Colloquia

During fall and spring semesters our seminar has been hosting a series of discussions bringing together regional scholars. Summaries of past colloquia and previews of upcoming ones can be found here.

February 12, 2021: “Analysis, Synthesis and Experientia Literata in Newton and Bacon,” a discussion led by William Newman

Professor William Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. He is a historian of alchemy and chemistry and one of the organizers of the Sawyer Seminar.

Professor Newman spoke on analysis and synthesis in Newton, and their connection to an alchemical/chymical tradition with which Newton was very familiar. Discussion centered on the broad array of contexts in which analysis and synthesis occur, and their entanglement with background metaphysical and theoretical concerns. 

Bacon, Francis, James Spedding, Robert L. Ellis, and J M. Robertson. The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon. Vol. IV.  London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1905. Pp. 401-427.

Jardine, Lisa. "Experientia literata or Novum organum? Bacon’s two scientific methods."  Francis Bacon’s Legacy of Texts: “The Arts of Discovery Grows with Discovery” ed. William A. Sessions. AMS Press, 1990. 47-67.

Newman, William R. Newton the Alchemist: Science, Enigma, and the Quest for Nature's" secret Fire". Princeton University Press, 2018. Chapter 6.

Newton’s Opticks was a landmark work in the understanding of light, challenging the classical idea that pure light is white or colorless and color is added through the influence of matter. In his experiments with prisms, Newton demonstrated that white light could be decomposed into colored light and then recomposed back to white (see especially manuscript Cambridge University Add. 3975). This prioritization of paired analysis and synthesis has been considered by historians of science to present a fundamental break from previous approaches.

        Professor Newman’s research rebukes this line. He argues the approach was novel in the context of optics, but that Newton was pulling from a chymical tradition of analysis and synthesis, especially the work of Robert Boyle. Chymical here encompasses a range of antecedents to modern chemistry, including alchemy. Newton and Boyle both interpreted light as something material, and Newton even used the terminology from Boyle’s matter theory in his new theory of light. Newman suggests that Newton married a material theory of light with the methods of a material science like chymistry, to arrive at the significance of analysis and synthesis. This hints at an origin for analysis and synthesis as core scientific methods that is both richer but also fuzzier than current historiography. Newman then opened discussion, seeking input on places in the history of science in which we see this approach, and how idiosyncratically Newtonian it should be considered.

        Discussants identified a number of earlier trajectories for the deployment of analysis and synthesis, although not often as a pair per Newton. In pre-Newton Arabic medical works, there were questions about the components of blood and how the blood was synthesized from digestion. Pharmacological research, particularly drug research, was also identified as a resource for studying deployment of at least analytic methods, Moving past Newton, it was noted that a striking feature is how analysis and synthesis were applied to life. In the 1600s, there was still widely considered to be something metaphysical to life such that it could not, even in principle, be decomposed and recomposed. The idea that life was something that could be brought back together Frankenstein-style represented a change in the understanding of the underlying metaphysics – certain kinds of substances, first chemical, then light, then everything, were seen to be readily subject to analysis and synthesis. Although the process is likely bidirectional, with methods informing the metaphysics and the metaphysics informing methods.

        Attention was also called to strategies of verification and how natural philosophers could be confident a successful analysis and synthesis had taken place, with some participants noting shifts in the epistemic role of certain senses, such as smell.  Similarly, in a more modern context it was noted how artificial intelligence can change the methodological understanding of analysis and synthesis. Neural networks and other tools can recapture input output relations, a tempting analog to analysis and synthesis, but we would not automatically take that to indicate correspondence with the world. In some cases then, analysis and synthesis stand on their own merit as a method providing rigor to experiments, and in other cases they themselves need to be scrutinized.

        Discussion concluded by returning to the overarching theme of rigor. It was noted that analysis and synthesis have retained their prominence in scientific practice since Newton. Further research will be needed to explore the broader nexus that Newton was drawing upon beyond the chymical researchers of Boyle, and where Newton’s novelty is best understood. However, there is complexity in analysis and synthesis as being constitutive of certain experiments, versus existing as an additional check or confirmation. Do scholars of scientific practice want to keep this idea, rigor in experimental practice versus rigor in checking or confirmation, as a productive distinction?

March 12, 2021: “The Experiment as a Method of Learning in 19th Century Science Education,” a discussion led by Sarah J. Reynolds

Sarah J. Reynolds is Assistant Professor in Physics and Earth Space Science at the University of Indianapolis and a historian of science education and astronomy.

Professor Reynolds spoke on the shifting understandings of the experiment and the laboratory in late 19th century and early 20th century American universities, especially how the experiment became tied together with the broader educational goal of teaching scientific reasoning. 

Dewey, John. "Science as subject-matter and as method." Science 31.787 (1910): 121-127.

Pickering, Edward Charles. Elements of physical manipulation. Vol. 1. Houghton Mifflin, 1876. Preface. 

Pickering, Edward Charles. Elements of physical manipulation. Vol. 2. Houghton Mifflin, 1876. Appendix C. 

Remsen, Ira. An introduction to the study of chemistry, 3rd ed.  Henry Holt, 1893. Preface and preface to the first edition,

Remsen, Ira and Randall, Wyatt. W. Chemical Experiments. Henry Holt, 1895. General laboratory directions. 

Rowland, Henry A. "The physical laboratory in modern education." Science 7.177 (1886): 573-575.

In late 1800s America university laboratories were usually privately-owned and their use was at the discretion of particular professors. The use of experiments in educational contexts was often demonstrative, rather than understood as something that the students themselves should be doing. By the first few decades of the 20th century, the American university had established itself as the principal space for laboratory research, and the university laboratory as a principal space for education. 

Professor Reynolds calls attention to the epistemologies and agendas of those advocating for laboratory science in higher education and how this reflects broader currents of thought about rigor and experimental science. Reynolds documents intertwining currents of change. Shifts in funding, course structure, target audience, and educational philosophy occurred as the university tried to secure its position in the rapidly industrializing context of gilded age America. For example, specialized fields (e.g. chemistry, geology, physics) appeared more frequently in educational contexts. 

But armed with the idea that students should be inculcating a scientific mindset, rather than narrow practical skills, scientific education reformers pushed for active student engagement in laboratory work. Reynolds notes that laboratory education advocates argued that the flexibility and depth provided by deeper scientific understanding was itself of practical economic benefit. In short, they were positioning themselves favorably within a tradition of higher education on the one hand, and a growing industrial economy on the other. 

Relating to rigor specifically, Reynolds identifies a two level phenomenon. At a general level, science is equated with rigor such that only scientific systems and practices can be understood as rigorous. At a more local level, there are demands on the rigor of individual practitioners in contrast to other (less rigorous) scientists. The contrast class for discussions of rigor matter. Reynolds further highlights a parallel between these two levels of analysis in that criticism at the more general level, e.g. someone is being unscientific in virtue of being unsystematic, recipe based, or lacking true understanding, recurs as criticism of individual scientists or practices. Given this general valuing of scientific thinking at both the individual and systemic level, education reformers pushed for the laboratory as a space to inculcate scientific thinking. 

Opening discussion, Reynolds emphasized that advocates of laboratory education were not focused narrowly on experiment. They were concerned with how experimental inquiry is assembled and connected with systematized knowledge, and they rejected that rigorous scientific work can be captured in a narrow proceduralism. People have to know how to think, not just mix and measure. Discussants noted that this idea continues to be influential in thinking about scientific methodology.

Discussants also considered the generality of Reynolds’s analysis. How narrowly related to chemistry is it, how American, how does it compare with other traditions like medicine? What were the conversations like in primary as opposed to secondary as opposed to tertiary education? What about in professional as opposed to undergraduate education? Especially significant were questions of domain, and the different roles rigor played in science versus non-science, as opposed to science versus other science. Considerations about the relationship between science and practically were similarly complex.  Pedagogically there are questions about what exactly is being taught -- a body of facts, a set of procedural skills, a setup for students to learn for themselves, a manner of thinking -- and how it connects with broader economic and social concerns. Connections between disciplines like chemistry and related practical fields like agriculture may be emphasized for strategic effect, even if the relations between the academic fields and technical practices are sometimes tortuous.

Considerations of rigor are deeply normative and tied to the political and economic goals of scientists and educators. As Reynolds reminded the discussion group, the advocates of laboratory education had agendas beyond getting laboratory funding. Other questions probed the idea that scientific understanding was supposed to be more than merely practical. Where was this coming from? How was science incorporating existing notions of rigor and scholarship? It was observed that science has so strongly monopolized understandings of rigor, it is difficult to appreciate absent historical investigation how science in turn borrows notions of rigor from the broader milieu. 

In a final critical frame, attention was called to a reflexive worry. Notions of rigor are often hegemonic, pushing for a superior mode of inquiry and associated superior knowledge claims. And yet, as these early advocates of laboratory education made clear, much of what made scientific thinking successful was a willingness to challenge assumptions and embrace criticism. Is there a way for science to embrace structure and rigor without undermining flexibility, creativity, and openness?

April 23rd, 2021: “Observation, Variation, and Rigor: Responses to Andreas Vesalius' Universal Anatomy,” a discussion led by Allen Shotwell

Allen Shotwell is a Professor of the Humanities at Ivy Tech Community College and a historian of early modern anatomy and medicine.

Professor Shotwell spoke on shifting understandings of rigor in early modern anatomical practices. Of central focus was anatomical variation and the different accounts of how it should be accomodated, investigated, and understood provided by Vesalius, Sylvius, and Colombo. 

Moes, Robert J., Realdo Colombo: "On Those Things Rarely Found in Anatomy." An Annotated Translation From the "De Re Anatomica" (1559) , Bulletin of the history of medicine (1960): pp. 519-522.

O’Malley, Charles Donald. A translation of Jacobus Sylvius (Jacques Dubois), “Calumniae Secundae Amolitio” (refutation of the second calumny) in Vaesani cuiusdam calumniarum in Hippocratis Galenique rem anotomicam depulsio, per Iacobus Sylvium, medicae rei apud Parrhisios interpretem Regium, p. 4-5. (A refutation of the calumnies of a certain madman [Vesalius] against Hippocratic and Galenic anatomy, by Jacobus Sylvius Regius Professor of Medicine in Paris). Link

Richard, William Frank and Carman, John Bard. On the Fabric of the Human Body. Book 1: The Bones and the Cartilage. A translation of Andreas Vesalius De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543). Norman publishing, 1998. Pp. 45-48, 62-63, 122-124, 378.

Siraisi, Nancy G. "Vesalius and Human Diversity in De humani corporis fabrica." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 57 (1994): 60-88.

Professor Shotwell explored early modern understandings of investigatory rigor in the context of Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica (1543), and reactions to it by colleague Realdo Colombo and former teacher Jacobus Sylvius. Vesalius stood at a crossroads, challenging aspects of the reigning Galenic anatomical tradition, but also tethered to that tradition in important respects. 

Vesalius was committed to the idea of a universal anatomy, but nonetheless leveraged his experience with particulars (perhaps canonical particulars), as a way to vindicate anatomical claims. For example, he highlights his anatomical investigations in a theater in Bologna where students brought him bones to identity, and he likewise touts experience (in this case with bodies in Paris) to claim authority over the Galenic tradition concerning the sphenoid bone, and the alleged flow of pituita (nasal mucus)in the skull. However, Shotwell notes that often experience was merely suggested or implied, and not rendered in a transparent or inspectible way, and hence led to tense disputes with those who doubted his relevant experience, such as Colombo and Sylvius.

Colombo in partial contrast to Vesalius, took a brute force approach to the challenge of variation, asserting that the only way to construct a universal anatomy was for one to have seen all the variation. This is exemplified in a chapter of his De re anatomica (1559) entitled “Things rarely seen in anatomy” where he claims to have personally examined over 600,000 skulls and never have seen the X-shaped suture attested by Galen and later Vesalius.

Whereas Colombo was another iconoclast, Sylvius criticized his former student from the reigning Galenic perspective. He disputed Vesalius’s claims to rigor and to experience, and vindicates his own perspective less through the number of items he has examined, than through a detailed discussion of the practices and procedures by which an investigator can see the claim for themselves. 

This set the stage for a wide ranging discussion touching on rigor (of course), but also variation, control, and the contrast between the theoretical and the practical. Discussants inquired about the various understandings of the importance of experience, particularly whether there is a conversation with the Aristotelian ideal of a science in the background where first principles are requisite. The Aristotelian notion of universal itself, as something grasped through the action of the mind rather than through systematic investigation, is potentially even in tension with aspirations to universal anatomy.  Shotwell confirms that Aristotelian thought about science is indeed present, but that it is rare to find specific textual engagement with Aristotle's account of universals.

Nonetheless, how to deal with variation and its relation to rigorous science -- whether eliminating variation, exhaustively documenting variation, explaining variation, or finding structure within variation -- emerges as a major theme which changes between the 16th and 18th century. Although expanding the chronology, discussants noted there was an enduring fear from Galen onward that a fixation on error in medicine would degrade it into a mere collection of stories and case histories. (It was also noted that in the Islamic world by the 12th century anatomy is unquestionably a theoretical science in the Aristotelian sense.)  From the perspective of variation, Colombo’s exhaustive accounting is almost anachronistic, resembling the cataloging of natural history that exploded in the 17th century.

The conceptualization of variation was observed to tie closely to understandings of the normal and the pathological. Some early modern understandings of monsters and sports of nature viewed them as whimsically caused or aberrant and hence unproductive for teleological understanding. They are best as illustrations of how anatomy should not be and unrevealing of the principle causes. But especially post Bacon, the pathological is increasingly viewed as an explicable deviation of the same underlying natural causes, perhaps even in a manner similar to the way the Baconian experimenter must do violence to nature, and thus able to shed light on the normal. The epistemic value of the pathological is recognized as a recurrent point, also appearing for instance in Claude Bernard’s 19th century physiology. 

Connections were also made regarding standards of evidence and practice in experimental work in anatomy. Even Galen spoke of duplicating Erisistratus’s investigations of the arteries, and then simply denied attaining the same observational finding. Similar denials can be found among the critics of William Harvey (on circulation) and Gaspare Aselli (on lacteals). Although it is noted by Shotwell that such express doubt of seeing is less common with skeletal anatomy, perhaps because people are not following up as concretely. However, the epistemic function of experiment and empirical investigation is complex, and cannot be confined to simply encouraging readers to see for themselves. For example, discussants noted that anatomical investigations would be held publically, and public viewing would be leveraged to legitimize findings. Shotwell affirmed that Colombo often specifically writes about such demonstrations and the people who were in attendance.

This touched on a repeated theme of the seminar, namely, the difference between demonstration in the sense of proof and demonstration as exhibition of a particular inquiry such that the reader can see for themselves. According to Shotwell, Vesalius especially blurs this line in his work, at least regarding public demonstration. Famously, Vesalius would use sheep in anatomical demonstrations to illustrate the rete mirabile (a dense network of veins and arteries) which could according to Galen’s anatomy be found in the human neck, and only later did he become convinced the reason it is hard to see in humans is because it is not there. 

Moreover, there was more to anatomy than “seeing is believing” and it was observed by discussants that in some contexts touch is considered equally or perhaps even more evidentially valuable. According to Shotwell this is definitely mentioned, and one often finds “see and touch” as shorthand for “to experience”.  Others posited this could be related to practical anatomy, and the idea the trained physician can figure everything about a patient with one touch.

The possible dependency of certain conceptual ambiguities on linguistic ambiguities was also noted, with Arabic for instance using decisively different terms for “showing” and “proof based demonstration.” There is potentially more ambiguity in the early modern Latin context between “demonstrative proof” and “showing”, although Hieronymus Fabricius and his student William Harvey (both in a strongly Aristotelian anatomical tradition) were suggested as anatomists who might have been especially attentive to such a distinction. Shotwell notes though that in contrast to simply a theoretical focus, there is a highly practical current running through 16th century anatomy the European context perhaps mitigating some attention to certain distinctions.  The relationship between the theoretical and the practical literature is complex and often disjointed, with only a few debates, for example bloodletting (which Vesalius was involved in) expressing clear intertwined theoretical and practical dimensions. 

Discussion concluding by returning to the understanding of rigor more broadly. Notably, for early modern research the fit of “rigor” as a lens can be complicated.  Indisputably, early modern practitioners had concerns both about the procedural care and diligence of investigation, and the theoretical soundness of knowledge. But are these practitioners focused on rigor in the same way as 19th century scientists, or perhaps are their disputes best captured otherwise, e.g. in the tension between theoretical and practical? Attention must be paid to the limitations of “rigor” not only as an actor’s category, but also as an analyst’s.

May 7th, 2021: “Rigor in the Arabic Medical Commentaries on Avicenna’s Canon,” a discussion led by Nahyan Fancy

Nahyan Fancy is Assistant Professor of History at Depauw University and a historian of science in the Middle East, especially in classical and early post-classical Islam.

Professor Fancy spoke on the understanding of experimental and theoretical rigor in early post-classical Islamic medical commentaries, in particular as it relates to the concept of verification (taḥqīq).

Fancy, Nahyan. "Verification and Utility in the Arabic Commentaries on the Canon of Medicine: Examples from the Works of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) and Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288)." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences75.4 (2020): 361-382.

Selections from Ibn al-Nafis’s Commentary on the Anatomy (of Ibn-Sina), translated by the speaker.

 

Professor Fancy spoke on practices in early post-classical Islamic medicine and physiology. Until recently, modern scholarship had relegated Islamic medical work after 1200 as mere commentary, in a pejorative sense of refining and explicating an established tradition without substantively expanding or altering it. This interpretation was fueled by Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna)  pronouncement that practical medicine should not be used to undermine theory, and a Galenic understanding of commentary as clarificatory in nature. However, according to Fancy it is subject to two central problems. First, very little of the extensive later commentary has been read by historians (there are over two dozen lengthy commentaries on just Ibn Sina’s Canon).  Second, and setting the epistemological backdrop for the talk, beginning at least with Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (1150–1210 CE)  there emerged a second commentary tradition predicated on verification (taḥqīq). In this tradition, theoretical accounts are compared, critically analyzed, and evaluated with respect to their implications. Consequently, the verification understanding of commentary provided Islamic medicine and physiology powerful internal methodological resources for the examining, revising, and overturning of existing theoretical claims. And it is in this tradition that Ibn al-Nafis wrote. At the time, physiology and anatomy are thinking and talking disciplines, being theoretical and scaffolded by argumentation and logic. However, as Fancy notes, experimentation and observations were part of the conversation. Ibn al-Nafis is especially complex in this regard, as while still considering physiology a demonstrative science (concerned with proof, syllogism, and principle causes) he thought that a science could be probabilistic. 

Ibn al-Nafis reports an experiment to establish the alleged warming properties of snow. Two jars filled with cold water from the same source were taken to another location. Snow was then added to one of the jars and they were both allowed to sit. The jar with snow added would, according to al-Nafis, become warmer exhibiting the underlying warming properties of snow. This experimental evidence is conjoined with arguments and a theoretical explanation for the warming nature of snow. Although contextualizing this within an experimental tradition is complicated. Discussants noted it echoes early setups from the Hippocratic work On Airs, Waters, and Places and Aulus Cornelius Celsus’s De Medicina although the use of a control is new in such investigations, and perhaps reflects later Islamic research practices. Fancy posited that Ibn Sina is a likely immediate inspiration for Ibn al-Nafis, although other sources, e.g. the alchemical literature, cannot be ruled out. 

The verification approach of al-Nafis’s commentary includes substantive criticism and revision of Galenic and humoral medicine.  This includes al-Nafis’s claim that the blood is the only nourishing humor, that the mesentery and gastric veins are confined to the surface of the stomach, and the introduction of a natural volitional faculty for movement such as that of the heart.

Discussants were particularly fascinated by the methodology of al-Nafis in the water experiment, and possible genealogies for the implied concept of experimental control. Fancy noted that concepts such as controls and multiple subjects can be found early in Islamic medicine including Ibn Sina’s Canon and Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī ’s (854–925 CE) work on blood letting for the treatment of brain fever.  Earlier still, in the Pseudo-Galenic text On Theriac to Piso one group of roosters was treated with theriac and another without, and then snakes were set among them. Only the theriac treated roosters survived. (This experiment was in fact mentioned in Ibn Sina’s Canon.)

How to interpret such experiments is not always clear, partly because it is often ambiguous when an experiment was actually physically performed by an author, as opposed to discussed more illustratively. And even when actually performed they may be in a more expository vein, in contrast to centering around a program of experimental inquiry. Similarly difficulties exist with observational evidence. For example, some statements by Ibn al-Nafis indicate he was engaged in animal dissections, and he does make statements about human anatomy e.g. correcting Galen’s skeletal anatomy, but it is ambiguous whether this was done on the basis of systematic human dissections. 

Discussants also worried about applying terms like “control” too readily. Certainly, we can identify historical practices that echo modern understandings of control, but not necessarily reflective methodological traditions focusing on control as a concept and that is a separate thing which needs to be historicized. Moreover, notions like “control,” given their array of use in 20th and 21st century science, do not always have the granularity for easy historicization. More nuance is needed to historicize different aspects -- constraints of the experimental situation, non-intervention groups, before-and-after understandings of control, placebos, etc. 

Challenges of historicization also occur in the discussion of disease, and how to engage with historical disease categories. Discussants picked up on “brain fever”, and how a modern reader should make sense of the use of “brain fever” by classical or early post-classical Islamic physicians. Particularly it was wondered whether some diagnostic categories were generated based on the treatments that worked in particular cases, as opposed to causation or symptomatology. Fancy stressed that the community of practitioners was comfortable with the disease categorization, rather the challenge is for us. This is compounded by the detailed descriptions of symptoms often being in separate manuals, and reported symptoms couched in the theoretical language of the period making it challenging to understand what was happening even at the observational level. These were living communities with personal experience and practices of interpreting texts to make sense with what they were seeing, and as such are not easy to reconstruct. 

The colloquium was also interested in the connection to the alchemical tradition, as Fancy had noted  Ibn al-Nafis was well read in that area. One striking example reported by Fancy, was Ibn al-Nafis’s discussion of the liver in which he compared its operation to the transmutation of metals, but much more needs to be done to illuminate the connections between Islamic alchemy (and physiology) and the development of early modern methodology.

October 22nd, 2021: "Perception, Inference, and Argument in Buddhist Epistemology," a discussion led by Richard Nance

Richard Nance is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. His research on Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions and their associated interpretive practices is at the intersection of history, philosophy, and philology.

 

Dunne, John D. Foundations of Dharmakirti's philosophy. Simon and Schuster, 2004. Pp. 15-52.

Professor Nance spoke on foundational aspects of Buddhist epistemology, including the understanding of the self, the role of argument, and the connection to Buddhist soteriology.

Professor Nance highlighted the depth and richness of Buddhist epistemological thought by covering a number of central issues. He began by noting that the tradition is responsive to certain soteriological aims, in particular, the achievement of nirvana and freedom from suffering. The root cause of suffering is the attachment to certain outcomes, which is associated with ignorance as to the true nature of things, i.e. the presence of mistaken knowledge about the self and the world. In Buddhist understandard this scaffolds a particular argument based on the principle of dependent arising, namely, where X is Y arises, so to get rid of Y get rid of X. Following this, where ignorance is craving (and hence suffering) arises, so to get rid of craving, get rid of ignorance.

From this general structure and aim, Buddhist epistemology then proceeds with particular analyses of what we are ignorant about and how right knowledge is to be understood. A classic example of pernicious ignorance from early Buddhism is belief in a substantially existent self. That is, a stable self that exists through changing circumstances. It is the Buddhist perspective that an objective description of experience can be provided without such a self by understanding existence as a flux or procession of parts, like a river, rather than a fixed thing (Nance alluded to a famous allegorical text on the self, the Milindapanha). However, Buddhist scholars were not content with an abstract or figurative understanding, but wanted to analyze and understand the parts of this process itself.

This led to the overarching scholarly tradition of Abhidharma, composed of different schools and groups trying to formulate something like a fundamental ontology corresponding to Buddhist doctrine. From this perspective (at least within the slice of Abhidharma of which Dharmakirti is a part), what’s really going on in the self and the world is the arising and passing away of trillions of token instances of a finite number of types of things. 

The Buddhist philosopher Dharmakirti (approx. 6th or 7th century CE)  is aiming to provide this type of analysis and bring one close to truth. Existing approaches, however, according to Dharmakirti, are inadequate. Dharmakirti provides a progressively subtler critique of the distributed entities which compose the world, aiming to expunge the ignorance of imposing sameness (type sameness) on things that are actually different.


Nance stressed the difficulty and complexity of Dharmakirti’s work. There are multiple levels of analysis (which can sometimes seem inconsistent...and perhaps are). As commentary is the central form of scholarship, there is also a push-pull textual relationship with older scholars, seeking to both anchor and highlight Dharmakirti’s own innovations.  Nor is Dharmakirti in a strictly Buddhist tradition, but is engaging with multiple approaches, especially Nyaya thought. Tracing this network of influence and conversation is complicated, with central texts and figures often difficult to date and locate precisely, and Buddhist monasteries, the centers of elite learning, having vast and varied collections with unclear ecological influence on the scholars within. Importantly, Dharmakirti makes use of Pramana thinking, which formed a scholarly lingua franca and a shared vocabulary for Indian philosophical work from the 5th to the 13th century.

Pramanas are means to the acquisition of right knowledge, and vary from school to school, often constituting essential differences between approaches. According to Dharmakirti, there are but two pramanas, perception and inference.

One of the central concerns of discussants was how to place Dharmakirti’s thought and Buddhist thought more broadly into their existing discussion of rigor, and how it contrasted with more historically European approaches. In response, Nance commented on some of the disciplinary goals of those who studied Indian philosophical thought in Western academic contexts. That is, both to establish the legitimacy of studying Buddhist epistemology on its own terms, but also to vindicate it as “real” philosophy. Historically, this has involved establishing similarities between Buddhist epistemological traditions and western ones, or influences on Western philosophers, such as with Schopenhauer and Peirce. Overall, Nance alleged, relevant differences have, if anything, been underemphasized in modern scholarship.

Nonetheless, Nance noted some general contrasts. Most important is the discursive context of the debate. The Buddhist tradition is explicitly soteriological, insofar as the express aim of right knowledge is to facilitate the achievement of nirvana and end suffering. In the tradition there is a distinction between inferences for oneself, and inference for others. The inference for others takes rhetorical primacy due to the pedagogical goal of eliminating ignorance. There is also the specific role of the Buddha, which functions as an epistemic loadstar in terms of his teaching, but also in terms of a regulative understanding of the epistemic certainty and insight that can be achieved.

Discussants concluded by bringing up approach and methodologically reflective practice in Buddhist epistemology. Nance notes that it is rare to find, say, a treatise on methodology, but there is a very strong tradition of pedagogy, mentorship, and working through concrete examples. Vasubandu, in teaching commentary, provided hundreds of examples rather than a few abstract principles. Partly this relates to the orientation of Buddhist logic as well, which is geared towards the understanding of the world rather than the development of an abstract system. Nonetheless, it is not usually in conversation with the world the way, say, an interventionist approach to inquiry is.  Buddhist logic and epistemology is at core a cognitive analytic activity, standing alongside the other major fields of knowledge investigated in Buddhist monasteries, some of which were more practical and interventionist: arts, internal knowledge, languages (especially grammar), and medicine.