Dharmakirti on the Existence of Other Minds

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Dharmakirti on the Existence of Other Minds. Buddhism

Transcript of Dharmakirti on the Existence of Other Minds



    1 . Although a strictly solipsist position cannot be consistently maintained, the difficulties involved in giving an account of other minds are formidable, and are in no way diminished by our natural inclination, however compelling, to believe in their existence. Dharmakirti is perhaps the first ever thinker to make a systematic attempt to come to grips with this problem; otherwise the problem, as a major piece of philosophical concern, is only recent. The context in which Dharmakirti takes on the problem is the familiar realistidealist controversy over the ontological status of the external world. The challenge for Dharmakirti becomes particularly strong in view of his total denial of the reality of the external world 2 and the consequent charge of solipsism levelled against him. He therefore has the two-fold task of (i) defending his essentially mentalist position, and (ii) given this position, doing the necessary logical exercise so as to justify his belief in the existence of other minds. I shall, in this paper, be more particularly concerned with the latter aspect of Dharmakirti's effort without however excluding all reference to the former. Although the classical setting in which the debate originally takes place has largely been ignored, it was not possible to altogether suppress the polemical flavour of some arguments. I have first attempted an argumentby-argument examination of Dharmakirti's treatment, and then by way of a codicil, offered some cursory remarks on the analogical approach taken in its more ideal form.

    2. To Dharmakirti, the problem of the existence of other minds is on an equal footing with the problem concerning the existence of the external world. Within his idealist framework, other minds enjoy the same status as objects in general. But one important difference needs to be marked here. While other objects exist as direct representations - their independent existence being unacceptable to Dharmakirti -, cognition of the existence of other minds becomes possible through the representations in consciousness of the outward physical movements and purposive actions of others. That is, the existence of other minds is inferred from the representations of others'

    Journal of Indian Philosophy 13 (1985) 55-71. 0022-1791/85/0131-0055 $01.70. 1985 by D. Reidel Publishing Company.


    bodily states by virtue of an analogy with (the representations of) our own bodily behaviour. Inference for Dharmakirti can yield valid cognition only on the basis of the invariable concomitance (avintibhtiva) established between two terms, and in this case between overt bodily behaviour and consciousness. It is clear that the inference in question cannot be deductive. For the soundness of the dedcution will depend upon our knowledge of the premiss, "That person is experiencing," but if that premiss is known, no further argument will be required to prove the existence of other mind. Of course we are familiar with the idea of what is it to have experiences or thoughts, but the element of ownership intervenes. Thus the starting point can only be the ideas of one's own self and one's own thoughts. And this position is acceptable to the realist (as also to Dharmakirti). We will note that we also have an idea of body, even other bodies, and we also further know that while our own body has some intimate relationship to our mind, another body does not bear the same special relationship to our mind. This leads the realist to claim that the conviction of the body as expressing our conscious acts or mental states is first obtained in case of one's own self, and then with this correlation between mind and body once established, the way is cleared for the inference of other minds on the basis of other bodies. 3 The other person's feelings and thoughts which get manifest in his bodily behaviour are never experienced in our consciousness, for had they been so felt, they too would have been known as belonging to our self. Not only that, in that case the other's intentions would also have been expressed in the same manner as our own, viz., "I go," "I speak", etc. 4 And since this is not the case, the other's existence stands automatically proved. As an extension of the argument, the realist places the other in external space as something distinct from my own body, and occupying a different space from what my body does. And that is why, he continues, we say "He goes", "He speaks", etc. 5 This spatial separateness of bodies, already assumed in respect of our relation to externally given objects, posits, for interaction between my consciousness and the other's consciousness, my body and his body as mediating agencies. The resultant situation is one where the proposition "other minds exist" already seems presupposed before it begins to be established, and then through a verbal legerdemain we are persuaded that these minds and their activities are expressed through 'expressive' bodily behaviour. That this latter is susceptible of intelligible communication and can be formulated in a judgement like "He goes", "He speaks", is cited as a further proof.


    3. Interestingly, Dhannakirti accepts the realist position that the external marks (physical movements, purposive actions, etc.) are caused by, and hence express, other consciousness, and that this conviction rests on what turns out to be the case in respect of one's own self. Otherwise, he too feels, the marks of other's conscious motivations will have to exist independently of the latter.6 And since this does not hold true in one's own case, it cannot be maintained in respect of others. Accepting the 'argument from analogy,' he goes the whole hog with the realist in assuming the spatial distance that separates the other's body from one's own, and also further accepts that the judgement like "He goes", "He speaks", is basically different from the judgement "I go'', "I speak", etc. 7 At the same time, however, Dhannakirti seeks to subsume this argument under his 'representation theory'. The other person's bodily movements as expressive of his consciousness are also given to us in representations much like our own bodily behaviour. Knowing the former set of representations as not caused by our conscious will, in contrast to our experience of the representations of our own bodily acts as caused by our volitions, we infer that these must have been actuated by a consciousness other than our own;8 else, we are faced up with a none-too-agreeable situation of having to have representations which remain unaccounted for. In other words, Dharmakirti regards himself quite justified in inferring to the actual existence of other minds on the evidence not of the actual external bodily movements but of the representations of them.

    4. Now at this point it seems necessary to remark that our appreciation of Dharmakirti's approach and his arguments for other minds is greatly handicapped by his total denial of the reality of the external world. The task becomes particularly hazardous when one has to reckon with a doctrine which sees all subject-object distinction as arising from within consciousness itself and ultimately traceable to vasana (subconscious impressions) without any reference to the extra-mental world. This view of the external world -which comprises not only obejcts but also other spirits - makes Dhannakirti's refutation of solipsism less than convincing not only with regard to the arguments employed but also with regard to his professed belief. It should be obvious from the nature of the problem that, whatever procedure one ultimately adopts for establishing other minds, their reality as independent existents has to be admitted. And if the procedure be analogical reasoning as in the present case, other bodies too will have to be granted this status.


    And once this concession is made in respect of other bodies, there is no withholding it in case of other objects.

    Dharmakirti seems reluctant to face this logical consequence of the situation, and hence finds himself in an impasse the way out of which would mean compromising his position. The question is, if no degree of reality is assignable to the external world, why can't it be that the representations of foreign movements and speech exist as something not caused by any conscious will. 9 In other words, what are the means available to the idealist on the basis of which to establish with finality that the 'objective' images of others' overt bodily behaviour are different from those of one's own, and hence must have been caused by some other consciousness. Dharmakirti does nothing more than dogmatically assert that the certainty of the invariable relation between the two having been established from one's own experience, the way is cleared for inferring by analogy other consciousness operating at the back of the other person's bodily movements.10 But this is only begging the question. Because how to precisely distinguish the objective images of others' outward behaviour from those of one's own. It should be obvious that for our knowledge of images to be true, there also must be an awareness of something, of some 'archetypes' of which they are supposed to be images, and without which they cannot even be known to be images. And this would require us to step outside of the images into some other standpoint to do the needed comparison. But this course is not available to Dharmakirti because the external objects, ex-hypothesi, lie beyond the reach of knowledge. His reply on the 'differentia' question therefore suffers from serious inadequacies.

    5. But this is not the end of the matter. Dharmakirti has other important things to say which require careful attention. From his initi