Contemporary studies of Buddhist philosophy take on the task of conceptual reconstruction of ancient thinkers by putting philosophers like Nāgārjuna or Dharmakīrti in conversation with philosophers such as Kant or Daniel Dennett. In so doing, they frequently treat “Buddhism,” “Abhidharma,” etc. normatively as a kind of short- hand for a finite set of propositions, i.e., “the doctrine of no-self” or “essentialism,” respectively. This article has four parts. The first discusses the contrast between academic certainty that Buddhism teaches absence of a self and the evidence upon which this assertion is based. The second part brings these discussions to bear on Dan Arnold’s treatments of Nāgārjuna to argue that the cogency of his reconstruction of Nāgārjuna’s arguments is undermined by not being sufficiently grounded in the evidence of historical context. The third part turns to Arnold’s contention that the proper study of religion should be about its doctrines and that these should be evaluated independent of social and political forces. Finally, I will suggest that there are troubling ethical implications to representing Buddhism free of social and historical context insofar as it ends up erasing Buddhists from the picture of “Buddhism.” I turn to a genealogy of the idea that our belief is free to show that the autonomy of belief we find in philosophical studies of Buddhism perpetuates a set of assumptions about Buddhism and religion that have more to do with Western post-Cold War state sensibilities than with the concerns of the ancient authors they purport to explain.
October 10, 2022