23 April 2014: Professor Jay Garfield explores Western philosophy’s ‘will’ from a Buddhist perspective

Written by James Edwin Benkowski | Image by Samuel He for Yale-NUS College

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Professor Jay Garfield, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Humanities and Head of Studies in Philosophy at Yale-NUS College, gave a President’s Speaker Series talk on 2 April 2014 titled ‘Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose: Freedom, Agency and Morality and Mādhyamikas’.

In the public lecture, Professor Garfield argued that a vast swathe of Western philosophical dialogue takes the existence of human will as a presupposition, in that the mind is responsible for human action.

Hence, Western philosophy’s driving interest has focused on determining whether the will is truly free, or if all human actions are determined by other causes. However, Professor Garfield argued, this is not a universal question. By exploring human agency as understood in the Mahayana Buddhist school of philosophy, Professor Garfield suggested a means of understanding it without regard to the West’s millennia-old debate over of freedom of the will versus determinism. In Mādhyamikas, it is believed that the self is constructed as the sum of a person’s thoughts, beliefs, past experiences, future expectations, and present circumstances. Behaviour is a matter of choice, motivated by cognitive and emotional states and subject to explanatory power. Hence, moral liberation is achievable by seeking “a path to a better self… a self whose actions are conditioned by care, sympathetic joy, generosity, and confidence”.

Professor Garfield’s talk illuminated an Eastern answer to a question that Western philosophy seldom asks: is the will a necessary philosophical concept? Doing so raises significant methodological questions about Western philosophy, and cautions the cost of limiting philosophical learning to a narrow Western tradition at the exclusion of the world’s numerous other rich and diverse philosophies. As Professor Garfield concluded, having a wider perspective on the world and paying attention to others’ traditions “can advance our own… freeing us from the bars of a self-constructed prison…and when that freedom is complete, there is simply nothing left to lose”.


About Professor Jay Garfield

Before coming to Yale-NUS College, Professor Garfield was the Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Five Colleges Tibetan Studies in India Program, and Director of the Logic Program at Smith College. He was also the Professor of the Graduate Faculty in Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Central University of Tibetan Studies in India.

Earlier this year, he led a group of Yale-NUS students on a week-long Learning Across Boundaries study trip to Kyoto, Japan, for an intensive study of Japanese Buddhist philosophy, society and culture. While there, he also gave a seminar on Buddhist philosophy at the University of Kyoto.