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NEH Summer Institute Project

The chief intellectual objective of the Institute is to provide a forum for an intensive exploration of four core issues concerning the problem of self-knowledge

Project

The chief intellectual objective of the Institute is to provide a forum for an intensive exploration of four core issues concerning the problem of self-knowledge:

  • whether self-knowledge is epistemically infallible;
  • whether self-knowledge has a distinctive structure and proper object;
  • whether there are special methods (such as introspection, phenomenological description, reflection, and meditation) that guarantee self-knowledge, and how these methods are validated;
  • what are the specific ways in which Indian and Buddhist philosophers contribute to conceptualizing the problem of self-knowledge.

Questions about the nature of self-knowledge have been the focus of intense philosophical debates in both India and the West. The metaphysical dimension of the problem begins with questions such as these: What is the object of self-knowledge? Is it a persistent subject or self, a mere focus of experience, or is it an imaginary construct? The epistemological dimension arises when we ask how we gain access to this object, real or imaginary, and whether that access is immediate or mediated, infallible or fallible, the same as or different from that by means of which we know external objects or the minds of others. Existential questions arise when we ask whether authentic commitment to a life project makes manifest dimensions of human existence and experience that cannot be captured by the basic categories of science (physics, biology, and psychology). Phenomenological questions arise when we ask about the role of self-knowledge in the constitution of experience: are we necessarily aware of our own subjectivity when we are aware of other objects? If so, in what way, and how? Last, but not least, moral questions arise when we wonder whether, or to what degree, awareness of ourselves as selves is tied to moral agency, to morally reactive emotions such as shame, pride or resentment, and to moral responsibility. 

Anglophone analytic philosophy of mind presents us with a different set of problems: is knowledge of our own mental states  epistemically secure? Are the methods by which we determine mental states to be our own reliable? Do claims regarding states of mind bear a specific authority or presumption of truth? Empirical advances in the study of belief formation and attribution – and the acquisition of a sense of self – have challenged many traditional assumptions about self-knowledge and its presumed epistemic authority.

Nonetheless, many philosophers argue that no account of self-knowledge is complete without systematically engaging the various aspects and dimensions of our ecological, dialogical, social, subjective, and embodied experience. Contemporary phenomenology and philosophy of mind provides one systematic framework. An equally valuable framework of analysis is found in various streams of Indian and Buddhist philosophy. Philosophers in these traditions have developed a sophisticated literature and conceptual apparatus that in many ways complement those of the Western traditions.

Since the best approach to these problems is interdisciplinary and cross-cultural, it is essential that philosphers addressing these questions, and teachers developing curricula in these areas, are aware of the insights that emerge from pursuing them in diverse traditions and settings. This Institute provides such a multi-disciplinary cross-cultural forum. It focuses specifically on the exchange between Indian and Buddhist philosophy, analytic philosophy of mind, cognitive science, phenomenology, and existential philosophy.

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