Origins of the "double-truth"

L.S.Cousins selwyn at NTLWORLD.COM
Sat Dec 23 10:06:50 UTC 2000

Well, for some reason or another four days of Indology postings all
arrived at once. So I am somewhat behind on the discussion. There
seems to be some local religious festival disrupting things up in
London or somewhere :-)

Steve writes:
>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.

I think you have to be more exact. Gnostic sources may well be too
late. What can you cite from
Middle Platonist sources provably earlier than the first century A.D.
? Neo-Taoist texts are heavily influenced by Buddhism. So again what
exactly is the date of the early material there.

In other words I am not prepared to accept the assertion of
universality entirely on the basis of the simple claim. It might be
right. but it might equally be a case of influence. Or, perhaps of

>  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.

I tend to view that kind of argument as a religious superstition. At
all events, it is highly controversial.

>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.)

I'll take that up in response to Vidyasankar Sundaresan.

>  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.

Essential before speculating.

>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.

There are only a limited number of ways in which one can think
systematically. That has been known for a very long while. But
shouldn't this analysis be applied to the development of modern
systems of thought too ?

>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.

Well, yes and no. I don't doubt that there is something in what you
are saying. But . . .

1. The abhidhamma distinction between sammuti and paramattha derives
from the development of the concepts of attha and dhamma in (later?)
Suttanta literature. (This might have parallels in e.g. early
Vai"se.sika or some brahmanical exegetical traditions but not really
in the Upani.sads.) It is closely related to issues of exegesis, but
I think it would be reductionist to see it only in those terms.

2. When this is adopted into Mahaayaana, the term paramaartha becomes
'translated' as it were and refers to some kind of genuine ultimate
truth or non-truth, sometimes perhaps to an ultimate reality. This is
not really a matter of exegesis, but rather of some type of unitive
philosophy. The origins of this are another question, but the
terminology certainly comes from abhidharma.

I tend to feel that scholarship often has an institutional bias
against 'external' influences. This is perhaps a branch of the 'Not
Invented Here' (NIH) syndrome. Good scholars don't like evidence they
can't evaluate for themselves.

>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.

Well, I would certainly see them as that.

>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

You want to take the high ground ?

To me, this seems like a variant of the Protestant methodology first
devised in order to devalue Catholic scholastic traditions. The
problem with the modern development of this position is that,
although it presents itself as impartial, it may in fact be just a
kind of ucchedavaadin religious fundamentalism.

>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.

I don't really have any problem with this, as long as it is
recognized that it is just one part of what is going on.

Lance Cousins

selwyn at

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