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.