The Advaita Vedānta tradition is one of the most popular and influential Indian philosophical systems. The best translation of the Sanskrit word advaita is “non-dual.” The thesis of Advaita is that reality is at bottom non-dual, that is, devoid of multiplicity. Advaita recognizes that our everyday experience presents us with of a plurality of objects, but maintains that the belief that plurality and difference are fundamental features of the world is mistaken. The ultimate nature of reality is undifferentiated Being. Not being something, but Being itself – Pure Being. The phenomenal world, in which we experience Being as separate beings is not ultimately real. It is constructed by avidya – ignorance of the true nature of reality. We are beings alienated from Being, and true liberation lies in ending this alienation.
One of the reasons offered by Advaitins for accepting these claims is that they form the most plausible and coherent interpretation of the Upaniṣads – scriptures accepted as being a reliable source of knowledge. But this will hardly convince someone who does not already acknowledge the authority of the Upaniṣad. Here, the strategy of Advaita philosophers has typically been to go on the offensive and argue that the very notion of “difference” or “separateness” is in some sense conceptually incoherent. The arguments for this claim were first formally compiled by the 5th century philosopher Maṇḍana Miśra. Subsequent philosophers in the Advaita tradition further developed, defended and extended these arguments. In this essay, I will briefly go over the master argument against difference presented by the twelfth century philosopher Śrīharṣa in his magnum opus, Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya (“The Sweets of Refutation”).
Śrīharṣa begins his inquiry by asking what “difference” really is. He identifies four possible answers to this question:
- Difference is the intrinsic nature of objects.
- Difference consists in the presence of distinct properties in objects.
- Difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects.
- Difference is a special property of objects.
Śrīharṣa considers each option in turn, and finds them all untenable.
The claim that difference is the intrinsic nature of objects is rejected because difference is necessarily relational. To state that bare difference is the nature of X is to utter something meaningless. At best, we can say that difference-from-Y is the intrinsic nature of X. However, this raises another problem. To describe the intrinsic nature of X is to describe what X is in and of itself, independent of anything else. In contrast, the very notion “difference-from-Y” indicates a dependence on Y. We have arrived at a contradiction: if X has an intrinsic nature that is parasitic on the nature of Y, then it follows that X doesn’t really have an intrinsic nature.
Śrīharṣa offers a subsidiary argument to drive home the implausibility of the view that that difference is the intrinsic nature of an object. Consider a blue object and a yellow object. An object that is blue by its very nature does not depend on the yellowness of the other object. Even if all the yellow objects in the world were to disappear, the blue object would still be blue. But this could not be the case if difference-from-yellow-objects was the intrinsic nature of the blue object.
According to the second definition of difference, X is different Y if distinct properties are present in X and Y. X and Y can be any two objects, but we may use Śrīharṣa’s example: A pot is different from a cloth because the property potness is present in the pot, while the property clothness is present in the cloth. But this raises an obvious question: what makes potness different from clothness? The answer cannot be (1) – that is, that difference is the very nature of potness and clothness – because that view has already been refuted. If we answered the question with (2), then we would end up saying that what makes potness different from clothness is that potness is itself possesses a property that clothness does not. We would have to maintain that potness-ness is present in potness, and clothness-ness is present in cloth-ness. Even if we ignore the oddness of properties being present in other properties, we can raise another question: What makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness? This series of questions could go on indefinitely, generating an infinite regress. Hence, this option is unsatisfactory.
Śrīharṣa considers the possibility that difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects. According to this view, what makes a pot different from a cloth is the absence of potness in the cloth, and the absence of clothness in the pot. But much like before, this raises the question of what makes potness different from clothness. It cannot be (1) or (2), because they have already been refuted. If we bring up (3) here, we would have to say that what makes potness different from clothness is the absence of potness-ness in clothness, and the absence of clothness-ness in potness. At this point, much like before, we could ask what makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness. Once again, we are left with an infinite regress.
This brings us to the final option: that difference is a special property of an object. According to this view, difference-from-Y is itself an attribute of X. But if difference-from-Y is an attribute of X, then difference-from-Y is not X itself, but something different from X. This entitles us to ask what makes the attribute difference-from-Y different from X. It cannot be (1), (2) or (3), so it must be (4). This would mean that it must be another attribute that makes difference-from-Y different from X. But then this attribute itself would be different from both X and difference-from-Y, which simply raises the same question. One more, we see an infinite regress looming.
Having rejected all four possibilities, Śrīharṣa concludes that the very notion of difference is incoherent, and so it cannot be a true feature of the world. A typical reaction to Śrīharṣa’s arguments is that there must be something wrong with them – indeed, something obviously wrong with them. But it isn’t necessarily straightforward to identify what exactly it is. One could question whether Śrīharṣa really has considered all the possible options, whether some of these options really lead to an infinite regress, and finally, whether an infinite regress is something to be worried about. Philosophers from rival traditions adopted all these approaches. Śrīharṣa and his successors anticipated and responded to a number of these objections. They also modified and extended the arguments against difference to more specific cases, to show that differentiating cause and effect, moments in time, and subject and object, were all impossible. For a thorough examination of Śrīharṣa’s critique of difference, Phyllis Granoff’s Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedānta is a good place to start.