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The Comparative Philosophy Seminar seeks to advance constructive philosophical projects by bringing together scholars with training in diverse areas of Asian (mostly Buddhist) thought and Western Philosophy. Comparison in this context is not employed to loan authority to one set of obscure discoveries by revealing its resonances with the works of others, deemed less obscure. Nor does it sociologize philosophy in search of general laws of human cultural and intellectual development. Rather, the intent is to explicate, and employ, the fullness of an expanded philosophical toolset—and see how that works. The seminar ordinarily invites respondents who are versed in the relevant field of philosophical inquiry, but who are not necessarily specialists in Asian thought. In order to facilitate an ongoing conversation, seminar meetings for a given year are loosely organized around a very general theme, which speakers are asked to address when possible. In past years, the themes have been “Personal Identity” (2007–2008) and “Meta-Ethics” (2008–2009).

Professor Allison Aitken

Professor Jonathan C. Gold

Professor Hagop Sarkissian

Lucilla Ines Martorana

Meeting Schedule

09/30/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:30 PM
Buddhist Conventional Truth and Ontological Pluralism
Laura P. Guerrero , William & Mary


Buddhist philosophers often draw a distinction between two different kinds of truth: conventional truth (saṃvṭi-satya) and ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya). Abhidharma Buddhists philosophers typically understand this distinction in terms of an ontological distinction between two different kinds of entities: ultimately real entities (paramārtha-sat) and conventionally real entities (saṃvṛti-sat). Similar to contemporary philosophical discussions about ordinary objects, Buddhist philosophers debate the ontological status of conventional entities and the semantics of discourse concerning them. Mark Siderits (2015, 2021, 2022) has influentially argued for an eliminitivist position he calls “Buddhist reductionism” that interprets the Abhidharma position as one that denies conventional entities exist but that retains discourse involving apparent reference to them. However, in a recent article Kris McDaniel (2019), a prominent defender of ontological pluralism, challenges that view by proposing that the Abhidharma Buddhist distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth be “defined up” from a more basic distinction between two different ways an entity can exist: conventionally or ultimately. In this paper I argue that Saṃghabhadra’s account of conventional reality and truth does lends itself well to McDaniel’s proposal but I will also argue that the account of conventional and ultimate truth that results differs in important ways from the models he offers. I will end by offering a modification of McDaniel’s account of conventional truth that is derived from Saṃghabhadra’s pluralist ontology. That view will, unlike the views suggested by both Siderits and McDaniel, allow for there to be ultimate truths about what is conventionally true.

Mark Siderits , Illinois State University

10/14/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:30 PM
How to nurture compassion?—Some lessons from Asian philosophical traditions
Sin yee Chan, University of Vermont


Recent philosophical discussions on compassion focus on the value and the nature of compassion as an emotion. Ancient Asian philosophical traditions such as Confucianism and Buddhism, however, emphasize compassion as a character trait that should be nurtured. This paper examines the insights drawn from these traditions to help inform the nurturing of compassion. For example, is empathy a necessary tool? What is the role of love and care? Does self-reflection contribute to the process?

Timothy Connolly, East Stroudsburg University

11/01/2022 Zoom
5:30 PM
Vows without a Self
Monima Chadha, Monash University


Vows play a central role in Buddhist thought and practice. Monastics are obliged know and conform to hundreds of vows. We argue that Buddhist vows have two important roles to play. First, as is widely recognized, many of the vows are thought to help practitioners on the path to enlightenment. However, when we look at the wide range of vows that monastics undertake, it’s implausible that all of the vows aim at enlightenment. A second function of the vows, we argue, is to facilitate group harmony and cohesion. However, the prominence of vows in the Buddhist tradition seems at odds with another central part of the tradition. For vows, like other promises, seem to involve representing a persisting self as the individual who undertakes the vow. And to explicitly appeal to a persisting self conflicts with one of the most important philosophical commitments of Buddhism – the no self view. We argue that once we articulate the details of how vows generate behavior that conforms to them, we can see that in most cases, no appeal to the self is required to internalize and act on vows.

Shaun Nichols, Cornell University

Jonathan Gold, Princeton University