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Book review Engaging Buddhism. Why it Matters to Philosophy

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The West has been engaging with Buddhism for some time but Western philosophy (with some notable exceptions) lagged behind. Jay Garfield aims to bring some philosophical disciplines up to speed. His book Engaging Buddhism aims to show the relevance of Buddhist thought for metaphysics, the self, consciousness, phenomenology, epistemology, logic and philosophy of language and ethics. Garfield is not interested in defending a Buddhist position against Western positions or demonstrating the superiority of Buddhist thought. He does claim that serious philosophers can no longer ignore the insights and arguments of Buddhist philosophers. Garfield focuses the discussion largely on the Mahayana schools of Buddhism, namely the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools. He spends one chapter on the developments in Buddhist thought that led to the formation of both schools. Though brief, this chapter gives a good introduction to the main features of Buddhist philosophy in general.

The first Buddhist metaphysical perspective Garfield discusses is interdependence and impermanence. The doctrine of dependent origination, stating that whatever arises depends on another thing, is central to (virtually) all of Buddhist teaching. Impermanence and lack of intrinsic identity is more particular to the Mahayana schools. Garfield spends some pages explaining how these doctrines gave rise to the doctrine of two truths. His explanation of this doctrine, which is usually rather obscure to Western readers, is very illuminating. Garfield applies interdependency to modern philosophy as causal dependency, part-whole dependency and dependency on conceptual imputation. His discussion on the doctrine of impermanence and the two truths leads him to a reappraisal of pragmatic conventionalism; metaphysics should focus on the reality that matters to us because this is the only metaphysics that can really make a difference.

Next, Garfield zooms in closer on the doctrine of emptiness. The doctrine does not mean emptiness of existence but emptiness of some determinate metaphysical property or emptiness of intrinsic nature. Garfield discusses how this made the Madhyamika school conclude to a form of conventional realism. Garfield interprets their position as a middle way between realism and anti-realism, avoiding the extremes of robust essentialist realism and anti-realist idealism, and thereby anticipating the critique of fundamental ontology by Hegel and Heidegger. He also devotes part of the chapter on the idealist interpretation of the Yogacara school. This can itself be cashed out as strong idealism with no mind­independent reality at all or as a weaker form where reality is actively constructed by our perceptual and cognitive faculties. Finally, Garfield briefly discusses the Chinese Hua Yan tradition that interprets emptiness as a lack of difference between entities. This chapter misses a thorough engagement with modern Western philosophy. It would have been interesting to elaborate on the differences and similarities between the Madhyamika school and Heideggerian ontology and do likewise for the Yogacara school and (neo)pragmatist philosophy.

Another topic Buddhist philosophers have a lot to say about is the self. Here Garfield opens the chapter by providing an overview of a number of Western positions on the subject. He notes that Buddhist philosophy does not have the notion of an Abrahamic soul or similar thing constituting personal identity. Critique of the idea of an enduring self has permeated Buddhist thought from the very beginning. Garfield uses Buddhist lines of thought to support the view that the concept 'self' has a mere conventional use and that a robust sense of the self does not answer to anything real. He also uses Buddhist thought to push an 'experience first account' in which experiences come first and constitute a conventional sense of the self rather than the other way around.

The topic of consciousness is (or was) hotly debated in recent Western philosophy and Buddhist philosophers have been discussing it for centuries. One aspect of the discussion where Buddhist philosophy lies ahead is in distinguishing different senses of consciousness. Where Western philosophers usually only distinguish access- and phenomenal consciousness, Buddhist philosophers make a lot more distinctions. Garfield also discusses the relevance of Buddhist ideas for thinking about self-consciousness, qualia and philosophical zombies. This chapter is perhaps the one most tailored for experts of the book and therefore maybe also the least accessible. Some parts require an understanding of the subject matter which lay people will not have.

Garfield's discussion of phenomenology mainly addresses subjectivity and introspection. He claims that Buddhist thought is especially useful for thinking about the distinction between 'surface' and 'deep phenomenology'. Surface phenomenology is limited to what can in principle be observed whereas deep phenomenology is the inquiry into the fundamental cognitive, affective and perceptual processes that underlie introspection. For all Buddhist philosophers, surface phenomenology is the area of primal confusion. Garfield cites the Yogacara schools that highlights how surface phenomenology is always mediated and the media through which everything is mediated remain opaque because there is no subject worthy of that name underpinning phenomenology. This chapter offers some interesting ideas but the many connections to Buddhist ideas of the self makes one wonder why Garfield chose not to discuss them in the chapter on the self.

The chapter on epistemology discusses the Buddhist pramana (means of authoritative cognition), buddhist nominalism, the foundationalism of the Pramanavadin school and the coherentism of the Madhyakama school. The Madhyakama school accept four pramana, being perception, inference, analogy and testimony and the Pramanavadin school only two, perception and inference. The ideas on nominalism largely follow from the doctrine of emptiness and the two truths. This discussion would probably have been more in its place in an earlier chapter. The part on coherentism and foundationalism is interesting because both the coherentism of the Madhykama and the foundationalism of the Pramanavadin are to some extant like and to some extant different to Western epistemology. Because of this the Madhyakama can be used to construct a pragmatic coherentism and the Pramanavadin to construct a conventional foundationalism. Epistemology is thus clearly a discipline in which Buddhist thought can help to move some theories forward.

The relevance of Buddhism for logic mainly consists of arguments against the principle of bivalence. Contrary to most western logicians, some Buddhist scholars claimed that each sentence can have more than two truth values (true or false) but allow for four (true, false, true and false, and true nor false). This could be so because of the doctrine of two truths where ultimate nonexistence is perfectly compatible with conventional reality. Garfield discusses logic alongside philosophy of language because the doctrine of two truths has similar consequences here. For Buddhist scholars, language is regarded as deceptive since it only applies to conventional truth. Being deceptive, a sentence can be perfectly legitimate in the realm of conventional truth but also be in need of transcendence in ultimate truth.

As in most Asian traditions, Buddhist ethics is more about moral phenomenology than about principles and rules one should follow. Garfield argues that the primary subject matter of Buddhist ethics is the nature of our experience and the transformation of it. Buddhist soteriology proposed a change of outlook resulting in a change of the person. Garfield connects this overarching theme to karma and the path of the Bodhisattva. This chapter is the most accessible one of the book, mainly because it addresses mostly practical matters.

Garfield's book is a thought provoking and illuminating engagement with (mainly Mahayana) Buddhist thought. The chapters on metaphysics, the self, epistemology and ethics are the most interesting ones. The other chapters are sometimes a bit repetitive but still well worth reading. Another asset of the book is that it moves beyond a mere scholarly discussion of (the history of) Buddhist ideas. Chances are high we will see more books engaging with non-Western thought in the future. Garfield's book is a good example of successfully doing this.