The Function of saññā in the Perceptual Process According to the Sutta-piṭaka: An Assessment

Philosophy East and West 65 (3):690-716 (2015)
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Abstract

This article deals with the meaning and function of saññā in perception according to the Suttapiṭaka. As regards its meaning, the discussion stresses the fact that the renderings “perception” and “apperception” seem to overinterpret the actual function/activity of saññā. Also the translations “idea” and “ideation” should be used cautiously, in order to avoid misunderstandings, since these terms are fraught with very specific philosophical and psychological implications in the Western context. Moreover, though “cognition” could be a good rendering, “recognition” seems to be a more adequate translation for saññā, because it conveys the meaning of both cognizing and naming, which are the two main activities carried out by saññā. In this sense, cognition should be envisaged as a recording process that labels (and gives names to) the data coming from the senses. As regards its role in perception, saññā takes place after contact (phassa) and sensation (vedanā). Its task is to collect the not yet well-defined information provided by phassa and vedanā, and to organize this information into a datum that can be made available to, and handled by, the consciousness (viññāṇa). The task of viññāṇa, in its turn, is to interpret this datum according to sujbective “values”. The present study stresses also the fact that the recognition carried out by saññā can be either simple (colors, tastes, etc.) or complex (danger, death, etc.). For this reason, after having dealt with simple perceptions, a section is devoted to the analysis and possible explanation of complex recognitions. Moreover, since the textual sources record the fact that saññā can fail its task to recognize things, another section is added, in which incorrect recognitions are taken into consideration.

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Krishna Del Toso
Università degli Studi di Trieste (PhD)

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