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Brains, Buddhas, and BelievingReview - Brains, Buddhas, and Believing
The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind
by Dan Arnold
Columbia University Press, 2012
Review by Diana Soeiro
Feb 19th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 8)

We could say that this book is the realm of Philosophy of Religions and though that would not be a lie, Dan Arnold's strategy to approach the topic, has the effect of largely exceeding the initial presupposed subject scope. Philosophy of Religions frequently deals with establishing comparisons between two or more different religions, trying to show what characteristics they share, which beliefs they disagree on, etc. Perhaps due to the familiarity with the method of comparing, commonly practiced in Arnold's area of expertise, his new book title aims at comparing a major Indian Buddhist thinker, Dharmakīrti (ca. 7th century), with contemporary philosophy of mind main thesis'. Not only that, but also, on the way, to distinguish Dharmakīrti's views from other two Indian Buddhists thinkers, Nāgārjuna (ca. 150-250 AC) -- and Candrakīrti (600-c. 650); and also, identifying different perspectives on specific concepts by different Western philosophers that have contributed to philosophy of mind (in particular Jerry Fodor (b.1935)). The end result is a book clearly conceived for a scholarly audience. 

Dan Arnold (b.1965) is an Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Religions in the Divinity School (The University of Chicago). His previous, and first book, Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2005), has won the American Academy of Religion's Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in 2007. The current book confirms his acknowledged expertise on Indian Buddhist philosophy. Still, the disputes it tries to unravel are relevant in an academic environment only. Like any other field of study, Philosophy has trends, and since the mid-1990s, philosophy of mind has become one of them; in the late 1990s, cognitive sciences became also an important key area. Philosophy of Religions became therefore an area where it would be predictable that it would come to use the strategy of comparing, incorporating references to philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences. And this is the gap Arnold's new book successfully fills.   

Throughout the book, Arnold proceeds to a constant, detailed and methodical translation of Buddhist Indian thinking concepts into contemporary philosophy of mind concepts. As the author himself states: "[t]he central premise of this book, then, is that we can learn some important things about the conceptual "deep structure" of what is arguably the dominant trajectory of Indian Buddhist thought […] by understanding these significantly divergent traditions of thought as facing some of the same philosophical problems [as contemporary philosophy of mind]" (pp.6--8). When we speak of translation, we do not refer simply to the act of translating words, but mostly of translating as an attempt to approach Indian Buddhist thinking to philosophy of mind operating concepts.

At the core center of all comparisons is the concept of intentionality. Though the concept is a familiar one "to students of continental phenomenology and Anglo-American philosophy of mind" (p.7), the understanding of intentionally in Arnold's book, is that of Anglo-American philosophy of mind, which means that a continental phenomenology student will not be pleased with the book's approach. At most, he/she will be able to learn how intentionality reads as an operational concept in the realm of philosophy of mind.

To put it briefly, intention is something that corresponds to a mental event (like thinking or believing) and that can be said to have a mental representation. To some, that mental representation can substitute "some linguistic item" (p.7) -- that's why nowadays philosophy of mind almost became the same as philosophy of language. On the other side, there are those (as Brentano) who defend that the content of an intention is distinctive of mental events (because these have content in themselves) and therefore what we can say about something can only refer to its "aboutness", to its surroundings. To reflect on intentionally, Arnold approaches the apoha doctrine, literally, "exclusion", and a central concept that proves Indian Buddhist trait of its concern with language, semantic content and means ie. "the referent of the word cow can be explained simply as excluding whatever is a not a non-cow" (p.119); and self-awareness (Svasamvitti), closely related with the concept of "self". Arnold explores an understanding of intentionality where philosophy of mind almost coincides with philosophy of language and not Brentano's.

And perhaps this option explains my general impression on the book: Arnold's effort to clarify language (word use) both by Indian Buddhism and philosophers of mind, instead of promoting an encounter between both units -- where the problems addressed would end up arising as the most predominant trait -- generates a kind of abstraction where the parallel between Indian Buddhism and philosophy of mind comes out as skewed, and "common problems" that both units have addressed, appear not to be common at all. Even if the aim is to state that both units intend the same, and even assuming that they do have a similar goal, the paths that lead to it can be very different and, perhaps, untranslatable. Therefore, the book offers well-researched and detailed information (and in this sense it can be valuable) but not knowledge. Still, it can be useful to philosophers of mind who take interest in starting to establish a relation with Indian Buddhist thought.


© 2013 Diana Soeiro


Diana Soeiro (b. 1978). Philosophy, PhD (2011). Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Institute for Philosophy of Language/ New University of Lisbon. Updated information:


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