Cognitive Scepticism Of Nagarjuna
- ABSTRACT: This paper aims at a critical exposition of some arguments by Nagarjuna against the cognitivist claims of the Nyaya philosophers, and a possible cognitivist critique of the skeptical arguments of Nagarjuna. My argument is presented in two broad sections. The first deals mainly with an exposition of Nagarjuna's charges against the concept of pramana, while the second is devoted to critical evaluation of the Nagarjunian charges.
I conclude with the impression that there is hardly any common ground on which a Nyaya cognitivist and a Nagarjunian skeptic can meet. For this reason, the Nagarjunian cognitive skepticism seems to be theoretically 'irrefutable' but 'psychologically incorrigible.'
By cognitive scepticism here we mean a philosophical attitude which suspends the possibility of making conclusive statements concerning non-erring cognition or prama as it is called in Indian Philosophy for want of sufficiently warranted instrumental and casual grounds (or pramanas as it is called in Indian Philosophy).
A cognitive sceptic, dose not go for 'theory - making'. Amidst the opposing claims he finds no better ground for his choice for one claim than its contra-claim. In philosophical circle, he questions or raises doubt about the validity of the 'knowledge claims' made by others.
If we bear in mind this general characterization when we read Nagarjuna's philosophical treatises like Vigraha-vyavartani and Mulamadhyamaka Karika, we would be convinced that there is no logical or psychological obstruction or hardship to make an extension of the applicability of the term 'cognitive sceptic' to Nagarjuna.
In his philosophical works Nagarjuna subjects the 'knowledge-claims' made by the Naiyayikas and others to severe dialectical criticism and shows that these claims are not supported by sufficient justification.
The philosophical opponent of the sceptic to coin a word from Matilal, may be called 'cognitivists'. (2) In Indian Philosophy they are mostly Naiyayikas who claim that with the help of justificatory grounds as casual instruments (pramanas) we can have the cognition of the objects of the knowledge (prameyas).
A piece of cognition is valid if it can give us an indubitably true awareness of an object of knowledge. Nagarjuna devoted 20 verses from 31st 51st in Vigrahavyavartani in order to refute the Nyaya concept of pramana.
Nagarjuna's main concern here is not to say that what we know about the world is false; rather he maintains that the knowledge claims made by the cognitivists ( Naiyayikas and others ) are not supported by adequate logical grounds.
The paper is divided into two broad sections .
The first section deals mainly with the exposition of Nagarjunian charges against the concept pramana while the second is devoted to critical evaluation of the Nagarjunian charges. The paper ends with some general remarks.
1 : No Criterion Argument
All cognitivists in Indian Philosophy would agree that the acceptance of pramanas is something exclusively indispensable for any philosophical investigation, because if some 'rules of game' (as Wittgenstien in his 'Philosophical Investigations ' compares a philosophical enquiry as a form of linguistic game) are not accepted at the very outset a player would not be entitled to take a part in the game. In other words, he would be putting himself out of the court before the game begins.
Even for the rejection one would require this or that pramana.
And if once it is admitted that the validity of pramana as a variety of knowable (prakara), one is logically compelled to recognise three other varities of knowables (prakara)-the agent of knowledge (pramata), object of knowledge (prameya) and knowledge par excellence (pramiti). (4) It is here a Nagarjunian philosopher would object that your very programme is defective.
All the accounts of the cognitivists may be broadly classified under two heads:
(a) the pramanas are self-validating (svatah prasiddhih) that is to say they are intrinsically valid.
(b) their validity is established on the basis of some other pramanas (paratah prasiddhih).
Both these possible alternatives have been examined by Nagarjuna.
The charge of no criterion centres the question: How is a congitivist going to validate his standard or criterion (pramana) itself ?
Now either way, according to a Nagarjunian sceptic, a cognitivist can not have adequate means to support the established status or truth-criterionship of pramanas which lies at the foundation of cognitivist's truth-claims. Let us elaborate the arguments.
1.1 Charge of Inner-inconsistency and Dogmatism Explained
Nagarjuna further argues that if we admit that pramanas are required for the justificatory grounds as well as intrumental cause for establishing the knowables (prameyas) but the pramanas themselves belong to a self-validating class, then we also accept that pramanas are placed in a 'privilezed sacrosanct class'-that is to say, a clear-cut dichotomy is introduced between pramanas and prameyas.
This is what exactly Nagarjuna demands. 'If without assigning any reason pramanas are claimed to be self-validating then a sense of arbitrariness would be introduced and this acceptance of this without any justificatory certification is a clear case of dogmatic enterprise.'
This is also a case of internal inconsistency and disaccord in congnitivists' arguments.
1.2 The Charge of Infinite Regress Revisited
Now if in order to aviod the charge of non-accordance and dogmatism, the cognitivist adopts the second alternative that is a pramana may derive its validity or authority from another pramana of the same type or different type this would, according to Nagarjuna, instead of giving any justification for the acceptance of pramana simply invite the blemish of infinite regress (anavasthadosa).
(6) For example, of the first alternative we may say that a perception say P1 is established through another perception say P2 and for the second, a perception say P, is established through an inference say F.
(7) These are the techniques about which the congnitivists themselves highly speak of, that is, if something is to be acceptable, there must be inner logical consistency between the justification and the claim and a justification must not be vitiated by the blemishes of circularity and infinite regress.
The sceptic here is just reminding the cognitivists that claiming pramanas as self certified, you are committing logical inconsistency and claiming them as established by others you are either inviting the blemish of circularity or the blemish of infinite regress.
1.3 Analogical Arguments Refuted
However, Goutama in the Nyayasutra also employs the analogy of a lamp (pradipa) to meet possible charge of infinite regress. (8) He says that as a lamp reveals objects as well as itself, so the pramana (supportive grounds) reveal prameyas (knowables) as well as themselves.
It is here Nagarjuna tries to point out faults and in 'Vigrahavyavartani' he devotes six verses in order to show that the analogy of light or fire is quite incapable of serving as a 'sapaksa' in the cognitivists' arguments.
(9) In 'Vigrahavyavartani' verse 35, Nagarjuna argues that if pramanas were like light or fire which reveals itself as well as the presence of other subjects simultaneously then there would be no logical as well as practical difficulty in claiming that fire would also burn itself as it can burn other things.
(10) But this is a contradiction in thinking as well as in the actual happenings. In view of this, the cognitivists' assumption that fire reveals itself as well as other objects' becomes doubtful and remains unestablished.
(11) It is an admitted fact that although darkness conceals the presence of other things, it does not conceals the presence of itself.
(Na caitad drstam tatra yaduktam / Svaparatmanau prakasayatyagnirititanna).
1.4 Blemishes of Interdependence and Circularity Detected
Nagarjuna further argues that if for the sake of argument we admit that pramanas are self-established, then it would imply that they are established even independent of prameyas (knowables). (13) But if a kind of pramana were established without reference to prameyas, then this particular type of pramana ceases to be worthy of the name pramana.
If it is argued that pramanas are independent of prameyas, then these pramanas become pramanas of nothing. As pramana has always a relational character with prameya in cognitive situation, the thesis that 'pramanas are independently established' becomes refuted.
If it is said that pramanas are established through prameyas and prameyas through pramanas, then a Nagarjunian sceptic would at once point out that neither of them have a self-nature (svabhava) of their own and therefore, should be treated as sunya (vacous).
(14) Again, it would be a case of proving what is already proved (siddha-sadhana), because the tacit assumption is this, that prameyas are already established.
If it is said that the validity of pramanas are prameyas dependent and the validity or establishment of prameya is pramana dependent then it amounts to committing the blemishes of interdependence and circularity.
Nagarjuna laughs at the cognitivis because his view almost amounts to say that "the son is produced by the father and that father is produced by that son.
But in this case who is that gives birth and who is that is born".
It has been seen that a cognitivist claims that it is possible on our part to know something with certitude and we can justify our claims by adequate supportive grounds.
(18) Vatsyayana further contends that there is no rigid distinction between prameya and pramana both of these have the same source - the root 'ma' (means 'to measure') and both of them are meaningful only in certain cognive contexts.
But here, I think, a Nagarjunian sceptic may argue against the cognitivists' pursuation by saying that he does not see any good ground for introducing psychological proof when one is engaged in purely logical debate. Psychological proof can not be taken to be an adequate gurantee for objective truth-claims.
The Naiyayika cognitivist may level another fresh charge aginst Nagarjunan sceptic by saying that it is impossible to carry out the infinite doubt regarding the validity of pramanas, because when one denies a thesis say P, as defective, he must have a thesis, it might be a counter-thesis, say 'not-P', that is not defective.
Uddyotkara in the 'Nyaya-vartika' carried this charge in a much more straightforward way and brings the charge of self-stultification against a cognitive sceptic. (20) The charge is this : If you deny everything, then you can not deny the fact that 'you are denying'. If you do not deny the fact that 'you are denying' then you are not denying everything.
A close study of Nagarjuna's arguments would reveal that he would be pleasant in seeing that by this charge, the cognitivist misunderstands him again and are trying to grasp what the sceptic intends to convey.
That is to say, what cannot be stated, one must not state it or advocate a theory about it. It is another significant aspect of Buddha's mysterious silence regarding metaphysical issues, the Madhyamika unfolds.
In defence of Nagarjuna, one might argue that by sceptical arguments Nagarjuna examines all the possible views about the establishment of pramanas and finds that to any 'pro-argument' for a doctrine, there can be 'contra-argument' and thus he dose not have any other choice but to stop advancing another thesis regarding prama, prameya and pramana.
It is to use a term from classical Indian epistemology, a 'prasajya pratisedhah', that is to say, a rejection of the possibility without (even a least) implificatory significance to assert another or counter possibility.
The language Nagarjuna uses is 'meta-language' and by this type of linguistic expression about statements that make 'objective truth-claims', he can answer the charge of self-stultification against him.
As a result when all statements of 'object-level' are shown to be unwarranted, that does not affect the truth-status of the meta-level statement of Nagarjuna.
3. Concluding Remarks
From what has been discussed in fore-going paragraphs, a crucial question may be raised at this point. How can such a (logically irrefutable) sceptical position be consistently carried out in practice ? Can it make 'adequate sense' in 'belief-behaviour'. Does it (the sceptical position) not overthrow the foundation of all practical activity ?
Can we live without the guidance of some inherent position what we accept ?
A cognitive sceptic of Nagarjunian type might react to such questions by saying that it would be an exercise of dogmatism if something with reference to actual state of practics is introduced as the ultimate resort when somebody is engaged in purely theoretical discourse with his philosophical opponents. (23)
It is however, true that a Nyaya cognitivgist's pre-suppositions for pluralistic metaphysics and its description through epistemological frame-work seem to initiate the sceptical approach in Indian Philosophy in order to dismantle the main fabric of many dogmatic assertions.
Our humble answer to this question would be in the negative.
When a Nagarjunian sceptic is asking for the pramana's pramana he is demanding for the absolute causal proof as the ground for claiming truth (in the absolute sense) regarding the object of knowledge.
A cognitive sceptic uses the term 'indubitability' strictly in the logical sense 'which imputs the intrinsic doubtfulness of all contingent statements.' (24) He criticises the concepts required to justify any knowledge-claim.
(25) A pramana is considered as the causal and instrumental ground for yielding knowledge (prama) which is of the nature of an effect, in certain context about a certain knowable (prameya); it does not mean that in certain other contexts it can not act as a knowable (prameya).
For a Nyaya cognitivist, all logical queries are to be preceded by some psychological factors like 'dubiousness' about the exact character of the knowable and this state of doubt is to be eradicated by the application of a pramana (s) that can causally justify the truth of a specific cognitive episode as devoid of doubt.
(26) It also appears that Nagarjuna's sceptical approach is an attempt to show the limitation of the applicability of 'practice -oriented' reason to assert the nature of reality with absolute certitude.
Though a sceptic like Nagarjuna may say that in 'theoretically oriented' debate it is irrelevant to introduce the element of pragmatic efficacy; a Nyaya cognitivist may remind his sceptic friend here that without accepting the validity of some common principles even no 'theoretically oriented' debate can begin at all.
I believe, have been cautions to the tendency of 'closed-door thinking' on the part of some cognitivist and placed them on the alert. Aksapada Goutama claims knowledge as that which leads to the attainment of the highest good (nihsreyasah).
(27) Opening the way of 'free enquiry' and shaking the ground for dogmatic faith cognitive scepticism of Nagarjuna type has directly or indirectly given momentum to clear 'hindrance to genuine' cognition.
(28) The force of sceptical arguments makes many Indian philosophers purturbed as to whether it is possible to speak of truth and knowledge with emprical foundation. This seems to be a great disservice to the later development of epistemological subtleties in Indian Philosophy. 29
In the wider sense it would mean an epistemological attitude that suspends all calaims for the possibility of knowledge and in this sense a sceptic carries doubt and "seeks nothing beyond uncertainty".
But there is a special type of epistmological attitude/grounds through which we can dispute the validity of so-called "knowledge-claim" in all its aspects.
The word "knowledge has been used throughout this paper in order to mean (what is called prama in sanskrit in Indian epistomology) true and sure piece of presentational cognition and 'knowledge' in this sense is always known by certain causual ways and means of knowing (usually called in sanskrit pramana).
(2) Philosophers who claim the possibility of knowledge (pramana) on the basis of one or some casual instruments of knowing (pramana) are called pramanavadins, the nearest word for which in western philosophy may be 'cognitivists'.
All cognitivists agree that whatever be the case of a knowable, it must be yielded by certain pramanas.
But Indian philosophical heritage is also gifted with some philosophers who do not admit the reality of pramana itself and consequently question all claims in favour of the possibility of knowledge on the basis of pramana.
Nagarjuna, Jayarasi and Sriharsa are three important philosophers who do not accept the validity of any pramana and if the reality of pramana itself is questioned or refuted the claim to possibility of knowledge stands rufuted. For details see. B. K. Matilal, Perception (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986) P. 64.
(4) Vatsyayana in his commentary on Goutama's Nyaya-sutra 1.1.1. thus says, "pramananata' rthapratipattu pravrttisamarthyadorthavatpramanam ..... Arthavati ca pramane pramataprameyampramitityarthavanti bhavanti ...... Catusrsucaivabvidhasu tattvamparisamapyate". It is to be noted here that all these four naming as pramana, premeya etc. are due to the particular 'prakara'. In other wards, something is a pramana in a particular unit of knowledge and it may play the role of prameya in some other unit of knowledge.
But the Nagarjunian sceptic accepts pramana as something in the rigid sense of its function, that is to say always it acts as causal ways and means of knowing irrespective of variation in contexts of use.
To meet such challenges in different phases of time various cognitivistic account or pramana theories have come into existance. Gradually the very tradition of questioning the truth-claims with regard to metaphysical and moral matters led to the development of sceptical arguments against the possibility of any 'knowledge-claim'.
They may be compared with axioms for a logical system and their validity is not questionable within this cognitivistic system. For details about Sanjayas method of philosophy, one may see my paper titled; Amaraviksepavada;
(8) It is interesting to note in the passing that Jayantabhatta in Nyayamanjari likeother cognitivists also holds that knowledge (prama) is a piece of true and indubitable awareness. But the concept of indubitability has both psychological and logical senses of use.
For the Nyaya, the psychological sense of use is satisfied by the element of 'pragmatic success' (arthakriyakaritva) and the logical sense of use is satisfied by introducing the casual justificatory grounds (pramanas).
A Nagarjunian sceptic seems to capitalise mostly on the second sense and thus brings the charge of infinite regress. Vatsyayana, however tries to meet the sceptical challenge of infinite regress to psychological pursuation.
He argues that when we prove A by B and B by C, it dose not invite the blemish of infinite regress, because at certain level, say at C, the further question of validity (regarding C) becomes irrelevant. Where there is no query, there can not be any necessity of searching for a further justificatory ground.
(9) Sapaksa : Niscitasadhyavana paksena saha vartamanah sapaksa -yathaparvate dhumena vanhi sadhane mahanasah' - Nyayakosah Ed. By M. M. Bhimacharya Jhalakikar, revised by M. M. Vasudeva Sastri Abhankar, (Oriental Institute, Puna, 1929) P. 952.
(10) Yadi ca svaparatmanau tvadvavanena prakasyatyagnih / paramiva nanvatmanam svam paridhakasyatyapi hutasah // vv. No. 35.
(12) Pradipah svaparatmanau samorkasyayate yad / tomo' pi svaparatmanau chadayisyatyasamsayam // Maddhyamika - karika-Ch.vii 12; also see in the commentry on Vigrahavyavartani verse No. 36.
(13) Anapeksya hi prameyanarthan yadi te pramanasidhiriti / nabhavanti kasyacidevamimanitanipramanam // v. v. No. 41
(15) Atha tu pramansiddhirbhavatyapekasyaiva te prameyani / Vyatyaya evam sati te dhruvam pramana prameyanam te pramanasiddhya premeya siddhih prameya siddhyaca / bhavati pramana siddhirnastyu bhayasyapi te siddhih// v. v. verse 45-6
(16) Pitra yadyutpadyah putriyadi tenaciva putrena / Utpadyah sa yadi pita vada tatrotpadyati kah kam ? Kasca pita kah putrastara tvam bruhi tavubhayapi ca/ Pitrputralaksanadharau yato bhavati no samdehah // v. v. verses 49-50
(17) Naiva svatah prasiddhirna parasparatah parapramanar va / Na bhavati na-ca prameyairna capyakasmat pramananam II v. v. No 51. Comparable :Na svatah na paratah no dvabhuyam napyahetutah / Utpannajatu vidyante bhavah kvacana kecan // Madhyamika karika 1. 1.
(18) Drstyadrstorna sandeho bhavabhava viniccayat / Adrstivadhine heto pratyakasamapi durlabam Nyayakusumanjali Ch. 3, Verse 6, (Ed. P. Updhyaya & D. Shastri, Varanasi, Chowkhamba, 1957).
(19) See : Vatsyayana's commentary on Nyaya-sutra-2. 1.9. (Na pradipa prakasa siddhivat tat siddheh) By the sanskrit word 'na' the Naiyayika refutes the possibility of sceptical charge and then the compares the casual means (pramana) with light.
According to Vatsyayana the sceptical arguments shows that pramanas can not be accepted as proof for prameyas unless we admit pramanas as either apriori or simultaneous to prameyas and on examination none of the alternatives can be accepted.
(21) Prasajya pratisedhah is similar to J. R. Searle's illocautionary nagation which is meant to negate 'illocutionary force' (See, Speech Acts : An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1969, PP 32-3) Sabdakalpadruma (Vol. 3, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, 1967, P. 298 & 264 explanation goes thus : Apradhanyam vidheryatra pratisedhe pradhanata / prasajya pratisedho 'savkriyaya saha yatra nan // Pradhanyam hi vidheryatra pratisedhe' pradhanata / paryyudasa sa vijneyo yatrottarapadena nan //.
(23) According to J. W. N. Watkins, the pragmatic consideration or difficulty cannot be an adequate rebuttal for a sceptic engaged in cognitively (theoritically oriented) questioning. Question of 'praxis orientation' is also irrelevant here, because it is noncognitive. For details see : Science and Scepticism (Hutchinson, London, 1984) P. 36. One may also see in this context : R. N. Ozick : Philosophical Explanations (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981) P. 197
When in the Navyanyaya (Neo-school of Nyaya) the term knowledge (prama) is prefixed by the term asandigdha (non-dubious) it does not mean 'knowledge must be certain', rather it implies that a genuine piece of knowledge (prama) will never be vitiated by the presence of 'dubiety' about the absence of knowledgehood (pramatvaand this is precisely meant by the saying 'apramanya jnananaskandita'.
However, the Nyaya cognitivists in later days have tried to develop a casual theory of knowledge with many technicalities where a pramana is operative as intrumental case of generating knowledge (prama) and there is no room for getting knowledge (as something 'non-dubious and truth hitting mental episode') from a faulty pramana or pseudo-pramana.
(29) To support our contention let us quote from S. N. Dasgupta, a noted historian of Indian Philosophy. Dasgupta states : "Unlike the older Nyaya, later Nyaya writers like Gangesa, Raghunatha and others were mainly occupied in investing suitable qualificatory adjuncts and phrases by which they could define their categories in such a way that the undersirable applications and uses of their definitions, pointed out by the criticism of their opponents could be avioded" - A history of Indian Philosphy, Vol - 2 (Cambridge 1951) P. 146