On Footnotes

What is a “footnote”?

Merriam-Webster defines a footnote as… “a note of reference, explanation, or comment…usually placed below the text on a printed page“. A secondary definition says that a footnote is something “that is a relatively subordinate or minor part of an event, work, or field of interest.

I’ve titled my inquiries and contemplations as…”Footnotes to a Life”. I found inspiration for this title in two disparate and, at least for me, inextricably linked areas of investigation. More particularly, I am citing specific comments by two completely different thinkers from the early twentieth century. Alfred North Whitehead and Kodo Sawaki.

Alfred North Whitehead was an English mathematician and philosopher who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. While Whitehead’s name may not be overly familiar today, in 1929 Whitehead published one of the twentieth century’s most startling, sophisticated and complex works of original philosophy…Process and Reality.

A. N. Whitehead's Process Philosophy (introductory notes ...

In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote that…”The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Wow! What a line. For a philosopher, that was a collection of sharp words indeed.

And, it was not Whitehead’s only insightful comment in the book.

The second inspiration for using “Footnotes to a Life” comes from Japanese thinker, Kodo Sawaki.

“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi was one of Zen Buddhism’s most highly regarded teachers. Sawaki has been widely attributed with the comment that…”All of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen.

Like Whitehead…that wasn’t Sawaki’s only profound comment.

The Buddha Mudra - The Bray Meditation Space

I have no information about whether Whitehead and Sawaki were aware of each other’s work or perspectives. What strikes me is….the similarity between the two comments. It can’t be ignored.

Separated as they were by only 20-years in age, I view the two thinkers as contemporaries. Whitehead worked as a philosopher and mathematician in England and Sawaki was a Zen Buddhist priest in Japan. But they both used that metaphor of a footnote to convey something about their work.

Their comments were directed to different genres of thought. I enjoy the notion that Sawaki and Whitehead would have appreciated each other’s outlook if they had been aware of each other’s work. Indeed, based upon the modest exposure I’ve had to their respective writings, I expect they would have found agreement on several other matters as well.

The sameness of the comments is an elegant and profound underscoring of the similarities and differences between the Buddhist…and perhaps more broadly, Eastern philosophy and the European…and again, perhaps more broadly, Western philosophy. The emphasis on action and practice in the east. The emphasis on theory and words in the west.

“Footnotes” seems to be the most apt explanation of what my articles are all about. My articles are explanations and expositions; they are also subordinate parts to the subjects that they cover and to the living of a life. For all of that, I hope that they are valuable in themselves.

And there we have my inspiration for the title “Footnotes to a Life”. My inquiries and contemplations are indeed a subordinate, or minor, part of my life and interests. But they are also a reference. And a comment.

And an explanation.