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  • Of Intrinsic Validity:A Study on the Relevance of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā
  • Daniel Arnold


As one of the six "orthodox" schools of brahmanical thought that are often taken to represent the main philosophical options of India, Pūrva Mīmāṃsā is usually thought to warrant at least cursory treatment in discussions of Indian philosophy; after all, the six orthodox schools collectively represent Indian "philosophy," so if Mīmāṃsā is to be discussed, surely it is under the rubric of "philosophy."1 However, Mīmāṃsā seems in this regard rarely to receive much more than cursory treatment, a fact that is explained, if at all, by its having contributed little of "philosophical" relevance. Indeed, Mīmāṃsā's constitutive concern with demonstrating the authority of the Vedas prompts many Western observers to characterize this tradition as virtually antithetical to truly philosophical inquiry.

Thus, despite its signal influence in the intellectual milieu of classical India, Mīmāṃsā receives relatively scant attention in the Western literature on intellectual practice in India. In Surendranath Dasgupta's History of Indian Philosophy, for example, Mīmāṃsā receives a review about one third the length of those accorded to the traditions of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Śaṃkara's Vedānta. In introducing his review of the Mīmāṃsā doctrine concerning the authority of Śabda ("language" or "testimony"), Dasgupta apologizes for thus introducing a topic omitted from his discussions of other schools, saying that discussion of this topic "has but little philosophical value and I have therefore omitted to give any attention to it in connection with the Nyāya, and the Sāṃkhya-Yoga systems." This discussion, he continues, "has but little value with us, though it was a very favourite theme of debate in the old days of India."2 The philosophically sophisticated B. K. Matilal, though advancing a helpful discussion of the doctrine that we will consider, dismissively observes that "the scriptural way of knowing is by definition infallible! This is a sort of fundamentalism."3 Even so sensitive an observer as Francis Clooney, in discussing the relation between Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Uttara Mīmāṃsā (also known as Vedānta), in one place refers us to one of his earlier works for "a description of the non-philosophical Mīmāṃsā which is the true predecessor to Advaita."4 Finally, in the context of Buddhist studies (where, it seems to me, much of the philosophically rich discussion of Indian thought currently takes place), there has been rather considerable attention to the significance of Naiyāyikas as interlocutors of Indian Buddhists, but very little analysis of the role played by Mīmāṃsakas in this regard.

As a modest corrective to this imbalance, I would like to develop a sympathetic account of one of the chief doctrines of Mīmāṃsā, namely that of svataḥ prāmāṇya, [End Page 26] or "intrinsic validity." This doctrine is the cornerstone of Mīmāṃsāka attempts to explain the authoritativeness of the Vedas, and, insofar as that project is deemed a fundamentalist exercise antithetical to true "philosophy," it is no doubt central to the widespread perception that Mīmāsā has "but little philosophical value." And indeed, a glib characterization of this idea of "intrinsic validity" might well lead one to consider this among the less serious contributions to issue from Indian discussions of pramāṇa, or "criteria of valid knowledge"; for the doctrine, too briefly stated, is that verbal testimony (śabda)—like all other forms of knowledge—is to be judged an intrinsically valid criterion of knowledge, until and unless proven otherwise.

I would like to suggest, however, that there is an important philosophical insight here, and that it is one that was developed with some sophistication in the course of the tradition's elaboration. Specifically, the doctrine of svataḥ prāmāṇya can fruitfully be seen as a compelling critique of foundationalist epistemologies.5 Understood as such, this insight can come to be seen as an important contribution to a discussion in which foundationalist options (those of the Naiyāyikas, and particularly those of Indian Buddhists in the tradition...