Origins of the "double-truth"

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Wed Dec 20 23:16:23 UTC 2000

I wrote:

>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.

Lance Cousins responded:

> 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
> material.

On Arabic and Western scholastic uses of the concept, Lance comments:

> We cannot rule out Indic influence on the Arab world. You would need
> examples from Classical antiquity.

Analogous concepts can be easily supplied from so-called gnostic
and Middle Platonist documents in the Mediterranean and Daoist
(also Neo-Daoist) texts in China -- all emerging about the same
time as Abhidhamma. Given the close links that existed between
exegetical processes and developments in premodern religious and
philosophical ideas, there is nothing surprising about these near
simultaneities. Once enough internal contradictions accumulated
in stratified traditions, the emergence of variant forms of the
"double truth" as a reconciliative device was inevitable. It was,
in fact, among the most common exegetical strategies (out of the
several dozen strategies with known systematic effects) found in
the premodern world. You can even find traces of it in later
strata of Mesoamerican literate traditions -- e.g., in the
eighteen Books of Chilam Balam and in the Popul Vuh. The origins
of the strategy can be traced to basic strategies that the brain
employs to handle contradictory data: You don't need to trace it
to one or another ur-tradition.

In saying this, I recognize that once some form of the
"double-truth" took root locally, its systematic byproducts were
often adopted by later, related, families of traditions without
the need for reinvention. This arguably led, e.g., to the kinds
of dependencies that you suggest might be traced in India to
early use of the "double truth" in Abhidhamma. (To play devil's
advocate, however, I'd bet that suggestive adumbrations of the
idea might also be found in later Vedic traditions; I can think
of several candidate texts.) Similar source hunting, of course,
can be used to link Latin and earlier Arabic and Hebrew and Greek
uses of the Western versions of the "double-truth" -- if simple
source hunting is your game.

The idea of adoption can be generalized using theoretical
concepts applicable to the evolution of complex systems in
general: Obvious "path dependencies" show up in many points in
premodern religious, philosophical, and cosmological traditions.
One such dependency involved tendencies in a family of related
traditions to invoke the same kinds of exegetical strategies
repeatedly -- helping give birth along the way to hierarchical
and analogical structures closely associated with those
strategies. Once an exegetical strategy is adopted early in a
tradition, the probability rises that the same strategy will be
used in harmonizing conflicts in later strata of this or related
(even warring) traditions. Such path dependencies help explain
the striking family resemblances that tended to develop in
scholastic traditions in one premodern cultural region or
another. Such path dependencies play a prominent place in
computer simulations of the growth of stratified traditions
developed over the past few years by me, John Henderson, and
Peter Robinson (a computer modelist at NASA-Ames Research
Center). Ralph Abraham, one of the mathematical founders of
nonlinear dynamics (chaos theory, complex systems, etc.), has
recently joined our collaboration and is helping refine our
mathematical ideas.

Lance: I think that one of the grounds of our apparent
disagreement derives from nothing deeper than our different
current research interests. As a comparative historian, I see
developments of ideas like the "double-truth" in Abhidamma (or
later in Advaita) as local instances of a more global phenomenon.
As specialists in Buddhist traditions, you and S. Hodge just as
naturally focus on specific cases. I recognize the importance of
that approach, since in order to have any predictive power, any
model must take into account local as well as global features of
whatever it is modeling. I certainly appreciate unique local
features of the "double-truth" in Abhadamma. But I'd also argue
that many closely related exegetical byproducts evolved
independently in many other scholastic traditions.

Other grounds of disagreement, I suspect, may lie in differences
in our attitudes towards the putative "truth value" of these
traditions. (These are awkward terms, but I can't think of
substitutes.) Obviously a lot of people on this List continue to
view premodern systems of various sorts (e.g., various Buddhist
branches, Advaita) as repositories of valid speculative insights
about the world. Rather more modestly, I view systems like these
as exegetical byproducts of brains reflecting on earlier thought
fossilized in stratified textual traditions. In an
Averroistic-style double-truth of my own, I suppose, I leave the
purported "truth value" of the traditions I study out of the

P. Mumme, I think rightly, has emphasized that the structure of
Indian religious and philosophical systems (including Advaita)
were largely byproducts of exegetical processes "working up"
earlier layers of conflicting tradition. I think that her
position -- currently an unorthodox one in Indology (but I don't
think for long) -- is equally true of other premodern traditions.
Once you trace the cumulative history of exegetical
transformations through many layers of manuscript traditions, you
discover clear emergent features in their structures (e.g.,
multileveled mirroring structures of various familiar scholastic

My own textual studies began by looking in minute detail at the
exegetical dynamics of extreme hyperscholastic systems at the end
of the manuscript era in the West -- at systems which in a sense
"summed up" systematic developments from several dozen earlier
traditions. My current interests in the earliest stages of
stratified traditions in India and China confirms that the same
exegetical dynamics were operative much earlier -- thousands of
miles from the West. Once you link these findings, new tools
emerge to model the rise and fall of premodern religious and
philosophical traditions in truly global fashions. The resultant
cross-cultural models lead you, in a very reasl sense, in exactly
the opposite direction from those currently pursued by extreme
nationalistic elements in the Middle East, S. Asia, or China. We
are living in a global environment, and I think the time is ripe
for our historical methodologies to take cognizance of that fact.

Steve Farmer

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list