20 March 2009

Buddhism and Western Philosophy : the Fundamental Mismatch

Following on from last week I want to continue the theme of ontology. This week I want to look at the differing attitudes to ontological speculation in early Buddhism and Western Philosophy generally. It seems to me that there is an almost irreconcilable difference between the two approaches. I've been sparked off by reading Confessions Of A Philosopher by Bryan Magee (left) . Here's what he says philosophy is about:
"The ur-question of philosophy throughout most of its history has been ‘what, ultimately, is there?’ This was the dominant question for the pre-Socratics, and it has underlain, then it has not dominated, most of the best philosophy since. In pursuit of an answer, philosophers have asked a multitude of subsidiary questions, such as ‘what is the nature of physical objects? What is space? What is causal connection? What is time?’ And by a natural progression from this they have become deeply exercised about the possibility of human knowledge: ‘How can we find out these things? Can we know any of them for certain? If so, which? And how can we be sure we know when we do know?’" (Magee p.86)
Magee puts this definition forward in his explanation that the so-called Oxford School, aka Linguistic Philosophy, really isn't philosophy at all. I want to use this paragraph as a jumping off point for comparison of early Buddhism (the narrow definition is necessary) and Western Philosophy, and to show that Buddhism, at least early Buddhism, is also not really philosophy at all.

In the west the primary question then is "what is there?" The assumption is that there is something "there", i.e. it assumes that we are a subject having an experience of an object. Early Buddhism too acknowledges this view point and sees humans as experiencing subjects being aware of objects. In particular we find the oft repeated formula that vedanā arises in dependence on contact between a sense object, a sense organ, and sense consciousness; and from vedanā all of the other functions of consciousness (or at least the functions relvant to the Buddhist project). Contemporary Buddhist discourse often tries to play down or eliminate this duality, but it is inherent in the early Buddhist texts. We have experiences of something.

However there is a fundamental difference in attitude towards the objective pole of experience. For philosophers the nature of 'what is there' is at the forefront. They enquire into the nature of the objects and the relationships between them. Even those that accept that to a large extent what we are talking about is a mental representation of some perceived reality, are still interested in what can be known and/or said about that external reality. Magee himself is not content to accept that nothing can be known for certain about Reality, but strives to find the limits of such knowledge. This is the broad subject area of metaphysics - the study of what is beyond physics. He describes more than once his disappointment that he was unable to persuade Karl Popper into the field of metaphysics.

Early Buddhism whilst acknowledging objects, has nothing much more to say about them - I know of nothing but leave open the possibility that I have not yet found it, or over looked something. The vast corpus of texts focus almost entirely on the experience, that is the subjective pole of contact. It is our response to sensations (vedanā - literally 'the known') that occupies the attention of the Buddha and early Buddhists, the cascade of mental functions and phenomena that follow from vedanā. I've harped on the Buddhists use of the word 'loka' lately so it should be familiar to my readers. It does not mean the objective world in most cases, but the subjective. When the Buddha is called "lokavidū" (in the Buddha Vandana for example) - the knower of the world - this does not mean that he knows about worldly things, but that he has fully understood his own world, his self-constructed world. He understands how experiences arise and pass away.

This is where we must specify early Buddhism - by which I mean the earliest strands of Buddhism largely represented by the Pāli texts, but with fragmentary parallels in Gāndhārī and Sanskrit, as well as translations into Chinese, and to some extent Tibetan and some Central Asian languages. Later on, although not that late, at least one strand of Buddhism began to think in terms of actually existent objective entities. This strand was called Sarvāstivāda after the Sanskrit phrase "sarvaṃ asti - everything exists". Perhaps because India had philosophers as well, the Buddhists got sucked into creating and systematising theories about reality (or worse, Reality), but this drew them well away from what seem to be the concerns of the early texts.

Where there is a quest for knowledge in philosophy it is knowledge of reality, knowledge of the the objective world. Questions of Truth and Authority revolve around this notion of a reality (or Reality) external to us in which we participate. There is a great deal of mileage in this. After all we to a large extent share experiences, and we can communicate about them. Technology relies on observations of objects and their relationship: from the earliest tools, to working metals and clays, to the hi-tech of atom smashers and the internet, these are all successes of the view that objects are real and knowable. Technology is not simply a matter of mental phenomena. If we dismiss the objective world out of hand, then we run the risk of appearing (and actually being) silly.

However once again the Buddha seems to have been preoccupied with other matters - generally speaking in the nature of experience, and more specifically in the nature of suffering or unpleasant experience. And not just in the content of experience, but in the mechanics of it. In the process by which we have experiences. This becomes apparent when we take an overview of the teachings on the khandhas, which Sue Hamilton has described as the "apparatus of experience". It's not that objects are denied. The observation that we can only know what we can experience, is shared by Western thinkers. It's that the Buddha's project was to end suffering, and not to make samara more pleasent or livable. Technology was beside the point to the Buddha, even if he had not adopted the lifestyle of a traditional wanderer. The focus, as I explained in Life, the Universe and Everything [16 Jan 2009], is suffering, it's causes, it's ceasing, and the ways one can make it cease. No technology is required to do this, because it is all about understanding how the experience of suffering arises from vedanā.

I would suggest then that Buddhism is not, or at least not in its earliest known texts, a philosophy, and the Buddha was not a philosopher, at least not in the terms given by Bryan Magee. The Buddha appears not to have been interested in the central questions of philosophy, and they have no bearing on the method of Buddhism - the object is immaterial compared to our experience of it, and how we understand that experience.

If Buddhism is not a philosophy, this begs the question, is it a religion? A subject for another rave...

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