Taking the Intentionality of Perception Seriously: Why Phenomenology is Inescapable

Philosophy East and West 65 (1):227-248 (2015)

Christian Coseru
College of Charleston
The Buddhist philosophical investigation of the elements of existence and/or experience (or dharmas) provides the basis on which Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, and their followers deliberate on such topics as the ontological status of external objects and the epistemic import of perceptual states of cognitive awareness. In this essay I will argue that the Buddhist epistemologists, insofar as they accord perception a privileged epistemic status, share a common ground with phenomenologists in the tradition of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, who contend that perception is best understood as bearing intentional content. On this phenomenological account of intentionality, to perceive an object (or to have a perceptual experience) is to apprehend an intentional relation: whether the object intended in perception (the one the perception is of) is real is less important than how it is intended. Indeed, the central feature of intentionality is that it reveals the co-constitutive nature of perception and that which is perceived; as such, it discloses the world rather than attempting to establish a relationship to a discrete, ‘external’ world. I will begin by offering an overview of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti's account of perception and intentionality, focusing on the epistemic role of svasaṃvitti ("self-awareness," "self-cognition") as a dual aspect cognition. Then, I will briefly discuss three dominant accounts of the relation between perception and phenomenal content in contemporary philosophy (drawing from the work of Dennett, Dreyfus, O'Regan and Noë, and Zahavi, among others). Finally, I will offer several reasons why the Buddhist epistemologists, along with Western phenomenologists, are justified in asserting that direct perception opens up a domain of phenomenal experience that is prior to our conceptualizing and theorizing about it.
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DOI 10.1353/pew.2015.0004
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