Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Truth Shall Set You Free? - Naiyāyikas, Stoics, and Skeptics on Philosophy and the Good Life

Marcus Aurelius: Stoic, Emperor, Horse Lover

I recently gave a talk at the Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association called "The Truth Shall Set You Free?: Naiyāyikas, Stoics, and Skeptics on Philosophy and the Good Life."  Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher of science with an interest in Stoicism, was in the audience and recently wrote a blog post about my talk on his blog How to Be a Stoic (you can find his post here).

Given the interest in the talk, I thought I might reproduce my handout here on my blog.  So, here it is (with a few minor edits).  If you wish to learn more about any of the schools and figures I mention here, check out the bibliography at the end.  I may reproduce my comments on Pigliucci's post as a separate post here.  Stay tuned.

The Truth Shall Set You Free?
Naiyāyikas, Stoics, and Skeptics on Philosophy and the Good Life

Ethan Mills
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
- The Bible (John 8:32, King James Version)

  • 1.     Introduction: Philosophy as Therapy, a Way of Life, and/or a Truth-Seeking Enterprise
a.     Casual denigration of philosophy in recent popular culture
                                               i.     Celebrity scientists (e.g., Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss): Philosophy doesn’t add to our understanding of the universe; it’s not as truth-productive as science
                                             ii.     Sen. Marco Rubio on philosophers and welders: Philosophy is not economically productive
b.     How to respond?  Philosophy as therapy (Nussbaum 1994) or as a way of life (Hadot 1995), which can be combined with philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise (Sellars 2017)?  A distinct role for philosophy?
c.     My thesis: While Naiyāyikas [followers of the Nyāya school] and Stoics demonstrate that the concept of philosophy as therapy or as a way of life does not rule out also conceiving of philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise, ancient skeptics bring into focus the limitations of the truth-seeking image, which may be useful today in defending philosophy from its denigrators.

  • 2.     Nyāya: Epistemology as Liberation
a.     Gautama’s Nyāya Sūtra (c. 200 CE)
                                               i.     “Attainment of the highest good (niḥśreyasa) is based on knowledge of the truth of the following: means of knowledge (pramāṇa), object of knowledge (prameya), doubt, purpose, example, established position, limbs of an inference, speculative reasoning, ascertainment, friendly debate, debate for the purpose of victory, debate without establishing a counter-position (vitaṇḍā), fallacies, quibbling, false rejoinders, and grounds for defeat.”  (Nyāya Sūtra 1.1.1, Gautama 1985, my translation)
b.     Nyāya’s thoroughgoing epistemological and metaphysical realism – the truth shall set you free! (Ganeri 2010, Dasti and Phillips 2017).

  • 3.     Stoicism: Truth and Happiness
a.     Determinism (arguments: the sea battle, response to “lazy argument,” etc.)
                                               i.     “They say that he [Zeno of Citium] beat a slave for stealing.  And when he [the slave] said, ‘it was fated for me to steal,’ [Zeno] said, ‘and to be flogged…’” (Diogenes Laertius 7.23, Inwood and Gerson 1997, 104)
                                             ii.     “Since the organization of the universe proceeds thus, it is necessary for us to be such as we are … for it is impossible for any of the parts … to turn out to turn out differently than according to the common nature and its reason.” (Plutarch, Stoic Self-Contradictions 1050a, Inwood and Gerson 1997, 180)
                                            iii.     “… two things are clear: first, I am a part of the universe governed by nature, and second, I am related in some way to the other parts like myself.  Once I acknowledge this, I shall be content with any role the universe assigns me…  Realizing that I am part of just such a universe, I will calmly accept whatever happens.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.6, Marcus 2002, 114)
                                            iv.     “The next time you hear someone bemoaning his fate or complaining about something, visualize the pig at a sacrifice, squealing and kicking.  It’s the same with the person who lies upon his lonely bed, lamenting his pains or cursing his constraints in silence.  Only the rational being can embrace his fate and follow the course of events willingly; those who howl and whine can merely follow.”  (Meditations 10.28, Marcus 2002, 120)
                                              v.     The idea: Everything has to be the way it is, so don’t get worked up about it!  Realizing the truth of determinism makes regret and anxiety about the past irrational.  (Note how different this is than the typical contemporary response to determinism)

  • 4.     Skepticism East and West: Will the Truth Set you Free?
a.     Skepticism about philosophy (vs. epistemological skepticism)
                                               i.     Dialectical (target is usually philosophers’ ideas)
                                             ii.     Not a truth-claim; not an epistemological theory
                                            iii.     Not about active doubt; instead: intellectual therapy
b.     Zhuangzi
                                               i.     Zhuangzi as a skeptic, at least about a certain conception of knowledge/philosophy (Kjellberg 1996).
1.     “A fish trap is there for the fish.  When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap.  ...  Words are there for the intent.  When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words.  Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?”  (Zhuangzi, Ch. 26, Zhuangzi 2009)
c.     Sextus Empiricus
                                               i.     Pyrrhonism is not a theory, but an ability that leads to suspension of judgment (epochē) and then tranquility (ataraxia).
1.     “Scepticism is an ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability, by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed object and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgement and afterwards to tranquillity. …  Suspension of judgement is a standstill of the intellect, owing to which we neither reject nor posit anything.  Tranquillity is freedom from disturbance and calmness of soul.”  (PH 1.8-10, Sextus 2000)
d.     Indian skepticism: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa
                                               i.     Common characteristics
1.     The method of prasaṅga (unwanted consequences)
2.     Skeptics engage in debate without establishing a counter-position (vitaṇḍā)
                                             ii.     Nāgārjuna
1.     “The pacification of all cognitive grasping and the pacification of conceptual proliferation (prapañcopaśama) are peace.  Nowhere, to no one has any dharma at all been taught by the Buddha.” (MMK 25.24, Nāgārjuna 2013, my translation)
2.     Buddhist context: quietism, non-attachment to views (Mills 2016)
                                            iii.     Jayarāśi
1.     “When, in this way, the principles are entirely destroyed, all everyday practices (vyavahāra) are made delightful, because they are not deliberated.” (TUS 14.5, Jayarāśi 2010, my translation)
2.     Cārvāka context: enjoying an irreligious way of life (Mills 2015)
                                            iv.     Śrī Harṣa
1.     “… one understands the extensive discourses of Cārvākas, Mādhyamikas, and so forth even though they do not accept that (i.e., that the means of knowledge exist).” (KhKh, p. 7, Śrī Harṣa 1970, my translation)
2.     Advaita Vedānta context: removing impediments to the possibility of non-dual experience

  • 5.     Conclusions/Questions
a.     As Nyāya and Stoicism demonstrate, pursuing philosophy as therapy or a way of life need not rule out philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise; could a similar idea work today as a unique role for philosophy?
b.     Limitations of philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise?
                                               i.     If the skeptics have a point (3,000 years of philosophy as evidence?), maybe over-emphasizing the truth-seeking image is ill conceived, both philosophically and practically.
                                             ii.     Does the truth-seeking image encourage the denigration of philosophy, especially in our scientistic, neoliberal times?  Does it make sense to try to make philosophy look as truth-productive as science or as economically productive as skilled trades (e.g., welding) and practical professions (e.g., law)?
c.     I am not claiming philosophers should all give up on the truth-seeking image, but rather that we should recognize its limitations and consider other uses of philosophy; for instance…
                                               i.     Cultivation of cognitive skills (critical thinking, intellectual imagination, etc.)
                                             ii.     Fun!
                                            iii.     Lessening of dogmatism [I discussed the first three in a blog post, "Three Uses of Philosophy"]
                                            iv.     Therapeutic aims (mental peace, openness to life/experience, reducing anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, etc.) [See my post on mental peace or "coolness of mind"]
                                              v.     Intellectual empathy [see my post about intellectual empathy, which also discusses the philosophy denigrators]
                                            vi.     Understanding the history of ideas
d.     Philosophy is not useless because it yields few if any certain truths; on the contrary, maybe philosophy is useful in reminding us how elusive such truths have been and continue to be.


Dasti, Matthew and Stephen Phillips.  2017.  The Nyāya-sūtra: Select Translations with Early
Commentaries.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Ganeri, Jonardon.  2010.  “A Return to the Self: Indians and Greeks on Life as Art and
Philosophical Therapy.”  Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement.  66: 199-135.
Gautama. 1985.  Nyāya-Sūtra.  In Nyāyadarśanam.  Delhi: Munishiram Maniharlal.
Hadot, Pierre. 1995.  Philosophy as a Way of Life.  Edited by Arnold I. Davidson.  Translated by
Michael Chase.  Cambridge: Blackwell.
Inwood, Brad and L. P. Gerson (Eds.) 1997.  Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings,
Second Edition.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Jayarāśi.  2010.  Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa’s Tattvopalavasiṃha (An Introduction, Sanskrit Text,
English Translation & Notes).  Translated by Esther Solomon.  Edited by Shuchita Mehta.  Delhi: Parimal Publications.
Kjellberg, Paul. 1996.  “Sextus Empiricus, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi on ‘Why be Skeptical?’.”  In
Essays on Skepticism, Relativism and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, edited by Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe, 1-25.  Albany: SUNY Press. 
Marcus Aurelius.  2002.  The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations. 
Translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks.  New York: Scribner.
Mills, Ethan.  2015.  “Jayarāśi’s Delightful Destruction of Epistemology.”  Philosophy East and
West 65 (2): 498-541. 
———.  2016.  “Nāgārjuna’s Pañcakoṭi, Agrippa’s Trilemma, and the Uses of Skepticism.” 
Comparative Philosophy 7 (2): 44-66.
Nāgārjuna.  2013.  Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.  Edited and Translated by
Mark Siderits and Shōryu Katsura.  Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Nussbaum, Martha.  1994.  The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sellars, John.  2017.  “What is Philosophy as a Way of Life?” Parrhesia 28: 40-56.
Sextus Empiricus. 2000. Outlines of Scepticism.  Translated by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes. 
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Śrī Harṣa. 1970.  Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya of Mahākavi Śrīharṣa.  Ed. Navikānta Jhā.  Varanasi:
Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series.
Zhuangzi.  2009.  Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional
Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.


  1. I think "fun" should go before "Cultivation of cognitive skills" =).

    Many people these days live in order to "have fun", yet, Philosophy - something that makes the worst suffering bearable, is often ignored.

    1. Ha! Maybe. It's not necessarily a ranked list. Fun is always important!

      That's a great point. So might it be that philosophy helps us have more fun indirectly by making life more bearable, which opens us up to fun? I also think doing philosophy itself is fun. Something like this indirect sense might be a way of understanding Epicureanism (for instance, helping us be less afraid of death will make life more enjoyable).

    2. Oh yes, you made what I meant clearer!

      My limited reading on Epicureanism gave me the impression that it recommended people to see the good things in life, rather than trying to pursuit those that are unnecessary. I felt this could be easily used as "turn a blind eye on those that are evil." This impression was strengthened after I read a few comments on the late Achaemenid empire of Persia declined as it was influenced by Epicureanism. Is my interpretation correct?

      I feel this whenever I visit a hipster coffee place, especially if they've got stuff like "be happy", "be grateful everyday", "take a break and watch the sunset with your loved one" etc. hanging on the wall, the first thing comes to my mind is often Epicureanism. Am I interpreting Epicurean's philosophy incorrectly?

      I'm sorry to have changed the subject from the original post. I have so many philosophy related questions to ask!

    3. I'm not an expert on Epicureanism by any means, but the idea is that pleasure is the good in life. This doesn't mean you should seek out as much pleasure as possible at every moment, since that is not sustainable. Rather, one should try to calculate ways to life a life that is on the whole more pleasurable than painful. Epicurus recommends learning to like simple pleasures. One of philosophy's roles is to remove painful anxieties that detract from our ability to pursue pleasure.

    4. great, thanks! I also needed to learn Epicurus' name. :)