Hindu philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 04, 2022, from

3. Epistemic concerns

Philosophers differed in their views about the number and characteristics of the various means of knowledge (pramāṇas). The most widely accepted pramāṇa was perception. Inference and verbal testimony (such as an utterance by a competent speaker or a statement from the Vedas) were also considered important. Some schools added analogy and other special kinds of inference (see Knowledge, Indian views of).

Because of their differing ontologies, schools also disagreed about the objects of knowledge. Nyāya held that these were self, body, sense organs, mind, rebirth, pain and freedom (mokṣa). Sāṅkhya linked the objects of cognition to the sense organs: the eye has colour as its object, the ear has sound, the tongue taste, and so on; inference has as its objects things beyond sensory perception, such as consciousness, the undifferentiated material stuff of the universe, and causal relations.

‘Perception’ was usually confined to sensory or external perception. Some thinkers also recognized a sort of mental perception for mental states (such as joy or anguish). This was sometimes classed as belonging to a larger category of internal perception which also included yogic perception. Yogic and other types of perception in turn could be classed as ‘extraordinary’, as in the Nyāya system, especially its later form (Navya-Nyāya, ‘New Logic’). Precise definitions of perception varied widely. Some thought it was direct awareness of colour; others argued that it was a cognition arising from the relation of an object with the senses, which is not verbal and not erroneous, but definite. An exchange of ideas arose over whether perception is a direct experience, that is, non-propositional, and whether one can postulate a propositional level of perception. Nyāya and the classical Sāṅkhya of Īśvarakṛṣṇa claimed to understand perceptions of two levels: non-propositional (roughly what we call ‘sense data’) and propositional (naming and attaching concepts to the sense-data) (see Sense perception, Indian views of).

Inference (anumāna) was the next most important instrument of knowledge. In the classical period, three kinds of inference were usually enumerated. Their definitions betray a certain confusion between old and new ideas of inference. Inference is used as a source of knowledge in cases where objects cannot be apprehended directly. The basis of inference is the consistent relation between the reason and the thing-to-be-proved (sādhya). This requires that we perceive the reason. Here is an example of an argument:

  • There is fire on the mountain. (Thesis)

  • Because there is smoke (which I see with my naked eye). (Reason)

  • Like in the kitchen. (Positive example)

  • Unlike in the lake. (Negative example)

  • Therefore there is fire on the mountain. (Conclusion)

The consistent relation is not explicitly stated in the syllogism, although it is quite obvious: where there is smoke, there is fire (see Inference, Indian theories of).

Verbal testimony was thought to be another decisive source of knowledge of things beyond sensory apprehension. A competent testifier is a reliable person who has direct knowledge, wants to communicate it and is also capable of expressing it. It was argued that the revealed sacred literature could be classed as testimony. There was also some discussion about whether to subsume this source of knowledge under inference. Other suggested pramāṇas were analogy and presumption. An example of presumption is the following: it is observed that Devadatta is fat; nobody sees him overeating during the day; so (the presumption is that) he must eat all night. Indian philosophers also discussed an argument known as tarka, a kind of reasoning that we call reductio ad absurdum.

Citing this article:
Clear, Edeltraud Harzer. Epistemic concerns. Hindu philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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