gimme hammers tongs & wedges: Hegelian stranglehold on the historiography of Buddhist thought

Along with the other problems of the treatment of Buddhist thought as philosophy—an increasingly popular intellectual pastime it seems—the Hegelian historiography of philosophy still acts as “an intellectual style” of thinking about the history of philosophy, a style persistent and widespread enough to apparently be largely invisible. Since Hegel the history of philosophy has frequently been written in terms of abstracted “positions” and the relations between those described in terms of the inadequacy of one being overcome by the next. The dialectic dynamic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis constitutes a narrative structure and in doing so creates the appearance of causality. (on the implication of causality by narrative structuring, see Richard K. Payne, “The Path from Metaphor to Narrative” [yes, that is an intentional pun] Pacific World, third series, no. 16 (2014), 29–48.) Hegel’s concept of this pattern as constituting a three part progression of Geist as a transhistorical phenomenon is no longer explicitly cited as the rationale for the narrative structure as a method of analysis, an indication that the need for justification is no longer felt, that is, the dialectic pattern has become naturalized, taken for granted, unseen and unthought. In this way the narrative structure itself has ossified into a set of unconscious habits of thought (no that is not self-contradictory) that function as the skeleton upon which representations of philosophy—or in our case here, Buddhist thought—are enfleshed by writers.

While today writing the history of philosophy may have changed from the way I learned it so many years ago (I admit to not being au courant with the field, sorry), the Hegelian habit lingers strongly enough to influence some significant portion of the writing about the history of Buddhist thought as philosophy.

Loosely, one might find for example:

The Middle Way school initially arose as a reaction to the realist position of the Higher Teachings. This resulted from crystallizing the main thrust of the Perfection of Wisdom, providing it with an explicitly philosophical expression. However, Middle Way philosophy itself had a negative, and abstract character, in response to which the Buddha-Embryo school arose as a positive reaction against that negativity. In this fashion, the Buddha-Embryo school’s teachings were of a more practical nature, one based on concrete metaphors in more everyday language than the abstractions of the Middle Way school. And lastly, the Idealist school’s approach was synthetic, resolving the inherent theoretical problems of Buddha-Embryo, Middle Way, and Higher Teachings, and by synthesizing these, at the same time simultaneously satisfying the constraints found in their philosophic positions.

My concern is both with the specifics of the pattern of “development” described—the character of each “school” and the dynamics of the relation between them—but also, and I believe conceptually more fundamental, with the pattern of development as such. There are in other words three levels involved in a full analysis of this historiographic style: elements, relations, and patterns. The elements are the individual schools, then there are the relations between the schools, and finally the overall pattern of schools in relation to one another. Employing this Hegelian pattern, which interprets the history of thought as an oscillating progressive development, requires creating an abstract characterization of each “school,” imposes a specific relational dynamics between each school’s philosophic “position” and the philosophic positions of the preceding and subsequent schools, and lastly sets out the relations between elements in an overall progressive pattern of stepwise improvement. This is not intended to say that this is conscious, much less malicious. Rather it is the field’s own discursive style that—repeated time and again—becomes the invisible norm.

Each level of an Hegelian historiography is problematic—

ELEMENT, 1. selective abstraction: a certain set of characteristic views or positions are abstracted from any number of actual writings, and selected in order to meet the needs of an Hegelian historiography,

ELEMENT, 2. reconstitution: those views or positions that have been selected for abstraction are knit together to create the semblance of coherence, but only to the extent that

ELEMENT, 3. promotion: the reconstituted representation can then be promoted to the status of the essential teachings of the reconstituted (i.e., synthesized) “school”;

[note: at this point the actualities of specific thinkers and their texts are sometimes left behind, and it seems that once one is operating within this historiographic project there is little to constrain the representation created other than the apparent coherence of the position reconstituted, constraint can only be provided by moving outside the Hegelian historiographic project as such]

RELATION, 4. attributing motivation: each “school” is then portrayed as “arising” in response to the shortcomings of a preceding school—which is why the selection of characteristics that meet the demands of a dialectic pattern is a critical factor for creating a plausible narrative, and why this then often constitutes a petitio principii fallacy: characteristics have already been selected/highlighted that fit the demands of the patterning being imposed

PATTERN, 5. progressive developmental schema: these different “schools” are then organized so as to create the overall historiographic pattern of successively more adequate philosophic schools

The Hegelian approach is intellectually satisfying as it provides a coherent overall schema for viewing the history of philosophy. I clearly recall how, in the two semester history of philosophy course I took as an undergrad, the sense of progressive development gave the course a sense of narrative coherence from the pre-Socratics through to the Existentialists (this was the 70s). The appearance of meaningful coherence given to each putative school, however, presumes the concerns and issues of philosophy as the criteria for selection, rather than those of the individuals involved. Thus, for example, Pythagoras’ injunction to eat beans is dismissed as an odd idiosyncracy in relation to what is taken as his important contribution, rather than being located as part of his concerns with how to live of which geometry was itself a part (or at least, that is how an alternative understanding of Pythagoras might be constructed). More relevant to our concerns here are the sometimes prima facie arguments and sometimes circular arguments regarding the “two Nāgārjunas” or “two Vasubandhus.” (for a critique of the latter, see Jonathan Gold, Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy, Columbia, 2015). Similarly, recent work on the relation between Madhyamaka and Yogācāra (beginning as far as I know with the work of Gadjin Nagao, continuing through Ian Harris’ work, that of Elena Hanson, and up to the recent collection ed. by Garfield and Westerhoff) has similarly called into question not just the opposition of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra, but also for this reader the casting of the two as a developmental sequence.

Misplaced agency is a fallacy that easily follows from such abstracting, and is found pervasively through this kind of historiography, as well as in other contexts. It is often a relatively harmless fallacy, being just a way of speaking, such as “In this chapter we will examine the key philosophical concepts by which Mahāyāna sought to set itself off from the Abhidharma movement” (Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, Hackett, 2007: p. 138. Siderits’ work is chosen as an example only because it happens to be at hand. Wendi Adamek is currently working on her own treatment of these issues in interpreting Yogācāra as part of a major new work. She kindly shared her thoughts on these matters with me, and our critiques are very parallel to one another. She draws on Dan Lusthaus’ work in contrast to my own attention here to that of Jonathan Gold. I wish to thank her for generously sharing an early draft of her work in progress.).

This kind of characterization is still, however, a fallacy as schools (or whatever other term of generalization may be used) do not do anything—in this instance, “Mahāyāna” is an abstraction and does not have the agency to seek to set itself off from abhidharma. In other words, schools don’t think, they don’t evaluate, they don’t judge, they don’t create, they don’t uphold, they don’t assert, they don’t do any so on and so on and so on. Only people actually do those things. In ordinary usage such expressions are relatively uninteresting, however in the historiography of philosophy, individuals writing specific works in response to specific issues of concern to them disappear under the abstraction—an abstraction that facilitates the causal dynamics of the Hegelian narrative, rather than a representative understanding. Subtly, the criteria has shifted to creating a satisfying narrative, rather than an accurate representation.

Although in isolation, such as the one just cited, the stylistic may be relatively harmless. However, as it becomes repeated (“Mahāyāna did not portray itself as innovative,” ibid.), the author establishes authority to characterize the abstraction. Thus, we find “Mahāyāna defines itself in terms of two key ideas: the bodhisattva ideal, and the doctrine of emptiness” (ibid., p. 142). It is not Mahāyāna that defines itself in this fashion, for Mahāyāna is an abstraction lacking the agency of self-definition, and in this case specifically the abstraction is one created by Siderits. In other words it is Siderits who chooses to define Mahāyāna in this fashion, but by using the expression that he does (“Mahāyāna defines itself…”) he obscures his own role in creating, or repeating this characterization of Mahāyāna. Implicitly he is asserting authority over the abstraction, but acting as if what he has written is just a matter of simple reportage—a rhetorical strategy known as deferring authority, that is claiming the authority of the tradition itself, and concealing his own role. In doing so, he does not have to justify this characterization, for after all, it is supposedly Mahāyāna’s own characterization of itself (oh, but remember, an abstraction such as “Mahāyāna” has no agency, and therefore cannot characterize itself).

We mentioned above the way in which the developmental sequence imposes specific characteristics onto the descriptions of the schools. Representative of this is Siderits’ treatment of Yogācāra as the response to the idea of emptiness, “The Yogācāra school represents one way of trying to make sense of that doctrine. It does this by developing a theory that denies the existence of external objects” (ibid., 146). It is suggestive in this regard that he chooses to treat Yogācāra and Madhyamaka out of chronological order. He justifies this on the grounds that Yogācāra is more continuous with abhidharma—”Yogācāra philosophy represents an extension of the Abhidharma project….once we have understood what Abhidharma is all about, we will have little problem seeing what Yogācārin philosophers are up to” (146). This makes evident that the structure is imposed by Siderits on the basis of his conceptions of what is important about these schools, and the relations between them. Selecting the bodhisattva ideal and emptiness as the defining characteristics of the Mahāyāna (142) is part of imposing a particular narrative sequence, the next step of which is to claim that “the philosophically most important of the new Mahāyāna ideas is the doctrine of emptiness” (146). Later, he treats Yogācāra as a kind of half-measure in relation to emptiness: “In the last chapter we examined how Yogācāra tried to defend this doctrine [emptiness] by giving it an idealist reinterpretation. It is now time to see whether the doctrine of emptiness is philosophically defensible when taken literally” (180). This is indeed a reversal from the explanation that the understanding of Madhyamaka emptiness as nihilistic is what led to the proposal of a more positive understanding.

The selection of emptiness as the narrative thematic is not only rationale for the ahistorical ordering of Yogācāra before Madhyamaka, but distorts the representation of Yogācāra as such. Rather than considering Yogācāra on its own terms, Yogācāra is reduced to “one way of trying to make sense” of emptiness, and does so he tells us “by developing a theory that denies the existence of external objects” (146). This latter, and indeed sententious assertion is the basis for Siderits joining the ranks of those who identify Yogācāra with Western philosophic idealism, as represented by George Berkeley (we also encounter the oft-repeated tale of Samuel Johnson claiming to refute Berkeley by kicking a stone). Despite the questionable nature of this equating of Yogācāra and Berkeley’s subjective idealism (an instance of an interpretive move not uncommon in philosophic treatments of Buddhist thought), it does serve a grist for the Hegelian mill grinding toward Madhyamaka—in this case the assertion that “Yogācārins like Vasubandhu will pick up where the Sautrāntikas left off” (148), by which he means the theory of representationalism (all we know are representations, not external objects).

Although the chapter is putatively about Yogācāra, Siderits focuses exclusively on Vasubandhu’s two texts, the Twenty Verses and the Thirty Verses, along with Vasubandhu’s autocommentary on the first, and Sthiramati’s commentary on the second. While the detailed discussion and extensive quotations are beneficial for examining the details of Vasubandhu’s thought, the reader is only introduced to these two texts by Vasubandhu, and Siderits’ interpretation of Vasubandhu is not qualified—but simply asserted as true of Vasubandhu’s thought, and that Siderits’ Vasubandhu is Yogācāra. For example, Asaṅga only appears in a cameo role as Vasubandhu’s brother, and neither the relevant sutras nor the five Maitreya texts receive consideration. Siderits’ claim that Yogācāra developed “a theory that denies the existence of external objects” (146) emerges as an unsubstantiated and nuance-free generalization to the entirety of the tradition on the basis of only two of Vasubandhu’s works as interpreted through the lens of Western philosophical idealism. Even the existence of alternative interpretations is only mentioned in the “Further Reading” section (179), and there only in passing. No mention is made, for example, of Anacker’s claim that

Perhaps no work of Vasubandhu’s has been more consistently misunderstood than The Twenty Verses. It has frequently been used as an authoritative source for opinions that are in fact not even there. The main point here is not that consciousness unilaterally creates all forms in the universe, as has been supposed by Dharmapāla and Hsüan-tsang, but rather that an object-of-consciousness is “internal”, ,and the “external” stimuli are only inferrable.* (*Vasubandhu admits the possibility of the necessity of external stimuli in his Mahāyānasaṅgrahabhāsya, where he says, “A visual consciousness arises dependent on a visible and the eye, together with the store-consciousness.” [“de la (kun gzhi) rnam par shes pa dang bcas pa’i mig dang gzugs rnams la brten nas mig gi rnam par shes pa ‘byung ste /”], Mahāyānasaṅgrahabhāsya, Peking/Tokyo ed. Tibetan Canon, vol. 112, p. 275, 4, 3.)

Stefan Anacker, Seven Works of Vasubandhu: The Buddhist Psychological Doctor, p. 159

(In relation to Siderits’ claim that Yogācāra “denies the existence of external objects, see also Jonathan Gold, “No Outside, No Inside: Duality, Reality, and Vasubandhu’s Illusory Elephant,” Asian Philosophy, 16.1 [2006], 1–38.)

Thus, we have in Siderits’ interpretation of Yogācāra thought as philosophy an example of the five components of constructing a Hegelian historiography of Buddhist thought as philosophy: (1) selection, (2) reconstitution, (3) promotion, (4) attributing motivation and (5) construction of a schema of progressive development. As part of his overall narrative trajectory constructed around the topic of emptiness, Siderits has selected that part of Vasubandhu’s thought that fits best with his narrative, reconstituted it as a version of Western philosophical idealism à la Berkeley, and this reconstituted interpretation is then promoted to the status of representing the entirety of the Yogācāra school. Interpreting emptiness is attributed to Yogācāra as its motivation, and the school is placed in a developmental sequence following abhidharma, and preceding Madhyamaka.

In addition to the problematics of the steps involved, an additional problem consequent upon this style of writing is to marginalize those thinkers and texts which do not fit into the artificial abstraction. As noted above, Asaṅga and Maitreya are marginalized, and even texts by Vasubandhu that do not fit Siderits’ characterization of Yogācāra are ignored as well, such as his commentary on the Mahāyānasaṅgraha as noted by Anacker above. If instead of Yogācāra the focus is, say, the development of the Pure Land school in China, someone like Lushan Huiyuan may well be ignored as not fitting into the mainline position taken as the school’s essential teaching—despite the latter actually having been created some centuries later. Or perhaps even worse, may be represented as an early and inadequate articulation of the essential teachings of the Pure Land school. The circularity of the logic here should be made obvious: if Huiyuan’s version of Pure Land had been adequate, continuing development would have been neither necessary nor possible. Although circular, the argument would be that since “development” did continue, Huiyuan’s version must have been inadequate. (the circularity is not formal, but rather in the conceptualizations of key terms such as development and adequacy)

Three objections might be raised against this critique (or at least three that I can think of, no doubt someone more clever than I can come up with more). First, Buddhist thinkers themselves engaged in this kind of abstracting of philosophic views to constitute a representation of a school. Second, there were intra-school polemics in which the inadequacies of an opposing school were highlighted. Third, that the progressive pattern constructed in the historiography of Buddhist thought as philosophy simply represents the natural self-corrective process of philosophic reflection.

First and second. Here one can call attention specifically to the kinds of doctrinal surveys called “presentations of tenets” (Skt. reconstructed as siddhāntavyavasthāpana, Tib. grub mtha’i rnam bzhag, or grub mtha for short; see Jeffrey Hopkins, “The Tibetan Genre of Doxography: Structuring a Worldview,” in Cabezón and Jackson, eds., Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, Snow Lion 1996). Though most recent attention has been given to the Tibetan instances of this literature, there are also instances found in East Asia, such as Gyōnen’s Hasshūkōyō (trans. as “The Essentials of the Eight Traditions,” available from BDKAmerica).

Some such works are organized into progressive sequences, with schools being represented by generalizations, that is abstracted from specific authors and texts. (I was first introduced to this literature by Herbert Guenther’s Buddhist Philosophy in Theory and Practice while a student at the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley when that was a recent publication.) It is worth noting, however, that the way in which such characterizations are constructed is in terms of the concerns of Buddhist thought, rather than those of Western philosophy. Similarly, it is the problems within Buddhist thought itself that determine the inadequacies identified as requiring resolution. For example, the first chapter of the Mahāyānasaṅgraha seems much more concerned with the inability of abhidharma theories to explain breaks in conscious awareness, while giving no attention to the issue of emptiness, which Siderits makes the central issue for Yogācāra. Despite presentations of tenets being written in terms of a process of critique and response, this level of similarity with a Hegelian historiography of philosophy does not justify ignoring the differences in the abstracted generalizations about schools, or the specific motivating problematics taken as determinative of a narrative of progress.

More fundamentally, just because an analogy can be asserted between the Hegelian historiography of philosophy and emic Buddhist historiographies does not mean that either provide a sound technology for comprehension. While treating Buddhist thought as philosophy may impose concerns or issues not inherent to the tradition, the polemical function of presentations of tenets makes them correspondingly problematic. We cannot simply treat them simply as “textbook” presentations of the schools of thought described. For example, when Gelugpa presentations of tenets place Madhyamaka in its Prāsaṅgika form as the highest, this is not without polemic effect.

Third is the claim that the progressive pattern of Hegelian historiography reflects the natural process of self-correction of knowledge. For example, it might be claimed that including tathāgatagarbha in the first instance suggested above creates a more adequate portrayal of the development of Buddhist philosophy than did older systematizations that failed to include it. The problem that I am trying to point out here, however, is actually more fundamental—the schema itself is flawed and changing the pieces that make it up will not undo that flaw. It is not, in other words, that additional elements need to be added, or that the descriptions of individual elements need to be improved, or that the relations between elements need to be revised. Contrary to the impression given, those are derivative from imposing an overall progressive pattern.

That is, when written as history, the “natural” interpretation is to read the structure as being based on the elements and built up through their relations to the overall pattern. Despite this appearance, one that suggests that the history written is an empirical project, the dialectic pattern remains invariant and determines the way in which the elements and their relations are portrayed. The fact that the representations include empirical material, such as Siderits’ extensive quotations from Vasubandhu, does not change this determinative relation—because that material is included as a consequence of selection, which is itself being guided by the narrative structure of dialectical progress. As long as the dialectic, progressive pattern is presumed, the elements and relations will be formulated so as to make the pattern work.

Imposing a narrative of progressive adequacy may be very intellectually satisfying, but such satisfaction is not to be mistaken for accuracy of understanding. Similarly, subsuming Buddhist thought under the rubrics of philosophy tends to privilege the concerns, issues and even terminology that is already familiar, whether accurate or not. Of course, we can only approach Buddhist thought from our own intellectual culture, but the goal should be to become consciously reflective on that intellectual culture, rather than simply presuming that it is unproblematically universal.


6 thoughts on “gimme hammers tongs & wedges: Hegelian stranglehold on the historiography of Buddhist thought

  1. Pingback: R. K. Payne: About Hegelian Historiography | The Non-Buddhist

  2. I read this with a few gulps. Guilty as charged. I started to be aware of these background meta-narratives (e.g. evolution is a tree that branches) some time ago, but here is another powerful example I had not even considered!

    Do you know of any examples of Buddhist history writing that avoid this Hegelian trap?

    • Dear Jayarava, Thank you for your query. As they say, that’s a very good question. Unfortunately, I don’t have an immediate answer. As it is a current topic for me, I will continue to work on the question. My own start on this kind of reflection is reflected in the introduction to Re-Visioning “Kamakura” Buddhism (Univ. of Hawai’i, 1998), where I formulated the concept of retrospectivist historiography as a way of talking about how history is written from the perspective of the present, rather than in terms of the events and meanings at a particular time. Thus, “Kamakura” Buddhism being reduced to Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren (the forms found today), ignoring the ongoing importance of Tendai and Shingon. This was itself influenced by people who were influenced by the work of Kuroda Toshio. As for more general histories, well…I believe that is a desideratum. yours, Richard

  3. Pingback: Genealogy, Abstraction, Non-Buddhism. | The Non-Buddhist

  4. Pingback: My distrust of doctrine, and why you should distrust it, too. | Richard K. Payne

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