Book blogging: Three Pillars of Indian Skepticism Chapters Four & Five

1890s photo of lion at Surya Temple, Konark
In Chapters Four and Five of Three Pillars, Ethan lays out his argument for his interpretation of  Jayarāśi's skepticism (circa ninth-century CE). As skepticism goes, Ethan is on surer ground with Jayarāśi, since the philosopher explicitly argues that the definitions of epistemic instruments given by a range of other thinkers are faulty. His opening remarks in the Tattvôpaplavasaṃha, TUP (Lion of the Destruction of Principles) seen to skewer the possibility of even talking about epistemology, saying that, without good definitions, we might as well talk about the "color of the soul" or "the pleasure of a pot" (Franco 1987: 71). Further, he ends with this:
Thus, when the principles are completely annihilated, all every day practice (or: all thinking, speaking, and acting) can be delighted in as much as it [no longer has to be] deliberated (Franco 44).

When, in this way, the principles are entirely destroyed, all everyday practices are made delightful, because they are not deliberated (Mills 84).
tad evam upapluteṣu eva tattveṣu avicāritaramaṇīyāḥ sarve vyavahāra ghaṭanta iti
This suggests that after Jayarāśi has destroyed his opponent's philosophical views, he will just go on and return to everyday speech, thought, action (vyavahāra), which is in some way left intact, but no longer scrutinized--simply engaged in joyfully.

However, though scholars agree that Jayarāśi is skeptical in some sense, just how that skepticism should be characterized (and what is left intact after the destruction) is the subject of a lot of debate, as is his relationship to Cārvāka (also known as Lokāyata), the so-called "materialist school," for whom we lack textual evidence apart quotations within other texts. Jayarāśi's work is the only one that exists, and since he seems to differ from other Cārvākan thinkers in his commitments, some (Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and Karel Werner) have argued that he is isn't a genuine Cārvāka. Ethan, I think persuasively, argues that the presence of "internal diversity" within the so-called "schools" has never prevented people from accepting, say, Prābhākara and Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā are both sub-schools (77). Further, we only have fragments of work by the earliest Cārvākan thinker Bṛhaspati (at least according to those who think there must be one such original).

Chapter Four: Laying out the general template

But whether Jayarāśi is a Cārvāka or not isn't Ethan's main focus. Rather, it is to demonstrate that Jayarāśi is "a skeptic about philosophy, especially epistemology," and to read him this way makes his text coherent in a way that other readings do not (81). Ethan's work, naturally, draws on Eli Franco's important 1987 translation of the TUP, although he admits that he is often going beyond the text's explicit claims, he is preserving Jayarāśi from charges of self-contradiction. So what are the existing interpretations of Jayarāśi?
  • Epistemological skepticism. Piotr Balcerowicz in his SEP entry (section 2.2) characterizes this as "the position in which one refuses to accept the truth of some proposition or to affirm the existence of something, without denying it."
  • Context-sensitive epistemological skepticism. Eli Franco (1987:38-40) says that we don't have enough to be able to generalize about Jayarāśi, but that he thinks his denials were contextually sensitive, so that while he appears to deny both p and not-p, he's denying p in the context of one theory and not-p in the context of another, and really just showing that neither is well-supported.
Ethan argues for what he calls "Jayarāśian contextualism," which should be distinguished from Franco's view, as we'll see below. Further, in contrast to Balcerowicz, who argues that TUP, 4.5 is evidence that Jayarāśi has positive claims (such as that universals do not exist), Ethan argues that he makes no "philosophical claims" and "neither does he discuss a lack of certainty in everyday or scientific matters" but rather focuses on "the philosophical schools of his day" (83).

The kind of contextualism Ethan has in mind is similar to semantic contextualism, in which "know" has different truth-conditional contributions to sentences depending on context, analogous to how a pronoun would vary depending on context. So, Jayarāśi would be okay to use epistemic terms like "sees" in ordinary contexts like "Devadatta sees a cup," (recalling vyavahāra in the quote above) but would deny "Devadatta has a perception of a cup" in the epistemic context (86). Further, instead of attributing a positive philosophical view to Jayarāśi, like "Contextualism is true," Ethan says, we can see him "as embodying a sort of contextualism rather than arguing for it: in epistemological contexts, he accepts nothing (not even contextualism), but in regular contexts, he may accept some everyday knowledge claims" (88). Finally, though you might think Jayarāśi is committed to a normative claim, like "You should stop doing philosophy and enjoy everyday practice," he notes that this isn't explicitly part of the text (the quote above includes a gerundive, ramaṇīya, which need not have an imperatival force).

Chapter Five: Textual interpretation

As in previous chapters, Ethan uses the next chapter to do more explicitly textual work after laying out the motivation for his interpretation. My main question heading into this chapter was why we need Ethan's account to save Jayarāśi from internal contradiction, and why we should rely so heavily on the distinction between vyavahāra and the pramāṇavādin's context. After all, while he may not discuss a lack of certainty in "everyday or scientific matters," at least for Jayarāśi's opponents, without pramāṇas, we do not have vyavahāra, and they deeply embedded within our ordinary practices! And it does seem like we at least have to know what context we are in in order to know how to interpret our epistemic vocabulary like "sees."

In this chapter, which, like the previous one, draws on material in Ethan's previously published articles, argues that

1. Dignāga and Dharmakīrti are epistemological realists
2. Jayarāśi argues against epistemic realism (in TUS Chapter 3)
3. Ethan's interpretive thesis is consistent with (2).

On the first point, when I read the chapter, my thoughts ran parallel to worries raised almost a decade ago now by Laura Guerrero at an APA presentation on this topic (and then they have been informed by her, in conversation subsequently). If "epistemological realism" is "realism about the objects of epistemological inquiry," (Williams cited in Mills 100), then I have a hard time seeing, Dharmakīrti, for instance, as such a realist. As others have pointed out (Daniel Arnold in his Brains, Buddhas, and Believing, and John Dunne, in Foundations of Dharmakīrti's Philosophy), Dharmakīrti responds to the worry about the distinction between perception and inference collapsing into conventional reality (saṃvṛtisat) by say, "yeah, well, that's cool" (Sanskrit: astu yathā tathā, or more formally, "Let it be so in the way as you have said", Dunne 392). If that's right, then we can't say "The fact that pratyakṣa and anumāna are fundamentally different classes of cognitions is not conceptually constructed, even if our words and concepts about this distinctions are" (103).

Of course, taking a conventionalist route to the distinction might lead to other problems for Dharmakīrti (as well as Dignāga--and as this post is getting long, let me note that Ethan's 2015 paper in Asian Philosophy says more about the relationship between the two, which is difficult, especially in interpreting whom Jayarāśi is arguing against).

In any case, if Dharmakīrti is not an epistemological realist, then perhaps he has a response to Jayarāśi (or perhaps not--the focus of this chapter is not so much to evaluate the arguments). But I'm not sure much hangs on this interpretive point, in any case, since one could argue against the conventional logic of the distinction, in which case we could give an account of Jayarāśi's arguments. Ethan lays out in a crisp, readable outline structure the main options (vikalpas) of the text. He essentially argues that it's impossible to distinguish between perception and inference, on the first, and then that there is no cognition which could somehow include both pramāṇas in order to judge that there are two. I skip over these details because, at least as I read the chapter, those details do not directly bear so much on Ethan's thesis. What he wants to argue is that he is using prasaṅga arguments which demonstrate that "[reveal] a contradiction and then [reject] the idea that engender[s] this contradiction" (footnote 31, 96).

However, while Jayarāśi does argue against almost all of the predominant thinkers of his day, he does not tell us what he's up to, aside from the rather opaque quote I opened the post with, and if he is engaging in what Nyāya philosophers call "destructive debate" (vitaṇḍā), we don't know if it is because he has no thesis or because he has one but prefers not to air it (either at all or in this particular work). It's because of this that Franco compares him to Nāgārjuna if we only had the MMK, and urges caution in drawing any conclusions. I suppose I can't help but end on what seems like a bit of a performative tension at this point in Ethan's book, which is that he isn't very skeptical in his attitude when faced with an absence of evidence! However, to be fair to his approach, he's not trying to make an air-tight philological case for any of these thinkers, or to identify "Western" analogs, but rather to argue for what he sees as a textually coherent and philosophically fruitful way of approaching them. I suppose it's fitting that I'm still unconvinced!

Eli Franco. Perception, Knowledge and Disbelief: A Study of Jayarāśi's Scepticism, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1994 [1st edition: Alt- und Neu-Indische Studien 35, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1987].


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