The Inclusion Problem in the Philosophy of Mind: Questions and Responses

In posts yesterday and today, Professor Anand Vaidya, Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy, uses the example of philosophy of mind to address the issue of diversifying our course syllabi. Dr. Vaidya’s presentation of the case of philosophy of mind is but an example of his ongoing research, in connection with many other scholars, on the inclusion problem in philosophy education. In future posts he will be discussing other cases, such as critical thinking, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics. In the yesterday’s post, he offers examples of how particular debates from non-western philosophy of mind can be connected to the topics explored in philosophy of mind classes focused on the western canon, and in today’s post Vaidya addresses some concerns one might have about the challenges and benefits of making these sorts of adjustments to one’s syllabus.

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by Anand Jayprakash Vaidya

In The Inclusion Problem in the Philosophy of Mind: The Case of Dualism, I briefly presented some material that I think could be used for a more inclusive discussion of dualism in the philosophy of mind. I now want to consider some worries about going cross-cultural in teaching philosophy of mind, or any other area of philosophy, that are worth entertaining. The list of worries I will consider is not exhaustive. Rather, it is instructive.

 Worry #1:        There are no important ideas outside the western tradition.

 Okay no one believes in the letter of this one, but there are two important variants that do get taken seriously.

The first is as a comment on duplication. For any good idea that can be found outside the west, one will find the idea in the west, and thus there is no reason to teach the material from outside the west. But if this is the complaint, then the response is obvious. If the exact same idea can be found both in the west and outside of it, why can’t one simply just drop teaching the western figure, rather than exclude the non-western thinker? Here one might think that it is best to include, since we are trying to diversify the curriculum.

The other way to take the comment is as a point on science vs. non-science. For example, one might argue as follows. In a historical presentation and discussion of the philosophy of mind, it appears to be important to discuss non-western ideas, but once we get on with the scientific study of the mind, there are no ideas from outside the west that are worth considering. As a counterexample, take the work of Evan Thompson[1].

The philosophical schools of Advaita Vedānta and Yoga maintained that consciousness is present in dreamless sleep, whereas the Nyāya School maintained that it is absent. Consideration of this debate, especially the reasoning used by Advaita Vedānta to rebut the Nyāya view, calls into question the standard neuroscientific way of operationally defining consciousness as “that which disappears in dreamless sleep and reappears when we wake up or dream.” The Indian debate also offers new resources for contemporary philosophy of mind. At the same time, findings from cognitive neuroscience have important implications for Indian debates about cognition during sleep, as well as for Indian and Western philosophical discussions of the self and its relationship to the body. Finally, considerations about sleep drawn from the Indian materials suggest that we need a more refined taxonomy of sleep states than that which sleep science currently employs, and that contemplative methods of mind training are relevant for advancing the neurophenomenology of sleep and consciousness.

Worry #2:        Since I can’t include everyone from outside the western tradition, how can I choose whom to include without thereby excluding someone. 

This is also an important worry. But it folds on itself. There are many materialists one can teach in the philosophy of mind, and how does one choose whom to include there? If there is a problem about exclusion when one goes from the western tradition out to non-western traditions, there is an exclusion problem when one stays in the western tradition. The important thing to realize is that by using sources from the western and non-western traditions, or just from world philosophy, we open up our students to the fact that there are ideas about the mind that are important that arise from a number of traditions. If this impression is put forward with the suggestion that students should go out and discover what else they can find, I think the job is done for the idea of inclusion.

Worry #3:        I don’t feel comfortable teaching the material since I don’t have sufficient training in the core texts or traditions.

This is also an important worry. Unfortunately, there are many secondary sources that can put one in a good enough place to teach a lot of important ideas from non-western philosophy. Philosophy Compass has a number of important teaching pieces. The 2016 Eastern APA is hosting a couple of sessions on how to integrate Asian philosophy primary sources into teaching ethics. The main thing is that even if one does not opt to teach a whole non-western source, one should at least try to reach out to inform students of such texts. As teachers, we can send the message of inclusion without hitting everything out there. The message is that although we are teaching material from a specific tradition, we welcome material from other traditions that engage the relevant issues.

Worry #4:        I don’t want to teach religious material. I only want to talk about philosophy. 

It might be worth dwelling on this point. Descartes’s dualism is presented in a text that covers two independent proofs for the existence of God. What could we possibly be saying if we exclude Dharmakīrti on the grounds that his work is religious and not philosophical? Of course he is discussing the Buddha, but by no means is he not giving an argument about the nature of human persons. More importantly, even when there are arguments about, for example, the mind, that are embedded in a discussion of some aspect of religion, we need not focus on the religious point as much as the non-religious point. For example, one can find an illuminating argument against the reflexive account of consciousness (consciousness is always self-conscious; what makes something conscious does not come from some other higher-order thought or perception) in the work of the Buddhist thinker Ratnakīrti, in his discussion of the importance of compassion to the Buddhist soteriological project aimed at the cessation of suffering. Learning to take out the relevant material takes some skill, but it is by no means unachievable through the work of scholars.

[1] Thompson, E. (2015), “Dreamless Sleep, the Embodied Mind, and Consciousness: the Relevance of a Classical Indian Debate to Cognitive Science

 

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at San Jose State University in California. His interests include the epistemology of intuition, perception, and modality, the metaphysics of logic, critical thinking, the capabilities approach to justice, the philosophy of economics, and cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary public philosophy.

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