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  • Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation: A Philosophical Study
  • Ethan Mills
Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation: A Philosophical Study. By David Burton. Ashgate World Philosophies Series. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. Pp. vii + 188. $29.95.

The Ashgate World Philosophies Series seeks to provide both introductory and in-depth materials for the study of non-Western philosophical traditions, and Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation: A Philosophical Study by David Burton manages to provide a bit of both. Burton has written an accessible treatment of Buddhist accounts of the relation between knowledge, Buddhist practice, and liberation that is largely introductory but often delves into more scholarly detail. As such, it is a useful text for readers new to Buddhist philosophy as well as for epistemologically minded scholars of Buddhism, and could also be recommended for use in Buddhist philosophy courses.

The first chapter engages thoughtfully with hermeneutic concerns familiar to cross-cultural philosophers. Burton asks whether Western-Buddhist comparative studies can be anything other than Western colonial impositions on an Asian tradition. He answers, with a quick nod to Gadamer, that while no interpreter stands outside any culture or time, it is possible to foster fruitful, respectful discussions within a critical context: "Indeed, I consider my attempts to engage in a critically reflective manner with Buddhist ideas as a sign of respect" (p. 8). It is in this vein that he warns that his approach "will perhaps be frustrating to the historically or anthropologically minded reader" (p. 7). While such an approach has become increasingly standard among comparative philosophers, it is worthwhile to revisit and reinterpret these issues in a proper hermeneutic fashion, as Burton does.

His warnings about frustrating the historically minded come to fruition beginning in chapter 2, which is on ignorance and craving as the causes of three marks of existence (impermanence, not-self, and suffering). After providing a philosophical explanation of the position of the Pāli suttas, he puts forward an objection that perhaps "the happiness created by craving and attachment can in some cases outweigh the suffering" (p. 24), and spends several pages trying to provide replies based partly on Buddhist texts and partly on his own analysis. This is just one of many examples of his discussions of questions often posed by students encountering Buddhism for the first time (and indeed by many who have been studying for years), which is why the text would be useful in promoting discussion in Buddhist philosophy courses.

Chapter 3 explores the question of how it is that knowledge of the three marks is said to lead to liberation. Burton uses the contemporary Western distinction between propositional knowledge and knowledge by acquaintance, arguing that it is knowledge by acquaintance that has liberative power. He critically examines [End Page 593] various other epistemological theories that could help account for this special kind of knowledge by acquaintance. Unconscious beliefs, self-deception, attentiveness, and Indian pramāṇa theories all receive treatment along the way to his innovative idea that Buddhism tends to advocate something like a vigilant attentiveness toward particular knowledge episodes (pramā) concerning the three marks.

The next chapter takes on the question of the relation between this type of knowledge and Buddhist ethics. Burton argues that Buddhism obtains an "ought" (the Buddhist path) from an "is" (knowledge of the true nature of reality) to claim that it is objectively true that one ought to avoid attachment and follow Buddhist moral teachings. He then offers several critical responses. For example, it seems that many Buddhists believe that the right kind of moral knowledge will cause one automatically to behave in an ethical manner. However, it may be objected that human beings are subject to deep emotional upheavals that mere knowledge cannot control. In response to this objection, he takes up a position similar to that of Damien Keown1 that Buddhist practice is necessarily twofold, namely that it seeks to transform both cognitive ignorance and noncognitive emotional attachments through different kinds of practices—for instance, insight versus tranquillity meditations. While Burton offers his characteristic analysis, he does not quite seem to appreciate the contentiousness of this claim, at least among contemporary scholars.

Burton's most detailed analysis occurs in chapters 5 through...