- Perceiving Particulars:A Buddhist Defense
In a recent article in this journal, Monima Chadha claimed that the position of certain Buddhist philosophers concerning the perception of particulars is incoherent.1 Her defense of what she calls a "Nyāya-Kantian" position raises interesting questions concerning how we have knowledge of mind-independent reality. While the view that she subscribes to may well be right, I shall try to show that her arguments against the views of the Yogācāra-Sautrāntika Buddhists fail to undermine their position. But some of the issues involved here intersect with underlying themes in the recent debate between Arindam Chakrabarti and Stephen Phillips over the status of indeterminate perception in Nyāya,2 so I shall have something to say about that as well.
The basic position I shall seek to defend has the form of a conditional: if we wish to maintain anything like the broadly metaphysical-realist stance that is fundamental to both Yogācāra-Sautrāntika and Nyāya (as well as to Kant), then we need to hold that in at least some cases of perception it is individuals as such that are the objects of our cognitive states. Chadha's discussion leads her to the conclusion that we never perceive particulars as such. Instead, she says, what are cognized in perception are always universal features, so that what are ordinarily thought of as the particulars [End Page 367] that figure in perception are such only relative to a context. Now, I am sympathetic to such a view, since it may be compatible with the sort of antirealism advocated by the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism.3 But this should tell us that something has gone awry here, since the "Nyāya-Kantian" and the Mādhyamika make for uneasy bedfellows. My diagnosis will be that Chadha has misconstrued those realist intuitions that stand behind the Yogācāra-Sautrāntika position. A proper appreciation of these will also turn out to play a role in the defense of indeterminate perception in classical Nyāya.
Let me begin by attending to some terminological matters. In the preceding paragraph I applied the label "metaphysical realist" to the Yogācāra-Sautrāntika school of Buddhism, to Nyāya, and to Kant. Few will question my calling Nyāya realist in any sense of that term, but eyebrows may well go up over my calling Yogāca ¯ra Sautrāntika (or at least the Yogācāra wing of this syncretic school) by the same name in the same breath. Yogācāra is, after all, aptly called a species of subjective idealism, for it denies the existence of physical objects. Metaphysical realism is usually understood as the view that truth is determined by the nature of mind-independent reality (by "what is there anyway"), and do not subjective idealists deny the existence of all mind-independent entities? But "mind independence" here does not mean being independent of cognition, but rather being independent of the concepts that we happen to employ. The metaphysical realist is thus one who holds that there is a quite determinate way that things ultimately are apart from any and all schemes of conceptualization. Understood in this way, metaphysical realism is something that is subscribed to by such subjective idealists as the Yogācārins and Berkeley.4 While they maintain that nothing exists apart from mind or the mental,5 they also hold that this fact is quite independent of the ways in which we or any other cognizers conceptualize reality. Subjective idealism is but one of a large number of ontological views that might properly be called realist in the present sense.
But, then, what of Kant? Surely Kant is rightly thought of as maintaining that all of the phenomenal world is in some sense the result of processes of conceptual construction, so how can he be called a metaphysical realist? It is true that much of what is currently called antirealism has a distinctively Kantian pedigree. But to read Kant himself in this way, one must either disregard or else reinterpret much of what he has to say concerning the thing-in...