Indian Philosophy on Matter and Idealism: - East

An Introduction
Boyd – 2010 (East-West IASP Project)
Context of this presentation
(Slide titles in red indicate the slide will not be part of the actual class
presentation . When the content, below is in red, it indicates that the
details need to be worked out and what is shown only outlines a direction to
be taken.)
 Introductory type course in philosophy that focuses
on theories of knowledge (epistemology) and reality
 We read two primary texts
 Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
 Strawson, Analysis and Metaphysics
 This presentation will take place about a month into
the semester
 Russell after a couple of introductory chapters turns
to the issue of the nature of matter. A central part of
this discussion is his “refutation” of idealism, which
was a prominent approach to philosophy in 1912.
 Primarily focuses on G. Berkeley (1685-1753) and F.H.
Bradley (1846-1924)
Idealism reviewed
 Idealism (?)
 “Idealism consists in the assertion that there exist none but
thinking entities; the other things we think we perceive in
intuition being only presentations of the thinking entity to
which no object outside the latter can be found to
correspond.” Kant, Prolegomena)
 Reality is spiritual (Dasgupta)
 All existence has its core or foundation and being in the mind
 G. Berkeley – Does a tree falling in a forest where no
one is there make a sound? (theistic idealism)
 F.H. Bradley – Reality is one; there are no real
separate things; reality consists solely of idea or
experience (non-theistic idealism)
Bibliographical sources for further work
Two Philosophers of Idealism
 F.H. Bradley (1846-1924)
 Appearance and Reality (1893)
 Essays on Truth and Reality (1914)
 Writings on Logic and Metaphysics – Bradley, ed. Allard & Stock (1994)
 Studies in the Metaphysics of Bradley, Saxena (1967)
 An Introduction to Bradley’s Metaphysics, Mander (1994)
 Shankara (c. 788-820 CE)
 Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination , 3rd edition. {(Prabhavananda,
Swami and Isherwood, Christopher. (Trans.). (1978). Vedanta Press}
 The Vedānta Sūtras of Bādarāyaņa with the Commentary by Śańkara,
Parts 1 and 2. {Thibaut, George. (Trans). (1962)}
 Indian Idealism, Dasgupta (1962)
 Philosophies of India, Zimmer (1974)
 An Introduction to Śańkara’s Theory of Knowledge, Devaraja, (1962)
 “Idealist Refutations of Idealism,” Chakrabarti, Idealistic Studies (1991)
Focus: Shankara, but first a quick look at some of the relevant texts
Three (selective) passages from the Upanishads
 Chāndogya Upanishad
 Dialogue between one who is learned, and a
 Monistic World-Soul, Ātman, is that immanent
reality found in all things
 Aitareya Upanishad
 The Self is in all – a pantheistic position
 Para-Brahma is the source or means of empirical
knowledge as well as that which is not empirical –
all that exist owes their existence to Para-Brahma.
 Finally, “Brahma is intelligence.”
Selective passages cont’d
 Māņdūkya Upanishad
 Om!—This syllable is this whole world.
Its further
explanation is: – The past, the present, the future –
everything is just the word Om. And whatever else that
transcends threefold time – that, too, is just the word Om.
For truly, everything here is Brahma; this self is Brahma. …
This is the lord of all. This is the all-knowing. This is the
inner controller. This is the source of all, for this is the
origin and the end of beings. Not inwardly cognitive, not
outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive, not a
cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive, unseen,
with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no
distinctive mark, non-thinkable, that cannot be designated,
the essence of the assurance of which is the stating of
being one with the Self, the cessation of development,
tranquil, benign, … He is the Self. He should be discerned.
This is the Self with regard to the word Om, with regard to
its elements. … Thus Om is the Self indeed. He who knows
this, with his self enters the Self – yea, he who knows this!
 Passage can be seen to present an absolute monism
Commentaries on Upanishads
 Upanishads do not contain a systematic philosophy
or theology, hence sutras were developed by
subsequent thinkers
 These sutras pull together the various ideas taught
in the Upanishads, and one of the greatest sutras is
by Bâdarâyana
 However, because of the nature of a sutra and the
fact that they seldom identify the Upanishad they
are dealing with, commentaries were developed to
clarify a sutra
 Shankara is credited for writing such a commentary and
developing a systematic philosophy that reflects the
monism we saw in the selective passages above
 While Shankara advocated an absolute monism or strict
non-dualistic philosophy, he acknowledges two levels of
 In the second sutra Bâdarâyana states “(Brahman is that) from
which the origin, &c. (i.e. the origin, subsistence, and dissolution)
of this (world proceed).” (Thibaut, 15)
 According to Shankara this sutra means that “[t]hat omniscient
omnipotent cause from which proceed the origin, subsistence,
and dissolution of this world – which world is differentiated by
names and forms, contains many agents and enjoyers, is the
abode of the fruits of actions, these fruits having their definite
places, times, and causes, and the nature of whose arrangement
cannot even be conceived by the mind, that cause, we say is
Brahman.” (16)
 He acknowledges that this world, the world of sense experience,
exists, but its existence is different than the existence of
Brahman, which has no place for empirical data.
 The reality of ‘this’ world should not blind us to an even greater
reality, and this latter reality is greater because it is true reality –
a reality that is not based on or found in the empirical
 Shankara continues, “wrong knowledge itself
is removed by the knowledge of one’s Self
being one with the Self of Brahman.” (30)
 This ‘oneness’ is nothing less than complete
identity – an absolute monism.
 This reality is greater than the reality of the
empirical world because the latter is based
upon wrong knowledge whereas the former is
based upon truth – the teachings of
revelation found in the scriptures
Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination
 The first qualification attaining liberation is the ability to
distinguish between the eternal and the non-eternal.
“Brahman is real; the universe is unreal. A firm conviction that
this is so is called discrimination between the eternal and the
non-eternal.” (35)
 Furthermore, Brahman and Atman are one:
 “Atman is pure consciousness … The Atman is the witness,
infinite consciousness, revealer of all things but distinct from
all … It is the eternal reality, omnipresent, all-pervading, the
subtlest of all subtleties. It has neither inside nor outside. It is
the real I, hidden in the shrine of the heart. … He is the truth.
He is existence and knowledge. He is absolute. He is pure and
self-existent. He is eternal, unending joy. He is none other
than the Atman. The Atman is one with Brahman: this is the
highest truth. Brahman alone is real. There is not but He. …
He is pure consciousness, free from any taint. He is tranquility
itself. … He does not change. He is joy forever.” (69-71)
Shankara’s system as idealism
 Two questions:
 While the passages above show that Shankara
was an absolute monist, how is Shankara’s system
a form of idealism?
 Do the objections that Russell raises concerning
the idealism of Berkeley and Bradley affect
Shankara’s form of idealism?
Shankara as idealism: overview
 “Idealism consists in the assertion that there exists
none but thinking entities; the other things we think
we perceive in intuition being only presentations of
the thinking entity to which no object outside the
latter can be found to correspond.” (Dasgupta, 23)
 Shankara starts with consciousness defined
ultimately as Brahman
 This concept of Brahman is adequate to give an
explanation for our empirical evidence of a physical
world, i.e., illusion (māyā) due to ignorance
 Because his metaphysics is an absolute monism, real
reality consists of one thinking entity – Brahman;
hence Shankara avoids a subjective form of idealism
Shankara’s argument
 P1 – Brahman, a conscious entity, is all reality;
 P2 – Brahman is the cause of all, including māyā,
and is present in all our cognitions
 P3 – All experience begins and continues due to
an erroneous belief that the “self” is identified
with the body or the objects of the senses
 P4 – Individual things, including matter, are only
 Concl – Matter does not exist; hence the world
“only phenomenally exists as mere objects of
name and form” (Dasgupta, 165) This conclusion
is a form of idealism
 Each premise of the previous argument is
supported by its own set of evidence
 However, premise 1 is foundational to his
sub-arguments for premises 2 through 4
 His evidence for premise one is the selfrevelation of Brahman in the sacred texts
 These sub-arguments need to be developed
and presented
Russell’s criticism of idealism
 Table - example
 Sense-data
 Acknowledges limitations in our knowledge,
but claims we all agree that something is
 Russell’s criticism needs further development
Shankara’ Position untouched
 1st approach: Shankara & the Principle of
 Embraces the principle of contradiction for all
levels except that ultimate reality of Brahman
 The law does not apply at this level of absolute
monism, which embraces sat (Being) and asat
(non-Being) equally and at the same time
 Similar to the intuitionalists (logical) move of
embracing the three laws of thought, except in
cases that involve the infinite where they may
reject Law of Non-Contradiction {~(P & ~P)} and
Law of the Excluded Middle {P v ~P} [Law of
Identity has other problems]
Russell and Shankara cont’d
 2nd approach: Developed argument (Arindam
 Three-level theory of unreality
 Unreality of the absolutely unappearable nonentities
(the absurd)
 Unreality of the individually subjective illusions (the
 Unreality of the empirical that is more real than a
dream but less real than pure undifferentiated
consciousness (the phenomenal)
 Shankara’s deeper metaphysical ideal – a nevernegated pure consciousness is really real
Russell and Shankara cont’d: Best
 3rd approach: Category Mistake
 Given Shankara’s starting point, it appears that his
position is isolated from Russell’s object that there
must be a table there even if we do not “know”
the table
 In some way for Russell, the object presents the
sense-data, but for Shankara the sense-data is not
presented by the object
 Sense-data objection by Russell seems to be a
category mistake when applied to Shankara
The rest of the story
 The Vedantic School of Indian philosophy is not
the only story told, nor is Shankara the only story
told within the Vedantic school; hence the rest of
the story must address individuals such as
Ramanuja (1017-1137), a modified monist - but
not an idealist, as well as those other schools as
they say something about matter and reality,
e.g., Aśvaghosha’s Buddhism
 Built into syllabus for the fall 2010
 Three class periods to present some of these other
schools as regards matter
 Latter in the semester – three more class periods will
address issues such as methodology and reasoning in
Indian philosophy

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