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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Funding Research: Who is responsible?


I tend to think that the Government should fund research and education and, consequently, finance universities, conferences, workshops, research-groups, museums, etc. After all, an educated society tends to be a better one for everyone to live in. The Government should finance it, hence, also because of selfish reasons.
However, this kind of reasons does not seem to appeal to today's politicians. The general trend in Europe seems to go towards less welfare state, including education and especially research among the expenses one can reasonably cut down.
Should a new era begin, in which private citizens should feel responsible and do what the state refutes to do? Until now, enlightened citizens have been lobbying in favour of funds for education and research. Should they actually start financing it themselves?
We all agree that it is right to finance the art-historians and all the people involved in the organization of an exhibition by paying a ticket. We would not dream of going to a rock-concert without paying for it. Many of us donate to their church, or to charities. If this is normal, why not funding research, too? I am not just talking about large-scale projects. I rather think of the minor contributions of many people and how this could have a minor impact on the world, but a major one for the people involved.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Translations: tertium non datur?

In his blog, Aleix recently raised an interesting discussion about literal translations. Such translations, he provocatively argues, might be said to be useful since
  1. 1. a poetic translation may also fail to be that nice but since it pretends to be poetic a reader might think that the original text is bad poetry (the argument is K.R. Norman's),
  2. 2. a literal translation may help people understand the text, even if the translator has not been able to completely understand it.
The topic is too interesting not to pause on it once again and I will here repeat some of the points I made in a comment on that post.

In some cases, a translation cannot be too literal. Translating a compound with a compound (for instance, yāgasya iṣṭasādhanatva and "desired-[end]-meansness of the sacrifice"), to name the extreme case, would be absurd and would not help any reader. Breaking a compound into a nominal phrase ("being the means for the desired end of the sacrifice") does not always work either. In such cases, one just has to acknowledge the fact that English is more a verbal language than Sanskrit and translate "the sacrifice is the means to realise a desired end".

That being said, the kind of translation you are writing depends on your target reader. If you write for a student or for someone who uses your translation just as a commentary to the Sanskrit text, you might want to enable him to check back any single word you are translating in the original text. If, on the other hand, you are writing for a reader who does NOT know any Sanskrit (or Pāli or any other language), then you should be able to produce a text which is independently understandable. An excellent example of the first kind of translation is Jim Benson's translation of the Mīmāṃsānyāyaprakāśa; of the latter John Taber's translation of the Ślokavārttika chapter on perception.

Is there space left for a third possibility?

I wrote by far too many posts on translations in the last months. You can find them listed here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do we really want to edit the Ur-Text?


As all readers know, I am working since years on the edition and translation of Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya and I have collected several versions of my own translation. Some fifty years ago, I would have had several workbooks full of notes. As soon as one would have become too full, I would have transcribed the last version in a new one and started re-reading it again. Suppose that I were a teacher: I would have used my translation in my classes again and again. My students would have taken notes and the ones of, say, year 1960, would have ended up with a translation quite different than the ones of year 1950. Then, one of them might have re-thought about the text and added her own notes on the margins. Another might have lent her workbook to a friend, who might have copied its content and added some glosses in brackets, when she could not make sense of it. Not to speak about the new readings produced just by misreadings, or by copying further the initial text. And this all can be easily thought to happen within a lifespan!

Of course, one might say that all philologists try to reconstruct the author's final view. This can be practically impossible (because of the lack of autograph manuscripts, etc.), but theoretically possible. However, the "final view" only exists in some cases. A kāvya poem, in classical and contemporary India has probably been elaborated enough to have a final version. But what about lectures, conferences, talks, manuscripts written by authors who were trying to make sense of a problem, struggled with that, re-read a passage again and again trying to make sense of it?
Do we really want to say that the textual edition of the Ur-Text is a general rule? Even if the Ur-Text is assumed as an abstract entity, such as the author's last version?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Philosophy and Anthropology on the Body

I happened to read a great paper by Vanessa Grotti (in this volume) about the way Christianity and one's feeling of oneself as a body interact among sedentarised tribes of the Amazonia. After the first pages, the paper is really a page-turner and raises many interesting issues. Beside the political ones (such as the legitimacy of the missionaries' intervention in pre-existing societies), I have been captured by the thematic core of the article, i.e., that one's body is not a stable entity.
"Wild people" and young children seem to be (yet) able to shift into another body. For instance, a "wild man" cannot be seen in the forest, because it becomes something else, perhaps an animal; and a young children is assumed to be able to become a monkey. Becoming sedentary (which is tantamount to become Christians, in that context) implies, on the other hand, becoming "educated" and, hence, loosing the possibilities an instable body can grant. The idea is really fascinating and it made me re-think our culturally loaden concept of "body". Nowadays, we might be inclined to think that a body is just an external object, clearly distinguished from others. The fact that living beings have bodies and that inert matter can be said to have a body only in a metaphorical sense, might add the idea that a body is an external object wherein organic processes take place. But this is not the only possible understanding of body. "Mainstream" Indian authors (Mīmāṃsakas, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas, Vedāntins…) tend to speak, instead, of the body as the receptacle of fruition, i.e., the place where experience (bhoga) can take place.
What is a "body" for an Amerindian? If I understood correctly V.G.'s article, it is a vehicle for experience. The inner "soul" can move from one body to another. But this "soul" seems to be just "animation". The characteristics of one's personality depend, by contrast, on the body one is using. A "wild man" becomes "educated", if we accepts the bodily habits of "educated" people. But he will turn back into a "wild being" if he goes back into the forest and, consequently, turn into an animal. In this sense, one's "soul" seems to be capable of descending in different bodies as a medium would do it, i.e., assuming all the features of the body s/he is entering.
To put it short, "body" is an ambiguous word and its understanding is culturally loaden. Do anthropologists engage with this sort of objections or is "body" a well-established anthropological term?

Photo found in http://www.ucsf.edu.
On plants' "bodies", see here. On the conclusion that plants do not have bodies, since they cannot experience, see here. On bodies as conceived by Materialists in Indian philosophy, see here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sanskrit and English translations

tatra, tad, tataḥ… are among the most common Sanskrit words. A Sanskrit sentence easily runs like that:
A is B and B is C. tataḥ A is C

A literal English translation, such as:
A is B and B is C. For that reason, A is C

runs the risk to make readers ask "Which reason? One mentioned before?".
On the contrary, a standard English translation of it could be rather:
A is B and B is C. For this reason, A is C.

In other words, in English "that" is by far less common than "this" and so are "in that case", "for that reason", etc. The latter are only used to contrast, for instance, that case with this case, that reason with this reason. To put it short: "this" is the standard, non-connoted form. "That" is the connoted one.
Should we then translate tatra, tad… with "this"…, unless a contrast is highlighted through them? What strategies do readers use? (Or: Do they think that my grasp of English is too poor in this case?)

As for translations in general, see here and here.
As for the translation of specific terms, see here and under the labels "Sanskrit" and "koṣa".

Friday, March 18, 2011

Memory and experience

If we had an intellectual intuition (that is, a direct perception non mediated by any sense organ) of another person's memory's contents, would these contents appear as memory to us? No, answers the kaśmīri philosopher Utpaladeva, because the character of being past is not enough to identify a memory. On top of that, one needs the connection with an experience. We only identify as memory what is connected with our previous experience. A sheer object would not count as one. See below for a possible objection.


The Vivṛti (long gloss) of Utpaladeva on his ĪPK (see below for references):

It is not the case that in memory an object previously experienced is manifested in its sheer own form (kevala), like in an intellectual intuition (yogijñāna) having a past object as its content. For, in this way (if the object devoid of any connotation were manifested), it would not have its character of memory. It is said that in memory, the quality of being past only [occurs] through the experience, although the object is in itself changeless. Hence, the manifestation of the experience is here useful. Therefore [the author of the short gloss] says: "And a previously experienced object, together with the experience". And memory has the form of a cognition, therefore he speaks of "light of memory" (my translation).

(pūrvānubhūtasyaivārthasya kevalasya na smṛtau yogijñāna ivātītārthaviṣaye prakāśaḥ. tathā hi smṛtitvaṃ na syāt. anubhavamukhenaiva cārthasya svayaṃ sthiratve ’pi smṛtāv atītatvatvam ucyata ity anubhavaprakāśa evātropayogī. tad āha “pūrvānubhūtaś cārtho ’nubhavena saha” iti | smṛtiś ca jñānarūpaivety āha “smṛtiprakāśa” iti. The text has been edited by R. Torella, Festschrift Brunner, 2002).



Well, one could object that some psychological experiments have shown that in case one is provided with a single content, unconnected with experience and only characterised as past (for instance, an old photograph), one tends to make up a fake memory around it. Hence, the distinction may be less clear-cut… However, the same experiments show that the "trap" works by far better if one includes in the photograph the person one is analysing, thus strongly suggesting that that content is linked with her experience.
What do readers think?

On the metaphor of light as referring to cognition, see here.
I have dealt with memory and subjectivity in other posts. See here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spatio-temporal orientation in Sanskrit texts

I wrote in a previous post that detecting an absence means, for authors dealing with Mīmāṃsā and Śrauta Sūtras, to look for a substitute for the absent element.
Although it might be easy to say why absence is related to substitution, the opposite is not the case. Why is not it the case that one just explains substitution by saying that X becomes Y? Why do we need to refer to the absence of X, so that, instead, Y is used at its place? Could not it be that the speculations on ritual hermeneutics tend to be spatially oriented, so that spatial explanations are preferred over temporal ones?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Requirement of absence

Although absences are commonly encountered in all cognitive enterprises, Western mathematics, physics, linguistics, hermeneutics etc. seem to have presupposed them rather than focusing on them as a specific topic. Hence, although the zero may seem to today's Westerners logically entailed in the concept of number, as if the zero were the origin of numbers, it is only due to Indian mathematicians that a 'zero' (śūnya) has been assumed. Plotinus, on the other hand, viewed in the One the origin of all numbers.

Similarly, although the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika categories resemble in many respects those of Aristotles, 'absence' (abhāva) is only listed among the former ones. And the same applies to absence as an instrument of knowledge (abhāvapramāṇa).

In order to recognise an absence, the first requirement is a paradigm against which it can be checked. I cannot recognise the absence of a student from my class, unless I know who should be there. Similarly, detecting the absence of a certain ritual element in a ritual text requires that one knows what the standard ritual text should say.
Moreover, detecting an absence leads one to find a way to fill it, that is to supply an element which can fulfil the role of what is absent. Hence, all discussions on absence in hermeneutics and ritualistics will regard also these two features (standard paradigm and supplying procedures).

This might partly explain why both these functions interact in the semantic history of a key term within Indian ritualistics (Śrauta Sūtra) and Mīmāṃsā, i.e., tantra.

On tantra, see here. On the related topic of prasaṅga, see here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Double perspective

I am spending a few days in Cambridge, which means that I could spend some time with some of the most interesting PhD students in the field of Indian linguistics, ranging from the Vedic time to late Sri Lanka's Pali Grammars.
Of course, talking to them is partly interesting because I am myself interested in linguistics and in the history of ideas in general. But I wonder whether a more general feature of the set of "interesting discussions" depends on the ability to work having in sight a double perspective.
On the one hand, one focuses on a small part of the general history (it would not make sense to endeavour to reconstruct anything bigger than a small fragment, if one wants to work directly on its documents), on the other, one gains through that a modified perspective on the background. One might, for instance, focus on the scribal features of a certain manuscript, leaving aside its content. This will certainly be useful to the ones who are working on that same manuscript or on very similar ones. But it is hardly the case that it will be interesting to others, unless one is able to draw a general picture out of it, one that includes the development of scribal habits, the social history of copysts (does a "bad" manuscript mean that the copyst was paid for writing it all, so that he would not care to make it as correct as possible? Does this again mean that the manuscript was not meant to be read?...), the contact with adiacent areas as reconstructable through the borrowing of features of manuscripts' decoration etc., etc. The same applies to philosophy (who would care for a difference in a logical formula unless it had an impact on one's understanding of free will?), history (who would care for the usage of cereals in Syria in the 1st millennium? But it might be interesting to understand that a cereal is pretty rare and that hence its offering within a rite means that the Goddess is a central figure of the Pantheon...) and possibly any other field of research.
Is the distinction between double-perspectivists and single-perspectivists more significant than that between Indologists, Philosophers, etc.? What is the readers' experience?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Metaphor of light

How pervasive is the metaphor of light for the activity of cognition? In Śaiva texts, not only is the metaphore absolutely common, but the authors even elaborate on it, using several different synonyms, at first sight with no different denotations.

The following is a stanza of Utpaladeva's Stanzas on the Recognition of the Lord (Īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā).

Nor is the appearance of a remembered thing possible, if there is a separation [of the past experience] from memory, |
Therefore this knower is the unity of cognitions pertaining to different times || 1.4.3 ||

(na ca yuktaṃ smṛter bhede smaryamāṇasya bhāsanam | tenaikyaṃ bhinnakālānāṃ saṃvidāṃ veditaiṣa saḥ ||)

Next comes his Vṛtti (short commentary) thereon:

And the object which has been experienced before [and] which appears now together with that experience in the light of the memory regarding that time, must be unseparated from memory, because something separated from the light cannot shine. In this way, the unity of the cognitions such as experience and memory is the Self, the knower.


(pūrvānubhūtaś cārtho 'nubhavena saha tatkālikasmṛtiprakāśe 'vabhāsamānaḥ smṛtyabhinna eva prakāśād bhinnasya prakāśamānatānupapatteḥ. evam anubhavasmṛtyādisaṃvidām aikyaṃ sa eva cātmā vedakas.)
(Text edited by R. Torella, 2007; my translations)

The general idea is that something insentient cannot acquire the quality of being intelligible, because the process of cognition is not seen as involving an active side (the knower) and a purely passive side (the object known), but as an 'event', during which the object known becomes 'luminous'. Something intrinsically non-luminous would never be able to become luminous. Hence, even in matter there must be some latent trace of light. Hence, all is pervaded by the Self's light. This makes the Recognition with the Lord possible.

Do readers see any different connotations among these words?

On the topic of the argument from memory in Śaiva texts, see here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Prescriptions and subjects

The Prābhākara texts claim that a subject becomes a person only upon being enjoined.

The Prābhākara literature does not further elaborate on the ontological existence of subjectivity prior to the injunction. Apparently, Prābhākaras were not concerned with a pre public stage of subjectivity, which is a sort of psychological noumenon. They focused on the full-blown personhood, which entails being aware of oneself as oneself and being part of an intersubjective net of relationships, which is only possible upon being enjoined. From an ontological point of view, however, one might admit the existence of a basic subject, with 'subject' in the Medieval sense of what is the locus for the action of something else (in this case, for the predication of the prescription). Such a subject would not be aware of himself/herself as a person, but would have some sort of basic intentional consciousness. In the Prābhākara terminology, this stage could be identified with the consciousness of oneself as knower that is involved in every cognitive act. IN fact, according to the Prābhākara epistemology, every cognitive act is thought to be reflexive and, hence, to necessarily entail a knower.

Thus, from an ontological point of view, one might suggest that a young child starts becoming aware of things around her/him and, hence, implicitly, of the fact that s/he is experiencing them. It is only through other people's injunctions, though, that s/he becomes aware of that experiencer as being himself/herself. This awareness of herself/himself, in summary, embeds the cognitive capacity within an intersubjectively shared personhood.

On children and subjects, see here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Indology, Orientalism, South Asian and other Areal Studies

I tend to think that shifting from Indology to South Asian studies was a mistake, because the latter label is even more geographically bound than the former. "Indology" meant "everything written in Sanskrit", which is vague, but at least entails some loose sort of a shared cultural background. "South Asian studies" just means "whatever happened in South Asia", which is hardly more than a non-sense, since many things happen in South Asia, which have no link at all.
Try, for instance, types "South Asian studies" in a conference alerter and you will get alerts about conferences on technology, IT, cinema, etc. etc.
The same applies to "Oriental Studies". Apart from Said's (sound, at least in part) criticisms, "Orientalism" had a cultural connotation, which is (entirely or partly) lacking in "Asian studies".

In sum: I am not entirely against Indology and Oriental Studies. I think these labels just cannot be used for historical reasons (they are no longer politically correct and hurt other people's sensibilities). On the contrary, I am frankly against "South Asian studies", because I do not believe geography is a sensible reason to draw a boundary and build a label.
Of course, one might reply that areal studies have a meaning, insofar as they enable experts of different aspects of a given culture to cooperate. A colleague of mine here in Oxford pointed out the fact that her work on classical Arabian literature has been enhanced by colleagues working on Arabic philosophy and law.
But:
  1. 1. I think this tends to be the case when the link is not purely geographical (as in the case of the Arabic world, which shares the same language and the same religion and not just the same area);
  2. 2. Working together with people who focus on Arabic law might be useful, but would not it be even more useful to work with people who focus on literary theories?
What do readers think? We need labels, but let they be as 'intelligent' as possible!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Unity of the subject of memory and experience

The argument from memory has possibly been historically the most powerful tool in favour of the persistence of a subject through time. And this not only in the West, but also in India.

Raffaele Torella has recently identified and edited some large fragments of the previously unedited vivṛti (long gloss) of Utpaladeva on his own Īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā (The Strophes about the Lord's Recognition). The fragment edited in Tantric Studies in Memory of Helène Brunner begins with the following passage (my translations, R.Torella's own one has not been published yet):

The author [of the Strophes] shows that:
1. at the time of recollection, there cannot be any difference [between the subject who is recollecting now a certain pot and the one who saw it in the past], because what is manifested in the present memory is the appareance of the object further determined [as having been perceived in] a previous time,
2. the same physical object of both the appearances [of it] in the [past] experience and in the [present] memory implies the unity of both.
By doing that, he proves that the [past] seer and the [present] recollector are one and the same.
(smṛtikāle ca pūrvakālāvacchedenārthābhāsasya samarthitasya vārtamānikasmṛtiprakāśād bhedo nopapadyata ity anubhavasmṛtyābhāsayoḥ śarīrībhūta eko ’rthaḥ tayor apy ekatam ākṣipatīti copadarśayan draṣṭāraṃ smartāraṃ caikam upapādayati.)

In other words, the object of memory is the same that has been experienced before. The only additional feature it displays is the fact that it is recollected as being related to a previous time. Since no one else could have access to that past object, apart from the one who saw it originally, the recollector and the original perceiver must be one and the same person.

The above translation has been modified after a discreet reader pointed out that "congruous" is a rather unusual English word and that the whole passage sounded cumbersome. Thanks!

On memory and the self, see here. On translations, see here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Who is your favourite research partner?

Whenever I discuss with friends or colleagues about my belief that intellectual enterprises should be collective ones, because collaboration enhances the quality of one's work, I tend to receive the following answer: "It is difficult to find people with whom it is worth working". I will not deal here with the truth or falsehood of the statement, since I would rather focus on the identity of the people with whom it is worth working.
In my experience,
  1. 1. they must share some background knowledge. It is too fatiguating to have to explain every piece of information you are using in your work.
  2. 2. they must share a similar goal. This does not need to be your final goal (e.g., making Indian philosophy part of the general enterprise of "Philosophy", and, hence, make it available to people looking for meaningness). But at least some part of the proximate goal must be common. I can aptly collaborate with someone whose proximate goal is to critically edit a text, if only we are both interested to understand a certain portion of that text.
  3. 3. paradoxically enough, I tend to think that they must NOT share many of my views. Differences in outlook make intellectual exchange intriguing and challenging.
  4. 4. they must be willing to engage in dialogue. I have been working with stubborn people (and I am one, too), but they were not so stubborn as not to end up admitting that they could not make sense of something (for instance, of a contradictory statement). People who are just too sure can be 'useful' but it is rarely the case that an authentic collaboration can take place.

What do readers think?


As for my praise of team-work, see here. The specific case of workshops is dealt with here, and that of conferences here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Can one undertake actions if one still doubts?

Can one undertake actions while one still doubts about their effects? Can this occur in regard to all possible fields?
I tend to think that it is possible to start undertaking an action while still doubting if one knows that one will soon be certain that what one is undertaking is correct (or not). The degree of certainty and the role of time might be different:

  1. 1. One might try to add some water to a dough in order to check whether it becomes softer. The result is immediate and doubt is immediately solved.
  2. 2. One might try to plant some seeds although one does not know whether it is yet too cold for them to grow outside. The result is delayed, but the doubt will sooner or later be solved.
  3. 3. One might decide to baptize one's baby, although one WILL NEVER KNOW whether this helped her, just because to do it is easy and the alleged risk of not doing it is huge (a baby burning in hell…).

No. 3 somehow resembles Pascal's pari (bet). Its logical possibility rests on the disproportion between the efforts required and the result one might get.
But what about:

  1. 4. extremely laborious actions whose results will never be experienced in this life?

Would one undertake them while still doubting about their results? Would one, e.g., perform a one-year long sacrifice, give away money, cattle, wealth?

I recall a very interesting discussion about it in Dharmakīrti (concluding that prekṣākārins, people who act in a conscious way, would not undertake such actions without any certainty). Also Mīmāṃsakas claim that trust is needed in regard to the Veda –which cannot be confirmed by any other instrument of knowledge. Hence, in regard to No.4, the problem might be rephrased as follows: How to acquire trust in regard to things one cannot verify?

The discussion about doubt has been raised in some of the last posts. You might wish to check here (Dasti) and here. For a general discussion on doubt, see here. An insightful discussion of Dharmakīrti's case can be found in Vincent Eltschinger's Penser l'Autorité des Écritures, discussed here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Word meanings: their ontological status

Are word meanings referents (i.e., external "things", existing in the outer world, independently of the subjects using the corresponding words)? Do they exist as mental concepts? The first solution seems to lead to the paradoxical assumption of the real existence of unicorns etc,. unless one could rule out all impossibilia as the result of the addition of plausible elements. The second assumption leads –on a different level– to similar problems.

Moreover, as already discussed, Prābhākaras claimed that words in a sentence only convey a connected sentence meaning and not a heap of distinct word-meanings. This does not amount to say that the sentence-meaning is partless, but that its parts (the word-meanings) mutually influence each other, so that they would not have exactly the same meaning if they appeared in a different sentence. In a fundamental article on this theory ("The Context principle and some Indian controversies over meaning", Mind 1988), B.K. Matilal and P.K. Sen asked whether this amounts to admit "unsaturated" entities in the world. The following account by Rāmānujācārya might explain why this is not the case:

The understanding of the sentence-meaning from the words (pada) occurs indeed in the following way. Firstly the words, while they are heard, cause one to remember (smṛ-) their respective meanings, reciprocally unconnected (ananvita). Then, having remembered them, in the hearer arises a reflection (vimarśa) regarding their own meanings, and beginning in this way: “This is one sentence, this is a split (bhinna) one; this is the meaning the speaker wished to convey (vivakṣita), this is the undesired meaning; this is metaphorical, this is primary; this is worthy of connection; this is principal, this is not principal; this has been prescribed, this has not been prescribed…”. Thereafter, there is a division of fit (yogya) and unfit regarding the coordinated apprehension (anusandhāna) of the exact word-(śabda) meanings through a coordinated apprehension according to the rules (nyāya) appropriate (aupayika) for the ascertainment (nirṇaya) of the sentence-meaning


(that is, the coordinated apprehension of the word meanings occurs through the coordinated apprehension of the sentence meaning, which again depends on suitable rules). Next:

Then these words, brought (back) to memory, express a related [meaning].

(TR III, emphasis mine)

On the expression of a connected meaning, see here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nyāya on trust

This is a hosted post by Matthew Dasti.

I would argue that when they are not arguing past each other, Nyāya’s view is similar to Mīmāṁsā’s, insofar as they both accept that cognition may be unreflectively justified when it is “free from defeaters”.
Vātsyāyana and Gaṅgeśa suggest that in the absence of review or certification, pramāṇas provide cognition with positive epistemic status. Vātsyāyana indicates the status of such cognition by claiming that it is nirṇaya, a definitive ascertainment or conclusive determination. In the Nyāya-sūtra (1.1.41), nirṇaya has a technical meaning, referring to the desideratum of philosophical inquiry, a conclusive determination regarding an object at issue (artha-avadhāraṇa). Uddyotakara defines it as artha-paricchedaḥ avadhāraṇam, the determination which is a definitive ascertainment of an object (NV 1.1.41). In the context of philosophical dispute, a judgment is deemed nirṇaya only after a final settlement is reached, having examined reasons for and against a position. But Vātsyāyana notes that in perception (for example), an immediate, unreviewed cognition born of the contact between sense faculty and object is nirṇaya. Uddyotakara is more explicit: “some claim that definitive ascertainment is simply inferential; that it is nothing more. We deny this. . . in the absence of [inference], definitive ascertainment may be produced as the result of the [mere] functioning of a pramāṇa” (NB 1.1.41). . . In further support of this reading of the Nyāya view, we may note that Gaṅgeśa suggests that cognitions that are certain (niścaya) are provided by the deliverances of putative pramāṇas. Gaṅgeśa stresses the deep tie between cognitions which are certain and unhesitating action, niṣkampa-pravṛtti, suggesting that the former is a condition on the latter. That cognition is fundamentally conceived of as a guide to action is a characteristic feature of Nyāya. Gaṅgeśa repeatedly argues that certainty about an object, provided by an initial, putatively veridical cognition, is required for unhesitating action, but not certainty about the high-grade epistemic status (prāmāṇya) of the original cognition itself (see, e.g., Phillips/Ramanuja Tatacharya 2004: 130, 588).

Gaṅgeśa notes that “a cognition whose own veridicality is in fact not grasped makes certain another’s veridicality, since it is itself not blemished by any suspicion about its non-veridicality” (Trans. by Phillips in Phillips/Ramanuja Tatacharya 2004: 131). Matilal (1986: 168) summarizes this point: “If c2 [cognition2, and so on] ascertains the knowledge-hood of c1, and no doubt about the falsehood of c2 arises, there is no need to look for c3, etc. to ascertain the knowledge-hood or otherwise of c2.”

The game of certification may go on so long as legitimate doubt or challenge exists, but in its absence, a cognition stands on its own.

So, while I would suggest that Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya differ over the theoretical reasons for default trust in cognition (and this, I think is a big part of the svataḥ/parataḥ dispute), default trust is very important to both systems.


This post is a reaction to the discussion initiated in this post.
On svataḥ prāmāṇya in Mīmāṃsā, check this post.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Epistemic Liberalism in Nyāya?

Is it legitimate to infer a unique kind of cause from a generic effect? Is inferring it "epistemically liberal"? Or is it just admitting a blatant exception one needs for one's own theistic agenda?

I already discussed in a previous post the product-producer inference and its role in Nyāya philosophy. In the article I referred to in the post, Matthew Dasti understands the argument as an argument from design and not as a cosmological one. The point, hence, is not that a first cause is inferred, in order to avoid a regressus ad infinitum, but rather that the complexity of the products cannot have occurred by chance. Hence, a producer must exist. I agree with Dasti, insofar as the product-producer argument seems to me the Indian version of the watchmaker one (which runs as follows: If you were to find a watch in the desert, would you not assume that some watchmaker did it? Similarly, we need to postulate the existence of a Creator…). Dasti's approach is quite sympathetic to the Nyāya position. He seems to imply that all opposition to this argument favours tighter epistemological boundaries to inference. Yes, the product-producer inference is risky, but it is worth taking risks, if we want inference to yield fresh pieces of information. This move, concludes Dasti, is a move towards epistemic liberalism, in which Naiyāyikas oppose Buddhists and Mīmāṃsakas. Now, I might be oversympathetic towards the Mīmāṃsā stance, but I am not fully convinced by Dasti's generalisation from the inference of God's existence to general epistemic liberalism. Dasti writes:

As I have discussed elsewhere, for Nyāya, default trust is the best attitude to take in our cognitive lives (p.16).

Now, I tend to think the same about Mīmāṃsā. But I read differently the Naiyāyika position. Jayanta (the X c. Naiyāyika whose views are also discussed by Dasti) explicitly upholds the parataḥ prāmāṇya view (NM 3, vol. 1, p.240-3), according to which a cognition is not by default valid, as it is the case for Mīmāṃsā. The validity of a cognition depends on additional factors, such as the subsequent ascertainment that the instrument of knowledge upon which it is based is sound. Now, it is possible that other Naiyāyikas hold different views. Certainly, Jayanta's eulogy of doubt is quite unique. But why does not Dasti consider the apparent inconsistency between his statement and the parataḥ prāmāṇya position?

Is the existence of God inferable? Epistemic Liberalism

Consider the following argument:

the earth and the other things [of the world] is a product, hence it has a doer, like a pot.
Can we establish the existence of a doer out of the fact that the mountains, etc. are a product? Of course, a first problem could be how could we be sure that those things are a product. But a second one regards the legitimacy of an inference based on a concomitance we could never grasp (that between an embodied doer and its products).

Over the week-end I read an interesting article by Matthew Dasti, Indian Rational Theology: Proof, Justification and Epistemic Liberality in Nyāya's Argument for God. The article focuses on the proof for the existence of God I mentioned above, which is the standard one in Nyāya texts.
Dasti considers the argument as dealt with by various Naiyāyikas, by its Buddhist opposers (mainly Ratnakīrti), its Western parallels and its significance within the Naiyāyika epistemology. As already pointed out in Parimal Patil's study of Ratnakīrti's argument against God's existence, in fact, the inference about the existence of God is deeply linked with the general problem of the reliability of inference as instrument of knowledge and its ampliative character.
Because of the problems hinted at above, the product-producer inference can hardly apply to God, unless one stresses the ampliative character of inference and admits an inference regarding a producer one has never experienced to be actually concomitant with products whose arousal one has never seen. Buddhists are quite hard in denying the validity of an inference which is not safely based on a sure invariable concomitance. Naiyāyikas, on the contrary, are –in Dasti's opinion– more "liberal".

Methodological manifesto

Why do I like or not like other people's work? I try to avoid disliking papers just because they do not fulfill my expectations (for instance, because they do not analyse original sources), but in order to do that, I have to be aware of what my expectations are. Hence, I wrote a draft of what I identify as important methodological points.

  1. 1. Consider the history of an idea. When one does not consider its historical context, one runs the risk to misunderstand the real meaning of a point. A controversial (yet interesting) example: Jesus' rejection of divorce is to be found only as opposed to Moses' acceptance of repudial. So, can't it be the case that Jesus' concern was the fate of repudiated women, rather the social persistence of marriages?
  2. 2. Ask meaningful questions. Questions are not in themselves a value, they might also be just needless provocations (I include here questions irrespective of the context). In order to engage in a dialogue with a philosophical text, one has to ask it meaningful (i.e., philosophical) questions.
  3. 3. Be aware of how much of yourself you are projecting in your research. Unless you include your own presuppositions in your research, you will be unconsciously conditioned by them.
  4. 4. Spell out the broader meaning. Why should I be interested in Syrian cereals in the Vth millennium? Perhaps because this tells me how significant a sacrifice of barley was, for a Syrian community? If there is no broader meaning (is it at all possible?), give up the research.
  5. 5. Read more. Read more sources. Read more secondary literature. Everything we say has surely been said or hinted at already. We should avoid writing unnecessary books or articles just because we did not care to check older ones.
All these points are, I guess, non-controversial (hence, I would be so glad to read opinions opposing them). On the contrary, the following one might be questioned:

  1. 6. Principle of charity. Interpret the text in a way the author does not seem to be upholding a non-sense even from his point of view (of course, she might uphold a view that is non-sensical to us, such as that the earth is flat, if the historical context upheld it, too).
I consistently apply No. 6 because it helps me in better understanding texts. I know, many texts are the result of multiple strata and super-imposing a sense on them may lead one to oversee the existing contradictions inherent in their multiple strata. Yet, as for me, in case I am struggling with a point, I assume I am the dull one, and not the author. In this way, I am more likely to try harder, check other works of the same author or school, compare opponents' works, read Western philosophy on the same topic, etc., unless I find a plausible solution.


"Read more" is my favourite one. I have discussed it here.

What would readers suggest instead or in addition to the above points?
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