Thursday, November 9, 2017

Conference on Buddhism and Skepticism

I am excited to be taking part in the following workshop next week in Hamburg, Germany.  If I have time, maybe I'll write a blog post about how it goes, so stay tuned for that.  In the meantime, here is the information, which I have also cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

Buddhism and Scepticism: Historical, Philosophical, and Comparative Approaches
November 14-16, 2017

Oren Hanner (MCAS), in cooperation with the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies, Universität Hamburg
From their earliest stages, Buddhist traditions have displayed a sceptical attitude towards various types of accepted knowledge. Buddhist thinkers, beginning from the historical Buddha, questioned metaphysical assumptions, the realistic view of the world, and the reliability of our sources of knowledge, and expressed doubt about common social norms and religious views. In this way, philosophical scepticism played a pivotal role in the way Buddhist thought evolved. It served both as a method for arriving at a reliable and liberating understanding of reality and, as some argue, as an aspect of spiritual practice.

The conference on Buddhism and Scepticism investigates the place of scepticism in the development of classical Buddhist thought from historical and philosophical perspectives. From a historical standpoint, the conference explores the development of sceptical strategies in Buddhism and their relation to non-Buddhist systems of thought in Europe and Asia. From a philosophical point of view, it explores the ways in which sceptical arguments are used in Buddhist philosophical works, and how they resemble, and differ from, sceptical methods in other, non-Buddhist philosophies.
Mark Siderits (Seoul National University/South Korea)
  • Amber Carpenter (Yale-NUS College, Singapore)
  • Gordon Davis (Carleton University, Ottawa/Canada)
  • Dong Xiuyuan (Shandong University/China)
  • Vincent Eltschinger (École pratique des hautes études, Paris/France)
  • Eli Franco (Universität Leipzig/Germany)
  • Georgios Halkias (University of Hong Kong)
  • Adrian Kuzminski (Independent Scholar)
  • Ethan Mills (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga/USA)
  • Serena Saccone (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften)
  • James Mark Shields (Bucknell University, Lewisburg/USA)
For more information, see the website.


  1. The scepticism of Buddhists is vastly overstated in my view (I write articles on the history of Buddhist ideas).

    There is vast tangled confusion of ontology and epistemology, especially downstream from Nāgārjuna who seemed to be utterly confused about the difference between experience and reality. He's probably the worst philosopher who ever set pen to paper. So where is the scepticism about him? Richard Hayes wrote a couple of wry articles before he retired, but everyone else seems to assume that Nāgārjuna must be amazing and are still puzzling out why (because in fact he makes no sense at all).

    Nāgārjuna is not sceptical at all - he literally believes he understands *everything*. He believes he knows "ultimate reality" - he could not be less sceptical. He employs nonsense arguments to undermine his opponents, but that is not scepticism.

    And how did he come by this transcendent knowledge? By sitting down with his eyes closed ignoring the world. How does anyone take this seriously? Especially now.

    In practice there is little or no scepticism in Buddhism today. For expressing it, I have been called many things, including "reckless and dangerous" and "an enemy of the Dharma". Fundamentalism is almost the norm now.

    What scepticism there is tends not to question certain fundamental axioms of Buddhist thought. Such as, that one can find reality through meditation. What kind of "reality" is that? No one ever seems to ask.

    As well, there was a very strong tendency to realism *within* Buddhism. This is partly because one cannot have both karma and dependent-arising without some serious modification (and surprisingly it is almost always dependent arising that is modified). The only way to provide continuity between action and consequence over time is some form of realism - something has to exist in order to provide the necessary continuity, whether it is bhavaṅgacitta or ālayavijñāna, something supernatural but considered to exist always lurks in the unexamined small print. Because karma won't work without it.

    I just wish that academia would do something useful for those of us who *are* sceptical, rather than endlessly rehashing Buddhism on its own terms.

    1. I don't have time at the moment for an adequate response and I fear we are talking past one another in any case, but in the meantime I will say that "Buddhism" and "skepticism" are many things to many people and some of those things have interesting connections (in my opinion, anyway). Also, Richard Hayes did say (in a 1994 article) that Nāgārjuna's arguments don't work (and I completely agree with him that Nāgārjuna's influence is way overblown in contemporary scholarship), but in his 1988 book on Dignāga he compared Nāgārjuna with ancient Greek Pyrrhonian skepticism, which is much more in the vein of what I'm talking about. Cheers.