Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and Comparative Philosophy, Part One

In this duology of posts I’m going to respond to Sonam Kachru’s friendly criticism of my own work on Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses (Vimśikākārikā). But instead of the usual academic practice of arguing against Kachru’s criticisms, I’m going to suggest that Kachru may be right. Or maybe half-right. In any case, his work has helped my own thinking move toward a new insight: I have come to suspect that I made some mistakes in my own earlier work—and maybe these errors are iterations of deeper mistakes that often occur under the banner of “comparative philosophy.”

In this first post, I’ll discuss my own previous work and Kachru’s criticisms of it, and in part two I’ll say more about what I think all this has to do with comparative philosophy and how we 21st century scholars approach classical Indian texts like the Twenty Verses.

In my 2017 article, “External-World Skepticism in Classical India: The Case of Vasubandhu,” I laid out the debate about whether Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses should be understood as advocating a form of metaphysical idealism or a kind of epistemological phenomenalism, and I came to the (appropriately cagey) conclusion that in either case, Vasubandhu might be read as providing an invitation to consider something like the issue of external-world skepticism.

In his excellent 2021 study of Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses, Other Lives: Mind and World in Indian Buddhism, Sonam Kachru develops a novel account of the text that moves away from the contemporary debate about whether Vasubandhu is defending a form of idealism. Even though I myself have been quite engrossed in this debate in the past, I now think Kachru has a superb point.

His main criticism of my 2017 article is that I argued that Vasubandhu’s claim is that we are aware of something like a “phenomenal object” (Kachru 2021, 44), and indeed at that time I was translating viṣaya as “sense-object” in a phenomenalist sense similar to Bruce Hall (1986). Kachru also does not see the opening statement as a formal anumāna: “This world is just cognition-only, because of the appearance of non-existent objects” (Viṃśikakārikā 1, my translation). Instead, dreams are employed as one of many kinds of experience for human and non-human life-forms.

(While I maybe overstated my case in the 2017 article, I don’t actually think much rests on whether Vasubandhu is presenting a formal anumāna, and I will set aside that issue here. But I would quickly note that the anumāna could be non-fallacious if one takes seriously what some have called the Phenomenal Principle, according to which we are directly aware of the same thing in both veridical and erroneous cognitions—on this interpretation, Vasubandhu’s point is that there is a core similarity between veridical and erroneous experience, and not the “howler” that we should infer “all cognitions are erroneous” because “some cognitions are erroneous”).

Although Kachru criticizes my earlier article, I found myself quite convinced by a lot of his book, far more convinced than I would have thought! Like Kachru, I see Vasubandhu’s fundamental message to be that we should aim for “a certain way of being open to the world” (Kachru 2021, 161) in a way that normal human experience is not. This makes sense when you consider that, in line with Vasubandhu’s Buddhist motivations, our normally closed-minded experience is one major cause of suffering.

This also makes sense of Vasubandhu’s comments about the non-dual experience of the Buddhas at the end of the text in Viṃśikakārikā 21-22 (this is also why I do not think Vasubandhu could be making any arguments meant to clinch the case for metaphysical idealism; in a moment of epistemic humility, he admits he has done the best he can in a dualistic framework, while only the Buddhas know the whole truth).

While my 2017 article was filled with all the typical academic hedges and caveats, I did claim that Vasubandhu, whether taken as a metaphysical idealist or epistemological phenomenalist, gives an invitation to consider the problem of external-world skepticism (Mills 2017, 162-164). And reading Kachru has convinced me that I was wrong to try to push Vasubandhu into a type of phenomenalism about the direct objects of cognition akin to the types of Western phenomenalism developed in recent centuries.

Although I still think Vasubandhu would have a dim view of what one might call direct realism (of either classical Indian or contemporary Western varieties), Kachru’s book gives me a way to make sense of what I see as the general thrust of Vasubandhu’s arguments (“don’t take your experience too seriously”) without contorting Vasubandhu’s philosophical brilliance to fit the preoccupations of Western philosophers from the 17th-21st centuries.

But more fundamentally, I think my earlier project was misguided.

One could, I suppose, wonder what Vasubandhu would say about external-world skepticism as it is understood in contemporary Western philosophy, just as one could wonder what he would say about Berkeleyan or Hegelian idealism. But reading Kachru’s book (especially his careful attention to Buddhist cosmology) made me wonder why we would do so. Why, after all, when Vasubandhu has so many fascinating things of his own to say?

Vasubandhu’s problems are not those of early modern Europe, American pragmatism, phenomenology, or contemporary analytic philosophy. Nor do these Western problems comprise the entire conceptual space of all possible philosophical problems; it would be hubristic racism to suggest that white Europeans alone invented all possible philosophical problems! There is no good reason to let Western philosophy set all possible agendas for all other traditions.

Vasubandhu has his own issues and insights. If we were to learn from them, we might find a philosophical challenge much more interesting that the project of slotting Vasubandhu into pre-existing Western categories.

In fact, my only real criticism of Kachru’s book is that he is occasionally a bit too interested in pairing Vasubandhu with contemporary philosophers immersed in phenomenology, pragmatism, and anti-skeptical analytic epistemology.

But what if we were to listen carefully to Vasubandhu in his own terms, and learn from what he has to say? I’ll explore some possible answers to this question in part two.


Works Cited

Hall, Bruce Cameron. 1986. “The Meaning of Vijñapti in Vasubandhu’s Concept of Mind.”  Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 9 (1):  7-23.

Kachru, Sonam. 2021. Other Lives: Mind and World in Indian Buddhism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mills, Ethan. 2017. “External-World Skepticism in Classical India: The Case of Vasubandhu.” International Journal for the Study of Skepticism 7 (3): 147-172.

12 Replies to “Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and Comparative Philosophy, Part One”

    • Thanks for your comment! Sorry if this was unclear, but I’m really just quoting the label “comparative philosophy” there, not trying to scare anyone! I’m certainly not saying you can’t compare things or that it’s never useful. I’m definitely not trying to disparage yours or anyone else’s current work in comparative philosophy!

      I’ve learned a lot from the big names in comparative philosophy, like Matilal and Mohanty, and I think it can be useful philosophically, and comparative projects have been helpful as public relations for Indian philosophy in making space within the discipline.

      My point is just that comparative philosophy is not ALWAYS useful, and sometimes it can distort understandings of non-Western texts.

      A lot of this comes from my own personal experience of trying to argue that certain Indian philosophers are “skeptics.” Now I’m wondering if the problem is applying a label with that much specific historical baggage.

      Maybe there’s another way, or at least another possible alternative among many possible methodologies in the study of premodern South Asian traditions. I’ll have a little more to say about that in part two.

    • Thanks! Part two is a bit light on specific conclusions, but this is still something I’m in the process of thinking through, which of course is appropriate for the blog!

  1. Can I suggest a Middle Way? (Perhaps this will come in your part two.)

    You say:
    “Vasubandhu’s problems are not those of early modern Europe, American pragmatism, phenomenology, or contemporary analytic philosophy. Nor do these Western problems comprise the entire conceptual space of all possible philosophical problems; it would be hubristic racism to suggest that white Europeans alone invented all possible philosophical problems! There is no good reason to let Western philosophy set all possible agendas for all other traditions.”

    But also:
    Vasubandhu’s problems are those of human beings living in a shared world, biologically and physically. These problems comprise a shared ground for all humans raising philosophical problems; it would be an Othering isolationism to suggest that white Europeans do not share a world with people from other times and places! There is no good reason to deny the possibility that “Western” philosophy converges in the agendas found in other traditions.

    That two different philosophers encounter the same (or contextually similar enough to be labeled as the same) problem, should not surprise us. Sure, it would be surprising if they were identical in all respects, but rarely does anyone argue that.

    An analogy: Mayans and Egyptians both built pyramids. We don’t need to deny that these are both pyramids nor do we need to ignore their differences (and posit some single ancient alien civilization which is responsible for both!) There are reasons these structures are found in many places. And there are reasons for their differences. Maybe we could use different terms for each, and treat them in isolation, but then we’d miss out on similarities. I think something like this is right for “idealism,” and other labels for, and treatments of, arguments found across cultures. It needn’t be “slotting” into pre-existing categories, but finding interesting overlaps, which are of historical interest.

    Read this as a plea for pluralism, not a rejection of the independent interestingness of Indian philosophers, which I wholly endorse. (Personally, I spend most of my time starting by reading Sanskrit texts, but then I also find striking resemblances, along with differences.)

    • Thanks, Malcolm!

      I’m definitely not making some sort of claim that traditions are wholly incommensurable or something like that.

      And I agree with you that the bigger questions are things that come out of human experience. Philosophy is a human endeavor! And I do think Vasubandhu is getting at some big questions that human beings have had in all cultures, which is why we can still learn from him 1600 years later.

      But I also think the details are different, and sometimes in focusing on the big picture similarities the differences in details aren’t given enough attention.

      I say more in Part Two about some specific issues in Vasubandhu, but I think spending too much time focused on the “idealist or not” issue (as I once did!) means you’re missing a lot of the cool stuff going on in that text, things that Kachru’s book helped me appreciate more deeply.

      As I also say in the next post, some of this comes out of my personal disappointment that my previous plea to rethink “skepticism” as a general category has run into a lot of objections because the currently-understood Western categories are more rigidly fixed in people’s minds than I had thought.

      But I’m not saying that comparative philosophy is never useful! It can be, but it can sometimes distort our understanding. I’m moving more to a point where I’m more interested in learning from Vasubandhu directly than I am in putting him in dialogue with some specific issue in contemporary philosophy. I honestly don’t mind if other people want to do that. Go ahead!

      Maybe some of it is that I’m personally less interested in most of what’s popular in contemporary philosophy these days, especially when there are so many interesting global traditions to learn from. For instance, reading work on Mesoamerican philosophy recently has been some of the most philosophical fun I’ve had in a long time.

      • My sense is that there is a lot of agreement between us! I think the reply that “A Reader” posted is helpful, too, although I do think that it’s not easy to make a watertight distinction between exegetical and problem-solving (nor do I think they’re saying we can do so). When interpreting, we also make appeals to principles of charity, coherence, and so on–and these can’t be entirely insulated from what we think makes good philosophical sense, which is informed by our context. But we can also be challenged by the text. Etc. These are well-trodden issues.

        I find context is important here, too. When I hang out with analytic philosophers who don’t work on history/Indian philosophy, I find myself feeling like a textualist interested in only the particularities of thinkers. When I hang out with Indologists who don’t work on philosophy, I find myself feeling like a philosopher interested in universal problems. Too, I think the degree of comparison and the kind (e.g. implicit/explicit, with whom) may vary depending on project. My current Nyāya book project intentionally avoids comparisons. Often, in journal articles for analytic audiences, I make them because I think they will be helpful for understanding, for sparking interest. I suppose I think the field and individual authors can take up different stances and the result be enriching–as long as we’re clear about what we’re doing and why, and we are kept honest by our peers about our textual and philosophical work.

        I do agree that “East-East” or “East-South” engagement is fascinating. (E.g., Alexus McLeod’s work on Xunzi and Kumārila on philosophy of ritual–a category which isn’t part of analytic preoccupations? More of this, for sure!)

        Back to your post, the main place I disagree is that I don’t think it’s necessarily *misguided* to ask counterfactual questions about what Vasubandhu or others would say about external world skepticism or other problems. The issue is in the details of how you answer that and whether, as you say, you let contemporary categories obstruct your understanding.

        • Thanks, Malcolm. I’m also convinced that we probably agree about a lot!

          I have similar experiences in feeling out of place either way, although feeling out of place has characterized most of my life in one way or another! Maybe the problem is that I haven’t been hanging out much during the pandemic and have been left to my own devices.

          I’ve also become less hopeful about the prospects for getting analytic philosophers, at least of the historically incurious variety, interested in Indian philosophy. While there may be intra-diiscipline reasons for doing this in terms of carving out a place for Indian and other non-Western traditions in the discipline, on a more intellectual level, I’ve become less convinced that we need to bend over backwards to make things interesting to analytic philosophers. I’d rather go off and do my own weird thing. I was never going to be a good emissary for Indian philosophy in the analytic crowd anyway, so I’m happy to leave that task to others.

          I’ve also become less hopeful in recent years about making philosophy as a discipline substantially less Eurocentric in the near future. I think Western philosophy, at least in North America and Europe, is so baked into the very concepts of what philosophy is for most of our colleagues that I worry that Western-centered comparative philosophy is not enough. As Elisa Freschi noted a few years back in my posts about what I called “the Matilal strategy,” often the results of these comparisons will be that Indian philosophy is “almost as good” as analytic philosophy. (Nor do I mean to pick on analytic philosophers; continental types can be even more Eurocentric).

          You are right that I was a bit hasty to say such projects are “misguided.” I don’t mean to say others shouldn’t do that, or that I may not do that in the future. I think I meant more that I personally have felt that I was misguided in missing what’s interesting about the text.

          But I’m in the middle of rethinking things for myself. I do really like comparative projects that don’t center the West (like McLeod’s excellent work!), but I’m trying to work out another approach: what if I tried reading Vasubandhu and others as philosophers in their own right who have interesting things to say about being human that might change the way readers look at things? What if I looked at Indian philosophers the same way that we are taught to look at Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc., as historical figures who have things to teach us that go beyond the confines of specific issues popular today?

          I may end up back doing comparative philosophy when I do this! But for now I’d like to see where this goes.

          • The problem is Matilal didn’t write a Sanskrit or Tibetan text, ‘for’ students studying in Sanskrit or Tibetan higher learning centres. Indologists irrespective of the place they’re born in, are pirative or extractive, very few write good articles or books in Sanskrit, to either create a debate or summarise ongoing academic debates ‘for’ Sanskrit students who may not know graduate school lingo to understand and contribute to academic debates.

            If someone is super serious about serious Vada, then they would write an essay in Sanskrit or Tibetan, in a Paribhasa they’re comfortable with, and invite responses to it.

  2. Pingback: Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and Comparative Philosophy, Part Two – The Indian Philosophy Blog

  3. Ethan, thanks for this post, it exemplifies intellectual virtues that I ought to emulate.

    I think there is pressure to show that one’s research has contemporary relevance, and in academia that may involve showing that it has bearing on problems that Western philosophers find interesting. This may result in a distortion of the target text or thinker. But it seems to me that a similar problem is found in Chinese and Indian commentarial traditions as well, where the intellectual preoccupations of one’s own time can give rise to a distorted interpretation of the target text.

    On the other hand, I also want to say that there are universal philosophical problems that are not peculiar to this or that conceptual scheme. Here the study of different philosophical traditions can enrich our understanding of such problems, and also of possible solutions to them.

    The general approach I think I should adopt is to separate the exegetical task from the problem-solving task. In the exegetical task, the point should be to immerse ourselves as fully as we can in the intellectual world of the target text, seeking to understand it in situ and not in terms of its relevance in other times and contexts.

    As for the problem-solving task, I think it should be problem-oriented rather than text-oriented. First begin by identifying a problem, and then seek solutions to them across different texts and traditions. The governing presumption here should be that the answer may not found in any single text or tradition: after all, the point is to seek and find the solution wherever it may lie, and not to seek the comfort of finding oneself at home in any given text or tradition. Here I imagine that the inquirer is like a pirate in the open seas swearing no allegiance to any nation, but doggedly raiding ships for pieces of a map that points to the treasure.

    Lying in the middle between these two tasks is the task of imagining what the author of a text might have said about this or that problem. For this task to be worthwhile, I imagine that one must have engaged in the previous two tasks. This task I take to be a form of internal dialogue where the inquirer poses the questions, and answers them by placing oneself in the shoes of the author. But why engage in such a task at all? I suppose because one is attracted to the author, and finds it intrinsically enjoyable to engage in this dialogue and perhaps to be guided by the answers. It is what the text of Mencius has called “looking for friends in history” (5B8).

    • Thanks, Boram, for your comment.

      That’s a good point about the commentaries. I’m thinking of some of the later Nyāya commentaries that claim Gautama was engaging with Dignāga!

      I don’t mean to deny that there may be universal philosophical problems. I think there probably are! My point is more that the very idea of what counts as a “universal philosophical problem” is often set by the existing categories of Western philosophy, sometimes in subtle ways. Universal problems might be extremely general: more like, “how should we think about human experience?” than “what is the precise relation between sense-data and mental representations?”

      I think often in the pressure to show that historical work is “relevant” we can unconsciously sneak in parts of the more specific contemporary problems into the more general ones. You have an excellent point that any commentary is a “distortion” in the sense of bringing old ideas into a modern context, but I think when the focus is on specific problems, you miss a lot of what’s interesting in the original text.

      I think your idea of going between these tasks may be similar to Matilal’s idea of a “diagonal method” between history of philosophy and problem oriented philosophy.

      A deeper issue is that I don’t really see philosophy as a problem-solving enterprise, but I don’t really object to those who do. I talked about this in the conclusion of my book and may discuss at a talk soon: philosophy can be fun, it can make you less dogmatic, it can change your life, and it can develop critical intellectual empathy and thinking skills, but the historical evidence that philosophy has been solving problems for the last three thousand years seems to me to be pretty thin.

      I’m not trying to tell other people what to do. But I’m thinking about different ways to approach this material. I doubt there is one right way to look for friends in history!

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