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Eastern Approaches to Epistemology

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  • 0:01 Eastern & Western
  • 1:28 Hinduism
  • 2:53 Buddhism
  • 4:27 Taoism
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn about three of the many traditions that have emerged from Asia. You'll develop a better understanding of how knowledge and truth are understood and debated within these traditions.

Eastern and Western Epistemology

Seth is traveling to India to meet the extended family of his wife, Ria, for the first time. On the plane ride over, he asks Ria if she can tell him something about Eastern philosophy in Asian countries to help him better understand the culture.

This lesson will consider how Ria, who is trained in epistemology, might describe this topic to Seth. Epistemology involves the study of how we come to acquire knowledge and what the limits are to that knowledge. Ria decides to focus on three overall traditions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

Is there an Eastern way of looking at things in philosophy compared with a Western way? Many academic philosophy departments in our region tend to focus on the philosophies of American and European thinkers. This is sometimes referred to as Western philosophy. Philosophies developed in Asian countries, such as Japan, China, and India, are sometimes referred to as Eastern philosophy.

Yet, Ria explains to Seth that not everyone agrees that the philosophies of Asian countries have a set of features in common that justify them being grouped together. Therefore, terms like Eastern philosophy and Asian philosophy can be problematic, meaning they are not always the best descriptors for such a variety of epistemologies, or ways of understanding knowledge.

Hinduism

A great example of this diversity, Ria says, is Hinduism. Hinduism is a religion and a way of life based on interpretations of Hindu texts. Hinduism is particularly prominent in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. But like there is no one Eastern philosophy, there is also no one unified religion or philosophy of Hinduism.

A main source of knowledge often recognized among Hindu philosophers is the perception of the senses. Some thinkers have also acknowledged inference, or a type of reasoning by which we can conclude something when the senses are not adequate to do the job.

For example, Ria asks Seth if he knows they are currently in the air. He says that his senses can't really confirm it since he was asleep when they took off, there's no turbulence, and the window shade is closed. However, he can infer that since they were supposed to take off at 6:30 and now it is 7:00, they are probably in the air.

Still another way of acquiring knowledge is testimony from others, which could be something as straightforward as Ria confirming for Seth that she saw them take off into the air. Some argue that Hindu texts could be viewed as a type of sacred testimony.

Additional methods of acquiring knowledge have been discussed in this tradition. For instance, the experiences one has during meditation are important to many who practice Hinduism.

Buddhism

Ria explains that another significant tradition in Asia is Buddhism, a religion established from the teachings of the Buddha. The person we know as the Buddha lived in Southeast Asia in the 5th century BCE. In this tradition, many believe that the Buddha was able to access knowledge that explained the truth about the world in which we all live.

Over the course of many centuries, Buddhist perspectives have been varied in the way they interpret everyday life and how they view sacred texts.

In Buddhist epistemology, perception and inference are often seen as sources of knowledge, but thinkers have disagreed about the details of whether perception from the senses alone is enough to constitute reliable knowledge. They wonder if some mental process needs to come into play to confirm a belief is reliable, beyond what the senses tell us.

For instance, is it enough for Seth to use his senses to feel the motion of the plane and see sky out the window to know he is flying, or is there more involved in him coming to know this?

Those following Buddhist religious traditions often believe that much of what we view as true is actually an illusion. Striving after things we think will make us happy can sometimes lead us to suffer in the process, for instance.

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