The Reading List: Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History

I currently participate in a small reading group with colleagues from the Political Science, Romance Languages and Linguistics, and Religion Departments. Many of the works we have read explore the relationship between politics and religion in the context of modernity, and we recently discussed Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004.  Fasolt is Professor emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, and he has written extensively on political, social, and legal thought in medieval and early modern Europe. The Limits of History is noteworthy for its use of a relatively narrow historical case study—an examination of the work of the seventeeth-century German scholar Hermann Conring (1606-1681)—as the springboard for a broad historiographical critique. Fasolt’s engaging and lively analysis moves deftly from close readings of Conring’s works on political authority to a wide-ranging theoretical examination of the social and political implications of historical research.

This work is of particular interest to me in connection with my own research on Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrimage sites, specifically my exploration of historical narratives employed by advocates for the authenticity of Batathota cave temple (shown above in my 2016 photograph) as the true site of Divaguhava, the Cave of the [Buddha’s] Midday Rest, one of the sixteen great pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka linked to the tradition that Gotama Buddha visited the island three times during his lifetime. For those who know something about the modern history of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourses, it is probably not surprising to observe that these narratives, as identified and employed by advocates for the site, are not simply collections of “facts” about the past; rather, even a cursory analysis suggests that these narratives, whether as transmitted through published texts or mediated through oral accounts presented by lay officials at the site, serve a variety of social ends that might be characterized as “political” or “religious” (both of which are vexed categories that demand careful unpacking, particularly when contrasted with one another). What is less obvious is the political work accomplished by my own historical analysis, and this is precisely where Fasolt’s analysis provides some crucial insights.

The substance of Fasolt’s critique is relatively straightforward. He seeks to raise historians’ awareness of the links between historical analysis and the emergence of several key features of western modernity. According to Fasolt, freedom and progress depend upon the distinction between past and present, which the work of historians creates. Historians, through their commitment to discovering what “really” happened in the past on the basis of historical evidence, make possible the emergence of an individual subjectivity characterized by freedom from the past. The doing of history, he suggests, has become so naturalized that we have lost sight of the social and political conflicts that gave rise to it. He writes: “History enlists the desire for knowledge about the past to meet a deeper need: the need for power and independence, the need to have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot be forgotten. Whatever knowledge it may pick up along the way is but a means toward that end” (Introduction). Thus historical work is an exercise of power, one that can have dangerous consequences, particularly if those who undertake it regard it as “a natural, neutral, harmless, and universally applicable form of thought” (32). As he puts it: “The past, as a familiar saying goes, is a foreign country. Historians are just as active in invading that foreign country, conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline, and annexing their territories to the possessions of the present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description of history’s political effect” (Introduction).

Does this lead him to conclude that we must stop doing history? Not at all. The problem isn’t that we seek knowledge about the past. Rather, the danger of an unreflective historical consciousness is its intrinsic imperialism, at least when it is universalized and naturalized by the quest for objectivity: “History, in all its variations, continues to draw strength from the conviction that there is nothing wrong with the standards of objectivity, only with their implementation” (35). Drawing on the metaphor of a camera, he describes those who operate within an historical consciousness as acting “like the photographer who never looks at anything except through the lens of his camera. We seem to have lost the ability to recognize that history is merely one way of looking at the world, a good way (because our freedom depends on it), but one that neither shows everything to us nor shows anything without refraction” (32). Evoking the language of religion (which is surprisingly absent from his analysis of Conring’s own works), he observes: “Seen from outside … history rather appears to be the intellectual form that secularized Christianity has given to its preoccupation with the salvation of the soul. It is the same preoccupation that was in earlier times cast in the forms of theology and canon law. History is the ritual examination (especially by experts officially trained and licensed) of certain objects (mostly preserved in archives, libraries, and museums) without which the distinction between past and present could not support the weight placed on it by the established church— that modern church embodied in the nationstate whose symbols are printed on every dollar bill and whose members worship at the altar of nature. History serves to keep the modern world united. It is linked to violence in the same way that Christianity was formerly linked to the Crusades” (230).

These are powerful assertions, and they raise troubling implications for those of us who, like myself, regard historical analysis as foundational to our critical work. How does it reposition, for example, the way that I think about my work on Batathota cave temple? While I am only beginning to attempt to work through the implications of Fasolt’s historiographical critique, at least one possible direction for further reflection comes to mind: the recognition that historical discourses are culturally embedded in complex ways, both in the Euro-American tradition of Buddhist studies within which my own work is situated, and in the postcolonial emergence of Sri Lankan nationalist and religious discourses. What is at stake in asserting that a particular event is “historical,” for example, the visit of Gotama Buddha to a particular Sri Lankan cave? The asking and answering of that question by lay officials at Batathota cave temple, and by me as a North American scholar of Buddhism, point to important areas of convergence and difference that I hope to explore in greater depth as a result of having encountered Fasolt’s rich and illuminating book.

Constantin Fasolt. 2013. The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Monks and Neuroscience: Contemporary Interactions between Buddhism and Science in America

With so many recent developments in the fields of quantum physics, medicine and neuroscience it’s no surprise that Science is one of the dominating domains of authority in modern American culture. Religion, on the other hand, occupies an increasingly turbulent place in the American cultural landscape and in this day and age we have to wonder how these two domains – Science and Religion – will negotiate an ever more complicated interaction.

Historically speaking, Buddhism has been involved in the discourse of Science and Religion in a particularly concentrated and easily visible manner. In the past twenty years a large volume of scholarship has been written on the historical interaction between Buddhism and Science, including works such as:

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (2015) by Evan Thompson, Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed (2008) by Donald Lopez, The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation (2012) by Richard Davidson, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles. There is no denying a certain American fascination with Buddhism and how it relates to Science (Lopez, 208). A fascination so enchanting, that I chose to spend my last semester at UVM engaging in a guided research project on the topic with UVM Chair of Religion Kevin Trainor.

Naturally, it follows that it is appropriate, if not enlightening, to put Buddhist meditators in fMRI machines and see what we can learn. Quite frankly, this is one of the coolest things going on within the discourse of Science and Religion, but like any cool idea, there are problems beneath the surface that excessive enthusiasm can overlook.

“Contemplative Neuroscience,” also referred to as “Neurophenomenology,” is an exciting new field posited by many researchers that looks to reimagine the ways in which religious and scientific approaches can be used to inspect cognitive phenomena. In the article “Neurophenomenology” (2000), Frederic Peters aims to “[introduce] a new methodological approach to the analysis of religious phenomena” (Peters, 379). Peters frames this methodological revision as a relatively necessary step for the proper progression of the analysis of religious phenomena. Why? According to Peters, much of this pressure to update approaches to analyzing religious phenomena comes from modern advancements within fields of Science, particularly that of neuroscience.

It’s notoriously difficult to say, or even argue about what religion is. Definitions have been thrown into the ring that is academic religious discourse for hundreds of years, and Peters highlights the difficulty in arriving at a consensus through academic writing and debates. Perhaps in this modern day and age our scientific meandering has guided us through an approach that will enhance our understandings of religion. Although other scholars are more reluctant to assent to the kind of conclusions that Peters arrives at, Peters has no problem thinking of “religious data” as a “[property] of consciousness” (Peters, 381). From this starting point, coupled with a specific take on consciousness and brain activity informed by modern neuroscience, Peters also makes the assertion that “[recent] technical advances in brain imaging together with increased sophistication of experiments have now made it, at the very least, increasingly difficult to resist the conclusion that brain activity and mental activity are one and the same” (Peters, 389). Even without drawing the same conclusion as Peters it is clear that modern technological developments in Science are relevant to our discussions of religion and religious phenomena.

The basis of this claim pivots on a certain understanding of consciousness and the brain, somewhat reminiscent of a dichotomy between the physical and immaterial. Martin Verhoeven discusses this apparent gap in his article “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason” (2001). By conceding that the mind and neurological brain activity are the same thing, the argument – which claims that approaches to religious phenomena can be enhanced by a coupling with scientific experiments – loses some ground. Verhoeven writes of “the unfortunate disjunction of matter and spirit that afflicts the modern age. It can assume many forms: a split between matter and spirit, a divorce between faith and reason, a dichotomy between facts and values. At a more personal level, it manifests as a mind-body dualism” (Verhoeven, 80). Juxtaposing a radically materialist scientific approach to a culturally informed approach to religion that resists being reduced to any all-encompassing explanation of religious phenomena characterizes much of this debate. Peters writes, “Neither the radically dualist nor the radically materialist stream of philosophy has made much headway in accounting for both the obvious physiological hardware and sheer fact of phenomenal awareness” (Peters, 384-385). It appears as though there is something within this debate that demands priority over other considerations. With all of the recent developments in modern neuroscience, it seems silly to ignore the fact that there seems to be some link between consciousness and brain activity. It seems even more foolish to pretend that we can talk about religion without it.


Evan Thompson’s
book Waking, Dreaming, Being (2015) provides an excellent overview of the interaction between Science and Buddhism and takes an interestingly philosophical approach to the question, which helps us understand the arguments on both sides. Instead of hastily assuming that adding modern scientific empiricism to religious analysis will enhance our understandings of religion, it may be worth considering how religious understandings of the mind can inform and enhance scientific knowledge. In this way Thompson challenges Peters’ assertion that neuroscience can be superimposed on religious data as some kind of enhancement; instead, their mingling can be seen as a collaboration, which is mutually beneficial for both fields. There is a “gap” present in our understanding of the brain and the mind, which Thompson characterizes as an open-ended problem. Thompson writes, “The gap consists in our not understanding how something subjective or experiential could possibly arise from something that fundamentally lacks subjective or experiential properties” (Thompson, 81). For Thompson both Religion, and more surprisingly, Science, have an interpretive dimension that Science somewhat avoids admitting in claims to objective truth and an authentic access to reality.

Regardless of which view is taken there are still potential casualties and inadvertent oversights latent in the commingling of these historically culturally antagonistic fields. Francisca Cho, although focusing on the role of karma in understanding research relating to Buddhists, highlights an important aspect of what can be lost in a premature intercourse between Science and Buddhism. While a neuroscientist may be quick to dismiss karma as an unnecessary cultural “ball-and-chain” in understanding what meditation does to the brain (or mind if they are not assumed to be the same thing), Cho urges us to reconsider how entire epistemological systems influence how we perceive data, including that of Science. Cho writes, “[The] challenge of karma is not its supernaturalism but its substantial sophistication about what is real, which is far more nuanced than contemporary distinctions between the ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘fantasy’ associated with religion, on the one hand, and the ‘objective truth’ attributed to science, on the other” (Cho, 117). Adding an empirical element to the study of religious phenomena is all fine and well, but what if scientific understandings of physicality and religious understandings of physicality aren’t the same? Even sticking to a phenomenological lens which only looks what appears to be undeniably in front us doesn’t mean that we agree on what is real, what is physical, what is undeniable or what is in front of us.

Thus the debate rages on, as the logistics become more and more tangible, and the concepts more and more ethereal. If the discourses of Religion and Science seem like their intersection doesn’t allow them to say anything nice about each other, maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. On the other hand, theoretical disagreements about what “physical” really means or if brain activity and consciousness are the same thing seem serious enough to keep debating. The cultural relevance of this topic appears as though it will only increase. As Richard Davidson writes, “[The] Mind and Life Dialogues [become] an ongoing mutual exploration of some of the most profound questions facing humanity in terms of science, ethics, and morality, such as the nature of mind, the nature of the universe and our place in it, the nature of reality, and the potential for the healing and transformation of afflictive emotions into more positive mental states, leading to greater health, harmony, happiness, and possibly both inner and outer peace” (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn, 4). For now Buddhism seems to be at the forefront of this interaction, and with all this at stake it doesn’t seem like it would hurt to keep putting as many monks as we can fit in fMRI machines as possible.

Works Cited

Cho, Francisca. “Buddhism, Science, and the Truth About Karma.” Religion Compass 8, no. 4 (2014): 117-27.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon, and Richard Davidson, eds. The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation. Oakland, CA, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2012.

Lopez, Donald S. Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Peters, Frederic H. “Neurophenomenology.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 12, no. 3 (2000): 379-415.

Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Verhoeven, Martin. “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason.” Religion East & West 1 (2001): 77-97.

Images

https://pennmindsthegap.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/when-meditation-met-mri/

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/373965266/waking-dreaming-being-self-and-consciousness-in-neuroscience-meditation-and-phil


Shakir Stephen ’15 is currently a writing tutor at UVM’s Writing Center specializing in writing for religion and philosophy and writing research papers. Shakir also works at Mansfield Hall as an Academic Coach and is hoping to go to graduate school next year to study Religion or English.

Coups and Conversations

On Thursday, May 22, I went to a wat (temple/monastery) in Eastern Bangkok to interview a monk. I had been to the wat a few times, trying to catch a monk sitting around bored, and open to chatting with a nosy foreigner. This is a strategy that I have been using on and off for the last few months. It makes the encounter seem a bit more spontaneous and more likely that a monk will speak freely about his thoughts on politics and whatever possible role he might have. However, I had reached the end of my patience with this particular wat. Martial law had been declared two days before, and I wanted to speak with a monk I had never spoken to about this. I went up to the samnak-gaan wat (ie the office) and explained that I was a researcher and would like to speak to a monk about the roles of Thai monks in society. The man working in the office said sure, and then he thought for a long time about who to get. He disappeared, coming back about fifteen minutes later with the only monk he could find. The monk seemed a bit embarrassed and a bit reluctant to talk, as if he had been coerced into talking to the foreigner (not impossible). However, he quickly warmed up, and we chatted for over an hour about his responsibilities, the place of the wat in the community, and his thoughts on martial law. In general he was not worried about the declaration. He said he thought this was probably a good thing because the protests which had been going on for six months had reached an impasse and martial law would calm things down and allow proper negotiations. About four hours later, General Prayuth, the head of the military got sick of these negotiations and decided to declare the caretaker government null and void, and ultimately the Senate and the Constitution as well. For the 14th time since 1932, Thailand had been subject to a military coup.

In very broad terms, the coup was the latest shift in a decade long conflict over the control of Thai society. The details are beyond the scope of a blog post (good reporting is provided by Thomas Fuller of the New York Times, and smart, clear op-ed pieces by both Michael Montesano and Duncan McCargo, also in the Times), but in very broad terms, this is a conflict over the relative influence of different stakeholders in Thailand as a democracy. It has often been cast in binary terms between the “red shirts” and the “yellow shirts,” with the former being associated with rural folk, particularly farmers of the North and Northeast, and the latter being associated with royalists, and middle and professional classes. The “red shirts” want to privilege electoral politics, while the “yellow shirts” have wanted to privilege the centrality of the monarchy. I am trying to use careful language here because most the red shirts also “love the king” and most yellow shirts also want electoral democracy (though their leaders should probably be seen as anti-democratic). The shirt colors are short hand for broad coalitions, because these were the colors worn by the different groups in mass mobilizations that have taken place over the last decade.

The origins of this coup go back to the last coup in 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from office by the army, presumably because he was a threat to the king. Thaksin while a fairly greedy and thuggish politician is also the only prime minister to have made it through an entire term and be reelected in Thailand’s coup-happy history. Since 2006, Thai politics has been a real mess. Various Thaksin related parties and prime ministers have been thrown out of office, and/or banned from participating in electoral politics by judicial decision/coup. On different occasions, mass protests have shut down Bangkok’s airports and shopping districts and in 2010 there was a crackdown on a group of red shirts that had taken over the central shopping intersection in Bangkok, resulting in the death of around 70 protestors and a handful of soldiers and policemen. The most recent set of protests began late last year and were precipitated by an amnesty bill that the government (then run by Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck) put forward. This would have granted amnesty to the leaders of the government during the crackdown, the Democrat Party, and would also have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand (he’s been in exile since being removed from power, and was convicted of corruption in absentia). While the government withdrew the amnesty bill, the yellow shirts (who no longer wear yellow but instead drape themselves in the Thai flag and blow whistles on the streets of Bangkok) ramped up their protests, causing the government to resign, occupying several key intersections of Bangkok for three months (under the catchy slogan, “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”), and doing their best to block the election that took place of February 2 of this year. While they were largely unsuccessful in this, they were successful enough that it allowed the courts to throw out the legitimacy of the election. Throughout these protests, their key leader, Suthep, has called for the elimination of the government and the removal of the “Thaksin regime” in language that is often violent, misogynistic and frankly repugnant. He has called for the appointment of a “neutral” party to lead the country to “reform,” though beyond the removal of Thaksin and his sister, what reform might mean has been quite vague.

The coup has been less about violent repression, and more about stifling voices and dissent. General Prayuth, the coup’s leader, immediately arrested many of the political leaders, and has required that other political leaders, both elected and unelected, red shirt and yellow, academics and journalists report to the army for a “cooling off” period. This is officially meant to provide negotiations the opportunity to be successful, but most understand that it is meant to quell opposition. Small protests have occurred throughout Bangkok, and they have been met with an overwhelming presence of army and police, well out of proportion to their numbers or threat. Many people have taken the coup fairly phlegmatically, saying to me that this is “Thai style politics,” but many others have taken to symbolic modes of dissent: reading 1984 in groups of four (groups of five are proscribed); taking selfies of themselves doing a three-fingered salute taken from the Hunger Games; handing out and eating sandwiches in public. These have all been banned by the junta. The junta also shut down Facebook for about an hour a week ago – this really got people upset, and it was quickly restored.

To be honest, I don’t know how the people of Thailand or Bangkok feel about this. My evidence is anecdotal, but I’ve talked to a number of people, mainly monks, in the two and a half weeks since the coup. Some are willing to wait and see how it goes, others think it is simply a terrible turn of events. Two conversations with several monks in particular stand out. The first was a couple of days after the coup. I biked up to a wat, and as I was parking my bike, the monk came up as if he had been waiting for me, spitting mad, anxious to tell me how terrible and stupid the coup was and how much worse it would make everything. The second was a few days later at a university library. This monk was also not happy about the coup, but rather than being mad, he was sad and scared. “Many people disagree,” he said. “They cannot speak out. Big gun.” He moved his hands showing someone being grabbed. As he said this, his voice became quieter and quieter, not wanting to be overheard.

Buddhist monks and politics in Thailand

monks at pithi panyak

I have been in Thailand since the beginning of January conducting research into the political identity and attitudes of the Buddhist monks of the country. My research is organized around the problem of how monks and novices see themselves as citizens, and whether being a monk interferes with or works together with their citizenship. Buddhism is a central part of Thai national identity, with some 90% of the population presumed to be Buddhist, and ordination as a monk for at least several weeks is widely understood as being an important responsibility that Thai men should undertake (though many do not). Moreover, while Buddhism has not been established as the official religion of the country, the king is required to be Buddhist and “religion” (often though not always understood to be Buddhism) is one of the three central “institutions” of modern Thailand, along with the king and the nation (ie the people). Buddhism is thus central to “thai-ness,” and formally at least monks have a very high status in Thai society.

Yet this doesn’t always translate into the lives of individual monks, and it is the attitudes of individual monks into their status that I have been trying to understand. For example, while Thailand is a democracy (coup’s aside), and women were enfranchised several decades before they were in the United States, monks are forbidden from voting in elections. The rationale for this is that monks are in the center and above politics. If they have the right to vote, the argument goes, this will foster division within society, and that is seen as contrary to their primary role in Thai society. Many monks that I have talked to this spring do not seem to be particularly troubled by their disenfranchisement. Some have said to me, for example, that if they could vote, they were afraid that they would be the subject of lobbying by politicians, something they had no interest in. For the first month or so that I was asking monks about this, all of them told me about being “in the center,” and I thought that monks simply did not want to vote. Then one day, by chance, I asked a monk, “So, you don’t want to vote?” He looked at me as if I was silly. “I didn’t say that, I would be happy to vote if I could.” Since then, I have followed up my question about monks voting with questions about the individual monk voting. A somewhat different picture has emerged as a result. While none of the monks seems to want to take to the streets to push for enfranchisement, some 2/3 of them have told me they would like to vote if they could.

I am still in the process of coming to understand the implications of this.  Most monks in Thailand are Thai citizens; being a monk changes what they the can do as citizens.  It provides them with access to educational opportunities but changes how they can participate in the political process.  But it is unclear to me whether most monks think that they should have a voice in society – as monks.

In a few days, I will post some thoughts about the coup last week and the political protests of the last year that precipitated it.