Rice’s Timothy Morton explores Buddhism’s ‘nothing’ in new book

“Nothing,” a concept essential to Buddhism, is the topic of a new book co-authored by Rice’s Timothy Morton, a philosopher and the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English. Available in print this month, “Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism” aims to open up new spaces in which the radical cores of Buddhism and critical theory are renewed and revealed.

The book is part of the University of Chicago Press’ “Trios” series, which features books addressing an important theme in critical theory, philosophy or cultural studies through three extended essays written in close collaboration by leading scholars.

“Trios is a fantastic series where three scholars actually talk something through in print,” said Morton, whose co-authors were Marcus Boon, professor of English at York University in Toronto, and Eric Cazdyn, the Distinguished Professor of Aesthetics and Politics at the University of Toronto. “It’s not just another collection of essays. My contribution was to defend Buddhism against detractors who claim it is narcissistic. I do this by paradoxically defending narcissism. If you got rid of narcissism completely, you couldn’t relate to other beings at all. And from a certain Buddhist point of view, you yourself are one of those other beings.”

Morton’s examination held intriguing connections to his work in advancing the object-oriented ontology (OOO) movement). “Object-oriented philosophy comes into play when you think about meditation,” he said. “When you meditate, you are experiencing your ‘mind,’ whatever that is. A funny, ‘narcissistic’ way of putting it is to say that experience is experiencing experience. What happens when you do that? You don’t find anything! Your mind sort of disappears. But there you are, using it. So you can’t quite find your mind, but it appears nonetheless. This is just exactly what things do, according to OOO. We can’t directly point to them, but they appear nonetheless.”

According to the authors, the book fills a gap. Though contemporary European philosophy and critical theory have long had a robust engagement with Christianity, there has been no similar engagement with Buddhism. This is a surprising lack, given Buddhism’s global reach and obvious affinities with much of Continental philosophy, they said. Focusing on “nothing” — essential to Buddhism, but also a key concept in critical theory from Hegel and Marx through deconstruction, queer theory and contemporary speculative philosophy – the authors engage in an elaboration of emptiness in both critical and Buddhist traditions; an examination of the problem of praxis in Buddhism, Marxism and psychoanalysis; and an explication of a “Buddhaphobia” that is rooted in modern anxieties about nothingness.

Since coming to Rice in 2012, Morton has been building programs in ecological theory, energy and sustainability. He is the author of many books, including “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World” (2013), and blogs daily at www.ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com.

Morton is co-directing the Humanities Research Center’s yearlong Rice Seminar, “After Biopolitics.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.