[INDOLOGY] Modality in ancient Indian philosophy

Dan Lusthaus lusthaus at g.harvard.edu
Wed Jun 30 10:33:29 UTC 2021

Dear Jan and Matt,

Please take a look at chapter 17 of Buddhist Phenomenology, which offers some material and discussion relevant to that issue. In part, Candrakīrti’s Prasannapadā. to MMK 26-30 is interpreted as reponses to three types of claim for makes something “real” or “existent,” viz., it is real because it causes something, real because it is the effect of something, real because “its fruit has an enjoyer” (i.e., it causes a perception). Candrakīrti refutes each criterion with counterexamples: hair of a tortoise, teeth of a crow, i.e., impossible because contrary to something’s nature; sky-flower, i.e., empirically unverifiable; and a mango growing in space, i.e., a mirage (like mirage water that can’t quench real thirst); respectively. Admittedly a sharp distinction between the counterexamples of the second and third criteria might be a bit murky.

Yogacara, on the other hand, does offer a clearer hierarchy, largely drawn from Abhidharma: At the bottom is utterly mistaken and unreal (equivalent to parikalpita). Next, the realm of saṃvṛti has several layers. At the bottom is prajñapti as false concepts. Next is prajñapti that accurately summarizes or labels a compilation of real things (prajñapti-sat) — e.g., when Vasubandhu in the Kośa-bhāṣya uses a “fist” as an example of a prajñapti; one could add common examples such as army, forest, etc. as examples of prajñapti-sat (declaring a hostile army “unreal” doesn’t prevent it from causing damage). Next is dravya, meaning something that exerts causal efficacy (see the criteria above). Dravya-sat is as high as the saṃvṛti levels go. That is expressed summarily in Yogacara as paratantra, starting with parikalpic-paratantra and ending with paramārthic-paratrantra. Above that is paramārtha, about which little is cogently predicable, and in some forms of Yogacara basically serves as a countermeasure (pratipakṣa) to parikalpic infestations of paratantra. That is pariniṣpanna. According to Xuanzang’s critique of Madhyamaka, Mādhyamikans (of the Bhāvivekan ilk, he seems unaware of Candrakīrti) fail to adequately distinguish between parikalpita and paratantra, reducing both to a type of illusionism, whereas for Yogacara paratantra has grounding in reality while parikalpita is utterly unreal and erroneous.

Also cf. Christian Lindtner, “Bhavya’s Critique of Yogācāra in the Madhyamaka-ratnapradīpa, Ch. IV,” in Matilal and Evans (eds.), Buddhist Logic and Epistemology, Dordrecht, 1986 and Ian Charles Harris, The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, Leiden: EJ Brill, 1991, esp. ch. six.

One might also look at the debates in the medieval period about different types of khyātis, or “errors” — perceptual, conceptual, intrinsic, etc. Matt is right that medieval Indian thought does not seem to adopt an explicit counterpart to Aristotle’s necessity, contingency and accident, largely because they favor a posteriori proofs over a priori notions - that is especially true of the Buddhists whose influence especially in the pramāṇavāda domain pushed non-Buddhists to develop argumentation along a posteriori lines.

All that is, of course, broad stroke overview. Details get messier.


> On Jun 30, 2021, at 5:30 AM, Matthew Kapstein via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info> wrote:
> Dear Jan,
> Matilal, Logic, Language and Reality, pp. 423-426, briefly discusses modal concepts and, I believe, touches on the topic elsewhere as well. But he says, for instance, that for NyAya, "there is no strict distinction between logical impossibility and factual impossibility." My own impression is that modality is often pertinent to Indian arguments, but that it is treated intuitively, without formal theorization of the modes.
> all best,
> Matthew
> Matthew Kapstein
> Directeur d'études, émérite
> Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris
> Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies,
> The University of Chicago
> From: INDOLOGY <indology-bounces at list.indology.info> on behalf of Jan Westerhoff via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info>
> Sent: Wednesday, June 30, 2021 4:16 AM
> To: indology at list.indology.info <indology at list.indology.info>
> Subject: [INDOLOGY] Modality in ancient Indian philosophy
> Dear Colleagues,
> having just read a recent article in JIP (2021, 49, p. 468) making the
> curious claim that there are "many texts of early Madhyamaka and
> Yogācāra with clear modal reasoning" I started wondering about
> the status of modal notions in Indian philosophy again. It was my
> understanding that the discussions of modal notions we could find in
> ancient Indian sources were confined to aspects of logical and deontic
> modalities, but had very little to say on necessary, possible, or
> contingent existence (indeed there seems to be no clear differentiation
> between the contingently non-existent (flowers in the sky) and the
> logically impossible (sons of barren women)).
> Are you aware of any primary (or secondary) Indian philosophical sources
> that discuss modal existence questions?
> Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
> Thank you,
> Jan Westerhoff
> ***************************
> JC Westerhoff
> Lady Margaret Hall
> University of Oxford
> Norham Gardens
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> United Kingdom
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> westerhoff at cantab.net
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