Jay Garfield is Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy, Logic and Buddhist Studies, and Visiting Professor in Buddhist Philosophy at Smith College and the Harvard Divinity School. Professor Garfield’s research addresses topics in the foundations of cognitive science and philosophy of mind; the history of Indian philosophy during the colonial period; topics in ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of logic; methodology in cross-cultural interpretation; and Buddhist philosophy, particularly Indo-Tibetan Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. I had the privilege of speaking with Professor Garfield about the importance of non-Western philosophy in philosophical discourse, his perspective on ethics, and his current projects.
You’ve written a lot, particularly in the New York Times recently about the importance of incorporating non-Western perspectives in philosophical discourse and especially in university syllabi. Could you speak to one or two instances in which you feel that engaging either a non-Western, or a Buddhist/Indian philosophical perspective more generally, can add something to contemporary discourse?
Sure, right now there’s an enormous amount of literature in Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science on reflexivity of awareness, and all awareness involves self-awareness. You have people like Evan Thompson, and Uriah Kriegel, Zahavi, Christian Coseru, and dozens of others working on questions of to what degree and in what sense all of our cognitions involve self-awareness. Now that’s a debate that’s got a very old pedigree in Buddhist philosophy, so that we see Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, Candrakīrti, Śāntarakṣita and all of these classical Indian philosophers from about the 4th Century to about the 9th Century and then on into Tibet debating these precise issues. That’s one example of where if the Western debate would pay attention to the Buddhist debate you would have a rich set of resources and a whole lot of notes you wouldn’t have to make all over again.
Another example that you might point to would be in the domain of ethical thought. So, very often in Western metaethics and ethical thought there’s this partition of the space into Aristotelian/aretaic ethics, Kantian/deontological ethics or consequentialist ethics. But Buddhist ethics suggests that there are different approaches to moral phenomenology, focusing on ethical perception and ethical experience. We have some of that happening in the West, some people like Hutcheson and Hume, but it’s not been a dominant thing. It is dominant in Buddhist ethics. It gives you an entirely different perspective on what ethical questions are, and how to go about addressing them, and what a reasonable range of positions is. You could go on for a long time about this.
Another domain concerns attitudes towards paradoxes and contradictions. So right now those of us who work in dialetheic logics (paraconsistent logics) often encounter a kind of incredulous stare from philosophers committed to the notion that consistency and rationality are roughly synonymous. But again, if you look at the Buddhist tradition and also the Chinese/Daoist tradition, you see traditions in which apparent inconsistencies were taken seriously for millennia and hardly in the context of irrationality.
Can you speak to the distinction between consistency and logic?
Logic is just the general theory of inference and reason. There are logics that enforce consistency, like Russellian or Fregean logic that’s very dominant in the West right now, in which contradictions cannot possibly be true, and in which contradictions entail everything. But there are also logics that don’t enforce consistency—paraconsistent logics that tolerate contradiction, that don’t explode. Lots of classical Indian logics are paraconsistent in that sense. A lot of interesting work in modern logic is increasingly paraconsistent.
Often, when I talk to people about conventional truth, it’s really troubling for them. They feel that it might leave us in this postmodern reality to not be able to talk about a capital-T Truth and that it affects our ability to answer scientific and moral questions. I read your chapter in the book Moonpaths on Buddhist Ethics in the context of conventional truth. I was wondering if you would elaborate on that for the blog and how we might structure our lives without making ultimate Truth claims.
I always find it amusing that people think of this as seriously postmodern given that the doctrine we’re talking about is 2,500 years old, from a society that never really discovered modernity. So, it goes back to your first question: What can Buddhism tell us? Well, one thing is that postmodernism isn’t a very new idea; it may be a rediscovery of a lot of very old ideas.
You’re right that people often have trouble with the doctrine of two truths and the idea that the truth we live in is a largely conventional truth. Part of that, I think, has to do with how people understand the word conventional, or customary. Remember that when we talk about this we’re talking in English and we’re using words that we’ve chosen to translate certain Sanskrit and Tibetan terms—the translations are always, at best, approximate. We translate the Sanskrit term saṁvṛti-satya as conventional or customary truths. I would not say this is a bad translation, but we need to be careful about nuance. These terms are interestingly ambiguous in Sanskrit as well as in English.
So think, first of all, about the ambiguity of the word conventional in English. You can say conventional meaning by agreement, like the Geneva conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. We can think about a convention as involving an explicit agreement. A convention might also be a very implicit convergence of a lot of customary practices, like the conventions that govern our word use in English, or our grammar, which are matters of convention but it’s not like anybody sat down and said, ‘let’s make the word table mean this and let’s make the word bed mean this, let’s construct our sentences like this.’ They’re not a matter of explicit agreement; they’re rather a matter of a convergence of a set of practices. Another sense of the word conventional is everyday, ordinary. When I say, ‘that was really a very conventional way to proceed,’ I mean that was really everyday—nothing creative, original or new about it.
All of these meanings are there in the word conventional because they all come with this idea of convening, or coming together. We can come together explicitly to make agreements; or our practices can come together and coalesce even though nobody makes an explicit agreement; or we can just be talking about the way we all come together in the marketplace. Those are all there in the meaning of the word conventional. They’re also all there in the meaning of the term saṁvṛti. Saṁvṛti can mean any of those, it can also mean, ‘in virtue of language’ or ‘in virtue of something that we say.’ It has that same kind of idea about it. The big difference is that there’s another meaning of saṁvṛti that comes from a different kind of root that can also mean, ‘to conceal or cover up,’ which the word conventional can’t mean in English. But it’s important in Buddhist philosophy.
When we talk about conventional truth we’re talking about truth that does involve a kind of convergence of discursive practices, that sometimes involves explicit agreement and that does involve ordinary, everyday practices and what we ordinarily do. But conventional truth also conceals those facts about itself and so presents itself as more than it is. For instance, in the United States when we set the table we put the fork on the left and then a knife and a spoon on the right, and in Japan when we set the table we put the chopsticks above the plate, and in India when we set the table we put the plate on the table with no utensils. If you ask about the correct way to set a table, you see right away that that’s a stupid question to ask—there are different conventions. The thing about conventions is that you constitute right and wrong. There’s a right and a wrong way to set the table in the United States, just as there’s a right and a wrong way to set the table in India, and in Japan, in which the rightness and the wrongness are constituted by sets of collective practices. English has one grammar, Tibetan has another. If you ask which one got the language right you’re asking a stupid question, but once you fix the set of conventions, right and wrong can emerge within the context of those conventions.
When we talk about conventional truth we’re emphasizing the reality that we inhabit. The things that it’s appropriate to say about it and discursive practices that we find acceptable depend upon complex webs of habits, customs, discursive practices, implicit agreements, explicit agreements, facts about our biology and so forth. All of those things go into it and it’s not as though the objects, the properties or the facts that we find in our world have an existence independent of that, that we simply discover.
What Buddhist philosophers are doing when they distinguish conventional truth from ultimate truth is distinguishing stuff that we make from stuff that we discover and putting almost everything on the side of stuff that we make.
Do you think that thinking in terms of conventional truths can be inhibiting? When you’re talking about a human rights issue for example, and you can no longer point to divine reasoning or anything inherently true ‘because we are human,’ or anything like that, and you’re trying to do some ‘good’ on a global scale, what can you use as a reference point?
Well, we start out with customs and conventions—notice that they often differ from culture to culture. So, for instance, a whole lot of people in the United States think that it’s a fundamental right to arm yourself with a firearm. In a lot of parts of the world people think that it’s a fundamental human right not to live in a society where people are walking around with firearms; that’s a really fundamental distinction. In the United States people think that it’s a fundamental human right to be able to say whatever you want. In a lot of countries people think it’s a fundamental human right not to be insulted, slandered or threatened by other people’s speech and that gets you very different views about the balance of permissible speech, and we can go on a long time about this. There are fundamental differences between people about the sense of conventions that establish human being.
One of the important things about human conventions or customs is that even when we disagree very deeply about matters like this—and it really is important to underline just how deeply different people can differ about matters in very very fundamental values—that’s just an anthropological fact. Not everybody is a fan of this. Not everybody thinks that racism is a bad idea, not everybody thinks that gun ownership is a divinely ordained right, there’s a lot of different views about this. Nonetheless, we do share a lot of customs and conventions about discursive practices and reasoning that allow us if we’re open to sit down and talk these things through, and to come to agreements or to come to recognize disagreements and domains where we tentatively agree or those where we might never.
So, I think that if anybody thinks that there’s an obvious transcendent set of values and those are hers, she’s just wrong. That’s not where values come from. Values come from our biology, from the way we have evolved to live in societies, but then in specific forms from the sets of cultural conventions that our societies end up generating. And they vary with time, and they vary with place, and they vary with culture. That’s just a fact. But when we have disagreement what we can appeal to are customs for revising customs, because convention is recursive in that sense. We have conventions for questioning conventions. And when we engage in fundamental moral disagreement and debate, that’s what we’re doing.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a whole lot of things right now, which is usually the case because I have a lot of different interests that I like to work on simultaneously. I’m just finishing up a book on Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. I’m near the end with a team of colleagues on a book on paradox and contradiction in East Asian philosophy. I’m soon going to be starting a book on Buddhist ethics; doing a set of video lectures on the history of Buddhist philosophy for Wisdom Publications; working on an empirical project with a set of colleagues on the impact of religious ideology on people’s attitudes towards personal identity and death; and also working on a project with a different set of colleagues on a Tibetan debate about epistemology and metaphysics that runs from about the 15th to the 18th century. So, those are the main projects. I tend to always have a lot of balls in the air, and I like it that way. That way if one of them stalls I can work on another one and it keeps me from getting bored. I’m working with a lot of different teams, and on a few solo things.
A lot of the posts on our blog are trying to bridge the gap between academic philosophy and the philosophy that we can use in our everyday lives, so I was wondering about if and how your scholarship helps you personally to navigate the world?
I think that it does. I don’t know if it’s made me a better person or a worse person, but I know that it’s transformed me. Some people in philosophy work on projects just because they’re interesting or because there’s something on which you could develop something to say and get published. I don’t work that way. I only work on texts and problems that are deeply important to me personally and which I think make a difference. I think that I’ve learned a lot about the human condition—to use Arendt’s term—by studying Buddhism, but also by studying Western philosophy. I’ve learned a lot from the Stoics and Hume, I’ve learned a lot from Arendt and some Heidegger and some Wittgenstein. I’ve learned a lot from Candrakīrti and Tsongkhapa and Nāgārjuna and from the people with whom I’ve been working in that part of the world. And I think that’s helped me get a clearer perspective on my own life and my relationship to other people. I think it has taught me a bit more about how to think my experience through carefully. And with any luck it’s made me a little bit more patient and reflective. I’m not sure, but I hope so. And I hope that’s the effect it has on my students. I tend to teach things that I think it’s important for people to know and I try to study things that I think it’s important for me to come to know and internalize.