Indian epistemic terms

Birgit Kellner birgit.kellner at UNIVIE.AC.AT
Thu Oct 12 07:53:37 UTC 2006

Shyam Ranganathan schrieb:
> Dear Indologists
> I'm interested in a survey of technical and nontechnical epistemic terms
> employed in Indian philosophical literature. My rather informal impression is
> that the Indian tradition has made an art of discussing epistemology that makes
> the standard analytic "S knows that P" talk look rather dry. Specifically I am
> interested in:
> (a) whether there is any secondary material that has surveyed this issue and
> produced some type of list of terms employed in such discussions, and
I don't have such a list at hand, but it seems to me that part of this
phenomenon, if it is indeed observable, results from the choice of
objects of comparison: modern analytic philosophy, which aims to reduce
its terminology to a standardised English idiom, that is the result of
the workings of a science-influenced, globally operating philosophy that
has as a discipline separated itself from psychology, versus an ancient
form of philosophising which operates in entirely different, and more
localised, disciplinary contexts where boundaries between psychology and
philosophy as different branches of investigating cognition are much
more fluid (not to mention metaphysics). I'm not sure, for instance,
whether European medieval philosophy would sound as dry in comparison
with Indian philosophical literature as analytic philosophy.

(Besides, one of the aspects of Indian epistemology that has been quite
frequently remarked on in this connection is its absence of a clear-cut
propositional conception of knowledge - classical Indian theories
usually speak of "objects" that are known, or cognised. I can't recall
any specific citation at the moment, but am confident that you'd find
something to that effect in one of the works by Claus Oetke.)

> (b) whether there are standard cross-theoretic terms (perhaps "pramana" and
> "jnana") that are used in most all traditions in epistemic discussions, or
> whether the majority of the discourse is really technical and only accessible
> to those who are experts in the relevant darsana.
> Thanks in advance
It depends on the area of discussion. Broadly speaking, there emerges in
the course of time a shared set of, shall we say, methodological
concepts as far as the individual pramāṇas themselves are concerned -
for instance, my impression is that one finds heterogenous names for
them in early (roughly: pre-Dignāgean) sources, but that later
terminology is more or less common among the various traditions (Jainism
perhaps being an exception in some respects). Of course, when there
emerges inner-traditional debate, e.g. when Buddhists discuss among
themselves about the various qualities of the Buddha, discussions may be
more technical and might not have been so easily accessible to
Naiyāyikas, even if they had been interested in it. Elaborations on the
metaphysical or psychological presuppositions of theories of knowledge
might also be more technical and "closed" than treatments of issues of

Accessibility, in addition, is a relative concept. Our present knowledge
from the literature that certain terms are specifically Buddhist might
lead us to conclude that they would have been accessible only to
Buddhists, but since we have little independent knowledge about
educational procedures and institutional environments, we can't be sure.
Buddhist monasteries, for instance, do seem to have fulfilled broader
educational functions (cf. e.g. the famous accounts of Nālandā by
Chinese pilgrims), and some specifically Buddhist ideas and terms are
likely to have diffused to outsiders. Add such institutional
meeting-points to a general environment in which diverse traditions
compete, also for support by worldly authorities, and accessibility
becomes a much more fluid notion.

I hope this has been of some help, even though not by answering your
questions in a straightforward manner ...

Best regards,

Birgit Kellner

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