The Zhuangzi and Skepticism

Author: Julianne Chung (University of Louisville)

The Zhuangzi(Wade-Giles: Chuang-tzu) is one of two foundational Daoist texts (alongside the Laozi, orDaodejing). It is widely considered to have been composed (at least in large part) by a Chinese philosopher of the same name in the late 4th century BCE.

Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi,the Qiwulun, can be read and taught on its own.  Like other parts of the book, this chapter articulates and appears to advocate a variety of skeptical positions but also a number of positive claims that are seemingly inconsistent with them. Commentators have sought to resolve these tensions by claiming:

  • that Zhuangzi’s skepticism is more limited than many have been inclined to think (cf. Graham 1983, Eno 1996, Fraser 2009, and Sturgeon 2015),
  • that Zhuangzi is a relativist, pluralist, or perspectivist rather than a skeptic (cf. Hansen 1983, Wong 1984, Mou 2008 and 2015a, and Connolly 2011),
  • that Zhuangzi’s skepticism is better construed as a recommendation, method, or therapy rather than a thesis (cf. Kjellberg 1996, Ivanhoe 1996, Raphals 1996, Van Norden 1996, and Wong 2005),
  • that Zhuangzi does not sincerely advocate radically skeptical positions, despite appearances to the contrary (cf. Schwitzgebel 1996),
  • and that Zhuangzi can be interpreted as both a global skeptic and fictionalist (Chung forthcoming).

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VASUBANDHU and the problem of the external world in Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy (c. 300-400 CE)

Author: Gordon. F. Davis (Carleton University)

In a few short texts, assigned to a mature period following a famous ‘conversion’ to Mahayana Buddhism, Vasubandhu argues that reality consists of ‘impressions-only’ (Siderits 2007), or ‘only appearance’ (Gold 2015). This prima faciemetaphysical idealism came to be known, famously and more simply, as the ‘Cittamatra’ view, which means ‘mind-only’.

Taking ‘external world’ to mean a world in space and time that is putatively independent of the mind, Vasubandhu argues that this conception is a delusion, one that imposes a crude conceptual grid on the field of experience. As a critic of ‘naïve realism’, Vasubandhu sees unchecked mental projections as imposing a spatiotemporal structure on experience which, once purged of this, can also be liberated from other forms of ignorance. In his Twenty-Verse Treatise, Vasubandhu considers various objections to this irrealist account of belief in an external world, responding by invoking e.g. analogies of dream-experience (and other intriguing anticipations of modern philosophy).

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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.

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Anekantavada or Multisidedness

Author: Ashwani Peetush (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Anekantavada (Sk. lit.: theory of not-one-sidedness) is a Jaina epistemological view that requires that the truth of any claim must consider the context and standpoint (naya) from which it is made.  The theory has had an enormous impact and influence on the logic, epistemology, and ethics of Buddhist and Upanisadic schools as well as on Mohandas Gandhi’s activism and philosophy of nonviolence. Anekantavada grows out of a commitment to the Jaina principle of ahimsa or non-harm to others (including their intellectual perspectives). It requires one not simply to tolerate and put up with others’ perspectives, but to see them as on par with one’s own views; it also emphasizes that one’s own views may themselves be wrong. This theory is used to understand religious and philosophical differences to this day in India and is popularized in the Jaina metaphor of the elephant and the blind men.

The theory is grounded in a pluralistic metaphysical realism that argues that reality is composed of an infinite number of entities that are modified in innumerable variation. The meaning of any particular claim to truth must therefore take into consideration and be indexed to substance/subject, time, space, and mode/quality. Statements may thus be asserted only conditionally (syadvada or the theory of conditional predication). What may at first appear as contradictory may actually be complementary (e.g., “the pot exists” and “the pot does not exist” are not necessarily contradictory if indexed to different times of assertion, spatial location of the pot, or the modality of the clay of which it is made).

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Carvaka school

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

The Carvaka tradition offers an example of a pleasure-oriented this-worldly philosophy of life, based on a strictly empiricist epistemology and materialist metaphysics. Claiming that sense-perception constitutes the only reliable means of knowing, Carvaka thinkers reject the possibility of drawing inferences about what cannot be perceived, and some reject the validity of inferential reasoning altogether. They therefore argue that there is no afterlife, and that the mind is a product of matter. Consequently, they also deny the utility of priests and rituals, and question the caste system. They are represented as amoral hedonists by their opponents, but this portrait may not be entirely accurate.

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