Getting trapped and lost in the esoteric

Getting trapped and lost in the esoteric is an old habit of mine. After writing about spacetime superfluid the other day and serendipitously ending with Kumarila Bhatta I have been captivated by two pieces in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. One relates to Bhatta, a seventh century Indian philosopher described as one of the most influential thinkers of Indian philosophy, and the other relates to Dhramakirti, a likely or possibly seventh sixth century scholar of Indian Buddhism.

Stanford does an remarkable job of presenting these two astoundingly original minds going as far back as 13 to 14 centuries. There is a lot that Stanford offers on these two extraordinary figures but I was struck by the following two passages. The first is about Bhatta and the second about Dharmakirti.


The locus classicus for Kumārila’s argument here is verse 47 of the codanā sūtra chapter of theŚlokavārttika:  “It should be understood that all pramāṇas’ being pramāṇas obtains intrinsically; for a capacity not already existing by itself (svataḥ) cannot be produced by anything else.”

The argument Kumārila concisely expresses here in verse form is straightforward but compelling: if it is thought that any cognition finally counts as a reliable doxastic practice only insofar as it can be demonstrated to be such (for example, by appeal to a subsequent cognition of the causes of the initial one), infinite regress ensues; for the subsequent, justifying cognition would, as itself a cognition, similarly require justification, and so on.


It [i.e., the universal] does not come there [from somewhere else], it was not there already, nor is it produced subsequently, nor does it have any parts. [And even when in other places] it does not leave the previous locus. Oh my! It’s just one disaster after another. (Pramāṇavārttika I.152)[7]

No doubt the fundamental intuition in Buddhist nominalism, just as in other nominalisms, is that universals are occult pseudo-entities that should not be taken seriously by a responsible thinker concerned with ontology. As the above quotation from Pramāṇavārttika shows, Dharmakīrti lists a series of anomalies: they don’t come from anywhere, they are partless, aren’t produced, are in several places at one time, aren’t seen, wouldn’t seem to have any discernible function, and so and so on. Such bogusness of pseudo-entities becomes a recurrent theme in Buddhist Epistemology. A later Indian Buddhist writer, Paṇḍit Aśoka, inspired by Dharmakīrti and Dignāga, ridiculed real universals as follows in his Sāmānyadūṣaṇa (“Refutation of Universals”).

It is not my case that I understand Bhatta and his mimamsa and the philosophical profundity that it represents. Nor is it my case that I comprehend fully Dharmakirti and Buddhist nominalism. However, I can reach fairly intelligible and intelligent inferences from what is being proposed. The idea that all this was going on 13/14 centuries ago is also compelling for me, although once you are talking about such deep concepts, the passage of time is immaterial.

I intend to write in greater detail soon.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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