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  • Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being
  • Evan Thompson (bio)

Let me begin by thanking my commentators for taking the time to read my book and to write such constructive commentaries. I would also like to thank Christian Coseru for organizing and chairing the panel at the International Society for Buddhist Philosophy at the 2015 meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, at which three of the commentaries were originally presented together with my response. Finally, I am grateful to Philosophy East and West for publishing this exchange. Philosophy East and West published my first academic paper, so I am especially happy to have this exchange appear here.1

In what follows, I have arranged my response according to the topics and issues raised by the commentators, rather than responding separately to each author.

Autobiography and Phenomenology

Owen Flanagan invites me to say more about the autobiographical quality of my book. His invitation overlaps the first group of questions that Jennifer Windt asks in her rich and reflective commentary. She wonders whether my use of my own experience reports “exemplifies a distinct philosophical practice” and plays “a unique argumentative function.” She raises three specific questions. First, she asks “whether an author’s own experience reports have a privileged evidential status in the context of theoretical arguments, both in general and in philosophy of mind in particular.” Second, she asks whether gaining firsthand familiarity with the types of experience one is investigating is “not just beneficial, but perhaps even necessary for certain types of philosophical work, for instance on meditation or dreams.” Finally, she asks about the implications of using first-person methods and relying on experience reports for teaching philosophy. Should we provide opportunities and methods for students to observe firsthand the experiences we are philosophically investigating?

Let me begin with an autobiographical remark. When I was growing up I would often hear my father say—attributing the remark to Thomas Mann—that scholarship is frequently disguised autobiography. By this he meant that scholarly narratives, usually about history or literature, tend to be hidden, projective self-descriptions. Authors present themselves as impartially defending views that are really identity constitutive of their psyche or social role, all the while remaining blind to this fact, and thereby suffering from false consciousness. It is interesting to consider whether this accusation would be justified for any given philosophical text. In any case, the fact remains that philosophers today, especially so-called “analytic” philosophers, strive for a maximally impersonal form of expression, one in which the author’s personal [End Page 982] life and history play no role in the exposition. We state and defend philosophical views, but how we came to hold these views is supposed to be a contingent matter that is of no essence to the philosophy. As we learn in the philosophy of science, there is the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification,” and justification is supposed to be what is philosophically important. In writing Waking, Dreaming, Being, I wanted to do a different kind of philosophy. I wanted to produce a philosophical narrative in which the autobiographical story behind the philosophical concerns wasn’t hidden or disguised. That meant being forthright about how I came to be preoccupied with certain questions about the self and mind and consciousness, and about why the effort to negotiate among contemplative practice, Indian philosophy, and cognitive science had become existentially mandatory for me. My hope in writing this way was that readers—especially those outside academic philosophy—would be able to see why philosophy matters and how it can animate a personal intellectual quest and the way one lives one’s life.

In this way, my use of autobiography and experience reports is meant to serve a distinct philosophical practice. The practice is to write philosophy in a way that reveals its sources and motivations in one’s life, and to be forthright about how one comes to hold certain views and change them in dialogue and debate with others. The argumentative function of writing this way is not so much to argue for any particular conclusion, but rather to make a case for philosophy altogether as part of...


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