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Thursday, December 23, 2010

How to evaluate within the humanities?

The evaluation of projects is a crucial topic today. In fact, (nearly) all paradigms of evaluation have been developed having in view natural sciences. Hence, in order to avoid the unreflected application of this kind of criteria as if they were the only viable options, scholars interested in the humanities should (I believe) try to propose other criteria.
The following ones are the criteria I suggested in order to evaluate the degree of success of a project involving the critical edition, translation and study of the fifth chapter of Jayanta Bhaṭṭa's Nyāyamañjarī:

• Increase of interest among scholars for Indian linguistics and philosophy in general and the NM in particular.

• Publication of the research's results on international and peer-reviewed journals. The journals involved should a wide dissemination of the research's results, to a European, US, Asian and Japanese audience, focusing mainly on South Asia, or on Asia in general, on philosophy and philology. In order to improve the dissemination of the research's results, particular attention should be given to the open access of articles and research reports.

• Dissemination of the research's results through the research's website and partnerships with related websites, such as TEI: Text Encoding Initiative, Perseus, TITUS, GRETIL, SARIT (the present team is already in touch with some of them). As a first presentation of the project, a page should be created also on Academia (

• Dissemination of the research's results and their usage also by scholars external to the present group. In order to evaluate it, I suggest the following criteria: (i) Access to the research's website and its achievement of a leading role among scholars interested in the NM, in (Indian) linguistics, philosophy of language and epistemological investigation on language as instrument of knowledge. (ii) Use of materials elaborated or collated by the present team in further articles, books, research projects by other scholars. (iii) Most importantly, the edition and translation produced should become the standard reference works for scholars working on the NM.

• The research's team becoming the centre of attraction for international research on the NM, (Indian) linguistics, philosophy of language and epistemology, as testified also by the success of the international seminars organised.

• The adequacy of the translation and the quality of the explanatory glosses and commentaries of the NM could be verified also through the degree of usability of the output edition for scholars not provided with a special training in Sanskrit and in Indian philosophy. In order to test it, one should plan to organize some presentations of our results within international conferences devoted to linguistics, philosophy of language and epistemology of language (i.e, on the role of testimony and of language in general as an instrument of knowledge). One should be able to explain the importance of the NM for contemporary disciplines, and to stimulate the interest and the curiosity of scholars working in different fields of humanities.

• Particularly, no Sanskrit philosophical term must remain without a translational equivalent in modern terminology.

• Furthermore, since the final outcome of our project must be an internet site presenting the electronic edition of NM 5, the usual criteria for web sites apply here, that is:
- clearness and completeness in covering the declared scope;
- accuracy of the presentation and authority of the sources;
- possibility to obtain the output edition in other formats than HTML (such as PDF file, CD-ROM, etc);
- feedback with users;
- speed and responsiveness of the user interface;
- searchability of the resource.

• More technically, the outcome web resource must be compliant with the standards involved, such as the XML standard elaborated by the Text Encoding Initiative for cases similar to ours (with special variants intended for the encoding of manuscripts and for morphological tagging of texts), HTML5, Unicode Collation Algorithm, and SQL for database queries. In addition to these, some further formal standards may be taken into consideration in case our project is accepted as a part of a greater project, such as the TITUS electronic database of Indo-European texts (University of Frankfurt, Germany).

Do readers have other suggestions, particularly in different connections?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sanskrit Translations

What do we want to achieve with the translation of a Sanskrit term? Who are our target-readers? This seems to me to be the chief question while deciding about a translation. In fact, in many cases a translation ends up being understandable only to specialists.

A good example is, in my opinion, the translation of vyāpti, the invariable concomitance holding between the elements of an inference, e.g., between fire and smoke.
Vyāpti is a nomen actionis from the root vyāp-, which literally means 'to pervade'. Hence, many (most, I would say) authors translate vyāpti with 'pervasion'. This has almost become a terminus technicus in the works dedicated to Sanskrit logic. But is it a good choice? Is not it only understandable by an elite, which hence runs the risk to appear non-interested in communicating with any scholar outside itself?
To elaborate, 'pervasion' seems to me to be not-understandable for non-Sanskritists. It does not correspond to any logical term (as, instead, probans for hetu) in Western logic, nor is it intuitively understandable (as 'invariable concomitance' for vyāpti, which at least describes what is at stake). 'Pervasion' is just a literal translation of the Sanskrit term, which tries to reproduce the metaphor in English. Personally, I (and I suspect many others) only understand it, because I automatically translate it back into Sanskrit.

However, against 'invariable concomitance' Michael Williams (Manchester) made me aware of the fact that it does not point out that a vyāpti is not necessarily a commutable relationship. For instance, wherever there is smoke, there is necessarily fire, but it is not the case that wherever there is fire there is smoke. Indeed, according to the Ancient Indian Physics, there is fire in a piece of melting iron, though there is no smoke accompanying it.
Hence, one could use a paraphrase, such as "Smoke is invariably concomitant with fire", thus implying that the opposite is not necessarily the case.
Moreover, 'pervasion' is delusory also as for the 'direction' of the relationship. In the standard example, the point is that there is no smoke without fire. But, if one says that "Fire pervades smoke", does the listener understand that fire is a larger set than fire? Or does not s/he imagine fire 'permeating' (i.e., becoming diffused within) smoke, thus implying that smoke is a smaller set?

Friday, December 17, 2010

What determines the fortune of a text? The case of Jayanta

Jayanta Bhatta's NM is a rich compendium of the philosophical debates on ontology, epistemology and linguistics in classical Sanskrit literature, and it is thus an invaluable tool for investigation on these topics. Due to its clear prose and thorough exposition, the NM has been often used to access a wide range of crucial themes in Indian philosophy.
Jayanta was active in Kashmir, in the late 9th c. CE and belonged to the pracīna ("old") tradition of Nyāya ("Indian logic"). His opus magnum, the NM, is introduced by him ("maṅgala", vv. 4-8, p.1 of NM 1895, the editio princeps) as a mere re-arrangement of former exegeses of Gautama's Nyāyasūtra (the root text of the Nyaya tradition, henceforth NS), in acknowledgment of his debt to his predecessors. Jayanta also clarifies at the very outset of the NM (NM 1895:12) that his work focuses on the classification of categories utilised in Nyāya and on the definitions of these categories; he thus informs his reader that the third type of sūtras present in the NS, the parīkṣāsūtras ("examining aphorisms"), will be discussed by him only occasionally.
Jayanta was acquainted with earlier commentaries of the NS, including works that are still extant such as the Nyāyabhāṣya, which was probably his main source, and others which are lost, such as Śaṅkarasvāmin's commentary. He was also conversant with major works of the main interpreters of the Indian philosophical context, from Buddhist Pramāṇavāda ("epistemology"), to Mīmāṃsā (more precisely Pūrvamīmāṃsā, "Vedic ritual exegesis"), Vyākaraṇa ("grammar"), etc. Thus the NM is a key link in the history not only of Nyāya, but of other traditions as well.
The NM unfolds in 12 books called āhnikas ("daily lessons"). It is conceptually structured in two major parts: the first 6 books treat the pramāṇas (means to acquire knowledge, such as sense perception, inference and language); the second 6 the prameyas (objects of knowledge) and the other 14 padārthas ("categories") listed in Nyāyasūtra 1.1.1. Of the four pramāṇas accepted by the Nyāya tradition, śabdapramāṇa ("language as an instrument of knowledge", "verbal testimony") alone is discussed in books 3 to 6.
Why has this masterpieces rarely quoted and copied? Why has it not been as influential within Indian Philosophy as contemporary interpreters would expect?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What does a sentence mean? Again on Indian linguistics

A little longer than the first one (discussed in the last post), is the second part of NM 5, which is dedicated to the sentence-meaning. Various discussants oppose each other maintaining different theses about it. Interestingly enough, most of them agree that the meaning conveyed by a sentence consists in an action. Furthermore, some specify it as a bhāvanā (or arthabhāvanā), a verbal noun derived from the causative of the root bhū-, "to be", i.e., a "[force] causing to be" a certain result. The bhāvanā-theory is central in the Mīmāṃsā tradition since Śabara (5th century or before). It represents a view on the process of linguistic signification, and is notably distinct from that of the Vyākaraṇa (Grammar) tradition (Mīmāṃsā and Vyākaraṇa being the two most ancient and influential traditions as for language investigation in India). A bhāvanā is an action and it is so called insofar as it "causes to be" the planned result. Kumārila — whose views are accurately reproduced in NM 5 — innovates the theory through his introduction of an additional, linguistic bhāvanā (called śabdabhāvanā) which constitutes the efficient force inherent in the language itself. To explain, a sentence such as "He brings the cow" has as its core meaning a bhāvanā, namely, the fact of causing to be the bringing of the cow. On the other hand, "Bring the cow!" has as its meanings both the above-mentioned bhāvanā and a linguistic one. The latter is meant to explain the fact that one is led to undertake an action (a bhāvanā) by hearing a prescriptive sentence (or, as Austin would put it, an illocutionary speech act).
Hence, maintains Kumārila, prescriptive sentences include in themselves a force causing to be a specific result (the undertaking of the action). Such linguistic bhāvanā is located, according to Kumārila, in the prescriptive component of a finite verbal form.
The topic of bhāvanā, in sum, is a stimulating one insofar as it focuses on the peculiarity of prescriptive sentences, which are not considered as an exception among normal, descriptive ones. Unfortunately, it has still not been sufficiently studied and even the exact meaning of the two terms "arthabhāvanā" and "śabdabhāvanā" is not yet settled. Along with the paucity of insightful studies on bhāvanā within Indian philosophy, also any appraisal of their possible significance for Western linguistics and philosophy of language lacks altogether.
The above sketch will possibly demonstrate how a direct translation of these theories within a Western terminology is not easy. The Indian debate on language does not reproduce the subject-partition we are used to and a Western reader may feel uneasy while reading of the epistemological value of language as a means for communicating knowledge side by side with discussions on the semantic value of optative endings (which are used, in Sanskrit, to convey an illocutionary speech act). However, I believe that theories which are alien to the Western mainstream may prove efficacious in providing further stimuli, especially insofar as they propose new questions and new fields of investigations.
One of such fields might be the primacy of the illocution within linguistic communication, another the connection between linguistics and epistemology, coalescing in the analysis of language.

Working on Indian (Sanskrit) linguistics

Jayanta Bhaṭṭa, a 9th c. Kashmirian philosopher of the Nyāya school, offers to beginners a great chance to have a glance of the richness of the Indian philosophical debate, particularly in regard to language. Chapters 3 to 6 of his encyclopaedic Nyāyamañjarī (NM) are dedicated to language.
Within it, the purpose of NM 5 is to examine the nature of language and, hence, its ideal readers are not just expert in Sanskrit but are also versed in the treatment of some important problems of language studies (such as the problem of word reference, and the problem of the sentence meaning relatively to the different speech acts).
Language, explains Jayanta, is experienced as words and sentences (elements smaller than the word, such as phonemes and morphemes, are not taken into account since they do not convey any meaning per se). Since words are the constituents of sentences, their nature is investigated in the first part of NM 5. The main focus is on the meaning and the reference of words. Three solutions are suggested and discussed: word meaning as an individual (a token, in modern terminology), word meaning as a universal category (akin to a what is called a 'type' in modern terminology), and word meaning as the exclusion (apoha) of everything else (akin to the Saussurean conception of differential meaning of the linguistic sign and his notion of linguistic value). The controversy whether the individuals or the universals are to be considered preeminent is a classical topic of Western philosophy, but in India it has characteristically a linguistic bias.
The Indian theory of Apoha has been elaborated by the buddhist Pramāṇavāda in order to account for the conundrum of the efficiency of language in referencing reality although it is does not either correspond to the former nor describe it as it is. In fact, language is conventional and moreover results from human super-impositions on reality. External objects are not accessible as such to mediate knowledge (the reasons for that are linked to the ontological presuppositions of Pramāṇavāda; this opinion, however, is shared by several Western philosophers). Hence, words cannot directly denote their reference, since there is no one-to-one relationship between words and objects. Still, we understand each other while talking. This is possible because, though words do not denote the same object for everyone, yet, they denote in the same way the exclusion of whatever is not meant. So, utterances such as "Bring the cow!" are usually followed by someone bringing an actual cow because the word "cow" denotes "whatever is not a non-cow". In short, the word "cow" denotes the exclusion of whatever does not fit with the mental image of a cow.
The Pramāṇavāda further elaborates on these basic assumptions, while Kumārila Bhaṭṭa tries to defeat the Pramāṇavāda stance from the viewpoint of direct realism. As in the case of the controversy about universals, typically Indian is the linguistic viewpoint on ontology.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Indian Philosophy and working on a team

Indian Philosophy has still not reached the consideration it deserves within Western studies. Apart from historical reasons, this can be explained as a result of the lack of viable editions and translations of Sanskrit philosophical texts. Again, this absence is also due to the many tasks required by the editor and/or translator of such texts. On the one hand, one needs both philological and philosophical skills. On the other, Indian philosophers themselves were not specialists of only one subject and rather discussed with scholars of different affiliations. The very texture of Indian philosophical texts is made of objections and various replies held by exponents of both the so-called "orthodox" traditions (that is, the traditions which accept the authority of the Vedas) and of Buddhist (partly also of Jainist and materialist) ones. Hence, team work is not just a desideratum in Indian studies. In many cases (especially among young researchers who may not have acquired wide-ranging knowledge about the whole Indian Philosophy) a team of specialists in the different philosophical traditions is the prerequisite for a sound study of Indian texts.

Did readers working on their own find a different solution?
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