Things You Wouldn’t Think to Look For in One Place A Note on an All-Too-Brief Example on Life and Matter in Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam A.D. 3.14c

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Sonam Kachru



This brief essay explores an example introduced by Vasubandhu in the third chapter of his Treasury of Metaphysics (Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam). The example involves the report that one can, apparently, find in molten metal an environment conducive to the generation of a species of small-scaled critters, which example, however otherwise bizarre to us (and to a generation of scholars who have passed over it in silence), Vasubandhu appears to believe well known and capable of supporting striking generalizations about life and matter. I offer three sorts of comments on this example and three varieties of reasons for taking it more seriously than we have. Firstly, considering the textual provenance of the example forces us to acknowledge the possibility of a much richer textual world to which Vasubandhu had access, one possibly stretching from Peshawar to Rome. Following the philosophical implications of the example in turn allows us to trace with Vasubandhu an intriguing complication in the concepts of life and matter and how they interrelate. Lastly, the methodological implications of taking such examples seriously direct us to a distinctive target of historical and philosophical exploration: the historically contingent contours for what is, and what is not, possible.

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