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Buddhist howls

Jay L. Garfield interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Jay L. Garfield is a game-changing philosopher of Buddhism, niftily jive-talking between traditional western and Buddhist traditions because he knows that parochialism is neither chillin’ nor lovin’ but is rooted in colonial and racist attitudes that bring everyone down. He thinks there’s been progress but there’s still a long way to go so we all need to howl and take a stand. All of which makes him a killer cross-cultural king.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Jay L. Garfield: Well, the answer to this is rather roundabout, and reflects more my own indecision and the randomness of life than anything else. And it is a bit embarrassing. When I went to college I knew what I wanted to study, and what career I wanted to pursue. I wanted to study psychology in order to become a clinical psychologist. So, preparing for my first semester at Oberlin, I chose a bunch of psychology classes, but I had to choose one class outside of psychology. Looking through the catalogue, nothing else interested me. I was young and stupid. So, I did what so many other undergraduates do: I closed my eyes, opened the catalogue, and promised myself to take the first class my finger fell on that fit my schedule. It was a philosophy class. I groaned, but I told myself that I could always drop it after a few classes if it was as boring as it promised to be. Of course, it was a superb class, taught by the late Norman Care. And by the time we opened Hume’s Treatise I was hooked. The attack on the self, on a real causal relation, on universals, and the defense of custom as a foundation not only of social organisation but of ontology and meaning stunned me. So, I decided to double major – philosophy and psychology, but promised myself that I would do honors and graduate work in psychology. The time came for choosing an honors thesis. I was having too much fun in both disciplines, so I decided to write two honors theses, but to go to graduate school in psychology. So I wrote a thesis on the mysticism in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, a text I saw as taking Humean insights one step deeper, as well as a thesis in psychology on attention and behaviour modification. And I provided myself an important safety net. I realised that it was hard to get into graduate school in psychology, and so I applied to graduate school in philosophy as a backup. So then, a terrible thing happened. I was accepted both into graduate school in psychology and into graduate school in philosophy. The philosophy letter, however, arrived with an ominous warning from the APA advising any prospective graduate student in philosophy not to attend, as there were no jobs to be had on graduation. That letter decided things for me. After all, if I were to go to graduate school in psychology, I would immediately have a job, and would never study philosophy again; but I were to go to graduate school in philosophy, I would not get a job, and could then do a second PhD in psychology and settle down to a happy life, having studied both of the subjects I loved. So I went to graduate school in philosophy so as not to get a job. But I failed. I did secure a position teaching philosophy – happily, in a cognitive science program – have loved every minute of it, and never looked back.

3:AM: Although you’re best known for your work in non-western philosophy, you began looking at belief in psychology, Meaning and Truth in modern semantics, the Foundations of Cognitive Science and the morality of abortion. So was it through your investigations in these domains that led you to seek philosophical paradigms outside of the mainstream western tradition, or were you already working some of the non-western material into those initial investigations?

JLG: No. I attended a very “straight” philosophy program (the University of Pittsburgh) and studied logic (mostly relevant logic) and philosophy of mind – under the tutelage of Wilfrid Sellars and Annette Baier – completing my PhD with no awareness that there was any non-Western philosophy, and then accepted a position in which I was expected to teach some applied and theoretical ethics. Hence the interest in the abortion controversy, that grew out of some teaching that I was doing and the tentth anniversary of Roe v Wade. I was introduced to non-Western philosophy by the first student who walked into my office on my first day of work at Hampshire College, where I taught for about 15 years. He wanted me to chair his senior thesis on ‘Indo-Tibetan Madhyamaka and the Social Contract Tradition.’ I thought he was joking. But of course he wasn’t. Bob Thurman was then teaching up the road at Amherst College, part of the same Five College consortium, and was supervising the Tibetan end of the thesis. So I signed on, and had to read some Tibetan philosophy. It was pretty compelling, but not anything I could spend time on at that stage of my career. Only about seven years later, when Hampshire introduced a strong multi-cultural requirement that demanded that we each teach some non-Western approach to our discipline did I start studying Buddhist philosophy, and then only to incorporate a little bit in an epistemology class to satisfy that requirement. But once I started, I got drawn deeper and deeper into the field, and it quickly became an important research area for me. An NEH Summer Institute on Nāgārjuna at the University of Hawai’i sealed my interest, and then a year on an Indo-American fellowship with my family at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in India where I studied Madhyamaka under the ven Prof Geshe Yeshe Thabkhas provided the foundation for my subsequent work in Buddhist philosophy.

3:AM: What attracted you to Madhyamika philosophy in the first place and what are the distinctive positions of this philosophy?

JLG: Well, just as I fell in love with Hume and Wittgenstein as an undergraduate, I fell in love with Nāgārjuna when I encountered his work. The clarity of philosophical vision, the rigour of analysis and the profound exploration of the most fundamental questions of metaphysics impressed me enormously. The radical attack on essence and on foundations resonated with ideas from Hume, Wittgenstein and Sellars, and the rich commentarial tradition provided a hermeneutical device for explicating those ideas. I also, I must say, found my new Tibetan colleagues to be such wonderful teachers and collaborators that the sheer joy of working in that milieu was attractive.

3:AM: You say that at the time of moving to Buddhist philosophy many of the philosophers and cognitive scientists working in philosophy of mind and so forth were dubious about the merits of your doing this. Has this attitude changed over the years so that it is no longer seen as an aberration, or is it still a problem?

JLG: It has. I have been gratified to see how many Western philosophers now at least take non-Western philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy, seriously. An increasing number are reading and discussing non-Western philosophy; the APA now often includes a few panels on non-Western philosophy – again, including Buddhist philosophy – on its program; an increasing number of departments seek philosophers who can teach non-Western philosophy in their departments, or cross-list courses in Religion departments on Buddhist or other non-Western philosophical traditions. Just a few months ago. Christian Coseru, Evan Thompson and I directed an NEH summer institute on ‘Consciousness in a Cross-Cultural Perspective’ in which we integrated Buddhist and Western perspectives. That institute attracted as participants and as faculty a number of philosophers whose work is almost entirely in the Western tradition who were happy to take seriously Buddhist material.

So there has been a lot of progress. But there is also a long way to go. People in our profession are still happy to treat Western philosophy as the “core” of the discipline, and as the umarked case. So, for instance, a course that addresses only classical Greek philosophy can be comfortably titled “Ancient Philosophy,” not “Ancient Western Philosophy,” and a course in metaphysics can be counted on to ignore all non-Western metaphysics. A course in Indian philosophy is not another course in the history of PHILOSOPHY, but is part of the non-Western curriculum. And many of the major journals in our field will not even seriously consider submissions that address non-Western literature. Until the literature, curriculum, professional meetings and mode of engagement with the literature is as diverse as the world of philosophy itself, there is a lot of work to do. And that work is a matter of both intellectual and moral imperative. It is simply irrational to ignore most of world philosophy in the pursuit of truth, and immoral to relegate any literature not written by Europeans as somehow beneath our dignity to read.

3:AM: In 1994 you translated the Tibetan text of Mulamadhyamakakarika which was already a translation of a Sanskrit text and which had already been translated into English four times. You wanted to bring new insights to your translation from those of Streng, Inada, Sprung and Kalupahana reflecting an Indo-Tibetan Prasangika-Midhyamika spin, which is the way it’s read in Japan and China. So what is distinctive about this way of understanding the text?

JLG: When working on Mūlamadhyamakakārikā I was impressed by the commentaries of the Indian philosopher Candrakīrti and the Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa. Their clear analytical understanding of the text, and their attention to the consistency of Nāgārjuna’s analysis of all phenomena as empty of intrinsic nature with a robust realism about the conventional world show how the text can contribute to a deeper understanding of reality.

3:AM: You said when you did your translation that there needed to be a commentary, but that was someone else’s task. Tsong khapa in the early fifteenth century wrote one – Ocean of Reasoning. Tsong khapa seems to embody many virtues of Western philosophy – ‘a powerful grasp of subtle detail, and the ability to see how small details matter in philosophical exposition’ is how you put it. He is important for fusing two strands of Buddhist thought isn’t he – the epistemology and logic of Dharmakirti with the metaphysics of Nagarjuna? Can you say something about these two strands and how he proposed fusing them?

JLG: Well, now of course we have translated Ocean of Reasoning, so it is available to Western readers. But when I first translated Mūlamadhyamakakārikā it was not. Tsongkhapa is trying to accomplish a complex – probably impossible – philosophical reconciliation. Nāgārjuna, of course, is a Mādhyamika, according to which nothing has any intrinsic nature, but also according to which conventional truth, or conventional reality, is as real as anything gets, and provide a standard of truth and reality and a robust sense of the reality of the external world. He also develops a coherentist theory of knowledge according to which epistemic instruments and epistemic objects are mutually justificatory, rejecting any kind of foundationalism. Dharmakirti, on the other hand, is a Yogācārin, arguing that the external world is entirely non-existent, a mere hallucination, while the mind is ultimately real, and a foundationalist epistemology in which ultimately real momentary particulars are known by veridical perceptual processes Tsongkhapa is impressed with Nāgārjuna’s metaphysics, but also with Dharmakīrti’s epistemology, and tries to reconcile them. He argues that while all phenomena are indeed empty of intrinsic nature as Nāgārjuna wants to argue, that Dharmakīrti is right to argue that perception is the foundation of knowledge and that inference can be understood in terms of the relation between nominally real but ultimately unreal universals. I am dubious of the possibility of this synthesis, but Tsongkhapa’s efforts are heroic.

3:AM: How important is his commentary for the future development and reception of Madhyamaka philosophy? Does he succeed in his synthesis?

JLG: Tsongkhapa indeed defines the reception of Madhyamaka by the dGe lugs pa order of Tibetan Buddhism, a very important and influential order indeed. But there are many other voices in Tibetan philosophy deriving from the Sakya, Kagyu and Nyimgma traditions, and many of Tsongkhapa’s interlocutors criticise his views trenchantly. So, we can say that he succeeds in setting a philosophical agenda for Tibetan Madhyamaka, and that he is an important voice, but not that his view is accepted universally or uncritically.

3:AM: You’re interested, among other things, in the way Buddhism connects metaphysics to ethics. This is a big issue – its dominated aspects of post-Enlightenment Western philosophy too where it’s been hard to find a link between what there is and what ought to be done, as Hume might have put it. But you like to read Buddhism from a skeptical perspective – so it talks to Sextus and Hume and the idea that there is no reason to ever accept an argument because reason undermines itself. So is the Buddhist approach really close to skepticism and doing a Nietzschean thing of saying reason is useful but not ultimate – in fact it’s self defeating?

JLG: Self-undermining, maybe, but I don’t think self-defeating. Buddhist epistemologists do argue that rational analysis leads to the conclusion that rational analysis cannot give us infallible access to truth, including that one. That’s not self-defeating, though; it only induces an important kind of epistemic humility and a clearer view of what we do when we reason. We engage in one more fallible human activity among many.

3:AM: You make a distinction between ‘cross-cultural philosophy’ and ‘comparative philosophy’. You want a cross cultural approach so we can do philosophy with a broader set of texts, rather than just find comparisons and notice differences. Is that right? So does this mean that when you look at, say, Cittamatra and say its an idealist position in the same area as Berkeley, Kant and Schopenhauer what you want us to be doing is seeing where the best arguments and reasons are for that position, whereby maybe we find an answer to a problem of Kant in Cittamatra that we’d miss without exposure to the texts (and vice versa)? Are the issues of inexpressibility and haeccity in analytic philosophy examples of how a cross cultural approach extends understanding through understanding Buddhist philosophy? Can you say something about this?

JLG: Sure. I think that comparative philosophy was a very important enterprise. The philosopher who coined that phrase in 1899 was Bajendranath Seal of Calcutta University, who argued that to compare two philosophical systems was to “treat them as of coordinate rank.” That was a major step, inviting Western philosophers to take Indian and other non-Western traditions seriously as philosophy, as opposed to “native religious traditions.” Western philosophers gained access to Asian and African traditions initially by noting similarities and differences. But that, as A.C. Mukerji, of Allahabad, was to note in 1932, is not to do philosophy, but is at best a preparation. To take philosophy seriously is to engage with it philosophically. We take Aristotle seriously not when we write about his ideas, but when we take his ideas as part of our discussions. Similarly, we take Nāgārjuna seriously not when we talk about how similar his ideas are to Hume’s, but when we take him as an interlocutor.

So, to take one of the examples you suggest, Buddhist philosophers in both the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra traditions argue that the nature of reality is in the end inexpressible. The question of whether or not the nature of reality is ineffible is, of course, a matter of debate in Western philosophy. But some of the arguments offered in the Buddhist world are different from those offered in the West, for instance those that rely on the engagement of language and thought with universals, which in turn, are argued to be unreal and deceptive.

3:AM: One of the issues you raise is the ethics of approaches to intellectual and cultural traditions less powerful and less respected than the Western ones. How should we think about this?

JLG: Easy. Suppose that someone argued that the philosophical curriculum in their college could not include any texts by women, because there are just so many important books by men, and not enough time to address all of them, let alone to go on to read stuff by women, or that the faculty is not expert in women’s philosophy. He would be howled down not on the grounds that there are indeed not too many books by guys, but that given a history of sexism, it is immoral as well as irrational to ignore the contributions of women in the curriculum. But people get away with saying that their department can’t offer courses that address non-Western philosophy because they are struggling to cover the “core,” that students have so much Western philosophy to learn that they don’t have time to read the non-Western stuff, and that there are no specialists in non-Western philosophy in the department. In the wake of colonialism and in the context of racism, the only legitimate response is to howl them down.

3:AM: Buddhism engages with politics – human rights, democracy, Satagraha and compassion – does it do so in a distinctive way or again will we find a Buddhist Rawls, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche etc embedded in some of its philosophers again in a cross-cultural kind of way?

JLG: This is a really hard question, and a matter of great debate. There are scholars of Buddhist ethics who argue that Buddhist ethics is a species of virtue ethics, akin to that of Aristotle; others argue that it is a kind of consequentialism, more allied with that of Mill. My own view is that Buddhist ethics is very different – a kind of moral phenomenology, concerned with the transformation of our way of seeing and experiencing the world. In this sense, I think that it is closer to Hume’s ethics, and to contemporary particularism, though not identical with either. Here I think that the Buddhist tradition can contribute something very new – not a new version of a Western ethical system, but rather a different way of thinking about what the subject matter of ethics is, and of what its relationship is to metaphysics. Think about ethics as the study of how we should experience our world.

3:AM: It seems your work has been one of trying to avoid distorting Indian and non-Western philosophy whilst at the same time making cross-cultural philosophy possible. Your book Indian Philosophy in English co-edited with Nalini Bhushan, takes a subtle and nuanced look at this kind of issue, where of course English colonialism and language is the issue. Can you say just what the problems are and how you attempt to overcome them?

JLG: Another hard question. This in part gets into the methodology of translation. When we translate, we always to some extent betray the text we are translating. That is why translation is so hard and thankless. All you can do is to fail in the least egregious way possible. Sometimes the term one is translating from Sanskrit or Tibetan has no term in English that really captures its range of use. It may be best to leave that term untranslated, and to supply a gloss, inviting the reader to think through a new linguistic term. But you can’t do that all the time, or you give up on the task of translating, and require readers to learn new languages if they are to engage with the new literature. More often, you run into terms that demand distinct translations in distinct contexts because of the difference between their semantic range and those of any of the available translation terms. But when you do that – when you use multiple English terms to translate a single source language term – you obscure relations between points being made in different contexts that appear to be about the same thing in the source language, but seem unrelated in English. Sometimes you run the risk of taking ordinary terms in the source language and translating them into technical philosophical terms in English, or the other way around, distorting the register of the original. In sum, a translator is always balancing a number of desiderata: semantic range; grammatical construction; lexical resonance; sometimes rhyme and metre; technical register; resonance to particular philosophical systems. Getting one right means getting others wrong. So, distortion of some kind enters the moment one translates. And to the extent that the reader forgets that she is reading a translation, and takes the translator’s choices seriously as the terms of the original, things can get worse. So, imagine the same English term being used for very different reasons to translate a Sanskrit term and a Greek term. For instance, we might translate DHARMA in some contexts as PHENOMENON, and in others as VIRTUE. But it never means what PHAENOMENON or ARETE mean in Greek. The unwary reader might, however, take the Greek source term to translate the Sanskrit source term and be terribly misled. Similarity is not transitive, and translation relations are always similarity relations, multidimensional ones at that. Now, you raise the question of the role of the English language in our Indian Philosophy In English From Renaissance to Independence. That is a very different matter. In that volume, and in the the book we are now writing on philosophy in English in India during the British colonial period we are not concerned with translations, but with philosophy written in English, but in the context both of Western and Indian traditions. Here the questions are different, and include questions about language and power, and about the relation between Western and Indian philosophy.

3:AM: In a recent interview here at 3:AM Jonardon Ganeri argued that the English destroyed a modern Indian philosophy that was aware of the European philosophy and was engaged in cross-cultural philosophy from the sixteenth century. The irony might be that a call for ‘authentic’ Indian philosophy becomes a product of English colonialism. Is this a danger in more than just this context, that contemporary ideals of a ‘traditional’ philosophy might be ideologicaly driven rather than historical?

JLG: Jonardon’s work on this period is simply marvellous, and we have all learned a lot from it. I do disagree with his claim that the English succeeded in destroying modern Indian philosophy and cross-cultural philosophy in India. The work that we address in out books on colonial Indian philosophy belies this. It is genuinely modern, cross-cultural philosophy. But it is in English. To look for it in Sanskrit or in Indian vernaculars is to look in the wrong place. The English simply change the language in which this philosophy is composed. But he is right to say that English colonialism generates a curious discourse of “authenticity” that ends up disparaging this work by comparison to its Sanskrit, Persian or Tamil antecedents. The colonial predicament generates a number of anxieties, including the need for a reconstruction of a narrative of national identity, and in India that narrative was developed by reference to language and an account of a “pure” Indian culture. These narrative manage to occlude and to falsify important cosmopolitan dimensions of Indian history.

3:AM: Your Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy is a mammoth undertaking. You note that the belief that one’s own culture – whatever that is – is the only one in which philosophy takes place is widespread – presumably that is one of the reasons for producing such a great book – you want to extend the cross-cultural approach and expand the conversation beyond parochial boundaries, and you want to debunk the spurious reasons people have for thinking like that? What are the kinds of reasons people have for parochialism, and are you surprised that even top philosophers seem to be prejudiced?

JLG: I think that parochialism is built into many kinds of nationalism and educational institutions in which children are brought up to treat their own culture as the unmarked case, and to mark the products of other culture. In the USA, we learn “art history” as Western art history, and the history of Asian, or African art is a special case; we learn politics by examining our own government system, and consider other systems special cases, and the same is true of philosophy. And that parochialism is matched by similar parochialisms every place else. It is a bad idea. Each of us ends up thinking that we grow up at the Middle Pole, and that while there is diversity in the world, it is all deviations from normal – our way or doing things. The goal of education should be to dismantle the Middle Pole view, not to reinforce it in the name of the need for a grounding in one’s own civilisation.

3:AM: Finally, are there five books you could recommend for the potential Buddhists here at 3:AM (other than your own which we’ll all be reading straight after this) which would help take us further into your philosophical world?

JLG: Let me give you three lists – one a list of scholarly work in Buddhist philosophy; one a list of primary sources; and one a list of more popular, accessible texts.

Scholarly work:
Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations
Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought
The Cowherds, Moonshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy
Dan Arnold, Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief
Bhikkhu Analayo, Sattipathanna

Primary Sources:
Nāgārjuna, Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way
Garfield and Edelglass, Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings
R.A.F. Thurman, The Holy Teachings of Vimalakīrti
C.W. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness (Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra)
Śāntideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Introductory:
Richard Hayes, The Land of No Buddha
Thubten Chodron, Taming the Monkey Mind
Stephen Batchelor, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist
John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism
Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy

Of course there is a lot missing. I am conscious that I have ignored the entire East Asian tradition, engaged Buddhism, Western Buddhism and a lot of Theravāda Buddhism. But so it goes.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 28th, 2012.