Monday, 15 December 2014

Skepticism: Ancient 'East' and Modern 'West' - PART I & II

Bina Gupta

A careful examination of the Cārvāka School of ancient Indian materialism reveals a number of interesting parallels to a relatively modern school of western thought, the type of skepticism first formulated by David Hume, to mention only one example. The purpose of this paper is to examine and contrast the respective epistemologies which these two schools developed and, in particular, the similarities and differences in their skeptical outlooks.

For the sake of clarity, the paper is divided into three parts. In the first part, I will attempt to define skepticism and also distinguish between what I will call extreme skepticism and limited skepticism. In the second part, I will describe and analyze skepticism in Indian philosophy with special reference to the Cārvāka School. In the third part, I will note similarities and differences between the two. I will conclude by pointing out the value of skepticism in both traditions by demonstrating its unsettling effect on traditional viewpoints and its effect on those who hold the older positions.


What is skepticism? There seems to be no generally accepted definition of skepticism in philosophical circles. On the one hand, the frequent usage of terms like 'skeptic', 'skeptical', 'skepticism', gives the impression that we understand what we mean by these terms, but, on the other hand, the fact that the concept of skepticism is used in so many varied and sometime conflicting ways would seem to indicate that there is no single universally accepted understanding of the meaning of this term. For this reason, perhaps the safest and best way to begin is by offering a definition of skepticism: skepticism is a doubting or challenging of knowledge claims.  In other words, a skeptic is one who questions or call into doubts knowledge claims. In the West, knowledge is generally understood as involving belief. One may be said to have the knowledge that r if he believes that r, r is true, and has proof that r is true. In other words, it is a proposition which is either true or false, and the knowledge claim implies that the knower believes a true proposition. Without this claim the question of knowledge will not arise and a skeptic performs no useful function because there is noting to doubt or dispute about. Some skeptics, most notably David Hume, take this position a step further and make the stronger claim that it is not possible for the human understanding to discover the real nature of things as they exist in themselves, independent of experience.

Sextus Empiricus (Circa 200 AD), a Greek philosopher, divided philosophers into three groups: those claim that they have discovered the truth, i.e. the dogmatists; those who claim that the truth cannot be discovered. i.e. the Academicians; and those who do not make either of these claims but go on inquiring, i.e. the skeptics or Phyrrohonists.[1] The Greek terms skeptic meant an inquirer. Thus skepticism, as philosophical doubt rather than as doubts concerning traditional religious beliefs or traditions originated in ancient Greek thought.  

Extreme skepticism, as a philosophical position, called into question all knowledge claims which go beyond one's immediate experience. This calls into question the very basis of skepticism itself; for the skeptic claims that if there is any truth at all, the truth is that there is no truth. If an extreme skeptic intends to negate all knowledge claims, how does he know that his own claim is valid? On the other hand, if he does not know that the evidence for his claim is valid, he has no basis for skepticism.

Partial or limited skepticism call into question specific knowledge claims made either by metaphyscians or theologians which go beyond their immediate experience. Limited or partial skepticism can, therefore, be considered as an attempt to establish the necessary criteria which a valid knowledge claim must satisfy. Extreme skepticism maintains that no knowledge beyond immediate experience is possible, whereas in its weaker form skepticism expresses the doubt whether any particular knowledge claim can be know with certainty.

With this general introduction about skepticism and two kinds of skepticism, I will turn my attention to skepticism in Indian though and the role skepticism has played in the Cārvāka School.


An examination of the history of Indian philosophical though reveals that skepticism has not played a very important and prominent part in that history. Though one finds many references to skeptics scattered throughout the Indian literature, and despite the fact that the existence of a school of skepticism known as Lokāyata or Cārvāka is acknowledge by such scholars as Tucci, Dasgukpta and Garbe, it is well known that very few writings by Indian ancient skeptics have actually survived. The lack of positive wrings by Cārvāka has even caused some to question whether any Lokāyata text had ever existed. However, there is no doubt that actual Lokāyata texts existed in ancient times, although they are now lost. Tucci states that from the fact that no Lokāyata work came down to us it would be incorrect to assume that no Lokāyatatext ever existed.[2] Professor S. N. Dasgupta has given conclusive evidence that the Lokāyata sūtras with its commentary existed in ancient times.[3] The principal sources of information on skepticism is the writings of those who either sought to refute it or ridicule it. Thus the Lokāyataa philosophy (doctrine) has been preserved for us only as quoted in pūrvapakas, i. e., the objections raised against it by its opponents. One source of information on Cārvāka is the brief summary given by Madhava in his Sarva-darsana-samgraha.[4] In recent years, however, the Tattvopalavasimha by Jayarasi Bhatta, has been considered by its editors on the basis of internal evidence, to be the only authentic surviving text of this school[5], and most Indian scholars now share this opinion. However, this single text does not provide an adequate indication of the full reasoning and argumentation of the doctrines of the Carvaka School. Nevertheless, a careful reading of these resources leaves no doubt that the Carvaka School represents the standpoint of skepticism in Indian philosophy. My account of the skepticsim of the Carvaka School is based on these two sources.

Madhava attributes to the Carvakas the view that perception is the only sources of valid knowledge. They reject the authority of the Vedas, the supremacy of the Brahmin Caste and, the law of karma, and advocate egoistic hedonism in ethics. In the opening lines of his book Madhava states:
The efforts of carvaka are indeed hard to be eradicated, for the majority of living beings hold by the current refrain -
While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death's searching eye:
when once this fame ours they burn,
How shall it e'er again return?
The mass of men, in accordance with the sastras of policy and enjoyment, considering wealth and desire the only ends of man, and denying the existence of any object belonging to a future world, are found to follow only the doctrine of Carvaka. Hence another name for that school is Lokayata - a name well accordant with the thing signified.[6]
Madhava emphasizes the epistemological basis of the Carvaka skepticism. What is perceived by means of five senses is valid. Inference cannot be regarded as a source of valid knowledge because inference is possible only when the concomitance between sadhya (major) and the hetu (middle) is know to be existing in the paksa (minor). This concomitance must not be only unconditional but also there should be no doubt in the mind that it could be conditional. Inference cannot take place until this concomitance is known. In Madhava's words:
Now this invariable connection must be a relation destitute of any condition accepted or disputed; and this connection does not possess its power of causing inferene by virtue of its existence, as the eye, & c, are the cause of perception, but by virtue of its being  known[7]?
One cannot know it by perception because concomitance is not something with which the senses can come into contact. Moreover, the contact between the senses and the object gives us only knowledge of the particular object in contact with our senses, and this contact cannot produce the universal connection between the sadhya and the hetu. This argument clearly states that perception only gives us knowledge of particulars. And as the scope of perception is limited to particulars only, it cannot provide us with the necessary connection required for a valid inference.

Inference as a means of knowing vyapti is also rejected because it is itself dependent upon a vyapti. "Nor can inference be the means of the knowledge of the universal propositon, since in the case of this inference we should also require another inference to establish it, and so on, and hence would arise the fallacy of an ad infinitum retrogression.'[8]

Sabala (testimony) and upamana (comparison) cannot help us in knowing the universal relation between sadhya and hetu because they are themselves based on inference. Thus Madhava concludes: "Hence by the impossiblity of knowing the universality of a proposition it becomes impossible to establish inference, & c."[9] That for Carvakas the move from the proposition 'y cannot be known' to the proposition  'y does not exist' commits the fallacy of 'argumentum ad ignoratium' i.e. argument from ignorance. Ignorance of how to prove or disprove a proposition establishes neither the falsehood nor the truth of that proposition, which is to say that on the basis that something is not know to exist one cannot claim that it does not exist.

It is obvious, however, that if one accepted the view that inference is impossible, it would be very difficult to account for the fact that in everyday life we rely on reason and, based on the results obtained, judge that belief well founded and necessary (the criterion used in practice);: in other words, without the type of reasoning which the Carvaka wants toreject everyday life would be impossible. Each of us intuitively recognize that without inference it is impossible to explain everyday practice. In short, the Carvaka's position seems to contradict everything we think we now to be true about reality. Moreover, this viewpoint actually places its adherents in a difficult position because nay proof that is given to prove the conrrectnes of his position will require inference. How can a Carvaka prove his assertion that perception is the only means of valid knowledge? At this point,he find only two alternatives are open to him. Either he accepts the validity of inference as a means of valid knowledge or refuses to recognize even perception as a source of valid knowledge. Both these positions have in face been taken, the first by Purandara and the second by Jayarasi Bhatta.

Purandara, probably a seventh century Carvaka, admits the validity of inference in regard to the perceptible world but denies its applicability beyond the realm of perceptual experience. Dasgupta hold that Purandara
admits the usefulness of inference in determining the nature of all worldly things where perceptual experience is available; but inference cannot be employed for establishing any dogma regarding the transcendental world, or life after death, or the law of karma which cannot be available to ordinary perceptual experience. [10]
Perhaps the rationale behind maintaining the distinction between the usefulness of inference in our everyday experience and in ascertaining truths beyond perceptual experience lies in the fact that an inductive generalization is made by observing a large number of cases of agreement in presence and agreement in absence, and since agreement in presence cannot be preserved in the transcendental world even if such a world existed, no inductive generalization relating to that world can be made. 

A Carvaka, like Purandara accepts perception and inference on the empirical level and discards metaphysical inference on the grounds that what is in principle unobservable  is unknowable. Other Carvaka, who accept only perception, leave themselves open to two questions: (1) How is validity of perception as a source of knowledge be ascertained? and (2) How do we ascertain the invalidity of other means of knowledge, accepted by most of the schools of Indian philosophy?

Perhaps, these questions led the Carvakas like Jayarasi Bhatta to focus on the questions of the validity of perception as a source of knowledge. He maintains that
the system of knowables depends upon the system of means of knowledge; while means of knowledge in order to be valid have to conform to reality. So one has to examine whether there are any valid means of knowledge before one can say anything about reality. Jayarasi is of the opinion that there are no valid means of knowledge...[11]
Jayarasi shows the invalidity of the pramanas and the consequent invalidity of all metaphysical princples and categories.

Lokayatas base their skepticism on the assumptions that material objects exist and that they are perceived. Everything in this world is reducible to the four elements, air, water, fire and earth. Everything arises out of a combination of these four elements and dissolution consists in their separation. But Jayarasi contends that there is no valid ground for accepting the existence of material elements, because if perception is the only valid source of knowledge, how can one be certain that perception reveals the true nature of objects? Perception itself cannot be regarded as the means for ascertaining the validity of perception. Thus, it is not surprising that the view propounded by Jayarasi was called tattvopaplava0vada. The title literally means 'the lion that throws overboard all categories'. The title is appropriate as the main thesis of the book demonstrates the impossibility of establishing the truth of any view of reality.

Jayarasi's skepticism is not based on the affirmation of any higher metaphysical truths. His skepticism does not permit him to claim a metaphysical basis by means of which he can reject different metaphysical theories. Instead, he employs dialectical argument to disprove his opponent's thesis. Like Sextus Empiricus, Jayarasi starts with his opponents concepts, suggests various alternative definitions, shows that some of the definitions are inapplicable, and that others lead to contradictions. His entire world is devoted to the discussion of these problems in epistemology. He challenges the validity of the theories of knowledge put forward by Mimamsa, Buddhism, Nyaya and uses the same method throughout. For example, he does not claim to know that perception is an invalid source of knowledge. Rather, he starts with a specific claim, e.g, the definition of perception as given in the Nyayasutras: perception is that which "arises from contact between sense-organ and object, is determinate (avyapadesiyam), non-erroneous (avyabhicari), and non-erratic (vyavasayatmakam)."[12]

Jayarasi focuses his criticism on the therm "avyabhicari" (non-erroneousness) known, which occurs in the Nyaya definition of perception. The non-erroneousness is, of course, not know by perception, because perception  always involves perception of an object and the non-erroneousness of perception is not an object. Neither can it be know through inference because such an inference in itself would have to be based on perception, which will make it a case of petitio. Thus, as the non-erroneousness of perception cannot be established, either by perception or by inference, it cannot be regarded as a means of valid knowledge.

Having demonstrated the impossibility of perception, he uses the same method to attempt to show the invalidity of all pramanas. Since we cannot establish any valid source of knowledge, we cannot claim that material objects exist. In short, Jayarasi's view represents the standpoint of extreme skepticism which holds that neither any epistomological nor any ontological category is possible. This theory rejects the vedic dogma which, on the basis of sabda (testimony) and anumana (inference), claims to establish the existence of the soul, life after death, etc. This skepticism also undercuts the dogmatism of both forms of materialism discussed above. Jayarasi rejects the two distinguishing features attributed to the Lokayatikas in the Indian philosophical literature: (1) sense-perception as the only valid means of knowledge, and (ii) the reality of the four well-known elements. Thus, Jayarasi's text contains an outright rejection of materialism and represents a thoroughgoing skepticism.

This raises some very important questions about the basis of skepticism itself. Skeptics such as Jayarasi reject their opponents knowledge claims, and suspend all judgements about truth and reality because the evidence supporting the knowledge claim is inadequate. However, if the skeptic is to doubt everything, then, to be consistent he must also doubt the basis of his doubt which make it impossible for skepticism to establish the validity of its own claims. An extreme skeptic, in other words, must be skeptical about his own position. If he does not doubt his skepticism, his own philosophical system is guilty of being inconsistent, i.e., it demands greater rigour of other system than it does of its own.
Having presented this overview of the skepticism of the Carvaka School, I will now proceed, in the next section o this paper to briefly state the basic structure of David Hume's epistemology and the nature of his skepticism.


  1. Sextus Empiricus, translated by R.G.Bury, Vol. I, Outlines of pyrrhonism (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1933), P. 3 
  2. G. Tucci, "A Sketch of Indian Materialsim", Prceedings of Indian Philosophical Congress, V. I, 1925, p. 36 
  3. S.N. Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 3 (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas, 1976), p. 516 
  4. SarvaDarsana Samgrah, translated by E.B.Cowell and A.E.Gough (London: Kegan Paul, Trech, Trubner and Co. Ltd, Chapt. I 
  5. Jayarasi Bhatta, Tattvopaplavasimha, edited by Pandit Sukhalji Sanghvi and Rasiklal C. Parikh, Gaekwad's Oriental Series, Np. LXXXVII 
  6. Madhava, p.2
  7. Ibid., p.5
  8. Ibid., p.6
  9. Ibit., p.9
  10. Dasgupta, p.536
  11. Jayarasi Bhatta, p.xii
  12. K.N.Jayatileke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1963), p.87

This essay was first published in Indian Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. IX, No.1, October 1981

At the time of publication of this essay, the author, Bina Gupta, was with Department of Philosophy, University of Missouri, Columbia.


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