Note by EF: This post is part of our series dedicated to younger colleagues presenting themselves and their research, like Manasicha Akepiyapornchai did here and Anusha Rao did here. For more on Szymon, see here.
Hello everyone, my name is Szymon and I’m a PhD student in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. Thanks to Elisa and the rest of the blog’s editorial team for giving me a platform to say a few things about my research.
My PhD project is about the nature of logical knowledge and the liar paradox. What makes us justified to believe that ‘This sentence is false’ is true if and only if it is false? How do we know that if someone has a cat, we can validly infer that they have a cat or a dog? In my project, I look at these and similar questions from the angle of Buddhist epistemology.
In this first post, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to tell you a bit about my academic background, so you will know where my project is coming from. Secondly, I will describe a change of my thinking about the role of Buddhist texts in my philosophical work. In next posts, I will talk about more specific topics: the Dharmakīrtian view on the liar paradox, believing contradictions, and a logical rule saying that if a sentence implies its negation, then this sentence has to be false.
I graduated from a philosophy program at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. I’ve learned some Sanskrit and rudimentary Buddhist Chinese on the way. My MA thesis was about the concept of own nature (svabhāva) in pre-Nāgārjuna Mahāyāna and Sarvāstivāda. After getting my MA, I spent three more years at the same university working towards a PhD. I was focused primarily on the history of Buddhist philosophy.
In 2018, I withdrew my candidacy from the Jagiellonian and started the PhD program at the ANU. At the beginning, I thought I will keep working on Nāgārjuna, Mahāyāna, and Sarvāstivāda. After several months, I’ve changed my way of thinking about what I should be doing with Buddhist texts.
The change was a bit drastic. After around 5 years of studying early Buddhist religion and philosophy and trying to figure out how all-things-svabhāva hang together, I started reading some Dharmakīrti, Mokṣākaragupta and heaps of contemporary, heavyweight analytic philosophy and logic. Now I think about myself more like an aspiring philosopher of logic than a historian of Buddhist philosophy. What has changed?
Firstly, I realised that my svabhāva project was not especially promising. (I’m happy to tell you why but that’s a different story!) Secondly, and more importantly, no philosopher cared about my work. Okay, I might be exaggerating. I have met some great philosophers and buddhologists, some of them readers of this blog, who are interested in svabhāva. However, philosophers generally don’t care about Nāgārjuna and what he says. They care about something else. They care about what’s true, not what someone said.
Let me give you an example. Nāgārjuna in the Ratnāvalī says that causes and effects are like long and short. My work, as a historian of philosophy, was to figure out what that could mean. Nāgārjuna thinks that, I believe, because he thinks that causes and effects are relative to each other and, consequently, they are unreal and imagined. So far, so good.
However, there is a problem with Nāgārjuna’s view. He doesn’t give any compelling arguments to support it, at least not in the Ratnāvalī. All he does is state that causes and effects are like long and short and it means that they are unreal. But are causes and effects actually unreal? Why would they be? Even if we were successful at unpacking what he says, we would still be left with wondering why he would say that and whether what he says is plausible. Consequently, explaining what Nāgārjuna thinks is not in itself showing that he is, or might be, right.
Many philosophers I’ve met are mostly interested in assessing and giving reasons for various philosophical positions. In my first months at the ANU, I realised that my job shouldn’t be to figure out what Buddhist philosophers say or think, but rather to find out whether what they say might be right.
In my project, I focus on providing my own philosophical arguments originating from Buddhists views. Surely, I reconstruct these views in the process—most often piggybacking on work of others—but my reconstructions are merely instrumental for my philosophical work. I do my historical research to get Buddhists ideas off ground and then I build on them further without looking back.
How does it work? In the next posts, I will introduce you to specifics of my project. We will explore a philosophical position rooted in Buddhist texts that seems worth defending today. Next week, I will talk about Dharmakīrti’s thoughts on contradictions with own words (svavacanavirodha) and how they can provide a background for a novel approach to an old paradox.