He leans back in his chair and considers the question. His office is quiet. Library quiet. Sanctuary quiet.
Christian Coseru sees himself sitting there in his chair, the morning sun framing his figure against the window.
He sees himself slowly raise his hands from the armrest, his fingertips fashioning a form reminiscent of the pointed haystacks of his native Romania. He inwardly smiles at this pose so familiar to him. His version of Rodin’s The Thinker.
The question, ahh, yes. The question.
“Yes,” he responds, his reverie broken, “I think philosophers are the happiest people. Happiness comes from understanding, and philosophers spend their lives trying to understand everything. Philosophy asks the big questions: What is the nature of reality? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And when you deal with those fundamental questions, I think you go about the world with a more cheerful disposition.”
Then this associate professor of philosophy may just be the happiest man alive.
This past year, Coseru has done quite a bit to tackle some of those big questions. In June, he codirected a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, which examined some of the most hotly debated topics in the study of consciousness. Held on campus, it was a gathering of diverse philosophical viewpoints. And for Coseru, an expert on Buddhist philosophy, it was a gratifying moment watching some of the world’s foremost philosophers of mind, phenomenologists, philosophers of cognitive science and specialists in Buddhist philosophy engage in dialogue – listening, learning and playing on each other’s philosophical approaches.
Then, there’s his new book, Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy. In it, he argues that Buddhist philosophers in India, going back as far as the seventh century, anticipated many of the ideas of Edmund Husserl, the 20th-century father of phenomenology. This particular school of thought, much in line with the Buddhist philosophy of mind, focuses on the structures of consciousness as given in a first-person experience. Think of it as applying the scientific method in observing and mapping out the stream of a person’s everyday mental life in a way that brackets common assumptions about what is and is not real.
“The Buddhists make a very important contribution to the science of the mind,” Coseru points out. “They are pioneers of the introspective method of analysis.”
As for Coseru, introspection is a critical part of his daily life. Whether in his office or out on the street, he practices a form of mindfulness, a way of training the brain to take stock of its mental states.
“It’s like being an involved observer and seeing yourself observing as you observe your seeing all at once and without judgment,” Coseru explains of this complicated meditative process. “Mindfulness is a form of attention that you direct at everyday activities. It’s a quieting of the mind, using specific breathing techniques.”
And with that, he calmly inhales, exhales – and leans back in his chair, with his fingers again pressed together, a twinkle of happiness in his eyes.