Jay Garfield on Non-Western & Western Philosophies (#27)

 Credit: National University of Singapore

Credit: National University of Singapore

Our guest in this episode is Professor Jay Garfield, who has been at the forefront of highlighting the Western bias in Academic philosophy departments. We talk at length about the political reasons for this and how longstanding prejudices have contributed to the wider philosophical landscape. We talk about how any non-Western philosophy is a "marked case", the difference between comparative and cross-cultural philosophy, and how the latter can enrich our philosophical conversations. We also discussed some ways in which Buddhist philosophy contributes to the conversation around certain philosophical issues, including the question of "essences", identity, and ethics. 

For those interested in the more scholarly questions around philosophy and how it is practiced, be sure to check out this fascinating episode. 

More about Jay...

Jay L. Garfield directs the Smith's Logic and Buddhist Studies programs and the Five College Tibetan Studies in India program. He is also visiting professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, professor of philosophy at Melbourne University and adjunct professor of philosophy at the Central University of Tibetan Studies. 

Garfield’s research addresses topics in the foundations of cognitive science and the philosophy of mind; the history of Indian philosophy during the colonial period; topics in ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of logic; methodology in cross-cultural interpretation; and topics in Buddhist philosophy, particularly Indo-Tibetan Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.

Garfield’s most recent books are Minds Without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance (with Nalini Bhushan, 2017), Dignāga’s Investigation of the Percept: A Philosophical Legacy in India and Tibet (with Douglas Duckworth, David Eckel, John Powers, Yeshes Thabkhas and Sonam Thakchöe, 2016) Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy (2015), Moonpaths: Ethics and Emptiness (with the Cowherds, 2015) and (edited, with Jan Westerhoff), Madhyamaka and Yogācāra: Allies or Rivals? (2015). 

He is currently working on a book with Yasuo Deguchi, Graham Priest and Robert Sharf, What Can’t Be Said: Paradox and Contradiction in East Asian Philosophy; a book on Hume’s TreatiseThe Concealed Operations of Custom: Hume’s Treatise from the Inside Out; a large collaborative project on Geluk-Sakya epistemological debates in 15th- to 18th-century Tibet following on Taktshang Lotsawa’s 18 Great Contradictions in the Thought of Tsongkhapa and empirical research with another team on the impact of religious ideology on attitudes toward death.


  • Jay's story encountering Buddhist philosophy during his first day as an Assistant Professor. 
  • At Hampshire College, the "Third World Expectation" initiated a multicultural requirement in the curriculum, which required Jay to retool, learning medieval Tibetan epistemology. 
  • The "marked case" scandal in Academic Philosophy departments, which call any philosophy that is not Western "Indian" or "Taoist" but never simply philosophy. These "philosophies" are called "Wisdom Traditions" but never philosophy, and this is a disparagement. 
  • The prejudice that is institutionalized in Philosophy toward NOT investigating other traditions, which Jay notes as narrow and essentially racist. 
  • The difference between "cross-cultural philosophy" and "comparative philosophy".
  • The distinction between philosophy and religion and how historically they were separated beginning with Galileo. This distinction doesn't get thematized in the Buddhist philosophical traditions or Indian traditions. 
  • How the practice of philosophy in the West is a lot like the word "Siddhanta", in Sanskrit, or the "establishing of a tradition."
  • Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka (the Middle Way)
    • Emptiness - everything is empty of any intrinsic existence or nature (Svabhava).
    • Two Truths - conventional and ultimate truths. The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth. Everything is conventional. 
  • Everything we can identify is interdependent. There is no ground on which anything depends.
  • The role of language and how it structures our own lives. 
  • The three dominant trends in ethical conversations in the West and what alternatively Buddhist philosophy is offering as an approach to ethics as "how we should experience the world", or as Jay calls it, a moral phenomenology. 
  • The problem with "identity politics" from a Buddhist perspective.



  • Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy by Evan Thompson
  • The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency by Maria Heim
  • Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction by Mark Siderits
 Jacob Kyle, Host of CHITHEADS

Jacob Kyle, Host of CHITHEADS

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