This essay highlights Ben-Ami Scharfstein’s major philosophical projects: first, philosophizing that includes nonwestern philosophies, especially Chinese and Indian, and that creates a dialogue between philosophers and philosophical traditions without prioritizing any of them, and without taking western philosophy as the point of departure. Second, a similar, inclusive move in the field of art, art without borders if you wish. Here the inclusivity applies not just to east and west, north and south, but even to animal-made art. Just as he (...) wrote about philosophy in China and India, attempting to say something broader about humanity and humanism, so too does Scharfstein’s argument about animals and art have far-reaching implications, above and beyond the question of the demarcation of art. He aims to tell us something about the human-animal relationship, about lack of solidarity between fellow inhabitants of planet earth, not just humans, and about cruelty and exploitation and blindness to the other, whichever other. And finally, I touch on Scharfstein’s work The Philosophers, beautifully translated into Hebrew as Philosophers as Human Beings, where “he dares to imply that philosophizing is in fact a sublimated expression of the unconscious,” as Yoav Ariel—sinologist and much more—puts it. Such a move, Ariel continues to argue, “dethrones philosophy of its unique position of honor and supremacy, and disperses the atmosphere of conceptual terror that philosophy created generation after generation.”. (shrink)
Breaks through the cultural barriers between Western, Indian, and Chinese philosophy and demonstrates that despite considerable differences between these three great philosophical traditions, there are fundamental resemblances in their abstract principles.
In The Dilemma of Context, Scharfstein contends that the problems encountered with context are insoluble. He explains why this problem lays an intellectual burden on us that, while remaining inescapable,can become so heavy it destroys the understandingit was created to further.
What if Immanuel Kant floated down from his transcendental heights, straight through Alice’s rabbit hole, and into the fabulous world of Lewis Carroll? For Ben-Ami Scharfstein this is a wonderfully instructive scenario and the perfect way to begin this wide-ranging collection of decades of startlingly synthesized thought. Combining a deep knowledge of psychology, cultural anthropology, art history, and the history of religions—not to mention philosophy—he demonstrates again and again the unpredictability of writing and thought and how they can teach (...) us about our experiences. Scharfstein begins with essays on the nature of philosophy itself, moving from an autobiographical account of the trials of being a comparativist to philosophy’s function in the outside world to the fear of death in Kant and Hume. From there he explores an impressive array of art: from China and Japan to India and the West; from an essay on sadistic and masochistic body art to one on the epistemology of the deaf and the blind. He then returns to philosophy, writing on Machiavelli and political ruthlessness, then on the ineffable, and closes with a review of Walter Kaufmann’s multivolume look at the essence of humanity, _Discovering the Mind_. Altogether, these essays are a testament to adventurous thought, the kind that leaps to the furthest reaches of the possible. (shrink)
An introduction to comparative philosophy relates European and Oriental philosophies and brings to light such aspects of Eastern philosophy as intellectuality, reasoning, and logical analysis usually associated with Western thought.
Scharfstein describes the extraordinary powers that have been attributed to language everywhere, and then looks at ineffability as it has appeared in the thought of the great philosophical cultures: India, China, Japan, and the West. He argues that there is something of our prosaic, everyday difficulty with words in the ineffable reality of the philosophers and theologians, just as there is something unformulable, and finally mysterious in the prosaic, everyday successes and failures of words.
Sometimes our thought is transparently clear. It is as if we were looking through a window whose clarity was an invitation for the world to come in. The pleasure we take in thinking transparent thoughts is like that we take in the unimpeded use of any ability; but such transparency is unique in that it suggests easy communication with oneself and others, the ability to nullify problems by seeing through them, and a clean, physically effortless mastery of life.
After exploring the theory and practice of politics in ancient China, ancient India, and modern Europe, Scharfstein argues that the justification for deception and force is inseparable from political life and assesses the chances for a better political future.
Western philosophers still tend to think that philosophy, in a sense that they can take with professional interest, does not exist in non-Western traditions. To persuade them otherwise would require them to make an effort that they prefer to evade. I attempt to begin to persuade them by closely paraphrasing a few arguments by the early Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu and a few by the Indian skeptic and mystic Shriharsha. One of Chuang Tzu's arguments has some resemblance to Plato's Third-Man (...) argument, another with the impossibility of distinguishing between waking reality and dream, and a third with the impossibility of objective victories in debates. The skeptic Shriharsha, in a way that can be taken to parallel Wittgenstein's attack on conventional philosophy, shows that philosophical definitions cannot be rigorous enough to fulfill the task that philosophers set for them. The rest of this paper is devoted to the problem of commensurability. I contend that philosophies are either commensurable or incommensurable depending on the light in which one prefers to see them. Each way of seeing them involves a loss of a possibility that may be considered precious, but the Westerner who continues to insist on the full incommensurability of non-Western philosophies with his or her own is losing a great deal that might be intellectually helpful. (shrink)