms of knowledge etc etc, but it does not to my knowledge make the claim that we have access to a knowledge of the world as such in a un-mediated way as many of those that deploy the term in contemporary Buddhist contexts seem to think. Rather it employs a phenomenological method to try and “bracket” philosophical inquiry, in Husserlian terms, attempting to set aside assumptions and givens in order to attempt to focus on phenomenon present themselves in experience.

    Hegel’s proto-phenomenology of the Phenomology of Spirit comes to mind, where in his chapter on ‘sense-certainty’ he demonstrates how ‘sense certainty’ or what we may more commonly call sense experience “immediately appears as the richest kind of knowledge” yet ultimately through his phenomenological inquiry reveals “itself the most abstract and poorest truth” in that it requires mediation by ‘universals’ or concepts to be made intelligible on the most basic level (although using this term is somewhat problematic in ref to Hegel yet nevertheless). He employs the notions of ‘I,’ ‘now,’ and ‘here’ to demonstrate this:

    “He [Hegel] notices that all our thoughts about object in the world contain a reference to an ‘I’ which thinks, a ‘This’ which designates the thing being thought about, and a ‘Here’ and a ‘Now’ in which the ‘This’ is situated. So, for example, you (the ‘I’) might be thinking about a tree or a house or your wife (the particular ‘This’ in question). Regardless whether you were are thinking about the tree, the house, or the wife, your thought about ‘This’ has a ‘I-This-Here-Now’ structure.” – https://medium.com/@rgrydns/hegel-the-dialectic-of-sense-certainty-e717346cfed8

    This critique of contemporary Buddhist discourse is by no means new, having been raised in our online milieu by Glenn Wallis, parlêtre, and others. Robert Sharf’s essay the Rhetoric of Meditative experience which explores how metaphysical (the elaborate conceptual systems of the Abhidharma that underpin Vipassana and contemporary Insight meditation come to mind as explicit examples) models of experience are entirely entangled with meditative practice and experience.

    I think in a sense, if we are to talk about these notions of practice, practice as being productive of a certain kind of subject, in a way that doesn’t simply seek to reproduce “the good Buddhist subject” that ultimately these notions of un-mediated access to the the world/or the real, the possibility of a clear delineation between sense experience and discursive knowledge, and in turn that between theory and practice need to be critically rethought. Otherwise we will I think continue to see the slight of hand that Glenn Wallis have so dutifully and painstakingly flagged for us where ‘the real’ — as that which cannot be ultimately be subject to representation — is replaced with the ‘Buddhist real.’


    • Hi Richard,
      This enduring topic could well do with some advanced meditators involved and willing to grapple with the major themes you highlight in your comment. I obviously don’t have the answer on how to resolve this juxtaposition between the world as immediately and fully accessible through the senses (or consciousness), and the role of thought, concepts and the mediating principles of the intellect.
      I would like to see more realized practitioners leave behind their self-satisfying attainments, the maintenance of tradition through Decision and get into asking difficult and important questions like these as they have a perspective which should not be left out of the wider debate, though I suspect that Evan Thompson’s work on embodied consciousness might resolve much of the difficulty here. It’s not an either or situation, but rather a question of to what degree either is objectively true and experientially true, and what the consequences of viewing this dichotomy relationally might be on the debate and how we use its conclusions practically in terms of theory and practice.
      I can add my two cents to this as a thinking practitioner. Not being a philosopher myself or committed to any religious or spiritual perspective, I’ve taken a rather pragmatic approach to this dilemma, though I readily admit I may be performing my own slight-of-hand! If so, I would hope some kind soul will point it out.
      I see the two positions you lay out as conceptual ideals (and therefore absurdities); at one end we are utterly constructed through social formation (its language all the way down), and at the other end we are pure consciousness, hidden and obstructed by that same world of social construction (a play on the theme of a soul). It doesn’t take long to realize that both are silly, and this can occur from a phenomenological exploration too: More sophisticated interpretations of Buddhism usually acknowledge this. The problem, as far as I can tell, usually lies in the unquestioned assumption that either position is totally true and the sorts of operational manoeuvrers that arise as a consequence of uncritical commitment (perhaps definable as practically unconscious) to either position. This is where we have the old ideological formation take place in religious and spiritual groups and we all know by now just how many western Buddhist groups and practitioners are caught in the pure perception end of the debate.
      One of the reasons a full-on assault of anti-intellectualism in Buddhist circles was so necessary by the likes of Glenn and Tom was to upset the complacency with which so many Buddhists had absorbed New Age fantasies about a true self, hidden underneath layers of conditioning and bad parenting that just had to be discovered, and then released from thought, pain, trauma and conditioning (a fantasy I held for many years myself). BTW, this therapeutic turn in Buddhism could still do with further critique and analysis in my view; especially as it’s now part and parcel of the political sphere, activism, and so on. It would be fascinating to see a reconstruction of the therapeutic turn in western society more broadly, in particular the States and the UK where it’s strongest. Anyway, I digress.
      If we operate within the assumption that always and never are almost always wrong, then practice of the kind many of us enjoy or suffer through can become an exploration of the phenomenology of experiences that have the characteristics of being socially constructed or perceptually liberated. In this, I probably hew close to Daniel Ingram’s position. I won’t deny that my long-term commitments to practices have led to breakthroughs in which the discursive mind can rest with ease and there are easily sustained periods of little to no thought that Dan speaks of. Within such a perceptually rich space many things occur that are dramatically and viscerally different from the capture and self-absorbed psychological suffering that was once so normal. Some of the outcomes of my own practices have resonated with different Buddhist teachings, others not at all. I, like many who have undertaken serious commitment to long-term practices, would admit that the liberational change (in terms of felt quality) is an essential aspect of my life and has improved the quality of my day-to-day experience immeasurably. The more critical of us have to keep this in mind.
      There is a tangible experience of ongoing freedom for me which resonates with much of the hyperbole expressed in certain Buddhist traditions…but…and this is the crux…I have chosen very consciously to deny any special role to all of this, to cease to frame it within Buddhist teachings, or assume that the meaning assigned by spiritual folks is the final stop in a journey along the practicing life, or a sufficient means for unpacking the results of practice.
      I say all this not to out myself or make smug claims, but because we cannot indulge snobbery towards those who have radically improved the quality of their lives through following the dream of liberation from the discursive mind and our past conditioning. They are diners at the Great Feast after all and are resources in our continued attempts to make sense of how to live a good human life and that includes the need to address these debates.
      My operational assumption is that we need them to leave behind the stories that confirm their beliefs and keep them in Decision, however blissful it may be, so that they may mature intellectually (and in many cases emotionally) and contribute more than the mere reification of attainments, and goals.
      One reason I almost never mention my own “attainments” is because they almost always end up as a conversation stopper, or a call to self-congratulatory-ness. I have also found that deep states of meditation give rise to my most creative and critical thinking and a lot of humour, so rather than say there is some kind of immediate access to unadultered perception, I would want to explore the relationship between clearer perception, the training and development of emotionally liberated embodied consciousness and creative thought and the harnessing and refinement of each alongside an intellectual and critical engagement with whatever is pressing. We of course have to acknowledge that not everyone has this inclination or is intellectually equipped, but considering the demographic of western Buddhism, there has to be enough well-educated folks who could be employed in this kind of undertaking, many of whom are still caught in the therapeutic end of Buddhist modernism.
      Anyway, all this is to say that I think the dichotomy you bring up is an obstacle to more interesting exploration, debate and practice that might ensue from an acceptance that neither extreme is correct and the enrolment of holders of either view in hanging out and practicing and thinking together. There you go; I ended with a nice utopian dream.
      Thanks for commenting as always Richard and for supporting the podcast.


  3. Thanks for the response Matthew.

    I suppose in a sense I agree with your position (I think), in that for me it is not a question of either/or but that simply all experience that is intelligible as such, and hence communicable is mediated which is not of course to say that it is entirely constructed (or entirely given).

    I think in a sense that acknowledging this — that we can through in contemplative practice attempt to bracket our perceptions, but that at the same time the phenomenon of experience are are always mediated through concepts and practices that are themselves socio-historically situated, and that we have cannot have access a pure exterior or transcendental subject position (apart from Ken Wilbers obviously) that is unmediated. Acknowledging this epistemological limit only seeks to make our practice more rigorous and self-reflexive. More able to stave off or suspend the decision as you put it.

    In this sense I think in part we need to explore how we can incorporate this limit or regress into how we think about practice and construct or models of it as it were, something which I think you can see in some traditions such as Zen, or some of the via negativa apparent in the rhetoric of passages of the Pali Canon, aspects of Christian theology, and for that matter figures such as Derrida who came up in passing in your discussion.


    • I’m trying to follow along, both of you seem to be pointing to decision as something that can be avoided. My understanding is that you can’t avoid it. For example, the two extremes that Matthew points out each have a prior decision. We can’t suspend the decision as that would require a perspective from nowhere. If there are two incommensurable views then you can alternate between them (a sort of schizophrenia) or you have some other decision. Perhaps it is only someone else who can point out our own prior decision.

      It might be helpful to highlight that social constructionism when defending “language all the way down” does not make a foundational claim. It is closer to pragmatism where the concept of “language all the way down” can help make generative moves and is also inappropriate in many circumstances. It would be incorrect to see social constructionism as the same thing as social conditioning, because social constructionism unsettles the duality individual/social and favors a relational process view. One of the hopes of social constructionism is to dig up the “root” of western individualism by trying to avoid Cartesianism. You could for example use social constructionism to identify a decision like individual/social and explore alternatives.


  4. Mark,

    I was in effect arguing that this either/or distinction that seems common in Western Buddhist (and ‘spiritual’ circles)… between a kind of caricature of a ‘hard’ social constructionist position and a kind of naive phenomenology is in fact a false one, both in terms of these specific theoretical and philosophical discourses (as far as I am familiar with them) and in terms of being philosophically incoherent positions.

    Possibly my use of the term decision was imprecise (I have not read Laurelle in years), in that passage I was simply trying to be charitable to the notion that in contemplative practice we may be able to ‘bracket’ off our conceptual understanding on some level, but that ultimately this is only at best a temporary and conditional suspension there of. In a sense it is impossibly to know the world, things in themselves, the real etc etc, without mediation by language and concepts, as even the most basic distinctions require a whole series of postulates, hence the Hegel reference in my initial post.

    I agree with you that: “the concept of “language all the way down” can help make generative moves and is also inappropriate in many circumstances.” And in a sense this is the core of what I am arguing here.

    The point you raise between social constructionism and social conditioning is an important one, and I think in this regard social constructionism is a useful heuristic tool for thinking about notions of subject formation, or I-making etc, in Buddhism, especially in the context of Mahayana thought.


    • We are singing from the same hymn sheet it seems. Social constructionism (SC) points to a constructed-self which seems close to non-self in some ways. The relational process view in SC can question the individual/social distinction, which makes one responsible for social processes that may not be consciously experienced. The western buddhist community seems to prioritize conscious experience to a point of delusion. This is amazingly disappointing!


      • I think this is a really interesting point, and a important one for how we think about practice, the way that these the individual and the social and the conscious and unconscious are entangled.

        As a disclaimer this line of thought, is really only thought out in very rudimentary terms, but the point you make lead onto it for me… As someone with a strong interest in Marx, and psychoanalysis, it strikes me as important to acknowledge that the ‘subject’ is a product of both ‘material conditions’ and psycho-social-linguistic relations etc. It strikes me that we, the Western Buddhist practitioner, often tend to hold fast to the prevailing Western notion of the subject, the Cartesian ego, and the subject of liberal humanism etc etc, and conceptions of agency (notions of free will etc), that I sometimes wonder over emphasize this notion of the subject as conscious agent. This Western notion of the self, seems to be held to on one hand, while employing notions of no-self (itself a concept that has its origins in a critique of a different conception of the subject – atman/anatman etc).

        It strikes me that much of Buddhist literature seems to suggest a fairly different conception of the subject and agency, from notions of the skandhas, to Mahayanist conceptions of dependent origination, to karma, the storehouse consciousness of the Yogacara etc. It strikes me that there are various ‘tensions’ at play here that can be productively explored.

        Out of interest when you use the term process-relational are you using it in general terms, or are you referring to specific thinkers, such as say Alfred North Whitehead?


  5. Perhaps in a move similar to Adam’s idea of thinking through post-structuralism (rather than against those ideas) I am trying to privilege a non-foundational stance. From here Whitehead can provide an insightful framework but I’m put off by the “theory of everything” aspect. Deleuze seems more useful for me, but I’m also on board with buddhist concepts of co-dependent arising, and the sophists help. So it is more a general preference of a process view over an essentialist view and then a preference for coherent incomplete theory over incoherent “theories of everything”.

    I agree there is a tension between essentialist modern perspectives (agency and freewill are assumed) and relationalist transpersonal perspectives. The self/ego can be seen as the prison guard enforcing social behavior and in that regard I’m glad everyone has one 🙂 There is good reason to worry about undoing some of these ideas. Freewill is the underpinning of liberalism and liberalism is the underpinning of democracy. Marxist deconstruction of the subject has led to things that are not supportive of democracy, and that seems to lead to concentrations of power that are arguably worse than the concentrations of power in capitalism (destroying the planet might yet put capitalism ahead!).

    I’m interested in what happens if we uproot western essentialism and take relationalism seriously. Freewill as in “independent mind” goes out the window, as do hierarchical social theories like Marxism. I don’t think this needs to lose the concept of agency, but agency emerges from relations rather than prior to relations. So for example, the uniqueness of every agent is valuable to society because it allows for generative moves, and conscious experience is valuable because suffering is not desirable. From this perspective there is still a self, but the self is a history of relations, because the self is not independent we can take control of your body in the interests of social relationships (e.g. taking a murderer off the streets), but if we do that then that history of relations needs to bear responsibility (e.g. changing how we construct selves).

    Perhaps the conception of relationalism needs to adopt a staged model, so we construct a dependent self to begin with, and when that self becomes reliable it can transform toward an interdependent self that allow for self-development, and when that self has developed practises that sustain the construction of healthy others, then it can transform toward non-self where ego is deconstructed and transpersonal practises pursued. A problem with this view is that it does not support equality. We have this built into democracy to some extent today, whereby someone under the age of 18 cannot participate in the democratic process. If the idea of a transpersonal transformation is valued and those people represent a minority of the adult population, then their ideas/concepts cannot be communicated to the majority of the population, so you can’t get democratic support for ideas justified in transpersonal practises. This is all going in a nasty direction…but cultures that respect elders above others are perhaps onto something.

    I find the idea of no-self very strange, I understand it as a misunderstanding of “no independent self”.


  6. Mark,

    We are probably getting a bit too into the weeds here… I will put some of my aside in a post-script below and focus on the notion of no-self, where I think we can continue to have a more productive discussion.

    I think, as you flag, there is a often a basic mis-reading going on with ‘no-self’ in many Western Buddhist circles, which is tied up with two things to my reading…

    1) A somewhat unclear conception of the self, which rest of a variety of popular conceptions of subjectivity and the self, from the individual of liberal humanism, and the Cartesian ego, as we have mentioned, to rather diffuse or opaque new age notions of ‘the ego’ (I am not sure of the genealogy of the new age notion of ‘the ego’? I imagine it might have its origins in a reading of Jung or some such).

    2) A similarly imprecise notion of the critiques of atman (anatman) and svabhāva in early Buddhism, and Mahayana (notably Nagarjuna etc), which are responding to quiet specific conceptions of self-identity and essence and the like within a India cultural, religious, and philosophical context.

    These two issues are entangled in a way that I think sees this notion deployed in a often problematic way.


    I would agree regarding Whitehead’s tendency toward totality, and I will admit to being a former and re-formed Deleuzian. Although I still can’t quite disentangle myself from many of his concepts.

    I wonder if you have read Marx himself? Your reading of him here seems fairly questionable, although charitably I may concede that your statements are apt only in so far if we are speaking of vulgar Marxism. Nevertheless, in itself, his philosophy is far more sophisticated & nuanced — and very much not an essentialist one — than a “hierarchical social theory.” Lets not get into counting the bodies of liberal-capitalism vs communism/s haha.



  7. Hi Richard,

    I do appreciate many ideas from Marx, certainly a brilliant thinker with a huge influence in sociology, I’ve been interested in the sociology of knowledge where Mannheim credits Marx. I would not claim to have a good understanding of Marx, I’m aware that what Marx wrote and what Marx gets blamed for are very different. I like the idea of “theory is what theory does” so I am probably more negative because of that. The hierarchy I had in mind is a very simplistic way of seeing Marx as reaction to Hegel. I suspect that a concept like heterachy could have been useful for Marx, but you might educate me on that. I don’t identify myself as anti-marxist, I particularly like “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness” which I read as a precursor to social constructionism.

    Regarding non-self, I found Tom Pepper’s essay “Taking Anatman Full Strength” particularly compelling and I will quote form it here, maybe we can riff on that:

    “If anatman meant only that this socially-constructed self was an illusion, and that any socially-constructed self inherently suffers, then the most logical next step would be to kill ourselves immediately. However, since anatman means that there is no transcendent soul, self, or consciousness of any kind, but only this socially-constructed self exists, the obvious response, the only response that makes sense, is social action. We cannot improve the self without improving the collective symbolic/imaginary system of which it is a part. To attempt this is as futile as expecting a particular radio station to play a different song on my radio than it plays on everyone else’s.”

    Matthew will say I am harping on about this, but I am just a disciple of Tom’s 🙂 I say that because I know just how angry it would make Tom 🙂

    PS I tried posting to your blog, but the post seemed to disappear, I also made a remark about the link related to your initials in WordPress commends being incorrect. Not sure what happened, maybe the post was lost or moderated?


    • Hello chaps,

      The conversation may have gone cold for the two of you, but I wanted to throw in my two cents for whatever they’re worth and as a sign of common courtesy. I reread some of the content of your replies the other morning in an emergency meeting at work due to the ongoing drama of the Corona Virus here in Italy. The situation is dramatic, with the economy being impacted most heavily and with the worst to come: Recession is pretty much guaranteed at this point, not just here in Italy either… What exciting and wonderous times we live in though; Umberto Ecco’s concept of hyper-reality seems more apt than ever in describing our age with News coverage of events here veering extremely close to a reality TV series.

      Anyway, there are some threads in both your comments that I continue to be fascinated by, perhaps because they are so tricky to resolve. They may even be irresolvable, though I suspect the problem lies with us and our insistence on wanting to resolve or find final answers to problems or challenges that we would be better off facing with heuristic tools. As always, I feel like repeating that I have no technical or academic training in any of this and am also poorly read, so my way of thinking about what are often extremely complex theories is rather crude. It also seems to me that these themes raised by the two of view of you quickly lead off into multiple concerns and wider themes and that it can be difficult to usefully orientate the exchange. For this reason my own thoughts below may be a bit random.

      “the phenomen(-a)on of experience are always mediated through concepts and practices that are themselves socio-historically situated…”

      I find this interesting because it leads to an additional set of questions for me, such as, where do these concepts exist, how are they maintained, how do they act on the individual mind, and so forth. Are we not merely shifting the self-existence of an individual to ideas and concepts if we insist they are always and forever operational? I also find the exclusion of our biological and evolutionary make up in terms of selfhood and experience to be problematic, and am not sure if your comment does that. If language is inherently metaphorical, then I find myself desiring a set of metaphors that mirror a rain forest jungle or coral reef, where everything is intimately woven into everything else, yet colours, shapes, forms and movements are distinct and unique. My working heuristic is that of paradox; existence and co-existence do not exclude each other, but are the conditions that allow for the other to occur. So when we start talking of ideology, selfhood, the individual, the subject, socially constructed, I find myself viewing each as a species of plant on the forest floor or seas bed, in a sea of forms we are incapable of consciously engaging with all at once. Our selectivity is thus a practice and we would be wise to remind ourselves of this. It appears to me that in your exchange, the dichotomy, the dialectic, the split, that non-philosophy (and then non-buddhism) seeks to avoid is very much present. My attempt at a non- position is to view these splits as partners in a richer space of events and forms. The split itself is a heuristic or practice and gives rise to certain experiences, possibilities of thought and perception. This is fine within a movement of relating splits to others splits at the Great Feast, but not if they become tired attempts to demarcate the space or the ground of practice.

      On another note, it could be argued that a good deal of non-symbolic behaviour and experience is not transcendent from a materially situated mind but is rather animal-like; it both emerges from the environment and is distinct from it. And that there can be a sort of, excuse the oxymoron, transcendent descent into primal states of being, experiencing, acting, socialising, though not as anything permanent; in the shamanic realms this can be experienced as merging mind with the natural environment, meeting the spirit of the jungle, or becoming ‘one’ with it, temporarily. I additionally think it’s difficult to simply categorise the claims made by seasoned or supposedly awakened practitioners as socially formed, which appears to imply a separate sphere of practice apart from the carnal, body and animal aspect of humanity; like it exists in the imagination or discourse and accompanying matrices of social games. These grosser, more carnal states are teased out or socially permitted through religious ceremonies on occasion, the Dionysian moment, for example, the cultivation of sexual ecstasy, the intimate embrace, erotic rapture, combat and martial arts.

      Perhaps these are a sort of pre-linguistic, pre-conceptual consequence of our being embedded in physical environments where primal drives are the raw materials of being animal-human. Or there is a pre-linguistic, infantile range of conscious states that can be accessed, trained, integrated, or whatever and that, as some more cynical commentators have observed, might easily describe the general mental states of gurus and yoginis alike! The role of the social becomes more evident when these are valorised, given meaning, situated within traditions. I would argue that they are not socially, historically constructed but the language around them is, the concepts used to give meaning to them is, the stories told about them are, and that the practices designed to access them, know them, etc, are. States of heightened, attuned, conscious awareness might in the end be very similar to the silence of a jaguar poised to strike its prey, or a common crow basking in the warmth of the sun; nothing so special, but free of self-referential, internal chatter and utterly immersed in the flow of the present.

      Rather than be universally merged states of higher consciousness, or signs of some ecstatic liberation into a realm of divine consciousness or whatnot, they might be pre/post-symbolic states of awareness that are child-like, or animal-like, merging with the immediate environment. Rather than then describe them as transcendent to some realm of consciousness apart, they are merely the resources and potentials of consciousness that we have available and then inevitably interpret or situate within social realms of meaning-making.

      That speculation aside, I agree wholeheartedly that those who ‘know’ are compelled to include the observations made at the Great Feast and the consequences of the critique to be heard there of existing theories, suppositions, etc. On this front, Glenn has been spot on in identifying a trend in Western Buddhism of Western Buddhists failing to take Buddhist concepts at their word, choosing instead to fill them with transcendental, new-age desires. Richard is clearly making a similar claim to this end in the comments about self/non-self and so on. The exchange about self and Buddhism is the most interesting material in the contributions for me.
      (There’s a good podcast conversation there Richard if you find the courage to come on…)
      As for Decision, my simplification of the term is that it is a form of commitment that accompanies identification with an ideological form, or theoretical position. Since we develop different degrees of this throughout our lives, many of us maturing and changing our allegiances at different stages, it is not a given that decision is always in operation. From a relational stance, decision is expressed in degrees. The fact that you can choose to not identify, can become disenchanted and reject commitments and can cease to be caught by the decisional apparatus would all imply that Decision is not inevitable, or not non-negotiable. This applies equally to ideology in my view. Demarcating the boundaries is the problem. The real issue is the relational shifts that occur through a lived human life and what kind of knowledge and skill can allow for the movement in and out of different ideological forms and permit the contribution to making a given ideology more effective, functional and so on. Perhaps this is merely the product of a globalised world and culture. It’s not to say there are no limits, but rather the fluidity and flexibility both provided and demanded of each of us in a globalised world provides us with greater room to move. The consequences though of this room for movement have yet to be grasped in anything but a partial gesture.

      “The western Buddhist community seems to prioritize conscious experience to a point of delusion.”

      I agree. This is a fascinating point of departure. Though I have a slight allergy for bold, assertive claims when approaching immensely complex topics and ‘subject’ and ‘consciousness’ are two just such topics. Within a heuristic approach I find it far more productive to state; What we know so far at the Great feast is that material conditions along with psycho-social-linguistic relations are unavoidable elements within the formation of selfhood, identity, and subjective experience. To leave these out of a conception of practice, is to deny a great deal of what we now understand about what it means to be a conscious human being. That said, I agree with both your points about the over-prioritisation of individual, conscious experience, but I would never wish to merely replace that with another game; collectivist, or otherwise. I also don’t think we can truly uproot, and discard ‘western essentialism’ but rather we can include it, relationally, as a heuristic itself, or an element within a multi-variant heuristic that could be used in phenomenological practices, by individuals and/groups. There is such thing as individual consciousness after all, and it can be experienced as separate from the world, whether it actually is or isn’t, is in part besides the point. I am also cautious about stating that it is ‘western’ though have no issue with essentialism emerging as a discreet conceptual form within the history of western thought. I think we’re pretty bad at demarcating boundaries and often assume too much about what is western, American, Chinese, or whatever. The jungle metaphor would suggest there is immense overlap and simultaneous emergence.

      As for agency, again, it’s such a complex topic, to dismiss it or discard it or even label so easily seems to be mistaken. The issue always seems to be the essentialising of a thing or its demarcation from the world or other spheres of activity. Agency is not an absolute, neither is relationality, they are characteristics of the wealth of human experience. In the search for knowledge we always end up making these splits, which automatically place us in selective positional stances when the world is far more complex. The Great Feast may kindly remind us of the fact that there are always more theories, ways of looking, experiencing, interacting, meaning making and so on and that whatever catches our attention is a way station on an impossible journey. Relationality has to co-exist with dualism, or rather, the capacity to move in and out of relationship gives rise to awareness of the dynamism of this apparent dichotomy.

      I agree with the point about no-independent self. It makes sense when it’s understood that there is no self apart from the world i.e. no soul, but it is dumb to go round imagining we get rid of something within us called a self if we meditate hard enough just like those guru folks over there. Richard’s points are spot on and many contemporary Buddhists would do well to consider the consequences of a critique of atman today at the Great Feast, rather than merely inherit a culturally situated discourse from hundreds of years ago.

      Richard – What does a former and reformed Deleuzian look like?

      I’d be happy to talk more about vulgar Marxism versus….’true’ Marxism…’accurate’ Marxism…’authentic’ Marxism, I think Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek touched on this dilemma in their ‘debate’ yet missed an important and somewhat obvious point. It’s a point that applies to discussions around post-modernity too, and even now we see purists arguing over who gets to define and own metamodernism. How silly we are.

      Mark. You know I love that Pepper essay too. It should be required reading for any serious western Buddhist, so preach away, harp on, sing its praises all you like, I do the same at times. It challenged me deeply when I first read it and made me deeply uncomfortable. It also helped me along in the disenchantment process for which I am extremely grateful.


  8. Hey Matthew, there are lots of directions you’ve taken the conversation. It would be an even longer answer to pursue them all, so I will try to be selective. Are you in the quarantine zone of Italy?

    I’m not sure why the conversation went “cold”, I would be more interested in that than in the conversation itself, maybe you have an idea ? I was making an effort to be polite, I am perhaps in a zone of unconscious incompetence 🙂

    I doubt either Richard or I are looking for definitive answers. Within the bounds of a conversation there should be mutually accepted “decision points” or there is no possibility of understanding, I don’t think that implies a commitment to those decisions. For example I tried to remove pro/anti-marxist as a decision point, but I was happy to leave in social constructionism as an agreed assumption. This is not to say that social constructionism is a fundamental decision that I am committed to all the time. An important point, that I think Glenn makes: decision points are unavoidable. Writers like Deleuze and Derrida seem to integrate that insight. The critique of decision points is insightful for foundational and universal frameworks (it destabilizes them), but it is of less relevance for a framework that avoids those claims (e.g. some styles of social constructionism).

    Your “heuristics” will have decision points (perhaps unarticulated decision points), there is always a potential to point out the other’s decision points. I see the value of that if the other is not aware of that dynamic. There is a possibility that this gets abused as a way of trying to “one up” the other, I think we saw this going on quite a bit at SNB.

    I believe the metaphor you are looking for is the concept of heterarchy (the rhizome in Deleuze).

    I don’t think Richard or I are excluding material considerations (e.g. biology) or immaterial considerations (e.g. mind, spirit). A potential in social constructionism (as Pepper uses it) is to avoid making concepts like material, spiritual, mind fundamental i.e. to avoid those decision points. This does not mean the distinction has to be lost, so talking about body/mind/spirit can still happen, but the decision point of social constructionism is taken as fundamental (in the context of that discussion). For example, this could allow us to see how the decision point of mind/body impacts worldview. This can be a destabilizing exercise, if one is not chasing after “the Truth” then it is a lot easier.

    From what I see you are attempting to create a “non-space” which I don’t think is possible, as soon as you start communicating (with yourself or others) there will be assumed decisions. For example the idea of “choosing not to identify” reflects something more fundamental than identity which is assumed. We probably want to avoid ego running the show, I suspect this is the concern with identification. From Pepper’s perspective the self will be constructed, so others will give us an identity, denying that identity would be delusional, but defending that identity as inherently true would also be delusional (from Pepper’s perspective).

    I don’t think decision needs to be articulated, so it is not necessarily associated with a specific ideology or theory. We can construct theories/ideologies after the fact. Social constructionism is not implying that theory constructs reality, it is implying that theory is socially constructed. Recent social constructionism will tend to take human relationships as fundamental (that is a decision point). So language is constructed from relationship etc. Then it tends to mix this with practice theory, so meaning is associated with practices e.g. love is a practice not a statement. This might be a way of bringing the material concerns you raise into the picture and grounds language in practice rather than theory.

    The goal I have in mind when “uprooting” decisions like essentialism is not to “discard” the concept but to shift it from a dialectic (dualism) to a distinction. So rather than assuming individual consciousness as fundamental, we might think of extended mind as fundamental, this does not stop us using a distinction like “individual mind”. In a similar way we can refer to “collective consciousness” when holding onto a fundamental conception of individual consciousness. A more radical move is to uproot “mind” and use a different decision point, this is often a goal in contemporary philosophy (to avoid cartesianism). Social constructionism is trying to play that game of avoiding the mind/body decision point (which does not mean we need to lose the distinction).

    My style is too direct in most situations, if you assume I have a non-foundational stance then the unqualified statements (e.g. X = Y, rather than, when A and if B sometimes X equals Y with C or D) are just shortcuts because I am too lazy to qualify everything and I believe that we can’t fully qualify things (a la Derrida and deconstruction).

    Good luck and take care!


  9. This is a wonderfully lucid response to rambling comment Mark. I shall give it some thought and respond due course. All this niceness and politeness would no doubt irritate the hell out of Tom, and possibly Glenn too, but I rather like it.


  10. Hi Matthew, how are things going? The latest podcast episode is great, your skill in producing these keeps improving, it is very impressive. That episode, like many others, deserves to have more discussion, but I don’t want to “take over” the comment space on that episode too. I do want to thank you and encourage you. France seems to be tracking a similar trajectory to Italy in COVID19 cases, it is hard to find any information about when the number of new cases per day is projected to slow down in Italy. I hope you will have some good news to share.


    • Hi Mark,
      You’re comment finds me in front of my computer, so I’ll respond straight away. Very busy here; home working for all three of us, carving out work spaces so we don’t start to wind each other up!
      Thanks for your kind words regarding the latest podcast episode. I think it may have been too dense with information, but I did enjoy putting together. As always, I never know whether it’s worth it so focus on making it an art project of sorts, so that it has that feel of a creative outlet and is thus worth my time, whatever reaction or non-reaction I get.
      As for commenting, I get quite a bit of feedback, but most of it through private messaging or email: folks are really funny about posting or making decent comments in public. You can do as you please is really my response. If you want to comment, do so. You’re the main one doing so here at the site anyway.
      I will comment on comments eventually….I just seem to have gone through an enormous internal change that is bringing me into alignment with the corona situation and quarantine and away, temporarily, from intellectual pursuits. I can’t even manage one of my favourite podcasts…only music.

      Coronatime: the experts there predict one or two weeks in Italy but there’s the usual problem of a lack of Italian discipline. The famous menefreghismo i.e. an attitude of not giving a shit. It’s meant some delay in the efficacy of the latest measures. Things are improving though and the military has now taken a role in fining people for transgressing the quarantine code.


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