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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Desire, cognition and action

The Naiyāyikas explain the reasons for one’s action according to the sequence of cognition-will-action. One acts because one strives for something and in order to strive for something one has to know it as pleasant.
In other words,
Nyāya:
cognition

will

action


As expressed by Vātsyāyana in his NBh ad NS 1.1.1, objects are known in order to understand whether they must be desired or avoided. Hence, the succession of knowledge, will and action. See the NBh’s Introduction ad NS 1.1.1:
This knower, after having grasped with a means of knowledge an object, either craves for it or wishes to leave it. The desire of such a person, set in motion by crave or disgust, is called initiation of the action (pramāṇena khalv ayaṃ jñātārtham upalabhya tam īpsati va jihāsati vā. tasyepsājihāsāprayuktasya samīhā pravṛttir ity ucyate).

The Mīmāṃsaka reply to this Naiyāyika view is that to believe that cognition (jñāna) is enough for will to arise does no hold. The intellectual view of Nyāya is thus refuted. Desire is, according to Mīmāṃsā, a primary factor which cannot be explained away through its antecedents.
However,
Instead, many other Indian philosophical schools explain desire as a consequence of
(erroneous) cognitions. See the Buddhist 'dependent origination' (pratītyasamutpāda), the Naiyāyika discussion on 'connection with a recollection' (smṛtyanubandha) and 'ignorance' (avidyā) in connection to the arousal of desire…
What do readers think? Is desire a consequence of (erroneous) cognition? Can it be explained (away) in this way?

5 comments:

Jayarava said...

Having spent some time thinking about this in order to write an answer, I realised that I do not know what you mean by "cognition". However here's the answer I came up with shortly before realising this.

I agree with Vātsyāyana that one cannot desire the unknown. One can desire something one doesn't have, but not something which one doesn't know about. So there must be knowledge of the object of desire in order to experience desire. This is consistent with Buddhist models.

Why do the Mīmāṃsaka believe that cognition is insufficient for will to arise? What is missing?

We have a biological, even an evolutionary attraction to the pleasurable because on the whole we benefit from pleasure through such things as social relations, nutritious foods, procreation etc. We desire food for various reasons, but among them is the motivation to eat to sustain our lives. That desire is not from a erroneous cognition. In fact eating only for hunger is often more pleasurable, and more satisfying than eating for pleasure.

Not all desires are equal: the desire for pleasure (associated with the wish to be happy), the desire of ordinary hunger, and the more existential desire to be free from suffering (Dharma-chanda) have to be considered separately

With regard to the model:

cognition > will > action

I think Buddhism conceives this quite differently in part because it is primarily concerned with suffering and what impacts on it's arising and ceasing (creating a category we might call 'morally significant' - sometimes it's wrong to generalise this into over-arching philosophy. Karma '(morally significant) action' = cetanā '(morally significant) intention'. And saṃskaraḥ 'volition' is explained in terms of the six cetanā associated with each of the five senses and the mind. So we get, at least in the domain of morality:

action = will

None of this can happen outside of consciousness, but the pratītyasamutpāda model doesn't have cognition in the move from sensations (vedanā) to desire (tṛṣṇa) - it is one step! There must be contact (sparṣa) between an object and a sense faculty (such as rūpa and cakṣu, or dharma and manas) for sensations to give rise to desire. Whether one can really characterise our attraction to objects in terms of cognition is a moot point. What do we mean by cogition in this conext?

Some of us have begun asking the question: "What does the pratītyasamutpāda model represent?" Is it relevant to answering an over arching question on the nature of desire? Maybe not. It doesn't cope with natural hunger for instance, or even Dharmachanda! It only really copes with the desire for happiness pleasure though pleasure. So is it relevant to try to match it with more generalised models? I suspect not.

I'm very much enjoying your questions recently!
Jayarava

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,
first of all thanks!
There is obviously a link between cognition (however defined –and you are right, I did not face this question) and desire. Hence, my final question was whether desire is a *consequence* of cognition. It lies beyond doubt that a cognition is preliminarily needed, but the process is not necessarily as linear as the Naiyāyikas thinks it to be. For instance, the Naiyāyika approach is deeply *intellectual*. If desire is the consequence of cognition, then in order to get rid of wrong desire, it seems that it would be enough to correct the corresponding cognition. Something like: I want to feel happier, hence I drink. If I were to know that drinking does NOT make me feel happier, I would stop drinking. Mīmāṃsakas think, instead, that desire cannot be reduced to the cognition which necessarily precedes it. If I were to guess, I would say that Buddhists may side with the Naiyāyikas, but that their understanding of avidyā might be less "intellectual" then here described. What do you think?

As for your remarks:
1. You are absolutely right: "desire" is too vague a word (did you read David Webster's 2005 book on it?). I shall dedicate to it some future post(s).
2. Judging from Vasubandhu's AKBh (see http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com/2009/08/attention-and-guilt.html), action is cetanā. But there seem to be some residual traces of an (earlier?) conception of action as "bodily movement". Else, how could one solve the paradox of vijñapti/avijñapti and similar "latent imprintings", which may lead to a much later effect? For instance, in AKBh IV, the case of someone ordering another to kill someone is discussed. He is guilty of a vocal vijñāpti, but he becomes so only by the time the killer executes the act of killing. The killer is, on the other hand, guilty of a bodily vijñāpti. How could the instigator become guilty of an action in a moment in which he was thinking (probably) at something else? Because of an avijñapti (a sort of latent modification) lying in him since the time he pronounced the order to kill. Does not this contradict the equation cetanā=action?

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

Apart from a very general knowledge of Mahāyāna picked up largely by osmosis I know nothing. I do know that I've never felt I had a satisfactory discussion about a hypothetical ethical dilemma.

The Pāli phrase I had in mind is this (it could almost be read as Sanskrit! kamma = karma; bhikkhave = bhikṣavaḥ):

cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi (AN vi.63; PTS AN 3.414)

I haven't gotten around to studying the context in detail, I think the original idea behind equating kamma with cetanā is moral. I don't think this was an overarching theory about desire, but yet another admonishment by the Buddha to pay attention to your own mind.

For Buddhists the state of mind (cetanā) is the determining moral factor for actions. Again this is narrowly phrased - it is the most important thing in the Buddha's program to address duḥkha. It is not necessarily the most important thing fullstop, or the only factor involved in determining the consequences of actions. We focus on cetanā because we can choose whether to act on it or not. It is our leverage point.

For your purposes perhaps we would say that cetanā precedes actions; and to some extent determines the moral value of them.

AN 3.63 goes on to say that kamma has it's source (nidānasambhava) in contact (phassa; S. sparṣa); as do sensations (vedanā). I'm going to spend the rest of the day translating this passage!

c.f Ethics and Intention.

VS said...

Some desire can be due to cognition, but then there are desires which are not based on conscious thoughts. For example, lets say around puberty when the hormonal balance in the body changes, the desire to stay with the opposite sex increases. This does not arise by conscious thoughts but by the change in biological environment. (Of course this desire can be modulated by conscious thought.)

elisa freschi said...

Thanks VS, this is a good point against Nyāya, if only one could prove that one desires sexual entercourses *although* one does not know it to be desirable. In fact, Naiyāyikas would say that one first needs to know that it is good to have X, in order to desire it. However, as for desire for sexual entercourses, when one is very young they could explain it through traces of a previous life –I suppose.

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