In Part One, I discussed Sonam Kachru’s criticisms (Kachru 2021) of some of my earlier work on Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses (Mills 2017).
I ended the previous post with a question: what if we were to listen carefully to Vasubandhu in his own terms, and learn from what he has to say?
This attitude toward the text can challenge understandings of Western categories. Whereas most pragmatists, phenomenologists, and a certain type of analytic philosopher diagnose external-world skepticism as a metaphysical failure to appreciate the entanglement of mind and world, I think Vasubandhu suggests that entangled though mind and world may be (and it’s hard to imagine them being more entangled than in Mahāyāna Buddhist non-dualism!), the cognitive failure of regular human experience is a failure to appreciate how fundamentally mistaken we are in our regular cognitive lives—in light of the fact this very entanglement.
It may be that Vasubandhu shows us something about skeptical inquiries into perception, broadly construed: such epistemological inquiries do not rely on any particular metaphysical framework. (I personally have long thought the anti-skeptical strategy of trying to reduce the epistemological problem of skepticism about the external world to a metaphysical problem of mind and world is a huge mistake, but that’s somewhat besides Vasubandhu’s point as he seems to be doing something more like working out the epistemological consequences of the metaphysics of non-dualism).
I think some contemporary interpreters fail to understand how thoroughly revisionary and revolutionary Vasubandhu’s philosophy is; whereas most contemporary anti-skeptical strategies seek to preserve regular human experience against a philosophical abstraction, Vasubandhu wants to challenge the dogmatic attachment inherent in the regular human experience of thinking our way of seeing things is the right way or the only way (a point I think Kachru and others could make better without appeals to contemporary anti-skeptical strategies!).
So, am I saying, after all this, that Vasubandhu really is a skeptic, just not as we know it? (“We” here means, I guess, 21st century academics writing in English). Maybe. I don’t know.
My own attempts in the past to argue for skeptical interpretations of classical Indian philosophers (e.g., Mills 2018) have often met with resistance precisely because most contemporary philosophers have a (dare I say it?) dogmatic attachment to a specific version of external-world skepticism inculcated in them by contemporary interpretations of Descartes and in contemporary analytic epistemology (this modern view of skepticism is in my opinion also deeply at odds with ancient “Western” skepticisms like Pyrrhonism and Academic skepticism).
At this point I’m willing to cede the label “skepticism.” I no longer care whether Vasubandhu or any other classical Indian philosopher is a “skeptic,” partly due to the unwillingness of my academic colleagues to rethink their own definition of skepticism as a category, but mostly because whatever Vasubandhu and others are doing is philosophically interesting no matter what Western categories we apply to them.
It’s time to stop pretending that classical Indian philosophers have to be subjected to the procrustean bed of Western categories to be interesting or worthy of study or respect in the discipline. I study Indian philosophy because it’s philosophically interesting in its own terms, not because it can glom on to whatever’s popular in mainstream analytic or continental philosophy this month.
While I’ve moved more in the direction of the type of textual work that prevails in Indology or Area Studies, I’m not quite there, either (I never make things easy for myself!). While understanding texts in their historical context is important, at times this approach can leave one a bit too limited by linguistic history or the traditions of interpretation that came before and after a text, leaving little room for innovative philosophical understandings of individual texts (European Indology has its own problematic Orientalist history to contend with as well).
Vasubandhu was obviously responding to the Buddhist traditions before him and he has been taken up in certain ways by centuries of Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars that have come after him, but I also think Vasubandhu has something unique to say that is not captured by Buddhism in general or even Yogācāra in general. At least if we bother to listen to him carefully.
Nor am I denying that all interpretation today takes place in a postcolonial political context or that each reader doesn’t bring their own preconceptions (in a Gadamerian sense) to the text (my own philosophical preconceptions have been shaped by Buddhism as much as anything else; I learned about the Four Noble Truths long before I learned about semantic realism). I’m not saying we should assume we 21st century scholars have a transparent insight into the one true nature of a text for all times. Such would be hopelessly naïve, and in any case goes against the very spirit of what Vasubandhu is telling us about normal human experience!
Going forward, maybe I’ll say Vasubandhu was working out the epistemology of non-dualism, or maybe we can just call it early Yogācāra and let it speak for itself (even if later Yogācāra philosophers do come close to the Western category of “idealism,” I think reducing Vasubandhu to “idealism” is just as problematic as reducing him to “skepticism” or “phenomenalism” or “phenomenology”). I don’t know where I will go next, but I will keep trying to think with Vasubandhu as best I can.
Helpful though comparative philosophy can be at times, sometimes it can be yet another problematic causal factor in our experience of ancient texts. I thank Sonam Kachru for his part in inciting me to think more deeply about my own previous scholarly experience of Vasubandhu and other classical Indian philosophers, moving instead toward listening carefully to what these texts have to say for themselves.
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.
——. 2018. Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.