Volume 25, 2018
False Friends: Dependent Origination and the Perils of Analogy in Cross-Cultural Philosophy
Centre for Buddhist Studies
Cross-cultural philosophical inquiry is predicated on the possibility of drawing analogies between ideas from distinct historical and cultural traditions, but is distorted and constrained when those analogies are overdrawn. In considering what Buddhists might have to say about free will, scholars tend to draw analogies between dependent origination and distinctively modern naturalistic ideas of universal causation. Such analogies help promote the idea of Buddhism as a “scientific religion” and help justify the impulse to naturalize Buddhism (or to simply ignore its un- or super-natural elements) in order to make it a more credible conversation partner. By tracing some of the early history of the idea of dependent origination, this essay discusses how and why these analogies have been overdrawn. It addresses why this matters to the inquiry into free will and other cross-cultural philosophical engagements with Buddhism. With respect to naturalizing Buddhism, it argues that decisions about what to exclude from serious consideration (such as karma and rebirth) necessarily influence how we understand ideas (such as dependent origination) we deem more congenial (and thus essential), and that by excluding those we do not find congenial, we foreclose opportunities to submit our own philosophical assumptions to scrutiny and to be genuinely transformed by our encounter with Buddhism.