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  • The World Of Exclusions:A Thorough Study Of Buddhist Nominalism
  • Henry M. Schliff
Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition. Edited by Mark Siderits, Tom Tillemans, and Arindam Chakrabarti. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Pp. 344. Paper $29.50, isbn 978-0-231-15361-4.

Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition, edited by Mark Siderits, Tom Tillemans, and Arindam Chakrabarti, represents a true academic collaboration. The fourteen essays found in this relatively conservative collection are the product of a four-day gathering in Lausanne, Switzerland, held in May of 2006. The sole aim of this conference was to articulate current understandings of the theory of apoha (“exclusion”) and determine its significance through rigorous debate over its contribution to epistemology, cognitive studies, and semantics. First, as a variety of textual renovation, Apoha, by necessity, is a philological exercise in reconstruction, with many of the essays attempting to piece together the historical arguments of Apohavādin philosophers and their Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Mīmāṃsā interlocutors. Second, many of the authors here work to bring contemporary understandings of twentieth-century philosophy, linguistics, sematics, and cognitive studies to bear on the theories of Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, Jñānaśrīmitra, Ratnakīrti, et al. The result of these endeavors, which could have degenerated into a glass bead game, is a generous addition to the field of Buddhist logic and epistemology as well as a brilliant exemplar of the virtues and incalculable value of rigorous scholarly discourse.

There is a unique quality to this text, which the editors themselves duly note. In the preface to Apoha, Arindam Chakrabarti and Mark Siderits present this collection as “collaborative research on a problem that until now has received only sporadic attention from individual scholars” (p. viii). This claim is genuine enough although there have previously been lucid, penetrating investigations of the theory by the likes of Georges Dreyfus, Anne Klein, John Dunne, and each of the three editors of this volume, to name just a few. Therefore, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that the essays collected here are unique in their collaborative and interdisciplinary nature. That aside, the content of this volume is as multifaceted and complicated as the subject matter itself. Given the scope of Apoha, I have decided in this review to touch on themes and points of debate that surface regularly and also to highlight various minute details of the text with the hope of providing a comprehensive overview of the work.

Foundations of Apoha

Apoha is first and foremost a theory of meaning, and whether we are speaking of Indian or continental philosophies, such theories often inevitably arrive at metaphysics. [End Page 638] Yet these metaphysical denouements have their antecedents in the puzzles and formulations of linguistics. The Buddhist theory of exclusion, also used interchangeably with Buddhist nominalism, was constructed within the context of established trends derived from Indian schools of grammatical thought. Buddhist nominalism is a direct response to the theories of the Mīmāṃsā school. The latter were philosopher-grammarians who used their own variety of semiotics to claim that the components of a given sign (the signifier and signified) are inextricably bound to one another through a common essence (p. 3). The implication of such a claim is that the essence of things (their thingness) can be made manifest in the words that signify them. From this Mīmāṃsā understanding of essences stemmed the principle of universals (sāmānya) postulated by the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas. A universal would be an eternal aspect inherent in a given object or substance. The expediency of universals is that they offer metaphysicians a solution to the problem of sameness (e.g., what determines the similarity between one cow and other cows). In Siderits and Chakrabarti’s introduction readers will find a useful analysis that precisely dictates the qualifications of a universal from the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika perspective.

It is in response to the various realist doctrines of universals, such as those of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, that Buddhist philosophers such as Dignāga and Dharmakīrti felt compelled to offer the apoha theory as a response to realism...