Interview with Mark Siderits, a guest post by Debajyoti Gangopadhyay* (part 1)

(This dialog is part of the Dialog mission, about which see here and this post)

Debajyoti Gangopadhyay: Professor Siderits, you are widely acclaimed for your contribution in Buddhist Philosophy. What precisely motivated you to study Philosophy in Asia? The Question put in another terms – as a Western Philosopher, what was your point of departure towards Buddhist Philosophy? Was it purely Logic or something else? And even if I accept your kernel of initial interest to be some alleged overlap between Western and Buddhist Thought, do you think this ‘overlap’ is meaningful today? Does it serve some ‘practical’ purpose other than historical?

MS: Like many others of my generation, I first became interested in Buddhism when I was in high school and was exploring alternatives to the religious tradition in which I had been raised. At that time, popularizers of Buddhism were presenting it to Westerners as a soteriological tradition that is compatible with naturalism (i.e., accepting the methods of the natural sciences as the best way of finding out the nature of reality). But this popular representation was very much dominated by the then-widespread image of Zen Buddhism as anti-intellectual. So when during my first year at university I read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book it occurred to me that the line of thought presented there might be a better way of understanding the Buddhist teaching of non-self than what I then took to be the Buddhist approach (i.e., seeking to attain a state of non-conceptual intuition through the practice of meditation). I then decided to pursue the study of both Western and Asian philosophy simultaneously. It was through that study that I came to see that in the Indian Buddhist tradition philosophy has a prominent place, and that the practice of philosophy in India involved the same commitment to clarity and rigorous argumentation as what I found and valued in analytic philosophy in the West. I continue to be interested in the question of the existence of a self, and at least some of my interest could be characterized as stemming from soteriological concerns. So to that extent one could say that I see a practice of philosophy informed by knowledge of the Buddhist tradition as having some ‘practical’ value. Of course I also do what I do at least in part because I derive so much intellectual pleasure from it. While doing analytic metaphysics is hard work, it can also be lots of fun.

DG: We have seen that the sources of modern interest in Buddhist Logic lies mostly in the various possibilities to compare it with some variants of non-standard Western Logics. Buddhist Logic, developed surely within the scope of metaphysical jurisdiction of momentariness, had been frequently compared with some non-standard versions of its Western counterparts like Free logic, Logic of Empty subject term, or, more recently, with Paraconsistent Logic.

What comes immediately after this, is the question of independence of Logic in Indian Philosophical context – independence of Logic of its own beyond the scope of jurisdiction of the presiding metaphysics this was originally meant for. The issue, put a bit differently, is that Nyāya – both in its Hindu and Buddhist versions, in the context of Indian Knowledge dynamics, doesn’t seem to have an independent Agenda of its own. Logic in the Indian context doesn’t seem to have independent relevance outside the scope of jurisdiction delineated by the presumed framework of metaphysical necessity in connection with Brahmajijñāsā.

As a modern Philosopher of Western origin, what do you think in this regard about your Indian Logical Ancestors?

MS: While I have difficulty taking seriously the idea of karma and rebirth, I still think the idea of liberation from the suffering that results from our ordinary conception of our identity makes sense. And this is how I see the classical Indian concern with self and liberation. I think the Naiyāyikas, Sāṃkhyans, Vedāntins and Buddhists were all trying to work out whether a self exists, and if so just what it is like, because they wanted to solve the problem of existential suffering. And that problem arises whether there is rebirth or not. I also think this is as good a place as any (and better than some) to start philosophizing. Of course soteriological concerns can also lead away from the philosopher’s commitment to follow the argument wherever it leads. But in the classical Indian context, where there are many different views about the nature of the self, there would naturally be interest in working out how to conduct inter-school debates, and that naturally leads to the development of pramāṇavāda. What differences there are between rival theories about the number and nature of the pramāṇas have very little to do with doctrinal commitments of rival schools. Even the epistemological theory that the Mīmāṃsakas use to argue for the authoritativeness of the Vedas is defended on grounds that should be acceptable to nāstikas like the Buddhists.

Indeed I would go further than just saying that their soteriological concerns did not adversely affect how the Indian schools understood the practice of attaining knowledge. In fact I suspect they did a better job than their modern Western counterparts despite their soteriological concerns. This is because their conception of veridical cognition is externalist and reliabilist in nature, whereas epistemological internalism has dominated Western epistemology ever since Descartes. And I think it is fairly clear that Descartes introduced epistemological internalism as a way of trying to carve out a separate sphere for reason and faith in light of the new ascendancy of the natural sciences. Ironically, the classical Indian approach to epistemology turns out to be far easier to reconcile with the naturalistic stance than is the approach that has dominated recent Western epistemology.

I should add that I do not believe any of the pramāṇavādins accepted the idea that there can be true contradictions, or held any other views that might require employment of a non-classical logic.

  • Edited for the IPhB by Matthew Dasti and Elisa Freschi

About elisa freschi

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

3 thoughts on “Interview with Mark Siderits, a guest post by Debajyoti Gangopadhyay* (part 1)

  1. I admire Prof. Siderits’ openness concerning the religious nature of his (not only) initial motives. This being said, I was surprised by the claim that an externalist justification is more easily reconciled with the natural sciences than an internalist one. I guess, this only holds true if the upholders of the externalist model are ready to modify their ontology along with the new findings of natural sciences, right?

    • Dear Elisa
      Good point! Yes , so far my limited reading of classical Indian Epistemology is concerned , this part of Prof. Siderits’s claim sounds tricky .I would like to talk more in general about the point you raised – Question of modification of ontology along with the new findings of Natural science . During the last few years , with the developments of my exposure to different intercultural traditions , the question continued to appear to me in different versions-
      to what extent the new findings of Physics during the last 350 years or so call for any change or modification of pre-existing ontology ?
      This Question put in a slightly different version – Given , a gross division of growth of Knowledge in Physics in terms of classical ( 17th up to 1900 CE)and modern (1900 onwards ).., whether the mathematical languages employed to talk about these two DIFFERENT EMPIRICAL domains ( classical and modern ) can be really differentiated in terms of two different modified ontologies ? In fact , this issue is related with the most exciting issue of the classical mathematical origin of quantum mechanics.( can have a look in my recent post in Research Gate https://www.researchgate.net/post/Whether_a_mathematical_Language_based_on_Set_Theory_and_classical_Logic_can_articulate_the_deepest_level_of_Truth )
      Thanks for raising this issue here. I will be interested to note the way this issue can be made further sense with the developments of classical Indian epistemology included in its perspective .

  2. Pingback: Interview with Mark Siderits, a guest post by Debajyoti Gangopadhyay* (part 2)The Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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