Brief Book Notes on Beckwith, Carpenter, and Siderits/Katsura, by Ethan Mills

As the Book Review Editor for this blog, I invite readers to submit their own reviews (see: http://indianphilosophyblog.org/book-reviews/).   To encourage interest in book reviews, I’m trying something a little different: brief book notes, or what you might call a “review of reviews.”  (Thank you to Matthew Dasti for stepping in as Guest Book Review Editor).

Christopher I. Beckwith. Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. xx + 275 pp., index. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. $29.95 (hardcover).

This book has generated a bit of controversy, even here on the blog (http://indianphilosophyblog.org/2016/05/06/beckwith-on-the-lateness-corruption-and-lack-of-scholarly-editions-of-indian-sources-on-early-buddhism/ ). Beckwith is not the first scholar to argue that Pyrrho and early Indian Buddhism are historically related in some way (e.g., Flintoff’s “Pyrrho and India,” McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, and Kuzminski’s Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism).  As with previous studies, the evidence available is not quite up to the task to which Beckwith puts it.  Uniquely, however, Beckwith takes a more “scientific” approach that relies on “hard evidence” from archaeology, history, and linguistics.

This approach makes Beckwith’s study more provocative, especially the ways in which it challenges orthodox interpretations of early Buddhism (he sees it as a reaction to Zoroastrianism, not Brahmanism) and in his more philosophical claims (Beckwith claims that the Buddha, Pyrrho, and Hume all argue against a form of absolutism).  Another issue is that Beckwith sometimes loses the forest for the trees. I sometimes found it difficult to determine exactly what Beckwith’s claims were; for example, I remain unsure whether chapter three is claiming that the Buddha and Laozi are the same person.

A larger problem is that the book is a bit dogmatic – perhaps an ironic aspect of a book about skepticism!  This is especially odd considering how little “hard evidence” there is when it comes to ancient Central and South Asia.  Surely a lot of interesting things happened in Central and South Asia in the first millennium BCE, and perhaps just as surely many such happenings are not accounted for in any “hard evidence.”  Beckwith seems to forget another dictum of scientific inquiry: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  So, while Beckwith’s book provides provocative and healthy challenges to traditional understandings in several disciplines, the biggest flaw is perhaps philosophical: it fails to take seriously the skeptical message of the philosophers discussed.

Amber Carpenter. Indian Buddhist Philosophy: Metaphysics as Ethics. xviii + 313 pp., index. New York: Routledge, 2014. $39.95 (paperback).

This book is difficult to categorize. It’s not exactly an introduction, but neither does it dwell on specialist minutiae.  It’s not a straightforward historical overview, but neither is it arranged purely thematically.  Instead of fitting into the typical categories, Carpenter does something more interesting: she presents a great example of what I would call expanding the history of philosophy.  Carpenter treats these texts as partners in philosophical dialogue, partners from whom we can learn and whom we should feel free to interrogate whether we agree or not.  Like Carpenter, I’ve been coming to see that comparisons between Hellenistic and classical Indian philosophy can be extremely fruitful.

The combination of historical and thematic organization sometimes feels disjointed, especially for readers already familiar with the history of Indian Buddhist philosophy.   On the other hand, sometimes Carpenter’s own critical views on the debates are difficult to track; for instance, I’m not entirely sure what she thinks about non-self, Madhyamaka, and apoha.

But Carpenter’s book does work for the most part.  A lot of her discussions, like her treatment of suffering in chapter one, are insightful for beginners and specialists alike.  While this may not be an ideal book for readers entirely unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy, it would be ideal for readers with a little background in both Western and Indian philosophy hoping to delve more deeply.  And people such as myself who are seeking to expand the history of philosophy, especially in a Hellenistic-Indian mode, will find a lot of inspiration here.

Mark Siderits and Shōryu Katsura. Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. x + 351 pp., index. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2013. $28.95 (paperback).

Translating Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) is no easy task; the Sanskrit text is often obscure and has long history of varied interpretation, commentary, and translation in Asian and European languages.  One might wonder whether we need yet another English translation, or more cynically, whether another translation will merely mirror the translator’s interpretation.

For the most part, this translation from Siderits and Katsura, both eminent scholars of Buddhist philosophy, offers both a novel, insightful translation and allows readers to come to their own conclusions.  Like Inada’s translation, this includes the Sanskrit text along with the English translation, which is helpful for those who read Sanskrit or who are merely familiar with Nāgārjuna’s key terms (svabhāva, śūnyatā, etc.).  The translators provide their own commentary on the verses while drawing on the major Indian commentaries of Candrakīrti, Bhāviveka, and Buddhapālita.  They don’t dip much into non-Indian commentaries, nor do they say much about contemporary scholarship.  I think Siderits and Katsura are wise to take this approach: let readers wade into the text with a little help before diving into the oceans of scholarship and commentary.

While the translators generally background their own interpretations (to the extent that this is possible), there are places in which Siderits’s anti-realist interpretation takes center stage.  The translation of prapañca as “hypostatization” instead of something like “conceptual proliferation” (e.g., p. 15, 125-126) is stacked a bit in favor of an anti-realist interpretation.  Also, the inclusion of “metaphysical” in square brackets before “views” in verse 13.8 (p. 145) is a strange move unless one were convinced that Nāgārjuna could not literally mean “all views” (although this tactic is not taken in verse 27.30, p. 334).

Still, I think this is now the best English translation available.  I recently used it in a comparative philosophy course.  While Nāgārjuna is never easy, this translation presented the text to newcomers in a way that allowed them to get something out of it.  It also helps me make more sense of a text with which I’ve been grappling for years.

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

3 thoughts on “Brief Book Notes on Beckwith, Carpenter, and Siderits/Katsura, by Ethan Mills

    • Thank you Ethan. Regarding your comments on Carpenter, do you think that it is required for a scholar to give their judgement on the matter? Or that it just makes for a better volume when tracing debates as she has?

      • Hi Matthew, No, I don’t think it’s required, but often more interesting. Carpenter did give her own views on other matters, so it wasn’t clear to me why she didn’t on some of these others. Maybe that wasn’t her main goal. Of course, exposition involves interpretation, which involves evaluation, so I see it more as a matter of emphasis.

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