Is philosophy an involution of Buddhism (and other religions)?

This is more or less the thesis advanced by Jayarava in his longest comment on this post.

The idea is that the (Buddhist) religion is primarily experiential and that philosophy is a later reification which misses the main point at stake and moves the emphasis away from what really counts. Moreover, in the case of Buddhism (but I am inclined to think that no other theology would survive Jayarava’s analysis) the result is full of inner contradictions and does not stand a critical inquire.

Thus, why engaging in philosophical thought, if you care for a given religion? Why entering a field in which you will loose anyway, since sooner or later a new development in, say, physics or neurosciences will show that you are at least partly wrong?

A possible answer would be to claim that natural sciences and theology do not speak about the same things (a claim Jayarava appears to refute). Moreover, one might claim that human beings naturally try to understand (as in Aristotle). But are there positive reasons for engaging in philosophy if one comes from a religious standpoint? Let us consider Giordano Bruno’s paradoxical words on this topic (as you will all know, Giordano Bruno was a Catholic priest and philosopher who was burnt on 17.2.1600 because of his heretic ideas —this sonet praises the ignorance of those who do not question anything, as if this were a moral virtue):


Oh sant’asinità, sant’ignoranza,
Santa stoltizia, e pia divozione,
Qual sola puoi far l’anime si buone,
Ch’uman ingegno e studio non l’avanza!

Non gionge faticosa vigilanza
D’arte, qualunque sia, o invenzione,
Né di sofossi contemplazione
Al ciel, dove t’edifichi la stanza.

Che vi val, curiosi, lo studiare,
Voler saper quel che fa la natura,
Se gli astri son pur terra, fuoco e mare?

La santa asinità di ciò non cura,
Ma con man gionte e ’n ginocchion vuol stare
Aspettando da Dio la sua ventura.

Nessuna cosa dura,
Eccetto il frutto dell’eterna requie,
La qual ne done Dio dopo l’esequie!

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

4 thoughts on “Is philosophy an involution of Buddhism (and other religions)?

  1. In a word, “no.”

    If one conjures up or accepts certain narrow definitions of what “Buddhism” and “philosophy” are, then sure, one might think they are incompatible or carry one in different directions. The same debate has gone on for centuries re: Christianity, where Aquinus argued that “philosophy is the handmaiden of theology.”

    Historically, over time philosophy pulled away enough from theology to be recognized as a distinct discipline. Contemporary commentators sometimes think that this (modern) notion of philosophy as a distinct discipline is simply “what philosophy is” in some sort of ahistorical sense and then say that this is not compatible with Buddhism.

    Yet, I think any of us working in Asian/Indian/Buddhist philosophy know well that “philosophy” itself is a wide and fluid tradition and has for most of history been quite closely wedded to theological or soteriological concerns.

    Your question of “why engage in philosophical thought” thus raises a counter-question of “what, exactly, is philosophical vs non-philosophical thought.” Is the classification of the constituents of experience or reality “philosophical thought”? I’d say yes. Is the distinction between “correctly grasping” and “incorrectly grasping” of key teaching “philosophical thought”? Again, I’d say yes.

  2. many thanks, elisa, for posting this sonnet of bruno. this reminds me very much of nietzsche’s lifelong argument for the value of ‘forgetting’ (see, e.g., the beginning of ‘nutzen und nachteil…’), although it is hard for me to gauge bruno’s level of irony.

    • Thanks for the mention, Andrew! In case someone else cannot remember what she read at school:

      Der Mensch fragt wohl einmal das Tier: warum redest du mir nicht von deinem Glücke und siehst mich nur an? Das Tier will auch antworten und sagen: das kommt daher, daß ich immer gleich vergesse, was ich sagen wollte – da vergaß es aber auch schon diese Antwort und schwieg: so daß der Mensch sich darob verwunderte.

      Er wunderte sich aber auch über sich selbst, das Vergessen nicht lernen zu können und immerfort am Vergangenen zu hängen: mag er noch so weit, noch so schnell laufen, die Kette läuft mit. Es ist ein Wunder: der Augenblick, im Husch da, im Husch vorüber, vorher ein Nichts, nachher ein Nichts, kommt doch noch als Gespenst wieder und stört die Ruhe eines späteren Augenblicks. Fortwährend löst sich ein Blatt aus der Rolle der Zeit, fällt heraus, flattert fort – und flattert plötzlich wieder zurück, dem Menschen in den Schoß. Dann sagt der Mensch »ich erinnere mich« und beneidet das Tier, welches sofort vergißt und jeden Augenblick wirklich sterben, in Nebel und Nacht zurücksinken und auf immer verlöschen sieht. So lebt das Tier unhistorisch.

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