Ah, but there is a paradox of desire in Buddhism--A reply to Wayne Alt

By A. L. Herman
Philosophy East and West
Volume 30, no.4
1980 October
P.529-532
(C) by University Press of Hawaii


P.529 Let me make three brief opening comments on the third paragraph of the first page of Wayne Alt's very stimulating critique. Following this I will move to what I consider his major objection to my paper, namely, a lack of clarity with respect to desire3. First, Alt states, "John Visvader and A. L. Herman both agree that desire can be eliminated only by desiring to do so." He's wrong; we do not say that. Second, he states, "Herman, on the other hand, presents an argument which is designed to show that desire can never be eliminated." He's right, that's what the argument says. But then he continues, "Neither Visvader nor Herman marshal any considerations that would establish this strong conclusion." I am not sure what "this strong conclusion" refers to, for the argument I presented is designed to show that if one desires to eliminate desire, then desire can never be eliminated; but neither Visvader nor I have argued that desire can never be eliminated; in fact, I have tried to demonstrate that the elimination of desire, nirvaa.na, can occur as a direct result of the rational insight obtained from the practical philosophical argument in the paradox of desire. The paradox of desire, far from making it impossible to accept or follow the Buddha's prescription regarding the elimination of desire, renders obedience to that prescription all the more likely. Third, Alt in discussing my philosophical argument gives the impression, later confirmed when he discusses "the formal validity" of that argument, that the argument was, indeed, formal. I had no intention of presenting a formal argument, and I am sorry if my explication of the paradox of desire resembled a formal argument. It was meant to be merely a practical argument, analyzing a paradox that the Buddhists themselves admit they face when they try to desire their way through to desirelessness and nirvaa.na. I shall return to this third comment shortly. I think that the chief difficulty that Alt has with my presentation of the paradox of desire lies with desire3. Let me see if I can make desire3 clear. He is quite correct when he suggests that "...it is ultimately desire3, which blocks the road to desirelessness;" and the paradox of desire, which John Visvader has beautifully characterized as uroboric in nature, merely points out the futility of desiring to end desire by desiring to end it. But desiring to end desire is not, as Alt suggests, like desiring to have a teacher. The latter can be satisfied such that the desire for a teacher need never arise again. As I indicated in my brief article, "... the hedonist has found a way to attaining the control and cessation of desire; he simply gives in to all of them...." But the desire to end desire is of a different order of desiring, and it leads to no cessation of desire as the Buddhists themselves have been at some pains to point out. Mr. Alt states, P.530 Suppose I desire, to eliminate desire2. If I satisfy desire1, i.e. if I actually manage to eliminate desire2, then desire1, will thereby be eliminated. For the satisfaction of any desire is tantamount to its elimination. I think that the hedonist would agree and so would the man desiring a teacher: The satisfaction of ordinary desire is tantamount to its elimination. But this does not seem to be the case with desiring desirelessness. In other words, desire1 is just not any desire but a very peculiar desire, indeed, because it is doomed to frustration: And the survival of desire, desire3, is merely the symbol of that frustration, that is, desirelessness is not an intentional object. Let me try a.historical approach to the paradox because I am afraid I have been repeating what I said in my article and this repetition probably will not satisfy Alt and others regarding the essential frustration involved in desiring to eliminate desire and the representation of that frustration in desire3. The English utilitarian philosopher, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), identified and named a similar puzzle which he called "the fundamental paradox of Hedonism."(1) The fundamental paradox of hedonism bears such a close resemblance to the paradox of desire that what Sidgwick had to say about the former can, I believe, give us some insight into the approach we ought to make to the latter. The fundamental paradox of hedonism, according to Sidgwick, is the consequence of observing that the impulse toward pleasure, if too predominant, defeats its own aim.(2) Following a discussion of self-love in his classic work, The Methods of Ethics, Sidgwick observes: I should not, however, infer from this that the pursuit of pleasure is necessarily self-defeating and futile; but merely that the principle of Egoistic Hedonism, when applied with a due knowledge of the laws of human nature, is practically self-limiting; i.e. that a rational method of attaining the end at which it aims requires that we should to some extent put it out of sight and not directly aim at it.(3) In the same way the pursuit of desirelessness, that is, the desire for desirelessness tends in pract ice to be self-limiting, that is, it tends to defeat its own end. This is why I suggested in my third comment at the beginning of this reply that what I offered was a philosophical argument in the form of an explication of the paradox of desire leading to a conclusion about a practical impossibility (a rather weak claim) rather than a formal valid argument leading to a logical impossibility (a much stronger claim) regarding the attainment of desirelessness through desiring. This served to underscore the statement I made in the second paragraph of the original paper, namely, "The paradox of desire points to the practical contradiction or frustration involved in the desire to stop all desiring and states simply that those who d esire to stop all desiring will never be successful."(4) Desire3 is the sign of that defeat. I agree with Alt when he suggests that the attempt to clarify the concept of desire (and desirelessness) would make an interesting philosophical project.(5) P.531 NOTES 1. Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1874/1963), p. 48. The paradox of hedonism, fundamental or not, can probably be traced back to Aristotle's nichomachean Ethics. (Plato at Laws 733b states that pleasure can be desired and sees no problem in doing so). Aristotle argues that pleasure is the result of an activity and in doing so he asks and answers an intriguing question: How, then, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human things are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity. (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1175, 3-6 in The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon ed. (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 1099.) Now, one can aim at or desire an activity (or its cessation) but it is problematic whether one can in the same sense aim at or desire pleasure. In a similar fashion, John Stuart Mill, the philosopher who undoubtedly led Sidgwick to the paradox in the first place, has said: But I now thought that this end [happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness....Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way....Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. (John Stuart Mill, Autobiography in The Harvard Classics, Charles Eliot Norton, ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1909), volume 25, p. 94). It is, perhaps, an easy move from seeing pleasure or happiness as that which can only follow from an activity to seeing pleasure as that which to be got must be forgot, the conclusion to the paradox of hedonism. And it is perhaps an easy move from Aristotle, Mill and Sidgwick to the Buddhist conclusion that desirelessness to be got must be forgot. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid., p. 136; italics mine. 4. A. L. Herman, "A Solution to the Paradox of Desire in Buddhism," Philosophy East and West 29, no. 1 (January, 1979): 91. 5. A more basic set of questions than those relating to desire and desirelessness, but ones having a direct bearing on desire and desirelessness, might well be, "What is a philosophic problem?" and "What is a philosophic solution?" Philosophy may begin in wonder as Plate and Aristotle both seemed to believe; it may remove the irritation of doubt as James and Dewey have argued; and it may get us to thinking about liberating flies from fly bottles as Ludwig Wittgenstein seemed to hold; but, while doing all of these things, philosophy does what it does best when it clearly sets, and attempts to solve, those curious puzzles commonly designated "philosophic problems." Philosophers seem generally agreed on the extensional definition of "philosophic problem" even though, I believe, the necessary and sufficient conditions of the phrase have proved elusive thus far. In other words, philosophers seem to know what they are referring to when they talk about "the problems of philosophy" even though they might not be able to offer a clear analysis of the phrase. For example, we seem to know that the paradoxes of hedonism, happiness, nirvaa.na, mok.sa, and desire are all, indeed, bona fide philosophic problems even though, thus far, no adequate analysis has shown what makes them all philosophic problems. It was Bertrand Russell who said that one of the defining characteristics of a philosophic problem was that it had no solution; and were a solution to be provided it would cease to be philosophic. Russell gave as an example of a "solved" philosophic puzzle the pre-Socratic question, What is everything made of? Since, Russell continued, modern science has answered the question, it is no longer of philosophic interest to pursue the question. But the thing that truly characterized philosophic problems for Russell was that they have no solutions. I think Russell is wrong. Philosophic problems are more than intellectual teething rings on which students of philosophy cut their philosophic teeth, and I think it would be discouraging to believe otherwise. (Imagine students of sociobiology being set problems for which there could, logically, be no solutions). Which brings me to the proposed solution to the paradox of desire dealt with in my article of January 1979. It must seem curious that this solution (if it is a solution) to this philosophic problem (if it is a philosophic problem) should entail the surrendering or the giving up of the search for a solution. P.532 If this "letting go, " this karma yoga-like detachment, constitutes a solution to a philosophic problem then it seems to run counter to all the intuitions one might have heretofore held about philosophic solutions. If this proposed solution to the problem is a "solution" of sorts then what does that have to say about the nature of, the necessary and sufficient conditions for, both philosophic problems and philosophic solutions? Perhaps in the future someone will attempt an explication of these two concepts. And that would be an interesting philosophical project, and an obvious contribution, as well, to Buddhist studies.