TA 109 (Bhatt)


Commentary 1 (to R21 and R25 of TA93)


[The following commentary was sent to me, with kind mediation by U Mohrhoff, by F Holmgren, the author of two book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement; see R21 and R25 of TA93.

It is posted here with TA109, because the similarity of the topic.   I have added paragraph numbers to facilitate discussion  ---  HFJM ]




by Felix Holmgren

3 July 2008, posted 2 August 2008




I was glad to find that my review of Ocean of Reasoning got you interested in possible connections between Buddhist and "western" philosophy.  In my opinion, such connections are still in general poorly understood although the field definitely has progressed quite a bit over the last few decades.  Jay Garfield is among the more prominent researchers that explicitly tries to bridge the philosophical traditions of various cultures.  Mark Siderits is another.  (My review of a recent book of his:



If you are interested in delving deeper into the topic, Siderits' book and some of Garfield's earlier books ("Empty Words" and "Root Verses of the Middle Way") are good starting points, although I find their approaches to be limited in some respects. ("Ocean of Reasoning" is probably a bit confusing without some background.)  To get a firmer grasp of the so-called Buddhist Epistemological school, John Dunne's "Foundations of Dharmakirti's Philosophy" is the best volume I've seen.


There are many strains within Buddhist philosophy, and they are sometimes seen as competing, sometimes (especially in Tibet) as complementary. As with European philosophy, each philosopher approaches the topics in their own way. One philosopher that is especially germane for your interests is Candrakirti (a primary influence on Tsong khapa's philosophy).  Several translations exist of his "Entering the Middle Way" and other texts.  It is in general necessary to look at several translations (this is also true of Nagarjuna's "Root Verses..."; Garfield's translation alone is not sufficient). An unusual and relatively entertaining introduction to Candrakirtian though is Gendun Chopel's recently translated "Adornment for Nagarjuna's Thought". I've reviewed it twice:



http://www.thebuddhadharma.com/issues/2006/summer/review_madman.html (excerpt; can send you the full text if you're interested)


I won't go into any more detail, but will briefly try to respond to the points you raised:


[HM in R21 of TA93]

... the rejection of metaphysics corresponds to the similar but not very successful efforts in Western epistemology over recent centuries to rid itself of metaphysics. 


In general, most South Asian Buddhist philosophers did reason in metaphysical terms although it's not clear that their discourse perfectly overlaps what we usually call metaphysics. Arguments have been made that their approach were more of a phenomenological kind, and I tend to sympathize with this idea although their are many arguments against it.  The "Buddhist Epistemologists'" conception of knowledge is quite complex, and while it looks like a empiricist and foundationalist outlook, it simultaneously undermines epistemic certainty. In my view, what all these approaches have in common is that they point to a form of non-cognitive consciousness, but do so through a vast arsenal of logical and empirical arguments.




From the presented quotes it seems that the rejection of metaphysics in the work of Tsong khapa / Nagarjuna is persistent, though not complete.


For instance there is no discussion about subject-inclusive structuring of 'things' [4], which seem to be taken as mind-independently ready-made



The deconstruction of the subject is one of the primary aims of all Buddhist philosophy, although philosophers disagree on if and how to talk about what "remains" with subjects (and therefore objects) out of the picture.  No Mahayana philosopher would take objects to me mind-independent.  How they describe the appearance of "objects" to consciousness varies, but in general the fact that no subject can be construed without an object and vice versa leads to the conclusion that neither has a stable metaphysical status. The Nagarjunian strain, however, takes a radical route  in as much as they don't find it necessary to elaborate further on the "deeper" ways in which subject and object are related, but treat them *as if* they were given, only to refute that these categories carry metaphysical significance.  Candrakirti, arguable the most radical Mahayana philosopher, regards attempts at reforming epistemology as misguided, meaningless and doomed to fail, since they will only obscure the utter lack of metaphysical basis for epistemological practices. This point of view was later interpreted in widely varying ways by Tibetan philosophers, with Gendun Chopel and Tsong khapa as examples of two incompatible approaches.



and more generally I saw no evidence of a recognition that humans necessarily have to structure their experience.



Buddhist philosophers acknowledge that humans out of compulsion do structure experience, but see such structuring as fundamentally obscuring and deluded. It is easy to get this point wrong: what these thinkers seek to explicate is not a dull type of consciousness where everything has been reduced to "unity". Unity is a sort of structure.  This is a complicated topic and I won't dwell on it. 




Nagarjuna's term 'transcendent' [1] underlines this aspect.  Is this perhaps a reason why Indian epistemology, despite its anti-metaphysical orientation, tends to fall back on micro-materialism (which in effect is another type of metaphysics) ?


Indian epistemology, in general, is relies heavily on ontological models. (Some) Buddhist philosophers are an exception to this.  In fact, I would say that what the more radical among the Buddhist philosophers claim is exactly that philosophy *cannot* be rid of metaphysical presuppositions, so that *any* philosophical system implicitly takes a metaphysical stance.  Therefore, attempts to construct a metaphysics-free epistemology are futile. Therefore, epistemological practices, as far as they must be engaged in, should be regarded as fundamentally deluded and all hope that epistemology could survive the death of metaphysics should be abandoned.




According to Nagarjuna, the 'emptiness' indicates that metaphysics is impossible [5]; emptiness could in addition be seen as a desirable start-point for structure-building within encompassing (and otherwise unstructured) experience



This would need careful analysis, but in so far as emptiness implies that phenomenal experience always involves various kinds of co-dependence, one might say that emptiness ensures that phenomena will always be structured.  The main point, however, is that such apparent structuring is exactly that: merely apparent.




I would be much interested in comments by those who are familiar with the Tibetan/Indian/Buddhist way of thinking.



Hope you found some of this helpful, or at least curiosity-inducing.




Felix Holmgren
     e-mail <felix.holmgren (at) gmail.com>