World Philosophies lecture series

Speaker: Richard Nance (University of Indiana Bloomington, USA)

Title: Dissolving the World: An Introduction to Vasubandhu’s 'Twenty Verses'

Abstract: According to various Buddhist traditions, human suffering is something that is caused, and a root cause of suffering is ignorance. Our ignorance is understood not as a simple absence of knowledge, but rather as the presence of mistaken “knowledge”: as human beings, we misapprehend the nature of things at the same time as we fail to recognize that we are doing so. To come to apprehend things as they are is thus to eliminate the root cause of suffering. Buddhist philosophical traditions are concerned to facilitate this process by diagnosing, in a general way, the nature of ignorance. But what is the nature of ignorance? Different Buddhist philosophers have offered different answers to this question. This talk will explore one answer, articulated by the Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu (4th to 5th century CE) in a short and influential Sanskrit text entitled "Twenty Verses" (Viṃśikā). In brief, Vasubandhu sees ignorance to consist in the presumption that our experience ever veridically registers anything external to awareness. If he is right, then some of our most deeply held ideas about the “external world”—a world of publicly accessible, spatially extended, functional, physical things—are less well-supported than we tend to think, and may in the end be incoherent. Vasubandhu suggests not only that we can and should begin to see things otherwise, but also that to do so need not plunge us into solipsism. This talk will introduce some of Vasubandhu’s main claims and arguments in "Twenty Verses," exploring what they presuppose, how they go, whether they are cogent, and what (if anything) they suggest about how we should go about living our lives.

Richard Nance: I am a specialist in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and my work to date has focused broadly on Buddhism in India as practiced during the first millennium. I am interested in the ways in which doctrines inform, and are informed by, practices—more specifically, in questions of how protocols for teaching, learning, and interpreting Buddhist texts have shifted over time as these protocols have themselves been taught, learned, and interpreted.

My work draws its methods and concerns from at least three distinct academic disciplines: history, philosophy, and philology. It is historical, insofar as it does not attempt to provide an encompassing account of what a de-historicized “Buddhist tradition” says. Rather, it focuses more narrowly on particular times and places, to the extent that this is possible, and aims to offer a descriptive account of the normative assumptions that were influential in those times and places. My work is also philosophical, insofar as it rationally reconstructs these normative assumptions to show the ways in which they have provided—and can continue to provide—resources for sustained reflection on some of the guiding questions of philosophy. Finally, my work is philological, insofar as it excavates these assumptions via close inspection of primary sources in Sanskrit and Classical Tibetan, attending to the ways that processes of textual transmission in pre-print culture can serve to shape received texts.

My recent and current projects include studies of: guides designed to provide instruction for would-be commentators on how best to articulate the meaning of scriptural texts; the rhetoric of Buddhist letters to Indian kings; divergent traditional accounts of the so-called “four reliances”; the extent to which one can reasonably speak of a “commentarial mindset” informing the composition of Buddhist exegetical works in India; conspiratorial offenses in the Pali vinaya and norms for assessing culpability of participants in cases of theft and killing; the philosophical issues raised by Indian discussions of how and why Buddhas are to be made materially present via the plastic arts.

Selected Publications:

Further information

The purpose of this lecture series is to support scholars in the field of non-western philosophies, to create an environment in which world philosophies specialists can foster their joint research projects, and to transmit the research output of University of Edinburgh scholars worldwide. We believe that this lecture series will also contribute to the process of decolonising the philosophy program at the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.


Takeshi Morisato

Apr 25 2023 -

World Philosophies lecture series

2023-04-25: Dissolving the World: An Introduction to Vasubandhu’s 'Twenty Verses'

Room G.06, 50 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LH