Origins of the "double-truth"

L.S.Cousins selwyn at NTLWORLD.COM
Wed Dec 20 09:32:27 UTC 2000

Steve Farmer writes:

>Attempts to show that one tradition derived this idea from
>another are complicated by the fact that some version of the
>double-truth sooner or later showed up in virtually every sacred
>or semi-sacred manuscript tradition known. Religious and
>philosophical exegetes world-wide recognized (in most cases, if
>not all, independently) that if conflicting concepts showed up in
>two authoritative texts or traditions, as a last resort the two
>sides could be reconciled by distinguishing different "levels" of
>reality and redistributing the conflicting concepts to those
>respective levels.

I think we have to distinguish the general case from the specific. We 
have a particular distinction of two truths, often using the same or 
similar terminology, which is widely used in several quasi-absolutist 
traditions by the latter part of the first century A.D. i.e. 
Mahaayaana, Gau.dapaada and among Jains by Kundakunda. These are 
clearly related by their terminology and methodology. Only in the 
Buddhist case do we have a clear earlier history. In fact the 
distinction between the two truths derives from abhidharma. Indeed 
the Sanskritization as has long been known to be erroneous. 
It is clear that a distinction of two truths is integral to the 
abhidhamma from a very early date and has strong roots in suttanta 

>The method was used extensively from late ancient to early modern
>times in China, India, the Middle East, and Europe to harmonize a
>wide spectrum of scholastic conflicts. There really is nothing
>special about its use in either Buddhist or Advaitan traditions.
>Repeated use of the method globally was one of the most common
>forces leading to the kinds of stratifications in reality
>associated cross-culturally with scholastic traditions.
>In the Middle East and Europe, the double-truth is most often
>associated by religious historians with the works ascribed to Ibn
>Rushd (Averroës, "The Commentator") or his Latin commentators.
>See here Bruno Nardi's numerous studies -- e.g., _Sigieri di
>Brabante nel pensiero del Rinascimento italiano_ (Rome, 1945).
>See also Etienne Gilson's many discussions of the topic. It is
>possible to point to use of the technique by hundreds of other
>later Latin scholastics well up into the 16th century CE (e.g.,
>Pomponazzi). Despite what Nardi and Gilson say, not all of them,
>by any stretch of the imagination, can be labeled "Averroists."
>Use of the method was in fact quite widespread in Western
>scholastic traditions.

I do not think your examples are early enough to be of any use. We 
cannot rule out Indic influence on the Arab world. You would need 
examples from Classical antiquity.

>You can find uses of the double-truth for similar reconciliative
>purposes in the Three-Treatise (San-lun) School of Chinese
>Buddhism. Some nice textual examples can be studied easily here
>in de Bary et al., eds., _A Sources of Chinese Tradition_ (1960:
>1:293-303) and Fung Yu-lan, _A History of Chinese Philosophy_
>(1953: 2:293ff.)

This is precisely a form of Mahaayaana Buddhism and so hardly 
supports the independent development of the idea.

>Conclusion: The so-called double-truth came in countless
>premodern forms. It is an error to assign credit or blame for the
>concept to a single tradition.

This is what you have to prove.

I am reasonably confident that the idea is not an independent 
development in the various Indian traditions. Beyond that it seems to 
me that it is premature to assume that because the idea is very 
widespread at a later date, it could not have had a single origin 
from which it spread. (But it needs more careful examination to see 
if the idea is really the same in detail.)

L.S. Cousins

selwyn at

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