Cārvāka Critique of Inference

Author: Ethan Mills (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)

The irreligious Cārvāka school, which existed at least as far back as the time of the Buddha (c. 400 BCE), is often depicted as denying the validity of inference as a means of knowledge. There are virtually no extant texts written by members of the Cārvāka school, but the Sarvadarśanasagraha (Collection of All Philosophical Views), a doxography composed by the 14th century Advaita Vedāntin Mādhava, summarizes the Cārvāka argument against inference.

The specific logical form known as inference (anumāna) in classical India looks like this.

  1. There is fire on that mountain.
  2. Because it has smoke.
  3. Wherever there is smoke, there is fire.
  4. That mountain has smoke.
  5. Therefore, there is fire on that mountain.

But how is it known that “Wherever there is smoke, there is fire”? The Cārvāka critique is that there is no way to establish that this is true. That there is smoke wherever it is fire cannot be perceived, since one cannot perceive the future and the past. It cannot be known by inference or testimony, since either option would generate an infinite regress. Additionally, testimony can be false and testimony is based on hearing others’ words, which is not required to make an inference. Finally, it can’t be known by the means of knowledge called comparison, since that concerns the relation between words and things rather than properties in the world (e.g., smoky and fiery).

Furthermore, smoke might be caused by a special cause or extraneous condition (upādhi) rather than by fire alone. The stock example of an upādhi in the text is wet fuel as a cause of smoke rather than merely fire (fire from dry fuel or in a red-hot iron ball does not produce smoke). The connection between smoke and fire must be necessary, which means one must be able to rule out any upādhis. But knowing the absence of upādhis is problematic, because they could exist undetected: Cognizing an upādhi would require cognizing the necessary connection and cognizing the necessary connection would require cognizing the upādhi. Hence, the fallacy of mutual dependence ensues.

How then do the Cārvākas account for successful activity based on alleged inferences, as when one discovers fire based on having seen smoke? They say such activity “is made possible by error or by being based on perception.” Also, we don’t need to establish the unseen/karma by inference as their religious counterparts think we do, since things arise naturally by their own nature. This shows how the critique of inference fits with the irreligious tendencies of the Cārvākas.


Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
Compare/Contrast With

Primary Sources:

Mādhava. 1978. Sarvadarśanasagraha. Translated by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office. A reasonably clear – if a bit old-fashioned – translation originally published in 1904.

The same translation of the text is also available in the following two collections:

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli and Charles A. Moore, eds. 1989. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pages 228-234.

Sarma, Deepak. 2011. Classical Indian Philosophy: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press. Pages 5-9.

Online Resources:

Wernicki, Abigail Turner-Lauck. “Lokayata/Carvaka – Indian Materialism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Secondary Sources:

Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. 2002. “Cārvāka Fragments: A New Collection.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 30: 597-640. An overview of available fragments from the Cārvāka school.

—–. 2012. “Svabhāvavāda and the Cārvāka/Lokāyāta: A Historical Overview.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 40: 593-614. A treatment of fragments on the Cārvāka thesis that things arise by their own nature (svabhāva).

Gangopadhyay, Mrinal Kanti. 1971. “The Concept of Upādhi in Nyāya Logic.” Journal of Indian Philosophy. 1 (1971), 146-166. A detailed treatment of the logical notion of upādhi, which plays a role in the Cārvāka critique.

Ganeri, Jonardon, Ed. 2001. Indian Logic: A Reader. Cornwall: Curzon Press. An anthology of work on Indian logic.

Gokhale, Pradeep P. 2015. Lokāyata/Cārvāka: A Philosophical Inquiry. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. A helpful philosophical overview of the Cārvāka school. Includes some comparisons with Hume’s problem of induction.

 Matilal, Bimal Krishna. 1998. The Character of Logic in India. Edited by Jonardon Ganeri and Heeraman Tiwari. Albany: SUNY Press. Probably the best introduction to Indian logic available.

 Mills, Ethan. 2015. “Jayarāśi’s Delightful Destruction of Epistemology.” Philosophy East and West 65 (2): 498-541. An interpretation of the Cārvāka skeptic, Jayarāśi. Includes an overview of literature on the Cārvāka school, especially on the issue of internal differences among Cārvākas.

 Perrett, Roy. 2016. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Includes a section on Cārvāka skepticism about induction.

 Potter, Karl. 1977. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers. An influential overview of Indian philosophy with a helpful chapter on logic.

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Compare/Contrast With:

Hume’s Problem of Induction

Responses to Hume: Immanuel Kant, Karl Popper

Contemporary work on induction: e.g., Carl Hempel, Nelson Goodman, Wesley Salmon, Gilbert Harman, D. M. Armstrong, etc.

Ancient Greek and Roman skepticism about induction: Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, etc.

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See also: Carvaka school

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