As if a Stage: Towards an Ecological Concept of Thought in Indian Buddhist Philosophy

Main Article Content

Sonam Kachru


The interest of this essay is meta-philosophical: I seek to reconstruct neglected concepts of thought available to us given the diverse use South Asian Buddhist philosophers have made of the term-of-art vikalpa. In contemporary Anglophone engagements with Buddhist philosophy, it has come to mean either the categorization and reidentification of particulars in terms of the construction of equivalence classes and/or the representation of extra-mental causes of content. While this does track much that is important in the history of Buddhist philosophy, it is overly restrictive. Based on three examples, this essay reconstructs other concepts of vikalpa available before, during, and after Digṅāga’s epochal reformulation of Buddhist epistemology. The first example takes us away from the familiar context of content introduction in perceptual experience to consider Ratnakīrti’s way of treating cases where one exits from concept-involving modes of engaging content. The second takes up with Vasubandhu and Sthiramati the case of the contents of background (and nonepisodic) awareness. The third and final case builds on the last concern, taking up a discussion of possible worlds in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra. This last was intended to address the relationship of thought to language. Moving beyond narrowly epistemological concerns allows a more expansive sense of vikalpa to come into view. Doing so, in turn, allows one to see that vikalpa need not indicate only occurrent representations, but also the structured systems of possible discriminations which some Buddhists took to serve as the background for all possible perception, thought, and action. The existence of such a background changes the salience and the value of distinctions drawn between conceptual and non-conceptual contents and experiences.

Article Details

How to Cite
Kachru, S. (2020). As if a Stage: Towards an Ecological Concept of Thought in Indian Buddhist Philosophy. Journal of World Philosophies, 5(1), 1–29. Retrieved from
Author Biography

Sonam Kachru, University of Virginia

Sonam Kachru is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia (USA). He is a student of the history of philosophy with special emphasis on Indian Buddhist philosophy in antiquity. His first book, More and Less Than Human: Life, Mind, And World In Indian Buddhism, will be published by Columbia University Press.