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Knowing Blue: Early Buddhist Accounts of Non-Conceptual Sense Perception
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1 Knowing Blue: Early Buddhist Accounts of Non-Conceptual Sense Perception Robert H. Sharf Group in Buddhist Studies, University of California, Berkeley rsharf@berkeley.edu And I find myself knowing the things that I knew Which is all that you can know on this side of the blue Joanna Newsom Is there such a thing as direct, non-conceptual experience, or is all experience, by its very nature, conceptually mediated? Is some notion of non-conceptual sensory awareness required to account for our ability to represent and negotiate our physical environment, or is it merely an artifact of deep-seated but ultimately misguided Cartesian metaphysical assumptions? Perhaps conscious experience in humans is inextricably tied to the representational or self-reflexive capacities of language; if so, does it necessarily follow that newborn infants and animals are not conscious? Is the very notion of non-conceptual experience logically incoherent or unintelligible? Or perhaps the problem lies in our use of concepts to describe phenomena that lie, by definition, beyond the confines of conceptual thought. Surely, that we can't conceive of something is insufficient ground to conclude that it doesn't exist. These are, of course, much debated issues in contemporary philosophy of mind. Recently, the debates have been framed in terms of "first-order" (or "same-order") theories of consciousness versus higher-order theories; the latter maintain that subjective awareness consists in a second-order representation of a first-order state (consciousness is said to be "transitive"), while the former argue that consciousness is "intransitive" or "self-intimating," and thus the 2 phenomenon of self-awareness need not entail secondary or higher-order cognitive processing. Among the higher-order theories a further distinction is made between "higher-order perception" (a.k.a. HOP, or "inner sense") theories, which hold that higher-order representations can be non-conceptual, versus "higher-order thought" (HOT) theories, which argue that the secondary representations that give rise to subjective awareness necessarily involve conceptual thought or propositional belief.1 Other philosophers working in the areas of cognitive science and perception have engaged in parallel debates over "non-conceptual mental content" "non-linguistic thought," and even "non-linguistic conceptual thought"—subjects that bear directly on the relationship between thought, concepts, language, and perception. Here too we find a burgeoning and highly technical literature, in which cognitivists face off against phenomenologists, conceptualists take on non-conceptualists, "state non-conceptualism" is contrasted with "content non-conceptualism," and so on.2 As in the case of the HOT debates, the growing complexity and sophistication of the literature on non-conceptual mental content has not brought the field closer to consensus on whether "non-conceptual experience" is intelligible in the first place. Some years ago there was hope that the notion of "qualia" might contribute focus and clarity to these issues. More recently attention has turned to the distinction between "phenomenal consciousness" (p-consciousness) and "access consciousness" (a-consciousness).3 Yet irrespective of whether one talks of qualia, or p-consciousness, or intransitive consciousness, or non-relational consciousness, or first-order consciousness, or same-order consciousness, or pre-reflective awareness, the challenge remains the same: how to make conceptual sense of an experience that is alleged to be non-conceptual? Despite the difficulties, many philosophers continue to be drawn to these issues. The interest is sustained, in part, by contemporary research in cognitive science and artificial 3 intelligence that promises to revolutionize our understanding of consciousness and perception. (It is no accident that MIT Press is a leading publisher of philosophical books in this area.) But despite the wealth of new empirical data and the profusion of increasingly sophisticated philosophical arguments, the underlying quandaries—quandaries related to the "hard problem" of consciousness and how our percepts relate to the mind-independent world—go back to the dawn of philosophical reflection, and the verdict is still out on whether the spate of new work bespeaks progress (however that might be measured) or is what the Buddhists would call "conceptual proliferation" (Sanskrit: prapañca, rendered in Chinese as xilun 戲論, "frivolous discourse"). The notion of unmediated or non-conceptual experience has also emerged as a topic of debate among scholars of religion. One early and...


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