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  • In Defense of Priest—A Reply to Mortensen
  • Koji Tanaka


In my comment to Mortensen, I tried not to dwell on the textual dispute and concentrated on his philosophical claims. It seems that I was unsuccessful, and thus it seems that I need to spell out more clearly how I understand Dharmakīrti, since my defense of Priest in the context of Dharmakīrti crucially turns on this understanding.

First, if the term 'perdurance' is used in an ontological sense, then Dharmakīrti wasn't a perdurantist. According to Mortensen, a perdurantist holds that "an aggregate, such as a person, exists [in a derivative sense] and has different properties at different times in the sense that it has parts with different properties that exist at different times." But to attribute this view to Dharmakīrti is to misunderstand his philosophy. In fact, it is to misunderstand the Buddhist tradition of philosophy in general.1 The crucial move made by Dharmakīrti, as well as other Buddhist philosophers, is to reject the ontological existence of the whole (i.e., the mereological sum) of its parts. Dharmakīrti followed the ontology of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa and subscribed only to the existence of parts.

Perhaps, for the reason given above, Mortensen describes Dharmakīrti as a nominalist. However—and here is my second textual comment—there is a misunderstanding here of the philosophical project of Dharmakīrti. As I stressed in my comment, Dharmakīrti was an epistemologist, not a metaphysician. The primary aim of Dharmakīrti was to explain the possibility of our knowledge based on an ontology of particulars.2 (The ontology of Abhidharmakośa is an extreme case, where there are only partless atoms.) A crucial point of Dharmakīrti's departure from Dignāga was his explication of the epistemological context by the introduction of niścaya (ascertainment, certainty).3 The question that Dharmakīrti posed, then, was not 'What is or isn't the case?' but 'What is ascertained as present or absent?' Thus, Dharmakīrti emphasized conceptualization and invoked conceptual intermediaries that (somehow) have objective justification. 'Nominalism' doesn't seem to capture this important aspect of Dharmakīrti's epistemological project.4

The dispute here is not merely verbal. As we will see below, Mortensen seems to have missed my epistemological rendition of Priest's argument, which is the point I raised in the last section of my comment. I tried to be neutral in presenting my argument, yet it seems that this is exactly what needs to be spelled out.

Second Argument

Let us first examine Mortensen's reply to what he identifies as my second argument. The point of this argument is to force Dharmakīrti to accept that an object a is and is not present at a space-time point x for any object a ceasing to exist at x. I uncritically [End Page 257] used the term 'endure' to describe the presence of a at x in my argument. (I also described a theory of change as based on objects 'enduring' through space-time points.) The best way to put the point now seems to be to explicitly invoke epistemological terms and say that an object a is ascertained as present and also as absent at a space-time point x where a is ascertained as ceasing to exist at x. The issue, then, is not the existence of a in the ontological sense (as Mortensen seems to have me hold) but the ascertainment of a. My points are that Dharmakīrti might be tempted to accept this view and that, on this basis, he can claim the change of a: one can ascertain the presence of a at x and the presence of a as changed at x'.5 Now, whether or not the object is tracked through space-time is irrelevant.6 Moreover, the dispute over the endurance/perdurance distinction at this point is neither here nor there. This is because the ontological status of the object is not what is at issue: the issue is the epistemic status or condition of one's ascertainment of an object as present or absent.7

First Argument

I now turn...


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