The Philosophy and Psychology of "Contemplative Science": The Problems and Possibilities for an Emerging East-West Connection

By Laumakis, Stephen J.; Robinson-Riegler, Gregory | East-West Connections, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Philosophy and Psychology of "Contemplative Science": The Problems and Possibilities for an Emerging East-West Connection


Laumakis, Stephen J., Robinson-Riegler, Gregory, East-West Connections


Introduction

Even the most casual survey of the various professional journal articles and books dedicated to the study of the nature, value, use, and benefits of meditation in general, as well as the emerging field of the scientific study of contemplation, reveals that this is one of the most active and promising arenas in the comparative study of Eastern and Western thought and practice. A more considered study of this material reveals that each hemisphere has its own long and venerable traditions of adepts and practitioners who have created, developed, and extended their own meditation techniques and contemplative practices. Each tradition has a rich and fascinating history of first-person accounts of the assorted methods, techniques, and supposed benefits of various kinds of meditative and contemplative practices. Yet, even though there are many facets of meditative practices that are common to both traditions, the contemporary Western tradition may be distinguished, in one way, from its Eastern counterpart by its current and ongoing collaboration with both the hard sciences (i.e., physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, etc.) and the social sciences (i.e., psychology, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, etc.). Recently, however, this openness to cooperation and working with the sciences has begun to spread to Eastern practitioners. In fact, Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace observes, "... there are ... historical roots to the principles of contemplation and of science that suggest a possible reconciliation and even integration between the two approaches" (Wallace 1).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Wallace is correct about this, the purpose of this paper is to offer an analysis and critique of the speculative/theoretical and practical/scientific possibilities of "contemplative science." We begin with a conceptual analysis of the terms of the discipline and a brief historical review from the point of view of Western philosophy. We then turn to a practical view of the possibilities of "contemplative science" from the point of view of contemporary Western psychology, with particular attention given to its present-day and potential impact within both the practice and science of psychology. Finally, we conclude with a charitable reading of the prospects of "contemplative science."

Part I

A Philosophical Perspective on "Contemplative Science"

In order to help simplify and focus our discussion of the concepts, definitions, and principles of "contemplative science," we shall be limiting our analysis to Wallace's recent work, Contemplative Science (2007).

Wallace's account of "contemplative science" begins, appropriately enough, with an account of the meaning of "contemplation" and "science." According to Wallace, "The Latin term contemplatio, from which "contemplation" is derived, corresponds to the Greek word theoria. Both refer to a total devotion to revealing, clarifying, and making manifest the nature of reality. Their focus is the pursuit of truth, and nothing less" (Wallace 1). He then quotes the Thomist philosopher and theologian Josef Pieper, who claims, "The first element of the concept of contemplation is the silent perception of reality." In order to help clarify Pieper's claim, Wallace points out that for Pieper, "the silent perception of reality" is a form of knowing arrived at not by thinking but by seeing. In other words, the fundamental difference between ordinary "objective" knowledge and contemplation is that the former involves an active movement on the part of the knower toward its proper object, while in the latter the knower already rests in the possession of its object. This is an important and crucial distinction in Wallace's account of contemplation, and its roots in Western thinking can be traced all the way back to the philosophical ideas of Plato and, more clearly and unambiguously, to his student Aristotle.

What is particularly important and yet problematic in Wallace's definition of "contemplation" is his failure to clearly distinguish (or even note) the differences between the active pursuit of ordinary objective knowledge and the passive reception of contemplative vision or insight. …

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