Seeing as how Bhikkhu Sujato has been working on a series of lectures on early Buddhist epistemology, I felt this was the perfect time to post a thread regarding a new publication that came out just this year which outlines a long running debate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and to see what you guys think early Buddhists (or dare I say the historical Buddha!) would have said about this issue. If early Buddhist studies is to have applications beyond itself, then this is a chance to see how it might respond to later Buddhist debates and discussions, so let me outline the problematic.
The recent publication I am referring is Yakherds (2021). Knowing illusion: Bringing a Tibetan Debate into Contemporary Discourse. Yakherds is a group of scholars who mainly deal with Madhyamaka and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and they include Jay Garfield, a well known Western philosopher, translator and interpreter of Buddhist philosophy.
Garfield has a talk which outlines the issue well in this video (skip to minute 55).
He also outlines the main point of the debate in a paper which can be found on Garfield’s website. Garfield begins discussing how, in India and then Tibet, there were two main approaches to epistemology:
Transcendental epistemology which pursues epistemology by
“thinking analytically about the nature of justification itself, bracketing actual human practices, and develop a purely prescriptive account of epistemic warrant embodying a set of standards that might or might not be met by actual human practice.”
Then there is the second approach, the anthropological approach. According to Garfield
“On this approach, we begin not with analytical reflection on the meanings of epistemic terms, but rather by asking what actual people do when they claim to be justifying statements, or when they certify statements by others as warranted. In this approach to epistemology, we bracket questions about whether those practices meet some transcendental standard, and develop a purely descriptive account of actual epistemic practices. On this approach, we take what counts as knowledge to be a social or institutional affair, like what counts as currency or as a legal vote, and then ask about the institutional conditions on bestowing that honorific on a cognitive or linguistic episode. We might, for instance, discover that those in some community count as knowledge only that which is endorsed by scientists, or that another community includes the deliverances of certain oracles as knowledge. If we take this approach, we take it for granted that there is knowledge, and ask only what leads us to classify some statements under that head.”
Garfield notes how there are close parallels between these approaches and modern analytic philosophical positions (mainly, those of Carnap, Quine and Sellars). Carnap attempted to build a foundational epistemology based on sense data, like the Indian Buddhist pramāṇavāda thinkers Dignaga and Dharmakirti who defended two main ways of attaining knowledge: perception/pratyakṣa and inference/anumāna, as foundations of knowledge and held that they were ultimately founded on immediate sensory experience that puts us in direct contact with phenomenal particulars (svalakṣana). The macroscopic phenomena we encounter are mental constructs made up inferentially by the mind out of these particulars.
Garfield then explains that the position of Candrakīrti follows a more anthropological epistemology in his Clear Words (Prasannapadā). He disagrees with the pramāṇavādins in limiting the pramāṇas to just two (since this is not the only way people gain knowledge in practice) and he also rejects their foundationalism. Instead, according to Garfield, Candrakīrti “follows Nāgārjuna in taking the pramāṇas to be vindicated by the objects they deliver (prameyas) and by one another in a coherentist epistemology.”
However, Candrakīrti’s epistemological view can be interpreted in different ways and thus Garfield moves on to explains how Tibetan interpreters of Candrakīrti also differed in how to understand that way of doing epistemology (and how this is reflected by debates in modern analytic philosophy).
Garfield focuses on two major figures, Tsongkhapa and Takstang, and notes that they mirror in some key ways the responses of WV Quine (1908-2000) and Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989) to Carnap (both of which defend a kind of anti-foundationalism with regards to knowledge, that is to say, that they both hold that knowledge cannot be grounded in a single thing, even so called sense data). However their positions differ quite radically. Quine thinks that since there is no absolute way to ground epistemology on any single set of epistemic primitives or foundations, then normative epistemology is impossible. Thus, while we can ask, descriptively, what it is that people do when they are doing epistemology, we cannot ultimately say whether they are right or wrong. This is thus a radically descriptive position which makes no normative claims (i.e. it does not say whether something is wrong or right, it just describes the practice of knowledge making as a human endeavor).
Meanwhile, Sellars’ position is different. Sellars argues that we can have a normative epistemology that is anti-foundationalist. That is to say, we can have secure knowledge about the world without relying on any single fixed point of reference or infallible epistemic grounding (contra Carnap who saw raw sense experience as in some sense foundational). As Garfield explains,
“he argues that neither meaning nor knowledge require foundations: meaning is constituted simply in the network of practices that constitute language use, practices that themselves induce the norms that govern syntax, semantics, and pragmatics; knowledge is that which is achieved by the appropriate use of epistemic conventions that themselves are justified by the knowledge they enable. He thus argues that we can make perfect sense of the norms that induce linguistic meaning as well as those that govern epistemic activity by attending to the power of conventions to induce normativity. Sellars argues instead that empirical knowledge has no foundation (or as Wittgenstein puts a similar point so perfectly: “the foundations are held up by the walls of the house.” We become knowers, on his account, when we come to participate competently in the collective social practice of justification and criticism; knowledge is just what we as a community of knowers take to be justified by our conventions of justification; no primitive world-experience relations are needed in order to constitute knowledge. ”
Just like how Quine and Sellars are both anti-foundationalists in radically different ways, Tsongkhapa and Takstang are also radically different Madhyamikas. As Garfield explains:
“They each reject the Dharmakīrti’s foundationalism, as well as his individualism. But while Tsongkhapa argues that this is consistent with a robust normative epistemology and the possibility of expressing a true Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka position, Taktsang argues that at most it leaves us with an anthropological account of people’s deluded epistemic practices, and reduces Madhyamaka to inexpressibility. We hence see Tsongkhapa as following Sellars’ approach to the Carnap in his response to Digṅāga, and Takstang following Quine’s approach in his very different response.”
Let us briefly outline Tsongkhapa’s position (which, it should be noted, is the founder of the Gelug school, the tradition of the Dalai Lama). Tsongkhapa’s view on pramana follows Candrakīrti and Nāgārjuna in arguing that there is no foundation to epistemology. Instead, “the pramāṇas and their prameyas [what is known] are mutually dependent, and that the various pramāṇas also are mutually supportive, like the sheaves in a stack.” Thus, Tsongkhapa does think that he can do normative epistemology as a non-foundationalist because as Garfield explains
“ what generates epistemic warrant is not direct contact with things as they are, but rather a role in ordinary activity and confirmation by other warrants and they objects they deliver….We thus end up with an epistemology grounded in interdependence and in collective epistemic activity. Warrant arises not from direct, nondeceptive access to reality as it is, but from participation in a set of conventions that are mutually supportive and that constitute conventional justification. ”
This ultimately boils down to how Tsongkhapa interprets the key Sanskrit term samvṛti. As Garfield explains:
“Candrakīrti famously notes that samvṛti can either mean conventional in all of its familiar senses, indicating by agreement, ordinary, nominal, everyday, etc… or concealing, obscuring. So, we can gloss samvṛti-satya accurately either as conventional truth or as concealing or obscurational truth. One’s attitude towards the status of conventional truth depends a good deal on which of these readings one takes to be primary. Tsongkhapa takes the first route, emphasizing that to be conventionally true is a way of being true, not a sham that conceals the truth. He leans hard on Nāgārjuna’s doctrine of two truths, arguing that there can only be two of each of them is in fact a kind of truth. And since truth, or reality, and validation by pramāṇas are coextensive terms in this tradition, conventional truth is very much a way of being real, a way of being true, of being trustworthy. This is why Tsongkhapa can argue that the basis of division of the two truths is objects of knowledge: conventional and ultimate are each objects of knowledge, each real. We thus see a tight connection between normativity and reality: what is real is what is warranted by normative practices.”
Taktsang Lotsawa (a scholar of the Sakya school) could not be more different in his interpretation of Candrakīrti’s anti-foundationalist madhyamaka philosophy. For Taktsang, Tsonkhapa’s importation of pramāṇa and epistemology into Madhyamaka is mistaken, since the Madhyamaka view on ultimate truth is ultimate inexpressible and beyond all concepts and reasoning. Taktsang thinks that any commitment to epistemic warrants presupposes a foundationalist framework, and thus must be rejected. In other words, if there is no foundation for epistemology, no absolute fixed standard for deciding what is right or wrong, then how can there be right or wrong at all in some real sense?
Taktsang concludes that there is no possibility of a normative epistemology. We can only describe what people say about knowledge and justification in the everyday world (like anthropologists), but we cannot ultimately say that one justification is truer or more normative than another. Thus, for Taktsang, conventional truth is ultimately only “a truth for fools” and thus ultimately false. There can be no real knowledge of conventional reality (true knowledge is only ultimate, non-conceptual and inexpressible). He thus relies more on the deceptive and concealing aspect of the meaning of the term samvṛti.
As Garfield explains, these two Tibetan views on the middle way philosophy are closely mirror by the Western analytical philosophers we discussed above:
“Taktsang and Quine took the negative route, conceding that any account of knowledge and meaning that is genuinely normative must be transcendent, and so rejecting the possibility of a normative epistemology and of linguistic meaning, settling for a merely anthropological account of epistemic and linguistic practice. Tsongkhapa and Sellars took the positive route, arguing that convention could—and indeed must—ground normativity, and so arguing for a naturalistic but normative account of knowledge and of meaning that is conventional and coherentist, not foundationalist in character. So, while there is agreement among the principals in each of these debates that no transcendent account of normativity is possible, there is substantial disagreement about whether this dooms the search for normativity tout court.”
Garfield sides with the Tsongkhapa/Sellars side of the debate and proceeds to give some reasons about why. I strongly recommend reading the paper for those who are interested.
Now that I have outlined the ideas in the book and paper I mentioned (if you made it this far…wow, awesome), I want to get to the question I have been asking myself: how would the Buddha and early Buddhists make sense of this debate and which side would they fall on?
I think that, given K.N. Jayatilleke’s analysis of early Buddhist theory of knowledge, the Buddha (and early Buddhists) would agree with Tsongkhapa and Sellars and state that while there is no fixed and unchanging reference or epistemological foundation we can rely on, we can still have positive knowledge about conventional everyday reality as well as about spiritual matters. The extremely skeptical and negative epistemological stance of the Taktsang - Quine folks seems not to allow for making proper judgements regarding ethics, scientific truth, and spiritual matters.
I am particularly interested in what Bhante @sujato would say about this topic (as well as others on this board of course!).