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  • Reductionism Redux
  • Mark Siderits (bio)

I must begin by expressing my deep appreciation to Nilanjan Das and P. K. Sen for the care they have clearly taken in their thorough examinations of Empty Persons.1 There is quite a lot going on in the work, and even after the revisions made in preparing the second edition, what I wish to say is not always as clear as it might be. The penetrating questions raised in Das’s and Sen’s reviews are just the sort that any author of a philosophical work would welcome.

Before coming to these questions, though, I should say a word about my stance toward the matters I discuss in the book. The work divides roughly into two parts. Chapters 1–5 discuss the reductionist view of persons that I think can be developed out of debates in the schools generally identified as Abhidharma (including Sautrāntika). In chapters 6–9 I explore the Madhyamaka anti-realist critique of Buddhist reductionism, and examine whether any form of reductionism about persons might be compatible with the Madhyamaka stance. What may not be entirely clear is that I do not unqualifiedly endorse either of the two positions I discuss. Of course, I think each is of significant philosophical interest and importance. But Das, for instance, is mistaken when he says that I endorse Madhyamaka global anti-realism. Das also says, concerning the Madhyamaka arguments that I discuss, “I am not sure that a hard-nosed realist will be entirely convinced by these arguments” (his note 3). I agree. There are any number of sophisticated strategies that realists might deploy in response to Madhyamaka critiques, and it is not clear to me that a neo-Mādhyamika can mount an effective counter-offensive. Further examination is required before we can decide on the validity of the Madhyamaka version of global anti-realism. So I do not endorse it. But neither do I think we now have good reason to reject it. This is why I have tried, here and elsewhere, to work out what I think are the best arguments in its favor. More work needs to be done, and some of that work requires a willingness to look beyond the historical tradition. I have hoped to bring new voices to the conversation. My readings of Madhyamaka anti-realism, as well as of Buddhist reductionism, were meant to serve as invitations to that conversation.

I. Das on Eliminativism

I turn now to specific responses to some of the critical questions raised by these insightful reviews. I start with Das, who draws a distinction between [End Page 562] entity eliminativism and discourse eliminativism and, based on that distinction, suggests that a certain form of eliminativism about persons might be an improvement over the Buddhist reductionism I describe. But I find this part of his discussion somewhat puzzling. First, to my knowledge no one subscribes to what he calls discourse eliminativism. When there is a dispute over things of kind K, no party to the dispute advocates that we simply eliminate the word from our language. What I had in mind by eliminativism about things of kind K is two claims: the term “K” does not refer to anything in the privileged domain of the fundamentally real,2 and using the term is not a convenient way of referring to the things that are actually in the domain of ultimate reals. Consider eliminativism about disease-causing demons. We may retain the term “demon” in our vocabulary, but only as a way of talking about the now discredited demonic-possession theory of disease. The term has no role to play in the language of medicine, but it may still find a use in cultural anthropology. As I use the terms, a reductionist about the K’s and an eliminativist about the K’s agree that no such things are to be found in our ultimate ontology, but also that the term “K” may well continue to have some use. Where they disagree is over whether “K” is a useful or a useless fiction. Is it useful for purposes of daily life, given our cognitive limitations, such as can be seen in the...


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