Fifth day at the IABS: “Buddhism and Philosophy of Mind” panel

Saturday, I went to the panel on Buddhism and Philosophy of Mind, which was announced as involving “our” Christian Coseru, Mark Siderits and Jonardon Ganeri. In fact, Ganeri could not make it (“obviously he did not feel fit for the match” commented Coseru at the beginning, among general laughter), but this had the beneficial consequence that there was a whole slot free for discussion.
Given that discussions are the ingredient I most enjoy at conferences and that at the IABS there was usually not enough institutional time for them (although many interesting discussions took place, as usual, during the breaks), I cannot but appreciate their extemporaneous decision.

Siderits talked about what Indian scholars call svaprakāśa– and paraprakāśavāda, equating them with reflexivism and not reflexivism. These answer the problem of how are cognitions cognised. According to Nyāya, they are cognised through a higher order perception (henceforth HOP), which they call anuvyavasāya, so that for each cognition a cognition of it is possible:

M (object: blue)
M* (object: M)

Please note that this possibility does not imply that for each cognition there needs to be a cognition of it.
By contrast, Pramāṇavādins from Dignāga onwards, uphold that cognitions are reflexive. Coseru went into further details about what this means and stressed the fact that this reflexivity (or svasaṃvedana) cannot be a further condition. Rather, it can only be an aspect of the same cognition of a given object.
While Coseru played the role of the supporter of the reflexivity view, Siderits showed some of the possible objections to it. One of them goes back to Nāgārjuna itself (although I have to admit that I could not tell where he discusses it), namely that there are no reflexive acts throughout the world. The reflexivity of cognitions would be an absolute unicum. Now, if you have read some Indian epistemology, you will immediately think of a counter-example, namely the light, which can illuminate itself while illuminating other things. But the example does not hold, Siderits-Nāgārjuna explained, since the light is not something which can, stricto sensu, be illuminated, since in order to be illuminated an object needs to be able to exist also in the darkness, which is not the case with the light.
A further objection is contained in a syllogism by the Mīmāṃsaka Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (7th c. ca.):

One does not cognise one’s cognition, because it is a cognition, like Maitra

(Maitra is a proper name used to mean “a certain person”). The point here is, in Siderits’ interpretation, that we have seemingly two different ways to know about consciousness. In the case of ourselves, we come to know that we are conscious through a simple act of introspection (which is, let me add, an undeniable token of an intrinsically valid cognition, since it is inimaginable to think that one could be wrong in ascribing consciousness to oneself). But introspection cannot work in the case of other people’s consciousness. We can only infer that other people are conscious by observing their behaviour, most notably their bodily movements.
So, it seems that we have to do with two widely different concepts, and that consciousness must have two different meanings, and, thus, be two different things. This brings us to either solipsism (which is in fact embraced by later Pramāṇavādins) or to the view that cognitions are not directly cognised.
Last, Siderits pointed to the fact that the non-reflexive theory harmonises with some findings in cognitive sciences, namely that there is a high-road and a low-road system in our brain. The latter does not need one to be aware of what it cognises. For instance, if one throws us a stone, we will bend on the opposite side immediately, before being aware of the stone.

I have been working on Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā and am thus biased in favour of non-reflexivism, but I wonder: Reflexivism is needed within the Buddhist framework, where there is no central ātman who can treasure past cognitions and make memory, etc. possible. But why preferring this option if one does not need to accept momentariness and the non-self theory?

This post is a part of a series on the IABS. For its first day, see here. For the first part of the second day, see here. For the second part of the second day, see here. For the third part of the second day, see here. For the third and forth days, see here. Please remember that these are only my first impressions and that all mistakes are mine and not the speakers’ ones. In this case in particular, I hope Christian will not feel offended and will rather correct what I wrote.

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.

12 Replies to “Fifth day at the IABS: “Buddhism and Philosophy of Mind” panel”

  1. I think you’ve read this book, Elisa, but just to say, in my Indian Philosophy and the Consequences of Knowledge, I offer some sense of why ātmavādins could find grounds for a svaprakāśa theory (of some sort). And sorry, I am puzzled by what you mean that you are reading Mīmāṃsā AND THUS biased towards non-reflexivism (presumably some version of paraprakāśa). It can only mean that, by ‘Mīmāṃsā’ you mean the Bhāṭṭa. 🙂 Don’t forget the poor Prābhākara tripuṭivāda…
    Incidentally, Mark and I have completely failed to persuade the other about the wrongness of their interpretation of the debate. As also any possible traction that neuroscience can offer to this conceptual problem.

    • Thank you for correcting me, Ram, and for the other remarks. It would be very interesting, I believe, to all of us, if you would decide to summarise your position in a post (or guest post) here. I, for one, am quite intrigued to read your view concerning the evaluation of neuroscientific evidences.

      • Elisa, thanks. Although my thinking has shifted to a much more sceptical position about the mutual benefits of neuroscience and the philosophical study of consciousness in classical India – views that I am developing obliquely through a book on bodily phenomenology that I am writing – I have a talk from the opening plenary of the Mind Life international conference in New Delhi from some years ago. I can (guest) post that if you can let me know how to.

  2. Worth to note, that Nagarjuna’s objection against comparing consciousness with light (concerning their possible reflexivity) can be also found in the Yoga-sutras (YS 4.19).
    Bhartrihari also objected against reflexivism. Helaraja noted, it is because indriyas are focused in one direction, that they can not grasp the object and the act of the cognition of this object simultaniously.
    On the other hand, it seems to me, that in order to explain the cases of self-reflection really experienced, Patanjali and Bhartrihari had recoursed to the concept of pratibha.

    As for reflexivism in Nyaya, I remember the lection held by Arindam Chakrabarti in St. Petersburg several years ago, where he claimed, that this idea contradicts the general principles of Nyaya and thus most probably as introduced under Buddhist influence.

    • Thanks for the reference to the YS and to Helārāja, Evgenija. I am afraid I did not get the connection with pratibhā, could you elaborate here or in a separate post?
      Last, which Nyāya author upheld reflexivism? I would have thought of anuvyavasāya as an *alternative* to reflexivism.

  3. On Buddhist view on reflexivism there was a paper by Zh. Yao. Dignàga and four types of perception. // Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 57-79, 2004.

  4. Thank you, Elisa, for blogging on this and some of the other IABS panels (I promised to do as much, but between panel and session hopping, a bunch of working meetings, and some sightseeing, literally ran out of time. Now that I’m back, I will post a few entries on the IABS and the Dharmakīrti conference).

    Let me just add a few thoughts on what I think are the central issues in this debate about the nature of awareness. First, Mark Siderits has for quite some time championed what he argues is the Mādhyamika’s anti-reflexivity principle: cognition does not cognitive itself (e.g., MMK 3.8c: “Not at all does vision see itself”). Combined with the anti-svabhāva stance, you get this notion that the only way things (and events) could exist is relationally and dependently. On such an account even out concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘experience’ are relational. Of course, such relational concepts may be flexible enough to allow us to escape solipsism (presumably, the problem the reflexivist faces), but, and here is my question: can such concepts allow us to transcend the human viewpoint altogether?

    I, along with those who defend the reflexivity principle (all Buddhist pramāṇa philosophers, all philosophers in the Western phenomenological tradition, and many contemporary philosophers of mind), find it hard to conceived what it means to talk about non-conscious or non-cognitive cognitions: that is, cognitions that only apprehend the object without any sense of intimation (or what some phenomenologists now call *mineness”). Ram Prasad is right to note that the Prābhākaras and the Bhāṭṭas hold different views on this matter, but I really don’t think the issue is whether cognition is sva– or para-prakāśa. Rather, the problem is whether we ought or not to do epistemology in a metaphysical key.

    Questions about the *nature* of cognition strike me as metaphysically-motivated: the concern is with the kind of things that there are, hence a trope-theoretical approach to epistemology. The more pressing issue for Dignāga, Dharmakīrti and the rest of the Indian reflexivists, is how cognition accomplishes its task (effectively so), and what kind of structure must be in place for that to happen (all the while trying to remain neutral about the kinds of things that there are).

    The two-aspectual view, in my opinion, answers a descriptive rather than a metaphysical need: it tells us something about the operations of cognition rather than about what cognition must be like for a certain metaphysical picture of reality to be justified (or, what I call “doing epistemology under metaphysical duress”).

    Now, why do we have a debate (in classical India as now) about the nature of awareness? Because we need to explain metacognitive awareness. Dignāga’s memory argument and Dharmakīrti’s self-presentational argument for reflexive awareness target different things (facts about memory and facts about the structure of awareness), but share a common goal: how to avoid the infinite regress implicit in higher-order theories of thought. Aristotle attempts the same thing in De Anima.

    The question I think we ought to ponder is whether the sahopalambhaniyama argument for reflexive awareness (svasaṃvedana does indeed offer us what I claimed in my talk: an unifying, but variant, principle: the reflexivity of each conscious mental states?

    (Parenthetically, since this issue only came up in the Q&A: Is there reflexivity or *reflexive sensibility* all the way down? Are cats sensitive in this minimally reflexive sort of way? What about fish or bees? Furthermore, what does the Indian medical literature have to say about this attempt to locate the mark of the mental?)

  5. Thanks, Christian, for getting back to the topic.
    I am afraid I miss your point concerning the connection of metaphysics and epistemology in the case of the reflexivist and of the non-reflexivist viewpoint and thus I am unable to comment on that.

    Your hint at Aristotle leads me to this question: Do you mean to say that isomorphism (for outsiders: the theory according to which the instrument of cognition needs to assume the form of its object in order to know it) implies reflexivism, given that also the nous has to take the form of its thought content?

    As for reflexivism among animals: I am quite convinced, but on an inductive basis, that Indian authors were generally non-Cartesian in this regard. They did *not* assume any clear divide between human and non human animals (one of my pet examples is the discussion of violence enjoined by the Veda, where no one distinguishes between the violence inflicted on human beings and the one inflicted on cattle). At most, they would have probably said that reflexivism can be much more basic in animals whose functions are much more basic than our own ones, since svasamvedana is just the same cognition once aware of itself (so that a simpler cognition, say, a vision without colours, necessarily implies a simpler svasamvedana). In other words: I would suggest that, for reflexivists (no matter how many they are:-)) reflexivism should come by degree.

    • A quick note: I know that Vātsyāyana says something to the effect that animals, like humans, partake of pramāṇa-born cognition. I just glanced at the Nyāyabhāṣya, and it wasn’t where I thought it was, but I’m quite confident that it’s there, and that’s a small bit of textual data (I will look again to tie it down).

  6. Thanks, Elisa. I’m with you on there being no clear demarcating line between human and animal cognition in the Indian sources (at least, the ones I’m familiar with).

    As for the question of metaphysical solutions to what is essentially an epistemological problem, the issue is really whether reflexivism is confronted with things like the problem of one over many (hence, whether a mereological approach is at all suitable for this problem). Does the non-difference between appearing object and awareness of that appearing imply that we are dealing with two metaphysically distinct things (awareness of the object and self-awareness) or is this a statement about the structure of awareness (and its character)?

    I, of course, favor the latter view. That is not to say that there are no problems with the way, say, Dharmakīrti interprets saha in his presentation of the sahopalambhaniyama *demonstration*. Incidentally, there was more debate around this precise issue in Heidelberg at the Dharmakīrti Conference. This time around, it was Kumārila’s turn against the reflexivists (in John Taber’s very interesting philosophical take on the structure of the sahopalambhaniyamaargument, and whether, philosophically speaking, it is a good or a bad argument). I’m writing up a new post about that debate rather than appending it to this thread.

    • Great, I look forward for reading it then! (By now, I must admit I have favoured the view you mention last —namely that the awareness of the object and the self-awareness of the awareness itself are not metaphysically distinct— but without having ever thought that the other option would have been possible. Separating the two awarenesses seems one step towards non-reflexivism and opens the door to further problems (e.g., which one comes “first”?)).

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