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Does the Sautrāntika see? And if so, what?

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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by Birgit Kellner 3308 days ago.

The theory of perception that is commonly attributed to the Buddhist Sautrāntika school, or system, holds that a number of atoms of e.g. colour/form produce an instance of perceptual cognition, together with a sense-faculty and a preceding moment of consciousness, often referred to as manaskāra. In the case of visual perception, extraneous factors such as light serve as additional causes. In sum, a set of causes, all of which have momentary existence, produce a perception; this perception, in turn, is characterized by having the shape of the object-cause, or appearing in the object-cause’s form (ākāra).

There is clearly a representationalist element in this theory of perception: a perception is one of a blue object because it has the appearance of the external blue object that caused it. A philosophical question that arises in connection with this theory is whether it can be classified as a “sense-datum theory”. Is the object’s “shape” or “form of appearance” (ākāra) a sense-datum? Can the Sautrāntika’s theory be paraphrased such that we don’t perceive external objects directly, but rather perceive their representations in consciousness?

It seems to me that such a paraphrase is imprecise. One of the peculiarities of the Sautrāntika view is that it operates much like a scientific theory that explains phenomena which we describe in ordinary language reductively through higher-order phenomena. A scientist might claim that what ordinary people refer to as water is really H2O. The Sautrāntika claims, likewise, that what we think are gross and unitary objects of perception, like jars, are really aggregated atoms, or that what we believe are enduring cognitive subjects are really series of moments of consciousness.

Likewise, in the case of perception, several operations are at work when ordinary language accounts of the phenomena like “I see a blue patch” are accounted for: what actually happens is that a set of momentary causes gives rise to a perception that has a certain representational relationship to some of these causes (and not to others). Once we are in this theory, it no longer makes sense to argue that we see anything: there is no action of seeing that is undertaken by anyone; there is just a momentary istance of perception that is produced from its causes.

Similarly imprecise is the claim that, according to the Sautrāntikas, we do not perceive reality, but only infer it – that perception is really an act of inference. It is true that the status of external objects which are made up of matter (though matter conceived of in a peculiar way!) and exist independently of perceiving minds becomes problematic in Sautrāntika-style epistemologies. The problem which Dharmakīrti succinctly raises in his Pramāṇaviniścaya is: how can the Sautrāntika establish that what causes a perception that appears in a certain way is, of all things, an external object? According to Dharmakīrti, the Sautrāntika can’t, and an idealist theory of perception that regards the object-cause as something internal is just as plausible as the Sautrāntika’s flirtation with external matter.

But what remains is this: the Sautrāntika, as Dharmakīrti presents him, produces an inference in order to prove the existence of external objects of perception. He does not claim that perception is inference – that, subjectively speaking, when we believe we perceive a patch of blue we really perform an act of inference.