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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Expression of a connected meaning

Words alone do not have a meaning (as already noted even within Western Philosophy, see the preface of Gottlob Frege's Grundlagen der Arithmetik). But to assume that sentences have a meaning independent of the words composing them, leads to further unwanted assumptions (for instance: why do you understand this sentence, although you never encountered it before?).

A possible way out is the Prābhākara theory of the "expression of a connected meaning" (anvitābhidhāna), according to which words convey a meaning which is related to that of the other words in the sentence. In this way, for instance, in "Bring the cow with a stick!" the meaning of the word "Bring!" would be expressed only once connected with the word "cow" and the word "stick". It is in this way that we can account for the different meaning of "stick" in this sentence and in "Please check fluid level by using the DIP stick which is located in the back of VMI monitors".

However, an opponent may ask:

Does the expression of a connected [sentence-meaning] (anvitābhidhāna) occur [for each word] through [a meaning] expressed (abhihita) by another word (pada) or not expressed? (TR III,

If in "Bring the cow with a stick" the word "cow" would depend on the meaning expressed by "bring" to express its meaning, the the opposite would hold too. Hence, no one of them would be able to start expressing its meaning!

On the other hand, if every single word would express its meaning as already connected to the others, then through "cow" alone, we should understand "cow/connected with the action of bringing/and connected with a stick". Hence, a single word would be enough!

How can one defeat this two rejoinders? Perhaps in the first case by upholding a simultaneous expression of the meaning through all words?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Language learning

How does one learn a language?
Western readers like me might remember Augustinus's recollection about how his parents pointed to various objects and told him "This is called X" and "This is called Y". But this process would take years and years and cannot account for the fact that we usually learn "sentences" before "words". With "sentences" I do not mean to say that a baby says "I would like my mother to come here!", but that his/her "MOM" means exactly that. More in general, the same acquainted I referred to already told me how the actual trend in applied linguistics is that a language can be learned through listening to its natural usage.

Indian authors generally neglected Augustinus' ostensive method and emphasised the importance of the normal usage of senior speakers (vṛddhavyavahāra). In Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya, the process of language learning is described as follows:

To elaborate; exactly so in common usage (loka) does proficient linguistic learning (vyutpatti) occur for the first time. The elder senior employs (prayuj-) the sentence “Devadatta, bring the cow!”. Thereafter, the middle senior undertakes the [corresponding] activity (pravṛt-). Then, one who is not concerned with this activity (taṭastha) and who desires to learn the language (vyutpitsu), thinks: “His activity (pravṛtti) presupposes (pūrvikā) a cognition, because it is an acitivity, like my activities too. And this cognition was born from a sentence, since it came immediately after it”.
The clue of the syllogism is the invariable connection between language and action. Had the younger girl just thought that her older brother brought the cow because the sun was shining/the horses were neighing/the father had not come back yet*…, she would have needed
years to establish the suitable connection between words and meanings. But she understands from the very beginning that actions are the result of a cognition and that cognitions might be conveyed by language. Is it because she is, after all, not that young? Or is it a human characteristic which can be generally observed (or intuitively grasped)?
A further hint: the cognition the girl refers to is the cognition that something must be done (else, no activity would have followed it). And such cognitions can hardly be imagined to follow from perceptual acts.

*I am grateful to J. Benson for making me aware of the problem.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What is the purpose of what we teach?

An acquaintance of mine, who took a degree in Pedagogy and is now an elementary teacher (and a mother) discussed Saturday with me about her pedagogical priorities:
  1. 1. Make children aware of other people's feelings
  2. 2. Help children know themselves.
No. 1, she maintains, is the only way we can hope to solve today's problems. We do not care about the North Pole's pack which is melting, she explained, because we do not identify with polar bears. Should we be able to identify with their suffrances, we would be able to undertake concrete steps to avoid them. The example of the polar bears is so extreme that I do not think I have to add more normal ones, such as identifiying with one neighbour before complaining about minor points and starting a fight.
No. 2 is, according to my acquaintance, the only way to achieve happiness.
I completely agree on No. 2 and No. 1 is (I am sorry to intrude with elements of my personal life) my resolution for 2011. Still, their "reversed" order surprised me. In Indian philosophy, concern with oneself always seems to be the primus movens of one's intellectual (and possibly also spiritual) journey. One considers one's misery and desires to escape it —even within Mahāyāna Buddhism, where one will ultimately realise that there is no "I" who suffers, nor suffrance, nor need to escape it. Theistic traditions seem to put service to God first, but not service to others. Moreover, even in these traditions, service to God is equated to one's supreme happiness. In short, one might ask: How can one make room for the Others once one's investigation is from its beginning determined by a self-concern? On the other hand, how could one care to identify with others, unless this made one happier (because helping other people makes one happy/being liked makes one happy/etc.)?

On a related, pedagogical topic:
I have already discussed my view about why should Sanskrit be learnt and taught here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"As I said, A is non-A…"

A tricky point about negation is to understand what exactly is negated. Sanskrit Grammars distinguishes between prasajya and paryudāsa kind of negations (pratiṣedha), with the latter corresponding to an eliminative negation and the former to an "adjustive" kind of negation. Typically, the prasajya is exemplified with na brahmāṇam ānaya, i.e., "Do not bring a Brahmin!", whereas the former with abrahmaṇam ānaya, i.e., "Bring someone who is not really a Brahmin", interpreted as referring to someone who is nearly a Brahmin, and falls short from the target (i.e., because he is a Brahmin by birth, but does not always act like a Brahmin should).

Among the comments on a previous post on these topics, the Vajracchedikāprajñāpāramitā (henceforth VPP) has often been referred to. This is a very ancient Mahāyāna text, possibly even predating the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (which was the main focus of the same post). I had a look at the electronical text of the VPP and found out many seemingly contradictory statements, having more or less this form:

What is called by the Bodhisattva to be X, that the Bodhisattva calls non-X. Hence it is said to be X.
This formula also applies to the perfection of knowledge (prajñāpāramitā) itself:

yaiva […] prajñāpāramitā tathāgatena bhāṣitā, saiva apāramitā tathāgatena bhāṣitā. tenocyate prajñāpāramitā

That very thing which is called perfection of knowledge by the Bodhisattva, that is called "non-perfection" by the Bodhisattva. Hence, it is said "perfection of knowledge".

Could this mean that it can only be a perfection of knowledge in the ultimate sense, if it were not one in the conventional sense? Hence:

That thing which is called perfection of knowledge by the Bodhisattva, that is called by the Bodhisattva "non [conventional] perfection. For this reason it is said to be a perfection of knowledge.

I.e., only insofar as it is distant from any conventional so-called perfections, can it be said to be one by the Bodhisattva, from the point of view of ultimate reality.

Once again, I am extremely grateful to the readers who richly commented on my previous post on Mahāyāna texts expressing paradoxes. You might also be interested in its "sequel".

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How do Bodhisattvas think?

How is it, to be awaken and yet part of the normal world? How can one at the same time know that everything is illusory (or only conventionally true) and yet undertake actions within this conventional frame?

Jayarava rightly pointed out (see here) that Bodhisattvas must be able to conceive thoughts, since else no interactions would be possible between them and the 'normal' people, be it through language or through actions. Hence, the paradoxical statement of the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā saying that

[bodhisattvaḥ] tenāpi bodhicittena na manyeta

cannot mean:

even through his bodhicitta, he should not conceive thoughts (man-).

What else could it mean? The following lines explain:

What is the reason of that? His mind (citta) is a non-mind (acitta), [since] its nature is translucent.

Hence, the key to understand what the Bodhisattva should not do through his mind lies in the understanding of what his mind actually is. He can use it withouth doing the act designated by the root man- beacuse his is a translucent "non-mind". In fact, the following paragraphs keep on discussing the nature of such a non-mind. At a certain point, one can read:

avikārā […] avikalpā acittatā

That is:

The condition of non-mind is formless and conceptionless.

The vikāras are "derived forms" of the actual reality, whereas the vikalpas are assumptions one resorts to in order to make sense of something. They are conceptual in nature and hence (mostly) not ultimately true. Hence, the statement seems to mean that a non-mind is a mind which can think without needing assumed supports (that is, conventional forms). The Bodhisattva's mind thinks directly, without needing extra explanatory devices. Can this mean that it sees without thinking, with "thinking" in the sense of "constructing thoughts"?

I am extremely grateful to the readers who richly commented on my previous post on Mahāyāna texts expressing paradoxes. Read Patrick's comment if you want to compare a different understanding of the term I translated with "translucent" (prabhāsvarā).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Do contradictions make sense? On mindless minds

Suppose you read in a text that "A is non-A" (and suppose you know for sure it is not a typo). What strategies do you adopt, before throwing the text away? And which counter-evidence do you use to check if your understanding is right, in case the text apparently violates even 1st order logic?

Readers know that I am not familiar with Buddhism. The little I know is about Pramāṇavāda. And the little I know beside Pramāṇavāda I learnt through interesting people who raised my curiosity and made me have a look at this or that text. Yesterday I had one such experiences, spending 4 hours discussing with Greg Seton (scroll down here to read about his research) on Ratnākaraśānti, Haribhadra and Ārya Vimuktisena. We read some paragraphs of a Prajñāpāramitāsūtra, the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā. This is a Mahāyānasūtra and it seems to summarize some chief characteristics of Mahāyāha Buddhism. I do not mean by that to say that it summarises its tenets. In fact, the text might even be said to be hardly understandable, as I hope to show.
After the first lines, the Sūtra goes on as a (Pāli) Sutta would, namely as a dialogue framed into what seem to be formulaic repetitions. But soon one is struck with something unexpected: there is no Prajñāpāramitā teaching, nor there is a Bodhisattva who might be instructed in it. Yet, if one were not afraid in hearing this (sad, allegedly, or at least scary) news, s/he would be the Bodhisattva, and this would be the teaching.
My usual chategories have been further challenged by the statement immediately following:
The Bodhisattva should be so instructed in the Prajñāpāramitā, that he does not conceive thoughts (na manyate), not even through the Awakening-Mind (bodhicitta). What's the reason for that? His/her mind is a non-mind (taccittam acittam).

What shall the interpreter do with this cittam a-cittam (literally: "the mind [is] no-mind")?
  1. 1. Imagine that the Sūtra does not make sense.
  2. 2. Assume that it is a narrative text and has no propositional logic to follow. Hence, a different attitude towards the text should be developed (for instance, one could suggest that Śariputra –the narrator– is telling us the story of the journey of one's experience from the state of citta to that of acitta.)
  3. 3. Try some logical explanation (for instance, adding a temporal dimension to the statement, so that what is cittam at point t1 is no longer one at point t2, or reframing the seemingly contradictory terms).

I tend to avoid in any case option 1., because it is a bad exegetical rule to give up (too soon). Personally, I also think that it is part of a philosophical enterprise to engage with a text and try to deepen one's own understanding through it. This is what has happened in many religions, when acute theologians have been confronted with folkloric relics and have interpreted them in a theologically stimulating way.
I oscillate, instead, between 2 and 3. I guess that 2 is of crucial importance within a religious path. The Mahāyāna Sūtras were part of a path, they were recited and copied again and again. The narrative dimension had, hence, a religious value, and was possibly thought as entailing also a transformative character.
Something similar is often narrated in Zen as the need for the disciple to listen again and again to a paradox until his conventional mind is "pierced" by it. In order to avoid such an extreme (in an Indian context) interpretation, I would partly emend view 2 through view 3. For instance, the two "citta" might have a different shade of meaning. Hence:

The Bodhisattva should be so instructed in the Prajñāpāramitā, that he does not conceive thoughts (na manyate), not even through the Awakening-Mind (bodhicitta). What's the reason for that? His/her mind is [in fact] not a [conventional] mind (taccittam acittam).

Immediately thereafter a possible reason is stated:
[Because] the nature of [his/her] mind is translucent.

Hence, if my interpretation is correct, the Bodhisattva's mind is a not-mind insofar as it does not function like a normal one. For instance, it does not conceive thoughts. It is luminous, but like a crystal is, which can receive and reflect light, without being in itself a source of light.

Of course, if there is anything correct or thought-provoking in this post, the credit goes to Greg, who has, however, probably failed to adjust all my erroneous conceptions about the Prajñāpāramitā literature.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The quest for the Indo-Europeans

How do you feel about the Indo-European controversy? Are you emphatic with the scholars (within the academic world and outside it) who get overexcited about laryngals and the Indo-European homeland?

After Ilya Yakubovich mentioned it to me, I started reading a special issue of the Indo-European Journal (The Indo-European Language Family: Questions about its Status, edited by A. Marcantonio, 2009). As the title suggests, the book questions the status of the Indo-European (IE) theory, from different points of view and in various degrees. Marcantonio suggests that the similarities among IE languages might be due to borrowings of wholesale paradigms, to chance resemblances and to the fact that scholars want to see them (and, hence, select positive evidence and ignore any counter evidence). One of the points discussed in the volume is whether the IE/Proto-IE has ever been a language actually spoken and if there has ever been a corresponding population. The common assumption closely resembles the Big Bang theory: the IE/Proto-IE must have existed somewhere, in a certain small place and then have spread throughout Eurasia. I tried to explain elsewhere that the need for a single beginning (a creation e nihilo) is deeply part of our Western culture (and, due to the Westernization of the world, is now common also in the Indian academia). It is a possible explanation, but it has no intrinsic additional value.
Let us look at its cosmological brother: the Big Bang theory satisfies our Western minds because it is a nicely economical explanation (and possibly because it closely resembles God's creation;-)): at time 1 there is a small, highly condensed mass, at time 2 it starts expanding, etc. etc.
Similarly, languages should have originated in a single place and have spread.
I do not believe in this view for various reasons (among which: because I cannot think of humanity without language. I cannot imagine that language has been invented in place X and then exported in the rest of the world). But would it work in the case of the IE?

We have no textual evidence of a IE unity. All the texts composed in IE languages we know about tell us about distinct IE communities, who did not feel related to each other because they felt they shared a similar background. Persians did not seem to have felt closer to Greeks than to the Semitic populations inhabiting their Empire, for instance. Hence, the alleged single IE/Proto IE community should have lived before any attestation.
Well, it may well have. Or not. Personally, I am inclined to think that populations speaking IE languages have been inhabiting Eurasia well before the first texts we know of. They have been travelling, sharing ideas and paradigms for millennia before the first Vedic hymn has been composed. I do not think that the one-single-cradle theory is anything but a nice view, soothening because it resembles a fairy tale in its having an enclosed beginning. Why should the past have looked so much different than the present? Why should languages have ever been "pure"?

But whatever the case why should we care about something which is a mere hypothesis (and has possibly no impact on the historical people we know about)? Why shoud we care about where such a extra-historical community would have lived?

Now, I see that one might object that such proto-IE community DID leave traces. For instance, (some claim) the Harappean cities. Well, personally I doubt it (for the reasons stated above).

(More in general, I noticed that I am probably not moved by the whole question because the first voices which have survived until us tell us of many, distinct groups of speakers of IE-languages. And to me texts are far more important than archaeology. I enjoy integrating the views I get though texts through archaeological data, but I cannot do without texts.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Can we connect meant entities acquired through different sources in a single notion?

We can doubtlessly get a composite notion of something through sensible data acquired at different times and places. For instance, my notion of the Colosseum consists of data acquired through many cases of linguistic communication and of sense perception, through inference and perhaps also through analogy.
But the Bhāṭṭas also claim that this is simultaneously possible. I would be able to get a composite notion at once, if I were to touch and see the same thing I am hearing you talking about, for instance. This view has a linguistic consequence, too, since it makes it possible for the entities meant by words to connect and convey a sentence-meaning. On the contrary, Prābhākaras claim that only connected words can yield a unified sentence-meaning. For them, there is no unitary notion out of data acquired through different means of knowledge. Once something has been known, it can connect to something else only through a second-order epistemological operation, such as a further inference.

I happened to read an odd passage on this theme in Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya. The passage runs as follows:

«On the contrary, it is commonly seen that also [meant entities] conveyed (pratipad-) by different instruments of knowledge can cause to know a composite (saṃsarga) [notion]. For instance, the composite (saṃsarga) notion “a white horse is running” is commonly seen in the case of one who perceives (pratipad-) through direct perception (pratyakṣa) a whiteness, whose substratum (āśraya) is unknown; infers through the noise (rava) of neighing (heṣā) a horse, whose visible form is [for him] unknown; and infers through the sound (śabda) of hooves’ (khura, puṭa) clashing a going, whose author is unknown. It has been said [by Kumārila]:

For one who sees a white form (ārūpa) and hears the sound of neighing |
and the sound of hooves clashing, the notion (dhī) “a white horse is running” ||
is commonly seen, [even] without a sentence |
(ŚV vākya 358-359a)
Hence, Kumārila claims that by seeing an indistinct white form, hearing a sound of neighing and hearing the sound of clasping hooves one gets at once the composite notion "a white horse is running". On the other hand, the Prābhākaras maintain that such notion is the end-result of a sum of inferences.
The Prābhākara opponent in the Tantrarahasya maintains that one

  1. 1. sees a white shape moving
  2. 2. hears hooves clasping
  3. 3. infers a substrate which is both running and a horse out of the sound of hooves
  4. 4. connects the inferred white-thing with the inferred horse and ascertains through cogent evidence (anyathānupapatti) ``A white horse".
  5. 5. connects the white horse with the running, which must have a substrate, and ascertains through anyathānupapatti ``A white horse is running".

The substrates of the sensible data, namely, of the colour white and of the sound of clasping are inferred because there is no colour without a substance, nor sound without a substance. The second substance is more precisely inferred due to one's experience of hooves' clasping.

The gist of the argument is clear: the notion that a white horse is running is the result of a second-order epistemological activity. However, the form of the argument seems unsound. At stage 3, one was already able to connect horse and running. Hence, why should one go back to the horse alone at stage 4, thus needing also stage 5? On the contrary, Kumārila's version had one infer the horse out of neighing and the going out of the sound of clasping. Rāmānujācārya has quoted Kumārila some lines above, hence why should he misrepresent the theory, in a way which, moreover, does not ultimately favour the Prābhākara view?

Can readers see better than I do?

Monday, February 14, 2011


Since my first memories of myself, I have always been struggling with the problem of identifying myself as part of something. I am the kind of person who likes to be with others and admires groups, but does not easily identify with any of them.
In my professional life, the struggle assumes the form of a difficulty in identificating myself with any of the academic groups I should belong to. Since I work in an "Oriental Institute", I should be an Orientalist, but although I enjoy reading of Islamic Theodicy, I have no professional interest in Contemporary Jakarta (at least no more than I have in any other contemporary human society), nor in Central Asian pre-historic pottery (at least no more than I have in any other witness of a human society). Further, I do not identify myself as a "South Asian scholar", since I have no particular interest in contemporary South Asian literature, cinema, etc. Nor do I have any interest in Vedic India's tribes. This does not mean I do not enjoy reading about these themes, it only means that I do not think that they are professionally relevant to my work. Nor could I say that I am a "Sanskritist", since there is so much which has been written in Sanskrit that I am professionally happy to ignore.
What I think is professionally relevant to me, then? Any philosophical author of Classical, Post-Classical and Contemporary India and many philosophers outside India, insofar as they deal with topics I am interested in. Could I hence just understand myself as a "philosopher" or, better a "historian of philosophy"? The problem with that lies in the lack of a shared background. One can only identify as X if the group of Xs shares similar goals, background, worldview.
But, unfortunately, today's set of "historians of philosophy" has a comparably low interest in the themes I am most interested in (from the epistemology of injunctions to their linguistic role and hermeneutics)–and no interest at all in the authors I am most familiar with. It is hence tough to imagine a fruitful exchange if mutual dialogue is made so difficult. On a minimal basis: I happen to post comments on philosophical blogs and I am extremely grateful for any philosophical comment on this blog. But such instances of true exchange are so rare…

How do readers feel about their "belonging to …"?

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?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

When do children become persons?

Ontologically, there may or may not exist a substance 'self' (be it the ātman or the brain). But when does one become aware of oneself as a subject? Prābhākara authors maintain that this only happens when an injunction (e.g., "the one who is desirous of heaven should sacrifice") addresses one, so that s/he can recognise herself/himself as the enjoined one and recognise in herself/himself what is said about him/her in the injunction.

But how can an injunction be uttered if it does not yet address any subject? A Vedic injunction does not concern a specific person, since it lacks any temporal dimension and hence any possible link with specific individuals. Rather, the injunction constitutes one as a subject insofar as it makes one aware of him- or herself as being so and so (in the Prābhākara account: as being desirous).
Prābhākara thinkers are mainly concerned with Vedic injunctions, but one could add that, in a similar way, a child acquires gradually awareness of him- or herself as a person, through the injunctions of his/her parents. Injunctions to children start to be uttered well-before they can be conceived of as subjects (and, consequently, as able to understand the order enjoined to them). By hearing them, the child him- or herself as the enjoined one, and, hence as one which can be enjoined, a person.
A young child starts becoming aware of things around him or her and, hence, implicitly, of the fact that s/he is experiencing them. It is only through other people's injunctions, however, that s/he becomes aware of that experiencer as being himself/herself. This awareness of himself/herself, in summary, embeds the cognitive capacity within an intersubjectively shared personhood.

On this topic, see also:
Does a phenomenological approach lead us to a self-as-consciousness?
Is the ātman 'me'?
(and many other posts with label "subject")

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Aether and sound

I am still struggling with the theory of sound of the Vaiśeṣikas. As common also in pre-18th c. Europe, Vaiśeṣikas imagined aether as the substrate of sound. More in detail, aether has for Vaiśeṣikas the only function of being the substrate of sound. This is probably due to the fact that sound travels through air, liquids and solids alike –it was hence easy to be tempted to assume a special medium, ubiquitous and accountable for the spreadth of sound.
But, what aspect of aether is sound? Vaiśeṣikas answered defining sound as a "quality of aether". Their theories seemed preposterous to me until I started identifying various historical steps:

  1. An ancient theory where sound as a quality would be originated because of contact or separation of substances in a certain portion of aether and move from there to the hearing organ (hinted at in the reconstructed *Tarkasiddhi (TS).
  2. A less ancient theory where sound as a quality would be originated because of contact or separation of substances in a certain portion of aether and create another sound, which creates another sound, until the succession reaches the hearing organ (discussed in *TS).
  3. A later theory which incorporates the Phonetic account and the role of air. Here, the sound originated because of the air, probably because of the contact of the air modified by the articulatory organs with the aether.
Can readers help me with that? And, more in general, why did Vaiśeṣikas accept claims which appear contradictory, such as that there are parts in the partless aether, that a contact with a portion of aether is conceivable, that contact causes a quality of aether?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Limiting and assisting conditions in syllogisms

The following is a case where, in my experience, no translation can be clearer than a mathematical tab. Try to read the explanation without looking at the image and/or to look at the image without reading the explanation and tell me which one is easier to grasp for you.

An Indian syllogism is based on the invariable concomitance (vyāpti, more about it here) of two elements. Due to the visible presence of one, one can hence infer the presence of the other, though it is at the moment invisible. The invariable concomitance is mono-directional and can only be applied from one element to the other. For instance, from smoke one can infer fire, whereas from fire one cannot infer smoke. This is because the set "fire" is wider than the set "smoke" (see image). And why is it the case that smoke and fire are not co-extended? Because of a limiting condition (upādhi, also called "assisting condition"). In order to be smokey, a fire needs such a limiting condition, which is hence always present when there is no smoke, but not always present when there is fire. In the case of fire, the limiting condition is that the fuel has to be partially wet. If it is absolutely dry, there is fire without smoke.

Thanks to this limiting condition, the smoke can be a reliable probans (sādhana, the instrument through which something can be established) to establish the presence of fire (sādhya, the element to be known) in a certain locus, e.g., on a smokey mountain.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On pots and fallacies

An anyathāsiddha cause is, in Nyāya, a cause wrongly established. The Nyāyakośa (sub voce) explains that it is a kind of cause where one mistakes something previously existent for the cause. As an example, Annambhaṭṭa's Tarkasaṅgraha mentions the ass which has carried the clay and the final pot (ghaṭa). Therefore, to say that the pot exists because of the ass would be a case of anyathāsiddha. It is true that the ass existed before the pot, but it is not true that it is its cause (which should be essential to the result).
The Nyāyakośa mentions, among others, the instance of the stick (daṇḍa) and the pot. Is anyone aware of the usage of sticks while producing clay pots? Perhaps as part of the potter's wheel?

Language and thought: the case of duty

In yesterday's post, I discussed Michel Angot's claim that Sanskrit thinkers lacked the notion of "having", of "ought" and so on. In an interesting comment, Michael Reidy referred to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (in short: language influences the way one thinks).
In fact, Angot seems to claim the opposite. According to him (if I am understanding him correctly), language is not inseparably connected with thought but, if thought were refined enough, it would eventually influence language. Therefore (I am using one of Angot's examples): the absence of the verb "to sacrifice" does not mean (vs. Sapir-Whorf) that one cannot have the concept of sacrifice. But, if one has it, one will sooner or later "create" a suitable verb (for instance, bending the meaning of "to verse" until it can mean "to sacrifice").
Since Sanskrit thinkers did not create a verb "ought", this means, according to Angot, that they lacked the corresponding concept. Now, this claim seems to imply several fallacies:

  1. 1. Why should the concept of "ought" be expressed by a separate verb? It is the case in French and in many other languages, but it is not the case in Latin, Greek and many others. Could we seriously claim that Western Christian writers using Latin as their medium lacked the concept of "ought" just because they expressed it with a gerundive?
  2. 2. For instance, Kant (who surely cannot be suspected not to have had the concept of an interior "ought") wrote in German and in Latin. A reader of his Latin works (including the letters he sent throughout his life) might maintain that since he did not create a separate verb in Latin, he lacked the concept.
  3. 3. More fundamentally, how do we know that the Sanskrit thinkers using gerundives did not mean to use it in order to express what M. Angot calls a devoir (duty)? If Angot accepts a shift of meaning in the usage of - and yaj-, why not in optative mode and suffixes? One could reply that we do see that yaj- means "to sacrifice" and we do see that mayā kartavyam does not mean "I must do". But is it really the case? Is not our interpretation of such optative suffixes too dependent on our general understanding of how Indian authors conceived duty?
  4. 4. Angot seems to imply that the Western world has always known the concept of an interior duty, a duty which is not ordered from without, but rather felt as one's own. Is this really the case? One is inclined to think at Kant's Sollen and to Augustin's veritas habitat in interiore hominis. Yet, Augustin's veritas is elsewehere equated to Christ himself. And Kant's categoric imperative is not utterly dependent on each individual, since it is the same for the whole human kind. It is a low and not a norm. Is it, hence, really so different than the impersonal law telling one to do X or to refrain from doing Y (call it God or dharma)?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Does the verb "to have" designate an external state of affairs?

Reading often books related to South-Asian culture (especially: history, texts, philosophy), I am usually confronted with the annoying fact that they hardly have a methodological introduction, that the goal they want to attain is often unspelt, that their presuppositions are ambiguous, etc.
In short: their authors often implicitly assume to be following no particular method, and that there is hence no need to debate it –which is a very dangerous stance, because one always follows one method or the other and believing not to follow one just means that one is following one as if it were the only possible one, i.e., blindly.

Hence, Michel Angot's long introduction to his translation of the Nyāyabhāṣya (discussed in some previous posts) is refreshing and intriguing at the same time. I dissent with several of Angot's claims, but the fact of promoting debate is, in my opinion, a further advantage of Angot's Introduction.

I am puzzled, for instance, by Angot's statements about the absence of the concept of "possess" (avoir) and "ought" (devoir) not just in Sanskrit language, but also in Sanskrit thought (pp.38-44), since the accurateness of Angot's reflection concerning Sanskrit is accompanied by no reflections at all about the French usage of these words. Angot seems to use French almost in the same way he reproaches Indians to have used Sanskrit, that is, as if it were the "natural language", the one in comparison to which any other might be judged. Hence, since there is a verb "to have" in French and not in Sanskrit, Angot discusses the "absence" of the corresponding meaning in Sanskrit (p. 43, my emphasis). He does not discuss its presence in French, nor does he seem to admit the possibility that the same content might be expressed through two different phraseologies. I might be wrong, but I cannot see any conceptual difference between the Latin way of expressing possess (mihi est …), the Hindī one (mere pās … hai) and the French one (j'ai …). And even if there were one (for instance, if the French phraseology would stress one's agency within a possess-relation), French would be part of the question and not a judge aloof of it. One might argue that French thinkers misconstrue the relation of possess as if it implied an agent, although it is quite different from the description of an action. Structural linguists do in fact distinguish between the "I" in "I cook" (agent), the "I" in "I hear" (experiencer) and the "I" in "I have" (theme or patient).

However, it is noteworthy that Angot himself at another point of his long introduction criticises the idea that the language determines the thought (p.48) and adds the very important caveat that one is never sure that the categories we now attribute to a language are the same shared by ancient authors thinking in that same language (p. 48, fn.120).
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