Thursday, February 04, 2010

Miranda Shaw - William James and Yogaacaara philosophy: A comparative inquiry

This is a somewhat random article I found while looking for material on William James and pragmatism. Somehow, this article came up. It's VERY long, so here is just a bit from the beginning, the Introduction.

William James and Yogaacaara philosophy:
A comparative inquiry

By Miranda Shaw
Philosophy East and West
Volume 37, no.3
July 1987
(C) by the University of Hawaii Press


A general kinship between the philosophy of William James and certain aspects of Buddhist thought is immediately apparent and frequently noted.(1) This kinship is most apparent in their shared conviction that the self is not a permanent entity or "soul-substance,'' but is rather an aggregate of processes (Buddhism's skandhas) including a momentary series of states of consciousness (James' "stream of consciousness" and Buddhism's cittasa.mtaana).(2) There are, however, deeper comparisons that can be made between James and specific Buddhist thinkers. For instance, the concept of "pure experience'' in the philosophies of James and Nishida Kitaroo have much in common. David Dilworth has written a splendid essay on this,(3) and my article is meant in a sense to complement that study. Dilworth notes that the founder of the Kyoto school of Zen philosophy was influenced by James, having been introduced to James' books by D. T. Suzuki.(4) Dilworth explains that James' philosophy struck a familiar chord for Nishida, highlighting streams of thought that were already present in Buddhism, but fully enough absorbed into the background that Nishida was inspired to make them explicit once again, in the process adding the distinctive touch of the religious genius for which he is renowned in the global philosophical arena. The Kyoto school of philosophy in turn has come to the West and is stimulating Western philosophy in a process of cross-fertilization that characterizes the current international intellectual climate.

The purpose of this essay is to explore some of the similarities between James and Buddhist thought that rendered the Cantabrigian's philosophy so compatible with Nishida's Zen philosophy. In order to do this, I will analyze the parallels between James' thought and that of early Yogaacaara philosophy,one of the two main streams of Maahayaana philosophy in India. Yogaacaara philosophy, no less than Madhyamaka, was familiar to and assimilated by the formulators of Ch'an in China. What suggests a comparison of William James and Yogaacaara Buddhism is the numerous parallels between their analyses of experience and the pragmatic theories of truth that they developed to retain a degree of epistemological realism in view of those analyses. My discussion begins with a section on the primacy of experience for both James and Yogaacaara, since this constitutes the cornerstone of their respective metaphysics. The rest of the essay examines the nexus of philosophical insights that informs the interpretation of experience by each system, under the headings of (l) experience as a constructive activity and abhuutaparikalpa, (2) the external world: a pluralistic universe and paratantra, (3) pure experience and parini.spanna, and (4) pragmatism and arthakriyaa.

The discussion of James draws on an array of his writings. I developed this discussion on the basis of his Essays in Radical Empiricism (published in 1912) because it embodies his mature philosophy. However, quotations are drawn from a range of his works, starting with the relatively early Psychology (the Briefer Course, 1892). James' philosophy is consistent on the topics covered in this essay. The descriptive model of experience and its metaphysical underpinnings outlined in Psychology form the basis of the understanding of experience that informs all of his subsequent work. Further, Psychology was an exercise in the empiricism that Essays advocates, while pragmatism pervades all of his writings.(5) The discussion of Yogaacaara focuses on the Madhyaantavibhaaga-`saastra, "Treatise on Discrimination between the Middle and Extreme (Views), '' the first systematic formulation of Yogaacaara philosophy.(6) My translations are from Susumu Yamaguchi's critical Sanskrit edition of the Madhyaantavibhaaga (hereinafter cited as Y with page citations), which includes Vasubandhu's commentary (bhaa.sya) and Sthiramati's subcommentary (.tiikaa).(7)

One issue that arises at the outset is that of the possible influence of Buddhist thought in general and Yogaacaara in particular upon William James. There is no doubt that James was exposed to Buddhist thought. He and his neighbor Charles Lanman, a Sanskrit scholar who worked mainly with early Buddhist texts, were close friends, and he knew Paul Carus, another student of early Buddhist thought.(8) James also owned and annotated a number of books on Buddhism, such as Paul Carus' History of Buddhism, Warren's Buddhism in Translations, Koeppen's Die Religion des Buddha, and Max Mller's Hisotory of Ancient Sanskrit Literature.(9) Despite his acquaintance with Buddhist thought, there is little evidence that his philosophy is deeply informed by Buddhism. The works to which he had access discuss the basic doctrines of Buddhism, but James rarely refers to these doctrines in his writings. An isolated reference occurs in Varieties of Religious Experience:
I am ignorant of Buddhism... but as I apprehend the Buddhistic doctrine of Karma, I agree in principle with that.(10)
In his Psychology--wherein James lays out the views of the self, perception, and the stream of consciousness that are so acutely analogous to those of Buddhism-he does not cite Buddhism, but bases his discussions on his own scientific knowledge of physiology and psychology, upon which foundation he doubtless could have developed his views independently and then perhaps noticed the Buddhist parallels later.

Further disconfirmation of Buddhist philosophical influence upon James is the selectivity of his own interest in world religions. It was not an interest in philosophy, logic, or doctrine that guided his study of world religions, but his interest in personal religious experience and meditative or mystical states, toward the end of developing an objective science of religions based on the psychology of that experience. James' interest in the psychology rather than the philosophy of Buddhism is seen in Varieties, wherein he discusses not the doctrines of Buddhism, but Buddhist
meditative states.(11) From this, one might infer that James was more knowledgeable about the psychological than the technical aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Given the state of Buddhist scholarship in his day, he certainly would not have been aware of the Yogaacaara doctrines that so closely parallel his own. While the question of the influence of basic Buddhist doctrine upon James' thought must remain an open question, there is no doubt that he developed his philosophy of "experience only'' independently of that system. Therefore, these two highly analogous philosophies arose independently in second-century India and nineteenth-century New England.
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