Piatigorsky: on dichotomies

Chris J Macie, modified 5 Years ago.

Piatigorsky: on dichotomies

Posts: 863 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
Below a couple of pages from Alexander Piatigorsky's The Philosophy of Buddhist Thought (1984)

Not easy to read, and content probably not to everyone's taste, but relevant in ways:

1) touches some themes that crop-up frequently in Dho, and specifically in the current thread: Thanissaro
Against Non-duality
http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/view_message/5806662#_19_message_5806662 ;

2) an elaborate simile – the open-system sphere – that reminds me of DhO itself;

3) Piatigorsky is what I consider a "hardcore" phenomenologist, and exemplifies that kind of analysis in this writing (and refers to Husserl, the father of phenomenology). Also it's rather dense and unusual grammatically – he was native Russian, but fluent in a dozen or so other languages, both modern European and ancient classical languages;

4) just a change-of-pace in DhO type posts.

From the 1st essay – "A THEORETICAL INTRODUCTION", pp. 12-13
(a couple of places have foot/endnote numbers after sentences; the notes are included at the end)

1.7. The picture of the Teaching as given to us in the Suttas (variegated as it may look), contains one very strange thing, and it is in this that Buddhism differs from Christianity most and first of all. In Christianity the idea of Religion itself (Church as Wisdom Embodied, Church as His Body or His Bride, etc.) was endowed with cosmic dimensions, while in Buddhism the Buddha was conceived as the Observer of the Cosmos of Dharma.19 The duality of 'Transcendent-Immanent' is not applicable to Buddhism at all, for such a duality cannot exist without a concept of God as the Absolute Personality. For, when applied to the Buddhas, the very concept of 'person', 'individual', or 'personality' remains very problematic, and can be treated only in the context of a given concrete text, episode or situation (see Essays 3 and 4).

My conjecture is that it is this idea of Observer which has made of Buddhism an open system to which all criteria applied to close systems are inapplicable.20  Speaking figuratively, we may imagine an open system as a sphere with innumerable 'holes' through which one can make observations of its inside. Or, we may imagine that each of these 'holes' is the Observer Himself, for a 'hole' can be thought of as a position of observation only as far as there is an Observer at it.

Or, we can also imagine that a position of observation and an Observer are the same. Then let us imagine that each and every point within this sphere can happen to be a point of observation, becoming thereby a place wherefrom the whole system might be seen from the outside, so that the very opposition, 'outside-inside' would be made irrelevant or meaningless. And let us, finally, imagine that each and every sentient being (sattva) is such a potential 'hole' or 'point of  observation', and that all incalculable Buddhas are the actual 'holes', 'points of observation', which belong to this system, and do not belong to it, at one and the same time. And then, i.e., if looked at from this angle of an open system, Buddhism would be seen as the place where all categories are changing their meaning not because of the 'dialectics' of Buddhist methodology, but because of observations and observers interchanging their places and shifting from one point to another.

1.8. One may only conjecture as to whether or not the problem of subject in Buddhism could be considered outside an ordinary and habitual opposition 'object/subject'. One can, however, state with all certainty that a proposition like 'a puggala ('person') is the subject of thinking' would indicate that the character and the context ('situation') of such a proposition is absolutely objective. And if we turn from 'thinking' to 'text' or, more exactly, 'a text of the Buddha', we see that His 'I' (not Self or atta) cannot be stated as the subject of this text. Because, as in Husserl, 'I' is neither suspended nor dismissed but remains here as a formal and totally objective condition of this text's being. Even to Husserl it is not a man (or his mentality) who is subject to laws of consciousness, but consciousness itself. For when we say 'our cognition of consciousness' or 'our awareness of action', we treat ourselves as agents, i.e., as subjects of a phenomenal activity (as it was stated in 1.2.1 about the ancient Abhidhammists). Whereas when we think of consciousness itself - there can be no agent there, and there can be no 'subject of' ... in the sense other than 'agent'. This applies not only to consciousness itself but also to all its derivations and interpretations.

When classical hermeneutics (Heidegger, Gadamer) dismisses the author of a text, it is not aware of what it dismisses, for to it author = agent = subject = 'I', whereas to a 'free phenomenologist' a text can be reduced ('reducted') to the thinking which, if observed externally, would be seen as a unique fact of consciousness only nominally (i.e., in the sense of nama-rupa) attributable to a 'person', and in no way to an 'I'. The last will remain as no more than a term of conventional description of mental states which correspond or, rather, may have corresponded to this fact of consciousness. Therefore, we can say, anticipating the content or Essay 4 (4.1) that though the dharmas are object of thought, this does not entail the thought being their subject. And all this in turn shows that the terms 'object' and 'subject' are used here not as opposed to one another, but as belonging to a meta-theory which is not based on this or any other binary opposition.21


19 Here we have been confronted with the question of 'Absolute Objectivity' in a religion. Marco Pallis (1964) very ingeniously suggests that in  Buddhism it is 'the uncreated' or 'incomposite' (asankhata, asamskrta) that figures as the symbol of this objectivity.

20 To a certain extent 'observer' here is opposed to 'creator' in Christianity and Judaism.

21 From this it inevitably follows that no single opposition, however general or abstract, could be used not only in describing Buddhism but even in describing one's understanding thereof. And nowhere is this 'binary inability' to understand oneself in relation to Buddhism shown clearer than in Levi-Strauss. He wrote (1976, p. 540): 'This religion of non-knowledge is not based on our inability to understand. It bears witness to that ability and raises us to a pitch at which we can discover the truth in the form of a mutual exclusiveness of being and knowledge ... It reduces the metaphysical problem to one of human behaviour - a distinction it shares only with Marxism'. Here he failed to understand that the very human behaviour is reduced in Buddhism to consciousness which is no knowledge, that knowledge figures as no more than a way of understanding the consciousness, and that being does not count as a transcendental category at all. In this connection, L. Kolakowski (1982, p. 42) is subjectively much nearer to what can be called 'an authentic European understanding of Buddhism' when he writes : ' ... a Buddhist contemplative is capable of saying "I do not exist" and of literally meaning it; an utterance which Christians ... would normalIy understand only in a metaphorical way ... ' In stating this, he, unlike Levi-Strauss, seems to be able to grasp that there are two (at least) ways of the understanding of 'non-existence', which cannot be worded in the context and in terms of one religious postulate.
Mark, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Piatigorsky: on dichotomies

Posts: 550 Join Date: 7/24/14 Recent Posts
The idea of "consciousness itself" seems to be an asumption that there is something different from experience. One of the best insights I've seen coming from the scientific study of consciousness is the idea that awareness & consciousness are just more experiences.

I can't see any problem with that approach, so basically there are qualia (e.g. the color blue) and one type of qualia is what we call consciousness. I don't see adding a notion of consciousness as something different than an experience explains things. This points toward stripping it away as unneccessary complication.

Of course this does not help science explain qualia (the "hard" problem) but it reduces two problems "what is the color blue?" and "what is consciousness?" down to one common problem.

This does pose a serious issue for those claiming consciousness is something other than just another experience. It make sense to me that the concept of consciousness is layed over the experience to try and reason about it "it must come from somewhere". So we can see consciousness as a concept mapped to just another experience.