Methods of Marx, Kant and Buddha
Text of the speech given by Dr. Vickramabahu Karunarathne
at seminar room, Faculty of Arts, Peradeniya University on June 26, 2003,
Published on Lanka Daily News, Aug 9, 2003
I have been asked to compare and contrast the methods of understanding reality as given by these great thinkers. What do we mean by the methods of understanding reality? It could mean a technique or instrument that can be used to investigate and search. On the other hand it could mean an ability or a principle working within the human mind that enables us to understand reality.
These are two ways of looking at the same problem. Let me start from Marx. He has explained that there are two ways of looking at reality. Firstly we have the common understanding of reality. Common sense is the starting point of human understanding. We all agree that we have a common sense of our surrounding.
This is an unconscious agreement. For example we agree that we are participating in a seminar in this room. This is a three dimensional room with a length, a breadth and a height. There are windows, tables, chairs and other things. These are separate and distinct things. Also we have a common sense of time. We get this flow of time from the change from day to night, and also from different seasons. These act as natural clocks to give us a sense of time. We are sure about ordinary things. we agreed to meet here today and we met. We are most certain that this meeting will be over within few hours and already we have planned what to do next.
Common sense understanding begins with separation of things. We categorise the world into different things. We give identities to each physical entity and even things we imagine. Separate discrete, distinct, finite things. This is how we see the world in our common sense. We use the law of identity all the time to separate one from the other. We can identify when a thing appears for the second times.
In our eternal sense of time we expect a thing to be the same. So there is a certain sense of permanency in this ordinary outlook. The law of identity is the method and also the principle which is working inside our mind, giving us the common sense of the world.
We can see that certain sense of permanence is vital for us to use the law of identity boldly. Otherwise we cannot get a coherent outlook of life. We also believe that the common sense world we see is the same for all of us. Hence it is an objective reality, that exists independent of each of us. How do we come to this agreement? Is it through our own individual experience? Do we arrive at this ordinary understanding by an indirect agreement?
Marxism says that there is a inherent principle of mind which activate the common understanding. There is a mental space with one to one correspondence with the common sense of reality. We are born with this endowment to see it that way. Signals of five senses go to the brain and this activates the logical principle.
Thus it opens the three dimensional mental space. Remember, mind is a function of the brain. Then one could raise the question whether mental perception is different from reality. What is the connection between perception and common sense reality? It is through human practice we see the connection of the two. Our perception does not contradict our practice. Not only day-to-day things but also all scientific inquiry is based on common sense reality. We do things, experiment and construct in physical reality with this ordinary understanding of reality.
In scientific literature we refer to common sense as logical empirical reality. Some say, correct world is logical positivism. Because knowledge should be based on positive data. With scientific progress we have improved both "logical" and "empirical" sides of this method. In improving our instruments of data collection and measurement we have made gigantic strides in collecting data. With new electronic instruments we are enabled to collect most accurate and precise information. On the other hand, using faster and faster computers we have improved our range of logical analysis. In fact some have created the myth that science today is capable of handling any problem that the human race could confront.
Kant agrees with this picture of the ordinary working of mind. In fact it is Kant who exposed to the Western world the inherent logical capacity and the ordering process taking place in the human mind. Also the ability of human mind to create mental objects and to construct abstract spaces based on assumptions. 2500 years ago Buddha came to the same conclusion. He also explained that human understanding is two fold. One is "Anusotha Gami" while other is "Patisotha Gami". By "Anusotha Gami" it means the common way or common path. He said we start with the uninitiated mind - "Aviddya".
This raw mind receives raw signals from senses. Then "Aviddya" leads to "Sankara" - that mean to logical constructions or the application of logical principle, then - "Sankara" leads in turn to - "Vignana" - the ordinary knowledge, which in turn leads to "Nama Rupa", the identities. Thus we arrive at common understanding of reality.
All these teachers agree to start with signals coming from five senses. They agree that knowledge arises due to processing of this information in the brain. Mind is thus a faculty of brain. This logical empirical method of obtaining knowledge is the common activity of the human mind. Is there any other way of understanding reality? Does the human mind have any other ability to process data and arrive at conclusions? This very important question is raised by many thinkers including Emanuel Kant. Kant saw that the human mind is capable of understanding things beyond the logical setup.
He raised the problem of emotional, moral and ethical experiences that do not come under logical analysis proper. However apart from indicating "intuition" as a possibility he could not show any other principle working in the human mind. This opened the room from Metaphysics and the concept of communication with God, though Kant did not suggest that. The other ability of mind to process data, in a different framework, was brought out by Marx. Marx completed the investigation started by Hegel. The name given to this in Marxism is Dialectical Materialism. How does the mind process sense data with this principle? In other words what is this other method of analysis?
In order to understand this principle we have to forget discrete things and the continuous space of common sense. Let us look at this meeting, not as a thing existing from moment to moment in this three dimensional room but as a condition arising, being and perishing. A condition that arises then reaches maturity and perishing to give way for another condition.
We look at reality not as discrete elements existing at a moment but as conditions going through periods or stages. You look at me as Bahu whom you may have met 20 years ago. You believe you know me and have a picture of my character. Then you would make alterations according to the present experience. But a different understanding could be obtained by considering Bahu as a condition going through phases, 60/70 period then 80/90 period, finally 00/10 period. You could observe one character fading into the other in movement of perishing and arising.
What you could not get from the discrete picture, you may get from this conditional assessment. What is the principle that replaces the logical rule? It is the rule or the principle of conditional arising. Reality should be understood as conditions interrelated through this principle, both in space and time. As one moves in time conditions arise, mature and perish. Similarly moving along any line in space conditions arise mature and give way to other conditions. In this reality of conditions, A=B or, A is ?Not B" as a rule has no meaning. Conditions are not discrete nor they are disjoint as things in common sense space.
This way of looking at reality is also an intrinsic ability of mind, because it is the other way the reality exists. In a sense by looking at the reality in this way we by pass the facade of physicality and arrive closer to the reality itself. When we look at reality as conditions, there is no continuity in space as there are breaks and ruptures when one condition gives way to the other. One condition perishes giving birth to another. Hence impermanence becomes a basic factor of reality.
This is the very opposite of common sense reality. Certain permanency is necessary for the identification of discrete things.
Thomas Kuhn in relation to development explained the principle of "development as succession of conditions punctuated by sudden breaks". This is only another way of explaining the principle of conditional becoming. Buddha explained the same method of understanding under - "Patisotha Gami" - path against the current. He explained the conditional becoming in terms of - Utpatha (becoming - Thiti (Static) - Banga (destruction). Accordingly reality consist of conditions arising - stationary moment - perishing. He said what one gets through common sense is only - Vighnana - ordinary understanding of things which is an illusion. To know things as they are one has to look through the principle of conditional arising. Buddha used this principle to explain the ordinary working of the human mind as follows: raw mind - logical constructions - common sense - identification - attention - contact - pleasure/pain - desire - self possession - consumption - conscious living.
In this way he explained ordinary human self consciousness as arising from sensuous struggle for private possession and consumption. Thus the objective observer or onlooker is converted to a subjective participant in reality, objective logical analyst is reduced to a subjective consumer, a blind participant in reality.
Marx used this method to understand human history but others such as Stephan Gould has used the same principle to explain the pre-history of mankind. One condition of hominoid existence was negated to create the next developed condition. Eachbecoming, being and perishing, leads finally to modern humans. Homo habilis - Homo erectus - Homo sapiens is a development according to the law of conditional becoming.
Thus both Marx and Buddha accepted that humans are capable of understanding reality at different levels. Firstly the logical empirical understanding or common sense, secondly through the principle of conditional becoming. First comes naturally while the second needs special effort. Buddha claimed that the second method gives the reality "as it is" in opposition to the semblance of permanence created by common sense. Both teachers investigated why the second type of understanding is difficult to achieve.
Buddha explained that humans are tied to the sensuous reality of common sense through desire, thus restricting their ability to apply the law of conditional becoming. Attachment to physical reality through - Upadana - "private possession" blocks the mind from thinking in terms of impermanence and sharp change. Marx explained it differently.
Humans strive to improve production by technology - a result of logical empirical study of reality. But this movement leads to estrangement and alienation. Humans become prisoners of technological reality.
'Thus more the worker by his labour appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of means of life in the double respect: First, that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labour - to be his labour's means of life, and secondly that it, more and more, ceases to be means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker".
To get out of this situation workers (humans) should be a part of a conscious social movement, a movement capable of understanding reality as a process in conditional becoming. On the other hand Buddha explained - "Sangha" - the community of conscious people as the leadership that will show the masses the path to detachment and enlightenment.
We have to understand that these thinkers are separated not only by 2500 years, but also by different of socio-economic conditions. Buddha was born into a society where Aryan caste domination was collapsing with the rise of native Dravidian people, while Marx lived to see the growth of modern capitalism, with the rise of proletarian movement.