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Reason, Irrationality and Akrasia (Weakness of the Will) in Buddhism: Reflections upon Śāntideva’s Arguments with Himself


Let it be granted that Buddhism has, e.g., in its logical literature, detailed canons and explicit rules of right reason that, amongst other things, ban inconsistency as irrational. This is the normative dimension of how people should think according to many major Buddhist authors. But do important Buddhist writers ever recognize any interesting or substantive role for inconsistency and forms of irrationality in their account of how people actually do think and act? The article takes as its point of departure a recurring theme in the writings of the 8th Century Indian Buddhist thinker, Śāntideva, who subjects his own behaviour and thought to minute scrutiny in argumentation with himself, only to be puzzled at his own seemingly irrational persistence in ways of thinking that he knows to be wrong and actions that he knows to be worse courses. The Buddhist’s situation is profitably comparable to issues of akrasia, weakness of the will, that are taken up by Plato, Aristotle and many modern philosophers, including notably Donald Davidson and David Wiggins.

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  1. Note that “rational” is often used, inter alia, to describe what is simply based on reasoning, be that reasoning more or less sound or unsound, good or bad; or it is used to qualify beings that are endowed with the capacity to engage in reasoning. The adjective is also, of course, as in the passage from Charles Taylor, used in a normative and evaluative sense, to characterize thinking, speech, behaviour, etc. that are in keeping with good reasoning. In what follows, we are using the term in that latter sense. This is close to the use of the Sanskrit terms such as yukta/nyāyya and their Tibetan and Chinese translations rigs pa, cheng li, etc. Cf., however, van Eemeren and Grootendorst (2004, pp. 123–125), where the use of the term “rational” is stipulatively limited to the first sense and the term “reasonable” is reserved for the good uses of reason.

  2. There may be, e.g., in certain early Buddhist texts, and perhaps in certain Chan texts, non-standard conceptions which have a greater tolerance of inconsistency. That would need a separate treatment and I’m not going to delve into such issues here; accordingly my focus will be upon the “standard conception.” There is in any case no doubt that many Buddhists do profess a standard conception of reason where avoidance of contradiction is an explicitly invoked iron-clad rule: it is abundantly attested in their own philosophical theories, their canons of debate (vāda) and in their polemical refutations of adversaries.

  3. Candrakirti, Prasannapadā, ed. de la Vallée Poussin (1970: 15.9–10): atha svābhyupagamavirodhacodanayāpi paro na nivartate, tadāpi nirlajjatayā hetudṛṣṭāntābhyām api naiva nivarteta / na conmattakena sahāsmākaṃ vivāda iti. “But if the opponent did not desist even when confronted with a contradiction in his own position, then too, as he would have no shame, he would not desist at all even because of a logical reason and example. Now, as it is said, for us there is no debate with someone who is out of his mind.”

  4. The falsity of theories that explain behaviour only in terms of maximizing utility/happiness is the consequence that David Wiggins draws from akrasia. See Wiggins (1998).

  5. Emma Bovary’s persuading herself that she would be swept off her feet by her lover and her elaborating numerous other romantic scenarios about love and even her own sainthood, all the while knowing they were not so, can be regarded as case studies of epistemic akrasia. Such is the analysis in Davidson (2004b).

  6. Although my analysis differs from that of Hayes (1996), I do agree with him on the importance, in this connection, of the Buddhist’s theory of personal identity and “modularization” of the self. See Sect. 7 below.

  7. On Buddhist quietism and the role for argumentation, including argumentation with oneself, see our introduction to this volume.

  8. Cf. Wiggins (1998, pp. 239–240): “Almost anyone not under the influence of theory will say that, when a person is weak-willed, he intentionally chooses that which he knows or believes to be the worse course of action when he could choose the better course. … But there are philosophers of mind and moral philosophers who have felt a strong theoretical compulsion to rewrite the description, rather than allow the phenomenon of weakness of will to appear as an incontrovertible refutation of the theories of mind or morality that they are committed to defend.”

  9. For the canonical schema of four viparyāsa, see Abhidharmakośabhāṣya ad V.8, translation de la Vallée Poussin, tome IV, p. 21.

  10. I am of course once again thinking of that great Texan akrates, Lyle Lovett.

  11. The central idea is that of Davidson, encapsulated in one of the three quotations with which we began this article. See the elaboration in Davidson (l980, p. 42).

  12. See Ricard (2006, pp. 26–27): “However we go about looking for it, and whether we call it joy or duty, passion or contentment, isn’t happiness the goal of all goals? … Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t really know what he wants; he is simply seeking happiness under another name.” An appeal to the self-evidence of the fact that people do what they do because they rationally (but misguidedly) calculate it will maximize their happiness is clearly found in a recent article by the American monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2006). On p. 43 we are provided with the following diagnosis of what underlies attachment to things like alcohol: “… in your calculation, the immediate pleasure derived from the alcohol outweighs the long-term damage it’s doing to your life. … We’re attached to things and actions, not because of what we think they are but because of what we think they can do for our happiness.”

  13. On Buddhist ethics as virtue ethics rather than utilitarianism, see Keown (2001). Buddhists’ narratives of dilemmas would seem to show that they, like most of us, are faced with what Thomas Nagel calls a “fragmentation of value”, i.e. competing values that come into conflict, and no single criterion to decide everything (Nagel 1979, Ch. 9).

  14. Cf. Wiggins’ remarks cited in footnote 8 above. To persist in saying that Śāntideva just cannot actually know or believe such truths is tantamount to a refusal to allow challenges to a faulty background theory.

  15. Pramāṇavārttika I, 222 and Svavṛtti (ed. Gnoli 1960, p. 111): kaḥ punar eṣāṃ doṣānāṃ prabhavo yatpratipakṣābhyāsāt prahīyante/sarvāsāṃ doṣajātīnāṃ jātiḥ satkāyadarśanāt//sā avidyā tatra tatsnehas tasmād dveṣādisambhavaḥ//222//na hi nāhaṃ na mameti paśyataḥ parigraham antareṇa kvacit snehaḥ/na cānanurāgiṇaḥ kvacid dveṣaḥ/ātmātmīyānuparodhiny uparodhapratighātini ca tadabhāvāt/tasmāt samānajātīyābhyāsajam ātmadarśanam ātmīyagrahaṃ prasūte/tau ca tatsnehaṃ sa ca dveṣādīn iti satkāyadarśanajāḥ sarvadoṣāḥ/tad eva ca ajñānam ity ucyate/.

  16. For references to the two senses of ignorance in Candrakīrti’s Pañcaskandhaprakaraṇa and to “defiled intelligence” in the Yogācārabhūmi, see Seyfort Ruegg (2002, n. 148). For satyābhimāna, see Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatārabhāṣya ad Madhyamakāvatāra VI.28, translation de la Vallée Poussin (1910, pp. 304–305).

  17. These components are mental elements (dharma) classified into “minds” (citta) and “mental factors” (caitta)—this is the sort of thing that is explained in extraordinary detail in scholastic texts like the Abhidharmakośa and so many others of the Abhidharma genre. Fragmentation of the mind into such components is also explained, or presupposed, in Yogācāra and Madhyamaka Buddhism, even if the positions on the ontological status of such elements will differ from that of the Abhidharma. Compartmentalization is, in short, part of basic Buddhism.

  18. See the passage from Pramāṇavārttikasvavṛtti quoted in Sect. 5.

  19. Cf. Davidson (2004b, p. 217): “The distinction we need here is between believing contradictory propositions and believing a contradiction, between believing that p and believing that not-p on the one hand, and believing that (p and not-p) on the other.” I have taken up Buddhist uses of non-adjunctive inconsistencies in some detail in “How do Mādhyamikas Think? Notes on Jay Garfield, Graham Priest and Paraconsistency,” forthcoming in the papers of the BILAP (Buddhism in Logic and Analytic Philosophy) conference in Cambridge, 2005, ed. Jay Garfield, Mario D’Amato and Tom Tillemans. One could even weaken the inconsistency further by saying, with Wiggins, that perspectives may embody incommensurable values.

  20. The objection is that of the Brahmanical schools. But see also Davidson (2004a, p. 171) for a similar objection.

  21. The ideas of a “panoptical scanner” and “transparency” are developed by Rorty (1988).

  22. Utpaladeva takes as an example the case of the two separate cognitions in Dharmakīrti’s account of non-perception (anupalabdhi) of a jar, i.e., the cognition of an empty place, like a table, and the cognition of it being devoid of jars. Lacking a type of panoptical scanner, i.e., a unitary svasaṃvedana that grasps both, the first cognition could not lead to the second. The example is generalized by the Shaivite to show that all separate cognitions can “communicate” with each other and enter into networks because of this illuminating feature of consciousness.


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Correspondence to Tom J. F. Tillemans.

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Versions of this article were presented to the Philosophy Department of National Taiwan University, the Buddhist Studies program in Smith College, the Sanskrit and Indian Studies Department in Harvard and the congress of the International Society for the Study of Argumentation at the University of Amsterdam. My thanks to many questioners and critics.

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Tillemans, T.J.F. Reason, Irrationality and Akrasia (Weakness of the Will) in Buddhism: Reflections upon Śāntideva’s Arguments with Himself. Argumentation 22, 149–163 (2008).

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  • Śāntideva
  • Dharmakīrti
  • Akrasia
  • Inconsistency
  • Rationality
  • Ethics