[Buddha-l] Re: Can an Air Force cadet have Buddha nature?

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Sat May 21 13:36:45 MDT 2005

On Sat, 2005-05-21 at 09:52 +0700, Randall Jones wrote:

> Asking an author (me, anyway) for clarification of meaning is a way of
> "continuing the conversation" . . . and that can be very
> important . . . but it's not necessarily a way of finding out what the
> author/I meant. 

In my own case, this is largely a function of time. Ask me what I meant
by something I wrote within the past week or so, and I'll be able to
provide a pretty clear answer. Ask me about something I wrote in 1985,
and I'll probably say "Why don't you tell me what you think I meant, and
if it sounds like something I'd be happy to have meant to say, I'll
agree with you."

> I would like to mention the principle of charity, alongside your mention of 
> a hermeneutics of suspicion.

The textbook I have been using to teach a course called "Reasoning and
critical thinking" has a wonderful section on the importance of the
principle of charity. (The text is John Hughes, Critical Thinking.) The
hermeneutics of suspicion, it seems to me, is a dramatic failure of the
principle of charity; it seems, in fact, to be almost the opposite. The
principle of charity begins with the assumption that the person whose
words one is interpreting is being honest, benevolent, and basically
sensible until it can be established conclusively that he or she was
being deliberately deceptive, malevolent or seriously mistaken.
Occasionally I have encountered people who find this principle of
charity unconscionably naive. Personally, I find it no more naive than
the principle that a person should be assumed innocent until proved

Incidentally, when I taught from Hughes last semester the US political
campaigns were in full swing. Students were deeply impressed by the
almost total absence of the principle of charity in ANY of the political
campaigning that was in full public view. It is a sad feature of the way
that democracy (or at least the pseudo-democracy that now prevails) has
evolved that one sees in practice so few examples of human nobility. It
seems that Swami Vivekananda was right when he said that the 20th
century would be the age of the Shudra.

> I think this principle (or something like it) must be operative in all
> verbal interactions or there will be no conversation. 

I fully agree. It has also been my experience that no everyone is really
very interested in conversation. They seem more interested in
conversion. Still, I think the better assumption to make is that one's
interlocutor is interested in discussion rather than disputation. And,
as you suggest from your own experience, anyone engaged in teaching
really must begin with the assumption that discussion is the top item on
everyone's agenda. Not to make such an assumption is certainly bad
pedagogy and bad manners. One could even make a case, I think, for the
position that not beginning withe the principle of charity is bad

>  So, while the hermeneutics of suspicion might short-circuit
> interaction, so would a failure to apply a principle of charity.

So it sounds as though you might see a neutral ground between the
principle of charity and the hermeneutics of suspicion, a middle ground
where one is practicing neither charity nor suspicion. And it sounds as
though you're saying this middle ground is one where conversation is
unlikely to take place. That is a stronger claim than I was making, for
my position was that conversation can take place unless at least one of
the discussants is operating from the hermeneutics of suspicion.

> (Maybe the principle comes in the prologue to conversation, the
> attuning to each other which I think Paul Ricoeur has written about.)

(I'll have to take your word on that. I have heard Ricoeur lecture, and
I have read some of his material, but I find him almost perfectly
opaque. I would not be able to tell you anything at all about what he
was saying. People whose opinion I tend to respect say Ricoeur is
brilliant, but alas I am much too dim-witted to follow him.)

> And might not a principle of charity remind us of compassion?

It does seem that something like the principle of charity is at the
heart of right speech and also at the heart of mettaa, of which
compassion is one of the modes. Indeed, I think that being mindful of
the principle of charity in discussion could be the basis of a
substantial and fruitful Buddhist practice.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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