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  • Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction
  • Evan Thompson
Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. By Mark Siderits. Aldershot, England: Ashgate; Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007. Pp. ix + 232.

When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s studying Buddhism and Western philosophy, and then again when I was a graduate student in philosophy, I longed for a book [End Page 413] like Mark Siderits' Buddhism as Philosophy. Although there were excellent introductory texts on Indian philosophy, such as Karl Potter's Presuppositions of India's Philosophies and Eliot Deutsch's Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction, there was no book written by a trained philosopher that explained the arguments of the major Indian Buddhist philosophers and analyzed those arguments in relation to Western philosophical debates in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Buddhism as Philosophy ably and eloquently fills that gap. It is certain to become the standard bearer for the appropriation of Indian Buddhism into contemporary Western philosophical scholarship.

Siderits conceives of philosophy in broad terms as the "systematic investigation of questions in ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology . . . using analysis and argumentation in systematic and reflective ways" (p. 5). His approach to philosophy is thus analytical and oriented toward conceptual problem-solving rather than historical scholarship for its own sake. This conception of philosophy guides his presentation of the principal trends and schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy — early Buddhism, Abhidharma, Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, and Buddhist logic and epistemology — as well as his evaluation of the core Buddhist arguments for no-self, reductionism about persons, and promoting the welfare of others. Siderits also covers Abhidharma arguments for the unreality of wholes and the reality of impartite particulars, Sautrāntika arguments that perception is representational, Yogacara arguments for the primacy of mind and the denial of physical objects, Madhyamaka arguments for emptiness, and Dignāga's and Dharmakīrti's analyses of perception, inference, and self-cognition. Finally, a helpful chapter on Nyāya realism is also included as background for understanding the debate between Nyāya and Buddhism over the existence versus nonexistence of the self and the reality versus unreality of wholes.

Buddhism as Philosophy should be read by scholars and students alike. Siderits provides new translations of many key passages from Buddhist philosophical texts and reconstructs their arguments in ways that deserve scholarly attention. For example, his presentation of the Abhidharma arguments for mereological reductionism (wholes are unreal and only parts are real), as well as his interpretation of Madhyamaka as primarily a semantic theory of truth rather than a metaphysical theory of reality, will be of interest not only to Buddhist scholars and scholars of Indian philosophy but also to contemporary metaphysicians and philosophers of language. Yet he treats these difficult topics in a clear, accessible, and engaging way, addressing himself to student readers and encouraging them at every step to evaluate the arguments for themselves. Buddhism as Philosophy thus makes an excellent text for advanced undergraduate students (as I found when I used it in my fourth-year undergraduate philosophy of mind seminar on theories of the self and personal identity).

The other main strength of this book is the way it brings Indian Buddhist philosophy into active dialogue and debate with well-established currents of Anglo-American analytical philosophy, notably discussions of the self and personal identity. Here Siderits builds on his earlier groundbreaking work on the relation between Buddhist [End Page 414] views of no-self and contemporary Western reductionist views of persons.1 In Buddhism as Philosophy, he again provides a strong case for the reductionist view and for mereological reductionism in general, while placing these topics within the wider context of the conceptual development of Indian Buddhist philosophy.

These admirable strengths of the book are also its main limitation. Siderits views Buddhist philosophy through the lens of analytical metaphysics and epistemology, with no connections made to the other main trend of modern Western philosophy, namely phenomenology. Yet phenomenology's central concern with intentionality and the structure of consciousness makes it also a vitally important Western dialogue partner for Buddhist philosophy, especially Abhidharma, Yogācāra, and the theories of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. Similarly, on the Buddhist side, Siderits focuses more on metaphysical issues about...