Cross-cultural Perspectives on Attention and Self (conference reflections)

Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Attention and Self

A conference at Reading University, UK, April 22 2017


When I saw the title of this conference and the inclusion of two prominent scholars of Indian philosophy – Dr Jonardon Ganeri (NYU) and Dr Jan Westerhoff (Oxford) – my attention was captured. My doctoral research on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra has become an immersion in Indian philosophical theories of consciousness and self. At a time when there is a debate raging about what constitutes philosophy and how non-western philosophy has been excluded from western academic teaching[1], it was particularly encouraging to see two experts in Indian philosophy in a program that otherwise addressed theories of self and attention via cognitive science and analytic philosophy, among other approaches.

Jonardon Ganeri’s work is at the heart of the ongoing philosophy debates. (See, for example, his recent essay ‘Why Philosophy Must Go Global: A Manifesto for Re:Emergent Philosophy’.) At this cross-cultural platform, Ganeri discussed attention and self in the 5th-century Buddhist scholar Buddhaghoṣa’s best-known work Visuddhimagga (The Path to Purification), arguing that in line with the Buddhist position that there is no agency or even ownership of the aggregates (skandhas), attention replaces self. Using cogent flow-chart illustrations, Ganeri argued that consciousness is what happens when the mind takes up a cognitive task; the task drags the mind to attention. He thus argued that in a task-attention understanding of consciousness, consciousness can be said to be like the form of a sinewave; the rise and fall of awareness occurs as we are drawn into moments of conscious experience, after which there is a reversion to the default state. Drawing on the philosophy of cognitive science (information processing), attention can be said to serve two roles: 1 focusing or placing, by drawing the mind onto an object and 2 stabilizing an object in the mind. The takeaway point for me was that attention structures consciousness.

Jan Westerhoff provided an overview of the theories of language in the Mahāyāna Buddhist Madhyamaka school of philosophy. Madhyamaka positioned its linguistic theory against the intrinsic assertions of the school of logic, Nyāya – namely that the word is mirrored in the world, that there is no word without a referent, and that each statement about an absence implies that it is present somewhere else. Madhyamaka rejected this intrinsic word-world relationship, by asserting that words can exist without referents, and that there can be absence without presence, reflecting the core Madhyamaka tenet of śūnyatā (emptiness). In the Madhyamaka rejection of ultimate truth and universals, conventional truth is seen as a kind of fiction. The other main school of Mahāyāna philosophy, Yogācāra, pushed these ideas further by jettisoning the distinction between the literal and the figurative and positing all language as figurative. The philosopher Vasubandhu rejected the ordinary view of language because it enforces a kind of dualism between subject and object that perpetuates saṃsāra, the realm of suffering.

These rich discussions of classical Indian philosophy sat within a wider frame of philosophical enquiry into attention and self. Jake Davis (NYU) gave a presentation about the NYU ‘Virtues of Attention’ research project from which the conference itself sprang. The project ‘investigates the role of attention in ethics, agency, and mind […] in the emerging field of cosmopolitan philosophy, in which insight into philosophical questions is derived by careful investigation of ideas from a plurality of distinct cultural locations’. (See: Elsewhere, Watzl (Oslo) argued that because attention entails agency, a theory of no-self, such as the Buddhists propose, is not plausible. How attention shapes consciousness shows why consciousness is unified, subjective, and something a subject can be aware of having. James Stazicker (Reading) focused on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of attention to reflect on problems of empiricism. The central problem is the reification of consciousness: if we model how we think about consciousness on how we think about things (i.e. if we believe that there are objects ‘in’ consciousness), we end up reifying consciousness. Amber Carpenter (Yale-NUS) discussed ethics in a Greek context and comparatively in Buddhaghoṣa’s philosophy to explore the idea that attention itself does the moral and transformative work rather than understanding.

Overall, the discussions between the papers were fruitful but, of course, the most interesting parts were the self-aware difficulties of initiating such cross-cultural philosophical dialogue. There was the problem of assumption for non-specialists. For example, Indian Buddhist philosophy cannot be spoken of as a timeless, universal philosophy – the philosophical purview changed significantly from the time of the historical Buddha to the 5th-centry Buddhaghoṣa, a period of approximately 1000 years. And Westerhoff’s talk demonstrated that even contemporaneous schools, such as Madhyamaka and Yogācāra, held a variety of differing positions on topics such as philosophy of language. Non-familiarity with other traditions also governed the question of how to adequately critique the Buddhist position of no-self if one’s training is in analytic philosophy and one doesn’t wish to appear reductive or simplistic. Equally, if one wants to relate the historical Buddhist philosophy of mind to contemporary cognitive science, one has to keep up with a complex and fast-moving field of scientific research. Although none of these complex questions was resolved on the day, it was an inspiring contribution to an emerging and potentially far-reaching conversation in western academia about the future of philosophy as cross-cultural dialogue.

[1] For background, see ‘If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is’ by Garfield and Van Norden May 11 2016. See also discussions on decolonizing the curriculum at SOAS, for example:

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