Four Aspects of Concept Formation in the Buddhist Epistemological Tradition

Four Aspects of Concept Formation in the Buddhist Epistemological Tradition


Drawing primarily on Sanskrit sources, this presentation focuses on concept formation as articulated in the Buddhist epistemological tradition following Dharmakīrti (seventh century). According to realist accounts, concepts correspond to real, extra-mental universals that allegedly constitute real categories or classes in the world. In contrast, Dharmakīrtian theorists hold that all classes and categories are merely constructed through a process of concept formation. One feature of the Dharmakīrtian approach is that concepts generally depend upon sensory experience. Hence, concepts are formed through (and intertwined with) sensory modalities in a manner similar to contemporary grounded cognition theory. A second feature is that, since members of a class do not actually share any universal features, the formation of that class proceeds by excluding non-members while ignoring variability across class members. These twin actions of excluding and ignoring occur within a goal oriented framework structured by approach and avoidance. Thus, another key issue is the way that concepts relate to goal-oriented behavior. Third, concepts involve the primitive features of language, even though they themselves are not necessarily linguistic. The Dharmakīrtian approach thus suggests that the three aspects of concept formation noted above may be foundational to language itself. Finally, concepts stand in a web of inferential relations, such that every concept implies others and is implied by others. These relations are often erroneous, in that they do not track actual features of the world. A key issue here is the problem of correcting beliefs that are based on false inferential relations, and the central role that philosophy and meditation practice plays therein.

  • Dialogue 30
    19 sessions
  • December 15, 2015
    Sera Monastery, Bylakuppe, India
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John Dunne

John Dunne, PhD, holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a joint appointment in the newly formed Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. His work focuses on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, especially in dialogue with cognitive science. His publications include a monograph on Dharmakirti, and scientific studies of Buddhist contemplative practice with colleagues from various institutions, including the CIHM. His most recent work focuses on the nature of mindfulness in both theoretical and practical contexts. He was educated at the United States Air Force Academy, Amherst College, and Harvard University, where he received his PhD from the Committee on the Study of Religion in 1999.