What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy?: The Case of Skepticism

Scholars of all types of philosophy are fond of referring to philosophical traditions. But what does this mean? What counts as a tradition?

In the Indian context one way to discuss a tradition is with the word darśana, which literally means view or viewpoint from the root “dṛś” – “to see.” It can also be translated as “school.” This is how we at the blog translate it in our scheme for categorizing posts.

We might also look to the etymology of the English word “tradition,” which derives from the Latin “traditio” (a handing down, delivery). Must a tradition be handed down through interpersonal transmission from teacher to student in the traditional Indian model? Or could it be a matter of later philosophers being inspired by reading particular texts, or perhaps some combination of interpersonal transmission and textual inspiration?

Let’s look at this issue with a topic near and dear to my heart (or, in any case, to my current research agenda): skepticism in Indian philosophy.

While I think there may be something like skepticism about the external world or about other minds in Indian philosophy, here I’m talking about a kind of skepticism about philosophy itself, an attitude I see most explicitly present in Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. (If you don’t accept my somewhat controversial premise, that’s fine; I hope my discussion of the concept of a tradition will still be interesting).

Lately I’ve been reading early Indian philosophy: the Ṛg Veda, some Upaniṣads, and some early Buddhist texts. I’ve noticed ways in which these texts contain the roots of the types of skepticism about philosophy later exemplified by Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa (although I should note that I am in no way claiming that the early texts are essentially skeptical texts — they’re all far too complicated to be reduced to any one of their elements). These later philosophers were making novel contributions, but they were starting with previously existing material. Does this mean there was a tradition of skepticism about philosophy in classical India?

There can’t be a skeptical tradition in the sense of a darśana. One might suggest that the Cārvāka darśana is a tradition of skepticism. While all Cārvākas doubt many of the knowledge-claims of their religious counterparts, most Cārvākas seem to have accepted a kind of commonsense, everyday knowledge as philosophically established. While Jayarāśi should be seen as cultivating seeds of Cārvāka skepticism that were planted earlier in the Indian tradition, these and other skeptical seeds were also cultivated outside the grounds of the Cārvāka darśana.

Furthermore, the etymology of darśana implies a specific, articulated set of views about philosophical matters. Skepticism about philosophy is not a particular view about philosophical matters, but rather an attitude about engaging in such philosophical pursuits. If anything, skepticism about philosophy is an “anti-darśana” rather than a darśana itself.

Nonetheless, skepticism about philosophy seems to have been handed down from the earliest beginnings of Indian philosophy. The seeds of skepticism were planted in the Ṛg VedaUpaniṣads, and early Buddhist texts. These seeds were later cultivated by philosophers in at least three different eras coming out of what are usually considered to be three different traditions: Jayarāśi from Cārvāka, Nāgārjuna from Buddhism, and Śrī Harṣa from Advaita Vedānta.

This represents an alternative way of conceptualizing traditions in Indian philosophy. Traditions within Indian philosophy might be distinguished by methods and goals rather than explicitly articulated beliefs, religious affiliation, or placement within traditional doxographies.

There are three elements in particular that formed the key methods of skepticism about philosophy: vitaṇḍā, prasaṅga, and prasajya.  Vitaṇḍā is discussed in the Nyāya Sūtra as a type of debate in which one seeks to destroy an opponent’s view without putting forward a view of one’s own.  Prasaṅga is a form of argument in which several possible interpretations of an opponent’s philosophical thesis are put forward, each being rejected in turn as either internally inconsistent or as incompatible with the opponent’s other commitments. This was the standard form of argument for Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi. Prasajya negation is a “commitmentless denial” (as B. K. Matilal called it) that allows skeptics to deny their opponents’ theses without thereby committing themselves to any alternative philosophical thesis.

Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa employed these methods toward similar – albeit not identical – goals. They all sought to destroy the bases of philosophical conceptualization, Nāgārjuna for the Buddhist quietist goal of relinquishing all views, Jayarāśi for the Cārvāka purpose of enjoying life more fully, and Śrī Harṣa in line with Advaita goal of becoming open to experience of non-dual brahman.

Does it make sense to identify a skeptical tradition (or cluster of traditions) within Indian philosophy even if doing so cuts across the usual ways of identifying Indian philosophical traditions? Might we likewise identify other traditions in Indian philosophy: pramāṇavāda, realism, idealism, rasaalaṅkāra, etc.? While I’m not denying that the darśana model has its uses, might it be helpful to think of other ways of carving up Indian philosophical traditions?

Cross-posted to my personal blog.

11 thoughts on “What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy?: The Case of Skepticism

  1. I think it’s missing a lot to Nāgārjuna’s skepticism as having “the Buddhist quietist goal of relinquishing all views”. I think that is only a means to the true goal of liberation from suffering. You could also characterize Jayarāśi as having “the quietist goal of relinquishing all views” – in order to enjoy life more fully. But to the extent that that’s a goal for either, it’s only a proximate goal. Each of the two would be horrified by the end goal that the other uses it in service of.

    • Of course as a Buddhist Nāgārjuna’s ultimate goal is the elimination of suffering, but he is, I think, inspired by a tradition(?) of early Buddhist quietism. As opposed to what I like to call the analysis-insight tendency according to which liberation from suffering is a matter of apprehending some truth through philosophical analysis and direct insight, quietist tendencies in early Buddhism describe a way to the ending of suffering by means of quieting the mind and refraining from analysis or insight. The analysis-insight strand was always stronger (at least among philosophers), but I see Nāgārjuna as using analysis to get to a quietist state.

      Jayarāśi uses many of the same methods toward a (proximate) goal of ending one’s desire to do philosophy, which in turn leads to the (ultimate?) goal of more thoroughly enjoying life. I don’t think the inner state of thoroughly purged Nāgārjunian or Jayarāśian skeptics would be all that different, especially with regard to the attitude about philosophical analysis, although of course their outward appearances would be different: a Nāgārjunian could be a practicing Buddhist whereas a Jayarāśian could be just about anything but a practicing Buddhist.

      So I agree that the ultimate goals are different. How many proximate goals must be shared before we’re warranted in talking about a tradition? I’m not sure.

        • That might work. My original idea is that the psychological state that is supposed to result from the skeptics’ activities is similar: freedom from disturbance (to borrow from Pyrrhonian skepticism), coolness of mind, or a state in which the desire for further philosophical conceptualization and analysis is pacified. That this state is sought for ostensibly different reasons is worth noting, but I’m struck by the fact that similar philosophical methods are used for the sake of achieving such a similar state.

  2. Dear Ethan,
    I do not at all disagree with your suggestion about a ‘tradition’ of scepticism. So, if your main point is about cutting across ‘darzana’ and similar terms to get at a conceptual mapping of something that can be called *’scepticism’*, I’m with you.
    But if you are thinking more about the general question of the use of the term *’tradition’* – as your opening remarks suggest, then (as someone who does use ‘tradition’ and ‘traditions’ freely) I wonder whether we shouldn’t simply start with not thinking of it univocally, and let our sense of it emerge in context? It would become a non-issue, really, as sometimes we could be doing something as general as contrasting Western and Indian ‘traditions’ all the way to such specifics as distinguishing between SmArta and ZrIvaiSNava Tamil ‘traditions’…

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m pleased to hear from you, especially since your work on Śrī Harṣa has influenced my thinking on this.

      While my opening remarks suggest that I’m looking for a univocal definition of tradition, I hope that that’s not where I’m headed. As you point out, we already use “tradition” in many different senses. If anything, I’m trying to encourage a less univocal understanding of traditions that’s less reliant on taking the darśana model as standard. This would open up historians of Indian philosophy to new ways of understanding the traditions within the larger tradition of Indian philosophy. So I agree very much with your suggestion of not taking the concept of a tradition as univocal.

      But nonetheless, I wonder if there should be some standards for what counts as a tradition. Or maybe just articulating what one means in each specific instance is enough?

      • I’m in a similar place to Ram, here. We use terms like “Wittgensteinian,” “Humean,” “Platonic” and the like to refer to clusters of attitudes or approaches or concerns that we think fit a broad type, regardless of whether there is a direct student-to-teacher transmission. In that sense, I find no problem in speaking of skeptical traditions, even beyond the more coherent “schools.”

  3. I agree with the observations of Ram-Prasad Chakravarthi. I would add that even though I too use the word “tradition” re Hinduism and Indian philosophy, particular Hindu theologies, etc., I think do think that is odd how “we” (those that “do” philosophy and theology from an Indian tradition) are expected to fit our work into a “tradition.”

    You rightly question: “Must a tradition be handed down through interpersonal transmission from teacher to student in the traditional Indian model? Or could it be a matter of later philosophers being inspired by reading particular texts, or perhaps some combination of interpersonal transmission and textual inspiration?”

    It seems Indian thinkers themselves (esp. those in a theological mode) perpetuate the first (that their views are “traditional,” ie come in an unbroken sampradāya from a god to us today, and sometimes there is a lot of angst about establishing that tradition [eg in 18th century Gaudiya Vaishnava theology), even though the reality is the latter, ie that particular thinkers are influenced by a wide range of factors.

    Thus, I think it does make sense to identify a particular “tradition” in the Indian context, even if it cuts across the usual ways of identifying Indian philosophical traditions. I think that once we get into the late 19th and 20th centuries, one must also consider the very tangible influence of Western sciences, philosophies, theologies, etc. in the reconstruction of an Indian tradition.

    • Thank you, Jonathan. I do think there’s a somewhat weightier notion of tradition when it comes to Indian philosophy as you point out. On the other hand, there is among both continental and Anglo-American philosophical traditions a sense of something similar. Having studied with Derrida or Quine or whoever carries a lot of weight, although it’s not exactly the same idea. On the other hand, one could call oneself a Derridian or a Quinean simply by having read and absorbed a lot of their texts.

      I like your point about the Western influences in the 19th-20th centuries as well, which somewhat blurs the lines of even “the Indian tradition” in the expansive sense. I always think about this when I teach a little bit of Gandhi and Ambedkar in my Indian philosophy courses. Of course, there is some research on ancient connections between traditions as well, so maybe the very idea of a pure Indian/Western/Chinese, etc. tradition is itself problematic.

  4. Ethan, I am delighted to see you thinking of skepticism in Indian philosophy in this fashion–as a ‘tradition,’ or ‘cluster of traditions,’ or perhaps a ‘trend’ or ‘undercurrent.’ I have recently written about it in the same way in a forthcoming book and was wondering if I was going too far out on a limb. I have tended to reserve the word ‘tradition’ in the singular as a translation of ‘darśana,’ for which I also use ‘system’ and ‘school’ (as well as ‘system of thought’ and school of thought’). Darśana denotes, as you say, a more internally coherent body of ideas and arguments than what you are referring to here. But it seems fair to call it a ‘tradition’ in a broader sense, as something with precedent in earlier sources (at least as far back as the Nasadiya Sukta) and certain discernible features across the boundaries of the more cohesive ‘systems’ and ‘traditions’ in the narrower sense.

    • Great minds think alike! I posted this because I was unsure about how I was using the concept of a tradition in my recent thinking about this topic (for a book I’m working on, incidentally). As some of the earlier commenters mentioned, scholars tend to use “tradition” in a variety of senses, so I don’t think speaking of a skeptical tradition is terribly controversial. This was my thought on the matter, but it’s good to hear from others.

      I look forward to reading your book! Does it have a title yet?

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