A Buddhist Take On Cognitive Functions

The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, whom some consider to be the most important person in Buddhism besides the Buddha himself, sums up his view of reality in the following statement:

In teaching the doctrine, the enlightened ones rely on two truths, empirical and transcendent. Those who do not differentiate these truths do not understand the profound reality of the doctrine. Without recourse to empirical truth, the transcendental truth cannot be shown. Without the transcendental truth, ultimate reality cannot be realized.

This statement is remarkably close to some of the things Jung said about the cognitive functions, and which the Jungian analyst and philosopher Marilyn Nagy have explored in her book, Philosophical Issues in the Psychology of C. G. Jung.

This way of viewing cognition holds that reality cannot be known apart from mental consciousness and that the mental processes inherent in consciousness predispose us to view reality in certain ways. I have explored this theme further in my own article, Determining Function Axes, Part 6, which is available to members on our website.

According to this way of viewing the functions, as long as we are bound by our functions, we can never really know the nature of reality, but only partial appropriations of it, which are determined in part by our mental processes. But all mental processes have two weaknesses:

1: They are prejudiced to experience reality in accordance with their overall nature, preferences, and biases.

2: All cognitive functions presuppose conceptual bifurcation, that is, dividing things into subject and object, while the true reality, which we are synthesizing in our minds by way of cognitive processes, is really free of such contradictions.

It is thus only by going beyond our functions that we can be allowed to see reality in its true transcendent state, free of our own biases. But we all start out bound by our functions. That is why Nagarjuna said that without recourse to empirical truth, the transcendental truth cannot be shown. We must start with a conditioned understanding of how our empirical consciousness is limited before we can reach the transcendental stage and see absolute reality for ourselves.

But it is very hard to reach this stage, since, to the untrained mind, the distance between seeing reality and epistemically dividing it into subject and object is so short that most people never notice they are doing it. They end up believing that their own mental constructions are ultimately real and thus become entrapped by their own functions. The cognitive process becomes the arbiter of reality, rather than reality in itself.

In his work, Jung appeared to be split between a purely diagnostic approach to typology, which we have linked to the work of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. In Psychological Types, just traces another approach to typology, where the diagnostic phase is succeeded by the need to liberate oneself from the functions to Taoism and the Upanishads. At the time where he wrote Psychological Types, he did not appear to be familiar with Mahayana Buddhism, but had he been, he would no doubt have recognized that this was, in a sense, the same thing Nagarjuna was talking about, and which certain Zen masters have taught. I have also personally suggested that one might find some inkling of this mindset in the heritage left to us by the Greek philosopher Anaximander. I explored this theme in my article The Anaximanderian Conception of Function Axes.

In a way, you could say that the task of explaining this point to people who are not in tune with the primordial cognitive state extolled by Buddhism is a bit like the task of trying to explain to someone who is sober what it is like to be under the influence of mind altering drugs. Only from the Buddhist point of view, it is man’s everyday empirical consciousness that corresponds to being under the influence while the primordial state of consciousness corresponds to sobriety. Or as the Buddhists like to call it: The true nature of reality.

That is why most expositions on the merits of such cognitive states will invariably have a bit of a bait and switch flavour to them: If the listener has not undergone serious meditative training, he or she will only have a vague idea of what such a state is like. He will most certainly not have the first-hand phenomenological experience of what it is like to undergo such a vision, nor the completely doubt-less feeling that accompanies it which tells you that what the Buddhists have been talking about for aeons is correct and that this state of consciousness is far more in tune with the true nature of reality that the empirical understanding we construct for ourselves by way of our functions and that most people live under through their entire lives. Only when we liberate ourselves from the functions; from the dichotomy of subject and object; from the narrative fictions we spin for ourselves, and from the lie of thinghood will we try be able to go beyond our functions and see reality as it truly is.

That is why the Zen master Pang Yun said that the essence of awakening to true reality is to eat all day and not swallow a grain of rice; to walk all day and not tread an inch of ground; to have no distinction at all between subject and object and to be inseparable from all things all day long; this is the nature of true cognitive liberation.