Book Review of Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy by Jay L. Garfield (Reviewed by Mark Siderits)

Jay L. Garfield. Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. xxii + 376 pp., index. NY: Oxford University Press, 2015. $29.95 (paperback).

My job in reviewing this book is made much easier by something Garfield says early on: ‘Mark Siderits and I rarely agree’ (xvi). I agree. And since I don’t want to disappoint, much of my review will be devoted to what I would identify as difficulties. But I should say right away that there is much here that I can happily endorse. I won’t dwell on that though, lest I be accused of being a closet dialetheist.

I predict that fans of Garfield’s earlier work will enjoy this book, but he seems to be aiming at a larger audience. The book’s title tells us he is addressing Western philosophers who don’t take the Buddhist philosophical tradition seriously; he wants to tell them that’s a mistake, that progress can sometimes be made by looking at historically distinct traditions. The early chapters of this book lay out his understanding of some key Buddhist philosophical positions; these are followed by chapters on specific areas where Garfield thinks Buddhist voices might contribute to current debates. The chapter on dependent origination and impermanence, for instance, ends with a discussion of the bearing Buddhist views might have on recent disputes between 3-dimensionalist and 4-dimensionalist accounts of diachronic identity. A chapter on the self closes with a comparison of minimalism about the self – the currently popular view that rejects both a Cartesian soul-pellet and the straightforward reduction of persons to causal series of psychophysical elements – and what Garfield identifies as the Madhyamaka position. A chapter on consciousness discusses ways in which Buddhist accounts might provide correctives to qualia-philia, zombie-philia, and other fashions in consciousness studies. The chapter on logic and the philosophy of language suggests that Buddhists always recognized the logical possibility of true contradictions, as well as the claim that Buddhist philosophy decisively refutes the 3rd-realm entities involved in Fregean semantics and modal discourse. And in the chapter on Buddhist ethics he suggests that something he calls moral phenomenology represents a distinctive Buddhist approach to solving a problem faced by all moral theorizing, that of specifying what has explanatory priority in that theoretical enterprise.

But will this work for the new audience he wants to attract? I sometimes had the impression that Garfield thinks the chief takeaway from Buddhist philosophy is the quietist’s advice that we renounce all metaphysical enterprises. (This may not be too surprising given the evident centrality of Candrakīrti’s and Tsongkhapa’s Madhyamaka to Garfield’s reading of Buddhist philosophy.) Instead we should be doing something he calls moral phenomenology. To my ears this sounds a little like cognitive-behavioral therapy. Make no mistake, I think CBT can be a great thing. But I’m not sure how many professional philosophers will be drawn to take the Buddhist philosophical tradition more seriously in their own work if they understand Buddhist philosophizing as chiefly a matter of ridding oneself of the errors of conceptualization and embracing the everyday world.  This may not be the best book to give one’s mono-cultural philosophy colleagues.

Given the high editorial standards of the publisher, there are surprisingly many mistakes that might have been caught by more careful proofreading. Among these are errors in transliteration of Sanskrit terms that readers of this blog may find distracting, such as: ‘Abhidharmika’ instead of ‘Ābhidharmika’ (62, 116); ‘vyapti’ instead of ‘vyāpti’ (217 n.3); ‘svasasaṃvedanā’ for ‘svasaṃvedana’ (127); ‘samprajaña’ for ‘samprajñā’ (127); ‘Nyāyikas’ (223) or ‘Nayāyikas’ (252) for ‘Naiyāyikas.’ Somewhat more troubling are claims like this one concerning the Personalists: ‘pudgalavāda’ is actually an epithet attached to the proponents of this view, who called themselves Vātsiputrīyas or inexpressibilists’ (109 n.13); Vātsiputrīya simply means ‘related to Vatsiputra’, and has nothing to do with the school’s doctrine that the relation between pudgala and skandhas is inexpressible. Then there is the claim that according to Dignāga the form (ākāra) and not the external object ‘is the intentional object (artha)’ of perception (134). The term Dignāga actually uses for an intentional object in v.1 of Ālambanaparīkṣā is viṣaya; in this context artha would be the external object. (The meanings of artha and ālambana are similarly reversed at 192.) Garfield also gives an English translation of the Tibetan translation of the svavṛtti of Madhyamakāvatāra that has Candrakīrti quoting the Laṅkāvatāra to the effect that a finger cannot cut itself (143). This would be an odd thing to say. But a quick check of the Sanskrit shows that it is a sword that is said not to cut its own blade, while what it says a finger can’t do is touch its own tip (de La Vallée Poussin’s French translation of the Tibetan translation of Madhyamkāvatāra confirms this reading). In his discussion of the term svabhāva Garfield tells the reader that bhāva means ‘being’(61); a quick check of Monier-Williams would have shown that ‘nature’ is also a primary meaning. (To his credit, Garfield does mostly stick to ‘intrinsic nature’ as his rendering of svabhāva in Madhyamaka and Abhidharma usages.) Likewise Monier-Williams’ first entry for satya is ‘truth’, not ‘that which is existent or is the case’ (57).

Editing difficulties are not confined to Sanskrit, as evidenced by ‘if he … is correct, than his language must be empty…’ (251). Somewhat more alarming, a crucial ‘not’ seems to have been omitted from this sentence: ‘They each apprehend conventional existence, but the first does so as do most of us ordinarily, but as sophisticated Mādhyamikas do, inferentially’ (239). And then there is ‘interdependence’, Garfield’s preferred translation for pratītya-samutpāda. This preference invites attributing to all Buddhists the distinctively Huayan doctrine that everything depends for its nature on everything else. Garfield is generally good about making clear that most Buddhist philosophers are committed only to the much weaker claim that every existent depends for its existence on many other prior entities and events. But not always. Nor is he always good about blocking the easy slide from ‘everything depends for its existence on other things’ to ‘everyone depends on everyone else’, something readily taken to furnish a sort of grounding of morality. So he invokes ‘a vast causal nexus’ to explain why taking pleasure in the sufferings of others is ‘detrimental … to ourselves’ (294-5). This move threatens to transform the argument for impersonal benevolence based on non-self into just another appeal to enlightened self-interest.

Other difficulties might not be due to mere lack of editorial vigilance. In his account of Abhidharma views on causation, Garfield says that the hetu-pratyaya of the rice sprout is ‘a good soaking rain’, that the ālambana-pratyaya of a book on the table is the table that holds it up, and that the adhipati-pratyaya of the barley sprout is the barley one wishes to harvest, i.e., the goal of the action (29-30). But it is the seed that is standardly identified as the hetu-pratyaya of the sprout; physical objects like books do not have ālambana-pratyayas, only cognitions do; and there is to my knowledge nothing like a notion of final cause in Indian Buddhism. Garfield also repeats the claim one has begun to hear more frequently (and perhaps traceable to a certain strand of Theravādin revisionism) that Theravāda is unlike other Abhidharma schools in not doing metaphysics but phenomenology (18; 46 n.14). This would come as a surprise to Buddhaghosa and to the compilers of Kathāvatthu.

There is a related difficulty in Garfield’s account of Buddhist semantics. He says its nominalist metaphysics precludes the existence of such third-realm abstract objects as propositions (which he claims are needed for a correspondence account of truth). Of course Buddhist nominalism would entail the rejection of propositions, but he goes on to identify the pratijñā of Nyāya epistemology as just such an entity (250-51). Some years ago there was a symposium held in Pune in which Nyāya pandits and analytically trained philosophers discussed the notion of the proposition. Once the pandits understood what propositions are thought to be, they were quite adamant that their tradition did not recognize them, and that this was no failing. Garfield does later concede that taking Nāgārjuna to be criticizing Fregean semantics may be a bit of a stretch, but says that extrapolating in this way allows us to see ‘nascent concerns’ in Indian philosophy ‘that might otherwise escape notice’ (328). The trouble with this is that if we are certain in advance that the extrapolation is justifiable, we may miss ways in which Nāgārjuna’s interlocutors actually avoided the difficulties of Fregean semantics.

This brings me to a bigger problem. I share Garfield’s desire to bring the Buddhist tradition into dialogue with Western philosophy. I also think both sides can profit from such exchanges. But to pull this off one must work very hard to avoid reading elements of one’s ‘native’ tradition into what one finds in the tradition one is exploring for novel resources. It is all too easy, for instance, to read Berkeley into Yogācāra arguments for subjective idealism. But many of Berkeley’s arguments presuppose epistemological and semantic internalism, while those of Vasubandhu and Dignāga do not. Garfield reads semantic internalism into Yogācāra when he says that once we recognize that sensory experience is mediated by our sense faculties, the idea that an external object resembles our experience ‘makes no sense’ (74). Dignāga does deny that the external object could resemble our sensory experience, but not on verificationist grounds. There’s a similar problem with Garfield’s claim that Madhyamaka shows ‘we don’t even know what we mean when we assert that something exists simpliciter’ (36). If Putnam is right that meanings ‘ain’t in the head’, then our not knowing is no bar to a claim’s being meaningful and possibly true.

There may be something similar going on in Garfield’s championing of a dialetheist reading of the catuṣkoṭi in Madhyamaka. Garfield says that Mādhyamikas are not committed to rejecting all contradictions because they are not committed to the principle of explosion – that everything follows from a contradiction (248). It may be true that no Mādhyamika endorses the principle of explosion. But Candrakīrti does say that anyone who utters a contradiction is crazy (unmattaka) and not worth debating (Prasannapadā 15). And the Indian Buddhist commentarial tradition has always been scrupulous about explaining away all seeming violations of the laws of classical logic in utterances made using the catuṣkoṭi framework (usually through parameterization). Paraconsistent logics are cool things. Madhyamaka can be cool as well. But the urge to find allies in support of the causes we champion can sometimes restrict our vision. And that’s not so cool if what we are looking for are fresh insights.

There’s a fine line one must walk in order to facilitate a conversation between distinct philosophical traditions. Liberties must be taken – one will sometimes need to extrapolate from what the old texts do say in order to work out how they might respond to a position or an issue of which they were innocent. But if the liberties one takes are driven by what one wants the old texts to say given where one thinks the new view has it wrong, there’s the danger of turning the discussion into something quite different from the engagement Garfield and I both want to see. The interests of Native Americans were not well served when they were drawn into the proxy wars of the French and the English in North America.

I said I wouldn’t dwell on areas where Garfield and I agree, but there are a few points I feel I must mention. Of course we share a deep commitment to bringing the Buddhist tradition (I would add the āstika Indian tradition) into the modern philosophy canon. We both believe that philosophical progress can be fostered by looking at what another tradition has done with a particular issue. I agree that consciousness studies is one such area that may prove fruitful. I agree that Buddhist philosophical methods represent a valuable corrective to the intuition-mongering and modal metaphysics that pervade current philosophical practice. I agree that the semantics of apoha represents an important resource for thinking about the consequences of radical nominalism. And maybe there’s more. But I should stop here lest I be accused of (truly) contradicting what I said earlier.

Reviewed by Mark Siderits, Seoul National University

9 thoughts on “Book Review of Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy by Jay L. Garfield (Reviewed by Mark Siderits)

  1. Very interesting review. Thanks for showing how a similar concern (making Buddhist philosophy (or Indian philosophy in general) part of the philosophical debate) can lead to different outputs. Si parva licet componere magnis, I have argued (here) that I am inclined to think that one needs to take into account the original context of an idea carefully, since it is exactly this kind of exercise of displacing oneself from one’s familiar context(s) that can make reading alien philosophical texts a challenging and fruitful experience.

    As for the phenomenology vs. metaphysics in Theravāda, I thought that this reading was due to Pjatigorskij’s interpretation of Abhidharma —but I might be wrong and would be glad to read other people’s opinions about it.

    • I tend to be of the opinion that anti-metaphysical readings of Buddhism are mostly a symptom of the rabidly anti-metaphysical climate of the contemporary West (at least the United States) – typically attached to the idea that we would be so much better off if all those damn religious people would just shut up about this God crap and let us get on with the really important things in life like eating organic gluten-free kale.

      It’s a caricature, of course, and I am not saying that about Garfield because I haven’t read the book. But I do think at a more general level, people have a tendency to project their preexisting prejudices onto the traditions they study (in multiple directions); and since the culture in the contemporary English-speaking world is one seized by a visceral hatred of metaphysics (when it even bothers to deign learning what metaphysics is), that reading tends to be way commoner than it should be.

      Specifically in this case, Siderits claims that Garfield’s anti-metaphysics comes from Candrakīrti rather than the abhidhamma. If Siderits is right about Garfield (and again I want to bracket that since I haven’t read the book), then this strikes me as a misinterpretation of Candrakīrti. To the extent that Candrakīrti is an anti-metaphysical thinker, he’s an anti-everything-else thinker as well. Wittgensteinian quietism is entirely alien to Candrakīrti: the very worst thing we could do is ignore questions about the nature of reality and go back to our everyday ways of being. Rather, it is our examination of metaphysical questions that allows us to see that anything we can imagine, metaphysical and otherwise, is empty, and therefore be liberated. (Cf. here.)

  2. I’m not sure if this is the right place to ask this question but I feel its relevant in understanding some facets of the nature of Buddhist philosophy: did any Buddhist intellectuals ever make any contributions to secular learning/sāstra like grammar, mathematics, etc and if not, did an understanding of the mundane world as simply an obstacle in the path of liberation/enlightenment play a part.

    • Averroes,

      Depending on what you mean by ‘secular learning”, an intriguing Indian figure in this respect is the eleventh-century Bengali Buddhist scholar VidyAkara, abbot at the monastery of Jagaddala and compiler of the *SubhASitaratnakoSa*, a marvellous anthology of Sanskrit “court poetry”. (Daniel Ingalls’s complete translation appeared as *An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry”, Harvard 1965 and a later abridgment of this as “Sanskrit Poetry* 1968.)

      This anthology includes a large selection of “secular” verse, including many love poems. Among the selections are a number of poems said to be by the Buddhist philosopher DharmakIrti, and Ingalls mentions that there is even a tradition that the philosopher DharmakIrti himself also wrote a (lost) work on figures of speech (*AlaMkAra*).

    • Averroes, I agree with Amod and Roy,
      and would like to add the examples of the important contribution to Grammar by Buddhist scholars, cf. the Candravyākaraṇa in Sanskrit and the various Pāli grammars, about which you can read interesting contributions by Alastair Gornell and by our Aleix Ruiz-Falqués, e.g., here;
      and the case of the essential contribution to logic and epistmology of the so-called Pramāṇavāda school, which —as discussed by Steinkellner— is deeply grounded in its Buddhist roots.

      However, more in general, I wonder whether the question itself should not be asked in a different way. Rather than asking whether any Buddhist has ever contributed to X (or, like Dawkins, whether any Muslim ever achieved excellence in Y), I suggest we should compare the achievements in X or Y of people of the same condition (same centuries, same geographic areas, same level of education, same gender, etc.) and then check whether religion played a role in one sense or the other. Otherwise, it would be easy to claim that a given religion (common among a given tribe in a given tropical area) is the reason for the lack of excellence in the field of ski within its believers:-)

  3. Thank you all for your responses; they have helped clarify some things for me. Elisa, you are right that an apple to apple comparison must be made in determining whether an ideological system has had a significant impact on people who espouse a particular doctrine and the more precise or controlled the variables are, the better. So my original question was motivated by my recent reading of the history of Indian mathematics and realizing(and it also being mentioned by historians) that all the major contributors were either Hindus/Brahmins/whatever term you prefer and Jains. Therefore, what was the scope of intellectual inquiry for Buddhists in particular in India from its origins till its disappearance within the subcontinent? And of course Buddhism spread to other regions and it seems history of China would make for a fruitful case study in seeing the contours of the influence of Buddhism (until its persecution and decline in the 9th century) relative to Taoism, Confucianism in stoking or hindering the pursuit of certain kinds of questions.

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