[Buddha-l] Realism, anti-realism and Buddhism

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Thu May 22 01:46:29 MDT 2008


Interesting set of issues and questions. I won't propose a systematic
response, but just some quick observations.

First, the criterion for "realist" you draw on derives directly from Frege's
referentiality theory (the Bedeutung of any proposition is true or false).
This already sets the frame -- or as you put it "system of pre-existing
beliefs -- and context of the discussion. This sort of two-valued logic was
considered naive by many Indian philosophers, not just Buddhists but Jains,
etc., as well. So problems begin here.

Second, within the Analytic tradition from which this version (= frame) of
the question derives, consistently tends to commit a major reductionistic
fallacy, viz. insisting that everything be reduced or translated into
"propositions" and once in propositional form, *then* one can ask whether
its Bedeutung (referent) is true or false. Indian philosophers -- and I have
in mind at the moment specifically Asanga -- would want to refocus the
spotlight on that reduction; the conversion of reality (sensations,
impulses, habits, etc.) into language, and the reimposition of linguistic
constructs onto experience, such that one becomes confused about the
distinction between them.

This reduction appeared quickly in your account:

> A realist, say some, is a person who believes that every proposition
> does in fact have a truth value,

> An anti-realist, on the other hand, would be inclined to say that all
> propositions make sense only in the context of a system of beliefs
> that a person already holds...

Asanga's persistent attention to matters of praj~napti, upacaara, sa.mj~naa
and prapa~nca (and a host of related notions) is an attempt to bring this
into sharp focus. The famous chapter in the Bodhisattvabhuumi of the
Yogaacaarabhuumi -- Tattvaartha -- is singularly concerned with that. The
title, as Asanga careful explains during the course of the chapter,
contrasts tattva with artha (a.k.a. vastu and praj~napti), the former being
the experiential underpinning (tattva) for the linguistic-conceptual
elaborations (artha). In good Indian fashion he complicates the relationship
between tattvas and arthas, denying that either comes "first." He then
proceeds to analyze the relation in four distinct frames:

(1) naive realists "who don't investigate their assumptions."
(2) philosophers who accept logical conclusions.
(3) Those whose cognitive field (j~naanagocara) has been purified of
kle"saavara.na (i.e., "Sraavakas and Pratyekabuddhas).
(4) Those whose cognitive field has been purified of j~neyaavara.na (i.e.,
accomplished bodhisattvas and Buddhas).

sa punar eva tattvārthaḥ prakāra-prabhedataś catur-vidhaḥ. loka-prasiddho
yukti-prasiddhaḥ kleśāvaraṇa-viśuddhi- jñāna-gocaraḥ
jñeyāvaraṇa-viśuddhi-jñāna-gocaraś ca.

What is accepted as "fact" or truth differs for each of the four (the first
two are presumptive [prasiddha], the second two have direct knowledge
[j~naana]). Since Asanga clearly accepts that not only is there "reality"
but that the Buddhist imperative is to remove all obstructions to knowing it
(jñeyāvaraṇa-viśuddhi-jñāna-gocara), and yet he still finds that what
counts as reality depends on variant framing contexts, is he a "realist" or
an "anti-realist" according to Analytic lights? Or is that two-valued
opposition too constrictive to make sense of Asanga without doing violence
to his thought?

So to quickly offer my opinion on where different Buddhists "fit" within the
constrictions of realist vs antirealist dichotomy as posed:

Candrakirti would be "neither realist nor antirealist." And he would insist
Nagarjuna is the same. He would also remind us that he does not hold to an
alternate option either.

Asanga and Vasubandhu -- and hence classical Yogacara -- would be, as you
recognize for Dharmakirti (who is also a Yogacara), critical realists. I
would add Dignaga to that list. Asanga would say that Analytics, as
yukti-prasiddha-vaadins, have a too restricted sense of "reality," and still
cannot find the tattvas lurking amid the arthas.Dignaga and Dharmakirti
would elaborate on that.

Chan/Zen would agree with both Candrakirti and Asanga -- depending on what
they had for breakfast that morning. If you ask a Chan master which he is, a
realist or antirealist, he might reply: "Get real!" or "Do you REALLY want
to know?"

As for old Gotama, he'd wonder how such a question could possibly be useful
for eliminating dukkha.

Dan Lusthaus

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