- Studies in Buddhist Philosophy by Mark Siderits
Over the last few decades Mark Siderits has established himself as a leading philosophical interpreter of Indian Buddhist philosophy. He has published widely in this field, but three of his books are particularly well known: his Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy (2003), a self-styled "essay in fusion philosophy"; his introductory textbook Buddhism as Philosophy (2007); and–with Shōryū Katsura–his translation and commentary, Nāgārjuna's Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (2013). Taken together, these three books offer a fuller sense of Siderits' philosophical concerns with Buddhism. The concern with "fusion philosophy" is focused primarily on philosophical problem-solving and energetically quarries Buddhist philosophy for possible solutions to these universal problems. But Siderits is equally concerned with getting right the details of the classical Indian texts and making them accessible to nonSanskritist philosophers through his translations, for successful fusion philosophy needs to be sensitive to the details of what was going on in the Indian philosophical tradition.
The nineteen essays collected in Studies in Buddhist Philosophy are more directly concerned with Siderits' second kind of concern than his first, insofar as they are usually focused on interpretive matters. But these interpretive endeavors are always motivated by larger systematic issues about how best to make progress on solving cross-cultural philosophical problems in epistemology, metaphysics and ethics. That the primary focus of most of the essays is interpretive, however, ensures that this book is not one for beginners in Indian Buddhist philosophy (Siderits' own Buddhism as Philosophy is much better suited for that purpose). On the other hand, for those with some prior knowledge of the field this book offers an engaging and consistently thought-provoking set of essays.
Of course, all of the essays here have been previously published. But Siderits has also provided new postscripts to connect the pieces together by showing thematic interrelations, and has frequently indicated–with admirable intellectual honesty–where he presently holds different views from those he originally expressed. Hence there is not only the usual convenience value of having all the old essays now available in one volume, there is also the opportunity to grasp better the architectonic of Siderits' distinctive take on Indian Buddhist philosophy. Finally, Jan Westerhoff's excellent editorial introduction to the volume very successfully sets the stage for all of this.
The nineteen essays are divided into six groups. Part 1 of the book contains four essays on "Madhyamaka and Anti-Realism", a theme that Siderits has devoted much attention to over the years. There he expounds his semantic interpretation of emptiness, according to which Madhyamaka is best understood as a form of anti-realism. On Siderits' view, Mādhyamikas like Nāgārjuna do not intend to deny the effability of ultimate reality, but rather the intelligibility of the notion of a mind-independent nature of the world. This means that Madhyamaka is a kind of conventionalism, but one uncommitted to relativism–a point that (in essay 1.2) Siderits argues was very well understood by Bhāviveka and the often devalued Svātantrika tradition. Moreover, this semantic interpretation of emptiness (signaled by Siderits' slogan "the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth") has soteriological implications: emptiness properly understood is supposed to free us from that most subtle form of grasping, our attachment to the idea of a final theory of the world. In contrast to the broadly empiricist strand in early Buddhism that is committed to a correspondence theory of truth, Madhyamaka instead draws inspiration from the spirit of the early Buddhist "category error" approach to the indeterminate (avyākata) questions.
Part 2 consists of five essays on "Logical and Metaphysical Problems". The first of these extends the discussion beyond Madhyamaka to address the Yogācāra-Sautrāntika school's tenet that the object of perception is a bare particular and hence all perception is non-conceptual. Replying to the objection that this would mean that (incoherently) there is nothing that it is like to...