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A number of contemporary scholars have attempted the conceptual reconstruction of Buddhist philosophy by putting authors like Nāgārjuna or Dharmakīrti in conversation with philosophers such as Kant or Daniel Dennett. Professor Walser argues that the cogency of such arguments is undermined when the historical context of the original argument is misunderstood. Increasingly, academic Buddhist philosophers appeal to a free-floating, normative “Buddhism” when making their arguments about historical Buddhist authors. They do not have to provide evidence for these assertions, because certain “facts” about Buddhism are becoming simply common knowledge to their audiences. It is simply assumed, for example, that Buddhism teaches the soul does not exist, denies significance to caste and denies the efficacy of ritual. Buddhism does none of these things. While some normative use of categories is inescapable, historically uncritical use of such categories leaves us with a caricature of the works it seeks to represent.
Joseph Walser is Associate Professor of Religion at Tufts University, in Medford MA. His works focus on the relationship between religion and power. He is author of Nāgārjuna in Context (Columbia, 2005) and Genealogies of Mahāyāna Buddhism (Routledge, 2018).