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Epistemology, Indian schools of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Each classical Indian philosophical school classifies and defines itself with reference to a foundational text or figure, through elaboration of inherited positions, and by disputing the views of other schools. Moreover, the schools have literatures that define them in a most concrete sense, literatures that in some cases stretch across twenty centuries and comprise hundreds of texts. And without exception, every school takes a stance on the nature of knowledge and justification, if only, as with the Mādhyamika Buddhist, to attack the positions of others. A blend of epistemology, ontology or metaphysics, and, sometimes, religious or ethical teachings constitutes the view of most schools, and sometimes only very subtle shifts concerning a single issue differentiate one school’s stance from another’s.

Relabelling schools of Indian epistemology using terminology forged in Western traditions (‘foundationalism’, ‘coherentism’, and so on) risks skewing the priorities of classical disputants and distorting classical debates. Nevertheless, there are positions shared across some of the schools, as well as refinements of position that apparently because of merit received greater attention in classical discussions and appear to deserve it still. Given the broad context of world philosophy, selectivity cannot be free from bias stemming from a sense of reverberation with non-Indian traditions of thought. With these warnings in mind, we may proceed to examine three important approaches within classical Indian philosophy to questions of epistemology.

First, the late Yogācāra Buddhist philosophers, Dignāga (b. circa 480), Dharmakīrti (c.600–660) and followers, present a complex first-person approach to questions about knowledge that is constrained by an anti-metaphysical theme (found in earlier Buddhist treatises), along with a phenomenalism that grows out of a vivid sense of the real possibility of nirvāṇa experience as the supreme good. Their thought also exhibits an academic strand that is sensitive to non-Buddhist philosophical discussions. Second, a reliabilism identifying sources of veridical awareness is the most distinctive, and most central, approach to epistemology within classical Indian philosophy as a whole. Even the Yogācāra first-person approach gets framed in terms of reliable sources (perception and inference as pramāṇas, ‘sources of knowledge’). Philosophers of diverse allegiance make contributions to what may be called this field of thought (as opposed to an approach), since, to repeat, it is the philosophical mainstream. However, the Nyāya school (the ‘Logic’ school) leads in most periods. Finally, the Brahmanical school known as Mīmāṃsā (‘Exegesis’), supplemented in particular by centuries of reflection under an Advaita Vedānta flag, develops what can be called an ethics of belief, namely, that we should accept what we see (for example) as real (and the propositional content of perceptual awarenesses as true), what we are told by another as true, what we infer as true, and so on, except under specific circumstances that prove a proposition false or at least draw it into question. The (Nyāya) epistemological mainstream is moved to incorporate a variation on this position; for Mīmāṃsā and Advaita, ‘self-certification’ (svataḥprāmāṇya), or the intrinsic veridicality of cognition, defines an alternative approach to questions about knowledge, awareness and a presumed obligation to believe.

Citing this article:
Phillips, Stephen H.. Epistemology, Indian schools of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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