Reflections on the Hamburg “Buddhism and Scepticism” Workshop

On Nov. 14-16, 2017 I attended a workshop called “Buddhism and Scepticism: Historical, Philosophical, and Comparative Approaches” held at the University of Hamburg. It was sponsored by the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies and the Maimonides Center for Advanced Studies with Oren Hanner as the convener. You can find more information here, including abstracts for the talks.  You can even watch videos of the talks here. [Edit: Eli Franco’s and Dong Xiuyuan’s talks are unfortunately unavailable].  Also, Felix Baritsch (Deutsche Buddhistische Union) informed me that he will be writing a summary of the workshop for an upcoming issue of the Journal of World Philosophies, so look for that soon.

Rather than discuss each talk individually, I thought I might discuss some general impressions.

First of all, the workshop was a great experience. I learned a lot, and I made some excellent contacts. This was also my first time visiting Germany, although I didn’t have much time for tourism.

This is probably the first conference I’ve attended where much of the audience shared my interests in skepticism, particularly how it might apply in the Indian tradition. I’m not used to having such a generally favorable audience! Typically I face a lot more skepticism about my skeptical interests, particularly when I’ve presented the idea that Nāgārjuna is a skeptic about philosophy in a therapeutic vein somewhat like Sextus Empiricus (but with important differences as well). Having a small group of scholars focused on similar topics is an interesting feature of a workshop like this one where each participant is invited due to her/his specific research interests.

This isn’t to say that all the participants were entirely on board with skeptical readings of particular Indian and Buddhist philosophers. The keynote talk by Mark Siderits as well as Eli Franco’s talk, for instance, gave some reasons to be skeptical about the applicability of the Western concept of skepticism in the context of Buddhist philosophy. For example, Siderits thinks some Buddhists may use skeptical arguments but do not ultimately accept skeptical conclusions, and Franco thinks there is no tradition of skepticism denoted by a Sanskrit word within the Indian tradition. They both had some skeptical remarks about many of the other talks (including mine, although Siderits said he agreed with my general interpretation of Nāgārjuna, but he wouldn’t call it skeptical).

Another interesting aspect of the workshop was seeing different academic cultures come together. Those of us from North America working in philosophy departments tend to employ the model of comparative/cross-cultural philosophy, which is more focused on issues and problems, while many of the scholars from Europe tend to be more textually oriented in the traditions of European (especially German) Indology. There were also two historically focused talks: Georgios Halkias on Pyrrho’s possible Indian Buddhist influences and Dong Xiuyuan on interactions between Buddhist and Islamic philosophers in central Asia.

None of these are hard-and-fast distinctions, of course: you need some basis in the Indological approach to do comparative philosophy and you need to be able to think carefully about philosophical issues to understand the texts – and you need some historical context to do any of this. And of course North American scholars working outside of philosophy departments often have approaches closer to our European colleagues. It’s also worth noting that what I’m calling the North American approach is shared by many scholars in other parts of the world (Britain, Australia, India, etc.), especially those in philosophy departments, and what I’m calling the European approach predominates in other places as well (for instance, in Japan).

I think there’s a lot to be learned from these different approaches. There is an unfortunate tendency among some North American philosophers to denounce textually focused studies as “mere philology” rather than real philosophy, and I suspect from the other side a lot of North American scholarship sometimes looks a bit sloppy and insufficiently textual, somewhat like one of those sensationalized movies “loosely based on a true story.”

While I am more on the North American side by geography and personal inclination, in recent years I’ve been trying to develop something of a synthesis of these approaches in what I’ve been calling “expanding the history of philosophy.” Of course we must pay close attention to the linguistic and historical context of the text, but we should also think about the philosophical issues and what we can learn from them.

I’ve been inspired by historians of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy like Pierre Hadot, Julia Annas, and Martha Nussbaum, for whom careful attention to ancient texts also yields philosophical insights for us today. (I’ve written more about this topic in a recent issue of the APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies devoted to B. K. Matilal).

Another inspiration for this idea has been Amber Carpenter, who was also a participant at the workshop. Her talk on the atomistic views of Democritus and Vasubandhu (in his Abhidharma mode) was a great example of the history of philosophy approach.

I should be clear that I don’t mean in any way to impugn any of these various scholarly approaches. My attitude is that we should let a hundred flowers bloom. We have as much to learn from these differences as we do from like-minded scholars. After all, if part of the purpose of philosophy is to expand our conceptual categories and to put our basic assumptions to the test, then perhaps we ought to do the same with our cherished academic methodologies. Workshops like this one in Hamburg are a valuable way to accomplish this.

In closing, I’d like to thank Oren Hanner for inviting me and the staff at the Maimonides Center (especially Maria Wazinski and Christine Wagener) for hosting the workshop.

12 Replies to “Reflections on the Hamburg “Buddhism and Scepticism” Workshop”

  1. Ethan,
    First, let me thank you for making available that APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers devoted to Matilal; there are some wonderful pieces there I likely would not have otherwise come across. It reminded me of some delightful conversations I had about Matilal’s work with Ninian Smart who, while very much respecting Matilal’s talents, thought he tried too hard to make Indian philosophy palatable to those devoted to a rather narrow conception of “analytic philosophy.” Of course Matilal’s work cannot be reduced to that pedagogic and professional strategy (so to speak), and I kept telling Ninian how helpful I found Matilal’s work. I very much miss both of these philosophers who were true trailblazers in the comparative philosophies/worldviews (they left more than a few excellent students in their wake, for which I’m equally grateful).

    One other item, on skepticism: Have you read Michael Williams’ Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology (OUP, 2001)? This is far and away the best introduction to and summary of skepticism (‘Agrippan’ and ‘Cartesian’) I have come across (of course it deals with other standard topics in epistemology as well). Another virtue of the book is that Williams provides us with a provocative alternative to “foundationalism” (more or less out of favor) and “coherentism” (e.g., Rescher), both of which, in Williams’ words, represent direct responses to skepticism that grant essential premises resulting in a “gross asymmetry in the justificational responsibilities of claimants and challengers.” Williams proffers a “Default and Challenge Model” that leads to what he somewhat reluctantly christens a “contextualist” picture of justification. In any case, I think it provides a compelling argument for consideration to those attracted to the stronger forms of skepticism (which are the more philosophically challenging or epistemically interesting ones!). I invite everyone, but especially those attracted to (I almost wrote ‘tempted by’!) skepticism, to take a look (assuming they’ve not already done so) at Williams’ book.

    • Thank you for your kind words about the newsletter. I enjoyed putting it together, and I’m glad you found it interesting.

      I am familiar with a lot of Williams’s work. I agree that Problems of Knowledge is an excellent introduction to contemporary epistemology, while also being itself philosophically interesting, which is not an easy task for a primer!

      Williams also has an article on Sextus that influenced me (“Scepticism Without Theory.” Review of Metaphysics 41 (1988): 547-588.). Basically he argues that Sextus brings suspension of judgment into epistemology itself. This is a feature of ancient skepticism that I think was largely lost in modern and contemporary skepticism: the target is really philosophy more than everyday knowledge claims about the external world, etc.

      I think this, along with a lot of Rorty and Wittgestein, is what’s in the back of Williams’s mind in his magnum opus, Unnatural Doubts, which is a great book, even if I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions – for instance, I think something like the idea of “knowledge of the external world” as a general category was also in play among Indian philosophers like Vasubandhu, later Yogācāras, and Advaita Vedānta.

      If I remember correctly, in Problems of Philosophy Williams presents his somewhat Wittgensteinian idea of methodological necessities (or maybe I’m confusing this with some of his articles? It’s been awhile.). As a response to external world skepticism of a modern flavor I think neither Williams nor Wittgenstein say you *can’t* bring up skeptical doubts, just that we usually *don’t.” But I fail to see how the fact that these doubts are unusual makes them somehow theoretically off limits, at least within an epistemological context. I think Wittgenstein’s On Certainty is often misread as claiming that skeptical doubts are impossible, but I think Wittgenstein really just means to point out that such doubts are odd and unnecessary, which might make one less worried about them. You *can* doubt the external world, but you don’t *have to*. But I don’t think Wittgenstein denies that these doubts are always there for those who find them.

      I saw Williams speak at an APA once where he admitted to being a “skeptic about epistemology,” which makes a great deal of sense of his work and puts him perhaps closer to ancient skeptics like Sextus. I don’t think he makes as sharp a distinction between ancient and modern skepticism in Problems of Philosophy as he does elsewhere, or at least not as sharp as I would.

      I think a lot of mistakes are made in reading ancient skepticism anachronistically through the lens of modern skepticism. While there are similar arguments, what these arguments are intended to do is completely different (this is even true for Academic Skepticism). Ancient skepticism is therapy for those too fond of theory while modern skepticism became a theory in itself. When I say that Indian philosophers like Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa are skeptics, I mean this in something much closer to the ancient therapeutic sense.

  2. Professor Mills:
    The videos can’t be seen without a username/password. Do you know how to do that? Thanks for your help on this.


    • Hello,

      They work for me without a username/password, so I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I probably shouldn’t speculate about matters of tech support. I would suggest contacting someone in Hamburg. You can probably find an email address on the website. Good luck!

      • I just noticed that, Elisa. I’m not sure. It’s possible Franco didn’t want his talk to be available, or maybe there were technical problems. That’s too bad, because it was an interesting talk.

          • I confirmed with Oren Hanner that the talks are not available in video form, but hopefully summaries will be available either from the people in Hamburg or from the Journal of World Philosophies.

          • Thanks for checking, Ethan!
            And thanks also for your moderate words concerning the virtuous interaction of philosophy and philology and of both with history. (“None of these are hard-and-fast distinctions, of course: you need some basis in the Indological approach to do comparative philosophy and you need to be able to think carefully about philosophical issues to understand the texts – and you need some historical context to do any of this.”)

  3. About the “no single term” argument: In Justin Smith’s excellent paper “Philosophy as a distinct cultural practice” (from the just published Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy–see he makes an important observation about India. In comparison to, say Japan, which uses the neologism tetsugaku as a term for “philosophy”,

    “India represents a special case, a fact that appears to be confirmed by the absence of any neologism or calque meant to convey the precise meaning of the Greek philosophia. They did not need such a term for a newly imported practice, since they had their own plainly equivalent practice, and a robust set of terms meant to describe it” (69).

    The idea is that even if there is not a single term with one-to-one correspondence, there is a family of terms and concepts which express an existing set of practices with a robust “family resemblance” to whatever we call philosophy.

    Why not the same with Skepticism?

    One way to think about this more seriously is to think about the classical schools of India, and regarding core technical terms, we can ask “does modern Western philosophy (in say, English) have a word with the precise semantic range of this very term”? If the answer is “no” I highly doubt that this alone would be taken to be evidence that something akin to the Indian concept just isn’t there. Let’s treat similar cases similarly.

    • Thanks, Matthew.

      I in fact tried to make a similar (albeit more awkwardly stated) point during the Q&A. I tried to point out that, for example, there’s no exact Sanskrit translation of “idealism” or “realism” in precisely the Western sense, either. Franco said that I had somewhat misunderstood his point, which was after all more complicated than I could represent here. I think he agrees that there need not be a one-to-one correspondence, but the lack of anything in the same semantic neighborhood seems to him to show that there wasn’t anything quite like skepticism as a general issue in the Indian tradition. Granted, I may be misremembering, but I think this was the general idea. This was also one of several points in favor of his thesis.

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