- A Review of Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind by Dan Arnold
In his challenging and sophisticated book Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind, Dan Arnold draws parallels between classical Indian and contemporary Western approaches to the description of the mind, and marshals these arguments, once synchronized, to defend an anti-reductionist, Neo-Kantian view. To begin with, Arnold shows how the seventh-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti resembles modern cognitive scientists in that both attempt to explain the mind causally. This resemblance holds, Arnold claims, in spite of the fact that Dharmakīrti argues vehemently against physicalism—the very view that a causal explanation is taken by modern cognitive scientists to vindicate. On the flip side of this argument is another resemblance: Arnold shows how Dharmakīrti’s critics among the Mīmāṃsā and Madhyamaka traditions resemble modern, Neo-Kantian critics of physicalist, causal approaches to the mind. A crucial dispute among medieval Buddhist and Orthodox (Hindu) thinkers is therefore shown to have replayed itself among late-twentieth-century English-language philosophers. Arnold reveals this fascinating, convincing parallel through deft and insightful readings of both Indian and modern materials, and he uses the comparison to deepen our understanding of both sides.
Arnold’s work deserves close scrutiny by all who have an interest in Buddhist epistemology or in the potential significance of Buddhist philosophy for contemporary debates on the nature of the mind. It is a rich, nuanced analysis, informed by state-of-the-art engagements with Indic and Western materials. Here I will lay out Arnold’s central claims, exemplifying them with only a few of his multiple lines of approach. I will then suggest some new directions that this conversation might take.
The main concepts supporting Arnold’s intricate parallel construction are drawn from the motivating insight of the “Pittsburgh School” of philosophy—the work of Robert Brandom and especially John McDowell, which extends Wilfrid Sellars’ famous critique of the “Myth of the Given.”1 Central to this critique is the observation that the realm of causality, in which we describe natural, lawful reactions among events, is entirely distinct in nature and kind from the “logical space of reasons” in which thought and language operate. There is no possibility of describing ideas causally, [End Page 1048] it is said, because what operates causally is by its nature nonconceptual, whereas only what is conceptual is available to thought. As Sellars points out, to be convinced is entirely unlike being caused. Consequently, the commonsense notion that there might be empirical evidence—the evidence of the senses—that is simply “given” to experience through some objective, causal process and then manipulated in thought is impossible. What appears in experience must be structured for thought, or it could never be an object of thought. McDowell famously claims that conceptuality is “pervasive”—that human experience, including perception and action, is shot through with conceptualization.
Arnold provides a thoughtful, creative examination of this thesis, arguing, in particular, that it has damaging implications for Jerry Fodor’s naturalistic, computational theory of the mind. As Arnold emphasizes, thought, like language, must be “intentional” in the sense (from Brentano) that it is always “about” something—and, as he writes:
it is perhaps especially the closeness of the relation between linguistic and mental ‘aboutness’ that makes it so difficult to give (what many would take to define a scientific approach to any matter) a thoroughly causal account of the mental; for the way that things like sentences relate to what they are about does not (to say the least) readily admit of causal explanation.(p. 8)
Language and consciousness share the quality of being intrinsically relational; consciousness just is a subject taking up some object of awareness, and linguistic meaning just is the words being what they are about. Since this relationality is ineliminable and yet...