Book Blogging: Three Pillars of Indian Skepticism, Conclusion

I've chosen an image for the final blog post that I think Ethan would appreciate. In his final chapter, Ethan sets out an argument for why what he's calling "skepticism about philosophy" is not found just in ancient Greece or India, but perhaps also China (in Zhuangzi) and Persia (in Al-Ghazali). That argument depends on claims about the limits of human thought and certain paradoxes which appear at those points. In this post, I'll give a summary of that argument and a few final thoughts about the book.

Ethan argues that contradiction plays a crucial role in each of the three pillars (Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, Śrī Harṣa), for instance, in the prasaṅga method. However, he thinks is not merely a handy method, but that the kind of contradiction that occurs in each of these thinkers is necessarily connected to the limits of our abilities as humans. So, for instance, drawing on the Chomskyian distinction between problems and mysteries, Ethan argues that these three pillars use contradictions when our philosophical activities go beyond our cognitive capacities, from problems into mysteries. Of course, the boundary between what we can resolve, though with effort (problems) and what we never can know (mysteries) is not something we can ascertain, either, for a skeptic about philosophy. Hence these limits are "demonstrated rather than theorized" (172, italics original).

So, for instance, we might formalize these limits using Graham Priest's Inclosure Schema.You can see a more general representation than Russell's Set to illustrate the Schema at the SEP on Self-Reference.

1. Ω = {y | ϕ(y)} exists and ψ(Ω) (Existence)
2. if x ⊆ Ω and ψ(x)
(a) δ(x) ∉ x (Transcendence)
(a) δ(x) ∈ Ω (Closure)
The general idea is that you have ϕ and ψ, which are two predicates, and a function δ which assigns an output for a given input. Take the set of all sets that do not contain themselves to be Ω. Let's take  ϕ(x) to be x ∉ x (or the predicate "is not a member of"), and ψ(y) as being universally true. The function δ is identity. What we get is Russell's Paradox, since the set of all sets that does not contain itself cannot be a member of itself (Transcendence) but if it is not a member of itself, then it therefore is included in the set of all sets that does not contain itself (Closure).

Ethan takes this general schema to be applicable to Nāgārjuna's MMK 27.29-30 (though he does not take it as evidence for dialetheism). So if we take Ω to be the set of things that have the nature of being empty, we get a limit contradiction: the nature of all things, δ(x), both is and is not empty. This is because x is a set of things that have some nature, and so δ(x) is a member of the set, because everything has this nature of emptiness (Closure). But then δ(x), or the nature of all things, is also not part of that set, since x is a set of things that have a nature (and to be empty is to ultimately lack a nature). [Here there is a typo either in the book or in Garfield and Priest--it should be δ(x) ∉ x on page 168.]

Now, as Ethan surely knows, but the reader may not realize, just whether Nāgārjuna is committed to such a paradox is a substantive, controversial, and long-standing textual question which depends a lot on how one reads the Sanskrit term svabhāva and on whether you think Nāgārjuna is equivocating or not. Richard Hayes has a nice paper summarizing some of the disputes, and the 2013 issue of Philosophy East & West contains a lot of discussion on this topic and related ones.

In any case, he goes on to apply Inclosure to Jayarāśi's argument (169) against the possibility of knowing there are two pramāṇas by a pramāṇa, where Ω = the set of things justified by a pramāṇa, ϕ(y) = y is a thing justified by a pramāṇa, and ψ(Ω) is the set of things justified by a pramāṇa (Ω ) is either justified by perception or inference, but not both (ψ), δ(x) = "there are only two pramāṇas." This means that δ(x) is a member of the set of things justified (Closure) and also not a member of the set of things justified (Transcendence), because if Dignāga is right, δ(x) is true (and thus pramāṇa-justified) and at the same time, it cannot be justified by inference or perception.

Here we might wonder if δ(x) must be pramāṇa-justified if Dignāga is a conventionalist about epistemology, such that the distinction between perception and inference is just saṃvṛtisat (as it seems to be for Dharmakīrti). If it is, then the contradiction collapses.

Finally, he applies Inclosure to Śrī Harṣa's argument against Nyāya realism (170), where it is the set of things referred to by tattva that generates the contradiction, since tattva has to refer to both something which exists (as that's what Naiyāyikas argue) but it also cannot so refer, because we cannot rule out illusions, and thus if δ(x) = "this existing thing," then since it also refers to the fact that hallucinations have intentional content.

This application I'm not so sure about, since I take it that what generates Inclosure is self-reference. Here I would think that we'd want the problem to arise when considering whether tattva itself is tattva.

If philosophers constantly hit such limits (and we aren't going to be dialetheists), and we can't even know where such boundaries are, what is the purpose of philosophy? I mean, Ethan wrote an entire book about skepticism about philosophy, in which he uses philosophical arguments to argue that philosophers use philosophical arguments to undermine philosophy...

He gives some reasons for doing philosophy, or at least "mitigating" skepticism about philosophy:
...philosophy can be fun, it can develop cognitive capacities such as intellectual imagination and critical thinking skills, and it helps us avoid reckless dogmatism. I think skepticism about philosophy should be mitigated in the sense that realizing its truth (or at least likelihood) shouldn't stop us from doing philosophy [altogether], although it should weaken the degree of confidence we place in our philosophical belief (175).
From each of the "three pillars," we can learn something, he says: from Nāgārjna, that "philosophical dogmatisms" can cause attachment and suffering, from Jayarāśi, that they might detract from enjoying life, and from Śrī Harṣa, that maybe we are missing the fact that reality is very different from what we think (176).

Concluding Thoughts

I remain unconvinced about the details of some of Ethan's arguments. While surely there are lines of influence that cut across the darśanas (I think that is undisputable!) these do not amount to a tradition in the stronger sense. I worry that taking some of these thinkers as aiming at skepticism about "philosophy" both over and under-extends their aims. Under-extends insofar as Nāgārjuna is aiming at proliferation of concepts more generally, not just those belonging to specialized Naiyāyikas or Ābhidharmikas. Over-extends insofar as Śrī Harṣa probably thinks that there are ways of knowing such as scripture, and others ways of knowing which we might want to call "philosophical" or rigorous, even if they are qualified or provisional, dependent on scripture and will ultimately fall short of knowing reality as it is. What Jayarāśi accepted is hard to know, given the limits of his corpus, but he does seem to have some positive views about universals? As I suggested in an earlier blog post, these thinkers are rich enough to merit full books for each of them.

So I hope that the result of his book is that there will be further attention given to these thinkers, especially Jayarāśi and Śrī Harṣa, who have been less popular, relatively speaking, than Nāgārjuna among philosophers investigating Indian thought.


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