Negation in Indian Philosophy

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From the early centuries CE onward, the philosophical traditions of ancient India produced theories of negation in a broad variety of contexts, dealing with such diverse issues as negative existentials, the referentiality of empty terms, and the laws of the excluded middle and double negation. Highly technical expositions of logical principles pertaining to negation can be found in particular, though not exclusively, in the literature of the so-called New Nyāya (Navya-Nyāya ) as of approximately the tenth century (Ingalls 1951, Matilal 1968). Earlier theories are noteworthy especially for their reflections on the nature of absence and its knowledge, in other words, for addressing the issue of negative facts and negative knowledge. These theories developed on the background of an overarching discourse about instruments of knowledge (pramāa ) that shaped philosophical debate from the first centuries CE onward throughout the first millennium and is one of the most distinctive traits of classical Indian philosophizing.

Modern research on Indian theories of negation is still at a preliminary stage, and source materials in some important areas are transmitted only in fragments. On the basis of what is currently known, the Vaiśeika, the Nyāya, and the Mīmāsā traditions of Indian philosophy, as well as the logico-epistemological branch of Buddhism, deserve to be highlighted for their theories of negative knowledge. The Vaiśeika, an early philosophy of nature that emerged during the first two centuries CE, is mainly concerned with comprehensive enumeration and identification of the constituents of the world. The Nyāya, which originated in an old debate tradition and is primarily interested in the method of proof, integrated the Vaiśeika's ontological foundations into its own set of logical and epistemological principles (Franco and Preisendanz 1998). The Mīmāsā, originally devoted mainly to the exegesis of the Veda, likewise took over Vaiśeika ontology, but with much more creative adaptation. Within the Mīmāsā, the views of Kumārila (early seventh century CE) about absence and its knowledge differ from those of Prabhākara, who may have been Kumārila's contemporary. The logico-epistemological branch of Buddhism has as its two main representatives Dignāga (late fifth/early sixth century) and Dharmakīrti (early seventh century), of whom the latter developed a succinct theory of negative knowledge, perhaps in critical response to Kumārila.

Forms of Absence and Their Knowledge in VaiŚeika Literature

In the Vaiśeikasūtra (VS ), a compilation of often elliptic mnemonic sentences that gradually grew as of the first two centuries CE, we find disparate identifications of specific forms of absences and brief statements of how some of them are known. As interpreted by the earliest available commentary by Candrānanda (active between the sixth and tenth centuries), VS 9,15 present four varieties of absence: the prior absence of an effect in its cause (prāgabhāva ), the posterior absence of a cause after its destruction (pradhvasābhāva ), the mutual absence (anyonyābhāva ) as the mutual difference between two things like a cow and a horse, and the absolute absence (atyantābhāva ) of, for example, a hare's horn. Further forms of absences, added in VS 9,811, were most likely inserted into the text at a later stage. VS 9,67 describe, again according to Candrānanda, how prior and posterior absence are known, but without specifying an instrument of knowledge.

According to the Praśastapādabhāya by Praśastapāda (early sixth century), which comes to represent classical Vaiśeika thought, absence is cognized through inference, but not through a separate instrument of knowledge, for just as an arisen effect is an inferential sign for the occurrence of its sufficient causes, so is the nonarisen effect an inferential sign for the nonoccurrence of its sufficient causes. Candramati, whose Daśapadārthaśāstra was most probably composed between 450 and 550 and is only preserved in Chinese translation and presents an idiosyncratic version of Vaiśeika, lists absence as a separate ontological category. Divided into five forms, it is the object of inference. In Śrīdhara's Nyāyakandalī (late tenth century), and in Udayana's Kiraāvalī (early eleventh century), absence is likewise accorded the status of a separate ontological category.

The Knowledge of Absence in NyĀyasŪtra, -BhĀya, and -VĀrttika

In the Nyāyasūtra (NS ), the foundational text of the Nyāya tradition that was formed between the second and fifth centuries, the knowability of further forms of absences, over and above prior and posterior absencemutual and absolute absence are not dealt withis emphatically defended, on the basis of an example that Vātsyāyana's commentary Nyāyabhāya (late fifth century) explains as follows: With regards to a pile of marked and unmarked clothes, someone is told "get the unmarked clothes!" and then cognizes the absence of marks in some clothes (commentary on NS 2,2,8; Kellner 1997; for a different interpretation of this section from NS, compare Matilal 1968). Whereas these remarks can be read as an attempt to expand the scope of knowable absence, the beginning portion of the Nyāyabhāya addresses the knowability of absence from a general viewpoint. For Nyāya, knowing reality, that is, the "being such [of the sixteen cardinal principles of Nyāya]" (tattva ), is required for attaining liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Reality is the existence of what exists and the nonexistence of what does not exist. Knowledge that something does not exist arises when, through a certain instrument of knowledge, something else is known to exist, based on the thought process "if this [absentee] existed here, it would have to be cognized just like this [actually existing thing]; because its cognition is absent, it does not exist." The instrument of knowledge that illuminates something existent also illuminates something nonexistent. In keeping with this line of thought, the subcommentator Uddyotakara (c. 550610) specifies absence as an object of sensory perception in his Nyāyavārttika ; this becomes the orthodox Nyāya position.

The MĪmĀsaka KumĀrila: A Separate Instrument of Knowledge for Knowing Absence

Both the Buddhist epistemologist Dharmakīrti and the Mīmāsaka Kumārila developed comprehensive and detailed theories about the knowledge of absences. But whereas Dharmakīrti appears to have found his way of formulating and addressing the knowledge of absence as a philosophical problem only gradually, in the course of his works Pramāavārttika, Pramāaviniścaya, and Hetubindu (Kellner 2003), Kumārila's conception of absence and its knowledge in his Ślokavārttika is already part and parcel of a general philosophical approach that John Taber (2001) dubs a theory of the unitary nature of substance. All features of a substance, while different from each other, are identical with the substance itself and indirectly with each other. Nonexistence is an integral building block of reality in that every real entity is existent as itself and nonexistent as everything else (Kellner 1996, 1997). Accordingly, nonexistence has the function of accounting for the unmixed character of real entities. Kumārila distinguishes the four types of absence that are later enumerated by Candrānanda while commenting on Vaiśeikasūtra 9,15. In keeping with the claim that an entity is nonexistent as something else, Kumārila describes all four types with the help of relational statementsa hare's head, for instance, is nonexistent as a horn-bearer, or a cow is nonexistent as a horse.

Though a part of every real entity, nonexistence is nevertheless separate from existence and requires an instrument of knowledge of its own. The five instruments of knowledgeperception, inference, verbal knowledge, analogy, and implicationare limited to grasping existence, whereas nonexistence is apprehended by the sixth instrument of knowledge called absence, an idea that in general must have been voiced already before Praśastapāda, as he rejected it. According to his commentators, Kumārila took it over from an earlier commentator on the Mīmāsāsūtras cited in the Śabarabhāya (early sixth century), but Kumārila's interpretation of this commentator's statements are heavily contested by the Prābhākara-Mīmāsakas.

As an instrument of knowledge, Kumārila's absence is the nonarising of the other five instruments. It can manifest itself either as the soul's (ātman ) not being transformed into the knower of the absentee as existent, or as the knowledge of nonexistence as a part of a real entity (on the latter alternative whose interpretation is problematic, see Kellner 1996, Taber 2001). Whether an entity is known as itself, or as not another, depends on the cognizing subject's intention; the respectively uncognized part always acts as a supporting factor. Kumārila strongly disagrees with the Nyāya view that absence is grasped by sensory perception; his main counterargument is that the five external senses are incapable of coming into contact (sannikara ) with absence, and Nyāya, after all, requires such contact for any sense perception. Among others, it is this argument that led later Nyāya philosophers like Jayanta (late ninth century) and Bhāsarvajña (tenth century) to revisit the role of contact in the definition of perception (for Jayanta, see Gillon 1997). In addition, Kumārila also argues against the theory that the absence of an object is known through an inference from the nonarising of the five other instruments of knowledge, mainly because this nonarising cannot have an established inferential connection with the absence of the object that any inference requires for being sound, and because the nonarising itself cannot be knownas the absence of arising, it would itself have to be inferred from a further nonarising of instruments of knowledge, and so forth.

In the Ślokavārttika and in his Tantravārttika, Kumārila applies this instrument of knowledge in arguments that reject entities that opponents assume to exist (Kellner 1996). After demonstrating that these cannot be known by any of the five other instruments, Kumārila concludes that they can only be known through absence, as a result of which they are nonexistent. Such types of arguments are aimed at, for instance, the emptiness (śūnyatā ) of external reality of Buddhist idealism, a human author of the Vedas as propagated by Buddhists, and an omniscient human being that is, again, assumed by Buddhists. On the whole, Kumārila's theory of nonexistence and its knowledge seems to be geared to accounting for the nature of reality and to establishing philosophical and religious truths. Empirical knowledge of negative states of affairs in everyday life are at best a secondary concern.

DharmakĪrti's Theory of Negative Ascertainment through Inference

Like other Buddhist philosophers before him, Dharmakīrti believed that absence cannot be an object of perception because perception arises from its particular object as a cause, bearing the object's shape; an absence, however, is devoid of any causal capacity. This belief also informs Dharmakīrti's rejection of absence as a separate instrument of knowledge, condensely articulated in Pramāaviniścaya, chapter 3, prose after verse 48, for any such instrument would have to be directly or indirectly caused by its object, and absence as an object lacks such a capacity.

Because for Dharmakīrti there is no further instrument of knowledge besides perception and inference, negative knowledge is for him the result of inference. While perception has direct and unmediated access to real particulars in a nonconceptual fashion, inference operates with properties and concepts that are superimposed on particulars in accordance with the practical function that these jointly fulfill, and in accordance with linguistic conventions. As a result, inferences that establish negative states of affairs, based on a special type of evidence called nonperception (anupalabdhi ) that is exclusively reserved for this purpose, ultimately prove that something is suitable for being ascertained as, and in a second step verbally referred to or physically treated as absent. They do not in any way prove a real absence that might be given independently of being cognized.

Furthermore, such inferences are limited to ascertaining the absence of particular objects that, if they existed under given circumstances, would inevitably be perceived. For entities where such a necessary perceivedness cannot be ensured, either because they are intrinsically beyond the realm of perception or because the specific environmental conditions for their perception are incomplete, not perceiving them only establishes that we do not know that they exist, not that we know that they do not exist. A proper inference on the basis of the nonperception of a perceptible object is accordingly exemplified as "in this spot on the ground, a jar does not exist because, as an object that would necessarily be perceived if it existed here, it is not perceived." From this basic inferential structure, a variety of patterns are derived with the help of further relationships such as causality, extensional relations between genus and species, and factual incompatibility, as well as contrariety and contradiction between concepts.

In his further explication of the nonperception of perceptibles, Dharmakīrti works with the notion of an implicative negation (paryudāsa ) developed in Sanskrit grammatical literature (Cardona 1967). When understood as expressing implicative negation, a negative nominal compound formed with the prefix a(n)- here: an-upalabdhi affirms a state of affairs other than the negated one. Nonperception is thus explicated as another perception, that is, as the perception of a specific object other than the absenteenot perceiving an entity like a jar is nothing other than perceiving an empty spot on the ground.

In Dharmakīrti's earliest work, the Pramāavārttika, this claim is adopted because the alternative consideration of nonperception as the mere absence of a perception would result in specific antinomies, such as an infinite justificational regress. As an absence of a perception, nonperception itself would have to be established with the help of a further instance of nonperception, and so forth. Once nonperception is assumed to be the perception of another object, it can be established through the intrinsic self-awareness of that perception. In its most developed form in the Hetubindu, the absence of the absentee is likewise explained away as the presence of the perceived object, and the argumentation acquires a more reductive ontological flavor. In addition, the otherness of the absentee and the object perceived in its stead is narrowed down to one where, if both objects existed, they would have to mix within one perception. Prabhākara, the Mīmāsā philosopher who rejects Kumārila's separate instrument of knowledge, is credited with a similar view that identifies the nonperception of one object with the perception of another that lacks the absentee. However, as his statements in the Bhatī are highly elliptic, further details of his theory and its historical and theoretical relationship to Dharmakīrti's remain obscure.

Dharmakīrti's commentators contrast his account with that of his teacher, Īśvarasena (late sixth/early seventh century), whose works are lost. Īśvarasena is said to have understood nonperception as the simple absence of the absentee's perception, based on the notion of a simple negation (prasajyapratiedha ), which, like that of implicative negation (paryudāsa ), was developed in grammatical literature. As a counterpart to implicative negation, simple negation involves only the denial of an actionhere: perceptionand does not further imply the affirmation of a different state of affairs. It is not known whether Īśvarasena developed his theory of nonperception, which he is said to have assumed as a third instrument of knowledge besides perception and inference, merely to solve specific problems of the theory of inference, or whether he intended it as a general theory of negative knowledge.

See also Atomic Theory in Indian Philosophy; Brahman; Causation in Indian Philosophy; Knowledge in Indian Philosophy; Liberation in Indian Philosophy; Meditation in Indian Philosophy; Philosophy of Language in India; Self in Indian Philosophy; Truth and Falsity in Indian Philosophy; Universal Properties in Indian Philosophy.


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Chakrabarti, Arindam. Denying Existence: The Logic, Epistemology, and Pragmatics of Negative Existentials and Fictional Discourse. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1997.

Cox, Collett. "On the Possibility of a Nonexistent Object of Consciousness: Sarvāstivādin and Dārāntika Theories." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11 (1) (1988): 3187.

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Gillon, Brendan. "Two Forms of Negation in Sanskrit." Lokaprajñā 1 (1) (1987): 8189.

Ingalls, Daniel H. H. Materials for the Study of Navya-Nyāya Logic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Kellner, Birgit. "Integrating Negative Knowledge into Pramāa Theory: The Development of the dśyānupalabdhi in Dharmakīrti's Earlier Works." Journal of Indian Philosophy 31 (12) (2003): 121159.

Kellner, Birgit. Nichts bleibt nichts. Die buddhistische Zurückweisung von Kumārilas abhāvapramāa. Übersetzung und Interpretation von Śāntarakitas Tattvasagraha vv. 1 6471 690 mit Kamalaśīas Tattvasa:grahapañjikā sowie Ansätze und Arbeitshypothesen zur Geschichte negativer Erkenntnis in der indischen Philosophie. Vienna, Austria: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien, 1997. The second part of this German-language publication contains the relevant textual materials mentioned in this entry, with German translation and analysis.

Kellner, Birgit. "There Are No Pots in the Ślokavārttika: ŚV abhāvapariccheda 11 and Patterns of Negative Cognition in Indian Philosophy." Journal of the Oriental Institute (Baroda) 46 (34) (1996): 143167. Though marked with a publication date of 1996, this article was written in 1999 and supersedes parts of Kellner 1997.

Matilal, Bimal Krishna. The Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Matilal, Bimal Krisha. "Reference and Existence in Nyāya and Buddhist Logic." Journal of Indian Philosophy 1 (1970): 83110.

Shaw, J. L. "The Nyāya on Cognition and Negation." Journal of Indian Philosophy 8 (1980): 279302.

Staal, J. F. "Negation and the Law of Contradiction in Indian Thought: A Comparative Study." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 25 (1) (1962): 5271.

Taber, John. "Much Ado about Nothing: Kumārila, Śāntarakita, and Dharmakīrti on the Cognition of Non-being." Journal of the American Oriental Society 121 (1) (2001): 7288. A review article of Kellner 1997.

Birgit Kellner (2005)