Kira Conference 2000
August 4-6

Location and Registration

Date: August 4-6, 2000
Location: Merrill Science Center, lecture room 4, on the Amherst College campus.
Fee: none

The conference is held during the Kira Summer School 2000. Attendance for tne Kira Conference is open and free to the public. There is no need to register in advance.

Meals and Accommodations

Members of the public who attend the conference may purchase meals in the Amherst College dining hall (breakfast $4.60, lunch $6.25, dinner $7.25). In addition, attendees are welcome to a buffet dinner with the speakers, faculty, and student on Friday evening, August 4, for a price of $22 payable at the door.

There will be a limited number of Amherst College dormitory apartments for $24 per night available for attendants of the conference.  For more information about availability or to reserve, please send email to Aina Barten, or call her at telephone number (413)369-4766.


See the conference schedule page.

Presentation Abstracts

Some Reflections on the Epistemic Status of Meditative Experience in Buddhist Thought

Thupten Jinpa, distinguished Tibetan translator and interpreter of the Dalai Lama

Buddhism has a long history of epistemological thinking and questions concerning the nature, scope, basis, and reliability of knowledge have occupied the minds of Buddhist thinkers for many centuries. Furthermore, like other intellectual traditions, Buddhist thought too has given rise to a wide array of diverse epistemological theories.

I shall begin my paper with a brief presentation of the typology of knowledge as developed by the seventh century Buddhist thinker Dharmakirti, arguably the most influential of all Buddhist epistemologists, and relate this to the typology developed by later, especially Tibetan thinkers. This will help provide a wider intellectual and historical background for the place of knowledge within Buddhist philosophical thinking.

The central focus of my paper shall be, however, the examination of the epistemic status of meditative experience, especially those that are characterized by Buddhist texts as 'insights.' As part of this enquiry, I shall identify and examine some of the principal meditative methods, processes that could arguably be perceived as leading to acquisitions of knowledge. With this backdrop, I shall address the following critical questions. (1) Can meditative experience be a source of knowledge? (2) If so, is there an intrinsic limit to the scope of such knowledge? (3) Does the possibility of knowledge through meditative experience suggest the viability of a first-person method of acquiring knowledge? (4) How does knowledge acquired through meditative experience compare to other ways of knowing? These questions will be set within the larger issue of what seems to be an inherent tension between an epistemological theory's demand for systematization and the phenomenological reality of the experience of knowledge.

In Quest of Qualitative Rationality

Erazim Kohak, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Boston University

Western thought in the twentieth century has worked itself into a dead end by assuming that the only alternatives available to it were those of a technical, solely quantitative rationality which excludes questions of value and meaning from scholarly consideration (so called "cartesian rationality," better represented by writers like Reichenbach in his `Rise of Scientifc Philosophy') or, alternately an irrationalism which surrenders all claim to critical reason (as Heidegger or more recently various post-modernists). I wish to use Husserl's later writings such as `Ideen II' and `Krisis' to explore the possibility that the disjunction is not exhaustive and that world as constituted by the presence of purposive life (so called `Lebenswelt') is intelligibly (i.e. rationally) ordered in terms of relations of value and meaning, not mathematically-causally alone.

Scientific Objectivity and Outside Insight

Elisabeth Lloyd, Professor of Biology and Philosophy at Indiana University

We will begin with a classification of the various senses of objectivity, both methodological and metaphysical. We will then investigate how they relate to scientific inquiry. Finally, we will relate the general discussion to a number of case studies in the sciences (focusing on biology) in which issues of objectivity appear.

Who's on Third?: The Physical Bases of Consciousness

Brian Cantwell Smith, Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science at Indiana University

Materialist theories of mind typically presuppose: (i) that we can assume a world consisting of ordinary, commonsense objects, such as tables and chairs; and (ii) that objective, third-person content is the easiest kind to naturalise. What is considered mysterious, from a naturalistic viewpoint, is the subjective, experiential, intrinsically first-person character of phenomenological consciousness.

In this paper I argue that this tradition has things almost entirely upside-down. What it assumes is hard, is actually easy; what it assumes is easy, is genuinely difficult.

No current science provides an account of ordinary material objects, for starters. Rather than being assumable, commonsense ontology (and related processes of epistemic abstraction) are as much in need of naturalisation as intentionality or consciousness. Naturalisation should therefore start with no more than elementary field-theory. It is an ontological consequence of the fact that the laws of physics (both classical and modern) are expressed in differential form, moreover, that any physically-realised content will have an intrinsically deictic or indexical character. The form of content that is easiest for a physical entity to achieve (and for a naturalist to understand), therefore, is something like a proto-version of first- or second-person, subjective content. The challenge, for physically embodied agents, is to develop objective, "third-person" conceptions of the world.

A sketch is provided of how an agent can "deconvolve the deixis," so as to achieve such an extrinsic, objective conception of the world around it. Consciousness, objects, and ontology emerge together, as a result of agents' stabilising commitment to the world.

Core Knowledge

Elizabeth Spelke, Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT

Studies of human infants and of non-human primates suggest that human cognition begins with a set of domain-specific systems of knowledge--systems for identifying and reasoning about people, inanimate objects, places, and the like--that are relatively independent of one another. Over development, however, children and adults become very flexible in our abilities to combine these systems and create new ones. I will discuss some of the evidence for core knowledge systems in animals and human infants and then consider how children and adults may transcend the limits of these systems.

Francis and Dominic: Stories, Faces, Arguments, and Rules

Eleonore Stump, Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University

The mendicant orders organized by Francis and Dominic in the thirteenth century had a far-reaching influence on the culture of the medieval world. They also had a well-documented influence on subsequent western philosophy, through the writings of such Franciscans as Bonaventure, Ockham, and Scotus and such Dominicans as Albert the Great and Aquinas. What has received less attention is the difference in approach to intellectual achievement, moral goodness, and spiritual wellbeing of the two groups, at least in their early history. Although these orders originally pursued the same sort of education, strove for a similar religious ideal, and shared a common purpose in their outreach to others, in the vision of their founders and many of those who followed them the two orders represent different strategies for attaining human excellence in mind and will. In this paper, I will attempt to characterize the difference in those strategies and to argue for the importance of what I take to be the strategy of the early Franciscans, in which stories and faces are at least as important as arguments and rules. Finally, I will illustrate the usefulness of the strategy focused on faces and stories by considering a philosophical puzzle about the nature of love highlighted and to some extent resolved in Shakespeare's King Lear.

Beholding the Berlin Madonna: A Contemplative Guide

Joel Upton, Professor of Art and History at Amherst College

"I doubt whether any professional task has ever given me greater pleasure than the contemplation of the group of paintings discussed above, and especially prolonged consideration of Jan van Eyck's marvelous Madonna in the church." (Millard Meiss, The Painter's choice, 1976. p. 14)

"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement..." (T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton)

My intention is to offer a contemplative 'way of knowing' by engaging one particular devotional image painted around the middle of the 15th century in Flanders by the artist Jan van Eyck.

Taking into account the iconographic context of the apparent scale discrepancy between the figures and the space that surrounds them in Jan van Eyck's well known Madonna in the Church in the Gemalde Gallerie in Berlin, Erwin Panofsky replaced the traditional formal interpretation of the painting with the memorable conclusion that the image represented "not so much 'a Virgin Mary in a church' as 'the Virgin Mary as The Church.'" Although this formulation has become the accepted definition of this painting, both it and its descriptive predecessor limit the viewer to an objectified relationship that diminishes, in my view, both the meaning and the artistic accomplishment of this work of art--on the one hand reducing it to an "inaccurate" Renaissance realism and on the other, fixing it as an iconic emblem of an idea.

By way of a direct experiential encounter with the painting, I mean to propose an alternative approach in which so-called subjective and objective realities merge in an "art" that intimates a profound (not to say spiritual) reconciliation between contradictory possibilities of knowing that a more exclusively objective vantage point obscures. From this perspective, the rationalized ("distanced") conclusions concerning Mary's pictorial or symbolic status, might give way to a third perception in which Mary and the child confront us as an incarnate subjectivity resulting from Jan van Eyck's own immediate experience of the already preposterous structure of a gothic cathedral where light and glass transfigure the weight of stone and shadow. For this artistic realization to work (for the "art" of the Berlin Madonna to be present), the habitually neutral spectator must become an engaged Beholder, willing to participate in a most intimate collaboration with the artist, to "see" precisely what he "saw" and to accept the constituent parts that comprise this painting as the outward traces of Jan van Eyck's own internalization of Mary's "presence" in a church building and in the world as he knew it to be.

The spiritual bridge that resonates across the half millennium that separates us from Jan van Eyck draws on our capacity to see beyond the ecclesiastical objectivity of this work of art to its intensely palpable affirmation of our shared incarnation, held here, as it were, in the arms of a young mother and preserved for us to Behold in a suspension of oil, pigment and wood that sublimates the Eros of our deepest human awareness.

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