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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Does a phenomenological approach lead us to a self-as-consciousness?

I have argued in this blog (see label "subject") and elsewhere in favour of a phenomenological interpretation of the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā theories of the self. I understand them as referring to the kind of persons we experience in our everyday life and not to take into account "minimal selves", since they have nothing to do with such an experience. Even if there were one, it would be as remote from my experience as the Buddhist ālayavijñāna and saṃskāras. But one can use phenomenology to achieve different conclusions (favouring a self-qua-consciousness vs. a person).
In the Self: Hindu Responses to Buddhist Critiques conference, the phenomenologist Wolfgang Fasching was probably the only speaker being a "pure" philosopher (with no training in Indian languages). The fact that everyone enjoyed is paper and that some of us thought it was the best one, is a further evidence of the fact that one can start thinking philosophically about Indian texts –even as an outsider lacking an accurate knowledge of Sanskrit. Obviously enough, this does not imply that no further work on primary sources is required, nor that everyone can understand all kind of Sanskrit texts. Nonetheless, Fasching's paper was an interesting example of philosophical acumen applied to Advaita Vedānta.

The paper examines the idea (possibly akin to the one proposed by C. Ram-Prasad in the same conference) of an ego-substance "beyond or behind the experiential realm":
Such an entity would have to remain a purely metaphysical conjecture […] and it is not even clear whether the position of such an ego-entity would in fact provude us with an adequate answer to our question [namely: what *is* this experiencing I that constitutes the essential subjectivity of experience?] […] On the other hand, […] we cannot seem to do *without* an I that experiences its experiences, since mineness belongs to the very essence of experience itself. (p.3)

Fasching maintains that the Advaita Vedāntic ātman is a fitting answer for the above question:
So the self in the Advaitic sense is not a particular entity I could find in addition to the things in the world which I experience as being external to me –it is rather the world-experiencing itself (p.4).
What are we left with, now? Is this self-as-consciousness still something graspable, or is it nothing more than a minimal requisite, a "purely metaphysical conjecture"? In fact, several questions at the end of Fasching's presentation, focused on similar objections. M.MacKenzie claimed, for instance, that mental states are such because they are undergone, *but* asking "undergone by *whom*?" points to nothing more than a grammatical problem. Ram-Prasad added further insights on the evolution of the Advaita Vedāntic teaching on this point after the disapperance of Buddhism from India. In fact, until Buddhist opponents challenged them, Advaita Vedāntins sticked at their claim of a difference between vṛttijñāna (intentional knowledge of the world) and sākṣījñāna (consciousness). But thereafter, departing from Madhusudana Sārasvati, one wanted to avoid to end up with the sākṣin as a substance.

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