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  • Persons, Eliminativism, and Context
  • Nilanjan Das (bio)

Mark Siderits’ Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy is a rich and wide-ranging volume. It is an exercise in what Siderits calls “fusion philosophy,” where the theoretical resources invented by one philosophical tradition are used to solve problems for another. The aim of this book, therefore, is to show how innovations in Buddhist philosophy in Sanskrit can help us make progress in contemporary debates about the nature of persons and personal identity. Here, I think, the book is a success. Not only has it opened up new possibilities within the theoretical space where these debates take place, but also it persuasively explains why these possibilities are worth taking seriously.

In a nutshell, the argument of the book is this. Let realism be the conjunction of two claims: (1) that there are fundamentally existent or ultimately real objects, that is, objects that are the basic, mind-independent constituents of reality, and (2) that there is a uniquely correct description of what fundamentally exists or how the world fundamentally is. In the first part (chapters 1–5), Siderits argues that if realism is true then the Buddhist reductionism about persons endorsed by Ābhidharmika Buddhists—roughly, the view that the concept “person” is only a convenient designator for causally connected chains of psychophysical elements—is the correct theory of persons. In the second part of the book (chapters 6–9), Siderits argues against realism: he endorses a kind of global anti-realism, traditionally associated with Mādhyamika Buddhists, which says that there cannot be a uniquely correct description of what fundamentally exists or how the world fundamentally is. If this view is right, neither our ordinary talk about persons nor Buddhist reductionism can be (context-invariantly) true.

This summary doesn’t capture the range of original proposals that Siderits puts forward here. In what follows, I focus on two such proposals. The first is the claim that reductionists about persons should adopt a variety of semantic dualism—a distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth—if they want to reconcile our ordinary discourse about persons with their commitment to reductionism. The second is that the Mādhyamika brand of global anti-realism that Siderits endorses is best understood as a kind of semantic contextualism, according to which truthmakers (and falsitymakers) for sentences can vary from one context to another. Both these proposals are worth exploring carefully. For the purposes of the present review, however, I will only raise some questions about them. [End Page 548]

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that textual exegesis is not my concern. I shall not ask whether Siderits correctly interprets Buddhist texts. Instead, I shall independently assess Siderits’ arguments for the positions he defends. Here is how I shall proceed. First, I will consider whether we should prefer Buddhist reductionism to other anti-realist views about persons. Then I will consider if the version of semantic contextualism that Siderits defends is compatible with global anti-realism. Finally, I shall explore the relationship between this kind of semantic contextualism and the kind of epistemic contextualism that he endorses in another part of the book.

I. Realism, Reductionism, and Semantic Dualism

To understand what Siderits means by “Buddhist reductionism,” it might be worth re-drawing a distinction that he makes among realism, reductionism, and eliminativism (pp. 9–19).

Realists about a kind K would say that instances of K are fundamentally existent, that is, are part of the basic furniture of the world. For example, a realist about composite objects would claim that composite objects like chariots and carts are distinct from their parts in relation and should be treated as fundamentally existent objects in the same sense as their parts. By contrast, a reductionist about a kind K would deny that instances of K are fundamentally existent. Rather, they would assert that the existence of instances of K just consists in the existence of more basic, fundamentally existent objects of some other kind. For example, a reductionist about composite objects, say a mereological nihilist, would claim that the existence of composite objects like chariots and carts consists in nothing over and above the existence of their parts arranged chariot-or...