In each of the three great classical traditions of philosophy – the West, South Asia and East Asia (or Greece, India and China) – there appears early on a school of thought that is taken as that tradition’s target of attack. This school dies out after a few hundred years or so, so that in modern times we know them above all as the object of the mainstream tradition’s attacks. And yet, to the extent that we can date the philosophy in this period, the philosophical reflection arising before this school tends to be far less sophisticated than that coming after.
The three schools in question are the Sophists in Greece, the Cārvāka or Lokāyata in India, and the Mohists in China. They are of crucial importance to any cross-cultural philosopher, because by running against the grain of the later tradition they break most of our stereotypes about that culture’s philosophy as a whole. In most general attempts to characterize the nature of Indian philosophy, for example, the words “except the Cārvākas” come up a lot.
For when one tries to characterize Indian philosophy in general, the words “religious” and “spiritual” usually come up a lot. As unhelpful as those words can sometimes be, they do point to something real that is generally shared across most Indian philosophy: an ascent orientation. The majority of Indian thinkers see everyday life in the world as a site of suffering, something to be transcended and moved beyond; and there is usually an element of the supernatural closely connected with this attempt to transcendence.
The Cārvākas, on the other hand, are said to deny all this. I say “said to” because the works of the Cārvākas are almost entirely lost to us, more than those of the Sophists or Mohists; the only surviving text that even could be considered Cārvāka is Jayarāśi’s Tattvopaplavasiṃha, whose status as a Cārvāka text is quite disputed. (The comments to that post are a great introduction to the question of whether Jayarāśi was really a Cārvāka.) Because Indian tradition was largely preserved orally, we have few fragments of oppositional traditions; people didn’t usually bother memorizing the texts of their opponents, except for brief refutations. But from the refutations that do survive, it seems that the Cārvākas denied the existence of anything that could not be perceived – thus denying karma and rebirth along with any attempt to transcend bodily existence, and advocating some form of hedonistic ethics. This is a strong example of a descent orientation, quite far removed from the Buddhist and brahmanical views that survive in Indian philosophy.
So too, the history of East Asian philosophy has been characterized above all by an intimacy orientation, characteristic especially of Confucianism. East Asian thought has typically rested on a valuing of close family connections above any sort of universal humanity, and relied heavily on nonverbal knowing; thus there is often a lack of explicit polemical argument.
But in Mozi, for whom the Mohist school is named, we find little of this. (Since his name is usually transliterated with “Mo” rather than “Moh”, it would be more strictly accurate to call the school the “Moist” school, but the resulting jokes would be too distracting.) Mozi is an interesting figure here because there are some respects in which he remains an intimacy thinker – for example, not positing a dualism between subject and object, and continuing to emphasize social cues as well as explicit argument. But he rejects several of the most typical intimacy views, views which have later been taken to be characteristically Chinese. Most notably, he rejects partiality to family and friends in favour of a quasi-utilitarian universal concern. And he makes rational arguments in an explicit, polemical, and uncompromising manner.
As for the West, its philosophy – at least until the time of Nietzsche – is widely characterized as a search for truth, with that truth typically seen as correspondence with a reality external to the self. Medieval Christianity and Islam identified this truth with God; the ancient Greeks and the modern Europeans had varying beliefs about God or gods and their relations to truth, but truth remained at the heart of their concerns. And the ideal was to reach this truth through rational argument, conceived of as distinct from rhetorical appeals to emotion.
This ideal of philosophy comes largely out of the works of Plato – and he developed it in contrast to the Sophists. The Sophists were teachers of rhetoric, the equivalent of spin doctors and advertisers, who aimed for their words to be practically effective, make a political difference. Effectiveness rather than truth was the standard by which they judged. If one were to compare East Asian and Western thought by taking Mozi and Gorgias the Sophist as their representative figures, one would gain a very unusual view of the differences between the traditions!
Now Mozi is almost never taken as a paradigmatic thinker of East Asian thought, nor Gorgias of Western (or the Cārvākas of South Asia). And this is for good reason. Western, South Asian and East Asian thought would all have turned out very differently had Sophism, Cārvāka or Mohism emerged as the dominant philosophical tendency in the medieval era. But the fact is they did not so emerge, and so the vast majority of thought in each of these places did indeed take the direction we now associate with it: ascending South Asia, intimacy East Asia, rational truth-seeking West.
So what then is the significance of these oppositional traditions? Well, especially, they forced the mainstream tradition to react – and to become philosophical. I’ve been thinking about these issues in reading Chad Hansen‘s fascinating A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, which often seems to me more Mohist than Daoist. Hansen points out that there is little explicit argument in Confucius, only a collection of “wise sayings” hearkening back to earlier tradition. It is Confucius’s successor Mencius who first argues for Confucianism; his arguments are not as polemical or analytical as Mozi’s (and Hansen doesn’t think they work very well), but arguments they nevertheless are. Hansen claims, plausibly, that Mencius was spurred to make these defences of the tradition primarily because of Mozi’s challenges.
The Sophists seem to have had a very similar role in the West: until their time, ethical reflection had been left to the poets and tragedians. The Sophists challenged existing pieties, in a way that led to the explicit philosophical reflection of Plato and Aristotle. Confucianism and later Greek thought could not have been nearly as robut without the challenges of the Mohists and Sophists.
And the Cārvākas? Because of the aforementioned lack of sources, we need to be more conjectural here. But we may note that they flourished in the era of the wandering sages, which gave birth to both the Buddha and the founders of Jainism – an era, like ancient Athens or the Warring States era of Confucius and Mozi, where many different philosophies thrived. It could well have been their challenge that led the other schools to define themselves in response.