What conversation are we in?

In a large sense—macrocosmically—are we engaged in a Buddhist conversation? In a semiotic one? A psychological one? An anthropological one? An uncategorizable, open, Internet one?

In a small sense—microcosmically—we would do well to ask ourselves this question every time we interact with anyone. Points to consider in these cases are: how much time do we have; what factors are we considering and how are we weighing them; are we understanding each other well; why are we talking at all, and so on?

The URL of this site is americanbuddhist.net, so I suppose we are engaging in a Buddhist conversation. With American characteristics, whatever that means.

We’ve had this site for a few years, and in the early days got so many comments about how there is no such thing as “American Buddhism” that I felt the need to define it as a largely geographical term.

Most “modern Buddhists” living outside of traditional Buddhist areas would probably agree that Buddhism itself is really a conversation, an ongoing research project, a way of actively thinking, a participatory tradition that is not written in stone and never has been written in stone.

This is surely the position of American Buddhist Net and I am all but certain the Buddha himself would agree with us. Maybe he would not agree with the specifics of everything we say, but he would surely support our wish to think for ourselves and apply the Dharma to the world and lives we are now living.

So, I suppose this is largely a Buddhist-oriented, open Internet conversation that often brings up semiotics and, to a lesser degree, psychology and anthropology. The more I think about semiotics, the more I see it as a very valuable modern angle on Buddhism. More on that in a moment.

The more I think about Buddhism and semiotics, the less I seem to think about psychology. For example, I hardly use the term personality anymore because it just doesn’t say much from either a Buddhist or a semiotic point of view. In the first place, from a Buddhist point of view, anything we might call personality is always changing; it’s impermanent, empty, transformable. True, Buddhism does recognize “persistent traits,” but this term is not used often and it is rarely, if ever, used to define someone in the way our current sense of personality defines people.

FIML practice will show partners fairly quickly how much of their thinking about each other is based on unsupportable notions concerning personalities and what they are and how they function.

From a semiotic point of view, especially one informed by Buddhism, we can see much the same thing—as soon as you try to say what someone’s personality is, you will generate a new sign that needs further analysis, and so on ad infinitum. The fact that we will be faced with an “infinite interpretation,” an “infinite continuum,” where we will never be able to find an “absolute individual” very much recalls Buddhist thinking on emptiness.

I first encountered the idea that semiotics shows us that there are no “absolute individuals” in Umberto Eco’s excellent The Limits of Interpretation, which I recommend.

In place of personality, I now see individuals as more or less manifesting cultural or anthropological characteristics which they communicate as semiotic signs, symbols, and “meanings.”

When you talk to close friends or partners, you have to do a good job at microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analysis. If you don’t, you will make many mistakes and soon come to feel estranged from your friends and/or be forced to relate to them in static ways. If you don’t do FIML or something very much like it, you will be all but forced to cling to static semiotics. FIML could be defined as “microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analysis” between friends.

So far, in my readings on semiotics, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, or Buddhism, I have not seen anything that asks people to engage in “microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analyses” with each other. Nothing like FIML.

Maybe there is something, but I haven’t seen it. That’s the reason I started this post the way I did. What kind of conversation are we having? Is it possible for one person to read that widely in so many subjects? I don’t think it is. I probably know more about Buddhism, or have read more widely and thought more about it, than the other subjects. So, for me, this conversation is centered in Buddhism more than the other subjects. I like the way Buddhism is grounded in morality, so that’s another reason.

Semioticians tend to talk a lot about philosophy and literature, while Buddhism centers us more in the lives we are living as we perceive them, however fallibly.

Here are a few terms from semiotics that will be helpful to Buddhists: fallibilism, synechism, vaugeness or indeterminacy.

Fallibilism is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world.

Synechism holds that the essential feature in philosophic speculation is continuity. It denies that all is merely ideas, likewise that all is merely matter, and mind-matter dualism. To my understanding, synechism denies in principle the “absolute individual,” or in Buddhist terms the “own being” of anything, which is another way of saying all things are empty.

Vagueness or indeterminacy, especially with regard to speech acts, mean that we can never be completely certain of what others mean or what we are hearing.

Semiotics is at the center of some other modern major innovations in how we think, such a deconstructionism, relative frames theory, and the vague, propositional indeterminacy that underlies multiculturalism. I often wonder how much semioticians and modern philosophers have been influenced by Buddhist ideas.

Taken together, the study of semiotics and Buddhism deeply changes the way we see the world and live our lives. They affect how we understand what it is to be human, how we communicate, and what we communicate. Buddhism is an excellent foundation for semiotics, while semiotics can extend Buddhist concepts into a more detailed, modern idiom.

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