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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?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Sacred Texts' Loop

The possibility of understanding Sacred Texts is established within Theistic traditions by the will of God who reveals them. In the atheistic Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, it is based on our linguistic expertise: we have to rely on worldly meanings of words even while reading Sacred Texts since, else, we would not have any key as to how to interpret them. Hence, the mastery of worldly meanings is a pre-condition for the understanding of a Sacred Text. But what if that texts prescribes a kind of duty which is fully new (apūrva), un-preceded, that is, non-attainable through any other (worldly) kind of knowledge? Should not it remain beyond any possible grasp?

More in general, the issue here sketched raises thought-provoking questions for all theological discourse. How can, in fact, the non-human be expressed in terms accessible to human beings?

However, let me situate the problem within the school I know better, Mīmāṃsā.
According to both the Bhāṭṭa and the Prābhākara school of Mīmāṃsā, the relation betweeen a word and the entity it means is perpetual (nitya). Nonetheless, this does not amount to say that everyone, upon hearing for the first time a word, automatically understands its meaning. Rather, one needs first to acquire proficiency in language use through the usage of elder people and through the ensuing activities (both these aspects may be referred to as vyavahāra). E.g., after having heard one's grandfather ordering:“Bring [the] cow!," one sees one's father bringing a cow. Through many similar instances, one eventually learns the meaning of the words “Bring!” and “cow”.

But, according to the Prābhākara, the meaning conveyed by the Veda is a duty (kārya) which is unprecedented (apūrva). Hence, how could it be possible to learn the relation between a word and a meaning such as the unprecedented duty through the usage of the seniors? And if this is not possible, how could one understand the meaning of the Vedic words referring to it? In fact, though the relation between Vedic words and the unprecedented duty is fixed, a meaning can be grasped only by people who have previously understood, by means of the linguistic usage of senior speakers, its relation with the word signifiying it. Nor can it be said that one can learn the meaning of Vedic words referring to an unprecedented duty through the Veda itself, as in this case there would be a vicious circle (the elders' usage would depend on the Veda, whose understanding depends on the elders' usage).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta: a historical problem

The relation between Mīmāṃsā (also called Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, that is Earlier M.) and Vedānta (also called Uttara Mīmāṃsā, that is Later M.) is more than controversial. Indian authors, both ancient and contemporary, all agree in linking the two currents of thought. But how is this relation to be understood?

  1. 1. Did Uttara Mīmāṃsā evolve out of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā?
  2. 2. Were PM and UM once the same school?
  3. 3. Did PM and UM just become similar?

Pre-Halbfass scholars of Indian Philosophy usually assume something like n.1, and in fact Vedānta adopt the whole hermeneutic structure of PM.
Asko Parpola (WZKS 1981 and 1993) holds theory n.2, and maintains that the basic text of the Ur-Mīmāṃsā, the original "Mīmāṃsāsūtra" was composed of what became later known as the Mīmāṃsāsūtra and of what became later known as the Brahmasūtra. The names PM and UM refer, hence, to the first and the second part of a text (and not of an earlier and a later school).
Johannes Bronkhorst (see his Introduction to Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta: Interactions and Continuity) upholds n.3. In summary, he maintains that the Vedānta evolved in a very different milieu than the Brahmanic milieu of PM, namely the śramaṇic milieu of Jainas and Buddhists. Later, the Vedānta adopted the hermeneutic strategies of PM because they were prestigious and thus granted it acceptance and favour.
Against 2: Parpola's evidences are interesting, but far from being conclusive, especially insofar as he could not locate an early source talking of "PM" or "UM", not to speak of the absence of passages referring to a "pūrva-Mīmāṃsāsūtra" and to an "uttara-Mīmāṃsāsūtra".
Against 3: Why are so many Vedāntic authors (such as Bādārayaṇa) reverentially quoted in the earliest texts of the PM? This would not have been the case if the two originated in altogether different milieus. Could one maintain that Vedānta authors later used these names (and their texts?) to support positions which were completely new?
Do readers have an opinion about it?

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Philosophy" in India

Angot, in the book discussed in my last post, defines philosophy as intimately connected to the exercise of doubt:
*Since* the method of (ancient) Nyāya includes the methodological doubt and inquires *without limitations* and in all domains of knowledge, the label "philosophy" is appropriate for it, although Vātsyāyana etc. did not ask the same questions as Socrates or Kant. But outside ancient Nyāya and Sāṅkhya the situation (=i.e., the appropriateness of the label "philosophy") becomes more complicated. And the fact that Nyāya is considered philosophy does not exclude the reflection we need to do on the modern usage of this term (=philosophy) in the Indian context.
(my translation, my parentheses and emphases, p. 23)
I like the last sentence, but for the last words. In fact, as Angot himself points out, we need to question our usage of "philosophy" altogether, since we have no problem in considering Nietzsche, the Aquinas, Epicurus, and so on as "philosophers". As another French philosopher, P. Hadot (also quoted by Angot) notes, "philosophy" in Ancient Greece (and in India? and in some Christian authors? and in the contemporary "Applied Philosophy"?) includes a practice of life. This is quite far from the "philosophy" at the time it "became professionalizes in Europe, by the end of the 18th c." (p. 24). As for Angot, he is fine with this use of "philosophy", if only –so it seems– the requisite doubt and scope mentioned above are also there.

But does this make sense?
A part from possible problems within Western philosophy, I wonder:
  • whether a generalised doubt is altogether possible
  • why should not specialised inquiries not be considered "philosophy"?
Nāvya Nyāya seems a plausible candidate as "philosophy", although it focuses (only) on certain topics. But, if so, then why not accepting as "philosophy" those schools which explicitly acknowledge the authority of the Veda and then philosophize in other domains?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Doubt in Nyaya Philosphy

I started reading M. Angot's introduction to his translation of the Nyayabhasya. The text is fascinating because and although it is very provocative. The author maintains that Indian philosophers were first of all performers, namely they performed debates. They were not contemplative sould detached from worldly worries, but rather sanguinely engaged in confrontations. The standard form of expression in Sanskrit, writes the author, is indeed that of confrontation.
Angot then adds, without any apparent explanation, that philosophy after the Nyayabhasya "surrendered to religion". Abhinavagupta could be a great philosopher, but only insofar as he was first of all a theologian, and so on. On the contrary, authors until the NBh could doubt everything, including the Veda. They were, Angot suggests, like the sophists in Ancient Greece.
What do readers think? So much food for thought and I've only read the first 12 pages;-)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is there a "norm" in the Upaniṣads?

Were "norms" already availble to the authors of the oldest Upaniṣads? If so, how did they identify the breaking of a norm? Can contemporary readers detect the authors' identifications of some episodes as counter-normative?
Sven Wortmann, using Brian Black's narratological approach (already discussed in this blog here), read a paper at the IIGRS2 conference in Cambridge on these themes. He maintains that through a narratological reading one can identify the cases where a norm is broken. Specifically, one could use as identification marks the following ones:

  1. 1. the text explicitly indicates the content as counter-normative
  2. 2. other texts indicate it as such
  3. 3. the content becomes a motif
  4. 4. the content is deleted in other parallel or later texts
To elaborate, S.Wortmann discussed two cases (the king Ajātaśatru which teaches and initiates a brahmin BĀUp 2.1, and Satyakāma and his mother Jāvalā, who does not know to which gotra his father belongs, in ChUp). The paper has raised a very interesting discussion. Personally, I can't see why point 2. should yield any evidence in favour of the breaking of a norm (there are many motives which re-inforce a norm or that are norm-neutral). Others objected against the very idea of the normative in the Upaniṣads, or against the examples chosen. Are casts already fix at the time of the BĀUp? Don't they rather refer to specializations (so that it is strange that a king initiates a i, but it is not counter-normative)?
A last interesting questions regard the context of this allegedly counter-normative motives: have they been composed by kṣatriyas? By urbanised (i.e., progressive) brahmins?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is there time without consciousness?

Time, as is well known, is according to Augustine extensio animi, an extension of one's soul. Hence, it does not exist apart from it.
However, Sartre maintained that the most fundamental level of consciousness is pre-egological and Husserl supported (only) a transcendental ego –that is, one which does not appear as such in consciousness. Buddhist thinkers were explicitly non-substantialist, at least after Vasubandhu.
Does time-consciousness entail a (transcendental, at least) ego?
Husserl's claim that there is a moment of retention within every instant of experience, might help one in avoiding to postulate an ego and yet account for time-consciousness. However, one might object, such a retention is itself momentary and hence cannot account for long-term memory.
While dealing with such questions, Matt MacKenzie admitted that retention is one of the conditions of possibility of memory, and it is still not the depiction implied by memory. In order to get it, one needs to add an account of the sedimentation of retention-traces (in Sanskrit one would call them vāsanā or saṃskāra). This is the role of the depository consciousnessm the ālayavijñāna. A presentist (and at the conference on Self: Hindu Responses to Buddhist Critiques this role has been performed by Jan Westerhoff) could instead object that there are, in fact, NO RECORDS of the past. What appears as a record of the past is in fact a present cognition, which we misinterpret as relating to the past. In other words, it only "looks" as a record, but it exists in the present as something else.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Are objects enough or do we need a subject experiencing them?

Are external objects able to convey information? Are they, that is, independent of me meaningful objects?
During the open discussion following the paper of Wolfgang Fasching I have summarised before, Joel Krueger (who asked, by the way, some among the most interesting questions during the whole conference) challenged Fasching's approach from the point of view of Gilbert's ecological psychology. In summary, Gilbert proposed that the only world we experience is a world made of already meaningful objects. That is, they are already meaningful, even before me attributing them a meaning. Consequently, they are also able to tell me some information about myself. Hence, the world itself is a continuous space of self-specifying information (=information specifying myself, yourself, etc.). If this all is true, we would need nothing more than a consciousness interpreted as sheer openness.
Instinctively, I would have objected like Irina Kusnetsova did, that is by claiming that objects can convey self-specifying information only in relation of me. They are telling insofar as I "interrogate" them, they tell me about me because they tell me how I like or dislike or am attracted, etc. them.
Once again, I am back at the problem that if all we want to establish is a sheer consciousness, without personal characteristic, then it seems that even less than that would do (just the saṃskāras instead of the owner of memories, for instance). A full-shaped sense of mineness seems to me the minimal requisite to distinguish between a "mental state" and a subejct.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why talking about methodology?

A primary concern of mine is to become more and more aware of the plurality of possible methodological approaches within every field of study, and of the non-neutrality of the choice of one approach over another.
An acknowledged methodology, I believe, might be challenged and discussed, whereas an apparent “non-methodology” might be much riskier and subtler. In fact, an absolute absence of methodology is just impossible. Hence, authors who avoid methodological questions, or claim they do not need to face them, actually implement one methodology and suggest to their readers that this is the “natural”, the “right” or the only plausible one. In some cases, this amounts to say that one subliminally absorbs a methodological approach (for instance, one teachers' one) and then tends to reproduce it uncritically. In others, a similar procedure may have the negative output of making its upholders sure that there is no space for authentic research outside it. Hence, adopting another methodological approach would be tantamount to being no “appropriate” researcher at all.

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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