The Zhuangzi and Skepticism

Author: Julianne Chung (University of Louisville)

The Zhuangzi(Wade-Giles: Chuang-tzu) is one of two foundational Daoist texts (alongside the Laozi, orDaodejing). It is widely considered to have been composed (at least in large part) by a Chinese philosopher of the same name in the late 4th century BCE.

Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi,the Qiwulun, can be read and taught on its own.  Like other parts of the book, this chapter articulates and appears to advocate a variety of skeptical positions but also a number of positive claims that are seemingly inconsistent with them. Commentators have sought to resolve these tensions by claiming:

  • that Zhuangzi’s skepticism is more limited than many have been inclined to think (cf. Graham 1983, Eno 1996, Fraser 2009, and Sturgeon 2015),
  • that Zhuangzi is a relativist, pluralist, or perspectivist rather than a skeptic (cf. Hansen 1983, Wong 1984, Mou 2008 and 2015a, and Connolly 2011),
  • that Zhuangzi’s skepticism is better construed as a recommendation, method, or therapy rather than a thesis (cf. Kjellberg 1996, Ivanhoe 1996, Raphals 1996, Van Norden 1996, and Wong 2005),
  • that Zhuangzi does not sincerely advocate radically skeptical positions, despite appearances to the contrary (cf. Schwitzgebel 1996),
  • and that Zhuangzi can be interpreted as both a global skeptic and fictionalist (Chung forthcoming).

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VASUBANDHU and the problem of the external world in Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy (c. 300-400 CE)

Author: Gordon. F. Davis (Carleton University)

In a few short texts, assigned to a mature period following a famous ‘conversion’ to Mahayana Buddhism, Vasubandhu argues that reality consists of ‘impressions-only’ (Siderits 2007), or ‘only appearance’ (Gold 2015). This prima faciemetaphysical idealism came to be known, famously and more simply, as the ‘Cittamatra’ view, which means ‘mind-only’.

Taking ‘external world’ to mean a world in space and time that is putatively independent of the mind, Vasubandhu argues that this conception is a delusion, one that imposes a crude conceptual grid on the field of experience. As a critic of ‘naïve realism’, Vasubandhu sees unchecked mental projections as imposing a spatiotemporal structure on experience which, once purged of this, can also be liberated from other forms of ignorance. In his Twenty-Verse Treatise, Vasubandhu considers various objections to this irrealist account of belief in an external world, responding by invoking e.g. analogies of dream-experience (and other intriguing anticipations of modern philosophy).

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Madhvācārya

Author: Deepak Sarma (Case Western Reserve University)

Madhvācārya is a 13th century Indian Hindu scholar who began the Dvaita or dualist (also known as Mādhva) tradition of Vedānta. He argues that the ultimate reality (brahman), identified with God as Viṣṇu, is distinct from the world and from each and every ātman (enduring, individual self). His primary opponent is the Advaita (non-dualist) School of Vedānta founded by Ṡaṃkarācārya in the 8th century which holds that ultimate reality is identical to each and every ātman. Madhvācārya argues that the universe is governed by pañcabheda (five types of differences) that are real and not illusory. Continue reading “Madhvācārya”

Śāntideva on self-interest and altruism

Authors: Amod Lele (Boston University), and Anna Lännström (Stonehill College)

 

Śāntideva is an eighth century Indian Buddhist philosopher from the Mahāyāna tradition. His most famous work is the short and largely accessible Bodhicaryāvatāra (Undertaking the way to awakening). The work had an important influence on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The arguments for altruism (8.89 – 105) are perhaps the most famous parts of the work and can easily be excerpted. They occur in the context of the discussion of how to awaken the desire to become a bodhisattva (someone who wants to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of others). One of the steps he recommends for awakening that desire is meditating on the equality of oneself and others.

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Nishida Kitaro’s Self-Contradictory Identity

Author: Nicole Bea (Independent researcher)

Nishida is the founder of the Kyoto School of Philosophy.  The school includes three generations of thinkers who all put nothingness, or emptiness, at the core of their philosophy. Though not well known in the West, Nishida is regarded as Japan’s first and greatest modern philosopher.  His philosophy is not simply non-Western in the sense that Confucius’ or Dogen’s philosophies could be said to be. Rather, he is a modern thinker who has reformulated Japanese Zen philosophy using the language of Western philosophy.

Born in 1870, as Japan was opening up to Western culture in the Meiji Era, Nishida Kitaro received an education blending East and West, combining early tutoring in the Chinese classics and a serious Zen practice with an interest in mathematics and logic and a passion for Western philosophy. He was convinced that it was possible to articulate the East Asian notion of nothingness as the ground of reality in the language of Western philosophy, even though that language had been developed to elucidate an understanding of ultimate reality as being.  As a starting point for his first book, An Inquiry into the Good, Nishida borrowed William James’s concept of “pure experience” to access reality behind the layer of concepts carved out by the mind to give it meaning, and he seems to have regarded pure experience as equivalent to the Zen state of no-mind.

Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings – Nothingness and the Religious Worldview. Translated by David A. Dilworth. University of Hawaii Press, 1987.  This is Nishida’s last book where he gives an overview of his life’s work and sums up his thought. Includes an introduction and a postscript by the translator.  Pages 48-54 and 64-69 could be used as texts to introduce self-contradictory identity.

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Secondary Sources – Online
Secondary Sources – Books and Articles
Compare/Contrast With

 
Secondary Sources – Online

Nishida Kitaro,”  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Secondary Sources – Books and Articles

Michiko Yusa, Zen & Philosophy, An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitaro.  University of Hawaii Press, 2002.  Outstanding biography blending life events and evolution of Nishida’s thought based on Nishida’s diaries. Includes short texts by Nishida.

Robert E. Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God.  Paragon House Publishers, 2nd Revised edition, 1998. Insightful study of Nishida’s thought.

James W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness – An Essay on the Kyoto School University of Hawai’i Press, 1996.  Includes studies of Nishida Kitaro, Tanabe Hajime and Nishitani Keiji, the best known members of the Kyoto School, by the long-time director of the Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture.

Gereon Kopf, Beyond Personal Identity: Dōgen, Nishida, and a Phenomenology of No-Self. Richmond: Curzon, 2001.

Robert Wilkinson,  Nishida and Western Philosophy. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009. 

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Compare/Contrast With

Tanabe Hajime, Nishitani Keiji, and the later Martin Heidegger.  Tanabe and Nishitani are Nishida’s best known successors in the Kyoto School.
With regard to Heidegger, though neither was influenced by the other, both might be seen as seeking a standpoint, or form of thinking, that goes beyond the subject-object distinction to grasp a more basic and encompassing level of reality.

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The Bhagavad Gītā

Author: Amod Lele (Boston University)

The Bhagavad Gītā is an episode from the Mahābhārata (the long Indian epic poem) in which the god Krishna offers advice to the hero Arjuna, in response to Arjuna’s despair at the need to kill his cousins in battle. It is one of the most loved texts in Indian tradition – enough that some modern thinkers, including Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi have taken it to be the central text of Hindu tradition. When one wants to identify the ethical teachings of the great philosophers in the Vedānta tradition (such as Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja), those philosophers’ commentaries on the Gītā, while difficult for a novice reader, are often the clearest guide to their ideas.

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Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra

Author: Amod Lele (Boston University)

The Bodhicaryāvatāra is an Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist text from approximately the eighth century CE, whose author is referred to as Śāntideva. It is very popular among Tibetan Buddhists; the present Dalai Lama has referred to it as his favourite book. It instructs its readers how to live up to the ideal of the bodhisattva, the Buddhist hero who swears to free all living beings from suffering.  Continue reading “Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra”

Shankara’s Nondualism (Advaita Vedanta)

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

Shankaracharya, also known as Adi Shankara, is an 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian who argues that ultimate reality or brahman is single and not substantially distinct from the world. Often compared with Western monists such as Parmenides, Plotinus and Spinoza, Shankara contends that the universe of distinct particulars has only a dependent and limited being, and that our everyday attribution of ultimate reality to it is a result of ignorance. While in some respects this metaphysics resembles Buddhist emphases on the conditioned and transient nature of things, Shankara posits a stable and unchanging reality behind the shifting appearances, which is said to be identical with the permanent aspect of the self (atman) as pure consciousness. Shankara is a Vedantic thinker who respects the authority of the Upanishads, to which he appeals in support of his claims. However, his metaphysical position is at the same time developed through philosophical refutations of the views of rival schools, including Buddhist ones. Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras, for instance, contains arguments against Buddhist subjective idealism maintaining the non-existence of the external world, and against the central Buddhist doctrine of no-self or anatta.

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No-self (anatta) in The Questions of King Milinda

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

The Questions of King Milinda is an Indian Buddhist text probably written between 100 – 200 B.C. Its authorship is uncertain, and it is most likely a composite work.   The narrative is composed as a fictional dialogue between the Greek King Milinda (an Indianization of Menander) and the Buddhist Sage Nagasena. A portion of the dialogue presents the Buddhist doctrine of anatta or no-self. Using the analogy of a chariot, Nagasena demonstrates to Milinda that the person named “Nagasena” cannot be identified with any part of his body or consciousness nor with any sum of these parts, but also cannot be conceived as existing independently of his parts. The conclusion is that “Nagasena” is only a conventional term to name something that has no substantial existence, and that this is generally true of what we understand as the “self.”

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Carvaka school

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

The Carvaka tradition offers an example of a pleasure-oriented this-worldly philosophy of life, based on a strictly empiricist epistemology and materialist metaphysics. Claiming that sense-perception constitutes the only reliable means of knowing, Carvaka thinkers reject the possibility of drawing inferences about what cannot be perceived, and some reject the validity of inferential reasoning altogether. They therefore argue that there is no afterlife, and that the mind is a product of matter. Consequently, they also deny the utility of priests and rituals, and question the caste system. They are represented as amoral hedonists by their opponents, but this portrait may not be entirely accurate.

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