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Sense perception, Indian views of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F053-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Article Summary

Sense perception is considered in classical Indian thought in the context of epistemological issues – in particular, perception as a source of knowledge – and of psychological and metaphysical issues, for example, the relations of sense experiences to objects, to language and to the perceiving self or subject. The Sanskrit word used most commonly in philosophical investigations of sense perception is pratyakṣa, a compound of prati, ‘before’, and akṣa, ‘eye’ or any ‘organ of sense’; thus it should be understood as ‘being before the eyes’ or ‘experientially evident’ as an adjective, and ‘immediate experience’ or ‘sense experience’ as a noun. The meaning ‘sense perception’ is normal within philosophical inquiries. But just how many sense modalities there are is not to be taken for granted. In addition to the five types of sense experience commonly identified, ‘mental’ perception (as of pleasures, pains and desires), apperception (awareness of awareness) and extraordinary or yogic perception are sometimes counted as pratyakṣa.

Views about the psychology of perception or, more broadly, about perception considered as part of the world are developed in religious and soteriological literature (literature about enlightenment and liberation) predating classical philosophical discussions. In Upaniṣadic, Buddhist and Jaina texts over two millennia old, perception is painted in broad strokes within spiritual theories of self and world that promote ideas of the supreme value of a mystical experience. Sense perception is usually devalued comparatively. Later, the psychology of perception becomes very advanced and is treated in some quarters independently of soteriological teachings.

Classical Indian philosophy proper is marked by tight argumentation and self-conscious concern with evidence. The justificational value of perception is recognized from the outset, in so far as any justifiers, or knowledge sources, are admitted at all. Nāgārjuna and others challenge the epistemological projects of Nyāya and other positive approaches to knowledge, prompting deep probing of perception’s epistemic role. Views about veridicality, fallibility and meaningful doubt become greatly elaborated.

What do we perceive? Throughout classical thought, sharp disagreements occur over the perceptibility of universals, relations, absences or negative facts (such as Devadatta’s not being at home), parts versus wholes, and the self or awareness itself. Issues about perceptual media (such as light and ether, ākāśa, the purported medium of sound), about occult or spiritual perceptibles and about the very existence of objects independently of consciousness are hotly debated. A Buddhist phenomenalism is polemically matched by a Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya realism on a range of concerns.

Probably through the influence of mysticism, verbalization of experience, however simple and direct, becomes suspect in comparison with experience itself; this suspicion is evident in concerns over the value of each in presenting reality, as well as in other, sometimes rather indefinite, ways. The judgment is prevalent that what prevents a person from living in an enlightened or liberated state is thinking – verbalizing experience, calculating, planning, and so on – instead of having pure experience, perceptual and otherwise, and thus living with a ‘silent mind’. This attitude emerges in treatments of sense experience, reinforcing what is perhaps a natural tendency among philosophers to find the relations of experience and language problematic. Even in the root text of Nyāya, where the influence of yoga and mysticism is not so strong, perception is said to be a cognition that is nonverbal, avyapadeśya, although there is considerable dispute about precisely what this means. The relations between various modes of experience and the language used with respect to them remains an ongoing concern of the very latest and most complex classical Indian philosophy.

Citing this article:
Phillips, Stephen H.. Sense perception, Indian views of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F053-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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