[originally published in:
University of Virginia
Center for South Asian Studies
Fall 1996 Newsletter]
Georges Dreyfus Recognizing Reality
Paul G. Hackett
SUNY Pr.: Albany, NY, forthcoming.
The second chapter of Dharmakirti's Commentary on [Dignaga's
"Compendium of] Valid Cognition" begins with the
Valid Cognition is that cognition [which is] nondeceptive.
This statement concerning the two possible objects of a valid
cognition ( pramana; tshad ma) is the launching point for Georges
Dreyfus's Recognizing Reality, an exploration of fifteen hundred
years of Buddhist epistemology beginning in India with the writings
of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, and continuing on in Tibetan intellectual
circles up until the present day. A revised presentation of what
was originally written as his doctoral dissertation, Dreyfus lays
out the fundamental issues central to the Buddhist theory of knowledge.
He draws comparisons with non-Buddhist categories of thought
subsumed under the rubrics of "idealism" and "realism"
and an assessment of their applicability to a Buddhist context.
[Nondeceptiveness] consists in the readiness [for the object]
to perform a function, also
[Of an object] arisen from an unmistaken term.
Throughout his presentation of the issues, Dreyfus offers both
historical and doctrinal analyses of the central issues as they
have been presented by competing commentarial traditions of Tibet.
Though not strictly divisible along sectarian lines, these two
traditions can be grouped as "Moderate Realists," Ge-luk
commentators of the Sang-pu tradition drawing on the interpretations
of Moksakaragupta and Cha-ba Cho-gyi-seng-gay (phya pa chos
kyi seng ge,1109-1169), and "Conceptualists," mostly
Sa-gya commentators relying on Sa-gya Pandita (sa skya pandi
ta,1182-1251) and his Indian teacher, Sakya Sribhadra. The limits
of this rubric and its implications within the traditions are
explored throughout the five major sections of the book: ontology,
universals, philosophy of language, valid cognition, and perception.
Dreyfus's discussion of ontology (chapters 1-5) is centered around its link to
epistemology, and in particular, to the presuppositions and ontological
commitments associated with an epistemic event. In framing the
discussion Dreyfus states,
We often take the vocabulary of an investigation for granted,
and easily forget that philosophical concepts are rarely neutral,
having acquired their significance as part of a tradition. Aristotle's
categorical scheme is the clearest example of a vocabulary that
has become so integrated within our worldview that we no longer
see it as a system of reference but as the very structure of the
This issue, whether the use of specific terms necessarily commits
one to asserting the existence of corresponding entities, lies
at the heart of divergent opinions regarding Dharmakirti's foundational
ontology or, in doxographic terms, the ontology of the Sutra School
Following Reasoning ( rigs rjes 'brang gi mdo sde pa).
On the issue of the existential status of phenomena, Dreyfus draws
on passages from both sides of the issue, laying out the arguments
and counter-arguments presented by various authors. The position
of Sa-gya scholars on Dharmakirtian ontology he concludes, lies
in a denial of any existential status to generally characterized
phenomena ( samanya-laksana; spyi mtshan) while maintaining their
veridicality as objects of inference. The issue of how a phenomenon
could be completely non-existent and yet have validity is explored
by Dreyfus as it is justified in the subsequent Sa-gya literature.
Hence, since they assert the non-existence of universals but
do not deny their objective referents, Dreyfus categorizes these
scholars as "conceptualist" as distinct from "nominalist."
In opposition to this view, Ge-luk scholars assert a division
of existent phenomena into "real" -- that is, "functioning
things" ( bhava; dngos po), and "unreal" -- that
is, permanent phenomena ( nitya; rtag pa). According to the standard
Ge-luk presentation, permanent phenomena exist but are not real.
These scholars assert the the "reality" of universals,
or general entities as more than linguistic creations without
the proliferation of entities, as in the "extreme Realist"
Hindu positions. Hence, Dreyfus feels justified in categorizing
these scholars as "moderate realists."
In comparable detail Dreyfus explores divergent opinions on the
criteria for distinguishing specifically characterized phenomena
from generally characterized ones, an issue which centers around
the question of extension in space and time. Here the diversity
of opinions is less amenable to categorization, though Dreyfus'
presentation is structured in such a way as to prevent a confusion
of positions. He delineates three different ways of viewing spacio-temporal
extension and the authors who distinguish between them. Each
of these views on functioning things and generalities are thus
clarified and compared with the assertions of their near contemporaries--the
Hindu philosophical schools of the Samkhya, Nyaya and Mimamsa--and
also with European philosophies of the past few hundred years
as well. In this way, Dreyfus brings the issues presented not
only into perspective within Indian philosophy but also into the
context of the world history of human ideas.
In the second major section (chapters 6-10), Dreyfus addresses
the issue of universals -- Dharmakirti's "objects arisen from
terms," and explores the distinction between nominalism and
conceptualism as it is founded on a resemblance theory of universals,
looking in particular at the views of Sakya Chok-den ( sakya mchog
ldan,1428-1507). While Dreyfus presents this interpretation as
a closer representation of Dharmakirti's antirealist position,
he acknowledges and addresses the problems encountered by various
Sa-gya scholars associated with this position. In the course
of doing so, he raises many of the objections presented by Ge-luk
scholars as they attempt to resolve these issues through a "moderate
Concluding his discussion of the issue as a general topic, Dreyfus
adopts a different methodological perspective of the debate delving
into the historical and socio-political circumstances surrounding
the sectarian nature of the debate throughout Tibetan history.
He discusses the roles of would-be lineage founder Bo-dong Chok-lay-Nam-gyel
( bo dong phyogs las rnam rgyal,1376-1451) and proponents of the
"other-emptiness" (gzhan stong) doctrine, adding yet
another level of colorful controversy to a topic which has so
dominated intellectual concerns on the Tibetan plateau.
In the third major section of his book (chapters 11-15), Dreyfus
brings into consideration the conflicting epistemologies and philosophies
of language which realism and antirealism yield. Beginning with
a review of the significance of linguistics and grammer in Indian
thought, Dreyfus introduces into this discussion apoha theory,
Dignaga and Dharmakirti's theory of the formation of concepts
through elimination. Building on the work of Dignaga scholars
such as Hattori, Hayes and Katsura, Dreyfus presents the many
subtle refinements proposed by later scholars in the Tibetan tradition
elucidating both the negative and intuitional aspects of the theory.
Drawing particularly on the early Indian commentators such as
Devendrabuddhi and Santaraksita, Dreyfus divides Tibetan scholars
into two divergent camps: those who assert that real objects appear
to conceptual cognitions (the Ge-luk Realists), and those who
hold to a more representationalist perspective, that awareness
is in contact with only aspects ( akara; rnam pa) or representations
(the Sa-gya Antirealists). Points such as Go-ram-ba's ( go rams
pa bsod nams seng ge,1429-1489) distintinction between psychological
and epistemological interpretations of apoha, and the various
ways Tibetan scholars have distinguished affirmations from negations
come forward in "subtle but often artificial exegeses."
Throughout them all, however, Dreyfus manages to maintain the
clarity and global perspective of the endeavor which allows the
reader to place the issues contextually without losing sight of
the forest while examining the trees.
The fourth major section of the book (chapters 16-18) deals explicitly
with the issue of valid cognition ( pramana; tshad ma). Dreyfus
approaches the issue methodically by first considering the problematics
associated with various English equivalents for the Indian and
Tibetan vocabularies of pramana. Like the many Inuit words for
snow, the language of Indo-Tibetan epistemology contains a plethora
of highly specific terms denoting states of mind, the subtlety
of which is easily lost in English. Defining in precise terms
the language of his inquiry, Dreyfus presents the various problems
associated with Dharmakirti's multiple accounts of pramana and
distinguishes between a pragmatic understanding and an intentional
understanding of the term. Bringing the topic back into the wider
context of an examination of the typology of pramana, Dreyfus
presents the central issue of Dharmakirti's epistemology: the
differentiation between perception and inference and their objects.
Throughout his presentation Dreyfus lays the ground work for
the foundation of Dharmakirti's system and the largest section
of Dreyfus's book, the Theory of Perception.
This last major section (chapters 19-27), hinges on the nature
of "knowledge derived from the senses," the Buddhist
definition of perception. It is the nature of this physical environment
and the question of whether this perception is direct or mediated
that is the central topic which, building on his earlier presentation
of object universals, is explored here. The first interpretation,
a moderate vindication of commonsense intuition, is the view espoused
by the Ge-luk school which makes the distinction between the direct
perception of the sensible qualities of common sense objects,
and the more reified view of the direct perception of the objects
themselves. In the course of his analysis, Dreyfus draws out
the issues related to both the textual justification for such
a view, and the problems associated with it -- for instance, the
apparent blurring of the distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual
states of mind -- and presents their proposed solutions.
Looking at the second presentation of perception -- as mediated
by aspects, Sa-gya scholars assert that knowledge of an object
is made possible by virtue of its leaving the impression of its
likeness upon the consciousness apprehending it. In this presentation,
The nature of perception is explained in terms of the immediate
objects, the aspects, which do not themselves provide knowledge.
Perception, that is, a sensing of bare particulars, is valid
inasmuch as it is able to induce appropriate forms of conceptualization
that provide cognitive content to our experiences.
According to Dreyfus, this latter presentation is more in accord
with the writings of Dharmakirti, the explanation of what bridges
the two, perception and conception, proves to be the central problematic
to be elucidated by Sa-gya scholars.
The interplay of these two theories as they are argued back and
forth by scholars over the centuries presents a fascinating insight
into the religious methodologies of the Tibetan plateau. Pedagogical
presentations such the seven-fold typology of mental states are
critiqued by Sa-gya Pandita for their lack of textual support,
only to be defended by later Ge-luk authors who hold to the view
of perception as an active propositional form of knowledge. Their
counter-argument, that a non-propositional form of perception
cannot be a form of knowledge, is presented with equal ferocity
and highlights the methodological battle in Tibetan scholarly
circles between the faithful allegiance to the intellectual traditions
of India and the hermeneutical imperative to maintain coherency
and internal consistency within the system.
Given the scope of the issues considered, Dreyfus has done an
excellent job in maintaining a lucidity of prose and thematic
organization. Dreyfus's clarity is in part due to his deduction
of four ascending scales of analysis used by Dharmakirti. It
is Dreyfus's opinion that a lack of understanding concerning the
use of these hierarchical, and at times, dialectical devices within
Dharmakirti's writings is the greatest contributing factor to
much of the confusion generated by his apparent contradictory
statements. Dreyfus discusses three levels which assert the existence
of external objects and one final level articulating the Yogacara
view. As he says:
Rather than proposing a unified system, Dharmakirti offers a variety
of conflicting views which he sees as pragmatically compatible.
These different strands have not been always recognized by both
modern and traditional scholars, with the consequence that Dharmakirti's
system has been oversimplified.
In this manner, Dreyfus manages to explain the various positions
taken without relying on oversimplification.
Dreyfus's Recognizing Reality stands in the tradition of such groundbreaking
works as Stcherbatsky's Buddhist Logic and Mookerjee's
Buddhist Philosophy of Universal Flux and contributes to
the growing list of works in European languages devoted to a detailed
analysis of Buddhist epistemology and the epistemological endeavor
in general. The usefulness and applicability of Dreyfus's reaserch
is not limited to these fields alone, however. Insight will be
gained into various other fields of higher Buddhist studies such
as Madhyamaka, Abhidharma, and Tantra, for Dreyfus explains the
reasonings behind subtle philosophical positions which seem to
rise ex nihilo in these other subject areas. Recognizing Reality
is an insightful and stimulating work that can help one gain an
understanding of the pervasiveness of Dharmakirti's thought in
Tibetan religious theory and practice over the past millenium.
Paul G. Hackett received an M.A. (1994) from the Department
of Religious Studies of the University of Virginia.