Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy by Christian Coseru (review)
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Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy. By Christian Coseru. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. vii + 356. isbn 978-0-19-984338-1.

In Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy, Christian Coseru makes the innovative and ambitious argument that the project of Indian Buddhist epistemology, as represented by thinkers in the Yogācāra tradition of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, is continuous in many of its methods and conclusions with the phenomenological theories of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as well as with recent naturalistic approaches in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. In Coseru’s reading, Buddhism shares with phenomenology the attitude that metaphysical and epistemological questions cannot be treated in isolation from questions concerning the nature of conscious awareness and the [End Page 506] manner in which objects are experientially disclosed. As for naturalism, Coseru claims that Buddhist epistemology is amenable to the view that a proper account of the acquisition and justification of knowledge must rest on a scientifically informed understanding of the causal processes involved in generating cognitions. Thus, the aim of this book is threefold: to elaborate the central tenets of Buddhist epistemology as a form of “phenomenological naturalism,” to show that Buddhist theories of perception and self-awareness resolve certain dilemmas in epistemology and philosophy of mind, and ultimately to suggest ways in which Buddhist insights can be integrated into the contemporary study of cognition and consciousness.

After introducing the broad outlines of phenomenological naturalism in the first chapter, Coseru uses the second chapter to give a wide-ranging introduction to classical Indian methods of philosophical reasoning, addressing metatheoretical issues of translation and interpretation that lie in the background of his comparative project. In arguing that the relevance of Buddhist philosophical concerns can be extended beyond their historical and soteriological context, Coseru briefly addresses ways in which Buddhist theories of inference, concepts, and meditative insight can all be aligned with empirically informed psychological accounts. These parallels are developed in later chapters: a “psychologistic” account of the Buddhist theory of inference is suggested in chapter 4; in chapters 6 and 7, Coseru mentions how the Buddhist apoha theory of concept formation resonates with empirical research on the role of prototypes and imagery in conceptual thought; and in chapters 8 and 9, he proposes that the Buddhist theory of perception in some way follows from a phenomenology of non-ordinary meditative states.

In chapter 3, Coseru argues that the complex analysis of mental states in the Pāli Nikāyas and early Abhidharma texts anticipates later Yogācāra’s phenomenalism and rejection of external realism, showing how early Buddhists understood the qualities of perceived objects to be constituted by the activity of our sensory and cognitive systems—including the activity of attention (āvartana) — rather than by external objects themselves. In the fourth and sixth chapters, Coseru examines how the Yogācāra Buddhist epistemologists, unlike their Abhidharma predecessors, analyze states of conscious awareness in order to identify whether they are veridical and produced by warranted sources of knowledge (pramāṇa). These chapters focus specifically on the arguments presented in Śāntarakṣita’s Tattvasaṃgraha and Kamalaśīla’s Pañjikā commentary, which ground the epistemic validity of perception on its non-conceptual and reflexively self-aware nature. (The fifth chapter of Coseru’s book gives a more general overview of the Tattvasaṃgraha and its contents.)

Coseru places special emphasis on the notion of ākāra, or “phenomenal aspect,” and the role it plays in the Buddhists’ account of self-awareness. Every awareness episode has two aspects, one objective (grāhyākāra) and the other subjective (grāhakākāra). The objective aspect presents the object toward which a perceptual or conceptual awareness is directed, while the subjective aspect presents the conscious, qualitative manner in which one is aware of that object from one’s own perspective. Coseru refers to these two aspects as the phenomenal content and the phenomenal [End Page 507] character of experience, respectively, and claims that the Buddhist theory of aspects is here aligned with Husserl’s understanding of noematic content, which views an object of intentional...