Meditation, nonconceptuality, and the reflexive structure of consciousness

Authored by: John Spackman

Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation

Print publication date:  May  2022
Online publication date:  May  2022

Print ISBN: 9780367647469
eBook ISBN: 9781003127253
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter draws on Yogācāra Buddhist thought in order to propose an account of the functional structure of the mind underlying the efficacy of some Buddhist meditative practices. The chapter considers two models of how meditative states have been viewed as nonconceptual, transcending conceptual thought. One model holds that meditative states have nonconceptual representational contents, but the paper argues that there are strong grounds for viewing all mental contents as supervenience conceptual, as supervening on the subject’s concepts. The objections to nonconceptual content do not apply, however, to an alternative model derived from Yogācāra Buddhist authors such as Asaṅga and Dharmakīrti. On this model, meditative states are to varying degrees nonconceptual because they promote an awareness of the reflexive nature of consciousness itself. The paper supports reflexive over higher-order theories of consciousness, and argues that if consciousness is reflexive, it is nonconceptual, since in its reflexive dimension the act of consciousness and its object are identical, while concepts are necessarily distinct from their objects. On this account, the nonconceptuality of meditative states derives from their ability to cultivate an awareness of the nature of consciousness, which is compatible with their contents being uniformly conceptual.

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