Nicholas Lua, B.A. (History), Yale-NUS College
Keywords: Advaita Vedanta, Idealism, Indian Buddhist Philosophy, Metaphysics, Non-Western Philosophy, Philosophy, Schopenhauer, Shankara, Vasubandhu
When we talk about philosophy, it is easy to assume we are discussing a tradition of thought and inquiry that began with the Greeks and continued, long and unbroken, into the present. No one would breathe the words Western or European, but they haunt casual online searches that might lead you to articles like this. DK’s The Philosophy Book might reinforce your Western-centric notions of philosophy: while a few non-Western philosophers are mentioned, the thinkers mentioned in the book largely rehash the “from the Greeks to the present” arc.
I am not saying that philosophy does not include the Greeks and the “Western” thinkers after them, just that there is philosophy outside what has been labelled “the West”. A counter-movement challenging the idea that philosophy is solely Western has already arisen with scholars like Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield. In the foreword to Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Garfield points out that there are ethical stakes to broadening philosophy curricula, not just intellectual ones:
To omit all of the philosophy of Asia, Africa, India, and the Indigenous Americas from the curriculum and to ignore it in our research is to convey the impression – whether intentionally or not – that it is of less value than the philosophy produced in European culture, or worse, to convey the impression—willingly or not—that no other culture was capable of philosophical thought. These are racist views.Jay Garfield
And if you wanted to learn more about philosophy as a multicultural discipline, Van Norden is a good place to start. He maintains on his website a list of ‘Readings on the Less Commonly Taught Philosophies’.
Even as we broaden our understanding of philosophy, however, we should not be too eager to put thinkers into boxes like ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’, ‘Ancient’ and ‘Modern’. Over-emphasising these categories can prevent us from detecting similarities across, or the exchange of ideas between, supposedly irreconcilable traditions. To illustrate that these strange (at first glance, anyway) parallels exist, I’d like to explore the similarity between the metaphysics of Schopenhauer – a philosopher easily labelled ‘Western’ – and two Indian philosophers, Shankara and Vasubandhu.
A quick note on the definition of ‘metaphysics’. According to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, metaphysics has ‘to do with the features of ultimate reality, what really exists and what it is that distinguishes that and makes it possible’. If your eyes glazed over as you skimmed that, confused, don’t worry – mine did, too. A working understanding of metaphysics is that it deals with the nature of the world. Think questions like: ‘What is the world like?’ or ‘Is there a god?’ Not easy questions, but to the first one Schopenhauer had an unconventional answer.
Schopenhauer discusses his metaphysics in The World As Will and Representation, which was published around 1819. The title neatly sums up his arguments, for Schopenhauer thinks that the world is Will and Representation. To keep things simple, I’ll delve into just half of that and explore the world as Representation.
When he says the world is Representation, Schopenhauer means that the world of ordinary reality – where the sun rises and we go to work – arises from the individual’s perceptions. In Schopenhauer’s words,
[A person] does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees the sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world around him is there […] only in reference to another thing, namely that which represents, and this is himself.
When you look at the sun (not advisable), you cannot be certain that the bright fiery ball in the sky exists independent of your seeing its light and feeling its warmth. What you can say is that there is a you, an individual, who experiences that thing called ‘the sun’. Your experience of the sun does not prove the sun exists out there in an external world, only that you have perceptions of it. Through your perceptions, you represent the world of everyday phenomena to yourself.
But hold up, you might say uncomfortably. Schopenhauer makes no sense – and many people would agree with you. The sun, you might argue, must exist in a world external to you along with all sorts of other objects like cars, bubble tea or Marina Bay Sands. When you encounter such objects, they trigger your senses and cause you to perceive them: the red Ferrari, the sweet Gong Cha, and so on. If you think that there is an external world out there which causes your experiences – quite a common opinion – a philosopher would call you a Realist.
If, in contrast, you agree with Schopenhauer, you would be an Idealist. If you know that you have experiences but know nothing beyond that, then you could say that there need not be an external reality. You might also realise that assuming the existence of a reality separate from your perceptions is a conclusion more than your evidence supports. The Realist position assumes too much, and if the Realists are uncomfortable it is because they are the victims of a powerful habit.
Yet Schopenhauer’s unconventional position isn’t that unconventional. Other philosophers before him have made similar arguments, and he names them, Descartes and Berkeley for example. Intriguingly, he also acknowledges a much earlier precedent:
How early this basic truth was recognized by the sages of India, since it appears as the fundamental tenet of the Vedânta philosophy […]
And Vedanta is the realm of philosophers like Shankara (Śaṅkara in the Sanskrit). Some context might help: Vedanta refers to the tradition of interpretation and commentary on the vedic texts of Hinduism. Think something like the tradition of Biblical commentary, or the Chinese philosophers interpreting the words of Confucius. Vedanta contains a lot of philosophical material. Of all the Vedanta schools, the most famous Indian philosophy today is Advaita Vedanta. And the most famous of Advaita thinkers, living possibly around the 9th century and a millennium before Schopenhauer, is Shankara.
According to Shankara, the world we experience is an illusion (Māyā). A text traditionally attributed to Shankara, the Bālabodhinī, contains a line that summarises the Advaita Vedanta framework:
Brahman is real, the world is false, the individual soul is only Brahman, nothing else.
In his framework, there are only two entities that are ultimately real: Ātman, and Brahman. Ātman is sometimes translated as Self, and it manifests in the world as different individuals, like you and me. Brahman refers to Ultimate Reality, the true nature of things. In reality Ātman is identical to Brahman. The world of everyday experience, and the apparent diversity of individuals within it, are not real. The illusory Māyā that is the world results from individuals being ignorant of their true nature: we misapprehend how things really are, and so deceive ourselves into thinking we are separate from Brahman. Shankara uses analogy to explain this confusion: what looks like a snake in the corner of the house turns out, on closer inspection, to be a rope. Like Schopenhauer after him, Shankara warns against misunderstanding the nature of reality. Thinking that ropes are snakes and mistaking that the self isn’t Brahman is not quite like being a Realist, but it is also a powerful habit.
Schopenhauer was familiar with Māyā too. Although he conceived that the world is Representation independent of Indian philosophy, he recognised that Māyā resonated with his thought:
[T]he ancient wisdom of the Indians declares that “it is Mâyâ, the veil of deception, which covers the eyes of mortals, and causes them to see a world of which one cannot say either that it is or that it is not; for it is like a dream, like the sunshine on the sand which the traveller from a distance takes to be water, or like the piece of rope on the ground which he regards as a snake.”
We’ve already met rope-snakes. While we do not know whether he read Shankara specifically, Schopenhauer recognised that Indian philosophy’s scepticism about the world, ‘of which one cannot say either that it is or that it is not’, echoed his own.
Shankara was not the only Indian philosopher with whom Schopenhauer shared an affinity. It could be argued that Schopenhauer, as an Idealist, shares more in common with the Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu than he does with Shankara. Vasubandhu lived in the 4th century – he predates Schopenhauer by 1400 years, and Shankara around 400. His Viṃśatikā-kārikā, known in English as the Twenty Verses, is a crucial text of Mahayana Buddhism’s Yogacara School. In the opening lines of the Twenty Verses, Vasubandhu states his Idealist position clearly:
mahāyāne traidhātukaṃ vijñaptimātraṃ vyavasthāpyate |
In the Mahayana, the three realms of existence are determined as being perception-only.
These ‘three realms of existence’, from a layperson’s perspective, refer to the world of everyday experience. And the Idealist world here is perception-only, vijñaptimātra in Sanskrit. Now vijñaptimātra has been variously translated: ‘cognition-only’, ‘mind-only’ or ‘nothing but appearance’ are other ways to translate the term. The basic point, however, is close to Schopenhauer’s: what appears to be external reality is actually created by the mind. Vasubandhu’s explanation is unambiguous: the world is ‘perception-only’ because ‘of the appearance of non-existent objects’. What are these objects that don’t really exist? The stuff that makes up your supposedly-external world: Schopenhauer’s sun from earlier, or the Marina Bay Sands where you cannot afford to spend the weekend.
Vasubandhu anticipates the discomfort we experienced with Schopenhauer, the kind that suggests we’re all subconsciously Realists. Some of Vasubandhu’s opponents in 4th-century India maintained that there was an external reality made up of property-particulars called dharmas. Vasubandhu includes a cunning refutation of their position in the Twenty Verses, which might not feel intuitive: although both the Idealist and Realist frameworks explain the workings of the world, Vasubandhu’s account is the metaphysically minimal one. He requires fewer things for his account to work, namely an external world. Why then, he asks, is the burden of proof on him to show that the world is perception-only, when the Realists have the heavier burden of showing that a whole external world exists? Prefiguring Schopenhauer’s move, Vasubandhu emphasises that his opponents assume too much.
One of the charges made against non-Western philosophy is that it is too ‘mystical’. Wouldn’t arguments like Vasubandhu’s, which oppose the existence of an external reality, count as ‘mystical’? So he doesn’t count as philosophy. What about the ‘Western’ Schopenhauer, then, who parallels Vasubandhu? Should he be excluded too? Hold on, I need to think. And think we should – shaky grounds underlie what we consider part of the philosophical canon, which is governed by concerns beyond the philosophical.
About the author:
Nicholas Lua recently graduated from Yale-NUS College. A History major, Nicholas is interested in ancient Southeast Asia and the Sanskrit cosmopolis. He has been inspired by ideas from across the Liberal Arts and Sciences, Literature and Philosophy in particular.
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