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  • Paying Attention to Buddhaghosa and Pāli Buddhist Philosophy
  • Sean M. Smith (bio)

The value of Jonardon Ganeri's work to cross-cultural philosophy is beyond comparison. He has been and continues to be a singular and unrepeatable force of philosophical creativity. His new monograph Attention, Not Self (AnS) is another deep contribution. AnS is of special importance because it engages so seriously with the work of Buddhaghosa, a much-neglected fifth-century Buddhist philosopher whose commentarial works form the intellectual backbone of the Pāli tipiṭaka of Theravāda Buddhism.1

I cannot hope to treat all the nuance and depth of Ganeri's newest offering here. The book is, quite frankly, dizzying in the density and extensiveness of its argument, even for an expert. Nevertheless, I shall try to comment on several parts of the text in some detail and say something more holistic about its place in Ganeri's corpus as well as in the context of cross-cultural philosophy more generally. My main argument is that Ganeri attributes views to Buddhaghosa that the latter does not hold. Embedded in this complaint is the assumption that we should try to get a thinker right and on their own terms as a precursor to seeing how their views interface with those of others. It is an assumption I will rely on throughout. Though my remarks will be critical, AnS is important because of its originality and depth of treatment. It represents an important step in trying to do cross-cultural philosophy, and it should be carefully studied.

In the opening section, I provide some critical remarks about the extent to which different models in Buddhaghosa's philosophy map onto contemporary [End Page 1125] categories in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. I then turn to some issues of translation and hermeneutical ambiguity in section 2, focusing on the sutta literature. In section 3, I analyze Ganeri's attempt to argue that Buddhaghosa was a non-reductive theorist of persons (puggala). Finally, I conclude with some methodological reflections on the distinction between comparative and cosmopolitan philosophy.

I. Models and Maps

A steady feature of the contemporary discourse on Buddhism has been an overwhelming emphasis on the various ways that certain facets of Buddhist philosophical psychology seem to converge with the project of contemporary philosophy of mind (Ganeri 2001; Ganeri 2012; Siderits 2007; Garfield 2015; Thompson 2015a). In this section, I explore two claims that Ganeri makes about model overlap. The first pertains to the five aggregates in Buddhism and the phenomenal/access-consciousness distinction in contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science. The second concerns Ganeri's claim that Buddhaghosa's two Abhidhammic models of mental function overlap with the doxastic/sub-doxastic distinction or between a fully personal level of processing that is both phenomenal and intentional on the one hand, and a cognitive-scientific causal story about how such states are realized on the other.

The Five Aggregates and Contemporary Cognitive Science

Ganeri sees an overlap between two categories of the five aggregates model and the phenomenal/access-consciousness distinction. Ganeri claims that "It will transpire that Buddhists fully appreciate the distinction between p-consciousness and a-consciousness, which arises in connection with their distinction between felt evaluation (vedanā) and identificatory labeling (saññā)" (AnS, p. 49; see image 2.1 in AnS, p. 41). Phenomenal consciousness refers to experience or the quality of there being something it is like to be in certain kinds of mental states (Nagel 1974). Access consciousness is that type of awareness that facilitates certain types of intentional behavioral output on the basis of content being available to the system. According to Ganeri, Buddhaghosa's understanding of vedanā overlaps with phenomenal consciousness, and saññā is connected with access consciousness. I don't think things are so straightforward. That is, I will argue that the distinction between p-consciousness and a-consciousness does not arise primarily in connection with the distinction between vedanā and saññā but also includes the other two mental aggregates, viññāṇa and saṅkhāra. My proposal is that 'phenomenal consciousness' can be seen in both the viññāṇa and vedanā aggregates. So also, what philosophers call 'access...


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