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Friday, February 11, 2011

Is there room for Free Will in Indian Philosophy?

Where shall we look for Indian discussions on free will? Free will seems to have to do with action. Although one might not need to act, in order to have free will, the capacity to act if one wishes to is the core of free will. Hence, one might be inclined to look for discussions on Free Will in the context of a system's theory of action. Another interesting semantic field would be that of God, since He is one who is surely assumed to be omnipotent and is often declared to be free. And free will seems to me to be a presupposal for free omnipotency.

I just happened to read a passage defining agent-hood (kartṛtva):

Agency is the fact of having a direct knowledge of the material causes, of having desire to do and of being endowed with an [actual] action
(upādānagocarāparokṣajñānacikīrṣākṛtimattvaṃ kartṛtvam)


The text is Annambhaṭṭa's dīpikā on his Tarkasaṅgraha (on proposition 17). The context is that of the inference about the existence of a Lord, namely "A sprout is made by a doer, because it is a product, like a pot", so that the agency here described might be only the God's one. If this were not the case, one would have the following three requisites of agency in general:

  1. 1. direct knowledge of the material causes (i.e., applied and unmediated knowledge)
  2. 2. desire to do
  3. 3. actual doing

As for 3., I would define free-will as just the capacity to do what one wishes, independent of whether one actually does it or not. But the stress on the actual action might be just a nicety of Annambhaṭṭa.
The cognitive element seems a more significant difference. The material causes are later defined as samavāyikārana (like clay in case of a pot). Direct knowledge is a typical requisite of God, since He does not need to depend on the complex epistemological system we are bound to, and can just know everything directly. If the definition does not only apply to Him, then it means that agency requires this sort of direct knowledge to the things you'll need in order to act. Does it refer only to practical actions, such as doing a pot, where you must have a direct knowledge of the clay? Or can it apply also to general concepts? And what would a "material cause" be, in such cases?

13 comments:

michael reidy said...

What’s an earth-shoot?

I associate discussion of material cause with the analogy of material identity. It’s in the Ch.Up. When you know clay you know all the things that are made from clay, different vessels such as cups, pots etc. “What is it that when it is known everything is known?” is another question from that upanishad I think. Freedom in action only becomes possible when one knows the basis of the Jiva. The manifest Jiva is subject to the gunas as per the B.G. Even the karma of the realised sage must work itself out like the winding down of the mainspring of a clock.

To know _all_ the material conditions of action we must know what the action is ‘made’ from i.e. sat, chit. Freedom as the knowledge of necessity then!

elisa freschi said...

Michael, I am sorry for my poor English! The Sanskrit expression is kṣityaṅkura, literally "a sprout [coming out] of earth".
Thanks for this great insight into the concept of a material cause. If I understand you correctly, you mean that a direct knowledge of the material causes is tantamount to clear knowledge of whatever can be produced out of them. In this sense, there are very few real free agent, I guess.

Anonymous said...

well, in a vedanta classic light it seems that there is no room for free will...for instance, look at the end of Bhagavad Gita: because Arjuna has understood whatKrsna told him, he do what he has to do...his dharma, as opposed to what he would like to do as current action......I think that the concept of free will in indian thought has to be understood under the scope of the unity that rta/dharma supposes, beyond paticular egos....just a view....Olivia

elisa freschi said...

Dear Olivia,
thanks a lot for your comment. The BhG is an interesting example of lack of free will (in this respect I agree with you). I also somehow understand the point you hint at: free will presupposes a distinct ego which acts in a world different from him/her. Hence, the question might just not arise in this form in Classical Indian thought. However, several Indian traditions seem to grant enough space for an independent subject. I think most of all at Mīmāṃsā, which is the school I am more familiar with, with its discussions on the link between personhood and desire. But perhaps also Nyāya and Sāṅkhya, although their "puruṣas" bear no individual characteristics? What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Certainly, many schools recognize the individual subjects, many purusas of thesamkhya an so far,even Vedanta. The point is, as far as I understand, that such individual subjects, which belong to the levelof relative or empirical reality, are considered as such (individual subjects) under the conditions imposed by the whole ontological maya / Avidya / relativity complex, and they actually make use of a fictitious free will, push by trheir own avidya condition…….and, precisely this is the starting point of the concept of karma as such. The liberation, serched for by many schools implies just get rid of this illusion of separateness, and means, in many ways, to play by other rules, not subjective but cosmic rules, Varuna rules, but again, just an interpretation……regards, Olivia

elisa freschi said...

Dear Olivia,
why do you think that the Vedānta framework should apply also to all other schools? I am quite interested in the topic because of the possible links between the Uttara- and the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā.

Anonymous said...

I feel inhibited by my english limitations ....I ll try to explain myself:
This morning I was thinking about a dilemma which is considered since years ago in my academic local world……the darsanas are disconnected from each other, or they keep a hierarchical relationship, showing a broad landscape more complete towards a Supreme Reality??? Maybe not in detail, but in the spirit of a broad description of the Ultimate Reality?. I think this last vision was defined by Radhakrishnan, Danielou and other indologist as “indian inclusivism”. . In my experience and observation, I tend, in the broad spirit, this second view.
I think the darsanas are, just as indicated by the very idea of darsan, a "view"of reality:
In that case, if it were this way, , Vedanta would show the view from Being (ontology), the samkhya from cosmological irradiation or emanation (the enumeration of the manifestation as such), while yoga provides the “ascendent “ point of view ",required to recover what has been developed under the laws of Sankhya, the nyaya points to the vision of logic in more concrete level, and so purvamimamsa .... and, well, I do not know but does not expose the point of view of ritual? and if it is this way, it doesn’t requires the ontological considerations of the Vedanta?, is a long and complex topic, but I bet (again, in a broad view)for darsana as (confluents) point of view,in spite the different authors, texts and debates among the schools…..

elisa freschi said...

Olivia, this is a very interesting topic. I tend to agree with you on the fact that schools tend to supplement each other in special fields. No school felt the need to develop its own complete hermeneutic, since they already had the Mīmāṃsā one, no school developed its own complete atomic doctrine, because the Vaiśeṣikas had done it already (of course, schools did adjust these theories to their own tenets, as with Vedānta's usage of Mīmāṃsā's hermeneutic rules).
And I also agree with the fact that since Vācaspati Miśra onwards, the common feeling has been that all schools lead to the same goal, though with different paths and emphases.
But what about the preceding time?
I agree that Jaimini/Śabara were well aware of the proto-Vedānta (sorry for the label) teachings, etc. But the disputes among, say, Sāṅkhya, Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya thinkers seem to harsh not to underline a genuine dissent (not just a different point of view on the same final goal). In other words: are you not projecting Vācaspati's point of view back?

By the way, feel free to write in Spanish if you prefer (nothing shall be more difficult than Sanskrit;-)).

Anonymous said...

Querida Elisa

GRacias por el español, en este caso n particular. Ciertamente, es muy posible que, involuntariamente esté transfiriendo la visión de Vacaspati hacia atrás….también puede ser mi propia subjetividad que de alguna manera está “contaminada” y tenga un posible tendencia a “pensar en el estilo advaita”, dado que èsta es mi primera formación….
No tengo una respuesta académica formal, pero si tengo muchas consideraciones que me plantean dudas sin resolver acerca del pensamiento indio amplio. Por ejemplo:
Cual es la perspectiva con la que nos aproximamos al pensamiento indio? Lo vemos en sus propios términos o desde los nuestros?
Tenemos presente que hay, por lo menos, dos clases de textos: los upadesa que enseñan sin argumentar y otros textos cuyo propósito es argumentar?
Los textos vienen, algunos presentados por maestros espirituales y otros por filósofos. Son dos perspectivas distintas con metodologías distintas pero no implica que la meta sea distinta, o si?
Profundizamos realmente en el sentido de la noción de darsana como tal? Acaso no se fundan todos en las fuentes védicas?
La diferencia, lo es en términos de metodología para explicar o en términos de discusión para rebatir? Ciertamente, hay ejemplos de ambos.una vez mas nos toca a cada uno de nosotros, que camina su propio sendero como bien decía Dominik el otro día, ajustar la comprensión del sentido y proposito del pensamiento indio...cuando era joven, y comenzaba a estudiar a principios de los 70 (la epoca en que conocia sanscrito) me enseñaron en la universidad que el samkhya/yoga era ateo. Después descubrí a Purusa e Isvara, sobre todo a este ultimo al final del yoga sutra, y no sabia como comprenderlos…..en ese momento me resulto iluminador, y aun todavía, una apreciación de R. Panikkar cuando dice que un hallazgo del genio indio es haber omitido el principio del tercero excluido, a partir de lo cual la no dualidad puede comprenderse como no contradicción. No implica que todo es lo mismo, pero que “todo” puede encontrar un modo de complementarse mutuamente, de encajar como un rompecabezas, de modo de poder incluir (jerárquicamente) sin excluir. Igual pienso que estas largas reflexiones deben ser muy cuidadosas tanto para no olvidar las “ediciones criticas” cuanto para no quedar apresadas por ellas.
Como te decía, el tema me excede, cuestiona y preocupa. Merece un tratamiento más comprometido y plural.
Podrías proponer un trabajo hermenéutico conjunto con varias “darsanas” académicas, que te parece? Cariños. Olivia

elisa freschi said...

Dear Olivia, thanks for your message and sorry for answering in English.
1. As for your first question ("Cual es la perspectiva con la que nos aproximamos al pensamiento indio? Lo vemos en sus propios términos o desde los nuestros?"): I do not think we can even dare think that we look at Indian philosophy through its own perspective. I cannot be just a translucent lense while reading. I am a person and I carry with me all sorts of pre-judices etc. Hence, I would rather say that our encounter with Indian philosophy (or with any other thinker/philosophy) cannot but be an encounter which involves and questions us deeply. As for the points you raised, we are surely biased by our own categories (and possibly also by the kind of textbooks which have first been written about Indian philosophy).
2. As for a further point, you raise ("La diferencia, lo es en términos de metodología para explicar o en términos de discusión para rebatir?"), I have no answer (how could I?). I tend to think that the difference among darśanas is chiefly methodological (hermeneutics is the method for the two Mīmāṃsās, logical investigation for Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, separation of prakṛti and puruṣa for Sāṅkhya and Yoga), but I am not sure whether I share your implicit assumption, that is, that beyond these different methodologies there was a common teaching, just differently articulated. I tend to think *historically* and hence to assume that there must have been a development in the history of ideas from the Upaniṣad onwards. I guess you might reply that such development was an unfolding…
3. Critical editions are fundamental, but as far as I am concerned, they are an instrument and not a goal in themselves. The ideal case is a team-project with people collaborating on a same text from different points of view.
4. What do you mean with your last proposal? I am always intrigued by all sort of collaborative enterprise. Several years ago I dreamt of writing a series of Readers on Indian Aesthetical Thought, Indian Epistemology of Language, Indian Linguistics, etc. Do you at something like that?

Anonymous said...

Es verdad, es muy atrevido osar comprender el pensamiento indio en sus propios terminos, pero tambien es temerario acercarse imbuido de todas las características de nuestra cultura tan distinta; creo que es imprescindible deshacerse de los propios prejuicios. Entre el atrevimiento y el prejuicio puede haber lugar para una sana apertura. Como te decia hace unos dias, es preciso “comprender lo comprendido” o “entender el entendimiento”. Personalmente dudo que quienes hayan estudiado la india sinceramente hayan quedado invulnerables a su sabiduría. La India y su pensamiento son poderosos catalizadores para la visión y experiencia de la Realidad, y el proceso de entendimiento no acaece solo a través de escuelas e historia, sino de modificaciones en el propio sujeto que estudia o contempla……..entiendo que hay impactos de comprensión sobre la conciencia que todo ser viviente posee y que estos se hallan por encima, o por detrás, de sus facultades mentales. Siendo como es, tan clave la noción de conciencia en el pensamiento único, conciencia y conocimiento, te hacia una propuesta muy informal: que sucedería si preguntáramos a los colegas

a) que les ha sucedido en su plano de conciencia, al estudiar la India, es decir, cómo los ha impactado en su propio proceso de conciencia, el estudio de la india, y,

b) en segundo termino, preguntarles cómo entienden las darsanas? Como una visiones complementarias de una misma realidad o como exposiciones argumentativas y contradictorias?.

c) Ahora bien, seria muy interesante que respondieran tal pregunta no solo con el soporte de los textos respectivos, sino desde el punto de visita de ellos como individuos comprometidos en una determinada investigación que, dada su naturaleza (la realidad ultima) afecta el mismo corazón del sujeto que observa…..aunque ya nos estamos apartando demasiado deltopico inicial...cariños, Olivia

elisa freschi said...

Dear Olivia,
yes, we left the initial topic but it is nice to discuss with you:-)
I see your proposal now more clearly. In fact, I often ask myself why I chose to study Mīmāṃsā and how deep as the Mīmāṃsā influence been in me. But it is a rather un-academic question to ask. I guess many would never write a contribution to a book about so personal a topic. Perhaps an article on the web?

Anonymous said...

thank you Elisa....yes, it is non academical......we'll see what becomes......wekeep in touch, best!

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