May 18, 2018

Berkeley and Lokayata

Berkeley famously argues that "what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived ... [is] perfectly unintelligible. Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence, out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them" (Principles, sect. 3). He aims to demonstrate this principle, he says, "In opposition to sceptics and atheists" (Three Dialogues, subtitle). As Berkeley saw it, human knowledge and traditional religion were under attack from 'freethinkers' and the root of this attack was the doctrine that real physical things must be something beyond or behind our perception, rather than the very objects of perception themselves. Thus, as Philonous tells Hylas, Berkeley's solution is to insist that "What you call the empty forms and outside of things seem to me the very things themselves" (Three Dialogues, L&J 244).

The Lokayata school of classical Indian philosophy (also known as 'Carvaka', or 'materialism') held, according to the summary provided in the 16th century (?) Sarva-siddhanta-sangraha, that "Whatever is arrived at by means of direct perception, that alone exists. That which is not perceivable is non-existent, for the (very) reason that it is not perceived" (ch. 2, sect. 2). On the basis of this principle, the adherents of this school defended the view that matter alone exists (and hence that the human person is identical with the body), that religion is a scam, that there is no afterlife, and that there are no goods or evils apart from the bodily pleasures and pains of the present life. The 14th century (?) Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha reports that the adherents of this school held that:

sacrifices [prescribed by the Vedas] ... are only useful as a means of livelihood [for the priests], for the Veda is tainted by the three faults of untruth, contradiction, and tautology; then again, the impostors who call themselves Vaidic pundits* are mutually destructive, as the authority of the jnana-kanda is overthrown by those who maintain that of the karma-kanda, while those who maintain the authority of the jnana-kanda reject that of the karma-kanda; and lastly, the three Vedas themselves are only the incoherent rhapsodies of knaves.

The summary ends with a long quotation from the (now mostly lost) Brhaspati Sutra (date unknown), considered the founding document of the school, which confirms that they held these views: it is said, for instance, that religion was established "only as a means of livelihood for the Brahmans" and "The authors of the three Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons."

Strikingly, the attack on religion here resembles that of Berkeley's opponents. John Toland, for instance, places heavy emphasis on the evils of 'priestcraft' and the corrupt motives of its practitioners, while the argument that alleged religious authorities conflict with one another and therefore cannot be believed is prominent in Anthony Collins.

So here is the curious situation: in these differing contexts, the (alleged) necessary relation of being to being perceived was employed to support precisely opposite views regarding ontology and religion. How is this possible?

I am reading these Indian texts for the first time and my knowledge of the background to them is very limited, nor do I have any familiarity with the original languages. Still, let me offer a few brief speculations aimed at making sense of the situation.

First, for Berkeley, the esse is percipi thesis is explicitly restricted to sensible things, and he (contrary to he Lokayata school) accepts the existence of non-sensible things, namely, minds (including God) and their activity. Berkeley can accept the existence of these things because he accepts two sources of knowledge which the Lokayata school rejects: the 'consciousness' or 'reflexion' whereby I am aware of myself and my actions, and the causal inference whereby I learn that there are other minds. The Lokayata school seems implicitly to reject the first: although they accept that there is such a thing as internal perception, they deny that it reveals a substance distinct from the body. In the surviving summaries of their teachings, their rejection of the second seems to be their most (in)famous doctrine. The arguments against causal inference reported in the Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha are quite forceful and sophisticated; those trained in Western philosophy will immediately notice similarities to Hume.

Second, there is some question about exactly how the Lokayata understand the relation between being and being perceived. Although the Sarva-siddhanta-sangraha attributes to them the view that what is unperceivable is ipso facto non-existent, and does so at the very beginning of the summary, the longer summary in the Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha does not mention this doctrine. Further, the view that existence consists in being perceived is not explicitly attributed to them, though it is suggested by this passage. Their concerns seem more epistemological. Berkeley, of course, also has obvious epistemological concerns, but his immaterialism is quite explicitly an ontological thesis. So perhaps the claim should be read as merely epistemological, which would make it fit quite well with the rest of these two summaries. Still, read literally it looks like a metaphysical claim.

Third, it is unclear whether the Lokayata mean by (the word that is translated) 'matter' the same thing Berkeley does.

Finally, though, whether their view is ontological or merely epistemological, it certainly seems that they must have a different view from Berkeley's regarding the objects of perception. For Berkeley, of course, the immediate objects of perception are just ideas that exist only in the mind that perceives them. The Lokayata must hold, instead, that matter—and nothing but matter—is "arrived at by means of direct perception." This is of particular interest to me because I have argued that (late) Leibniz and Kant each endorse an analog of Berkeley's esse is percipi thesis and their metaphysical differences from Berkeley stem primarily from differences in their understanding of perception. So here's the big philosophical question: could the right theory of perception render (an analog of) the esse is percipi thesis consistent with—even supportive of—materialism?


* From now on, I will refer to Protestant theologians as 'Biblical pundits'! (Not really.)
Posted by Kenny at May 18, 2018 2:26 PM
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