” This “switch from essentialist thinking to [interactional] thinking” is also the focus of the second school of Indian Buddhist Mahāyāna philosophy, Yogācāra (4–7th c. ce). Grounded in the logical critiques of essentialism articulated by the Mādhyamikans, Yogācārin philosophers emphasized their epistemological implications. They argued that the basic epistemological problem—and hence the basic spiritual problem—is that we falsely imagine (abhuta-parikalpita) that the subjective dimension of experience is truly separable from the objective dimension, that we actually are independently existing subjects distinct and separate from equally independently existing objects. They claim, moreover, that we ordinarily and nearly universally reify our experiences into exactly this kind of subject-object dualism, and that, to our detriment, we think and act as if we were isolated, reified entities rather than thoroughly embedded in complex causal relations.
This “imagining the nonexistent” not only imagines that we are separate from the larger causal networks in which we are embedded, it also encourages us to ignore the effects of our actions (karma) on the larger world. That is, the Yogācārins argue that such reifications, and the philosophies articulating them, like Cartesian dualism (and its derivative, reductive materialism), are not only incoherent, they are also harmful. We can, they argue, see more clearly, think more coherently, and act more constructively when we fully comprehend the causal embeddedness of our lives and adjust our actions accordingly. An important part of this constructive program is developing conceptions of mind and world that reflect this causal embeddedness. In this process, one eventually comes to recognize that both subject and object are “dependent on others” (paratantra), a realization that, when “fully perfected” (pariniṣpanna), becomes the ultimate realization in Yogacara thought. Hence, well conceived causal models are not only important for understanding the world, but for Indian Buddhists at any rate they also have a spiritual dimension as well.
“We must think of the mind as a phenomenon to which the human case is not necessarily central, even though our minds are at the centre of the world. This idea can be betrayed if we turn objective comprehensibility into a new standard of reality. That is an error because the fact that reality extends beyond what is available to our original perspective does not mean that all of it is available to some transcendent perspective that we can reach from here. But so long as we avoid this error, it is proper to be motivated by the hope of extending our objective understanding to as much of life and the world as we can.
By a general concept of mind I don’t mean an anthropocentric concept which conceives all minds on analogy with our own. I mean a concept under which we ourselves fall as instances – without any implication that we are the central instances […] I want to think of mind as a general feature of the world. […] The necessary incompleteness of an objective concept of mind seems fairly clear.
One might say that the wider problem of mental objectivity is an analogue at the level of mental types to the problem of other minds for individuals: not, “How can I conceive of minds other than my own?” but, “How can we conceive of minds subjectively incommensurable with our own?” In both cases we must conceive of ourselves as instances of something more general in order to place ourselves in a centerless world.
The interesting problem of other minds is not the epistemological problem, how I can know that other people are not zombies. It is the conceptual problem, how I can understand the attribution of mental states to others. And this in turn is really the problem, how I can conceive of my own mind as merely one of many examples of mental phenomena contained in the world.
The issue is whether there can be a general concept of experience that extends far beyond our own or anything like it. Even if there can, we may be able to grasp it only in the abstract, as we are presumably unable to grasp now concepts of objective physical reality which will be developed five centuries hence. But the possibility that there is such a concept would be sufficient motive for trying to form it. It is only if we are convinced in advance that the thing makes no sense that we can be justified in setting the limits of objectivity with regard to the mind so close to our own ordinary viewpoint.
CONSCIOUSNESS IN GENERAL
So far as I can see the only reason for accepting such limits would be a Wittgensteinian one – namely, that such an extension or attempted generalization of the concept of mind takes us away from the conditions that make the concept meaningful.”
“whatever sorts of things may have intrinsic natures, numbers do not – that it simply does not pay to be an essentialist about numbers. We antiessentialists would like to convince you that it also does not pay to be essentialist about tables, stars, electrons, human beings, academic disciplines, social institutions, or anything else. We suggest that you think of all such objects as resembling numbers in the following respect: there is nothing to be known about them except an initially large, and forever expandable, web of relations to other objects. Everything that can serve as the term of a relation can be dissolved into another set of relations, and so on for ever. There are, so to speak, relations all the way down, all the way up, and all the way out in every direction: you never reach something which is not just one more nexus of relations. The system of natural numbers is a good model of the universe because in that system it is obvious,
and obviously harmless, that there are no terms of relations which are not simply clusters of further relations.”