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  • Reflections on Reflectivity:Comments on Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being
  • Jay L. Garfield (bio)

Evan Thompson has written a marvelous book. Waking, Dreaming, Being blends intellectual autobiography, phenomenology, cognitive science, studies in Buddhist and Vedānta philosophy, and creative metaphilosophy in an exploration of what it is to be a person, of the nature of consciousness, and of the relation of contemplative to scientific method in the understanding of human life. I have learned a great deal from it, and the community of philosophers and cognitive scientists will be reading and discussing it for some time. But I have come to criticize Thompson, not to praise him. Here I raise a few issues regarding Thompson’s treatment of the self and the connections between his own account and the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra accounts with which he juxtaposes it, and then turn to his treatment of consciousness and end up with some questions about his commitment to the reflexivity of awareness. But I emphasize that these sets of worries are specific and local, and should be seen in the context of genuine admiration for this fine volume and for its author.

The Self

I would like to begin by focusing on Thompson’s appeal to Candrakīrti in his defense of a view that there is in fact a self. Now, I have appealed to Candrakīrti’s arguments in favor of the view that there is no self (Garfield 2015, pp. 111–115). There are two questions here. First, what does Candrakīrti say? Second, is Candrakīrti right? These will help us answer another question: Is Thompson right? Thompson says:

But here’s the crucial point—Candrakīrti doesn’t conclude that there is no self. That would be to succumb to the nihilistic extreme, which says that since the self has no independent existence, it has no existence at all. Instead, Candrakīrti concludes that the self is dependently arisen. In other words, the self exists dependent on causes and conditions, including especially how we mentally construct it and name it in language.

Recall that in Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka the idea that whatever is dependently arisen depends for its existence on a basis of designation, a designating cognition and a term used to designate it. In the case of the self, the five aggregates are the basis of designation, the thought that projects “self” onto the aggregates is the designating cognition, and the pronoun “I” is the term used to designate it.

(2015, p. 364)

He concludes this discussion by saying: [End Page 943]

Candrakīrti . . . says that the fundamental illusion is that we take the self to exist by virtue of its own being, when in reality its existence is dependent. The illusion is cognitive and existential.

(p. 365)

So, let us be clear about what Thompson is saying. He argues that Candrakīrti correctly says that while there is no independent self, there is a real, dependent self, and that the middle path that Candrakīrti seeks is a midpoint between reifying the self as an independent, substantial existent and a nihilistic position according to which there is no self at all. It is important first of all to get the philology right. So let us look at the locus classicus for Candrakīrti’s view, a passage late in chapter 6 of the Madhyamakāvatāra-bhāṣya. Here is what Candrakīrti says in my translation of the Tibetan edition:

158    Although, neither from the standpoint of reality, nor conventionally           Is it demonstrated to exist in any of the seven possible ways,           Conventionally, and without analysis,           It is designated in dependence upon its parts.

. . . In this way, without any analysis, on the basis of such things as blueness, sensation, [and] the other aggregates are things designated. Therefore, they are only maintained to have arisen on the basis of conditions in accord with dependent origination and so are mere dependent designations. Our position does not contradict ordinary experience. . . . (1992, pp. 258–259)

162    Thus, on the basis of mundane conventions,           It is even said that the self is the appropriator of           The aggregates, their domains, and the sense faculties           And as...