- The Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa by Ethan Mills
There is relatively little literature on Indian skepticism, with hardly any monograph on the subject comparable to, e.g., Julia Annas’ and Jonathan Barnes’ The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations (1985), R.J. Hankinson’s The Sceptics: The Arguments of the Philosophers (1995), a series of Richard H. Popkin’s monographs on the history of skepticism, or two recent competing volumes as collective efforts: The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism edited by John Greco (2008) and The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism edited by Richard Bett (2010). Therefore what promises to provide a survey of the skeptical tradition of South Asia should potentially be regarded as a milestone work in the research on the history of ideas in Indian philosophy and could be the first ever monograph on Indian skepticism. Does the work deliver what it promises? While I argue that the methodology used to reach the conclusion is faulty, the path to the book’s thesis, despite its ultimate lack of support, is engaging and well worth the journey.
In The Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa, Ethan Mills attempts to provide a coherent interpretation of three important Indian philosophers--Nāgārjuna1 (c. 150–200 CE), Jayarāśi2 (c. 770–830 CE; or 800–840), and Śrīharṣa3 (c. 1125–1180 CE)--through the prism of what he calls “skepticism about philosophy,” classically instantiated in the West, in his opinion, with ancient Hellenistic skepticism (e.g. Pyrrho), as distinguished from various forms of epistemological skepticism that principally question the feasibility of attaining any knowledge or certainty in particular domains, such as the existence of the external world, of other minds, etc. For Mills, skeptics about philosophy are “philosophers who use philosophical methods against philosophy itself” and who “neither need nor desire to put forward a theory about what philosophy really is” (p. xxvi; five defining features on p. xvii). As he argues, “the tradition of skepticism about philosophy cuts across the divide between orthodox Brahmanical philosophers and heterodox Buddhists and Cārvākas. It stretches back to the very beginnings of the Indian philosophical tradition and at least near the end of the classical period” (p. xxii). [End Page 1]
This may seem an attractive perspective and, also with the help of, e.g., a meme-based approach to philosophy (163 ff.), potentially could explain the historically independent occurrence of the three central proponents of skepticism in different periods of Indian history as a natural reaction to current circumstances. Unlike most other philosophical currents that were practiced in India within particular traditions, classified as philosophical schools (darśana) by Indian doxographers, in a manner similar to Ancient Greece, skeptics never seemed, as it might appear, to form any such school or philosophical lineage (unlike the Academic Skeptics or Pyrrhonists) but rather “popped up” here and there as personages formally affiliated to as divergent philosophical (and religious) traditions as Buddhism (Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna), materialism (Cārvaka/Lokāyata) or idealist monism (Advaita Vedānta). What should make them all fit into one relatively consistent tradition, consistent in the sense of its skepticism about philosophical enterprise, is their particular argumentative method and non-committal form of negation (prasajya), or simply weak negation: “Such skeptics employ the form of debate known as vitaṇḍā and the argument form called prasaṅga, both of which allow them to engage in philosophical debate and criticize their opponents without thereby presenting a counter-thesis” (p. xxii). Mills rightly defines vitaṇḍā as “a type of debate in which one seeks to destroy an opponent’s view without putting forward a view of one’s own” (p. 20), whereas prasaṅga is a reductio type of argument. These three elements (vitaṇḍā, prasaṅga, prasajya) “formed the key...