, Volume 57, Issue 4, pp 581–590 | Cite as

Engaging Engagements with Engaging Buddhism

  • Jay GarfieldEmail author


Buddhist Philosophy 

First, let me thank all three of my critics for their thoughtful and generous engagement with Engaging Buddhism, and Christian Coseru for organizing this session. I have learned a lot from these critical essays, and they raise more important questions and issues than I have space to address here. Rather than address each critic in turn, I would like to address the issues they raise collectively, speaking to each critic in the context of a more general philosophical conversation. I will first address a set of methodological problems they raise, and then turn to a broad set of issues surrounding how we think about experience and what we might learn from the Buddhist tradition about how to interrogate it. I will then respond to some problems about the self before returning to some specific questions about method.


Anita Avramides reflects helpfully on the preconditions of the kind of conversation I am trying to move along. She points out correctly that productive conversation has preconditions, and that includes grand conversations between traditions. And she worries that those preconditions may not be satisfied in the case of the interaction between the Buddhist and Western traditions. I agree with her that these are the kinds of preliminary questions to address. First, Avramides points out that more conversation is needed within the Western tradition itself—that many of our colleagues still haven’t got past the putative continental-analytic divide, for instance. I agree, but I don’t see that as an obstacle. There are similar gulfs within Indian traditions, and even within the Buddhist tradition. Those need to be bridged as well. But our own houses need to be in order before we can go visiting. Sometimes it is useful to visit somebody else’s wreckage to get a perspective on one’s own.

Avramides’ worry about the obstacle that might be posed by Buddhism’s soteriological project is perhaps more serious. Contemporary Western philosophers, as she points out, often take themselves to address problems that are ‘just there.’ Most Buddhist philosophers, on the other hand, take themselves to be engaged in the project of liberation or attaining awakening. So, she suggests, we may not even have enough shared ‘mission’ to have much to talk about; or, to the extent that we do, the constraints on what counts as a reasonable position or argument might be so different that productive interchange might be impossible. These are serious reasons for hermeneutical pessimism.

I have two remarks in defense of my own optimism. First, even the Western philosophical tradition is not bereft of soteriological intent. That is obvious if we attend to the classical and medieval periods—whose texts and concerns we still take seriously professionally today—but it is true of contemporary philosophy as well. Many—though not all—of our colleagues write books and articles, give talks, and teach in the hope that their ideas will lead to better lives for those who pay attention. Second, even when an argument or a philosophical position arises in the context of an explicitly soteriological project, it would be a serious genetic fallacy to refuse to credit it if it is cogent on its own terms. We do not reject the arguments or positions of Aquinas or Scotus simply because they arose in a theological context we now reject. We can extend to the same respect to Buddhist analyses of perception or the self.

Moreover, the claim that the problems we find to be ‘just there’ are really independent of the Abrahamic religious traditions may simply reflect too little hermeneutic distance. Consider, for example, the perennial problem of the ‘freedom of the will.’ This problem is often taken to be ‘just there,’ but in fact, it owes its entire structure, including the invention of the will as a faculty, to Augustine’s meditations on the theodicy problem generated by the fall from Eden. One of the benefits of the kind of dialogue I want to encourage is the achievement of the kind of hermeneutic distance that lets us see problems we thought to be ‘just there’ as religious artifacts. That might change our attitude towards certain corners of our own traditions.

Avramides also raises literary style as a potential obstacle. This is clearly not a major worry in her paper, but it is worth addressing. It is true that the literary style of many texts from the Buddhist tradition is very different from that most often found in Western philosophy. We find poetic or even aphoristic texts that are read and commented on as philosophical treatises, and it takes some practice to learn to read these texts philosophically. But, I would point out, we find such texts in the West as well, including not only texts by ancient philosophers such as Parmenides but also by more recent philosophers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. We have proven to ourselves that we can learn to read philosophy in multiple literary genres and should not be put off when we find similar literary forms elsewhere. Moreover, the Buddhist tradition is also replete with texts that do look more like the typical philosophical treatises and commentaries with which we are more familiar. There is plenty to read even for the person challenged by aphorism and verse.

Finally, Avramides worries that the official conservatism of the Buddhist tradition and its reference point in the words of the historical Buddha pose a serious obstacle to dialogue with an officially progressive western tradition. I honestly think that this is a non-issue. There is a fight to be had within and between each tradition about our respective degree of progressivity. Is all Western philosophy really a series of footnotes to Plato? Is the Mahāyāna a revolutionary advance over earlier Buddhist traditions? These are the kinds of metaphilosophical questions dialogue can stimulate. Stimulating those dialogues can benefit each side, but the fact that the dialogues need to be stimulated is no block to interchange. And to turn to the last issue of this kind that Avramides raises—that of whether the relation of Western philosophy to science is so different from that of Buddhism to science that dialogue would be difficult—the contemporary Buddhist philosophical community is already very much in dialogue with science, led by the present Dalai Lama’s commitment to this modernization of the tradition and his collaboration with Western scientists through such fora as the Mind and Life Institute, in which a number of prominent Western philosophers have participated. Indeed, Evan Thompson’s own ongoing dialogue with Buddhism is mediated through just such an interaction.

Evan Thompson’s critique raises a different set of methodological questions. He points out that my own reference points in the Western tradition include a Sellarsian orientation towards the philosophy of mind and epistemology, an orientation that he takes to distort not only my own thought about the mind, but also the Buddhist tradition. That is a serious charge in this context, because the tendency to distort a tradition with which one engages by refracting it through the wrong lens—confusing a kaleidoscope with a telescope—is one of the greatest dangers in cross-cultural philosophy.

On the other hand, as we learn from Gadamer, we always come to the act of interpretation and to conversation with our own background of prejudices. So, the simple fact that we bring our philosophical perspectives to our practice is not itself a criticism, as Thompson would agree. His worry is more precise: that my prejudices are both wrong and alien to the tradition I am reading. How can one respond? Well, only by doing philosophy and letting the pudding stand as the proof. Now, given different tastes in pudding, there is no end to this process (and for a Sellarsian, this lack of a foundation is something to celebrate, not to lament). But for a start, I will settle for defending my position and for arguing that the analytic perspective I bring to the task does in fact allow us to talk productively.

Thompson’s other significant methodological critique is more implicit, and is bound up with some further substantive issues I will address in the next two sections. Though he does not put it this way, I want to crystallize it as the charge that I misappropriate terms from the Western philosophical lexicon (such as ‘phenomenology’) and reframe techniques (such as bracketing) in a way that so distorts them that one party to the dialogue is simply not present, but is represented by a caricature. This demands a bit of defense before I go any further.

I am trying in Engaging Buddhism to demonstrate how attention to the Buddhist philosophical tradition can help us to extend the Western philosophical imaginary. That involves, inter alia, developing different approaches to phenomenology, not just pursuing European phenomenology with a bit of Sanskrit terminology. So, when I talk about ‘shallow’ and ‘deep phenomenology,’ or ask us to think differently about what bracketing involves in phenomenological reflection, I have chosen to use familiar terms to indicate different species of the same genus. I think that it is an appropriate way to engage in conversation.

Here is an analogy: in the Abrahamic religions, the term ‘theology’ denotes the theory of the deity. In inter-religious dialogue literature, however, it is common to talk about ‘Buddhist theology’ with reference to Buddhist doctrine, despite the fact that Buddhism has no ‘theos,’ no deity. When we use the term this way, we are not misusing it; we are extending its range, learning that religious doctrine can exceed the theory of a god. So, while I acknowledge using some terms from the European tradition in unfamiliar ways, I do not see this as a methodological error, but as a broadening of the senses of these terms in a way that is both natural and necessary. I am, therefore, happy, in the context of this conversation, to broaden the sense of ‘phenomenology,’ so as to see Husserlian phenomenology as a species of a larger genus; to broaden the sense of ‘bracketing,’ and so on, in order to open a broader conversation. I see this as part and parcel of the project of inter-traditional dialogue.

Thinking Through Experience

Eric Schwitzgebel and Evan Thompson are phenomenal realists; I am not. I should also say that within the Buddhist tradition, there are those who agree with Schwitzgebel and Thompson and those who agree with me. My purpose in using Buddhist arguments to defend a non-phenomenalist account of experience is therefore not to urge that Buddhism, per se, is opposed to the reality of qualia, qualitative properties, and the rest, but to show how engaging with some Buddhist arguments can take us in that direction, particularly given the popular tendency to associate Buddhism with a commitment to a doctrine of experiential immediacy. But, of course, I do defend that position; I don’t just offer it for the reader’s delectation, and I do suggest that the most compelling strain of Buddhist thought about the mind—the Madhyamaka tradition—leads us in that direction. So, to go after me on this is a fair game.

Schwitzgebel suggests that I am committed to a false dilemma: that we are either infallible regarding our inner lives or that we have no inner lives at all. He then charges me with concluding from the fact of fallibility that we have no inner lives. I resist that reading of my argument. Instead, I argue that if by ‘qualitative states’ we mean states that are the objects of immediate awareness, the foundation of our empirical knowledge, inner states that we introspect, with qualitative properties that are properties of those states and not of the objects we perceive, there are no such states.

That is a very different argument—one that Evan Thompson, who also resists it, sees as Sellarsian, not Dennettian. To reject the reality of these states (and that, I emphasize, is to reject the Myth of the Given) is to follow Candrakīrti in rejecting the states taken as foundational by such figures as Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. To pair the blueness of the sky with a second property—the qualitative blueness of my inner state when I see the sky—not only multiplies instances of blue, but misses the very logic of sensations, which are called blue because they are the states that causally mediate our experience of blue, not because they are blue.

So, when Schwitzgebel, or Thompson, argues that there must be some fact of the matter about my stream of auditory experience when the bell was chiming, I resist. Talking about my stream of experience is a hermeneutic, not a causal enterprise. That there were neuropsychological processes causally relevant to my present thought that the bell had been ringing before I noticed it is obvious; that there was a ‘stream of experience’ which is a superimposition that may simply be gratuitous, just as to urge that I see a green leaf by first apprehending green qualia is to multiply greens, and solves no problem, as we then have to explain how it is that the apprehension of green qualia gives us any knowledge of green leaves.

Schwitzgebel concedes the danger of idealism here. He should; Buddhist phenomenalists like Dignāga correctly took it to entail idealism. For it is a short step from arguing that the qualities of the tulip are in my mind to an argument that the only tulips I have ever seen are in my mind. Now, if one is willing to swallow the truth of idealism as the consequence of one’s epistemology that is fine. For such a person, I am not an external object in any case, and what I think should hardly matter. But for those of us who take the reality of the external world, and the reality of those who join with us to constitute meaning for granted, and who see intentionality as constituted in that shared arena, absolute subjective idealism should constitute a reductio.

And this does have implications for the problematic and widely used philosophical phrase ‘what it is like,’ a phrase used too often by philosophers like Thompson and Schwitzgebel. It participates in the same multiplication of entities, and the same sealing off of the inner from the outer. It is one thing to ask what the sky is like. We can answer that. But to add to the sky an experience of the sky and to ask what that is like is to multiply objects of experience in exactly the same way. When we ask what something is like, whether we take that thing to be inside or outside of our body, we are asking—if we are being cogent—a question about the ‘object’ of our experience, not about our subjectivity. Thompson and Schwitzgebel insist on an account of ‘phenomenality,’ or ‘consciousness.’ I resist the nominalization, if it is meant more than grammatically. I doubt that there is any single property corresponding to either, and so the idea that there is anything that either is like. They are, I suspect, empty signifiers.

This brings me back to something that I think we can learn from the Madhyamaka tradition, and here is where Thompson and I are principally at odds. (And I suspect that Schwitzgebel is somewhere in between.) We often begin phenomenological reflection, or reflection on the nature of our experience, by assuming that the experience itself is given to us, that there is some immediate component to our inner lives. We also tend to take for granted that our experience is structured by subject-object duality, because that is how we take ourselves to take what we think is given. To take both the immediacy of experience and the veridicality of its apparent structure as the starting point for analysis, and to ask what must be the case in order for us to have this immediate experience, and to be subjects of objects seems obviously correct from a naive perspective. This question then appears to be an unproblematic starting point for transcendental phenomenological reflection.

But that is the attitude that requires bracketing, which amounts to a bracketing both of our commitment to the external world and to an internal world of experience—whether that experiences is taken to be veridical or not. But the thrust of so much Buddhist philosophical reflection—both on the Madhyamaka and in the Yogācāra traditions—is that it is all illusory. To take for granted that even the reality of the appearance of the external and internal world as objects of consciousness and to try to explain that mode of existence is like trying to explain how the water got into the mirage. This is hard to wrap one’s head around: after all, it seems just obvious that we have phenomenal experience. One of the values of engaging Buddhism—not the book, the activity—is that it helps us to wrap our heads around the possibility that phenomenal experience itself is illusory.

This point is also connected to Evan Thompson’s and my deep disagreement regarding introspection. Thompson, in the passage I quote, argues that introspection can be trained to be more accurate, thus taking it as an epistemic activity in which a subject is related more or less successfully to an inner object. The very concept of accuracy demands a reality that can be characterized independently of the instrument by means of which we observe it, and so Thompson—despite his protestations to the contrary—is, I believe, implicitly committed to the view that the objects of inner awareness have a reality and a character independent of our access to them.

That is the claim with which I take issue—and so I also take issue with the claim that there is a standard of accuracy in introspection. For that, again, suggests that the objects of introspection are independent of the act of introspection, and that the reports we offer in introspection are empirical surveys of an inner life, as opposed to interpretations of ourselves and constructions of the illusion of an inner domain. Accuracy, in my view, is simply the wrong way to think about introspective activity.

The Self

I now turn from phenomenology to metaphysics, and the consideration of the self. Avramides, following my colleague Amber Carpenter (and her truly excellent History of Indian Buddhist Philosophy) defends the Pudgalavādin or personalist tradition in arguing that over and above the fundamental sub-personal constituents that constitute the conventional person, there is a distinct entity supervening on them in which the person truly consists. Avramides and Carpenter defend the Pudgalavādin view that such a self is necessary in order to account for subjectivity, agency and the unity of consciousness.

Now anyone from the European tradition sees immediately the attractiveness of Pudgalavāda. This Nyāya-inspired argument is a critique of purely causal accounts of cognitive activity and of the claim that the person is simply the causal continuum on the basis of which other Buddhists say it is imputed. This is anticipatory of Kant’s argument for the transcendental unity of apperception and his argument that the continuity of a transcendental ego is a condition of genuine subjectivity, agency and the unity of consciousness at a time and over time. And this argument, like that of the Pudgalavādins, was mobilized against purely causal and imputational accounts such as Hume’s.

I agree that this position has a great deal of plausibility to it. So did Candrakīrti, who treats it as the most sophisticated error one can commit en route to understanding selflessness. That is one of the reasons I spend time articulating this position in Engaging Buddhism. But from a Madhyamaka perspective, we can also see the difficulties. (And part of what I am trying to do in the book is to show the range of positions available in the Buddhist tradition and the range of arguments deployed within the tradition in internecine polemics; the fact that I defend some positions and reject others is secondary to my purpose. This is also why I am uncomfortable with the language of ‘Buddhist orthodoxy.’ I don’t think there is any such thing. While I defend a Madhyamaka view, many Buddhists would disagree with this. I am more interested in the variety and the arguments than a particular view.)

The problem is that in trying to have the cake of a real self and to eat it through making it an indescribable supervenient entity, the Pudgalavādins fail to accomplish their own goals. One difficulty is that, as Candrakīrti points out, the work of unification that the self is meant to do is insufficient to that task. That work is a real psychological, causal work, and not mere conceptual posit. The processes responsible for any such unity of subjectivity or agency would have to be genuine ground-level psychological processes, just what a supervenient Pudgala can’t do. A second problem, as Candrakīrti also points out, is that the unity that this posit is meant to explain is itself fictitious. While at any moment, we have the illusion that we are unified subjects of experience or agency, he argues, what needs explanation is not that unity, but the illusion, not the water in a, but the mistaken perception. And the illusion does not require anything as rich as the Pudgala.

This is why Candrakīrti, as Locke, was to do a millennium later, regarded personhood as more a forensic than a metaphysical notion, seeing the person as broadly supervenient, not narrowly supervenient. And Candrakīrti argues—this time anticipating Hume, and persuasively, I think—that this sense of personal identity does a better job of explaining the object of self-grasping. While to be sure, it has biological and psychological bases, the person we are is also a function of social and ecological processes.

I like that approach, as it seems to be both metaphysically and naturalistically sound. But once again, the purpose of the book is to enrich the dialogue about personal identity by introducing these voices, and I am happy to have done that, even if I have not convinced everyone of the correctness of the positions I defend. And in this respect, I applaud and thank Avramides for her engagement with the Pudgalavādin tradition and with Carpenter’s defense of it. Her analysis of Pudgalavāda as an anticipation of Strawson’s work is the kind of cross-cultural discussion of which we need more.

Thompson’s tastes in this regard lie on the other side of the spectrum, with the Yogācāra school and its more transcendental notion of subjectivity. Once again, I fear that in arguing that we are in fact constituted by a transcendental apperception or a pure subject position, he is explaining the water, not the mirage. And in fact, as I show in the book in my discussion of The Treatise of the Three Natures, even Vasubandhu, one of the important progenitors of that tradition, argues that subjectivity itself is an illusion, coordinated as it must be with objectivity. If we think that the poles of subject and object in experience are themselves constructed, then an analysis that takes them as given—whether empirically or transcendentally—is the wrong way to go; instead we require an analysis of the origin of the illusion, not of its content.

Thompson goes with the later Yogācāra tradition that introduces reflexive awareness and some version of apperception into the very notion of consciousness. That might appear to be promising, as it replaces a model of an inner subject and an outer object with one in terms of a subject apprehending itself, beyond the obvious problem of idealism. Nonetheless, it retains the idea of primitive subjectivity, which cannot easily be understood in the absence of an object.

I also point out that there is not one view, but a range of views regarding reflexive awareness even among its proponents in the Buddhist tradition. Thompson disagrees with my reading of Dignāga. This is not the place to go in for extended debate about Dignāga exegesis. But Dignāga does clearly state in Pramāṇasamuccaya that the content of every awareness includes the subject as well as the object. I criticize that view. It is instead certain commentators on Dharmakīrti who argue that reflexivity is, as Thompson puts it, the nonconceptual feeling of being aware. I criticize the view that every conscious state must be reflexive in that sense as well. Once again, though, I do not think that we can settle these grand issues in phenomenology here; I do think, however, that introducing these multiple Buddhist voices into the debate gives them added texture, and that, even if I am a Sellarsian heretic, showing how Candrakīrti and Tsongkhapa thought their way into that perspective gives added texture to the heresy.

Thompson also charges me with a long list of misreadings and misrepresentations. He and I disagree deeply about the relevant matters in the philosophy of mind and phenomenology; we also disagree about how to interpret Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and even Thompson (and regarding whether to endorse their views on many particulars). I will, however, confine myself to discussing our disagreements on substance. It would take more space than we have here to respond to each hermeneutical charge.

First of all, note that when I describe Evan Thompson and Dan Zahavi as minimalists, that is—by contrast with others in the neighborhood—a term of approbation, not a disparagement. Thompson’s protestation that they take the self to be even more than minimal would expose the view to even harsher critique. To be sure, both Thompson and Zahavi argue that that narration, embodiment, etc. are relevant to the construction of the sense of self, and I agree. But, as Thompson himself notes in his critical essay that minimal self is taken to be necessary by both of them. My critique is of that notion of a minimal self. I will not address the memory argument in this context. I do think that Thompson simply misses the structure of Śāntideva’s important critique of that argument, but I have written extensively about that both in Engaging Buddhism and in Garfield (2006), and I refer the interested reader to those discussions.

Back to Method

Let me now return to some methodological issues raised by this set of probing critiques. As I noted above, Thompson and Avramides each take me to task—albeit in different registers—for importing Western philosophers and Western philosophical terminology in order to understand Buddhist philosophy. The appropriateness of these appropriations is a vexed matter, and I do not pretend to have found the perfect balance. But I do think that I am close. Here is what I am trying to do in Engaging Buddhism: First, I am trying to demonstrate to philosophers whose entire intellectual horizon is European that they have something to learn from the Buddhist tradition and that they can engage with it.

Second, I am trying to show my colleagues in Buddhist Studies how to learn from the Western tradition and how to talk to their Eurocentric philosopher colleagues. In each case, I think, it makes sense to bring Western voices in, to explain what might at first seem puzzling Buddhist ideas in more familiar terms, to contrast Buddhist ideas with those with which they might be easily confused, and to show how Buddhist ideas can be fruitful in dialogue with Western ideas. The danger of distortion or decontextualization is always present, but I don’t think that the danger counts against the method, only in favor of handling it with care. I hope that I have done so most of the time.

I am not engaging, as Thompson worries that I am, in Buddhist apologetics—an enterprise against which Avramides correctly cautions us. Nowhere do I argue from scriptural authority; nowhere to I privilege any Buddhist position—even those I defend—as correct because they are Buddhist. Nor do I argue that the Buddhist tradition has some unique purchase on philosophical truth or depth. Instead, I am trying to show that a variety of Buddhist positions can contribute to global philosophical debates, and that many are worthy of attention in contemporary debates. I do that sometimes by articulating positions and defending their plausibility, and sometimes by mobilizing them as conversation partners. But to read this as apologetic would be to distort both my aim and my method.

I have also extended certain Western ideas or techniques in the service of dialogue, and here is where Thompson, in particular takes me to task. I insist, though, that to open a possibility dialogue with Buddhist tradition we cannot take European phenomenology as normative, as setting the agenda, as a lens through which all phenomenological reflection must be refracted. I take it that we need to countenance the fact that the phenomenological project can be pursued through other means, and that we can learn more about our own pursuit of that project by considering how it is prosecuted in a different voice, and how that investigation can interact with that initiated in Europe in the early part of the last century.

Thompson also chides me for being too Sellarsian. Well, I am pretty Sellarsian. But I don’t apologize for that. Many others, including Dan Arnold, Georges Dreyfus, and Tom Tillemans have noted the important resonances between Sellars’ philosophical approach and that of Tibetan Prasaṅgika Mādhyamikas. I think that those resonances are important, and given the resurgence of interest in Sellars’ philosophy these days, one way to demonstrate the relevance of the Buddhist tradition to contemporary debates is to make those resonances salient.

Schwitzgebel makes a very good methodological point at the close of his remarks. He points out that a cross-cultural engagement should open, rather than close off, philosophical options, I could not agree more heartily, and to the extent that my own polemic has suggested a closing off of options, that is a failing in the book. That was certainly not my intention. My intention in not only developing exegesis of Buddhist ideas, but using the polemically in the context of Western debates was rather to argue by demonstration, by example. That is, I wanted to show how to engage by engaging. Now in doing so, I inevitably prosecute my own philosophical agenda. But my hope was to draw attention to a sufficient range of positions and arguments within the vast Buddhist tradition that my interlocutors in these debates could also find rich Buddhist resources to buttress their own views, as indeed Evan Thompson and Christian Coseru, among others, have done. And Eric Schwitzgebel has demonstrated the value of just such engagement with the Chinese tradition, work, from which we have learned a great deal. So yes, let hundreds of hybrid flowers bloom, and may their hybridity grant them vigor!

Celebrating Engagement

I want to close by celebrating the actual engagement with Buddhism evident in this set of replies. Evan Thompson reads and takes seriously both Yogācāra and Madhyamaka, and indeed non-Buddhist Indian traditions, and does so in dialogue with phenomenology and cognitive science. Anita Avramides read Pudgalavādin literature and mobilized a good Buddhist argument against me, in exactly the manner to which I just adverted. Her engagement with Buddhism demonstrated how to bring the work of Peter Strawson and that of the classical Buddhist tradition into productive conversation. The fact that we disagree about certain conclusions, or even in philosophical orientation, is immaterial; the fact that we can have a conversation in which voices from both traditions are prominent is simply wonderful. And as Avramides points out—and, in fact in this twenty-fifth anniversary year of his untimely passing—we are preceded in this process of engagement by Bimal Matilal and his interlocutors. We could mention others as well, past and present. I would never pretend to be the first to engage in this enterprise, but I would love to be the last to have to encourage it.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Smith College and Harvard Divinity SchoolNorthamptonUSA

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