My research centers on non-standard theories of relations and dependence structures in the history of metaphysics, both South Asian and Early Modern European. My dissertation consists of papers drawn from two interrelated projects: the first is a defense of Madhyamaka Buddhist metaphysical indefinitism; the second is an interpretation of the Lockean person as a relation. In the short term, I plan to publish selected papers from each project as journal articles, though I anticipate writing books on each.
I. Metaphysical Issues in South Asian Philosophy Metaphysical Dependence and Mereology in Indian Buddhist Philosophy What would the world be like if everything were ontologically dependent on something else? Is an unending dependence chain even coherent? Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophers claim that it is and advance an arsenal of anti-foundationalist arguments in support. I call their position “metaphysical indefinitism” and I argue that it is both a coherent and attractive account of the structure of reality. In my first dissertation project, I present a reconstruction and analysis of the anti-foundationalist “neither-one-nor-many argument,” as formulated by the c. seventh century Indian Buddhist philosopher, Śrīgupta, in hisIntroduction to Reality (Tattvāvatāra). This argument rejects ontologically independent being by rejecting true unities, which are defined as mereological simples. I show how Śrīgupta’s line of reasoning commits him to metaphysical indefinitism, make a case for its internal consistency, and identify its virtues.
The first paper presents an account of Madhyamaka metaphysical indefinitism, according to which everything is ontologically dependent on something else, ad indefinitum. I clarify how—contra recent claims in the secondary literature—(i) the Madhyamaka metaphysical dependence structure does not represent a straightforward infinitism and (ii) Madhyamaka metaphysical dependence relations do not strictly map onto the metaphysical grounding relation. Specifically, I argue that the Madhyamaka dependence structure is (i) potentially, mind-dependently, and structurally infinite, rather than actually, mind-independently, and quantitatively infinite, and (ii) irreflexive and extendable, but not asymmetric or transitive.
In the second paper, I develop an account of mereological indefinitism, a subspecies of Madhyamaka metaphysical indefinitism. I clarify how this picture differs from contemporary “gunky” mereological models and demonstrate its payoffs in terms of ontological and ideological parsimony and its capacity to honor pragmatic concerns. I further show how Madhyamaka mereological indefinitism offers promising strategies for resolving a variety of familiar metaphysical puzzles concerning identity, colocation, composition, and persistence.
Madhyamaka metaphysical indefinitism structures not only to the material, but also to the mental world. In the third paper, I reconstruct and assess the lengthiest and most complex sub-argument of Śrīgupta’s neither-one-nor-many argument, which is devoted to his refutation of mental simples, and thus the rejection of ontologically independent mental entities. This argument turns on an analysis of the relation between the mind and mental content. I then flesh out the positive picture that follows from this line of reasoning.
Śrīgupta’s Introduction to Reality, which forms the main textual basis for this project, has never before been available in English. Thus, to support this line of research, I am in the process of finalizing a monograph composed of a critical edition, English translation, and philosophical introduction to Śrīgupta’s Introduction to Reality, which is under contract with the Harvard Oriental Series, Harvard University Press. Also related to this project, I have co-authored a cross-cultural philosophy article with Jeffrey McDonough, “Śrīgupta and Leibniz on Being and Unity,” published in Philosophy East and West. In another related article under review, “The Truth About Śrīgupta’s Two Truths,” I explore the reception of Śrīgupta’s account of the Madhyamaka theory of two truths (satyadvaya)—the ultimate truth and the conventional truth—in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
Future directions I plan to take this line of research include addressing metametaphysical worries about the account of metaphysical indefinitism that I develop. I will respond to a popular story which says that Mādhyamikas like Śrīgupta are skeptics who don’t make positive claims and, indeed, don’t do metaphysics at all. I will further defend this account against foundationalist challenges, clarify why it is not a form of thoroughgoing nihilism, and argue that it instantiates a virtuous, rather than a vicious regress. II. Metaphysical Issues in Early Modern Philosophy Locke on Relations and Persons My second line of research centers on Locke’s account of the metaphysics of relations, persons, selves, and consciousness. Locke’s unintuitive, yet philosophically promising account of relations has been neglected, despite the fact that it bears on nearly all aspects of his system, including his influential theory of personal identity. In my second dissertation project, I argue that for Locke the person is, metaphysically speaking, a relation. The first paper introduces my interpretation of the Lockean person as a relation. Here, I shed light on a historically overlooked distinction between the Lockean self and the Lockean person. It is the person—not the self—that is a diachronic forensic entity tracking moral accountability, and it is the self—not the person—that is the synchronic object of knowledge of the cogito. The person is a diachronic identity relation between past and present selves, which are its relata.
The metaphysics of persons has epistemic consequences. In the second paper, I argue that understanding the Lockean person as a relation affords an account of qualified privileged access in first-personal judgments of personal identity. That persons as relations are mind-dependent accommodates the epistemic privilege of the first-person stance, and that persons as relations must answer to substances as their truth-makers provides a basis for excluding infallibility. In this way, the relation-interpretation precludes false memories from constituting persons. Moreover, the metaphysics of Lockean relations provides truth conditions for personal identity judgments that ground moral accountability without entailing circularity.
Understanding persons as relations also delivers metaphysical payoffs for Locke’s account of personal identity. In the third paper, I show how persons are relativized to the first-person, present perspective from which one makes judgments about one’s personhood. I demonstrate how this relativized, metaphysically light account of persons honors the non-substantialist spirit of Locke’s account of personal identity, while also obviating Reid’s transitivity objection. I further show how sameness of consciousness serves as a metaphysical grounding criterion for persons qua relations without entailing circularity or endorsing a substantialist account of consciousness.
A future line of research that has developed out of this dissertation project concerns one of Locke’s most important and overlooked insights: the pervasive, though often tacit directionality of our ideas. For the most part, we do not simply experience things in and of themselves; we experience things in such a way that other things are implicated. Locke observes that all of our complex ideas, when attentively considered, include some kind of relation. He describes our simple ideas (except figure and bulk) as powers, which he glosses as relations to substances. In fact, for Locke, all objects of knowledge are relations: knowledge consists in the agreement or disagreement of ideas, which corresponds to his definitions of identity and diversity, two of the most fundamental Lockean relations. I plan to explore the epistemological and metaphysical consequences of Locke’s account on which the entire content of our mental lives—and the world—threatens to involve relations.