- Illuminating the Mind: An Introduction to Buddhist Epistemology by Jonathan Stoltz
Jonathan Stoltz’s Illuminating the Mind: An Introduction to Buddhist Epistemology is an excellent book that will be valuable to those familiar with analytic epistemology but unfamiliar with, and curious about, Indian philosophical traditions. It is also a valuable book for those seeking to teach Buddhist epistemology to advanced philosophy students. Philosophers interested in cross-cultural philosophical methodology will also find this book an interesting case study.
With respect to cross-cultural methodology, Stoltz aims to demonstrate the philosophical legitimacy of Buddhist epistemology to a “Western” audience by presenting the epistemological themes and arguments of various Buddhist thinkers in terms he thinks contemporary analytic philosophers will be able to understand. Given the cultural, historical, and linguistic distance between the two traditions, this is an exceedingly difficult task. Throughout the book Stoltz acknowledges fundamental differences in language and framework that impact the cross-cultural engagement he is undertaking. Stoltz’s approach is primarily conciliatory, seeking as far as possible to emphasize points where Buddhist thinkers share concerns or views with analytic epistemologists. It also tends to prioritize analytic terminologies and frameworks in characterizing the relevant epistemic themes and problems. Given his intended audience and overall aims, I think these choices are reasonable, however, they inevitably distort the Buddhist views presented. The reader is thus advised that a more in-depth engagement, on the Buddhist’s own terms, is required to fully understand their positions. While not everyone will agree with the way Stoltz navigates the engagement between the two traditions, it is to his credit, and our benefit, that he has made these issues an explicit part of his account.
Stoltz explicitly structures the book around themes prominent in contemporary analytic epistemology, aiming to show that, historically, various Buddhist epistemologists have valuable perspectives to share on these topics. These include: the nature of knowledge; perception, inference, and testimony as means of knowledge; knowledge episodes as factive mental states; epistemic closure, sensitivity, and safety; skepticism; and epistemic internalism and [End Page 1] externalism. With respect to these themes Stoltz presents the views of Buddhists from four major periods of Buddhist epistemology in India and Tibet, orienting that history around the central figures of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, Buddhist thinkers writing (as far as we know) in the 6th to 7th centuries CE. It is worth noting that both figures are notoriously difficult thinkers and while there is no doubt about their importance to the Buddhist tradition, there is no clear consensus about what their views are. Stoltz’s presentation is reasonable and well supported, however, not completely uncontroversial. Stoltz’s overall presentation of the various Buddhist thinkers he engages with is balanced and he is careful not to present Buddhist epistemology as a monolith, taking opportunities to highlight debates within the tradition while at the same time making explicit commonly shared presuppositions, concepts, and frameworks.
Stoltz begins, in Chapter One, by presenting the basic framework and concepts used by Buddhist epistemologists in articulating their views. Stoltz pays special attention to two widely shared pan-Indian presuppositions about the nature of knowledge in order to highlight important differences between the way epistemology is pursued by Buddhists and by philosophers with a background in European and Anglo-American traditions: (1) Buddhists understand knowledge to be episodic (as opposed to dispositional) and (2) they are concerned with the causal processes that generate knowledge (as opposed to providing an analysis of what knowledge is.) The central concepts at play in Indian accounts are those of pramāṇa--instrument or means of knowledge--and pramā--knowledge episode. Buddhist epistemology since Dignāga is distinctive in that it views the knowledge episode itself to be the primary instrument of knowledge. In contrast, most other Indian traditions take the knowledge event to be the result (not the means) of the knowledge-generating process.
In the second chapter Stoltz uses the work of Dharmakīrti to construct a basic Buddhist account of the nature of knowledge...