I was wondering if any Eastern philosophies/philosophers have adopted points of view similar to those found in the Western view of empiricism, that is (italic in the original SEP entry linked too):

The Empiricism Thesis: We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than experience.

I'm finding this difficult to find in introductory texts to Eastern philosophy, since they break it down to: Buddhist philosophy, Taoist philosophy, Hindu Philosophy, Confucian philosophy, etc... Almost all of them are mystical or religious traditions, yet at the same time, it seems that empiricism would be a likely position to arrive at some point in a sufficiently advanced (technology and science wise) society. There's no a priori reason why some Eastern philosopher could not have arrived at it.

So, have any Eastern philosophers/philosophies adopted any empiricist points of view?

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    Would you consider Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) "empirical?" I find people are oft divided on that question, and knowing your position on that question would help yield an answer to the greater question you pose. (Related: would you consider something along the lines of "you must find your own position in the world" a call for empirical study?)
    – Cort Ammon
    May 5, 2015 at 5:07
  • No one came up to my mind or simply I do not at all. I personally do not think if there had been any thinkers who tried to explain something in the Western empirical way prior to us ( I am Asian ) being industrialized influenced by the Western people. Or more accurately saying, did we require such a way of thinking under the system of the feudalism???????
    – user13955
    May 5, 2015 at 10:12
  • I think, in my opinion, the Western empiricism is related with their religion other than their language ( why I say this is because there seem to be many to try to link the language with the thoughts ). Didn't the Western empiricism start by doubting the Christianity-The Western Feudal System-Or The Entity ( I would personally like to call it so ). As for The Eastern Religion - The Eastern Feudal System, for now, I must keep my mouth shut with an apology,
    – user13955
    May 5, 2015 at 10:38
  • I mean other than ---> than
    – user13955
    May 5, 2015 at 10:55
  • A really good question. Kudos! I haven't come across any book/video/audio about Eastern empiricism. Mar 8, 2023 at 17:53

11 Answers 11


You make a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions in your views of Eastern philosophy. First, Pre-modern African and pre-Colombian American would not qualify as Eastern philosophy.

There was an empiricial school in ancient Hinduism (B.C.) but it has for centuries been only studied by scholars and has had no adherents since then.

Swami Prabhavananda says in his book The Spiritual Heritage of India (p 201):

...we should call the attention of Western readers to the fundamental difference between the psychology of India and the psychology of the West. This difference is in the fact that Western psychology identifies consciousness with mind, being with thought, and thought with the soul, or the Self; whereas Indian psychology distinguishes mind from consciousness. The distinction is due to the fact that Western psychology recognizes only one plane of experience, and gives no consideration to what Hindus call the pure cit, the supreme unconditional consciousness, the Being, which they regard as the real Self, or the soul, different from the rationalizing mind and realized in the superconscious, or transcendental, state. Pure unconditional consciousness cannot be the property of the mind, they believe, for it is the source of the mind’s apparent consciousness. Mind is said by the Hindu psychologist to be the ‘veiling power’ of the pure consciousness, the Self, and it is associated with the Self only as a necessary condition of world experience. All systems of Indian philosophy recognize a Self separate from the mind, and this poses an important problem in each of them...

It should be emphatically stated that all six schools believe in the law of karma, in pre-existence, in rebirth, and in the attainment of moksha as the highest goal of human endeavour. All of them are concerned with the nature of the true Self, immediate experience of which makes one free.

and further on the Samkhya school (whose differences from the modern Vedanta school are not important here) (pp 211-12):

Purusa, the unchanging principle of intelligence, is distinct from the physical and mental universe and independent of it. The term mind, as used in the West, corresponds to the Samkhya antahkarana, which is composed of the intellect, the ego, and the manas (receiver of sense impressions). The antahkarana (the mind stuff), the senses, and matter (the objective universe) are all products of the same material cause, the uncaused cause, prakrti.

The relation of mind to matter forms one of the most important and intricate problems in Western philosophy. Theories that explain the universe in chemical, mechanistic, or biological terms ignore a conception of mind as a separate entity, for according to Western materialistic conceptions of substance, mind is but a product of matter. Subjective idealism, on the other hand, ignores matter and And regards thought or mind as the only reality. Realism regards mind and matter as separate substances and both as real. These Western schools of materialism, idealism, and realism pivot round this central problem of the mind-matter relationship. Indian philosophy, on the contrary, has not this particular problem, simply because it places mind and matter in the same category, neither of them exclusively mind nor exclusively matter but both products of one and the same substance.

To give Eastern philosophy Western names, such as idealism or realism, is fundamentally misleading. To the philosophical Indian mind the only problem is that of the soul. What is the real Self? How is it distinguished from mind and body? What is its nature? How can it be known? These are the only issues and concerns of Hindu schools of thought.

It was stated just above that mind in the West corresponds in Samkhya to antahkarana, or mind stuff. Strictly speaking, however, such a statement is hardly justified. Western psychology regards mind as intelligent by its inherent nature; the mind is, therefore, considered to be the thinker, the knower, and to know its own thoughts. But according to Samkhya the antahkarana, or mind stuff, comprising intellect, ego, and manas, is in itself nonintelligent. It is the product of prakrti, which is nonintelligent in character, and it is the instrument which Purusa, the unchanging principle of intelligence, the Pure Consciousness, illumines, so that it appears intelligent. In brief, the consciousness of mind is a reflected intelligence, borrowed from Purusa, whose inherent nature is pure consciousness.

Empiricism means what is called from an Eastern perspective the waking state. You accept the waking state, only one of the modes of consciousness that we all experience, as the only reality - despite the fact that you also experience the dream and the dreamless states of consciousness. Eastern philosophy is an analysis of these 3 states and also a fourth state known as Turiya, which is the pure cit, Pure Consciousness.

These states are explained in the Mandukya Upanishad and explained in detail using rational logic by Gaudapada in his Karika.


With respect to Buddhism (and its Theravada tradition), the Kalama Sutta is often quoted in this context. From the translator's notes in the version translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha's carte blanche for following one's own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One's own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one's feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one's understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.

That sounds close to an empiricist point of view to me.

  • Hmm, I forgot about the Kalama Sutta. It seems to me to be skirting pretty close to radical skepticism, not just empericism. May 5, 2015 at 2:35
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    @Alexander S King : While somewhat solipsistic, and skeptical re innate ideas and/or priori knowledge, what testing the validity of a belief or claim to knowledge by "the results it yields when put into practice" sounds like is classical pragmatism (Pierce, James, Dewey, et al). .
    – gonzo
    Apr 1, 2017 at 18:36
  • I would urge caution on interpreting the Kalama Sutra, it doesn't have a central role in Buddhist theology for good reason - it is speaking to a group explicitly not taking up the full practice. Bikku Bodhi wrote on this: buddhanet.net/e-learning/kalama1_l.htm In the end, the domain of concern for Buddhism is the mind, intentions, personal cultivation, and while scepticism absolutely can and should be applied in beginning the path, faith in the Buddhas accomplishment and guidance to others in achieving it, is essential to the four noble truths, & to awakening/bodhisattva path
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 13, 2020 at 8:39

Epistemology in Indian philosophy is divided into six pramanas (proof or rather, and more correctly given the association proof has in Western Rationalism as being orientated to mathematics - the means towards true knowledge).

These are:

Pratyaksa - Perception

Anumana - Inference

Upamana - Analogy

Arthapatti - Hypothesis

Anupalabdi - Intuition/Negation

Sabda - Authority

All of the Indian schools use these pramanas to some degree and with differing but related interpretations.

The Nyaya school of logic held a kind of realism; holding that true knowledge is humanly knowable through argument ie philosophical reflection; they hold Inference as the primary means to true knowledge; they don't disbar supernatural possibilities ie the existence of Ishvara (God).

A more radical school is the Carvaka school; they can be thought as a materialist school - in that they reject supernatural phenomena. They hold Perception as the primary mode of knowledge.

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    So basically all of the flavors of Western philosophy, but predating it by a few centuries. May 5, 2015 at 2:47
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    @king: it does look like it; but I expect that there will be differences that a scholar would know; after all it's understandable if Indian philosophy is translated into European categories when written about in European languages. May 5, 2015 at 12:22
  • @AlexanderSKing I don't see any evidence here of Eastern empiricist philosophies developing prior to Western ones, or even developing to a meaningful degree (relatively speaking) at all. I also don't agree that "all the flavors" of Western philosophy are herein represented, but I feel less strongly about disputing that claim.
    – Dan Bron
    May 5, 2015 at 12:59

It depends.

Let's focus on Vedanta (and I'll include Budhism here). There's a tradition of attention to phenomena and a letting go of thoughts related to them that has a very empiricist (more specifically, phenomenological) flavor. Buddhists even denied substance ontology in a way that brought to mind Bundle Theory. Further, an (apparent) Western encounter with Vedanta led to Pyrrhonism, which itself became a hardcore empiricist view. Granted, when people think of Pyrrhonism, they think Skepticism, yet it's clear Pyrrhonism places a great premium on phenomena, and thus its empiricist commitment is (IMO) clear.

On the other hand, Vedanta has many non-empiricist assumptions, some of which guide the otherwise empiricist meditation itself.

  • I've always wondered how Buddhist reconcile their bundle theory of the mind with reincarnation? May 4, 2015 at 20:03
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    @AlexanderSKing I've never seen an adequate reconciliation, although I imagine a Buddhist could claim that just as a bundle could give rise to a mind, then the right combination of bundles in the future could give rise to the "same" mind. This isn't without its problems; how do we ensure only one active bundle at a time, or even that the same "mind bundle" arises in the future?
    – R. Barzell
    May 4, 2015 at 20:15
  • @AlexanderSKing: Through anatta, not-self, or essence-lessness. The core metaphor of rebirth, typically distinguished in translation from Hindu reincarnation, is a candle lighting another candle. What is reborn is causes & conditions, not the false intuition of something transcendentally unique about each of us. While the linear one-at-a-time chain of rebirth is asserted for ordinary beings, Avolokitesvara bodhisattva is considered not only to manifest in multiple beings, inc Dalai Lama, but in the 'thousand hands and eyes' of compassionate action by all beings. Truly transcendental, non-self
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 13, 2020 at 8:48

One reason you may not see empiricism on Chinese thought is that you are looking for western style empiricism, with a clear cut boundary between "the truth" and "what we sense." In many Eastern philosophies (I know Chinese thinks this way, and I believe others do as well), the philosophy automatically blurs these because the language encourages it.

Western language draws a very strong division between "us" and "the world." There is a thing called "the truth" that is out there, and ontology covers it. Then there are these things called "senses," that are frustratingly hard to define which lead us towards a mind-body division, and so forth. We divide to make sense of the problem.

Eastern languages, especially those with a Chinese background, focus much more on the relationships between entities, rather than the entities themselves. This is often lost in translation, so sometimes you have to really look for it.

The result is a very different way at look at the world. Western thought is primarily focused on "good" and "evil," "true" and "false." These are eternal opposites. What is true is never false. The fundamental Chinese duality, yin and yang, are constantly in motion as they describe an ever changing relationship between individuals.

Because of this, much of what we look for in epistemology from a Western perspective is actually bundled into the language, so there is less of a need to explicitly talk that way.

As an example, Chi is one of the most debated topics between Eastern and Western sciences. Western science claims it is not "real" because it cannot be measured. They clearly are making such a claim from an epistemological perspective. The Eastern teachers who are teaching "Chi" say it is real because you can feel it. They are clearly also coming from an epistemological perspective. However, that perspective is dramatically different from one of Western thought. Accordingly, they come to the belief that something is empirically validated along a very different path than we do when we seek to empirically validate something.

Sometimes this helps, sometimes it hurts. As an example where their method has some benefit, consider the body-mind problem in Western philosophy. That issue has sparked tremendous debate over the centuries. From an Eastern perspective, it's a nonstarter. From their perspective, there is no reason to believe the two need to be treated as independent in the first place, for you only ever find them together. They have no need to figure out what a body is on its own, and what a mind is on its own, only how body and mind interact in harmony. (and, at some point, some philosophies shift to a claim that one half or the other is simply an illusion, and that they were just one piece the entire time)

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    @KentaroTomono The idea is called Linguistic relativity. It's also known as the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. It isn't proven (not by a long shot), but it does prove to be an effective lens for viewing culture. I have found it even more effective when trying to describe how the written works of a culture are viewed from the outside, because the difficulty in translating differences in the language affects translation a lot. The more you understand those linguistic differences, the more you can re-read what you've read from a perspective closer to that of a native speaker.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 5, 2015 at 14:57
  • @KentaroTomono and to address me repeating: my main point is that the OP may be looking for a division that is "obviously needed" when expressing things in a Western way of thinking, but are less essential when expressed in Eastern terms. If one is aware of this, it is easier to look deeper and find the commonality one is looking for.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 5, 2015 at 15:02
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    One part of Linguistic Relativity I do believe holds true is the that language and thought evolve together, not independently. Thus one should expect the language to evolve to make it easier to express the thoughts that are important to express. If "yin" and "yang" or "chi" are difficult to express to a Westerner, its a good sign that they are a good place to look for understanding difference in thought between Western and Chinese (and generally "Eastern," if you are careful with which cultures you choose to lump into that category)
    – Cort Ammon
    May 5, 2015 at 15:07
  • And then we Asians are still incapable of think empirically. Then how are we still using same Chinese or Japanese etc before you Westerners came? skype-language.com/en/article/etimologiya-kitayskih-ieroglifov Scholars agree that the Chinese written language originates from an ancient non-linguistic symbolic system. During the late Neolith period (the second half of III century B.C.) people started to draw symbols or “pictograms” on ceramics and nephritis. These symbols might denote their owners in the family or clan.
    – user13955
    May 5, 2015 at 15:26
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    @KentaroTomono I can only make guesses about your educational background from your posts, so forgive me if you have a linguistics background that I'm overlooking, but I recommend taking a few linguistics courses, particularly on how languages evolve over time to keep up with thoughts (and Sapir Whorf would claim vice versa as well). The answer to your question is because all languages are good at describing thoughts, but they tend to be better at accentuating things that are important to the speakers, and that set of things evolves over time.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 5, 2015 at 15:32

Adding up to @Mozibur Ullah's answer, the Charvaka (alternately Lokayata) Indian school of thought considered Pratyaksha(empirical) as the only means for true knowledge. To quote one of the proponents:

"O, the highly wise! Arrive at a conclusion, therefore, that there is nothing beyond this Universe. Give precedence to that which meets the eye and turn your back on what is beyond our knowledge." - Ramayana(2.108.17)

On religion:

"There is no other world other than this; There is no heaven and no hell;
The realm of Shiva and like regions, are invented by stupid imposters."
— Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verse 8

On morality:

"The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste... while moksha is death which is cessation of life-breath... the wise therefore ought not to take pains on account of moksha.
A fool wears himself out by penances and fasts. Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings."
— Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verses 9-12

Refer to the Wikipedia article, but there are no direct authentic sources or adherents. Most of their philosophy is known by its refutation in theological works.


I recall a paragraph from Eknath Easwaran's introduction to the Gita:

in the early part of the first millennium B.C. we find clearly stated both the methods and the discoveries of brahmavidya. With this introspective tool the inspired rishis (literally “seers”) of ancient India analyzed their awareness of human experience to see if there was anything in it that was absolute. Their findings can be summarized in three statements which Aldous Huxley, following Leibnitz, has called the Perennial Philosophy because they appear in every age and civilization: (1) there is an infinite, changeless reality beneath the world of change; (2) this same reality lies at the core of every human personality; (3) the purpose of life is to discover this reality experientially

As described, does this not qualify as empiricism?


The issue is clarified by looking at the definition of 'empirical'. It refers to information gained via the physical senses. The 'Perennial' philosopher would want to also practice apperception and the pursuit of unmediated direct knowledge.

If we rely only on empiricism this would be a limitation on knowledge and we would never be able to progress beyond naive realism. While 'Eastern' philosophy pays full attention to empirical knowledge it is usually quite trivial and useless compared to knowledge acquired by other means.

Thus the Upanishads say 'The voidness of one phenomenon is the voidness of them all'. This means that when we see the voidness of one we will see that they're all the same. There would be no empirical method for reaching this kind of knowledge.

Physics is empirical and so can only speak about what our physical senses can detect and has to take phenomena for granted. Eastern philosophy wants to know where these phenomena came from and what they really are, which means going beyond empiricism. It means studying consciousness, which empiricism cannot do.

Being an strict empiricist is like being a blinkered race-horse with its legs tied together.


There are three separate origins of schools of logic, the Indian tradition through Nyaya and Nagarjuna, the Greek system which influenced the Islamic & Christian spheres, and the Chinese Mohist tradition - which was suppressed. I think this is significant, because logic aims for universality.

There is also an analysis which says, highly militarily unified, allows diverse religious practice - China, ancient Rome. Highly politically fragmented, unity is sought through religion and culture - Southern India, post-Roman Europe, especially the Germanic region.

Chinese or Taoist alchemy, developed gunpowder and the magnetic compass, which reached Europe from there. It would take maybe 600 years for European chemistry to compare to Ancient China's. It should be noted bamboo cannons were key to the success of the Great Wall fortifications, from a network of watchtowers & forts, not the walls themselves.

The consensus answer to the Needham Question, why the modern age didn't begin in China, is about geography. Rome could keep Europe unified for a while, and the Holy Roman Empire could keep broad unity until the Rome/Orthodox church schism. Then by the protestant schism, the attempt to find a new universal hegemony through religion just could not work. And with the 100 years war & the printing press, which amped up religious identity disputes like the internet today, religion became a sideshow, to industrialisation, and science. China & Japan were able to suppress and exclude disruptive influences, until the late 1800s.

There is something intriguing about both China & India seeming to have less individualistic cultures, linked sometimes to family & caste structures, or to more collective agriculture needed for rice. Yet, more guru-led religious traditions, the White Lotus & Boxer Rebellions among many others formed around cults, and many religious traditions from India including Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism focused around charismatic gurus. While the more individualistic European traditions, have since at least Ancient Greece sought more concrete universal ideas, and focused around special books. Though like important chemistry came China, key mathematics and 'Arabic' numerals came from India. I feel it would take deep anthropological/historical analysis to draw insights from this, but it's the area I would ficus on towards an answer.


Buddhism is perhaps both empiricist and non-empiricist.

At a fundamental level, everything in our consciousness is an illusion cooked up by our minds. We must look elsewhere for enlightenment. We achieve that by stilling the flow of mental activity. In this mental state of Nirvana, the inexpressible nature of ourselves is revealed. That essentially rejects Western empiricism and substitutes its own kind of comprehension.

However, the external world (including our neural activity) is understood to be there all right, even though we cannot experience it directly. Here, Western empiricism is accepted. For example the current Dalai Lama remarked on prime-time TV a few years back, and I have seen it in print since, that, "If Buddhism and science disagree, Buddhism must change."

From this latter perspective, it is arguable that the insistence on personal experience through Nirvana is an empiricist approach to the Hard Problem of consciousness which so bedevils Western empiricist theories of mind.


One form of Eastern philosophy that might be seen as a form of proto-Empiricism is the Vaisheshika school of Hindu philosophy. It was founded by the Indian philosopher Kanada who accepted perception and inference as the only two reliable sources of knowledge. His text, Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, states that every object of creation is made of atoms (parmanu) which in turn connect with each other to form molecules (anu). Atoms are eternal, and their combinations constitute the empirical material world. Also, there are are six categories (padārtha) of experience — substance, quality, activity, generality, particularity, and inherence..

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