- For the Cowherds:Coloniality and Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy
Comparative philosophers have noted that some comparative methods perpetuate colonial legacies. What follows employs aspects of the scholarship of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Anîbal Quijano, and María Lugones to identify one colonially problematic methodology that some well-regarded contemporary comparative representations of “Buddhist Philosophy” arguably adopt. In 1995, Lin Tongqi, Henry Rosemont, Jr., and Roger Ames identified “the most fundamental methodological issue facing all comparativists” by raising and responding to the question: “Does the imposition of modern Western conceptual categories on non-Western patterns of thought and modes of discourse with different categories promote or hinder our understanding of them?”1 They concluded that when modern Western categories and standards of evidence adjudicate the merits of “an alternative philosophic tradition,” that tradition can appear only as “an inferior variation on a Western theme.”2 Jay Garfield has voiced similar concerns. In 2002, he asserted that philosophical methods that interpret non-Western traditions primarily through modern Western assumptions and categories facilitate the subordination and objectification of non-Western traditions. “Alien commentaries gain ascendancy over traditional commentaries,” he wrote. “The hermeneutic method of the conqueror becomes the standard means of reading the vanquished, and the vanquished tradition becomes, as the Ven. Geshe Ngawang Samten put it in conversation, ‘the domain of curators.’”3 Yet, as M. Kirloskar-Steinbach, Geeta Ramana, and J. Maffie have observed, comparative, cross-cultural, or intercultural philosophies have tended, with few exceptions, to draw on resources primarily within our fields to identify and correct problematic methodologies.4 We have not yet widely engaged or used conceptual tools that scholars in fields such as postcolonial theory and decolonial theory have developed to identify and dislodge colonially problematic tendencies in our work.
The first section below notes Spivak’s contention that some seemingly progressive cross-cultural gestures operate, through their authors’ expressed benevolent intentions, to reestablish the subject of the West as the globe’s subject. The section then observes that the pattern that Spivak criticizes recurs in a rhetorical aspect of a recent and well-regarded manuscript on conventional truth in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy — specifically, the choice by the authors of this manuscript to call themselves “the Cowherds.” We then engage Spivak’s argument and Quijano’s and [End Page 597] Lugones’s theories of ‘coloniality’ — theories of legacies of colonialism that persist in contemporary global capitalism5 — to support Spivak’s critique and to place in a schematic decolonial framework concerns that scholars such as Lin, Rosemont, Ames, and Garfield voice about asymmetrical relations between the “West” and the “non-West” in some cross-cultural philosophical scholarship.
The second section observes that further rhetorical aspects of the Cowherds’ text appear to reiterate the schema that Spivak, Quijano, and Lugones associate with global capitalism. By arguing that this schema also conditions some Cowherds’ interpretations of conventional truth in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the third section aims to demonstrate that these concerns do not pertain merely to rhetorical gestures or analogies, and that global capitalism and its axes of coloniality and modernity substantively affect some conventionally authoritative representations of Buddhist philosophies. Through conversations with decolonial and postcolonial theorists, cross-cultural scholars of South Asian philosophies may discover that some conventional “truths” that now circulate in our field — for example the conviction that philosophy has progressed through history, and that Europe’s philosophical legacies and subjectivities exemplify its progress—are false conventionals, to use a term that Mark Siderits coins in his analysis of Jñānaśrīmitra’s anyāpoha philosophy. When these false conventionals are situated in a decolonial theoretical context, then ordinary cognitive processes of “even people like cowherds (gopālas) and women”6 can dispel them, much as ordinary cognitive processes dispel oasis illusions in deserts.
Spivak argues in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” that some gestures of solidarity with “third world” subjectivities7 by “first-world” intellectuals8 reveal colonial interests. She notes that Foucault and Deleuze appear in a joint interview to advocate for the interests of oppressed global classes—“the masses” and “the workers’ struggle”9—but that the images they use to represent the globally oppressed universalize Deleuze...