Hume Hearts Buddha, Picasso, And Einstein–But Not Nazis, Aquinas, Or Monotheism

Hume hearts Buddha. In Hume Studies (Volume 35, Number 1&2, 2009, pp. 5–28), Alison Gopnik has a fascinating essay–“Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?”–in which she writes the following:

Hume’s argument in the Treatise, like Nagasena’s “chariot” argument, points to the fact that there is no evidence for a self beyond a collection of particular psychological parts.

In other words, Gopnik is saying that, just as Nagasena, the Kashmir Buddhist sage from 150 BCE, noticed that a chariot dissolves into parts under close inspection–into wheels, a carriage, etc.–so Hume, in his Treatise, on looking into his own self, discovered no evidence of anything permanent or substantial, but rather noticed that the self too is something that actually dissolves into parts under close inspection.

Hume gives a dharma talk. Put another way, for Hume, as for the Buddha, there is no essential and independent self apart from the rest of “the music of what happens” (a phrase from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Song”). That is, the self is emergent, as a mirage of water is emergent from sun-baked asphalt. To get the mirage, you need its confluence of conditions–and these, like a mirage, are aflame; the mirage is ever-shifting with conditions. “Oh bikkhus,” said the Buddha, “the world is on fire!”–and Hume would agree.

So a Buddhist might put Hume’s position this way: No flower in the flower. No chariot in the chariot. No self in the self. If you’re dwelling in ignorance (avidya), you’ve mistaken the self that is non-dual, empty, impersonal, contingent, impermanent, and interdependent for something dual, essential, personal, permanent, disconnected. You’ve mistaken a rope for a snake; a composite chariot for a simple, self-existent, and self-same chariot. You’re under the spell of one side of a figure-ground illusion.

So here’s Gopnik quoting Hume sounding for all the world like he’s giving a dharma talk:

There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self….For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist…I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement (T 1.6.4, 1–4; SBN 251–53).

Hume’s insight here marks a break with traditional western monotheism, with its notions of immortality and a self that is simple and not consisting of parts. But if Hume’s view of the self is a break with the dominant classical and medieval philosophical threads of the western past, it also anticipates the innovations in art and physics that came out of western culture in the early 20th century–most directly represented by Picasso and Einstein.

Hume hearts Picasso and Einstein. Like Hume, Picasso discerned that when we really linger with a thing, it quickly unravels into parts; into things we zoom-in on and give weight to, making them important–even distorting their objective relation, out-sizing them to match thoughts, desires, and aversions. And in art, Picasso saw that he could then juxtapose these heavy and lingering blocks of attention in novel configurations, generating a surprising and fresh way to represent things. Against mere objective mimesis (imitation) in art–the best picture looks like a photograph–Picasso juxtaposed the broken image; fragmentation. He returned the subject to art; the wayward, surprising, and ever shifting attention of the individual awareness to art. The subject perspective, for Picasso, was not marginal to the truth, but intertwined with it. Likewise, Einstein also discerned a shifting relativity to perception, conceptualizing space and time from the vantage of the ever shifting subject. As George Johnson, in a book review for The New York Times puts it:

From our blinkered perspective we see qualities called space and time. But in relativity theory, the two can be combined mathematically into something more fundamental: a four ­dimensional abstraction called the space­-time interval. Time and space vary according to the motion of the observer. But from any vantage point, an object’s space­-time interval would be the same — the higher truth that can be approached only from different angles.

Einstein’s insight here is in stark contrast with essentialists like the Nazis. Here’s Johnson again:

It’s no wonder Nazis hated relativity. They lived in a world of absolutes. There was a master race with one true religion and one true language, with a music and literature that celebrated its glory. There was a true German empire, sliced up by the arbitrary boundaries of concoctions called nation­-states. With absolute might the Fatherland would regain its proper position in space and time.

Now comes this Einstein. Without even the benefit of a proper German education, he was fiddling with numbers and symbols and through some kabbalistic magic conjuring a universe in which it was impossible to say where you were. You could only describe your position in relationship to something else — which could only describe its position in relationship to you.

In Einstein’s cockeyed scheme you couldn’t even say with authority what time it was. Again, your time was relative to their time and their time was relative to yours. This was from his Special Theory of Relativity. The sequel, General Relativity, was even weirder. Gravity is the curvature of some four-dimensional mind stuff called space-­time. It was a trick of the Elders of Zion, some philosophical disease. “Scientific Dadaism,” a prominent German scientist called it.

Einstein hearts Hume–as do professional contemporary philosophers. In his A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes that “Albert Einstein admitted that he could not have the gumption to oppose Newton’s immortal status without reading Hume,” and in polls of professional contemporary philosophers, Hume always manages to be at the top–or near the top–of lists of favorite and important philosophers.

So if Hume seems to reach back to Buddhism, as Alison Gopnik claims, he also reaches forward to modern art, physics, and culture. Were Hume our contemporary, it’s not difficult imagining him delighting in what the scientific, philosophical, and art worlds have become. And were you to meet him, you might have found yourself sitting next to his large and robust frame at a meditation class–though maybe not a yoga class!

But however he took his exercises, I think Hume would be gratified to discover that he and Buddhism appear to have won the future over Aquinas, the Nazis, and monotheism.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Hume Hearts Buddha, Picasso, And Einstein–But Not Nazis, Aquinas, Or Monotheism

  1. colinhutton says:

    Thought provoking post. Thanks.

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