Both Plato’s Theaetetus (151-160) and Vasubandhu’s Viṃśatikā use the trope of dreaming to illustrate our apprehension of reality through perception. The Theaetetus challenges the view that knowledge is perception with the case of (literal) dreaming. But such a challenge depends upon the presumption that our dream-perceptions are false, and so Plato considers ways of dispelling the challenge by putting dream-perception and waking perception epistemically on a par, neither false as such. Dreaming can thus support the Protagorean view that things are for us as they appear to us, for it exemplifies how the objects of perception and their qualities depend on our cognition—regardless of whether there might be some uncognisable mind-independent material reality.
For Vasubandhu, the trope of dreaming plays a complex role in outlining the mind-only position of Yogācāra. First, he uses the example of dreaming to illustrate how our common perceptual experience is compatible with the absence of external, material objects. But then the example becomes a challenge. If there are no external objects, are we not just like literal dreamers insofar as we are misled by our perceptual experience? As we have seen from discussing Protagoras, to avoid scepticism and Protagoreanism, Vasubandhu cannot rely on perception alone to establish an epistemic difference between waking and dreaming perception, but must appeal to reasoning in order to diagnose our perception as misleading. Only thus can Vasubandhu hold out the possibility of transcending our dream-world and (metaphorically) waking up—the transformative experience that would change the content of our perception, reinstating perception as a means of knowledge.
I close by reflecting on the lessons we can learn from these two texts. First, it is reason that allows us to gain the perspective on our perceptions needed both to undermine and to rehabilitate the epistemic standing of perception, a point familiar from Descartes. Second, because Vasubandhu helps himself to means of knowledge other than perception, he can give an account of the imperceptible causal structure underlying our perceptual experience—an option closed to Protagoras who needs Socrates to wheel in the flux doctrine on his behalf.
This chapter examines what the process of coming to know reality does to one engaging in it, in order to see what merit there may be in the claim that knowledge, or seeking it, is morally improving.
For both the Buddhist and the Platonist, striving to know reality is good for us and makes us good. Indeed both therapeutic epistemologies have the explicit aim of drawing attention away from ourselves and even from human-specific goals, towards an impersonal reality. But their conceptions of transformative knowing differ profoundly. Plato not only thinks that knowledge is of unchanging intelligible things; he thinks, further, that such knowledge is or implies an ability to explain (Republic VII) and to teach (Meno). Knowledge is articulable, and in principle communicable. Buddhist philosophers, Vasubandhu and the epistemologist Diṅnāga in particular, emphatically prioritise a perceptual model of knowledge over conceptual facility, which is generally denigrated as a lesser sort of knowledge, and of a lesser sort of reality. This reflects a formalisation of the earliest Buddhist convictions that liberating knowledge is something experienced but not directly communicable.
This chapter explores the different effects on character that are expected to arise from pursuing knowledge on these radically different accounts, and the different values implicit in considering such a process to be transformative and liberatory. While seeking knowledge Plato-wise is ordering and unifying, seeking transformative knowledge as Diṅnāga understands it dissolves all structure and elicits profound acceptance.
The Socratic ideal of self-knowledge articulates a specific conception of persons as knowers (gignōskōn), but also, and more importantly, of what this pursuit entails—namely that one can, and perhaps ought to, get to know oneself (gignōskōn autōs sauton). A similar ideal is at work in the Buddha’s admonition to seek the guidance of one’s reasoned deliberations and disciplined practice (admittedly within the narrower confines of the saṃgha, at least for early Buddhism).
The central thesis of this chapter is that while both traditions acknowledge the role that recollection (anamnesis; smṛti) and practices of self-control (sōphrosūne) and cultivation (bhāvana) play in grounding the dialogical/debating methods (dialektikē; vāda) by which we form beliefs, they differ in fundamental ways about what these methods deliver: for the Platonist, a conception of self-knowledge rooted in puzzlement (aporia) aimed (as with knowledge of justice and the good) at the transformation of an idiosyncratic self shaped by habit and opinion by assimilating it to the universality of the Forms; for the Buddhist, a view of the path grounded in certainty (niścaya) rather than puzzlement, specifically about the Four Noble Truths, and the efficacy of a whole framework of methods and practices in challenging any belief in an enduring and unchanging self. Yet, despite their different metaphysical commitments, accounts of the scope of self-knowledge that bear some structural resemblance can be found. Here I uncover one such account, drawing primarily on Charmides and Alcibiades, and on the principal works of Diṅnāga and Dharmakīrti (the Pramāṇasamuccaya and Pramāṇavārttika). I also put forward an argument about the indispensability of personal accounts of self-knowledge in motivating not simply a conception of who we are as knowers, but, and more importantly, of what we can become.
Ancient Neoplatonists including Porphyry, Proclus, and Damascius encourage us to act virtuously in the world mediated by the senses, even as we contemplate the mentally mediated Forms described by Plato. They also appear to claim that we cannot attend simultaneously to Forms and sense-objects; but since sense-objects distort our perceptions and motivations, we should strive to attend to Forms. This seems to invite a puzzle: how could we act virtuously in the sense-world without attending to it?
In this chapter, I try to shed light on the puzzle by appealing to a parallel challenge in Theravāda Buddhist thought. The ideal meditator of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga cultivates ‘seclusion’ from sense-objects in order to concentrate on a single, mentally mediated ‘sign’ (nimitta), a conceptual representation of a mental or sensory quality-particular, like a colour, beauty, or repulsiveness. The target of this exercise is to hone a single-pointed, equanimous mode of attention, which will subsequently be applied to the signs (nimittā) that occur in the stream of phenomena that constitute ordinary sensory and cognitive experience. This attention liberates the meditator from conditioned reactions to signs in general, in part by disclosing that sensory and mental phenomena are insubstantial bundles of quality-particulars (dharmas).
Comparably, I suggest, the Platonist’s focused contemplation of a Form (eidos) hones a mode of attention that is subsequently applied to sense-objects, disclosing their nature as enmattered forms, or more precisely, quality-particulars that imitate Forms. The philosopher\'s task is not to attend to forms and disregard sense-objects, but to attend to sense-objects as forms, which liberates her from conditioned reactions to them and facilitates virtuous action in the sense-world. This interpretation also makes sense of several Platonists’ claims that sense-objects simply are bundles of forms, and invites a closer comparison between the Neoplatonist analysis of sense-objects as enmattered forms and some modern interpretations of the Abhidharma conception of dharmas as quality-particulars.
Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra and Plato’s Republic share a problem about the desirability of their moral ideals. Both philosophers present ideal knowledge—for Plato knowledge of immutable Forms, for Śāntideva the knowledge which realises emptiness—as the ultimate goal and highest achievement. And both philosophers claim that such ideal knowledge of unworldly reality enables and entitles practices of caring for others. For Plato, this takes the form of governance by the philosopher; for Śāntideva, the bodhisattva’s compassionate commitment to liberate all beings.
Both Plato and Śāntideva claim, further, that these practices of caring for others benefit the philosopher and bodhisattva themselves. But this claim is initially puzzling, given that Plato’s descriptions of the philosopher’s return to the cave seem to suggest a decrease in well-being resulting from the ceasing of continual contemplation of the Forms. And likewise, Śāntideva’s bodhisattva appears to delay liberation from saṃsāra—that is, to postpone the liberation from suffering—in order to care for others. In this chapter, I develop a shared solution to this tension in which Śāntideva’s bodhisattva and Plato’s philosopher experience a shift in their conception of value as a result of contemplating the nature of reality. For Śāntideva, this occurs initially through the realization of the pervasion of ordinary goods by suffering, but is deepened by universal insight into the empty nature of all phenomena. For Plato’s philosopher, this is achieved through relativizing ordinary conceptions of value in relation to the impersonal nature of the Forms. The challenge for each lies in explaining how this insight into the relative unworthiness of ordinary, changing reality results not in apathetic disaffection towards that lesser reality but rather in an attitude of care.
The article explores the common concern Bhāviveka (6th century) and Plotinus (3rd century) shared regarding the possibility and necessity of speaking about a reality posited as non-discursive. The chapter argues that a discursive account of a non-discursive reality is not a contradiction but a paradox that both authors embrace and overcome by providing two different models. Plotinus argues that the Intellect is non-discursive, though not ineffable like the One, and yet can be investigated by language and reason. His model to account for this paradox reflects the capacity of language for unfolding what is a condensed reality without losing any semantic content. Bhāviveka, in line with customary Buddhist doctrine, considers reality non-discursive and yet argues against opponents about the accurate account of reality. To solve the paradox, he proposes two kinds of ultimate, one ineffable and one discursive, to account for both the capacity and limitation of language to attain a reality that is in itself absolutely devoid of substances. By comparing these two models, the article proposes to show how these philosophers try to articulate a viable philosophical position that gives language its due so that philosophy can have more than a mere negative function, while acknowledging the inability of language to complete the promises of philosophy, i.e., the transformation of the individual to attain the summum bonum.
Although causality is central to both Buddhism and Platonism, the reasons for centrality seem quite different. Whereas Vasubandhu advances causal succession as a corrective to a false metaphysics of enduring substances, Plato treats teleological causation as the subject-matter of wisdom. But what do these philosophers have in mind when they talk about cause (aition/aitia, pratyaya/hetu) in the first place?
Instead of aiming for a translation or counterpart notions in the two traditions, I start from the assumption of contemporary psychology that both philosophers share a problem that shapes all discussions of causation, namely, that we have two concepts of cause, roughly, the producer of an effect, and a condition on which an effect depends. In the chapter I compare and contrast Vasubandhu’s and Plato’s discussions of cause using the two concepts framework as background. I argue that when Plato considers the causes of coming-to-be (Phaedo, Timaeus, Statesman), he elaborates a production concept of cause on the model of a craft and tries to incorporate dependency-judgments within this model by means of the notion of necessary conditions or auxiliary causes. I then argue that Vasubandhu’s discussion of dependent origination (Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, Chapter 3) recognises two concepts, describing many junctures of dependent origination in terms of dependency causation, in particular, in terms of of sufficient rather than merely necessary conditions.
This chapter considers in parallel some main argumentative strategies of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and the ‘dialectical exercise’ of the second part of Plato’s Parmenides. I argue that both can usefully be seen as critically targeting the kind of unity that is attributed to entities in treating them as coherent and individual subjects of predication. Both tend to show, moreover, that it is ultimately incoherent to suppose, with respect to any such subject of predication, either that it i) has the relevant kind of intrinsic unity or ii) lacking such a unity, does not exist at all. This suggests that (as I argue with reference to Plato’s Sophist and Plotinus’s Enneads) the philosopher’s attempt to identify and define an unconditional and ultimately consistent logical structure underlying predication in general cannot succeed. Nevertheless, I suggest that by understanding language and ordinary usage as themselves conditioned phenomena, we may see the results of such attempts as delimiting the more restricted domain of what Nāgārjuna calls ‘conventional’ or ‘ordinary’ (saṁvṛiti) truth in such a way as simultaneously to evince the ‘ultimate’ (paramārtha) truth of the emptiness of all phenomena. Specifically, we may see the contradictory conclusions of both Plato’s analysis in the Parmenides and Nāgārjuna’s analysis in the MMK as pointing, not toward a superior and more consistent regulative structure of categories or of logical forms, but rather to a possible overcoming of the “habit” of reifying conceptualization that is deep-seated in ordinary language and practice, and thereby to the soteriological benefits often associated, in Buddhist contexts, with such an overcoming.
In the Theaetetus, Protagoras is said to subscribe to a Heraclitean metaphysics of flux. This flux doctrine holds broad similarities with the Buddhist metaphysics of dependent origination—nothing exists stably, but exists in a process of constant becoming. Vasubandhu’s argument for momentariness, in particular, in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, interprets dependent arising as a close kin of the extreme flux of the Theaetetus’ Heracliteans, where everything changes in all ways at each moment. But where Plato portrayed relativism as the inevitable result of extreme flux, this was not the automatic conclusion for Abhidharma Buddhist philosophers. Although they hold that perception is the appropriate mode of access to the fundamentally shifting reality underlying the apparently stable reality of middle-sized dry goods, this does not make knowledge a matter of self-report. Truth is importantly not up to us when it comes to ultimately real dharmas.
An argument between Vasubandhu and the Vaibhāṣikas—a rival Abhidharma Buddhist position—on the mechanics of dependent arising suggests reasons for this difference. Much like Protagoras’ ‘Twin Births’ view of becoming, the Vaibhāṣikas require the simultaneous arising (sahotpāda) of dharmas. This causal view leads them to argue that dharmas have other-dependent and unknowable natures. And though the Vaibhāṣikas are not relativists, the unknowability of ultimate reality causes much of the same problems that Plato identifies with relativism. In contrast, Vasubandhu proposes a view of successive arising, allowing him to preserve the intrinsic natures of individual dharmas and avoid the pitfalls of relativism. By working through the details of the debate, this chapter highlights the resources necessary for a metaphysics of extreme flux to deflect the charge of relativism. With these in hand, I investigate whether this approach is available to the Theaetetus’ Heraclitean, so that they might avoid Plato’s moral objections to Protagorean relativism.
It is well known that, in the dialectical exercise of Plato’s Parmenides, the intrinsically contradictory deductions drawn from the hypotheses about the One force the reader to acknowledge that the One is neither existent nor non-existent, neither endowed with an intrinsic nature nor deprived of any nature. Does this violent paradox constitute a self-refutation of Plato, or is it, as the Neoplatonist believed, proof that the One, transcending the principle of the excluded third, is the same thing as the sovereign Good of the Republic, which stands beyond ousia (509c)? Moreover, in contradistinction to the One, every sensible thing can be said, according to Plato, to be so and not so from some view point, whereas each intelligible Form is strictly and eternally the same as itself, endowed with its intrinsic nature, so that its being is conditioned by nothing in space and time. Hence it looks as if Plato used the Madhyamaka tetralemma (catuṣkoṭi) and the notion of emptiness (śūnyatā) with its correlate, dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda), not as a sequential pedagogical tool, but in order to construct its own ontological scale. Therefore, this chapter wonders whether we could reintegrate Plato’s Parmenides at the top of the whole Platonic system by questioning it and rewriting it with Nāgārjuna’s own words and concepts. Such a method aims at proposing an alternative to the theological exegesis practiced by Neoplatonism, although it also saves the internal consistency of Platonic thought and maintains the kinship of the Good and the One.
In this chapter I interrogate and ultimately reject the standard, egoistic view of Socratic ethics by studying the eudaimonist implications of the so-called prudential principle (the principle that everyone desires the good) in light of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra. I first discuss the work that the prudential principle is commonly made to do in rational eudaimonist accounts of Socratic ethics. I then contrast the altruism inherent in Śāntideva’s treatment of what he calls the sama-duḥkha-sukhāḥ sarve (BCA VIII.90): ‘the equality of all beings with respect to well-being and suffering’, with the purportedly egoistic implications of the prudential principle. My purpose is to show the prudential principle as it is found specifically in Socratic dialogues such as Euthydemus, Meno, Gorgias, or in its implied presence in the argument of the Republic, is not tied in any substantive way to eudaimonism construed as agent-centred. In the second part of this chapter, I compare the function of arguments from transmigration in Śāntideva’s text and in Plato’s text in terms of how such arguments are used to undermine strictly egoistic accounts of rational motivation. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the virtue of equanimity as discussed by both authors. I argue that the Socratic dialogue has the intended, though not necessarily realised goal of creating an association between persons who will the good based on the shared awareness that everyone desires the good. Thus I argue that the prudential principle, the desire that all people have to be happy, is not egoistic but rather manifests the equality of self and other.
When there are wholes or situations we are part of, tensions can arise among the constituent parts. We might blame these elements and escape, or, on the contrary, try to look for harmony: a way to stay there and flourish. This chapter argues that both Plato and Śāntideva eschew escape, and choose seeking harmony amidst the potentially conflicting diversity of life. This dialogue between Plato and Śāntideva shows how their different strategies for pursuing harmony reveal the role played by supervision and, above all, by creativity in achieving it.
Plato’s Republic presents a ruling element in both city and soul, which knows the good and the natures of each element, and facilitates the harmony of the whole by attributing unchanging roles to each element, designing laws and education. Śāntideva’s mindfulness and introspection parallel the monitoring role of Plato’s ruling element. Introspection monitors whether any bad emotion threatens to disconnect the response of the bodhisattva from the situation.
But such monitoring is only the precondition for the creativity needed to establish and maintain the dynamic harmony of sharing a common aim. In the Statesman, Republic, Timaeus, Laws and Philebus, Plato shows how continuous creative effort is needed to translate knowledge of the good and the forms into educational and political structures conducive to harmony. And so similarly, the path described by Śāntideva in the Bodhicaryāvatāra can be seen as preparing the bodhisattva for harmonious behaviour through cultivating situational responsiveness. When input from ‘outside’ —such as an attack, the success of a rival, or seduction— threatens to create suffering, the bodhisattva harmonises their responses with that input, so that all elements involved stay together, and suffering is eliminated. As in the wise rule of Plato’s statesman, creativity is needed since every situation is different.
This chapters examines the attempt to reconcile the schism between knowledge and pleasure at the heart of Buddhist and Platonist thought in Tantric Buddhist texts and Plato’s erotic dialogues. Each approach cultivates the truth of pleasure as the truth of erotic practice, and the pleasures of truth as the harmonies of science, such that knowledge and pleasure meet in taste. The cultivation of taste in these Buddhist and Platonic texts charts a path of epistemic practice as ethics, which despite parallels remain strikingly different in their epistemic and ethical scope and metaphysical foundations. I argue that the scope of the ethics of knowing in Tantric Buddhism rests on a radical reinterpretation of fundamental Buddhist concepts that lends considerable insight into the possibilities of reconciliation of knowledge and pleasure as the reconciliation of mind and body, the mental and material, art and science, and individual and cosmos. This philosophy of taste offers a critical perspective on the erotic ascent towards truth and beauty in Plato and the metaphysics and ethics of knowing that underwrites it.