Wilfrid Sellars and Buddhist Philosophy

Freedom from Foundations

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Jay L. Garfield
Routledge Studies in American Philosophy
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     254 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The volume under review, Jay L. Garfield’s Wilfrid Sellars and Buddhist Philosophy: Freedom from Foundations, is recommended reading not merely for taking Buddhist philosophy as a credible phenomenon. Rather, the volume’s contributors capture and engage with the various ambiguities and interpretive avenues that exegetes of both Sellarsian and Buddhist thought have explored.

Those engaging in cross-cultural philosophy (or “fusion” philosophy, as Mark Siderits has termed it) often present their efforts as burdened with more potential pitfalls that aim closer to home. Given the profound Eurocentrism that marks philosophy in the academy, there is a veneer of truth to this.

However, by what fundamental lights are the insights of Plato—given his distance in time, language, culture, intellectual presuppositions, etc.—so remarkably like “our own”—and those of, say, Nagarjuna or Kong Xi (Confucius)—so thoroughly unlike “our own—that the academy can justify its virtual segregation of the latter into, if anywhere, area studies or religious studies departments?

It is precisely the faint odor of religious commitment (absent in Western philosophy?) that often underlies this balkanized reality, for—the stereotype goes—religion brings uniformity of thought while philosophy is itself critical thinking, the love of wisdom beyond authoritarian forms of conditioning. We who study religion know that such uniformity of thought (or action) is in practice laughable, and just how contested are (a) what elements constitute “religion,” as a meta-category, and (b) such elements within religious communities.

Garfield, the editor and student of Sellars, has become a dominant figure in bringing Buddhist philosophy as philosophy to the public. He introduces the interface by observing the affinities between themes of Buddhist philosophy with Sellars’ seminal chapter “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” (Science, Perception, and Reality, Ridgeview Press, 1962) and “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”  (Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, University of Minnesota Press, 1956), the latter the source for the famed “Myth of the Given” argument.  These two articles frame the division of the book into its two sections.

It is with this concept that Garfield’s own chapter—full of characteristic insight—grapples, one of only three (Douglas Duckworth and Tom Tillemans are the others) that engage specifically with Madhyamaka. Each of these two is successful in its investigation of how the fundamental Buddhist framing of the two truths relates to Sellars’ critiques of foundations.

Two other chapters that deserve attention, if only because of the rather neglected place of ethics in Western philosophy are those by Sheridan Hough and Karl Schmid, who take Buddhist soteriological goals as critical guides for ethical principles that inform ontology and epistemology. It is with this emphasis on liberation under which metaphysics and ethics are subsumed that Western philosophers might pause and retreat; this perhaps goes to the shaky foundations on which this cross-cultural endeavor rests. For if Western philosophy begins with the premise—shared with neuroscience, biology, and others, but rejected by Buddhists—that the mind is an impotent epiphenomenon reducible to matter, then Buddhism would appear dogmatic. These two chapters provide grist for considering whether abstract metaphysical and epistemological principles should serve ethics, an idea echoed in Monima Chadha’s chapter on Abhidharma thought.

The book’s great worth is in its engagement with the great Buddhist epistemologists Dignaga and Dharmakirti, whose contributions to “cross-cultural” Indian philosophy are profound. Their alleged “religion-free” commitment to logic—despite their major works’ saluting the Buddha as embodied rationality—has made their work the primary site for cross-cultural engagement. The chapters focused on Dignaga and Dharmakirti—who are typically understood by their Madhyamaka colleagues to be engaged in a foundationalist, empiricist epistemology—provide nuanced insights into their projects and how Sellarsian critiques can challenge our received views.

Particularly interesting in this regard are the chapters by Catherine Prueitt and Sonam Kachru. Vexed questions on just what, if anything, is given in perception and the means by which to distinguish perceptual and conceptual content are taken up across these chapters, which will be equally challenging for those entering from either side of the cross-cultural divide.  As Garfield observes (xii), with respect to the Buddhist rejection of foundational perceptual content that echoes Sellars' legacy: "The attack on givenness, the attack on foundationalism in epistemology, and the account of ontology as responsive to our language and conventions offer an analytical approach to understanding these fundamental Buddhist ideas."

For those of us working in the study of religion, this volume may remind us that philosophy, however abstract or high-minded it may seem, is constitutive of norms and ideals and their contested boundaries in many settings, especially those in which elites serve as models and moderators for their communities. Philosophy, then, may act as one among other complementary modes of conditioning, or seeing-as, by which religious actors negotiate and create their realities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward Arnold is a doctoral candidate in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jay L. Garfield is Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Buddhist Studies and director of the Buddhist Studies and Logic programs at Smith College. He is also Visiting Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, Professor of Philosophy at Melbourne University and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies.


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