What has impelled me to think again recently about the limitations of academic life is the scathing review of my book ‘A New Buddhist Ethics’ by James Stewart in The Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Perhaps I should be grateful for it, and perhaps there really is no such thing as a bad review, given that I had to send several reminders of my existence to the reviews editor to get reviewed at all. Or perhaps I should also try to be humble and learn from it (there are certainly one or two specific points I can learn from). However, as always, I’m temperamentally driven to want to see the big picture, and to feel endlessly frustrated by people who insist on only focusing on the small one. James Stewart seems no different in his attitudes to many other scholars of Buddhist Studies, or indeed of other fields: he is a specialist. So my complaints about academia are directed not at him personally so much as the culture created by specialisation which he represents.
It would be disingenuous to claim that I am not an academic because I don’t want to be: on the contrary, if someone were to offer me a full-time academic post I would probably accept eagerly. Nor do I think all academics in the humanities and social sciences are focusing more and more uselessly on less and less – only many of them. A few academics, perhaps the most illustrious, have got there by playing the game of what they were supposed to do when they were younger, only to take the opportunity of branching out a bit once they were established. Among philosophers, say, Derek Parfit, Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum or Thomas Nagel spring to mind. But even these people – all of whom could be described as great minds in some ways – are often still constrained by the limiting assumptions they gained in early training. So in many ways I still, rather reluctantly, see it as fortuitous that I never played that game, and thus never became an academic.
Perhaps if I explain ‘the game’ as I encountered it as a Ph.D. student this will make more sense. Usually, a Ph.D. thesis itself has to be very narrow in scope, but fortunately I managed to get round this thanks to an extremely helpful and supportive supervisor, and got away with a very broad thesis that was also three times the usual allowable length. However, even once you clear this hurdle, there are lots of others awaiting anyone who wants to do things differently from the established theoretical models: even, most ironically, in philosophy – the very subject that is supposed to be about questioning theoretical models. The basic Catch-22 is this: if you want to establish a new theory, you have to write at length. However, if you write at sufficient length, people either never read your work, or reject it for publication because it is too long. If you write in a shorter format, such as the standard academic paper of around 8,000 words, you haven’t a hope of being understood, because if you present all of your theory it won’t be detailed enough to be convincing, and if you only give part of it then it will be out of context and make no sense to anyone. You also haven’t a hope of getting an academic post if you haven’t published enough in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. In the first few years after I completed my Ph.D., I went round and round this vicious circle like a hamster on overdrive.
Then comes further irony. After this first phase, I decided, at least for a while, to give up on the academic audience and start writing in a more popular way. I then wrote three books – The Trouble with Buddhism, A New Buddhist Ethics, and Truth on the Edge – in which I tried (perhaps with varying levels of success) to be a bit more direct, not to provide an offputting level of detail, and not worry too much about referencing. Now, of course, one of these books – A New Buddhist Ethics – has finally been reviewed by an academic journal, that pans it for not being academic enough. If it was intended to be a fully academic book in the first place, it might be fair enough for James Stewart to describe the referencing as “sub par” and to describe the depth of argument as “problematic”. What he has not troubled to do is to check out the detailed support I have given to the approach elsewhere.
Stewart imposes a whole set of false dichotomies onto my book. The dichotomy between academic and popular work is only the first of these. The second is the dichotomy between “Buddhist” and “non-Buddhist”: if you can prove it by quoting Pali or other scriptures, or citing what people do in Thailand or Tibet, then it’s “Buddhist”, but if not then it isn’t. The third dichotomy is between prescriptive and descriptive ethics. Stewart does not seem to understand my point that most scholars of Buddhist ethics offer only descriptions of what Buddhists believe or what the tradition says, rather than addressing the question of what is actually right or wrong. Then at the same time he insists both that the descriptive criteria normally applied should have been adhered to by me, and that it is unfair to accuse scholars of Buddhist ethics of neglecting prescriptive ethics. The fourth dichotomy is between the “objective” scholar and the person, with Stewart not accepting that a scholar’s beliefs and lifestyle are of any relevance to their work: as though beliefs did not condition motives and limit assumptions! The “ethicist” who can’t understand why anyone thinks he should be ethical strikes me as the most bizarre figure to have been created by modern academic culture. The whole point of my work – and I think of the Middle Way – is to avoid dichotomies such as these four: a point that Stewart does not understand.
Then there is what one might call the specificity defence, in my experience widely used by academics. If one makes a general point that the academic concerned agrees with, it passes without question, but if he/she disagrees with it, then it’s not specific or not well-referenced enough. An endless focus on these specifics then distracts attention from the wider issues that one is trying to raise. For example, Stewart writes:
Ellis seems to regard his book as an alternative to the prevailing interpretations of Buddhism that have been offered by other scholars. As he does not really engage those thinkers in a serious and detailed way it seems to me that it is impossible to conceive of his interpretation of Buddhist ethics as an alternative, whether or not the book is intended as such.
If I were to engage these thinkers in a way that would satisfy him, I imagine it would only be by accepting their assumptions and arguing in their terms. It’s often only by not engaging with scholars in the detail they seem to think necessary that one can actually come up with alternatives which would be almost inconceivable if one were to play their game. To do so would also not be time well spent. If one gets a little way in reading a book and it then becomes obvious that the writer is working only within a set of limiting assumptions that greatly devalue his/her work, there is not much point in reading further, for there are lots of more valuable things to read. My book does offer an alternative, so in effect what Stewart seems to be saying is that he can’t conceive of any such alternative because he is so immured in a certain set of assumptions.
Finally, then, let me come back to the title. I am at least in some ways fortunate not to be an academic, if the result of being an academic is the kind of specialised training that stops one daring to think. I continue to delight in thinking, and intend to continue both to do so and to publish the results, whatever academic reviewers may say about them.
Picture: ‘Academia’ by Salvador Lleda Matoses (Wikimedia Commons): picture (only) can be freely re-used under Creative Commons Licence if attributed.