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.
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.