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Reviewed by:
  • Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy by Jay L. Garfield
  • Richard P. Hayes (bio)
Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. By Jay L. Garfield. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. xxii + 376. Paper $29.95, isbn 978-0-020434-1.

For as long as scholars have been presenting Asian thinkers to readers of European languages, efforts have been made to present the presumably less familiar Asian thinkers as having points of commonality with the presumably more familiar European thinkers. In presenting classical Indian Buddhist philosophers to his readers in the [End Page 580] 1920s and 1930s, for example, Stcherbatsky portrayed them as anticipating important features of European philosophers. In his study of Madhyamaka, Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti are depicted as adumbrating the philosophy of Kant and Hegel. In the works of other scholars, the presentation of early Buddhism as an anticipation of aspects of Hume became commonplace. A number of scholars have suggested that some Buddhists had important resemblances to some of the American Pragmatists, while others have pointed out resemblances to some of the Logical Positivists. In some cases these comparisons, as stated above, have been to present something less familiar in terms of something more familiar. In other cases, there has been a more pointed agenda of arguing that the classical thinkers of areas colonized by European powers were every bit as worthy of attention as the thinkers that were part of the cultural heritage of the colonizers — a point that colonizers have not always appreciated. In yet other cases, one example of which is Archie J. Bahm, it has been suggested that unless one has a basic familiarity with the philosophical traditions of Europe, India, and China, then one cannot claim to be well educated in philosophy. Most of the early efforts to show points of commonality between Asian and Western thinkers were relatively limited in scope. It has been only in the current generation of philosophers that one finds Asian thinkers compared with a fairly wide range of Western philosophers. One of the most ambitious efforts to do this is the work under review here.

In Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy Jay Garfield states that his intention is "to show that we in the West can talk with, not about, philosophers and texts in the Buddhist tradition" (p. 15). His approach is that of a philosopher rather than that of a philologist or historian of ideas, and his intended audience is primarily philosophers open to engaging with traditions outside Europe, and specifically with Buddhist philosophers. As Garfield states his focus (p. 15): "I will hence be concerned not with the context in which the texts I address were composed, or how we can understand those contexts, but rather with the contemporary context in the West, and what we can learn by taking these texts seriously in our own intellectual lives." In the final chapter, "Methodological Postscript," Garfield summarizes what he hopes to have accomplished:

I have been arguing that contemporary philosophy cannot continue to be practiced in the West in ignorance of the Buddhist tradition. It is too rich, too sophisticated to be disparaged. Its concerns overlap with those of Western philosophy too broadly to dismiss it as irrelevant. Its perspectives are sufficiently distinct that we cannot see it as simply redundant. Close enough for conversation; distant enough for that conversation to be one from which we might learn.

(p. 318)

Trained as an historian of Indian philosophy and a Sanskritist, I must leave it to contemporary philosophers to judge how convinced they are by Garfield's book that contemporary philosophy must take Buddhist philosophy seriously if it is to continue. What I can do is offer a few comments on the scholarship of Buddhism he presents in the course of making his case to contemporary philosophers. Before that, however, an overview of the structure of the book is in order. [End Page 581]

In the first chapter, "What is Buddhist philosophy?" Garfield begins with the interesting observation that when he is working with Tibetan scholars, they often fail to appreciate how vast and varied the Western philosophical tradition is, and when working with Western philosophers...