K A R L   J A S P E R S   F O R U M
T A    1 0 9


C  o   m   m   e   n   t  a   r   y    8


W  E    A   R  E    A  L  L   M  A  D
by Felix Holmgren

Review of :  Mark Siderits. BUDDHISM  AS  PHILOSOPHY,  A n   I n t r o d u c t I o n

242 pp.  Aldershot :  Ashgate.  Paperback, £16.99. 97g 07546 53691


In :  Times Literary Supplement 13 June 2008, p.33, posted 28 February 2009


[ This review is posted as  a contribution to the debate on Buddhist philosophy in TA 109   -  HFJM ]

The prevailing theme of Buddhist
philosophy is illusion. For well over two millennia its adherents have mapped, by various methods and in great detail, the ways in which human beings deceive and delude themselves. All humans, they want to prove, are mad: ever delirious, we mistake hallucination for reality, while dismissing truth as falsehood. This is true even for Buddhist philosophy at its soberest, driest and most technical.   Thus, for example, Buddhist epistemologists acknowledge two sources of knowledge - sense perception and inference - but trust neither to engender much real knowledge.   The former is described as essentially correct but devoid of understand­ing, while the latter arrives at understanding but is always mistaken about its object, taking mental representations for real things.   Reality remains elusive.


This attitude may perhaps conjure up
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Derrida, but it is much more common to see references to Quine, Rorty, Putnam and Wittgenstein in modem studies of Buddhist philosophy.   To a large extent, this has to do with the fact that Buddhism existed in South Asia, from Sri Lanka to present-day Afghanistan, alongside several other creeds, so that Buddhist philos­ophers found it necessary to develop modes of inquiry that did not rely on Scripture or religious authorities but on well-established systems of inferential reasoning, a develop­ment similar to that of analytic philosophy in the Western world during the past century.


Another reason is that the South Asian understanding of signs - hence language,
hence logic, hence truth  -  is akin to that of Europeans.   We find in South Asian philos­ophy a preoccupation with problems of refer­ence, the ontology of universals, the relation between subject and object, and epistemic justification, which it is tempting to call "pan-Indo-European".   Some speculate that these shared concerns grow out of using a phonetic alphabet, as South and West Asians and Europeans do, for this tends to highlight the artificiality of signs and establish the sen­tence as the primary linguistic unit   This, in turn, is likely to provoke suspicion about the possibility of knowledge of the outside world and a fixation on prepositional truth.   By con­trast, in East Asia, with its mainly logographical writing, the rift between language and reality was not traumatic, artifice was not at odds with nature - think of a bonsai tree - and philosophers were not so dead serious about the justification of truth.   Thus, poets prefer Zen, while Anglo-Saxon philosophers go for classical Indian Buddhism.


The title of Mark Siderits's introduction to
the topic, Buddhism Ax Philosophy, signals that the author intends not only to bring to the fore the philosophical aspects of Buddhism, but to treat them as philosophy, viewing them with a philosopher's scrutinizing and critical eye.  It would, Siderits writes, "actually be dishonoring Buddhism not to subject its doctrines to rational scrutiny".    For Buddhism not only prides itself on being founded on rationally justifiable claims, but also sees rational inquiry, doubt and discussion as indispensable tools in the quest for mental peace and wisdom.    Favouring philosophical clarity over chronology, he introduces the main currents of thought in the Buddhist philosophical tradition, probing their theses and arguments for inconsistencies, often offering multiple interpretations.   He also manages to introduce some of the non-Buddhist views that influenced the develop­ment of Buddhist philosophy.


Siderits keeps to an analytical approach,
but does not place undue emphasis on individ­ual arguments.   He exhibits a comprehensive grasp of Buddhist thought and practice as a whole and never leaves out of sight the ethical and soteriological implications and motivations of the doctrines that he discusses.   His presentation has the smooth texture of explanations that have evolved during years of teaching experience.   Siderits guides read­ers around fallacies they have hardly had time to commit, like taking Buddhist philosophers to be telling us to "live in the moment" or to claim that "everything is connected to every­thing else", and finds the time to address questions like "Might antidepressants help?"    Philosophers reading this book might get the eerie sensation of meeting their hitherto unknown twin :  a face so similar to their own that it makes differences stand out unsettlingly.   Consider the Buddhist theory of "other-exclusion".    Like many Western philos­ophers, Buddhists denied the reality of gener­alities like "whiteness" or "heat" that we use to categorize things in the world.  They viewed them merely as conceptual constructs, and ran up against a well-known set of prob­lems - like explaining how we know when to call something "white" or "hot", or how we come up with these concepts in the first place.    Buddhist philosophers formulated a theory according to which a thing's seeming posses­sion of a general attribute merely consists in its non-possession of incompatible attributes.   Thus when we say "The cat is white", what we actually convey is "The cat is not non-white".  The theory of other-exclusion was extended to account for all conceptual and cognitive activity.


This "solution", as Siderits notes, has the
air of a logical trick, and it looks nothing like what any Western philosopher has come up with.   However, if we view it as essentially art account of concept formation, it may be comparable to Wittgenstein's idea of  Familienähnlichkeit  (family resemblance) and related theories in philosophy and psychol­ogy, perhaps even to recent developments in mathematical set theory according to which two sets are considered identical, not because they contain the same elements, but because they cannot be observed to be distinct  (an idea that has in fact been put to use, by Ion Barwise and others, in the study of semantics and other fields).


Some Buddhist philosophers referred to
their theory of other-exclusion as proof of past lives and transmigration, arguing that, since our categorizations are fundamentally arbitrary, they mast have evolved through a gradual process stretching back indefinitely in time.   This is territory most present-day studies prefer to sidestep, or declare somewhat extra­neous to the core of Buddhist philosophy - a cultural ballast to be dropped.  By doing so, however, they more or less inadvertently shift the focus of the entire Buddhist philosophical project, which is premissed on the primacy of consciousness, even when the concept of con­sciousness is treated as just one more concept among others.  Siderits is sensitive to issues like this, but he eventually runs out of steam in his discussion of the most radical Buddhist philosophers, those who deny the possibility of meaningful inquiry into any state of affairs.  Is this, Siderits asks, nihilism, or transcenden­tal idealism in disguise, or a form of "semantic anti-realism" ?  Like many other contemporary scholars, he seems to favour the semantic inter­pretation.  But this leads to an essentially sceptical attitude, which lacks the fangs of the Buddhists' exclamation :  'We are all mad !"   To that statement, another is immediately appended :  "But we can and should do some­thing about it".   We can, because our minds never elude us.   My consciousness, confused though it might be, is always and intimately here, ready to change.


Perhaps students of Buddhist philosophy
would do well to explore phenomenologkal modes of inquiry (a rare recent example of this is Dan Lusthaus's Buddhist Phenomenology, 2003).  For example, Husserl's concept of  epoché  seems remarkably well poised to make sense of the philosophy of the  "Buddhist radi­cals"  referred to above; but it is rarely consid­ered.  With interest increasing in the European phenomenotogical  tradition, due to questions arising out of neuroscience, and with a poss­ible entente between analytic and phenomenological philosophy in sight, such a develop­ment in the studv of Buddhist Philosophy would be very exciting.




Mark Siderits

     e-mail < msideri (at) ilstu.edu>


Felix Holmgren

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