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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boundaries between natural sciences and humanities

A recent book (Claude Grignon and Claude Kardon, Sciences de l'Homme et Sciences de la Nature) discusses the distinction between the two fields of human knowledge. According to the authors, humanistic disciplines (such as history) are characterised by an inductive methodology, whereas natural sciences (such as physics) are deductive. The first start from facts and build theories in order to explain them, whereas the latter deduce what will happen out of their theories. Hence, in the latter time and history have no role (the laws of physics will never change, whereas human behaviour is historically determined), and the kind of causality involved is altogether different (because of the different relation to time and, I would argue, because of the repeatability of the experiments in natural sciences). The authors themselves admit that this distinction is only a matter of degree and that there are indeed major exceptions (the history of natural sciences, I would for instance suggest, is the history of an inductive collection of instances to be explained).
The subject is challenging, since the distinction is not ascertained as such in India, although astronomy and mathematics, to name just two, were highly developed (let us just think at the invention of "zero"). I have argued elsewhere (in Italian) that this non-distinction is possibly due to a different view of epistemology. Indian epistemology is indeed more inclusive and aims at explaining every kind of cognition (including interesting explanations of erroneous or delusive cognitive episodes). Hence, no distinction is drawn between inductive and deductive fields of knowledge (induction is indeed recognised as present in all cases, even in speculative thought). In sum, one wonders whether the above-mentioned distinction inheres in the disciplines or in the epistemological justification of them.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Role of Women

I am afraid this post will (if ever) only be read by women readers. And this is a pity. In fact, I wonder why for so many centuries men could have wished to have a wife at their side which was hardly more than their slave, instead of choosing a friend with whom they could have shared thoughts, experiences, feelings, thus enhancing the meaning of life.
I guess that, in spite of many passages in various religious texts which hardly support such a negative role of women, one just thought of women as lower beings and hence thought that one 'needed' them in order to satisfy practical needs (such as reproduction), but that only men were fit as companions in one's spiritual and intellectual development. That's a pity, since one missed the chance to take advantage of the many women one had around oneself (mother, sisters, wife, daughters…).
Similarly, it is a pity that reflections on the role of women are mostly been undertaken by women alone and read by women alone, so that "gender studies" has become almost a "private club" for women intellectuals. I can't understand why men generally do not feel the challenge of re-thinking their relationships towards women.
(in the photo: the rape of the Sabine women, Florence.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Do we have to co-work in order to understand South Asia?

Some scholars prefer to work alone and maintain that working together, though sometimes useful, is fundamentally a waste of time. In my Italian blog on Verbal Communication as the founding element of (Indian) Philosophy, I have already argued that lonely work is just impossible. One always relies on other people's work. Hence, to work alone just means that contacts are mediated through (mostly) reading instead of direct contact. It is hardly the case that asking direct questions to the person whose text one is reading would not enhance one's understanding of it and the text itself.
I will hence assume that many people will agree about the necessity of joint work.
So, my present question is only: Is joint work even more necessary in case of South Asia (and, particularly, of its philosophy)?
My provisional (as usual) answer is yes. 1. insofar as dealing with another culture cannot but be enhanced through the multiplication of points of view. 2. insofar as philosophy itself often requires a constant and engaged dialogue. It is, I believe, not a description of something (be it ontology or ethics), but rather a prescription to think along with what is said. 3. One of the main purposes of "regional studies" is mediation. And mediation necessarily involves many people.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The challenge of metaphors

Many similes link human and plants, so that a creeper around a tree is compared to the arms of a young girl “chained around my neck” (Caurapañcaśikā), and the trees moved by winds in the Rāmāyaṇa rustle and seem “almost …to weep”. Do such literary instances prove something about their authors' view of plants? Did they believe that trees feel love and suffer? By and large, I think that plants in such similes do not express love, etc. It is rather up to poets to read a vegetal behaviour along the line of a human one, so that a creeper is poetically described as wanting to adhere to its beloved tree. Therefore, the burden of the expression of love or grief is on the poet, not on the plants. Similarly, in many Western languages, some sorts of willows are called “weeping willows”, not because one believes them to grieve for something, but rather because their branches, bent downwards, remind us of our behaviour while grieving.

But what about the pre-history of such expressions? Are they grounded in an older belief in the common nature of all parts of the cosmos?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Materialism in Religious Thought

I just read Shaji George Kochuthara's "Conjugal Sexual Pleasure: Contemporary Theological Perspectives" (in Ephrem's Theological Journal 13 (2009), pp. 44-71), a challenging perspective on a thought-provoking, but awkward theme. The author argues that (conjugal –since pre-marriage sex is not discussed) sex cannot be thought of just as for the sake of reproduction. Sex without love would be just an illusory communication and, in fact, be tantamount to a self-erotic act. In this connection, the author quotes a really striking sentence of a Catholic theologian, Dietrich von Hildebrand:

To regard wedded love as exclusively an objective means to the union of wedlock, and the latter in turn as a means to procreation, would be to subordinate entirely man in quantum homo to man in quantum animal — a thoroughly materialistic view” (D. von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity, 10-11.).

To me, this view sound ultimately convincing. Still, recently the Catholic Church (to name the one I am more familiar with) has often been upholding this kind of materialistic views on many themes. For instance, one thinks at the stress on the necessity of keeping artificially alive even people who will never regain consciousness (after, e.g., a major car accident) and had previously expressed the desire NOT to be kept alive in similar extreme conditions. Does not this amount to preferring a materialistic identification of (animal or even "vegetal") life as what has anyway to be preserved, independent of its worth as the life of a human person?

Similarly, the stress on the necessity to preserve every single (human) zygote does not seem to regard its spiritual potentiality, but is rather often motivated by the need to safeguard life –understood in a positivistic, materialistic way, that is, as cells and DNA.

I am not saying I do not agree on the content of such actions. I am just disappointed by the materialistic attitude by which they seem to be motivated.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Are there plants in India?

Could plants have been conceived by the Indian traditions in exactly the same way as in the (basically Western) contemporary world-view? The category of “plant may end up appearing less uncontroversial then initially assumed. On the one hand, “plants” do not constitute a coherent whole in Indian views; on the other hand, what we consider to be “plants” are not always sharply distinguished from what we would rather call “animals” or “matter”. By the way, one may note that similar problems arise even within the Western common understanding of plants, as soon as it is pushed towards less-common cases, such as see animals like corals (often considered to be plants, since they do not move), or phytoplancton (often considered to be made of animals –possibly because it moves through the oceans), not to speak about bacteria and micro-organisms. On a similar vein, we can detect extensions and inner partitions within what we would call “plants” in Indian traditions. First, in many texts (especially Vedic and early Jain ones) “plants” are seen as sentient, but only insofar as they are part of a cosmos which is in all its aspects not conceived as inert. In this case, plants are part of the same organic continuum embracing all elements of the universe and the universe itself as a whole. Second, in other texts plants (especially trees) are connected to Plant-Deities. The exact link between a plant and the Deity inhabiting it is not easy to ascertain, especially because one has to understand it out of narrative or religious texts which only incidentally deal with the issue. The Deity seems often to be conceived as inseparable from the tree, although in other (later?) cases it is said to be able to leave the plant and move into another one. In any case, it cannot live out of a plant, but for such short shifts. In some (again, later?) cases, Deities are said to have limbs, children and so on, and seem, hence, to be conceived in an anthropomorphic way. One wonders whether –at a stage which can only be inferred out of the texts preserved– the plants inhabited by a Deity were themselves thought of as Deities, or as Deities' bodies and not just Deities' abodes. Third, “plants” are not equal: almost all texts (until contemporary ones) take for granted the higher status of trees (often called vanaspati) among “plants”. Both phytotherapy and contemporary actions in favour of plants focus on the preservation of trees. From a different point of view, the more generative parts of plants (seeds, sprouts, blossoms, etc.) are deemed to deserve a greater respect, this time in Jain and Early Buddhist texts. Lastly, in many philosophical texts one witnesses a sort of “rationalistic” attitude against the evidence in favour of the sentience of plants found in Dharmaśāstra and/or narrative texts. While reading such philosophical texts one sometimes gets the impression that they are reacting against a popular belief. Thus, from their point of view they are proposing a neutral, rationale view against a folkloristic one. A Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā primer (Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya), for instance, counts plants as living beings, but excludes them –overtly dissenting from some Manusmṛti quotations– from the possibility of fruition (bhoga) and, hence, from the reign of karman-bound creatures. Later Buddhist texts even state that plants do not live and classify them on the same level of earth, rocks, etc.
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