The Three Questions in Indian Philosophy (with some reflections on ethics)

In a previous post, I explored the three-fold division of philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics which originated among the early Stoics, and which was widespread in Hellenistic philosophy. In this post, I’d like to explore how this same triple division can apply to Indian philosophy.

First, let’s briefly recap the Hellenistic classification. Each of the major divisions of philosophy can be summarized in a basic question, as follows:

  1. Logic: How do we know (anything at all)?
  2. Physics: Using the tools of logic, what do we know about (the nature of) what there is?
  3. Ethics: Given how the world is, how should we act?

In the philosophies of classical India, the same three questions come up, in a way that at first seems very different. But on closer examination, the Indian examples not only reinforce the three-part division in general, but also provide strong support for Zeno’s view that ethics necessarily follows after logic and physics in an appropriate sequence.

In Indian philosophical writings, we mostly find two different conversations being carried on by two different groups of authors. The first conversation addresses the topics which Indian thinkers call “the study of the instruments of knowledge” (Sanskrit: pramāṇavāda) and “the study of the objects of knowledge (Sanskrit: prameyavāda). These two topics directly parallel the first two divisions of Hellenistic philosophy: logic and physics, in the broad traditional sense of both Greek terms. The “instruments of knowledge” are the ways in which we come to know anything at all about the world. Different philosophical schools disagree about exactly what these instruments are, and about how they work, but common candidates include sense-perception, inferential reasoning, reasoning from analogy, and learning things from the testimony of reliable experts. In trying to make a list of the ways in which we can know things, and determining the limits of what those instruments of knowledge can (and cannot) tell us, the Sanskrit philosophers are doing the work of epistemology. The “objects of knowledge,” meanwhile, are all the things that we come to know. This topic includes taking an inventory of what does (and does not) really exist in the world, and explaining how all those parts of the world fit together (through relationships like cause-and-effect, parts-and-wholes, processes of creation and destruction, the dependence of certain classes of things upon others, etc.). This exactly answers to the Hellenistic notion of physics, or the modern subject of metaphysics and ontology.

Tellingly, in almost every case that we find thinkers from all different branches of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism writing on this core pair of topics—the instruments and objects of knowledge—they are directly quoting and responding to thinkers from outside their own tradition. We see that philosophers from all these traditions are debating with each other, carrying on a single, centuries-long conversation about when and how knowledge is possible, what the basic structure of the world is, and what things really exist.

With precious few exceptions, however, the philosophers in this first conversation never write about ethics. Rather, ethical texts in India are written by different people, as part of a different conversation—or rather, as part of a large number of different conversations. We find Buddhist authors writing ethical advice for other Buddhists, Hindu authors giving practical guidance to their co-religionists in the same Hindu traditions, and so on. Unlike the writers on the instruments and objects of knowledge, we do not find Indian writers carrying on one unified conversation about ethics across different traditions. Instead, philosophically-grounded writings on ethical topics are addressed to an audience of people who are already convinced of the metaphysics of the author’s particular school. (This need not mean that these authors are writing for an audience of people highly trained in prameyavāda or metaphysics. It can simply involve an audience who, at whatever vague, general level accept the basic cosmology and worldview of a given tradition. The key point is the division of different ethical texts for different traditions, each targeted at a sympathetic, internal audience.)

And so, someone who is sufficiently persuaded by Sāṃkhya arguments for the radical dualism between the eternal, unchanging person and the constantly shifting flux of materiality will turn to teachers of the corresponding methods of Yoga, to learn how to put that understanding of the person and the world into practice, while someone else who is sufficiently persuaded by Buddhist arguments against the reality of the self might then turn to teachers within that tradition for practical guidance on how then to live, on the basis of that understanding.

In both these cases, I write “sufficiently persuaded,” to leave room for positive feedback loops between the intellectual understanding of the world which comes through the study of metaphysics, and the felt experience of the world that arises from our activities, both the mundane and the meditative/spiritual/esoteric. Each of these can reinforce the other: the worldview impels a person to act in a certain way, the experience of those actions further reinforces the (initially abstract) worldview, etc.

Nonetheless, the model of philosophy as a guide to life in classical India seems to work like this: First, enter into the pan-Indian, across-the-schools conversation about how we know anything and what the world is like. Then, when you’re sufficiently convinced of one particular description of the world, go to the teachers of that school, who will explain how to arrange your life in response to that description of the world. As usual, not every person at every stage of life (or even in every life) will be called to some intense study and practice of philosophy. That is both totally fine, and not in any way a situation unique to the Indian experience.

So while the precise division of labor (exactly who writes about what topics) is slightly different, nevertheless, in both the Sanskrit-speaking and Greek-speaking worlds, understanding and accurately describing the world (physics, physis, prameyavāda) is the necessary prerequisite for figuring out how to respond to that world (ethics).

In conclusion, it’s worth noting the way that I have been using the term “ethics” in these posts. On the one hand, I take “ethics” to have a very broad scope, in describing the patterns of action and behavior by which people live and move in the world. On the other hand, in keeping with (and directly inspired by) ancient approaches in both Hellenistic and Indian philosophies, I’m emphasizing the cultivation of the person or the self, rather more than the abstract or impersonal “consequences” which so preoccupy many modern ethicists.

As a whole, I find that this approach helps me to give a satisfactory answer to a question one of my graduate school mentors asked, one memorable afternoon nearly a decade ago, when the two of us were engaged in months-long close reading and study of a Sanskrit treatise on the metaphysical problem of how (and whether) anything could persist through time, tracing out the centuries-long debate between Buddhists of the Yogācāra school, and Hindus of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika tradition. My mentor simply asked, from amidst the sea of philosophical literature on pramāṇa and prameya, “where are the philosophical texts on ethics?” As our conversation continued, it was clear that he was asking about the sorts of ethical writings that we find in contemporary (and especially anglophone/analytic) philosophy, where one attempts to bootstrap a universalizing ethical theory from observation and intuition, without first developing a substantive metaphysics. I now suggest that a staged, sequential model of philosophy, like the one I’ve sketched here, together with this expansive and quite traditional understanding of the primary focus of ethics, will point toward an illuminating reply.

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