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Text and Context in Religious Studies and Yogācāra Cognitive Theory: Discovering Theory “in the Wild”

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AbstractThis paper discusses the creative dynamic between abstraction, reification, and reflexivity in the study of religion in general and textual analysis and Indian Buddhist thought in particular. I define “texts” narrowly, as written materials signifying human speech, something doubly removed from sensory experience, inviting abstraction and reification, while enabling reflexive analysis. Such analyses accumulate in literate civilizations — alienating yet enabling us. For example, the critical methods of Biblical analysis ironically undermined its own ahistorical assumptions, e.g., the idea of an Urtext independent of historical context. Philosophy of science displays similar developments: abstract theories enable analyses of data, which are, however, only meaningful within specific contexts of interpretation. Indian Buddhist philosophy similarly critiques ordinary assumptions about identity, subserved by our innate tendencies to abstract and reify experience, while recognizing its analytic insights. Its own accumulating traditions led Buddhist thinkers to critique multiple theories of cognition, concluding that, like an Urtext, the notion of an independent Self is an abstract social and especially linguistic construct that, nevertheless, operates at the deepest levels of our common cognitive processes — an insight that depended on textual traditions to develop.

Affiliations: 1: Middlebury College, Department of ReligionMiddlebury, Vt.


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