by Louis Komjathy 康思奇

Somatology refers to discourse on, study of, and theories about the (human) body. While more conventionally used to refer to a branch of anthropology (a.k.a. “physical anthropology”) primarily concerned with the physical nature and characteristics of people or to a branch of biology concerned with the structure and function of the human body, the term may be used as a comparative and cross-cultural interpretive category. Etymologically speaking, “somatology” derives from the Greek sôma (“body”) and lógos (“study”). Thus, it may be applied to consider the embodied, enacted, and enfleshed dimensions of human being and experience, especially in terms of corporeality, embodiment, physicality, somatics, and the like. From an interdisciplinary perspective, some especially relevant—if under-consulted—disciplines include body work, dance, disability studies, feminist studies, kinesthetics, movement studies, physical education, ritual studies, “sports science,” theater, and so forth.

In terms of the Philosophy of Religion, especially as envisioned in its current “global-critical” trajectory, with an additional concern for embodiment, personhood, and subjectivity, somatology inspires deeper exploration and reflection on “the body” as a lived, phenomenological site of human being and experiencing. Here we must recognize that, while accepting certain shared, recurring morphological and structural features, there is no such thing as “the body,” especially when we engage culture-specific views, “corporeal phenomenology,” transformative body-techniques, and socio-political dimensions (see, e.g., Komjathy 2007). Thus, there is only my body and your body, and other bodies, both historical and contemporaneous. This is not to mention the assumptions often involved with categories like “embodiment.” Are consciousness and identity distinguishable from “the body?” We may consider the ways in which the mind is in the body, including the possibility of “philosophy in the flesh” (see, e.g., Lakoff and Johnson 1999) and perhaps an accompanying “philosophy of skin and touch” (see, e.g., Vasseleu 1998). Additional somatological trajectories include investigation of associated human (and “non-human”) vulnerability and the centrality of pain in the human condition (see, e.g., Scarry 1985; Good et al. 1992). We may, in turn, think of this as the “somatic turn” in scholarship and perhaps in pedagogy, and it may open up more radical possibilities with respect to organic and ecological being-in-the-world.

As herein employed, that is, as a proposed comparative and cross-cultural category, there is no known “historical usage” of somatology, so here we will focus on intersection-points and additional possibilities. In addition to more straightforward investigation of culture- and tradition-specific views and enactments, including from comparative and cross-cultural perspectives (see bibliography herein), somatology inspires consideration of the body as such. Here we may consider actual posture and movement patterns (see, e.g., Hewes 1955, 1957) as well as the anatomy of movement (see Calais-Germain 2007). One possible “thought-experiment” (“body-experiment”?) in this regard involves deeper reflection on and perhaps subversive interaction with the academic vogue of neuroimaging technology. While neuroimages are often presented as providing maps of consciousness (brain physiology), with accompanying legitimation narratives, once again mediated by technology (see, e.g., Heidegger 1977; also Komjathy 2015, 2018), a more direct engagement with human being and expression, here through the “lived/living body,” is possible. One radical counterpoint centers on mapping movement patterns. For this, we may engage and potentially employ “movement notation systems,” including Laban Movement Analysis (LMA). This includes consideration of the four dimensions of body, effort, shape, and space (see, e.g., Bradley 2008; also Komjathy 2018). Hypothetically, we can create notations of any activity or event that may become a historio-cultural record, including for potential future reconstructions (see, e.g., Goodman 1990).

Along these lines, somatology brings our attention to the ways in which human beings have transformed and can transform themselves/ourselves through “body-techniques” (see Mauss 1935, 1979; Martin et al. 1988; Murphy 1992; Hadot 1995; Komjathy 2007). While this occurs all of the time in various ways, including through cultural conditioning and architecture as mandated movement, there are intentional undertakings, whether through specific activities or larger training regimens, that result in specific, self-directed transformative effects. This may include latent and even anomalous capacities, including “paranormal” or “extraordinary” ones (e.g., extreme sports). While Philosophy and Religious Studies have tended to (over)emphasize “beliefs,” “doctrine,” and “thought,” worldview is only one dimension of religious systems and traditions. A shift towards “experience” and even “embodiment” are welcome modifications, but these should ideally be combined with “practice” (see, e.g., Komjathy 2015, 2018). This involves attention to the technical specifics of said techniques and regimens, including transformative effects. In Contemplative Studies, the latter are often discussed in terms of “states” (temporary psychological shifts) and “traits” (permanent character changes).

Another noteworthy, related dimension of somatology involves the unique ways that lived, embodied experience may inform one’s perspective and even writing. Here I am specifically thinking of Écriture féminine (“women’s writing”), which is usually traced to the article “Le Rire de la Méduse”/“The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) by the French feminist and literary theorist Hélène Cixous. This “movement,” which involves writing in/as/through female embodiment and a more radical “femininity/feminism,” also includes Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva as key members (see, e.g., Marks and de Courtivron 1981). Interestingly, and perhaps adding another layer of gender complexity, Cixous’ writing is highly influenced by the German philosopher and culture critic Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and by her lifelong friendship with the French philosopher and post-structuralist Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Comparatively speaking, one might consider nǚshū 女書 (“women’s script”), which apparently was first developed between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as a pre-modern Chinese precedent (see, e.g., Foster 2019). Like the late imperial Ruist (“Confucian”) influence on the European enlightenment via Jesuit Catholic Latin translation, one also wonders about indirect influence on this modern French movement.

The scholarship on “the body” and “embodiment” is vast (see bibliography herein). Partially drawing upon Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) “archaeology of knowledge” via Nietzsche’s “genealogy of morals,” Michel Feher and his collaborators have published the three-volume Fragments for a History of the Human Body (1989). For individuals interested in “body-techniques” and associated “transformative practice” there are a number of relevant publications (see above; bibliography herein). Summaries and syncretic theories appear in Louis Komjathy’s various publications (2007, 2015, 2018). Komjathy also has advanced a theory of embodiment and transmission, wherein different communities and traditions become manifest as unique presences and movement patterns in the world. This relates to his larger theory of (religious) praxis, involving the interrelationship among views, methods, experiences, and goals. Finally, just as there is a need for deeper engagement with “neurodiversity” in Consciousness Studies and philosophy of mind, my proposed Somatic Studies needs to consider assumptions about and claims rooted in “able-bodiedness,” especially in concert with perspectives from Disability Studies. 

Related terms: anthropology, embodiment, experience, personhood, pneumatology, psychology, 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”; Chinese), shēn 身 (“body/self”; Chinese), subjectivity, xīn 心 (“heart-mind”; Chinese)


Bermúdez, José Luis, Anthony Marcel, and Naomi Eilan, eds. The Body and the Self. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Bradley, Karen. Rudolf Laban. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Calais-Germain, Blandine. 2007. Anatomy of Movement. Rev. ed. Seattle: Eastland Press.

Coakley, Sarah, ed. Religion and the Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Cottai, Thomas, and June McDaniel, eds. Perceiving the Divine through the Human Body: Mystical Sensuality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

Csordas, Thomas J., ed. Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Feher, Michel, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, eds. Fragments for a History of the Human Body. 3 vols. New York: Zone Books, 1989.

Foster, Nicola. “Translating Nüshu: Drawing Nüshu, Dancing Nüshu.” Art in Translation 11:4 (2019): 393-416.

Good, Mary-Jo, Paul Brodwin, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman, eds. Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Goodman, Felicitas. Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Translated by William Levitt. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977.

Hewes, Gordon. “World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits.” American Anthropologist 57 (1955): 231-44.

_____. “The Anthropology of Posture.” Scientific American 196 (1957): 123-32.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York, Routledge, 2000.

Johnson, Don Hanlon. Bone, Breath, and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995.

Kasulis, Thomas P., with Roger T. Ames and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Komjathy, Louis. Cultivating Perfection: Mysticism and Self-transformation in Early Quanzhen Daoism. Leiden: Brill.

_____, ed. Contemplative Literature: A Comparative Sourcebook on Meditation and Contemplative Prayer. New York: State University of New York Press.

_____. Introducing Contemplative Studies. West Sussex, England and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

Laing, R.D. 1967. The Politics of Experience. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Law, Jane Marie, ed. Religious Reflections on the Human Body. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Marks, Elaine, and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms. New York: Schocken, 1981.

Martin, Luther, Huck Gutman, and Patrick Hutton, eds. Techniques of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Mauss, Marcel. “Les techniques du corps.” Journal de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique 35 (1935): 271-93.

_____. “Body Techniques.” In Sociology and Psychology, translated by Ben Brewster, 95-123. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Murphy, Michael. The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1992.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Un-Making of the World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Vasseleu, Cathryn. Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau Ponty. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Shēn 身

by Louis Komjathy 康思奇

Shēn 身 is a Chinese character that may refer to “body,” “person,” and/or “self,” depending on context. Etymologically speaking, the earliest forms (Shape

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Description automatically generated with low confidence) are pictographs, most likely depicting a pregnant woman. Under one reading, this suggests the capacity for birth and life as a biological organism in the world. As received, the character probably depicts the human torso viewed from the side. This is one’s personal embodied personhood, and it in turn relates to a larger lexicon of Chinese and Daoist psychological and somatological terms.

Shēn 身 is a Chinese character that may refer to “body,” “person,” and/or “self,” depending on context. Etymologically speaking, the earliest forms  are pictographs, most likely depicting a pregnant woman. Under one reading, this suggests the capacity for birth and life as a biological organism in the world. As received, the character probably depicts the human torso viewed from the side. This is one’s personal embodied personhood, and it in turn relates to a larger lexicon of Chinese and Daoist psychological and somatological terms.

In terms of the Philosophy of Religion, especially as envisioned in its current “global-critical” trajectory, with an additional concern for embodiment, personhood, and subjectivity, shēn brings our attention to culture-specific and tradition-specific technical terms related to embodiment, personhood, subjectivity, and the like. Such cultural, linguistic and philosophical sensitivity also encourages, and in fact requires, accompanying engagement with contextual meanings and applications. In addition, shēn inspires reflection on human being as embodied, enacted, and lived. We may inquire into the various dimensions of self from a comparative and cross-cultural perspective with attention associated indigenous terminology beyond Anglocentrism and Eurocentrism. Thus, terms like shēn may result in critical investigation of unquestioned assumptions and received views.

The Chinese character shēn became a key religio-philosophical concept in the classical period of Chinese culture and literature, specifically from the Warring States period (480-222 BCE) to the Early Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE). However, it appears in earlier ancient literature, such as the Shījīng 詩經 (Classic of Poetry), as well. Again, we must be attentive to context-specific meaning. The character, in turn, relates to a larger repertoire of Chinese “body characters” and “self characters” (see Kohn 1991; Ames 1993; Komjathy 2011, 2013). Chinese and Daoist views of embodiment tend to be psychosomatic, with energetic and psychospiritual being equally important characterizations. There are three primary Chinese and Daoist terms related to “body,” namely, shēn 身, xíng 形, and 體. First, shēn, probably a pictograph of the human physique, seems to be used most frequently to refer to one’s entire psychosomatic process. In passages where shēn as “self” refers to the physical body, it is one’s “lived body” seen from within rather than “body as corpse” seen from without. The second character relating to Chinese notions of “body” is xíng, which is the “form” or “shape,” the three-dimensional disposition or configuration of the human process. Xíng-form has a morphological rather than genetic or schematic nuance. Finally, the third character designating “body” is , which relates to “physical structure” said to be a “combination of twelve groups” or parts. -physical structure relates to the scalp, face, chin, shoulders, spine, abdomen, upper arms, lower arms, hands, thighs, legs, and feet. In addition to clarifying Chinese conceptions of body/self, these terms reveal that concern over “self” is not foreign to Chinese culture, contra to facile and conventional feminist or post-modern critiques. In addition, shēn may be used to refer to “person” and “self,” so it may be further connected to other, related characters. These include 我/ (“I-ness”), 己 (“self”), míng 名 (“name/fame”), and 自 (“self”). Here míng is particularly interesting, as it technically refers to one’s given personal name, bestowed by one’s parents. It thus has the added connotations of “fame” and “reputation,” and social identity by extension. In any case, shēn brings our attention to the complexity of both indigenous terms and context-specific meaning. For example, chapter thirteen of the anonymous fourth-second century BCE Dàodé jīng 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power), a key classical Daoist text, contains the following line: 「及吾無身,吾有何患?」. It has been mistranslated as “if I did not have a body, what calamities would I have?” when here shēn refers to a personal self, resulting in “if I did not have a self, what calamities would I have?” This relates to the Daoist aspiration to become “formless” (wúxíng 無形), “nameless” (wúmíng 無名), “selfless” (wúsī 無私), and the (un)like. Thus, we must be constantly attentive to not only contextual nuance, but also unrecognized assumptions and possible unintended consequences in translation work.

Daoist adherents and communities in turn developed some of the most sophisticated indigenous Chinese discussions of embodiment (see Schipper 1978, 1993; Kohn 1991; Despeux 1994; Komjathy 2008, 2009, 2011, 2020), which might be beneficially compared to the contemplative psychological cartographies utilized in Buddhist meditation systems. Daoist discussions include what it is referred to as the “Daoist body” and associated “Daoist body-maps” (shēntú 身圖). This is the human body actualized, cultivated, and explored in Daoist practice, and it may result in a different type of being-in-the-world. One noteworthy dimension of Daoist views centers on the body as sacred, the body itself as a manifestation of the Dao 道 (Tao/Way), the sacred and ultimate concern of Daoists. This emanationist and immanence “somatology” may challenge assumed mind-body dualism, or even calcified distinctions. While beyond the present entry, there are various, related technical terms, including jīng 精 (“vital essence”), mìng 命 (“life-destiny”), 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”), shén 神 (“spirit”), xīn 心 (“heart-mind”), and xìng 性 (“innate nature”). These may be further connected with what may be understood as the Daoist “alchemical body” and “mystical body” (see Komjathy 2011, 2020), which relates to the Daoist meditation practice of internal alchemy (nèidān 內丹). Specifically, the associated Daoist practitioners engage the “physical body” as containing a “subtle body,” which consists of subtle corporeal locations and energy channels. The former are often designated with the technical term dāntián 丹田 (“elixir fields”), while the latter correspond to “meridians” (mài 脈). In more standardized accounts, the meridians include the twelve primary organ-meridians and the so-called Eight Extraordinary Channels, with the latter being especially important in Daoist practice.

A more general philosophical discussion of shēn and related termsin traditional Chinese culture has been published by Roger Ames (1993). Like Ames’ work more generally, there are problematic categorizations centering on “philosophy,” but the article nonetheless represents foundational reading. In terms of the “Daoist body,” key scholars include Catherine Despeux, Livia Kohn, Louis Komjathy, Joseph Needham (1990-1995), and Kristofer Schipper (1934-2021). Komjathy’s articles (2011, 2008, 2009, 2020) include summaries and critical analysis. This may be thought of as part of a larger “fragments for a history of the human body” (see Feher 1989; also Murphy 1992), a lived and living history that might include greater attentiveness to religion as manifesting as embodied movement in the world.

Related terms

Anthropology, body, embodiment, míng 名 (“name/fame”; Chinese), personhood, pneumatology, 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”; Chinese), somatology, xīn 心 (“heart-mind”; Chinese)


Ames, Roger. “The Meaning of Body in Classical Chinese Philosophy.” In Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice, edited by Thomas Kasulis, 157-77. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Despeux, Catherine. Taoïsme et corps humain. Le Xiuzhen tu. Paris: Guy Trédaniel, 1994.

Feher, Michel, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, eds. Fragments for a History of the Human Body. 3 vols. New York: Zone Books, 1989.

Kohn, Livia. “Taoist Visions of the Body.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 18 (1991): 227–52.

Komjathy, Louis. “Mapping the Daoist Body: Part I: The Neijing tu in History.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1 (2008): 67-92.

_____. “Mapping the Daoist Body: Part II: The Text of the Neijing tu.” Journal of Daoist Studies 2 (2009): 64-108.

_____. “The Daoist Mystical Body.” In Thomas Cottai and June McDaniel (eds.), Perceiving the Divine through the Human Body: Mystical Sensuality, 67-103. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

_____. The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

_____. “Daoist Body-Maps and Meditative Praxis.” In Transformational Embodiment in Asian Religions: Subtle Bodies, Spatial Bodies, edited by George Pati and Katherine Zubko, 36-64. London and New York: Routledge, 2020.

Murphy, Michael. The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1992.

Schipper, Kristofer. “The Taoist Body.” History of Religions 17.3/4 (1978): 355-86.

_____. The Taoist Body. Translated by Karen Duval. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993 (1982).


by Louis Komjathy 康思奇

Pneumatology refers to discourse on, study of, and theories about pneuma, a Greek term that may indicate “breath,” “life,” “soul,” “spirit,” “wind,” and so forth. In this way, it has some overlap with psukhḗ (Latin: psychē) and, by extension, psychology. In a more technical sense, pneuma connects with energeia (Latin: energia; “activity”) (see, e.g., Smil 2017). While “pneumatology” is often used in modern Christian theological contexts to refer the study of the Holy Spirit (see, e.g., Kärkkäinen 2002), here I want to propose employing it as a comparative and cross-cultural term for exploring culture-specific and tradition-specific terms and views related to vital breath and energy. Such a reframing extends the topic beyond Christocentric frameworks, although Christian views would be included. The comparative framework is particularly relevant for the study of Asian and Chinese philosophies/religions in general and Daoism in particular, although more recent cross-cultural encounters suggest wide application and relevance.

In terms of the Philosophy of Religion, especially as envisioned in its current “global-critical” trajectory, with an additional concern for embodiment, personhood, and subjectivity, pneumatology enables us to avoid certain common (Eurocentric/Christocentric) assumptions and to consider larger, tradition-specific and perhaps trans-cultural insights. Specifically, it inspires us to investigate dimensions of self beyond or within the more conventional “body,” “mind,” and/or “soul” frameworks. It raises the possibility of subtle, underlying, and perhaps mutually infusing influences and presences. While it is presumably uncontroversial to draw attention to breath/breathing/respiration, and perhaps to bone, gesture, movement, skin, and the like, “subtle breath” and “subtle anatomy and physiology” are often taboo topics in mainstream academic discourse, perhaps invoking pre-modern and presumably “unscientific” ideas associated with “vitalism” (see Normandin and Wolfe 2016). So, while one might hear invocations of topics like “quantum physics” or “dark matter,” such views are not necessarily extended to human identity and personhood. How does something like mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2) or the so-called “observer effect” relate to subjectivity on a lived, phenomenological level? The possibility (actuality?) of energy moving in/as/through space and bodies inspires a variety of other questions, further investigation, and perhaps deeper or at least “alternative” modes of being and experiencing.

Pneuma was a central concept and concern among the ancient Hellenistic Stoics, for whom it generally designated the active, generative principle that organizes both the individual and the cosmos. In its highest form, pneuma constitutes psychē (“soul”). The latter, in turn, was regarded as a fragment of the pneuma that is the soul of the Divine (see Sellars 2006; also Hadot 1995). In this way, it may be further connected to eudaimoníā, or flourishing in/as/through virtue. The Hellenistic concept in turn flowed into and influenced early Christianity, including in the form of Gnosticism, and specifically its Hellenized views regarding khristós as logos (cf. Hebrew: messiah) and accompanying paráklētos (cf. Hebrew: ruach; also kavod; shekhinah), usually taken to refer to the Holy Spirit. For present purposes, one area where pneuma enters into the comparative and cross-cultural study of religion is in the work of the Sinologist Edward Schafer (1913–1991) and his intellectual heirs. Like many scholars of his generation, Schafer drew on Classical Studies for his translation methodology, specifically choosing to translate the Chinese and Daoist concept of 氣 (ch’i; Japanese: ki; Korean: gi) as “pneuma” (see, e.g., Schafer 1966). This translation and interpretive trajectory influenced the current entry, although the presentation of qì-as-pneuma is problematic on multiple grounds (see Komjathy 2013). Briefly, it uses a foreign (Greek) concept to translate another foreign (Chinese) concept (qì), which obfuscates the matter. Like translating shén 神 as “daimon,” it also invokes the accompanying ancient Hellenistic views and values to represent radically different ones. The term is thus better left untranslated as “qì,” although it may refer to physical breath and a more subtle presence depending on context. If translation is required, “subtle breath” or “vital breath” are perhaps most viable. Drawing upon the indigenous Chinese tradition, we may, in turn, think of “pneumatology” as qìxué 氣學 (“Qì Studies”), and vice versa.

As received, the character 氣 consists of 气 (“steam”) over 米 (“rice”), thus suggesting that it is somewhat analogous to vapor. The esoteric Daoist variant 炁 consists of 旡 (“collect”) and huǒ 火/灬 (“fire”), thus suggesting subtle warmth. Along with yin-yang 陰陽, qì is one of the key dimensions of traditional Chinese cosmology, including as utilized in both Chinese medicine and Daoism. Perhaps somewhat surprising to non-specialist readers, like the emphasis on ritual (禮) as being human (rén 人), qì also has played a role in Ruist (“Confucian”) views and practices. In any case, Daoism is particularly relevant for present purposes. As part of a classical and foundational Daoist worldview and lifeway, qì refers to a subtle, even numinous presence that underlies and infuses all of existence and every individual being, at times including “non-sentient” ones. While part of one’s original and inherent constitution, qì may be more or less present, and one may be more or less sensitive to it. For Daoists, there are specific contemplative practices, including apophatic (emptiness-/stillness-based) meditation and internal alchemy (nèidān 內丹), that activate and strengthen this enlivening energetic presence. Qì, in turn, relates to other dimensions of human personhood from a Daoist perspective, including xīn 心 (“heart-mind”) and “body” (shēn 身). Like everything in existence, these may be understood and mapped as manifestations of qì. From a Daoist alchemical perspective, qì also is located in an entire “theosomatics” centering on the “subtle body,” which consists of subtle corporeal locations and energy channels (mài 脈). While qì flows throughout this network, the navel region, referred to as the “Elixir Field” (dāntián 丹田) and “Ocean of Qì” (qìhǎi 氣海), is considered the primary storehouse of qì in the body. In addition, Daoists distinguish different types of qì. The most important is dàoqì 道炁, the “qì of the Dao” or “Way-Energy” for short, which also is referred to as língqì 靈氣 (“numinous qì”). This refers to a more primordial and less differentiated form of “energy,” a sacred presence, associated with the Dao 道 (Tao/Way), the sacred and ultimate concern of Daoists, which Daoists attempt to connect with and live through. Such views and orientations further connect with Yǎngshēng 養生 (Nourishing Life) and modern Qìgōng 氣功 (Energy Work/Qì Exercise), which usually refer to health and longevity practice and which may or may not be Daoist (see Komjathy 2013).

As herein proposed, the Chinese and Daoist concept of qì thus represents a culture-specific and sometimes tradition-specific term related to “pneumatology.” It may, in turn, be connected to parallel, cross-cultural terms like àṣẹ (Yoruba), energeia (Greece), ki 氣 (Japan), mana (Melanesia and Polynesia), nilch’i (Navajo), pneuma (Greece), and prāṇa (India), to name some.

The literature on pneumatology, broadly conceived, is vast, especially if one engages tradition-specific materials and studies. On the East Asian side, some works may have broader appeal as well as inspire deeper reflection and application. Yasuo Yuasa (1987, 1993) and Nagatomo Shigenori (1992) have attempted to advance a ki-centered theory and approach, with specific attention to the so-called (imagined/projected?) “mind-body problem.” Shigehisa Kuriyama (1999) discusses issues of embodiment in Chinese and Greek medical traditions, including consideration of the central importance of qì in the former. Finally, Zhang Yu Huan, and Ken Rose (2001) offer a “brief history of qì,” with a specific focus on Chinese medicine.

Related terms: anthropology, embodiment, energy, mana (Proto-Oceanic), 氣 (Chinese), pneuma (Greek), prāṇa (Sanskrit), psychology, shēn 身 (“body/self”; Chinese), somatology, xīn 心 (“heart-mind”; Chinese)


Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 1995.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

Komjathy, Louis. The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Kuriyama, Shigehisa. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books, 1999.

Nagatomo Shigenori. Attunement through the Body. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Normandin, Sebastian and Charles Wolfe, eds. Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800–2010. New York: Springer, 2016.

Schafer, Edward. “Thoughts about a Students’ Dictionary of Classical Chinese.” Monumenta Serica 25, no. 1 (1966): 197–206.

Sellars, John. Stoicism. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Smil, Vaclav. Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

Yuasa Yasuo. The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory. Translated by Nagatomo Shigenori and T.P. Kasulis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

———. The Body, Self-Cultivation, and Ki-Energy. Translated by Nagatomo Shigenori and Monte Hull. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Zhang Yu Huan and Ken Rose. A Brief History of Qi. Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications, 2001.


by Louis Komjathy 康思奇

Anthropology refers to discourse on, study of, and theories about the human. While more conventionally used to designate the social scientific discipline and field dedicated to research on human culture, especially through ethnographic fieldwork, the term may be used as a comparative and cross-cultural interpretive category. Etymologically speaking, “anthropology” derives from the Greek ánthrōpos (“human”) and lógos (“study”). Thus, it may be applied to consider the multidimensional, psychosomatic identity and experience, the entire spectrum, of being human/human being, including embodiment, personhood, psychology, subjectivity, and so forth. In this way, there is some overlap with “Christian (theological) anthropology,” which concerns human relationality to divinity beyond the merely physical and social dimensions of humanity across times and places. Considered and applied holistically and comprehensively, anthropology raises questions about the “fullness” of human being, including with respect to the animal/human/divine ternary and the possibility of “something more.”

Anthropology refers to discourse on, study of, and theories about the human. While more conventionally used to designate the social scientific discipline and field dedicated to research on human culture, especially through ethnographic fieldwork, the term may be used as a comparative and cross-cultural interpretive category. Etymologically speaking, “anthropology” derives from the Greek ánthrōpos (“human”) and lógos (“study”). Thus, it may be applied to consider the multidimensional, psychosomatic identity and experience, the entire spectrum, of being human/human being, including embodiment, personhood, psychology, subjectivity, and so forth. In this way, there is some overlap with “Christian (theological) anthropology,” which concerns human relationality to divinity beyond the merely physical and social dimensions of humanity across times and places. Considered and applied holistically and comprehensively, anthropology raises questions about the “fullness” of human being, including with respect to the animal/human/divine ternary and the possibility of “something more.”

In terms of Philosophy of Religion, especially as envisioned in its current “global-critical” trajectory, anthropology inspires us to consider human being/being human in its (our) complex and multidimensional expressions and forms. The term thus has some overlap with the more familiar philosophical categories and approaches of existentialism and ontology. Comparatively speaking, it draws our attention to existence and being, including meaning and purpose. Although third-person discourse (“objectivity”), especially in the academic vogue of cultural relativism, secular materialism, and social constructivism, is usually assumed (and presumed) in mainstream academic discourse, this may represent a form of alienation and dissociation. “Anthropology” in turn makes space for the possibility of first-person discourse, or “critical subjectivity.” This involves a disciplined approach open to public investigation and debate. Nonetheless, as anthropology is not just about other people/selves, but about me and you, it inspires us to consider the embodied and lived dimensions of our beings, including communal and ecological relationality.

Historically speaking, there is a classical Hellenistic approximation of our current “anthropology” in the works of the Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who of course advanced his own specific “theory of the human” defined by reason and agency in contrast to “animals” (see Keil and Kreft 2019). One of the earliest known usages of the term in the more technical sense of an academic discipline appears in 1647 in the writings of the Danish theologian-physician Thomas Bartholin (1616–1680) and his son Caspar Bartholin the Younger (1655–1738), who divided it into anatomy (“body”) and psychology (“soul”). The social scientific discipline as such is sometimes traced to the Spanish Catholic Franciscan friar and missionary-priest Bernardino de Sahagún (ca. 1499–1590), who conducted “ethnography” (evangelization) in “New Spain” (present-day Mexico) (see León-Portilla 2002). It expanded in Great Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eventually becoming one of the cornerstones of the “social sciences” as we know them today. If we were to follow this trajectory, an entire received corpus and key figures would be invoked. The same is true with respect to “theological anthropology” (see Cortez 2010).

However, this entry is not about the history of the term, the social scientific discipline, or the Christian theological application, so here we will focus on the use of “anthropology” as a comparative and cross-cultural—and possibly theological—category. As the academic discipline of Religious Studies, assuming there is such a discipline, has explicitly defined itself in contrast to (Christian) Theology, the invocation of “theology” here may be problematic and lead to dismissal. However, like “anthropology” herein, I propose using other categories like theology and soteriology as comparative and cross-cultural terms. These refer to discourse on the “sacred” and “ultimate purpose” of human existence, respectively (see Komjathy 2018). Along these lines, we cannot, or at least we should not, presume and thus artificially delimit “the question of the human,” and our humanity by extension. Are we simply biological organisms destined to decompose? Is my consciousness simply brain chemistry, a series of physiologically determined “synaptic firings?” Or is my being connected to something larger, infused with other presence, and capable of more? Is being-human also being-animal, and even being part of the human-primate collective? Do we have a choice in all of this?

If we are open to considering anthropology in its diverse dimensions and expressions, then, following Religious Studies, we need to engage an equally complex variety of disciplines, approaches, and perspectives. This relates to interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and even transdisciplinarity. More straightforwardly and perhaps expectedly, some contributing fields include anthropology (narrowly defined), biology, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and so forth. More radically, one thinks of Animal Studies, Consciousness Studies, Contemplative Studies, dance, movement studies, somatics, and the like (see Komjathy 2018), with many of these being interdisciplinary as well. Depending on the specific dimension of being human/human being that we are exploring, we will need to determine which of said disciplines are most relevant and applicable. The matter becomes even more complicated if we want a more complete account, and perhaps if we want a more enlivening form of being and experiencing.

As mentioned, “anthropology” as herein employed encompasses consciousness, embodiment, experience, movement, personhood, psychology, and the like. That is, we should not reduce human being to either “body-based” or “mind-based” views. This includes along the lines of contemporary attempts to reduce various dimensions of human being and expression (e.g., religion) to biology. While controversial, “theology” inspires us to ask deeper and larger questions, although these again may overlap with “non-theological” existentialism. There may be dimensions of humanity that require more complex, diverse, holistic, integrated, and sophisticated approaches. For example, there are religious adherents, communities, and traditions that emphasize other, perhaps hidden capacities. Here I am thinking specifically of the Chinese Daoist and larger traditional East Asian emphasis on 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”), which parallels other cultures as well, and of the traditional Indian and larger Asian emphasis on siddhi (lit., “accomplishment/fulfillment”), variously referred to as “numinous abilities,” “paranormal psychology,” and/or “psychic/supernatural powers.” Some commonly identified ones include clairaudience, clairvoyance, invincibility/invulnerability, knowledge of past lives, multivocality, and so forth. Regardless of what one personally thinks of such claims, they are, in fact, religious claims about human being and potential (see Young and Goulet 1994; Cardeña et al. 2000; Kripal 2017; cf. Martin and McCutcheon 2012). They make claims about us, about our own being and experiencing. If we take them seriously, in whatever manner, how will we explore them?

Related terms: Embodiment, experience, personhood, pneumatology, psychology, 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”; Chinese), shēn 身 (“body/self”; Chinese), somatology, subjectivity, xīn 心 (“heart-mind”; Chinese)


Cardeña, Etzel, Steven Jay Lynn, and Stanley Krippner, eds. Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2000.

Cortez, Marc. Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed. London and New York: T & T Clark, 2010.

Keil, Geert, and Nora Kreft, eds. Aristotle’s Anthropology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Komjathy, Louis. Introducing Contemplative Studies. West Sussex, England and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

Kripal, Jeffrey. Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

León-Portilla, Miguel. Bernardino de Sahagún: First Anthropologist. Translated by Mauricio Mixco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Martin, Craig, and Russell McCutcheon, eds. Religious Experience: A Reader. Sheffield, England: Equinox Publishing, 2012.

Young, David, and Jean-Guy Goulet, eds. Being Changed by Cross-cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Debate on Self and Persistence

Udayana’s Concept of the Self and Arguments for its Existence and Persistence

Agnieszka Rostalska, Ghent University

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This essay 1 constitutes an introduction to the concept of the self and arguments for its existence and persistence offered by the 10th-century, Indian philosopher Udayana. Theoretically and methodologically, it aims to develop cross-cultural philosophical inquiry into the concept of the “self”, and related issues of its existence and persistence. The proposal breaks with the orientalist, epistemic problematics of the “East-West” dichotomy by focusing on “persistence,” and, by orienting the ‘public debate’ around an exposition of the relatively unknown philosophical views of the 10th-century South Asian philosopher Udayana (rather than, say, a “Western European” figure or school). Further, it will undergo online annotations, which will serve as an impulse for a public discussion between engaged group of scholars 2 specializing in less-commonly taught philosophies.3 As a consequence, the views of Udayana on the “self” will serve as a starting point for a cross-cultural counterfactual thought-experiment engaging diverse global philosophical traditions.

Cross-cultural counterfactual thought experiment involving UDAYANA

As result of many years of academic research I have spent directing my focus towards the so-called *Indian philosophical traditions (*Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, materialist, etc.), I have chosen the Nyāya philosophical school as a sample model of rational theological enquiry. Nyāya is one of the major darśanas or schools of philosophical thought in India, essentially concerned with epistemology and logic . The term ‘nyāya’ has etymological roots in ‘naya’, signifying the skillful art of reasoning or methods ensuring fairness in argumentation and legitimate tactics. The figure of Udayana is in this context meaningful, as he is considered a “father” of the theistic refinements of this tradition –notably the author of two independent manuals: 1. Nyāyakusumāñjali (An Offering of Flowers), dedicated to the arguments for the existence of *God/Īśvara, and 2. Ātmatattvaviveka, or: Investigation of the Reality of the Self, developing arguments for the existence of the self (ātman), which is the main text of this study.

I identify Udayana among the key innovative philosophical thinkers coming from India. His scholarship dedicated to novel ideas of Self and *God is backed up by sharp arguments developed to defend these notions. In my view, Udayana’s works are worth recognizing for study by philosophers of religion. The text of the Ātmatattvaviveka (later for short: ATV) is overlooked even by more narrow field specialists. Most scholars dedicated to the exposition of the Nyāya concept of Self refer to the sūtras and their commentaries (e.g. Chandha 2013). There are yet to be studies of how Udayana’s independent and novel treatise engages with other traditions of Indian philosophy. Notable interpretations of Udayana’s works were done by Bimal Krishna Matilal (1994), Arindam Chakrabarti (1982), and Chakravarti Ram-Prasad (2001, 2017). Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti (1999) did a partial translation of this work and some commentary on it in his book Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition. Udayana is an example of how cosmopolitan, comparativist philosophers of religion may critically engage with others without defending any religious sect per se. I hope that a debate on this text will invite the participants into dialogue, which makes theoretical pursuits in philosophy of religions a truly global, comparative, and inclusive endeavor.

Introducing Udayana

The philosophical ideas of a particular thinker are always inseparable from their socio-cultural and historical milieu. Who was Udayana? Which intellectual environment inspired his philosophical endeavors?

Udayana was born in a Hindu Brahmin family and lived in ca. 11th century.4 in Mithilā (near Dharbhaṅgā in today’s state of Bihar, India. Amma, 1985: 3). His scholastic commentary Nyāya–vārttika–tātparya–ṭīkā–pariṣuddhi (“Correctness of the Notes on the Meaning of the Gloss on the Commentary on Nyāya”) – also known as Pariṣuddhi or Nibandha – on Vācaspati Miśra’s Nyāyavārttikatātparyaṭīkā suggest that he belonged to the lineage of early Nyāya (or prācīna Nyāya) tradition. As such, this text is a final voice in a series of the earliest or classical commentaries of the Nyāyasūtras of Gautama.5 (later for short: NS), the primary treatise of the Nyāya tradition.

Udayana was also an innovator of the Nyāya tradition, as he is the one who synthesized the tradition of Nyāya with its ‘sister–school’ Vaiśeṣika,.6 which gives a syncretic aspects to his texts. Some scholars credit him as the pioneer of a new Nyāya (or Nāvya-Nyāya) tradition, due to his intricate writing style and use of technical terminology.

Udayana’s works are as deeply engaged with competing schools of thought as with peers in the Nyāya tradition, such as Bhāsarvajña (ca. 860–920). Perhaps for this reason, Udayana’s works are regularly commented upon as an authority by later Indian thinkers and present-day Naiyāyika philosophers. Some contemporary interpreters (i.e., Matilal 1977: 97) compare his mastery of logical argumentation with regards to existence of “God” and “soul” with that of Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas (13th century).7 Udayana’s scholastic style, which predates that of Aquinas, first presents objections (pūrvapakṣa) of the opponent (real or imaginary, at times reformulating standpoints so that they appear even stronger), confronts the objections (uttara-pakṣa), and then endorses his own views.

Udayana engaged in both intellectual debates through his writings, and through debates in public (vāda). A story about his life reveals that when Udayana won in a public debate with the Advaita dialectician Śrīhīra. His son Śrīharṣa composed the text Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya (“The Sweets of Refutation”) to avenge his father’s defeat and public humiliation (Bhattacharyya 2010: 298). An example of Udayana’s intellectual debating is his Nyāyakusumāñjali, which engaged atheistic Indian materialists (Cārvāka), Sāṃkhya and Mīmāṃsā philosophers, as well as Jain and Buddhist thinkers. His Ātmatattvaviveka, or the Investigation of the Reality of the Self also known as Bauddhādhikkāra (Reproach to the Buddhists), is meant to oppose four Buddhist schools, mainly: Sautrāntika, Vaibhāṣika, Yogācāra, and Mādhyamika, as well as early Advaita Vedāntins, and Materialists, among others. Overall, Udayana’s focus in these debates is directed towards the Buddhist philosopher Jñānaśrīmitra,.8 a follower of Dharmakīrti’s school. Thus, I think it is very appropriate to have Udayana’s works as the focus of a contemporary public debate among a wide variety of philosophical perspectives. 

According to some contemporary scholars, Udayana has “demolished in final fashion the claims of the Buddhist logicians” (Bhattacharyya 2010: 298).” Tachikawa writes that Udayana, “made the greatest contribution to driving the Buddhists out of India (…) He may be said to have brought the conflict between the Buddhist logicians and Hindu logicians to an end (…) Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism was subsequently unable to produce any scholar capable of refuting Udayana” (Tachikawa 1981: 8). A more moderate version of these claims is to recognize how Udayana’s personage may be identified to provide scholars today with important evidence about the contents and history of Indian philosophy.

The context for the Ātmatattvaviveka

For the purposes of this essay, I wish to focus on Udayana’s unique texts on the existence of Self (ATV). In terms of intellectual debate, the text’s objective is to refute the Materialists and Buddhists theories of emergent self (materialism), and no-self and momentariness (Buddhism). The Materialists of Udayana’s time argued that cognitions are qualities of the bodily organs, and that consciousness arises out of the bodily processes and is born when the body matures and dies when the body dies. Most Buddhists from the 11th century argued that cognitions are only causally connected in a stream of awareness events, but do not reside in a substance called the self. For them, cognitions are not qualities, but are produced by an association of bodily sense organs with preceding karmic dispositions. I am taking a departure from dwelling upon these polemical aspects of Udayana’s thought. There are, of course, other ways to read the ATV. The primary aim of this essay is to foreground the conception of “self” proposed by Udayana, and then make some remarks on his conception of “persistence.” 

It is useful to pause at this point to highlight Udayana’s method of approaching different philosophical perspectives. Udayana’s arguments constitute a fascinating polemics with other schools of thought; here, Udayana scholastically presents the opposing views – the doctrines opposed to the Nyāya’s concept of the Self – to refute the rivals and establish his own innovative interpretation of the traditional Nyāya postulations. He presents four distinct counterarguments which correspond to the views held by his opponents: 1. Momentariness theory [Buddhist, mainly Sautrāntika] 2. Unreality of external objects, consciousness alone is real [Yogācāra Buddhist, “idealist”], 3. Non-difference between a quality and a qualified/quality-possessor (or quality’ and ‘substance’) [Buddhist and Advaita Vedāntin], 4. Non-perception (anupalambha) or non-experience of the self different from the body [Buddhist and Materialist]. (Bhattacharyya, 2010: 300, Amma, 1985 :13). According to Udayana, “There are (these) views opposed to the reality of self, namely, that everything is of momentary duration, that there is nothing real apart from consciousness, that qualities and things endowed with them do not differ from each other and that the (so called) self is never perceived (or observed)”9 [ATV 20, Dravid ed. p. 5]. Before introducing Udayana’s arguments in more detail, it will be useful to first define the related concepts which were brought out in their original context. 

Nyāya’s rational ātma-logy – conceptualization

The term for “self” across the Indian philosophical traditions engaged with by Udayana is “ātman.” The concept of ātman has a long history on the Indian subcontinent, which is attested by the Upaniṣadic (Upaniṣads, composed ca. 800–400 BCE) principal concern with the knowledge of the Self (ātman). Here, the term ātman, generally signifies the immutable, undifferentiated, unconditioned, and autonomous principle of existence in human beings).10 Liberation from rebirth (mokṣa) pertains to realization, or direct perception of the Self, ātman.

The issue of how the concept of the ‘self’ is defined in the Nyāya tradition is directly linked to another question prevailing across all competing traditions in India, mainly: can the existence of ‘self’ be known through the means of knowledge (pramāṇas), such as perception, inferential reasoning, testimony? Moreover, if, and how is the state of ‘liberated consciousness’ desirable by the self? Is it a happy or blissful state? These are the kinds of questions that guided the public and intellectual debates of Udayana and his peers.

To approach Udayana’s conception of the self, first, I will briefly outline the standard Nyāya views on ‘self’11, which were the object of critique by and debate with mainly Materialist and Buddhists opponents. Their critiques predominantly motivated Udayana’s response in the ATV. Udayana supposes his readers prior knowledge of the concept of the self and the main Nyāya arguments for its existence and persistence, for convenience, I will briefly introduce them in the next paragraph. Afterwards I am going to turn to Udayana’s emphases and modifications. This will lead to examining Udayana’s endorsement of the existence of permanent self (against the Buddhist ‘no-self’ theory and ‘emergentism’).

Nyāya tradition admits the existence of infinitely many selves/souls (ātman), which are eternal, immaterial and non-composite substances with characteristic qualities (e.g. cognition, pleasure, pain, or desire). The selves are singular and different in all organisms.12 They experience when associated with ‘body vehicles’ composed of homogeneous atoms of a particular material substance. Their connection with a living body consciousness emerges not as a necessary but as an accidental feature. Before the connection with the mind (manas), an individual self is not conscious. In other words, the self must be embodied in order to experience awareness and cognitions (NS 3.1.18–26).

The Nyāya tradition may be briefly summarize to attribute three main characteristics of the self:

First, the self is different from the mind and the senses, which enables it to realize its own activity. However, the instance of mind is here not an active or cognitive faculty but solely a passive internal organ, which neither thinks nor acts. It serves as an instrument for the self to experience (pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, merit, demerit, etc.) and cognise. Cognition is here a property of the self, since the self is a locus of awareness, and not a cluster of physical elements or non-sentient intermediaries. The self owns its qualities: cognitions, dispositions, memories, feelings, and actions. The self is therefore not pure consciousness, as Materialists or Idealists would claim, but is a highly individuated self with a personality. 

Second, the self is the substratum of knowing (jñānādhikaraṇam-ātmā).13 Self is not conscious by nature, it is an inherent cause of consciousness or knowledge. Knowledge is an adventitious attribute of the self. Through the connection with a living body consciousness emerges, but not as necessary but as an accidental feature.

Third, because the self is a continuous spiritual substance, it retains its identity through the events of one lifetime and from one lifetime to another. Moreover, the Nyāya thinkers would argue that the self endures beyond death. Their argument is as follows: “Because, immediately being born, an infant has the experience of joy, fear and sorrow [and this] as a result of the ‘lingering of the memory’ (smṛtianubandha) of the past experiences” (Gangopadhyaya transl. vol. 3, 1972: 33). The commentator Pakṣilasvāmin Vātsyāyana in the Nyāya-bhāṣya (later for short: NBh) explains that the recollection of one’s past experiences produces the experiences which are indicated by emotions. The underlying assumption here is that of rebirth, since how does the newborn know how to emotionally respond? Or, why does a newborn immediately try to reach out to the mother’s chest for nourishment? According to this tradition, the answer is that these reactions are linked to memories. They are the result of previous experiences. The continuity of self stretches into the past, and consequently is projected into the future. This gives the self two fundamental forms of identity, i.e., the identity of knowing: one and the same self apprehends cognitions. And, the identity of action: one self inherits karmic fruits of action and suffers or enjoys them.

The Nyāya tradition considered the existence of self as a given long before Udayana’s involvement in their debates.14 The self is enlisted in the NS 1.1.9 as one of the objects of knowledge, prameyas. It is discussed in that text as the topic of inquiry, as something yet to be determined. The Naiyāyikas do not support this conclusion first and foremost on the basis of testimony of sacred text, like the Vedas, nor to the reliable utterance of some source provided by an authoritative speaker (for instance a sage (ṛṣi) or another noble person). They leave space for a possibility of learning about the ‘self’ through testimony. Among all accepted  means of knowledge, the self’s (ātman) existence is postulated with the use of inferential proofs, i.e. through the process of inference (anumāna).15 The self cannot be perceived directly. What this means is that the self is something known based on experienced inner states . The following sūtra states that the self (ātman) is an object of inference based on ‘marks’: desire, aversion, effort, pleasure, pain, and knowledge (NS 1.1.10). Udayana’s broader intellectual context therefore included a predilection to conceptualize “self” as physically imperceptible that is only known by its inferential marks.16

Perhaps the above makes it all the more remarkable that the Nyāya tradition insists that a clear understanding of the true nature of the self is a condition for final liberation (mokṣa). According to Nyāya, mokṣa, or liberation from rebirth, or apavarga, the final liberation or beatitude, is the soteriological aim of all philosophical endeavors. In the emancipated state the self is disembodied, and retains only its formal qualities (like oneness, separateness from other selves, etc.). Freedom from pain, or suffering (duḥkha), is brought about through the removal of all blemishes (attitudes and inclinations) and termination of activity. The self is released from the cycle of rebirth, yet it does not endure in the state of bliss, or eternal happiness (Chakrabarti 1983: 174–5) and persists without further cognitive states (Ram-Prasad 2001: 85–91).17

Udayana’s writings do not fundamentally challenge the positions above. Instead, Udayana’s writings can be seen to bolster these claims, with arguments about how ‘self’ (ātman) is directly apprehended through internal perception. His innovation, in the ATV, is that the self can indeed be an object of direct cognition. 

Udayana’s ‘self-awareness’ of the self

Amid the debates with the Materialists and the Buddhists of the time, Udayana’s objective is to remove the grounds by which these intellectual peers were able to redirect the conventional Nyāya arguments in service of their own positions. In the case of the Buddhist philosophers, the Nyāya claim that the existence of permanent self (ātman), i.e. a quality–possessor, may be inferred, was turned into an argument for no-self/anātman.

It seems that Udayana was not convinced by the dismissal provided by the Vaiśeṣika philosophers18, who argued that the self’s non-perception is no evidence for the self’s non-existence, since this non-perception is due to the self’s subtlety (saukṣmya). Udayana also observed that “[t]he self is not regarded by the Buddhist as cognizable or perceptible” [ATM Dravid ed. p. 343] . To only double down on imperceptibility, as did the Vaiśeṣika, was simply not adequate. Following Vācaspati Miśra’s interpretation of the possibility of knowing the self – through perception, he considers an argument [ATM, ibid.] about the non-apprehension of the self, which K. K. Chakrabarti (1999: 268) paraphrases formally as:

Whatever is not cognized is nonexistent.

The self is not cognized.

Therefore, the self is nonexistent.

Udayana considers two cases of non-apprehension: either that the self is not apprehended by anyone (universally) or by the individual (particular). The first scenario is in his opinion questionable, as there is a possibility that the self is perceived by some or all. In other words, non-apprehension may provide a basis for doubt, but it does not disprove the existence of the self. In the second case, the individual’s non-apprehension “applies even to cognisable entities”, which also does not disprove the existence of self and its possibility of being perceived. 

Udayana’s objective was to determine how the self might be known despite granting that it cannot be experienced empirically. Unless a thing is perceived, it cannot be called perceptible. So if the self is perceptible, it cannot remain unperceived. But how might the self be perceived? Udayana’s first innovation was to make an argument for indeterminate perception:

“But what is the proof for the existence of the self? Perception itself for sure. The awareness as ‘I’ is a matter of experience for all living beings. Certainly this awareness cannot be unobjective or endowed with dubious objectivity as it is neither verbal nor subject to contradiction. It is also not generated by the middle term in an inference. Even a person who has no knowledge of any middle term has self-knowledge. Nor is it recollection as what is not experienced cannot be recollected. It is also not reasonable to say that this awareness is an objectless cognition which is beginningless and is generated by a beginningless urge. This can be said of the common cognitions of blue, yellow etc. also. If self-awareness could be discredited on the ground that it is the product of some beginningless urge, how can any other cognition be credited as valid so that one could depend upon the cognitions of blue, yellow etc.?” [ATV, ibid., p. 344]

This paragraph represents his major argument for the existence of the self. Udayana points here that the indeterminate self-awareness, common to all living beings, is: non-verbal, incorrigible (not subjected to contradiction), not inferential, not recollection, not an objectless construction (non-objective construction, vikalpa).

Udayana introduces the idea of “indeterminate perception” in order to argue that the self is perceived much in the way that other categories of things are perceived. In Sanskrit the basis for this claim is the concept of nirvikalpaka, “in the raw,” where indeterminate perception grasps a qualifier of something prior to forming a robust conceptual deployment and organization of it and does not require a ‘mark’ since its object is perceived directly. The other manner of perception is savikalpaka, or “determinate” cognition, where something may be much more immediately produced as a concept within a verbal propositional. Something indeterminately perceived is not ineffable or inscrutable. Self-awareness simply does not require language; while ordinary cognitions  are subjected to language and assessment (K. K. Chakrabarti ibid. 271).

Udayana’s argument is that living beings have an indeterminate perception about themselves. If the Buddhists admit that the objects of indeterminate perceptions are real, then they must concede that the self is such an object, too.

Udayana thereby argued that while there are erroneous perceptions of the self, that does not mean there is no self. Self is something as real as the color blue. It is not an “objectless cognition which is beginningless and is generated by a beginningless urge” (or, a subconscious impression, vāsanā which is not generated by some previous perception).  In other words, if we would try to challenge the reality of self-awareness in this way, by reducing it to an object-less cognition generated by subconscious impressions, in a similar fashion we would challenge the reality of the color blue.

The general idea of indeterminate perception is not difficult to understand. Udayana’s argument invokes color as the basis of the claim. There can be a determinate perception of things that are “blue,” but Udayana’s analysis finds that ​​a determinate perception of blue presupposes indeterminate awareness of blue. Udayana then extends that claim to the self. There is an indeterminate perception of what is “self.”

Udayana states further that: “Nor is self-cognition baseless or objectless because the self is not cognised by external senses. Even the cognition of intellect or consciousness would the be baseless or objectless. If self-consciousness is the ground of reality of intellect then in the case of the self too the evidencing ground is the mental perception of the self”  [ATM, ibid. p. 346]. Dravid (ibid.) explains this passage as follows: “Just as consciousness is its own evidence so the self is evidenced by mental and not external sensation. Not only the self, even pleasure, pain etc. are known to be real only through mental sensation.”

Udayana’s objection to the Buddhist’s arguments about causation provides another insight into Udayana’s conception of the self. The Buddhist claim was that there is no self because each moment of time is the product of an entirely different set of co-determinating factors. While these factors might create the background for a succeeding state of affairs, that succeeding state’s identity is utterly different. That is, while one state of affairs – either that of a so-called individual or even that of the entire world – might succeed one after the other, the Buddhists argued there is no grounds to claim these states of affairs belong to the identical, same individual or world. Udayana explains this as the theory of momentariness, which he argues is unable to explain how empirical consciousness is continuous. He appeals here to the Nyāya inferential proof for the self from recollection: “it is the definite ascertainment of the earlier and later cognitions being caused by the same agent” [ATM p. 349]. K. K. Chakrabarti (ibid., 275)19 explains this argument as follows: “the support or source or object (ālambana) of I-consciousness is permanent, because it is also the object of recognition.” Udayana argues that if there is grounds to claim there is a continuity that connects moments, then there is grounds to claim there is something like a “self” that provides that continuity and identity, and bounds previous perception and latter recollection of the knowing agent. If perceptions and recollections did not belong to the same knower, then the teacher’s cognition could be remembered by a student. According to Udayana, this is absurd.

Udayana zeroes in on the Buddhist’s agreement about karma. He states that the theory of momentariness cannot sufficiently explain the law of karma (accumulation of merits and demerits), according to which it is one person who reaps the fruits of his/her activities. For a previous state is succeeded by the next state and there is a (split second) gap, between the preceding and succeeding states. Something must, according to Udayana, connect across these gaps. “It is the self with merit that by its contact with things brings about their movements (Dravid p. 375)”. Furthermore, according to Udayana, the Buddhist’s of his time were not able to explain memory. By Udayana’s account, Nyāya conceptions of causality do not run into these problems. The self is the material cause of our awareness of ourselves. It is the same self which both perceives and remembers (Bhattacharya 2010: 308). 

Finally, Udayana points out that the attempts to reject the reality of the self, would pose a difficulty for one’s final release – “A non-self-aware person cannot be a redemption seeker” (ATV ibid., p. 376). Without the ‘self-awareness’ of the self, nothing can be desired or avoided, including one’s own final release or liberation.

Self’s persistence 

Although there is a double reference to “after-life” through the concepts of 1. paraloka, the other or future world, or plane/realm of existence) or 2. svarga, “heaven” or temporary plane where the selves which have not yet reached the state of mokṣa, final release or liberation, the theological considerations of “afterlife” are not the focus of the Nyāya tradition within which Udayana wrote the ATV.20  Given the arguments about karma above, the notion of “after-life” would have to be accompanied by a conception of “pre-life”. And as we have seen in the mentioned earlier ‘newborn’s inheritance’ argument21, revoked by Udayana, to ensure present recollections of past experiences, there should be a continuous self – the agent of apprehension (anubhava), dispositions (saṃskāra), and recollection (Amma (1985: 146).

The correlative terms for “persistence” such as “beginingless” (anādi), and endless (ananta) in Nyāya philosophy, suggest that “persistence” is a well–suited concept to describe Udayana’s ideas. Persistence is a term much better suited to cross-cultural thinking, too. Udayana’s conception of the self draws upon the Nyāya terminology of ātman. And, as we saw above, it does involve the concept of karmic disposition. Udayana’s decision to use the concept of karma was not merely to serve a role in his arguments against the Buddhists. Karma is related to how this idea of self persists.

There is much literature about the philosophical understandings of “karma” across the various schools and thinkers of Indian philosophy. From Udayana’s perspective the persistence of a self provides the grounds for discussions about karma. While his position is that while the conceptual understanding of karma depends on the self, the conception of the self does not depend solely upon karma. Instead, karma is among those phenomena that provide justification of the self as ātman.

As noted earlier, Udayana conceives of the self within the Nyāya tradition as a continuous, spiritual substance. On the grounds that newborns do not learn joy, for example, they must retain this as a lingering memory of the past experiences (see above, Gangopadhyaya transl. vol. 3, 1972: 33). These recollections of emotions indicate the persistence of the self through past experiences. But these past experiences do not destroy “free will”, since Udayana, like other Naiyāyikas, makes knowledge as that which mediates the possibility of freedom. “Why should the unconditioned self be contemplated? Because by means of continuous contemplation of it, release is attained” (ATV, ibid. p. 377). The self is capable of gaining sufficient knowledge for the release from pleasure and pain, which are the indicators of karmic retribution. Udayana asks, “what is the nature of the contemplation of self? It is discrimination. Discrimination from what? From the body, etc. which are other than the self” (ibid.) Thus, acts of cognition to discriminate the self from extraneous phenomena is the means to freely realize persistence of the self.

Udayana’s discussion of how the self can achieve the purest of ideas is based in Nyāya’s singular unifying concept – niḥśreyasa – which results from reaching a state which amounts to attaining comprehensive knowledge (tattvajñāna) of all there is to know. Niḥśreyasa, more than knowledge of the self, is an all-encompassing knowledge state. This is not the same transcendental state that is underscored in the more “spiritually” aligned theological systems – such as, in particular, mokṣa, or salvific liberation from embodied existence. Niḥśreyasa as such has no necessary connections with life hereafter (Potter 1977: 29–34). This knowledge amounts to nothing more nor less than the destruction of all mithyajñāna, false understandings.22 The liberating aspect of the nihśreyasa state is that no pleasures are transported across. Not even the positive pleasures of life, desire-driven satisfaction, from luxuries of appetite to sensual-sexual pleasures (Halbfass, 1997, 155–6).

The introduction of niḥśreyasa is useful to show how Udayana understands persistence of the self. The self can be released, and continue to exist independently in a joyless unending free-time seamless horizon – and steeped in deep-sleep state minus the dreams (suṣuptasya svapnādarśane, see: NS 4.1.62, M. Gangopadhyaya (transl.) part. 4, 1973: 86). In this state, the self is atemporal (nityatva) and cannot be extinguished. And there is no merging with the other, no greater or smaller of which could be thought. Udayana’s formulation of “release without transcendence” amounts to a unique model of liberation that explains the persistence of the self.23 The release of the self from indeterminate cognition occurs not because of any mental state succeeding it but by means of time associated with the destruction of the self’s destiny.


In this essay, I identified Udayana as one among the key innovative philosophical thinkers coming from India. As a relatively overlooked source of philosophical arguments about self and persistence, I have proposed Udayana’s works to be worth recognizing for study by philosophers of religion. While the historical context of the Ātmatattvaviveka is that of debates with Materialists and Buddhists, I have shown how Udayana’s polemics may be read to present some positive formulations on his understanding of “self”, “self-awareness”, and “persistence.” Udayana’s use of “indeterminate perception” enabled his texts to conceptualize an idea of self that persists both prior and after the state of existing as a human being. The objective of this present essay is neither to analyze the philosophical merits of Udayana’s argumentation nor recommend his approach as a means of doing “global-critical philosophy of religion.” I do hope that readers might gain new understandings about how ancient texts overlooked by Western canons pertaining to the philosophy of religion may be read to propose novel conceptions of self and persistence.


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Bhattacharyya, Sibajiban. 2010. Development of Nyāya Philosophy and its Social Context. History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. Vol. III part 3, New Delhi: Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy, and Culture, Centre for Studies in Civilizations, pp. 297–335.

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Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series – Ep. 1 Louis Komjathy On Teaching Classical Daoism

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground, up with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught, studied in the 21st century. Louis Komjathy is a leading independent scholar, educator and translator. His current work explores cross-cultural practices and perennial questions related to contemplative awareness, embodied aliveness and beyond states. You can learn more from his website linked in this podcast’s credits. Dr. Komjathy was part of the pilot project teaching philosophy of religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by the Wabash Center with a grant administer by Gereon Kopf at Luther College. We had two conversations on November 17th, 2021. We discussed the question, how might a revised approach to studying Daoism influenced teaching the philosophy of religion. Thanks for joining me in this podcast.

Louis Komjathy:

Thanks for the opportunity to speak today.

Nathan Loewen:

You have several publications that have consistently emphasized the idea of Daoism as a religious community. I’m curious what that means and how it translates into your teaching in the classroom, and your experiences with students. So, I mean, what do you mean by classical Daoism?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, so classical Daoism is a revisionist interpretive framework to think about the earliest Dallas community, basically beginning in the middle to late Warring States period into the early Han dynasty. So around the fourth century to second century BCE. And so one of the reasons to put forward this idea of revisionist understanding specifically this idea of classical Daoism is to replace this outdated idea of something called philosophical Daoism that stands in contrast to so-called religious Daoism. So from my perspective, these are colonialist, orientalist and missionary kind of legacies related to the academic study and interpretation of Daoism.

Nathan Loewen:

Well. That’s interesting. Why do you say that it is revisionist? Let’s just unpack that word first.

Louis Komjathy:

So part of the reason to call it revisionist is because there’s been this kind of ongoing meta reflection on both the history of Daoism. So when did Daoism begin, but also how do we understand the diverse expressions of the Dallas tradition? And so this is really a response to a construction of Daoism as a kind of bifurcated or divided tradition, so called philosophical Daoism, so called religious Daoism, and to kind of encourage us, or hopefully inspire us to reconsider what this earliest Dallas community was. And to kind of point to a more neutral kind of category or name classical Daoism that is to kind of suggest that this was the time when the earliest Dallas classics were composed. And that becomes the foundation of the larger tradition.

Nathan Loewen:

Why have people previously been splitting it into philosophical and religious Daoism? What’s been the motivation for that?

Louis Komjathy:

It’s complex historically, but one way of understanding this is it’s really rooted in European colonialism, in China and Christian missionary activity in China, and a kind of unease with fully articulated religious tradition. But wanting to engage what we can call here, the classical texts, like the Dao De Jing and the [inaudible 00:04:00]. So one part of this is an attempt to say, oh, there’s something like pure Dallas philosophy. That’s what we’re here calling classical Daoism and something like degenerate, superstitious nonsense, that’s the religious Daoism category. And by separating these two things out, we can focus on the pure, the good, the philosophy, and we can discard the kind of degenerate, the superstitious, the religious.

Louis Komjathy:

So I just want to add here, the first kind of revisionist sinological response to this is to say, no, there is no such thing as philosophical Daoism. There was no Daoism in this early period that I’m suggesting we look at, and Daoism really begins in the second century CE. So really when we talk about Daoism , it means “religious Daoism.” So that was the first revisionist kind of viewpoint. And I’m responding to that saying we’re leaving out about 400 years of history. That’s really important for understanding the development of the Dallas tradition.

Nathan Loewen:

To show if this, just into considering context for teaching and learning. Do students in your experience, walk into the classroom with this bifurcated understanding of Daoism in place, or do you think that you can just go ahead and give them classical Daoism and not have to worry about this split?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, I think this is complicated. So the short answer is in the past, they would tend to come in either with the philosophical religious Daoism split, or they would come in with a number of, kind of popular constructions of Daoism that you’d have to kind of critically investigate with them. And what I try to do, even though it’s a little more complicated in the undergraduate classroom, is to give them actually evidence to support why I’m putting forth this revisionist idea. And then I say to them, I’m not telling you that you have to believe this or accept this. Here’s the evidence for why I’m suggesting we use this, but also, and I think this is really important for the podcast, is rather than begin with the assumption of philosophy or religion, let’s investigate the phenomenon with the question of what is philosophy and what is religion, and why might I, as a scholar located in religious studies, think that religious is a better characterization of classical Daoism than philosophical. But the good thing about the classical Daoism name is it holds open that space.

Nathan Loewen:

Right? You just covered a lot there. One, and I want to catch up to that, but it sounds like what you’re saying is when you say that classical Daoism is a more neutral framework, you don’t mean it in the sense of neutrality in the sense of objectivity, or do you mean… I think you’re framing neutral in a different way that might be useful.

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, I think what I’m saying on the first level of analysis is okay, there are people deeply attached to philosophical Daoism, there are people deeply attached to something called Daoist religion or something like this. And that what we tend to do is we tend to bring those interpretive categories onto the material. So, we begin with a set of assumptions that determines the way we interpret it. Whereas if we begin with classical Daoism, we can investigate it in a more neutral way. So in that kind of conventional sense. But then of course I’m not neutral in this. I think that classical Daoism has a certain set of characteristics, which I would tend to say is religious, but what this category does is it’s allows us to have that debate.

Louis Komjathy:

So it allows people who want to believe that classical Daoism is more philosophical than religious to say, well, this is why I believe. Describing it as philosophical is more accurate than describing it as religious. So it at least creates some space for people who don’t follow my revisionist framework or don’t accept it or don’t see it as viable or convincing to put forth the kind of counter argument in that more neutral space. And the only other thing I wanted to add here is the other thing that happens by using this kind of revisionist framework is it allows us to explore that question of continuities and departures through the tradition rather than to presuppose that there is no connection between these different expressions of Daoism.

Nathan Loewen:

Would you be able to give an example of the religious stuff sure that people have ignore, and how you introduce that and how people receive it?

Louis Komjathy:

Quite clearly, this tradition is founded upon a theological viewpoint of the Dao. So when you look at the classical materials, but also when you look at the way this feeds into the larger tradition, it is the tradition of the Dao. So the Dao is the sacred or ultimate concern of Dallas. And there’s a very particular set of theological and cosmological views associated with this. That’s informing the practices, but the practices are also intended to orient one oneself towards the sacred reality. So it’s even more subversive or I think destabilizing than to call it religious, because it’s also theological. And as you know, the relation between theology and religious studies is a complex kind of negotiation. But here I would begin with that. So the kind of foundational world view is that there is this sacred presence permeating the world, permeating us, that the ultimate purpose of human existence is to align ourselves with this.

Louis Komjathy:

And, this is the more, I think, essential piece for what we’re talking about. That the classical Daoism, but I would make a stronger argument about this in the tradition as a whole is, has a certain set of practices. And those practices are basically non-negotiable. From, I think, that perspective about how you can actually attune yourself with reality or the sacred. So one of the revisionist viewpoints is contemplative practice, specifically a form of meditation that in English, we usually refer to as apophatic or quietistic meditation, that is emptiness and stillness based meditation, is the foundation of the views and the experiences that are described in the classical texts.

Louis Komjathy:

So if you skip that and you skip the fact that they’re theologically infused, you run into all kinds of philosophical misinterpretations that you tend to see in these kinds of discussions about classical Daoism or so-called philosophical Daoism being skeptical or relative, or some kind of like proto deconstruction. And it’s like, it’s not those things. It’s talking about a transformation of consciousness that occurs through a specific set of practices.

Nathan Loewen:

And so finally, how do you encourage students to engage those contemplative and mystical questions? Can you give an example of what you may have done in the past or consider recommending to people who wish to implement this kind of perspective in their own teaching? How would you suggest they go about that?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, so a kind of simple example, but I think one really helpful for the majority of us that tend to use texts as some of our primary materials in the classroom, is when you start reading texts like the Dao De Jing Selections from the Dao De Jing texts or selections from the Chuang Zhou or the book of Master Chuang Zhou. Instead of starting at the beginning, maybe giving them these two essential passages from chapter four and chapter six of the Chuang Zhou or which cover, fasting of the heart, mind and sitting in forgetfulness. So these are easy to find.

Louis Komjathy:

But when you use those passages and you give them to students and say, okay, let’s analyze this. What are they talking about? They’re talking about a specific kind of contemplative practice. How do we understand that through this text? We can reconstruct it. Well, when we take that practice and we filter some of the viewpoints or some of the philosophical perspectives that are coming through the text, how might that change the way we understand what’s being said or unsaid? That is, if what’s being articulated is actually a contemplative viewpoint about the nature of reality, rather than a philosophical, rumination, or argument about other philosophical positions this might change way we read the Chuang Zhou as a whole.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at global critical, and that’s all one word, There you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website at Or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify Podcasts. Thanks. Goodbye.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series – Ep. 2 Louis Komjathy On Praxis For Teaching Philosophy Of Religion

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up, with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the Department of Religious studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught and studied in the 21st century? Lewis Komjathy is a leading independent scholar, educator, and translator. His current work explores cross-cultural practices and perennial questions related to contemplative awareness, embodied aliveness, and beyond states. You can learn more from his website linked in this podcast’s credits. Dr. Komjathy was part of a pilot project teaching philosophy of religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by the Wabash Center with a grant administered by Gereon Kopf at Luther College. We had two conversations on November 17th, 2021. We discussed the question, how might a revised approach to studying Daoism influence teaching the philosophy of religion? Another topic that’s been of interest to you is to rethink Daoist philosophy through more recent European philosophers, such as Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault. Is this something that other Daoist scholars have been doing in your field?

Louis Komjathy:

No. So there’s kind of, I think, complicated intellectual history to this. And I’ll just make it brief, which is I have tended to be on the religious study side of things in the academic study of Daoism. And so a lot of my kind of earlier work was advocating for rethinking the earlier periods as having these religious dimensions. But over the course of these years, and especially with the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Group, I’ve been kind of engaging more philosophy of religion scholars and thinkers. And so then the kind of, why do I have this question or these issues with the category philosophy has come up.

Louis Komjathy:

And so one of the things I’ve tried to do is not just make an argument for why I think it’s better to think about the Daoist tradition as religious, but also to kind of rethink the category of philosophy in a way that might make space for re-engaging Daoism along these revisionist lines of Hadot and the later Foucault. I’m thinking specifically about the history of sexuality and the kind of techniques of self kind of materials in Foucault. So it’s basically engaging the question of philosophy from a critical perspective with my own critique of it. But then saying, “But there are some resources to reimagine this.” And so the short answer is, as far as I’m aware, I’m the main person trying to bring in people like Hadot and Foucault into the explicit discussion of Daoism, or so called Daoist philosophy.

Nathan Loewen:

Right. And I can here our listeners potentially looking at the Wikipedia page for Foucault and reading the first sentence there, perhaps. But in brief, I know you mentioned two written texts, but is there some sort of perspective with this scholar’s work that you want to bring to bear on the topic of Daoism?

Louis Komjathy:

Hadot and Foucault.

Nathan Loewen:

Maybe let’s just go Foucault first. Who is this person? And in a nutshell, what’s the perspective that is brought?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. So, I mean, obviously Michel Foucault is a very complex figure with a lot of different views and a lot of influential studies. So when I’m invoking Foucault here, I’m not just thinking of him in terms of the archeology of knowledge or a kind of deconstructionist approach. I’m thinking about his later work that’s partially influenced actually by Hadot, where he starts to really advocate for thinking about philosophy as focusing on techniques of the self. And the way in which it’s not just about ideas, but it’s about enactment. It’s about embodiment in the world. It’s about the ways in which we transform ourselves, right? That we’re always transforming ourselves in different ways. And so then if we use the framework of techniques of the self, how might that change the way we think about the project of philosophy?

Nathan Loewen:

Right. And one name that people might not know is the other one, Pierre Hadot. What do you mean? Techniques of the self? Practices?

Louis Komjathy:

Right. So Pierre Hadot is also, I mean, more of a historian of philosophy, but I think you can think of him as a philosopher in his own right. But was especially interested in a kind of revisionist engagement with Hellenistic philosophy, thinking about the ways in which there were what he called spiritual exercises. And how, in revisionist reading of the history of philosophy, a lot of the earlier philosophical materials were really about spiritual exercises and practices that were meant to transform character. So it had this kind of root in a kind of transformative practice that would change the way we are in the world. And that, that was really the project of philosophy. The project of philosophy was not simply to transform our consciousnesses or our minds, but to actually lead to a complete reconfiguration of character.

Nathan Loewen:

Now, as far as I know, neither of them were scholars of anything to do with Asia or East Asia or Daoism. Why did you choose these two? And what’s the work that you do in adapting their work into your work?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah, so absolutely. They’re both clearly on the side of Western, of the Western philosophical tradition or traditions. So one part of this is what I alluded to at the beginning, which is speaking to individuals that self-identify as scholars of Asian philosophy or Chinese philosophy or philosophers of religion. And these kinds of things is then, okay, where are resources in the Western philosophical tradition that would allow us to reimagine so-called Western philosophy, but then also put that in dialogue with the materials or traditions from other cultures, and in this case, Daoism? So one part of it is to say, “Is philosophy really about disembodied ideas? Or is philosophy really just about thinking or thought? Or is it also about a formal practice?” So that’s the kind of Hadot and Foucault insight is we should be looking at the applied, the lived, the enacted, the embodied.

Louis Komjathy:

And then for me to say, “Well, that’s exactly what I see in especially classical Daoism in this case.” So bringing their revisionist engagement with their own traditions into my revisionist engagement with Daoism allows me to open up potential other areas of conversation, especially with people that want to believe that these materials are philosophical. And then to say, “Okay, do you mean philosophical in the way that Hadot means philosophy? Or do you mean philosophy in the way that the later Foucault means? Because then it’s possible that I’m more sympathetic to those interpretations. Or do you mean it more in the sense of disembodied thought that allows us to have nice, comfortable academic positions and not actually think about the way in which this is enacted in the world? Because that’s not classical Daoism.” So part of it is to say, I think the categories of spiritual exercises, techniques of the self, are helpful for actually elucidating some of the Daoist materials, especially the contemplative and the mystical dimensions of the tradition.

Nathan Loewen:

So let’s say I knew nothing of Daoism, and I’d never heard about Hadot or Foucault either, but you wanted me to learn something about philosophy and Daoism in the sense that you’re talking about. What would be an example that you would offer to me and help me learn about?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. So I think the first piece is to just give of a kind of simple, distilled version as I just did about Hadot and Foucault. And say, “What are these concepts that they’re putting forward as a revisionist framework to think about philosophy?” So spiritual exercises, techniques of the self, what is that? Well, there’s some kind of transformative practices that’s underneath what we tend to think of as conventional philosophy. Well, when you take that and you start to move through some of the classical Daoist materials, for example, like the [inaudible 00:09:09], the drawings of their other text, too, but those are the ones that are most well known and usually used in academic courses.

Louis Komjathy:

And then you start to comb through those texts looking for what you might call spiritual exercises or techniques of the self. What do you find? And you find a tremendous amount of information. Well, when you then start to think through that material from a more contemplative, lived, applied perspective, what does it tell you? And it tells you that they think that they have a spiritual technology that will transform you. That will lead to a different way of experiencing. That will align you with a sacred reality. That will lead to a completely different way of being in the world.

Nathan Loewen:

So, I mean, it sounds like you could reframe a what you’re talking about not as philosophy of religion, but philosophy of spiritual technology?

Louis Komjathy:

Or philosophy of practice. So I’ve been with other members of the group thinking about this. A philosophy of practice, a practice of philosophy. Is that something we want to imagine? Do we want to imagine philosophy beyond the classroom? And this is where I think it’s radical and maybe it’s radical in the sense of being traditional returning philosophy back to maybe some of its foundational roots in the sense of, well, are we trying to be better human beings? Is there a larger purpose to being human in the world? Are there certain problems that are calling us to change and that maybe philosophy as a set of spiritual exercises and techniques of the self give us materials and resources to work on that in an intentional way, in a transformative way, in a way that might actually lead to a beneficial presence in the world?

Nathan Loewen:

And I have a hunch that that changes what students’ homework assignments might be. I mean, we haven’t talked about the classroom much here, and we’re near the end of our conversation. But as I listen to you, I think that the sorts of homework we might give students as teachers changes substantively when we start thinking about philosophy of practice and the practice of philosophy, especially if we’re trying to rethink something like either religious studies or the philosophy of religion from the ground up. The kinds of questions and categories, but also the kinds of things we do starts to change with the perspective that you’re offering us here.

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. And you can also, I think, develop a set of exercises that are not explicitly religious, because this is always one issue that we face, that are more about a phenomenological investigation of one’s own experience, one’s own relationships, one’s own way of being in the world that brings greater awareness of that. That then clarifies the student’s values for themselves. Nothing imposed on them, but a kind of inquiry. So this is where it does intersect with that other field that I’m interested in, contemplative studies, which is, here is a contemplative inquiry. We are not trying to make you into something. We’re trying to ask you to simply investigate these questions. And here’s a set of parameters or principles or even exercises that will help you do that.

Nathan Loewen:

To close out our conversation, I’d like to hear from you what you think people who are interested in what we’ve talked about, or even instructors or professors or teachers who are interested in implementing this or considering what kind of possibilities are out there. What sorts of resources would you direct them towards as they might want to develop this kind of approach to teaching and learning?

Louis Komjathy:

Yeah. So in my introducing contemplative studies book, there’s a chapter on contemplative pedagogy, where I try to give a kind of variety of exercises from across disciplines. So not specifically religious studies, but saying, “Here’s a discipline specific set of exercises that you might consider.” Not that you should adopt these, but when you think about your own pedagogy, when you think about what you’re teaching, when you think about why you’re teaching it, when you imagine other possibilities of learning. What exercises might you develop? Or are there exercises that you have an affinity with that’s aligned with your pedagogical goals that you could incorporate into your classes that would deepen students’ learning, but also hopefully their own kind of larger lives?

Louis Komjathy:

So there’s materials in there, there’s some further references. And then I think the other part is really going through this kind of critical inquiry on our own about our classes, right? And about the kinds of classes we teach. The material we’re teaching. And are there certain kinds of exercises that are maybe less conventional types of learning exercises, but that give students another way of approaching the material or thinking about the relevance of that material to their lives?

Nathan Loewen:

Outstanding. Thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation. I hope that it’s going to lead to some fruitful inquiries for everyone who listens to it.

Louis Komjathy:

Thank you. And yeah, feel free to contact me if people have questions or comments. So thank you.

Nathan Loewen:

We’ll be sure to put your website in the credits.

Louis Komjathy:


Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at globalcritical, and that’s all one word, There, you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of the department of religious studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website at Or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify Podcasts. Thanks, goodbye.

Louis Komjathy:

I was like, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s all right.” I thought you were trying to connect the two. Yeah. This [inaudible 00:15:41] deja vu story of my life.