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.
Stephen C. Walker said:
To the extent that we do have preserved texts, we often find interesting discrepancies between what “the opposition” actually said and what the later orthodoxy remembered about them.
While the topic is disputed and controversial, I think it’s extremely important to read Mohist ethics without assuming that they must in some way be ousting the family from center view. “Impartiality” is not a word that captures what they’re advocating. (Nor is “love”, for that matter.) “Inclusiveness” is, and the Mohists’ most distinctive emphasis is on keeping humanity’s general interests in view when we deliberate about what policies to adopt in our ethical lives. As it turns out, they think that keeping humanity’s general interests in view leads us (unless we are in leadership positions) to embrace a perfectly conventional set of partial social relations. They also make the pursuit of relation-specific virtues (filiality, etc.) foundational to moral justification.
The question of why Mohism “lost out” is vexed and interesting; I think that ultimately the Mohist embrace of “rational arguments in an explicit, polemical, and uncompromising manner” played an important role. That style of rhetoric did not prevail, and people like Zhuangzi and Xunzi react against it even more strongly than Plato reacts against the sophists.
Amod Lele said:
Good points, Stephen. Are you familiar with Peter Railton’s consequentialist defence of partiality? The Mohist view you’re describing sounds quite comparable to that.
Ethan Mills said:
I agree that the Cārvākas probably had a lot to do with the rise of philosophy in the Indian tradition (I suppose that’s the kind of thing I would be expected to say!). They were constantly refuted up until the 14th century Sarvadarṡanasaṃgraha and probably up until today. Karl Potter says that materialism and skepticism (along with fatalism) were the main threats that philosophers reacted to. An even bigger conjecture comes from Chattopadhyaya, who claims that Lokāyāta was the philosophy of the people (loka), which was only later defeated at the popular level (I don’t think there’s any way to know if Chattopadhyaya is right, and his obvious Marxist slant is somewhat suspicious).
However, the rise of philosophy in India probably was also a result of pressures from Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical schools, although it’s likely the Cārvākas had something to do with it. The philosophical scene of classical India must’ve been pretty interesting: you have to carve out your school’s position from the other side of the orthodox-heterodox divide, but also from other schools on your own side, all the while making some independent contributions while claiming it’s what the founder of your school really meant all along. I’ve always been fascinated by how the schools and philosophers interact with each other. It’s what got me into Indian philosophy!
Amod Lele said:
I agree the interaction is fascinating. Oh, do I wish we had better sources to figure out what it was!
1. I prefer Kautilya’s use of “Lokāyata” to describe these original, radical (the earliest thinkers in India to reject the cruel Vedic divisions of Varna and Ashrama), and courageous group of ānvīkṣikī or critical thinkers.
They were the undeserving victims of caricature, abuse, persecution, and strawman attack by the hordes of Vedic apologists and other metaphysical schools in India.
The appellation “Cārvāka” (a person who is clever in speech and is extremely fond of wrangling) is a misnomer for a critical thinker primarily concerned with truth and knowledge.
Vedic, Buddhist, and Jain theological texts are the ones replete with hair-splitting sophistry and wrangling!
The Lokāyata, in contrast, were lucid and concise:
“If a beast slain in the Jyothishtoma rite will itself go to heaven, why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?
If the Sraddha produces gratification to beings who are dead, then why not give food down below to those who are standing on the house-top?
If he who departs from the body goes to another world, how is it that he come not back again, restless for love of his kindred?
Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmans have established here all these ceremonies for the dead, — there is no other fruit anywhere.”
The notion that the Lokāyata rejected anumana or inference as a means of knowledge is surely a vicious caricature drawn by Vedic theologians.
How is it possible for the Lokāyata to reject inference when they constantly employed it to repudiate Vedic dogmas and practices?
Indeed, does it even make any sense to claim that a school of thinkers or philosophers rejects inference as a means of knowledge?
It is obviously self-refuting to argue for this rejection and I am sure that the first ānvīkṣikī school in India could not possibly have maintained this absurd view!
Far from succeeding in making the Lokāyata looking like fools, it is the Vedic and other Indian schools of theologians who look like fools here in attributing a senseless view to the Lokāyata.
It is probably correct to think that the Lokāyata held the view that sense-perception is a necessary condition of all justified knowledge-claims and that, therefore, ascertaining the soundness of any inference requires sense-perception. (S. N. Dasgupta suggests that the Lokāyata philosopher Purandara held this view and I am inclined to think that this was probably representative of the Lokāyata position.)
The Lokāyata were also the earliest thinkers in India who criticized the practice of animal sacrifice and meat-eating: “the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons (i.e., Vedic priests).”
The Wikipedia entry on these critical thinkers has this interesting bit of info:
“Ain-i-Akbari, written by Abul Fazl, the famous historian of Akbar’s court, mentions a symposium of philosophers of all faiths held in 1578 at Akbar’s insistence. Some Cārvāka philosophers are said to have participated in this symposium.
Under the heading “Nastika,” Abul Fazl has referred to the good work, judicious administration, and welfare schemes that were emphasized by the Cārvāka lawmakers.”
2. It is interesting that one of the three criteria (San Biao) adopted by Mohists for judging the correctness of a view is : “the experiences of common, average people”.
But unlike the Lokāyata, the Mohists countenanced supernaturalism (they believed that the spirits of victims of undeserved killing exact revenge on their perpetrators) and the use of animal sacrifices to honor spirits.
Unlike the Confucians and the Mohists, the Lokāyata were more inclusive in their moral approach in that their moral concern extended to animals.
Ethan Mills said:
Welcome back, Thill. I’m glad to see Purandara mentioned! There’s a great article on Purandara that I read again recently by Pradeep Gokhale in Philosophy East and West called “The Cārvāka Theory of Pramāṇas: A Restatement.” There’s also been some recent work on the “more educated” Cārvākas in the Journal of Indian Philosophy by Ramkrishna Bhattacharya. That’s something I hope to look into more. It’s prima facie a much more reasonable epistemology than the one painted by the Brahmanical philosophers.
I also happened upon that Wikipedia entry from Akbar’s court once. If that’s right, it looks like there were Lokāyātas around much later than we thought!
Thanks for the reference, Ethan. I’ll try to get hold of it.
I think there’s good scope for some sort of a reconstruction, and certainly a development, of a Lokāyata “Art of Living (Well)”.
I might be presenting something on it at the next SACP conference if I decide to attend. (Too bad it isn’t at “awesome” Asilomar!)
Would you pl. let me know the gist or the central argument of Pradeep Gokhale in the article you mention? What is his “restatement”? Thanks!
Ethan Mills said:
Gokhale’s basic idea is that Purandara accepts inference as a pramāṇa in the “instrumental sense” as opposed to an “authoritative sense.” Unlike an authoritative pramāṇa like perception, not all inferences yield knowledge. Gokhale considers two proposals for separating genuine from false inference: that it is in principle empirically verifiable or that it fits with a worldly way. He argues that the second method is better since it would allow Cārvākas to still make metaphysical claims of a worldly nature while ruling out otherworldly metaphysics.
Having read some expositions and expositions of expositions of Purandara’s views, e.g., S.N. Dasgupta, D. Chattopadhyaya, I don’t have the impression that the distinction between the “authoritative” (Self-evident? Infallible? Reliable?) and the “instrumental” (What does it mean? “It works!” a la pragmatism? If so, how would this be different from holding it to be reliable?)can be foisted or grafted onto his views on inference.
In Purandara’s account, according to the expositions of Dasgupta and Chattopadhyaya, the use of inference on empirical matters is countenanced by the “Carvaka” whereas the use of inference on non-empirical matters such as God, soul, heaven, hell, etc., is rejected by them.
But this raises the following problem: IF the Lokayata rejected the use of inference on non-empirical matters, then wouldn’t this also apply equally to any use of inference to arrive at negative conclusions or denials on those non-empirical matters, e.g., the use of inference to deny the existence of God, soul, heaven, etc?
Since the Lokayata did employ inferences to reject Vedic dogmas, their position would be inconsistent with their own practice.
There is no way out of this inconsistency by means of the claim that their inferences against Vedic dogmas rely solely on sense-perception whereas the inferences they attack on God, soul, heaven, hell, etc., do not.
This is because some of the central objections raised by the Lokāyata against Vedic rituals do not appeal directly and exclusively to sense-perception, but to ānvīkṣikī or critical reasoning, e.g., reductio ad absurdum and appeal to slippery slope.
Consider the well-known Lokāyata, criticism of a Vedic ritual:
“If a beast slain in the Jyotiṣṭoma rite will itself go to heaven, why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?”
It is clear that the Lokāyata thinkers’ reasoning here is as follows:
1. The The Jyotiṣṭoma rite is based on the belief that the sacrificial being in that rite will go to heaven.
2. If this belief is true, then one’s parent or spouse or child will also go to heaven if they are the sacrificial beings in the Jyotiṣṭoma rite.
3. According to the Vedic priests, going to heaven (Svarga) is a great, if not the greatest, good for any human being.
4. According to the Vedic priests, one has a duty to ensure that one’s parents attain the great good of going to heaven.
5. Therefore, one has a duty to sacrifice one’s parents in the Jyotiṣṭoma rite.
6. However, the Vedic priests themselves, or the practitioners of the Jyotiṣṭoma rite, recoil from this implication of their belief that the sacrificial being in the Jyotiṣṭoma rite goes to heaven.
7. Therefore, they should repudiate and refrain from performing the Jyotiṣṭoma rite.
This is clearly an appeal to the slippery slope of believing in the efficacy of the Jyotiṣṭoma rite. There is no appeal to sense-perception here.
The same appeal to slippery slope is evident in the Lokāyata thinkers’ objection to Śrāddha or the Vedic funerary rite: “If the Śrāddha produces gratification to beings who are dead, then why not give food down below to those who are standing on the house-top?”
What the Lokāyata thinker is saying here is that if one believes that the food offered in the performance of the Śrāddha rite can reach the departed residing in the “after world” and appease their hunger, then one must also accept an implication of this belief, i.e., that food offered by means of that rite inside a home can also reach a hungry person on the roof of that house (since this distance or gulf is insignificant compared to the distance or gulf between this world and the “after world”).
If one refuses to accept this logical implication, one must give up one’s belief in the efficacy of the Śrāddha as a means of transporting food to the departed residing in the “after world”.
Again, there is no direct and exclusive appeal to sense-perception in this objection, but only an appeal to the slippery slope of adherence to belief in the efficacy of Śrāddha.
Thus, an examination of some of the well-known objections of the Lokāyata, To Vedic rites clearly shows that they countenanced and relied on critical reasoning in some of the ways it is understood and applied today, e.g., deployment of reductio ad absurdum, appeal to slippery slope, in criticizing beliefs and practices.
Ethan Mills said:
I think everything you’ve just said might fit Gokhale’s second proposed criterion. The issue seems to be that Brahmins, Buddhists, Jains, etc. think that ANY inference that fits the classical anumāna form is reliable. It would be handy if Cārvākas could rule out non-worldly inferences. This doesn’t stop them from using specific arguments against religious views, but it’s also a nice part of their arsenal to rule out non-worldly claims a priori. Of course, this does have the problem you point out: how can you deny non-worldly things if you can’t affirm them? It could be that ruling out inference (even partially) is just Brahmanical straw man propaganda, but most of the evidence seems to indicate that some Cārvākas had something to say about general logical matters. Ruling out ANY non-empirical matters suffers from a serious self-referential problem. But an appeal to worldly matters isn’t so obviously bad. One example of a “worldly” but non-empirical matter would be the idea that things occur due to their nature (rather than due to unseen karma). I don’t think a nature is directly observable, but it isn’t obviously incompatible with what we observe and it offers just as much if not more explanatory power. Of course, you have to figure out what counts as “worldly”, but I suppose that’s where anvīkṣikī comes in.
Amod Lele said:
Welcome back, Thill.
Thill is back!
Momentarily, Jim, momentarily….
No metaphysical pun intended!