Nāgārjuna’s Pañcakoṭi, Agrippa’s Trilemma, and the Uses of Skepticism

Comparative Philosophy 7 (2):44-66 (2016)


While the contemporary problem of the criterion raises similar epistemological issues as Agrippa’s Trilemma in ancient Pyrrhonian skepticism, the consideration of such epistemological questions has served two different purposes. On one hand, there is the purely practical purpose of Pyrrhonism, in which such questions are a means to reach suspension of judgment, and on the other hand, there is the theoretical purpose of contemporary epistemologists, in which these issues raise theoretical problems that drive the search for theoretical resolution. In classical India, similar issues arise in Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, but it is not entirely clear what Nāgārjuna’s purpose is. Contrary to the theoretical interpretations of several recent scholars such as Jan Westerhoff according to which Nāgārjuna is proffering a contextualist epistemological theory, I argue that Nāgārjuna as well as the later Madhyamaka Candrakīrti, much like Pyrrhonian skeptics, employed concerns about epistemic criteria in service of purely practical purposes. There is no positive epistemological theory to be found in Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī and Candrakīrti’s Prasannapadā; furthermore a putative thesis of universal emptiness is self-undermining, a conclusion which itself can be seen as part of a therapeutic program. Nonetheless, the historical persistence of these epistemological issues shows that they ought to continue to be areas of theoretical inquiry for epistemologists today. I end with reflections on the wider relevance of my conclusions, particularly with regard to demonstrating the value of philosophy.

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Ethan Mills
University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

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