Review: Wilfrid Sellars and Buddhist Philosophy

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 28, 2021

Wilfrid Sellars and Buddhist Philosophy: Freedom from Foundations. Edited by Jay L. Garfield. Routledge Studies in American Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 2019, 254 pages. ISBN 978-0-367-11209-7 (hardback), $128/978-1-03-209415-1 (paperback), $39.16/978-0-429-02794-9 (e-book), $44.05.

Reviewed by Matthew T. Kapstein

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3 thoughts on “Review: Wilfrid Sellars and Buddhist Philosophy”

  1. Despite being highly contextual (end of page 180 and 181) and therefore difficult to pinpoint, one argument Matthew Kapstein seems to uphold is that metaphysics does not matter (or not very much, to read him generously) regarding moral questions such as benevolence.

    In relation to this affirmation in his argumentation, selflessness, (anatta/anatman) is interpreted by him as a metaphysical (or ontological, I would say) view peculiar to Buddhists, that others do not adhere to, nor need to adhere to, in order to justify and put into practice moral qualities such as benevolence.

    Needless to say, the notion of anatta/anatman, its justifications, scopes, consequences and so on, in theory and practice, have been the subject of endless disputes, debates and interpretations, by Buddhists themselves, not to speak of non-Buddhists in Asia and latter on all over the world. It then becomes the subject of various translations as well, in different epochs, languages, and cultures.

    It has often been interpreted as being directly opposed to the “Hindu” (vedic and post-vedic) notion of atman, again often understood as being similar to the “soul” of monotheistic religions. In that sense, selflessness is definitely akin to a metaphysical question and may not have direct relevance to ethical ones.

    But it can also be interpreted and translated, and phenomenologically understood and experienced I would add, as egolessness. In this light, the tight relation between morality/ethics and anatta/anatman seems much more to the point and pertinent, because many religious traditions, philosophical schools, and now social sciences would agree that egoistic attitudes hinder altruistic attitudes, or that the pride of an inflated ego, that conceives and grasps itself as a self-enclosed entity, independent from a creator God, others, or the world, is a direct cause of unethical behaviors.

    Of course, the question (the precise referent, scope, etc.) of what is meant by “ego” in “egolessness” and so on immediately arises. In particular, most contemporary psychologists would not agree that human beings can develop and live without a self/ego. This objection is not new since such discussions arose historically in Buddhist milieux as well, with the attempt to delineate a distinction between a relative and an absolute self or ego (the two truths distinction in relation to a personal self).

    In fact the idea of a spiritual progression, a path that encloses ethics, meditation, and wisdom, seems hopeless philosophically speaking without a kind of personal substratum that goes on in time. The same holds with personal ethical responsibility. The ideas of rebirth and karmic “retribution” (or, more to the point, of karmic inner coherence) life after life do not make much sense without such a continuum. Buddhist philosophers developed, therefore, the idea of santana, a personal continuum, that can be, with caution, called a self, with the psychological self-attribution “me,” “I,” and “myself.”

    Therefore, if ego is understood in a properly defined context as referring to an “egoistic self,” it seems to me that the problem dissolves or is less dramatic. It is not related to metaphysical views.

    In this light, I would recommend Transcending Self-interest. Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego edited by Heidi A. Wayment and Jack J. Bauer.

  2. I would like to make two further short comments on this paper by Matthew Kapstein, which triggered some afterthoughts.

    He uses the term “neo-Buddhism,” in quotation marks, with a clear derogatory tonality. “Neo-Buddhism” may then rhyme in our heads with “pseudo-Buddhism,” “neo-Buddhists” with “thirtakas-heretics.” But let’s say “neo” just means “new,” as in newbie. Since the author has in mind a form of Buddhist scientism or scientific Buddhism, I wonder whether he thinks that the work of the Mind and Life Institute is in vain. I do not have a clear opinion.

    Additionally, recalling the Navayana of Dr. Ambedkar, I wonder if this expression “neo” is not symptomatic of the worry that anything new in “Buddhism” is, through the eyes of the traditionalists, suspect. But is not any vehicle, school, sect, lineage, and so on, the “neo-Buddhist” in relation to what has gone before? Tantra, neo-Buddhism? Mahāyāna, neo-Buddhism? Pure-land, neo-Buddhism ? Theravāda, even, and other ancient schools that we know of through scriptures, neo-Buddhism?

    A strange affair this is.

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