Ontology, epistemology, ethics

By Centre of Yoga Studies|December 1, 2020|Uncategorized|0 comments

In September 2020, the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies ran a seminar series titled ‘Yoga and Philosophy’. After the seminars, we invited participants to write posts reflecting on each one.

The presentation portion of the seminar series is available on our YouTube channel.

Title screen from Mikel's seminar

Seminar: Studying Yoga Philosophically: ontology, epistemology, ethics’ led by Mikel Burley.

This post written by: Vicky Addinall.

Can yoga be considered an ethical system? Should we consider the ontological systems of Sāṃkhya and Yoga in cosmological or phenomenological terms? How can we define the state of pure consciousness? These are just a few of the knotty philosophical questions raised during the concluding seminar of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies seminar series on yoga and philosophy, a talk and discussion with Dr Mikel Burley, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds.

The seminar entitled ‘Studying yoga philosophically: ontology, epistemology and ethics’, was centred on Dr Burley’s forthcoming chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Meditation and Yoga Studies. Burley examines the ways in which philosophy has, and can be, utilised as a disciplinary approach to the study of yoga and meditation. It was an appropriately broad topic of discussion to conclude a month of seminars that charted a lot of ground in the field of yogic studies; from gender in the Mahābhārata, to the internalised asceticism of jñāna yoga and the entangled ontologies of yoga and Buddhism.

The seminar was structured under the four headings of the book chapter  – yoga and ontology, yoga and epistemology, yoga and ethics, and future prospects – with Burley adeptly sketching the philosophical debate and landscape of each area.

The first theme for consideration, ‘Yoga and ontology’ – or the nature of being – offered a brief glance at the competing interpretations of what exists according to the core classical texts of Yoga and Sāṃkhya and asked whether we should understand these ontological systems in cosmological or phenomenological terms. Burley’s own past work (2007) favours the later approach. The seminar highlighted the opportunity for fruitful critical comparisons across different philosophical schools of thought – specifically the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, to the phenomenological philosophies of Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl as well as other non-Western traditions such as Buddhism – not in an attempt to restrain but rather illuminate these ancient accounts of human experience and enrich our interpretations. Parallels can be drawn with the abstract classifications of experience offered by Kant for example, yet the Sāṃkhya-yoga insistence on the existence of both intentional and non-intentional consciousness stands out as a particularly unique contribution. As Gerald Larson (1969) once described the ontology of Yoga and Sāṃkhya is not so much a case of mind and matter as a dualism between ‘individual consciousness’ and ‘the unconscious mind’.

The next theme – ‘Yoga and epistemology’ – considered what yoga, and other meditative traditions, consider can be known.  In this section Burley intentionally directed the seminar discussion towards a guiding question – what does it mean to refer to states of ‘pure consciousness’? – and provided the framework of the philosophical debate surrounding it. In this case it is a landscape shaped by the rigid contextualism of Steven Katz (1978) at one end, and the unifying perennialism of Robert Forman (1990) at the other. Is there a possibility for unconditioned experience, a ‘pure consciousness event’ as termed by Forman or are we bound by the limits of our own time, place and experiences? Grace Jantzen’s feminist reading (1995) builds on Katz’s contextualism to argue that we are bound, that there is an inherently gendered nature to religious discourse, and any sense of neutrality or objectivity is itself a product of sociocultural factors that serve to conceal ‘male partiality’. Burley left attendees with no conclusion of course, but rather an appeal for the continued impartial study of experiential accounts and their various contextual factors in order to broaden the debate.

The final section – ‘Yoga and ethics’ – examined how the ethical elements of yogic practice have been interpreted. Are the liberated states exalted in yogic treatise beyond morality completely, somehow beyond good and evil completely and a-moral? Does the moral perspective of Yoga and Sāṃkhya reflect a kind of self-directed consequentialism (see Roy Perrett 2007), or – as Ian Whicher (1998) has argued – a possible model of virtue ethics that encourages moral and cognitive purification to achieve an embodied state of liberated identity.

Importantly, Burley framed the seminar content and the arena of philosophical study within its contemporary global context. The idea of philosophical approaches to yoga (or any non-western tradition) in itself raises a fundamental question – ‘what is philosophy?’ – and highlights the risk of shoe-horning non-Western traditions into Western theoretical models. Burley is himself a voice in the emerging arena of pluralist philosophy (see below his latest publication A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion) and highlighted the importance of remaining alive to an academic trajectory that has often seen Western philosophical contexts marginalise traditions outside of the Western canon. Thankfully past approaches are under increasing pressure, and the recognition and engagement with non-Western forms of philosophical inquiry is helping to re-shape our understanding of the term.

The seminar offered a succinct overview of some of the more recent approaches to philosophical inquiry in the academic arena, citing the work and vision of Van Norden (‘taking back philosophy: a multicultural manifesto’), Mark Siderits (‘fusion philosophy’) and Pierre Hadot (‘philosophy as a way of life’) as examples. Specific to the field of yogic studies, Burley emphasised the importance of continued hermeneutic and critical pursuit; i.e. both to study and understand the texts and ideas of the yogic canon as products of their time and place and also to reconsider them through the lens of different ideas, cultures and minds. As Burley articulates in his forthcoming chapter: ‘The scope for further cross-cultural or inter-traditional comparative research is [also] substantial, having the potential to disrupt simplistic assumptions about, for example, the supposedly more rational nature of Western philosophy vis-à-vis the more ‘mystical’ philosophies (or ‘wisdom traditions’) of Asia.’ Ultimately, the application of philosophical approaches to the study, and indeed the practice, of Yoga has the potential to positively alter our understanding of the tradition and ourselves. Which certainly feels like a worthwhile pursuit.

Mikel (Mik) Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds.

Vicky AddinallVicky Addinall is studying for an MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS, University of London, and serves on the steering committee for the Centre of Yoga Studies.


  • Brentano, F. (2015) Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint [1874] Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Burley, M. (In press) ‘Ontology, epistemology, ethics’ in Newcombe, Suzanne, and Karen O’Brien-Kop, eds. Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies. Routledge.
  • Burley, M. (2020) A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious, Interdisciplinary. London: Bloomsbury Academic
  • Burley, M. (2007) Classical Sāṃkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. Abingdon: Routledge
  • Forman, R. K. C. (1990) ‘Introduction: Mysticism, Constructivism, and Forgetting’, in R. K. C. Forman (ed.) The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy New York: Oxford University Press, 3–49.
  •  Hadot, P. (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. A. I. Davidson, trans. M. Chase, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Husserl, E. (1999) ‘Phenomenological Psychology and Transcendental Phenomenology’ [1927], in D. Welton (ed.) The Essential Husserl: Basic Writings in Transcendental Phenomenology Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 322–36.
  • Jantzen, G. M. (1995) Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kant, I. (1998) Critique of Pure Reason [2nd edn, 1787], trans. and ed. P. Guyer and A. W Wood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Katz, S. T. (1978) ‘Language, Epistemology and Mysticism’, in S. T. Katz (ed.) Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis New York: Oxford University Press, 22–74.
  • Larson, G. J. (1969) ‘Classical Sāṃkhya and the Phenomenological Ontology of Jean-Paul Sartre’, Philosophy East and West 19, no. 1, 45–58.
  • Perrett, R. W. (2007) ‘Sāṃkhya-Yoga Ethics’, in P. Bilimoria, J. Prabhu and R. Sharma (eds) Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges, Vol. 1, Aldershot: Ashgate, 149–59.
  • Siderits, M. (2015) Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons, 2nd edn, Farnham: Ashgate.
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