Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi on Dignāga’s Epistemology (Part Two)

In Part One, I explained the critiques of Dignāga’s epistemology offered by Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi. In Part Two, I’ll consider whether these arguments create serious problems for Dignāga’s epistemology.

I suspect that the two arguments are different in that Candrakīrti focuses on the object of knowledge (prameya) while Jayarāśi’s focus is on the means of knowledge (pramāṇa). Whether Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi are giving the same argument, they are both exploiting what they see as a self-referential problem in Dignāga’s epistemology: if the content of Dignāga’s epistemological theory is correct, then that theory itself could never be established. These arguments both fit what Graham Priest calls an Inclosure Schema (see Priest 2002, which includes Priest’s and Jay Garfield’s co-authored article applying this schema to some of Nāgārjuna’s arguments). But does Dignāga’s theory really have this problem?

Dignāga might claim that both means of knowledge could be the object of an inferential cognition. Jayarāśi considers such an objection from a Buddhist opponent:

But then someone might object that the ascertainment of two [pramāṇas] is due to conceptualization. This is not correct. Even that conceptualization does not grasp two [pramāṇas], because it concludes in the cognition of itself. Or if it did grasp [two pramāṇas], then the [Buddhist] position would be abandoned. (Tattvopaplavasiṃha, 3.3a)

If an inferential cognition could have a perceptual cognition as its object, Buddhists would abandon their position that perception is free from conceptualization. Jayarāśi may also be alluding to the Buddhist position of momentariness: since the conceptual cognition terminates in a single moment, it cannot last into a second moment in order to apprehend perception as well. Buddhists may reply that inferential cognitions can be about perceptual cognitions without revoking the non-conceptual status of the perceptual cognition, or maybe an appeal to exclusion (apoha) might be used to show that inferential cognitions can have some causal relation to perceptual cognitions of ultimately real particulars.

However, even if inferential cognitions could somehow be about perception, I think that Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi raise a serious problem for Dignāga. Dan Arnold discusses a similar issue with help from Wilfrid Sellars’s Myth of the Given. The idea is that non-conceptual states cannot justify anything insofar as justification requires something conceptual that is capable of being entered into what Sellars calls the “logical space of reasons.” If a cognition is non-conceptual, it can’t be used to justify a belief such as the belief that there are two means of knowledge. At best, it might cause such a belief. Dignāga or Dharmakīrti might say that a causal relation is good enough. However, as Arnold says,

… if perception’s privileged status is a function of its having been caused by its object, and if discursive cognitions are defined by their adding something (insofar as their content involves, by definition, some object that is not immediately present), then how can one ever be sure that what one is thinking about, when entertaining some proposition, is in any sense the same thing that was perceived? (Arnold 2005, 38)

Arnold suggests that this leads to a self-referential problem:

… one might ask what reasons could be given, in their own account, to support the correlated beliefs that only causally efficacious objects are ‘real’ and … that only directly caused cognitions are finally veridical. … The truth of their own statement of this claim is something that could be known only inferentially; but their whole epistemological set-up leads any inferential knowledge to be regarded as suspect. (Arnold 2005, 42)

In other words, Dignāga cannot claim that perception is both epistemically fundamental and non-conceptual. We can’t be sure that our inferences allegedly about perception are in fact caused by perception – while inference might yield knowledge about inference, we can never be sure that it yields knowledge about perception. Therefore, the problem that Arnold identifies deepens objections like Jayarāśi’s and Candrakīrti’s.

Furthermore, if Arnold is right that one of Dharmakīrti’s most important commentators, Dharmottara, attempted to solve this problem by claiming that even perceptual cognitions might have some sort of propositional, conceptual content (Arnold 2005, 42-48), this would show that the kind of problem Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi raise was an issue taken seriously by philosophers in the tradition after Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. This suggests that Candrakīrti’s and Jayarāśi’s considerations are problems that Buddhist epistemologists ought to take seriously. In fact, some did take these problems seriously.

Do you think the sorts of self-referential issues raised by Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi are serious problems for Dignāga’s epistemology?

Works Cited

Arnold, Dan. (2005). Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa. (1994). Tattvopaplavasiṃha. Ed. and Trans. Eli Franco. In: Perception,Knowledge and Disbelief: A Study of Jayarāśi’s Scepticism, Second Edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Priest, Graham. (2002). Beyond the Limits of Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cross-posted to my personal blog.

7 thoughts on “Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi on Dignāga’s Epistemology (Part Two)

  1. I would agree with Arnold (as described by you) if nirvikalpa pratyakṣa were established only via negativa, insofar as otherwise we would have no access to reality. However, Buddhist epistemologists can also count on the immediate access to their perceptual awareness of, say, a patch of blue, which is immediately available as svayaṃprakāśa.

    • Thanks, Elisa. I think these arguments work even if we grant that pratyakṣa establishes itself by being svaprakāśa There’s still a problem of how we could talk about pratyakṣa as being one of the pramāṇas along with anumāna. Even if pratyakṣa can be self-established in a purely non-conceptual way, we could never form a theory about it, since that theory would always be inferential and by that very fact not established by perception. And if the Buddhists want to found their theory on pratyakṣa, then they have no business talking about it or trying to engage in conceptual inferential theorizing about it. The self-referential problem is this: if the theory is right, then the theory can’t be right, or at least we can’t really speak or think about the theory.

      • Uddyotakara makes an argument similar to yours, Ethan, to the effect that if perception is non-conceptual, how can Buddhists theorize about it? Potter has claimed that the argument is sophistical, IIRC, or something like that.

        • Thanks, Matthew. I will look for that argument from Uddyotakara. Plenty of people have accused Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi of being sophistical, but I think they’re doing something interesting even if their primary aim isn’t to establish positive theses in epistemology. It’s hard to see why someone would call Uddyotakara sophistical, though!

      • Yes and no, Ethan, insofar as the theory is no longer nirvikalpa (it could not!), but its vikalpa-status is based on a nirvikalpa one and this continuity grants its partial validity (unlike what happens in the case of sheer vikalpas, such as dreams, illusions and the like). Please notice that I wrote on purpose that the theory, like all vikalpas, can only be said to be partially true (in this sense, I think also a Buddhist epistemologist would have to partially agree with you).

        • That’s a good point that the Buddhists would partially agree. They would have to admit that all theory is conventional and conceptual, but it’s hard to see how you could know that the conceptual theory is even partially based on non-conceptual reality. You can make an argument that there’s a causal relation or maybe the mere existence of such a causal relation is enough, but what Arnold is getting at is that it seems very hard to know that a particular concept has any causal relation to a particular perception.

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