Thursday, December 18, 2014

Classification of "schools" in Indian philosophy

I've been re-reading Daya Krishna's articles collected in the 1991 Indian Philosophy: A Counter Perspective. His essays, "Three Myths about Indian Philosophy", originally published in 1966, makes points that are still relevant today. One them, which is becoming increasingly recognized as a myth, though yet not sufficiently so, is the idea that the darśana-s or "schools" of Indian philosophy are rigid distinctions easily attributable to some combination of (1) attitude towards the Vedas and (2) fixed philosophical commitments.

I recommend the entire article, but here is a nice excerpt:
Indian philosophy is divided first into 'orthodox' and the 'unorthodox' schools, and then these are subdivided into Buddhism, Jainism and Cārvāka on the one hand, and into Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṁkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta on the other...There is no such thing as final, frozen positions which the term 'school' in the context of Indian philosophy, usually connote. If 'schools' change, developed, differentiate and divide, then they are never closed, finished or final with respect to what they are trying to say. There could, then, be no fixed body of Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṁkhya, Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, Buddhist, Jain or Cārvāka except in a minimal sense. These would, on the other hand, rather be styles of thought which are developed by successive thinkers, and not f ully exemplified by any. Nor would these styles be treated as exhausted by any group or groups of thinkers belonging to any particular historical epoch.
This passage came to mind as I was reading the opening paragraphs of Anantalal Thakur's "Influence of Buddhist Logic on Alaṁkāra Śāstra", which says:

Kauṭilya describes logic as a lamp unto all the śāstras and his claim is just. It is no wonder that the Alaṁkāraśāstra, which gradually became a veritable dialectic discipline, should have deep connections with it, but to a student of Alaṁkāra the predominence of the influence of the Buddhist logic on this śāstra in preference to the orthodox system of logic of the Akṣapāda school seems to be a puzzle. Almost all the rhetoricians were Brahmins and there is no reasonable ground to hold that they were catholic in their outlook at all. Yet when occasions arise, they unhesitatingly quote Kārikās from the classics of Buddhist philosophy in support of their contention and use definitions and terminology adopted by the Buddhist logicians. [Italics mine.]
The solution that Thakur comes to is the claim that because of the influence of Buddhist logic in Kashmir especially, where Alaṁkāraśāstra was rich, it is "natural" that the aesthetic philosophers would use it. He adds that "Brahmanical logic for a time was overshadowed by its Buddhist counterpart to be revived subsequently by scholars like Vācaspati Miśra and others."*

But this is no solution. It is simply restating the problem without letting the evidence prompt reflection on starting presuppositions. Why was so-called Brahmanical logic overshadowed by Buddhist logic? And why would a school employ the concepts and claims of another (competing) school simply because the opposing school is so prominent? This is to underestimate the intellectual abilities of the Ālaṅkārikas--surely they were able to stake out positions of their own, and did. To take one example, Mahimabhaṭṭa's reliance on Dharmakīrti is more puzzling if it is simply taken as superficial, present only because Dharmakīrti's concepts were "an important item in the curriculum." Mahimabhaṭṭa not only quotes Dharmakīrti, but does so approvingly (see McCrea 2008 for a list of citations), which should be reasonable ground to wonder if, in fact, the rhetoricians were not more "catholic" in their approach than first thought.

This is not surprising, though. Having divided early modern European philosophy into "Rationalism" and "Empiricism", historians of philosophy do not then stop and scratch their heads, puzzled, when there are agreements between, say, Locke and Descartes, and conclude the reason must be sociological. Without setting aside the reality that philosophical conversations do take place in a historical context and sometimes such a context can contribute to explaining their form, we go on to consider what Locke and Descartes were arguing for, and why.

These categories are, of course, not entirely illegitimate as starting points (and the classical authors themselves use them for certain purposes) but the should be held lightly and provisionally enough that they are not obstacles for our understanding of these thinkers as thinkers, not merely as representatives of fixed philosophical perspectives.

Krishna, Daya. (1991). "Three Myths about Indian Philosophy" in Indian Philosophy: A Counter Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCrea, Lawrence. (2008). The Teleology of Poetics in Medieval Kashmir. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thakur, Anantalal. (1958). "Influence of Buddhist Logic on Alaṁkāra Śāstra." Journal of the Oriental Institute. 7(4), 257 - 261.

*My advisor, Stephen Phillips, has written about Vācaspati's "catholicism" in a forthcoming paper, "Seeing From the Other's Point of View: Counter the Schismatic Interpretation of Vācaspati Miśra", and I am indebted to him for discussions of this topic in the context of Nyaiyāyika thought during our readings of the Nyāya-vārttika-tātparya-ṭīkā.