Shall the truth make you free? Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism and the nature of philosophical inquiry

Sextus EmpiricusWhat is philosophy for? Is it a quest for truth? Is it really the case that the truth shall set us free, as the Bible says (John 8:32), and if so, is philosophy our way to freedom? These and other fascinating questions were asked by Ethan Mills, a philosopher at the University of Tennessee, at a special session on Stoicism and Eastern Philosophies held at the recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association—Eastern Division (Savannah, January 2018). Ethan went through a lot of material, and I only have his handouts and my few notes to attempt to provide the gist of his talk, yet the subject matter is crucial not just for Stoic practitioners, but for anyone interested in philosophy. I shall do my best here, and perhaps Ethan himself will chime in during the discussion.

The talk started with a few examples of a recently popular sport, the gratuitous denigration of philosophy, especially by scientists or science popularizers, and particularly by physicists. I have covered this territory multiple times (e.g., here, here, and here), so there is no reason to get into it again. Ethan poses himself the question of how best to respond to these charges (which may indicate he takes those people a bit too seriously, but then again the question of the value of philosophy ought to be answerable by any decent practitioner of the field). His first pass is a list that includes philosophy as “therapy” (following Martha Nussbaum), or as a way of life (in the words of Pierre Hadot).

Ethan’s thesis is then stated as follows: “While Naiyayikas [a collective term for several Hindu schools of logic and epistemology] 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.”

So the contrast here is between philosophy as therapy / way of life and philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. I have argued at book length, however, that — historically — the truth-seeking part of philosophy was natural philosophy, or what is today called science (see also this discussion). The rest of philosophy is more into the business of developing understanding than seeking truth — the two are definitely not the same thing. That is an additional “line of defense” (if one is really needed) against detractors of philosophy, especially of a scientistic bent: philosophy is therapy, a way of life, and a path toward understanding — that ought to be more than good enough to take it seriously. In terms of truth seeking, however, it does not (and need not to) compete with its offspring, science.

After these preliminaries, Ethan got into the meat of his talk, starting with a presentation of the Nyaya position on epistemology. I will provide a couple of quotes, though I must admit that they perfectly exemplify the reason why Eastern philosophy never spoke to me (too prone to riddles and unclear statements), which is why Stoicism felt like such a breadth of fresh air. But of course I realize that this may be in part a matter of taste and personality, and in part a question of cultural upbringing and familiarity with one approach rather than the other.

For instance, Ethan quotes Gautama’s Nyaya Sutra, from circa 200 CE:

“Attainment of the highest good is based on knowledge of the truth of the following: means of knowledge, object of knowledge, 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, fallacies, quibbling, false rejoinders, and grounds for defeat.”

Now compare Marcus Aurelius, also cited by Ethan:

“Two things are clear: first, I am a part of the universe governed by nature, and second, I am related in some way to 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.” (Meditations, X.6)

It sounds from the above like Gautama was indeed (also) in the business of finding truths about the world, and so were the Stoics. As is well known, they developed a three-fold curriculum of study, which included “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), “logic” (i.e., logic, rhetoric, and psychology), and “ethics” (i.e., the study of how to best live one’s life). The physics and the logic were in the service of the ethics, but were nonetheless respectively in the business of seeking truth about the natural world and of developing good arguments.

Which brings us to the next section of Ethan’s talk, on skepticism, in both its Eastern and Western versions. From the East, the Chinese mystic and philosopher Zhuangzi — one of the founders of Taoism in the IV century BCE — was a skeptic. Here is a quote from him, mentioned by Ethan:

“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?”

Not crystal clear? Yeah, to me neither. Nevertheless, Ethan mentioned several other skeptics from the Eastern traditions, including Nagarjuna (an Indian Buddhist philosopher of the II century), Jayarasi (an Indian philosopher of the early IX century), and Sri Harsa (a XII century Indian poet and philosopher).

On the Western side, of course, we have Sextus Empiricus and the philosophy known as Pyrrhonism, a general approach with which the Stoics very much engaged, especially in the form that it took among the so-called Academic Skeptics (such as Cicero). Here is a taste of Sextus:

“Skepticism 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 judgment and afterwards to tranquillity. … Suspension of judgment is a standstill of the intellect, owing to which we neither reject nor posit anything. Tranquillity is freedom from disturbance and calmness of soul.” (Pyrrhōneioi hypotypōseis 1.8-10)

By the end of his talk, Ethan had reached the conclusion that both Nyaya and Stoicism demonstrate that pursuing philosophy as therapy / way of life doesn’t rule out philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. He asked if a similar idea could work for modern philosophy, and I have already given my negative answer above: two thousand years later, philosophy has deputized the search for truths about the world to science, and even logic is increasingly an independent discipline (though it is mostly still taught in philosophy departments). But this is no reason to deny the value of philosophy beyond therapy and as a way of life (both roles that science certainly cannot claim). That’s because of the huge contribution that philosophy continuously makes to our understanding of how things generally “hang together,” so to speak, what Wilfrid Sellars, one of the best and least known philosophers of the 20th century, conceptualized as the dynamic reconciliation of the “manifest” (i.e., the way things look like to us) and the scientific (i.e., whatever the latest science thinks its true) images of the world.

Indeed, Ethan himself comes close to this conclusion when he acknowledges that the skeptics do have a point, and that their position has survived challenges for more than two millennia. So perhaps modern philosophers should learn their lesson and avoid over-emphasizing the truth seeking aspect of their discipline. In my mind, they should simply avoid it, and leave that sort of business to science. Ethan raises the question of whether the truth seeking image of philosophy encourages the denigration of the field, and the answer is very clearly yes. The likes of physicists Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, as well as science popularizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, are on record as stating that philosophy is useless because it has not contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge. A statement that is both absolutely true and entirely irrelevant. Like saying that literary criticism, or art history, are useless because they have not advanced our understanding of biology.

Ethan specifically says that he is not claiming that philosophers should give up on the truth seeking image, but I do. It serves no purpose and it distracts us from what we should be doing instead. And what is that? Ethan himself has a partial list for us:

  • Cultivation of cognitive skills (critical thinking, intellectual imagination).
  • Lessening of dogmatism (especially scientific and religious ones, I’d say).
  • Therapeutic aims (mental peace, openness to life, reducing anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy).
  • Intellectual empathy.
  • Understanding of the history of ideas.
  • Fun! (Indeed!)

Notice, however, that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers don’t do most of the above, and in fact often positively disdain it. That, more than anything else, may be the root cause of philosophy’s damaged reputation at the onset of the 21st century.

35 thoughts on “Shall the truth make you free? Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism and the nature of philosophical inquiry

  1. Massimo Post author


    I think we are on the same page, sorry if I misunderstood your intentions in that comment. Indeed, there are more or less “rationalistic” and more or less “mystical” traditions in both the East and the West, and both groups are highly heterogeneous. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ram Tobolski


    So now it sounds as if, by all this truth-talk, you are just describing, or defending, the current practice of academic philosophers, as it is. In the OP, on the other hand, you seem to be decidedly critical towards the current practice of academic philosophers.

    “Ethan specifically says that he is not claiming that philosophers should give up on the truth seeking image, but I do. It serves no purpose and it distracts us from what we should be doing instead”

    So, in the OP you seem to claim that some academic philosophers do cling to the “truth seeking image” in the wrong sense. But those unnamed philosophers who “should give up on the truth seeking image” subsequently turn out to be “the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers”! Because you subsequently quote Ethan’s list, and then add:

    “Notice, however, that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers don’t do most of the above [i.e. Ethan’s list] and in fact often positively disdain it [and what do they do instead? they pursue the truth seeking image]. That, more than anything else, may be the root cause of philosophy’s damaged reputation at the onset of the 21st century.”

    So is my reading correct? Aren’t you saying, or implying in the OP, that “the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers” are still clinging to the “truth seeking image”, and that it is because of that, that they “positively disdain” the values on Ethan’s list?


  3. Massimo Post author


    not sure why I’m being so unclear. I have nothing against academic philosophers, I’m one of them! But I do think they should stop thinking / talking in terms of “truth” and adopt instead a language of coherence and critical analysis. I wrote a whole book about this, available for free here:

    I also think most academics don’t pay enough attention, and indeed even disdain, the many other dimensions of philosophy listed by Ethan. And I think that’s a shame.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Philip Thrift

    I have been reading about Zhu Xi (Neo-Confucian) and his li-qi metaphysics (since it seems to sort of match my idea of a linguistic-material one). I was interested in what a feminist perspective would be and found this: Zhu Xi on Family and Women: Challenges and Potentials, Ann A. Pang‐White – “[Zhu Xi’s metaphysics of li-qi] could make a considerable contribution to contemporary feminist discourse.” I’m not a Zhu Li scholar, but I find this interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robert


    Thank you for this interesting post!

    Philosophy has a role in the evolution of humankind.

    If humanity survives for another few hundred or a thousand years, the aims of Philosophy might, perhaps, need to re-orient. Now, however, the trajectory of what she (Philosophy) ought to be doing seems to be captured well in the 6 bulleted items above. Those goals – like mental peace and openness to life – have, for whatever reason, seemingly been left behind and the world now depicts their conspicuous absence. Humans across the planet are craving and needed healing.

    It seems to me that the ancient Philosophers made a habit of pointing at the value of Philosophy in how it helps to heal the mind, just as the Physician’s art heals the body. If one possesses any sense of service ethic toward humankind, this is the immeasurable value of Philosophy. Whether it contributes to any other discipline (e.g., science) is quite irrelevant.

    A great post.



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