Jay Garfield: a Buddhist Philosopher speaks out (or howls) at fellow philosophers, academia, and perhaps the moon

Jay L. Garfield was interviewed by Richard Marshall for 3:AM Magazine, first published Friday, December 28th, 2012. (smith.edu)

Last week I came across an interview with one of the true mahātmās of the academic study of Buddhism, Jay L. Garfield, a man who has cleared – and continues to clear – the way for what we can only hope is a great deal more work to come at the intersection of philosophy, East and West.

If this photo doesn’t instill much confidence, scroll down to see the book covers of a selection of his published works. He has been working hard and very much deserves our attention.

In the interview Garfield first describes how he got into philosophy, and like many academics, it was a circuitous route. And it was only after several years as a ‘straight’ philosopher that he began to dabble into Buddhist stuff. But then things began to fall into place rather quickly.

Describing the state of the field of philosophy, Garfield is optimistic, but notes that there is still a long way to go:

People in our profession are still happy to treat Western philosophy as the “core” of the discipline, and as the umarked case. So, for instance, a course that addresses only classical Greek philosophy can be comfortably titled “Ancient Philosophy,” not “Ancient Western Philosophy,” and a course in metaphysics can be counted on to ignore all non-Western metaphysics…. It is simply irrational to ignore most of world philosophy in the pursuit of truth, and immoral to relegate any literature not written by Europeans as somehow beneath our dignity to read.

Continuing later he is asked again about the situation:

3:AM: One of the issues you raise is the ethics of approaches to intellectual and cultural traditions less powerful and less respected than the Western ones. How should we think about this?

JLG: Easy. Suppose that someone argued that the philosophical curriculum in their college could not include any texts by women, because there are just so many important books by men, and not enough time to address all of them, let alone to go on to read stuff by women, or that the faculty is not expert in women’s philosophy. He would be howled down not on the grounds that there are indeed not too many books by guys, but that given a history of sexism, it is immoral as well as irrational to ignore the contributions of women in the curriculum. But people get away with saying that their department can’t offer courses that address non-Western philosophy because they are struggling to cover the “core,” that students have so much Western philosophy to learn that they don’t have time to read the non-Western stuff, and that there are no specialists in non-Western philosophy in the department. In the wake of colonialism and in the context of racism, the only legitimate response is to howl them down.

Howl them down!

The full interview, with countless more gems on a range of topics, can be found here.

You can also find another great discussion by Garfield, on Buddhism in the West (English) / Buddhismus im Westen (German) / html link.

Lastly, I wanted to steal/borrow/share his three top 5 book recommendation lists (which I’ll add to my ‘books’ page above as well):

Scholarly work:
Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations
Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought
The Cowherds, Moonshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy
Dan Arnold, Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief
Bhikkhu Analayo, Satipaṭṭhāna

Primary Sources:
Nāgārjuna, Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way
Garfield and Edelglass, Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings
R.A.F. Thurman, The Holy Teachings of Vimalakīrti
C.W. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness (Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra)
Śāntideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Richard Hayes, The Land of No Buddha
Thubten Chodron, Taming the Monkey Mind
Stephen Batchelor, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist
John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism
Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy

Jay Garfield is Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Logic Program and of the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program at Smith College, Professor in the graduate faculty of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Professor of Philosophy at Melbourne University and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. (more)




Jays new book.jpg               



photo via smith.edu.

  • Guest

    I was just reading something by a neuroscientist about how studies show that White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) people “tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary,
    including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial
    reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits.”


    So, yeah, all this rubbish about “core” philosophy being what people like me and you grew up with is pretty silly :)

  • Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu

    I was just reading something by a neuroscientist about how studies show that White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) people “tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary,
    including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial
    reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits.”

    So, yeah, all this rubbish about “core” philosophy being what people like me and you grew up with is pretty silly :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/robert.m.ellis.1 Robert Michael Ellis

      You seem here to be confusing the distinctions of WEIRD/non-WEIRD with Buddhist/non-Buddhist. There are plenty of Buddhists who are WEIRD (as well as weird!) and thus no reason why Buddhist philosophy can’t be WEIRD as well as non-WEIRD.

      • http://www.facebook.com/bruno.galasek Bruno Galasek

        I always took ‘core curriculum’, with my limited understanding and view, to mean that it’s necessary to have a basis from which to go on exploring the satellites, or, for that matter, other ‘kernels’ out there. Like everything else in life, without having a basis everything is just ‘up in the air’, innit? In my view, to be WEIRD is not weird in itself (I’m happy to be WEIRD!), while to think that it would include any rights to dominate is surely mistaken … although happening …

        • justinwhitaker

          I agree, Bruno. But I think it’s worth re-examining what we think of as ‘core’, to hopefully include more from non-Western sources – just as we’ve begun (at last) to see that the thought/work of women is just as ‘core’ as that of men :)

          • http://www.facebook.com/bruno.galasek Bruno Galasek

            Ok-I’m up for it! But then it’s perhaps not a ‘core’ anymore … I know – I can be such a pain in the a** with my antiquated opinions… :-) (at least, rest assured that I’m not talking about woman here! ;-) )

      • Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu

        No, I was just pointing out that Western culture is far from being core anything as far as the human race goes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/huifeng.shi Shi Huifeng

    Hey, Justin!

    Another great post. I’ve always admired your combination of Buddhist studies and philosophy. While I’ve had an interest in the latter (in addition to the obvious specialization in the former), have never really been able to get into “philosophy” enough to write something that crosses the two.

    However, have been reading a bit more Western stuff of late, rather an odd assortment though, and primarily hermeneutics material. I’ve read about half of your three lists above, but do you have any other suggestions for someone in my situation?

    ~~ Huifeng

    • justinwhitaker

      Charles Taylor’s “Sources of the Self” is a monumental work in understanding and interpreting Western philosophy. Derek Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” is a favourite among analytically-minded Buddhists and a very good read in general. And maybe something by Foucault if you’re feeling rather adventurous :) People seem to love or hate him…

    • http://www.facebook.com/michael.schapers.5 Michael Schapers

      Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature also offers an original perspective for reflection on Western philosophy, using language rather than metaphysics as an anchor for reflection.

      • justinwhitaker

        Good call, Michael. It reminds me (though I haven’t read it) of Steven Collins book on “Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities” with its close examination of Buddhist language/metaphor, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.schapers.5 Michael Schapers

    Im all in favor of comprehensive global philosophical communication, but perhaps more than debating the ethical and rational validity of it, what the academic world needs most are practical solutions to advance this cause. The problem here, as I see it, is one of scale and specialization. A university (or any possible institution dealing with philosophical education and research) can only hire that much lecturers on a given budget, and students can only study that much topics in a given time. So selections unavoidably have to be made. Then it seems to me the institution has to chose between diversity and specialization, or balance the two, the one necessarily compromizing the other.

    • http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com/ elisa freschi

      Good point, Michael. Nonetheless, I wonder how often specialization in Indian, Buddhist, Chinese… philosophy is even mentioned among the desired requirements in a job advertisement. Even better would be to read the usual labels (Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind, etc.) with the addition “in any intellectual tradition”.

      • justinwhitaker

        Agreed, Elisa. Every department I have looked at has it’s “must have” list (usually consisting of a Metaphysics/Epistemology specialist, a Modern Philosophy person, and an Ancient Philosophy person) -all “Western.” After that perhaps a Continental philosopher and a 19th/20th century specialist, and so on. The question is “Why” *these* specializations and not non-Western ones. The (imho ignorant) answer in the past has been largely “Influence.” Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein have all had “tremendous influence” on Western thought, while the Buddha, Lao Tzu, etc have had little or none. As we learn more about the historical trade in ideas, we see that this is false. And, as we see the growing contemporary influence of Asia in the world, we *should* see that understanding who influenced *them* is just as important…

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.m.ellis.1 Robert Michael Ellis

    I applaud Garfield’s analogy with gender; and the photo, far from reducing my confidence in him, increases it considerably. However, what I have read of his work seems rather disappointingly limited to me, because it sticks to the two truths structure of Nagarjuna and (as far as I have read) does not really get to grips with what non-dualism means in practice.
    There is also another kind of Western prejudice which his remarks do not cover: that of studying Buddhism in terms of pre-formed Western scholarly or philosophical categories, rather than understanding its philosophy in the pragmatic terms of its practice. I think that kind of perspectival threat to the study of Buddhist ideas is a much bigger threat than the fact that many institutions merely ignore them, because it gives people the impression that they’re studying something of practical value when they’re probably just re-hashing Western ideas and giving them a superficially Buddhist appearance. Reliance on such categories can often form an unholy alliance with Eastern Buddhist traditionalism.

    • justinwhitaker

      This is a good point, Robert; it’s a problem that I hope is becoming smaller and smaller with time and further discussion. There has to be some give and take. The Buddha used preformed philosophical categories all the time – but he showed their limits at times and redefined them at others, while others he seems to have taken at face-value. The same happened later in India with renewed conversations with (proto)-Hinduism, and again in Tibet, China, etc… Good philosophers in the West will still inevitably begin with Western categories, but there is a process of showing how Buddhists (and others) stretched, re-defined, etc those very categories. We still debate the definition(s) of basic terms like metaphysics and ethics; and with additional Buddhist and other non-Western insights I think we will continue these discussions.

  • Douglass Smith

    Let’s recall that with the publication of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Aṇguttara Nikāya in 2012 we only just now have the main body of the Sutta Piṭaka in good, modern translations. All the Khuddaka Nikāya? The Abhidhamma/Abhidharma? Perhaps someone knows better than I.

    Modern philosophy departments have two divisions: those doing philosophy proper, and those doing history of philosophy. Even getting a single person doing history of Asian philosophy in most major departments would be a coup, and sorely necessary. But for Buddhist philosophy really one needs an expert on the early material and Theravāda, a Tibetan expert, perhaps an expert on the Chinese Mahāyāna, and so on. Nobody can be expert in all. One also needs Brahminic/Hindu philosophy, Jainism, Confucianism, Daoism, and so on. And that’s in departments that are likely having trouble even keeping the same staffing! In that case, which Western specialist(s) will they drop?

    Those doing philosophy proper aren’t interested in history except as it can illuminate current issues. In this, people like Owen Flanagan and Derek Parfit are doing a good job, if at a relatively generalist level. So it’s starting, and I’m sure it’ll get better in time.

    • justinwhitaker

      In my watching of the job market, China – under various titles (pre-modern China, modern, Chinese Religions, and East-Asian Buddhism) – is getting a lot of attention of late, but of course all of this is outside of philosophy departments. (To be fair though, I haven’t looked at philosophy department jobs in a few years.) So I think universities are responding to the awareness that an educated Westerner SHOULD know about China in some form or another; just as they did in the early 2000s with a burst of hirings in Islam under various titles.

      I agree that it will be a LONG time before we see a philosophy department with any real breadth (4 or more scholars) in Eastern philosophies. But we can hope, and push, and shout, and howl…

      I have heard that there has been some push at SUNY Binghamton, which now has Charles Goodman, a very good Buddhist Philosopher, to hire a second philosopher in Buddhism (or perhaps any Asian Philosophy); which would, I believe, make it the #1 philosophy department in the world for such studies… This was a while back though and AFAIK nothing ever came of it; but things are happening…