Buddhist and Western Philosophy. Edited by Nathan Katz.
Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981.
Pp. 491. $ 42.
Reviewed by Charles S. Prebish
Philosophy East & West
The last decade of scholarly investigations of Buddhism has presented a preponderance of studies in which Buddhism is examined from some traditional perspective within religion or philosophy, and then compared to its correlative structure in Western culture. Despite
the obvious need for this sort of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural work, most studies so undertaken are thorough in neither scope nor insight. It is this latter point that volume editor Katz addresses in his Preface. He points out four basic arguments against doing comparative East-West philosophy. His first citation refers to the old bromide that there is nothing in the Indian tradition that aptly fits the term "philosophy." From there he notes Buddhist criticisms of Western philosophy, focusing on the nonsalvific thrust of Western approaches. Third, he informs us of the difficulty of mastering any one tradition with its history, language, and so forth, thus dismissing the possibility of working in several traditions with depth and accuracy. Finally, Katz mentions the Buddhist's concern that Westerners simply read their own prejudices and quirks into Buddhism. Each of these issues is treated in order by Katz, and with some flair as well. Katz knows the potential pitfalls well, and one gets the impression that he is indirectly promising his reader not to fall into the usual traps that have undermined the effectiveness of previous publications. The rest of the Preface is devoted to a capsule summary of the entries included in the volume. The preliminaries also include a very brief Foreword by Tenzin Gyatsho, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and a lively Introduction by John Blofeld.
Selecting the contributors and topics to be explored in a volume such as this is no simple matter, but Katz gives us not a word of explanation of how and why the book was arranged as it is. To be sure, there are some very fine Western scholars of Buddhism included among the contributors, most notably Douglas Daye, Kenneth Inada, D. Seyfort Ruegg, Ninian Smart, and Alex Wayman. In all but Inada's case, the articles included in this anthology are reprinted from other sources. As a result, we are provided with old rather than new materials from the very scholars we might be most interested in reading. Further, Inada's article on "Problematics of the Buddhist Nature of Self," hardly advances this already well worked over area at all. Three other inclusions are also reprints, presenting the lamentable case of offering only thirteen "new" articles in an almost five hundred page volume. There seem to be two other patterns connected with author selection. First, five of the contributors taught (or continue to teach) at Temple University during Katz's term of study there, and three others have been affiliated with Peredeniya University in Sri Lanka. These details, of course, do not in and of themselves reveal anything other than an insight as to just how the volume was born, but they are noteworthy in that sense. One cannot help but get the feeling that the reprinted articles were included as much to lend credibility to the project as to advance the cause of comparative philosophy.
In anticipating the table of contents of a volume such as the one under review, one can almost predict the sort of titles that will appear: "Zen and Nietzsche," "Martin Buber and Oriental Religions," "Naagaarjuna and Wittgenstein on Error," to name a few. For the most part, these are fair, scholarly treatments of overworked materials. Occasionally there is some genuinely creative, lucid, engaging material offered, as is the case with Thomas Altizer's "Nirvaa.na as a Negative Image of God." While there are no works that are exclusively devoted to Western philosophy, there are some that are purely Buddhological, such as Alex Wayman's "Who Understands the Four Alternatives of the Buddhist Texts?" Unfortunately, most of the articles are quite ordinary and uninspiring. Sometimes we get a product far different from what we might anticipate. In Ashok Gangadean's "Naagaarjuna, Aristotle, and Frege on the Nature of Thought," the great\
Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna virtually disappears from the article after the first several pages (in a forty page article), reappearing only intermittently and at the conclusion.
Needless to say, the above comments indicate that it is exceedingly difficult to evaluate a volume such as the one Katz has edited. It is quite uneven in scope, perspective, and quality, as is often the case with such works. I am not sure just how it advances the field, if at all, and I cannot recommend it just for the sake of a few extremely fine pieces of research. To further complicate the issue, the publisher's price is prohibitive for all but a few scholars. At a time when we all must select our purchases with care and caution, I cannot suggest this volume for individual acquisition. Libraries may well want to purchase a copy for completeness of their collection, if for no other reason.
While I share Katz's justification for the existence of such undertakings, his optimism seems improperly placed in this case. He says, "The issues raised are important and sensitive, and it is hoped that in raising them they have been put to an open forum." To some extent at least, the book is successful in addressing the questions that Katz poses. The qualitative measure, however, is quite another case.
Charles S. Prebish,
The Pennsylvania State University