Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy

Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy

Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy

Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy


What turns the continuous flow of experience into perceptually distinct objects? Can our verbal descriptions unambiguously capture what it is like to see, hear, or feel? How might we reason about the testimony that perception alone discloses? Christian Coseru proposes a rigorous and highly original way to answer these questions by developing a framework for understanding perception as a mode of apprehension that is intentionally constituted, pragmatically oriented, and causally effective. By engaging with recent discussions in phenomenology and analytic philosophy of mind, but also by drawing on the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Coseru offers a sustained argument that Buddhist philosophers, in particular those who follow the tradition of inquiry initiated by Dign'ga and Dharmak'rti, have much to offer when it comes to explaining why epistemological disputes about the evidential role of perceptual experience cannot satisfactorily be resolved without taking into account the structure of our cognitive awareness.

Perceiving Realityexamines the function of perception and its relation to attention, language, and discursive thought, and provides new ways of conceptualizing the Buddhist defense of the reflexivity thesis of consciousness-namely, that each cognitive event is to be understood as involving a pre-reflective implicit awareness of its own occurrence. Coseru advances an innovative approach to Buddhist philosophy of mind in the form of phenomenological naturalism, and moves beyond comparative approaches to philosophy by emphasizing the continuity of concerns between Buddhist and Western philosophical accounts of the nature of perceptual content and the character of perceptual consciousness.


If one is impressed by the irreducible uniqueness of mental life, and yet happens to be a natu
ralist, or even a physicalist, one would want to carve out a niche within the heart of one’s
naturalism in order to find a place secure enough for the intentional

(Mohanty 1986: 505)

“The mind,” Hume once argued, “can never exert itself in any action, which we may not comprehend under the term of perception.” Hume was right, and in that sense he comes very close to a position that Buddhist philosophers have advocated for two and a half millennia: perceptual awareness in its multifaceted forms is the beginning and end of our conscious lives. This book is about the structure of that perceptual awareness, its contents and character, and about what we stand to learn when we realize that the world we inhabit is inseparable from our perception of it.

A distinctive and influential philosophy of perception emerges in the Buddhist tradition from the analyses of consciousness and cognition associated with that system of thought and method of descriptive analysis known as the Abhidharma. With Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, the initiators of a Buddhist school of epistemology, this systematic inquiry into the

1. Hume (2000:

2. Lit. “concerning” (abhi) “the teachings” (dharma), usually translated as “higher doctrine”—the systematic scholastic analysis of the Buddha’s teachings as contained in the eponymous genre of philosophical literature. See Frauwallner (1995) and Willemen, Dessein, and Cox (1998) for detailed discussions of the origins and scope of this literature, which develops over a period of several centuries beginning around 300 B.C.E.

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