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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Is it irrational to know that reason cannot reach everything?

…or is not it perfectly rational to know the reason's limits?

Whenever I talk about my primary interest, i.e., epistemology in Mīmāṃsā, I have to face the objection that the Mīmāṃsā school is not philosophical, since it accepts inconditionally the authority of the Veda. Today, while reading the (excellent) book Reflexion und Ritual in der Pūrvamīmāṃsā, by Lars Göhler, I met a similar statement, explaining that the Mīmāṃsā introduced the dialectical method (the topic is mentioned, a doubt is raised, several objectors are allowed to speak, after objections and counter-objections, one achieves a final conclusion, which is then applied to the topic) into Indian philosophy (p. 123). Nonetheless (allerdings), writes Göhler, one should remember that the Mīmāṃsā accepted the authority of the Veda. Why "nonetheless"? Does the fact of accepting an authority de facto disqualify you as a philosopher? Does it mean that your dialectical method is not pure?
What would remain of Western philosophy if we were to apply the same criterion to it?
More importantly, Mīmāṃsā authors distinguish two domains: the domain of what is perceptible and that of what is beyond perception. In the former, the Veda has no authority. No one would believe that the sun stops moving just because the Veda might have said it. By contrast, as for the domain of what lies beyond perception, either we believe in some authority, or we are completely at loss. How to decide whether sacrificing rice grains or going to the Mass on Sunday is good or not? Sense perception (and all the other means, which ultimately rely on sense-data), just does not help.

Is not it rational, then, to accept that one needs an authority?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why working on concrete individual authors?

When one works on Sanskrit philosophy, one often swims in a sea of anonymous works and undatable manuscripts. The core of Sanskrit philosophy, indeed, is debatable as for date and/or authorship and/or geographic origin. However, there a few exceptions. I argue here that working on such exceptions offers some advantages.

For instance, Vedānta Deśika offers the non-common advantage to be a full-fledged individual. We know a lot about him, although mostly through almost hagiographical works. More than one hundred works of him have been preserved, and most of them seem to be genuinely attributed to him. Through comparing his devotional, theological and philosophical work, we can get an elaborated idea of his intellectual figure and of his contribution. Hence, Vedānta Deśika is one out of not many milestones in Indian philosophy. Reconstructing his thought is a difficult task, yet not an impossible one, insofar as it implies reconstructing the thought of a precise individual, through many possible sources, most of which authored by Vedānta Deśika himself.

Since I work mostly on Indian philosophy, I am mainly interested in reconstructing the philosophical profile of Vedānta Deśika. In order to do that, one cannot but rely also on his other works apart from the Seśvaramīmāṃsā (SM), but also on his predecessors' works, in order to evaluate Vedānta Deśika's contribution to the debate. In fact, Indian thinkers often tend not to emphasise their original contributions and rather to present them as if they were just (improved) interpretations of the foundational texts of their school.

In the case of the SM in particular, in order to reconstruct Vedānta Deśika's contribution, one will have to take into account the stand of the debate within Mīmāṃsā on the topics Vedānta Deśika deals with and then within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta on the same topics and on the usage of Mīmāṃsā in general. Two fundamental steps in this regard will be Rāmānuja's Vedārthasaṅgraha (11th c., where also Mīmāṃsā doctrines are discussed) and Yamunācārya's Āgamaprāmāṇya (10 th. c., discussing the authority of Pañcarātra scriptures).

Have you been working on authors having a determined personality? Did it help your general understanding of Sanskrit philosophy and cultural history?

On Vedānta Deśika, see here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A database of scholars?


As it is often the case, offer and demand do not meet in Sanskrit studies.
While considering where to write my PhD dissertation, I did not know about Jim Benson's work on Mīmāṃsā. When I spent some time with him last Spring, he said he had at that time no student to supervise —and would not have minded having one. Years after, I started thinking of a critical edition of Sucarita's commentary on Kumārila, until someone informed me that there was already someone else working on it. Now, I am working on Vedānta Deśika and cannot get really in touch with the many serious scholars working on him (if you google "vedānta deśika" you will get instead hundreds of devotional websites —which are fine, except that I am looking for something else).
Usually, this shortcomings due to lack of mutual contact and information can be avoided because the community of Sanskrit scholars is relatively small. But this is not always the case, especially if one works at its outskirts (geographically, culturally or linguistically). Nor can one just count on one's personal acquaintances.
Hence, how to fix the problem? I think that a nice solution would be to create a database of Sanskrit scholars, searchable through various keywords (such as "key interests"), unlike the rare "Who's who in Sanskrit Studies" by Klaus Karttunen. Prospective students would in this way find suitable tutors. Scholars would be able to know whether someone else is working on a topic they are also working on. They could in this way share information and avoid useless efforts (such as doing the same thing at the same time).

On offer and demand in Indology, see this post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How to establish the validity of a "new" Sacred Text

Vedānta Deśika is the major systematiser of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. Before him, Yāmunācārya and Rāmānuja set the theological bases of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism, making a theological and philosophical school out of it. Vedānta Deśika has to rethink its position in the landscape of Sanskrit philosophy. Since Sanskrit works start by rule with an indication of their epistemological legitimacy, Vedānta Deśika had to face at first the problem of the legitimacy of the epistemological background of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and Śrī Vaiṣṇavism. This included the Vedas but most of all a collection of Sacred Texts called ''Pañcarātra" and which was commonly used by Śrī Vaiṣṇavas in their religious praxis.

From this point of view, Vedānta Deśika's situation parallels the one of other Sanskrit philosophers, such as Bhaṭṭa Jayanta and Abhinavagupta, who had to face a similar issue in trying to justify the Śaiva Sacred Texts. Basically, Sanskrit philosophy knows to way to justify the epistemological validity of an instance of Linguistic Communication (e.g., a Sacred Text). Either it is said to be apauruṣeya, 'independent of a human [author]', and, hence untouched by his/her defects, or it is guaranteed by an authoritative author, an āpta, 'reliable'. The Mīmāṃsā school strongly advocates the first view, whereas the Nyāya one the second. Within the second, it is quite easy to accommodate one's belief in God as the author of Sacred Texts. He is their reliable author, insofar as he is the most reliable speaker altogether. And in fact, the Nyāya school itself soon enough identifies the ''reliable speaker" of the Vedas as God himself. The authors who follow this attitude, like Bhaṭṭa Jayanta, will just have to prove that a certain Sacred Text has also been authored by God to include it within the Canon of the valid texts. By contrast, Vedānta Deśika chooses to adhere to the Mīmāṃsā paradigm, and thus has to face a far more complex issue, i.e., justifying the validity of the Veda as independent of a divine author, while at the same time preserving the supreme position of God. Further, he needs to justify the authority of the Pañcarātra, although these are not apauruṣeya. This leads him to an articulate epistemology of Linguistic Communication.

What happens to a religion when it faces the challenge of istitutionalisation? What happens when it tries to found the validity of its Sacred Texts within an already established framework?

On Vedānta Deśika, you can see this post.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is the surest way to rationally found one's believes?

Vedānta Deśika (XIII c.) was a polygraph. He wrote in different genres and in three different languages. However, the Seśvaramīmāṃsā (SM) occupies a specific position in his production, insofar as in it Vedānta Deśika explicitly faces the orthodox tradition of Mīmāṃsā. Thus, it represents at the same time Vedānta Deśika's essay of making Śrī Vaiṣṇavism compatible with the Vedic orthodoxy and of showing how Vedic orthodoxy would be useful and welcome for Śrī Vaiṣṇavas.

In his SM, Vedānta Deśika mainly focuses on orthodoxy, whereas problems concerning the Śrī Vaiṣṇavas' orthopraxy and the legitimacy of their rituals are dealt with in other works (see Rastelli 2006). Similarly, the emotional answer to the question about God's existence is dealt with in the copious devotional poems composed by Vedānta Deśika. Consequently, the SM represents an intellectual enterprise, one aiming at creating a synthesis between the two systems. How far can this synthesis reach? A main obstacle seems to be the Mīmāṃsā atheism, which would frontally oppose the very foundation of Śrī Vaiṣṇavism.
Vedānta Deśika will have to detect a difficult path within his interpretation of the foundational texts of Mīmāṃsā (Jaimini's Mīmāṃsāsūtra and Śabara's Śābarabhāṣya), one which allows him to say that the atheism as conceived by Mīmāṃsā authors was not a denial of the god devotees worship and at the same time to ground Śrī Vaiṣṇavism through rational argumentation independent of the pre-postulation of God's existence.

I have been blogging a lot about Vedānta Deśika, see for instance this post (on the epistemology of direct perception), this one (on that of dharma), this one (on linguistic communication), this one (on intellectual intuition).

Friday, September 16, 2011

How to refute a paper


Is there a meaningful way to refute an article? I tend to think that it must be one through which the author can at least learn something.
For instance,
  1. 1. The refusal must be motivated. To say "it does not suit our journal" is not enough. The author should be given enough elements to judge and improve.
  2. 2. The review process must be as transparent as possible.
  3. 3. The reviewers must not be suspected of not being able to understand or to evaluate the article (i.e., they must know its topic well enough to be able to evaluate its value).
  4. 4. If possible, rather than refute, one might suggest improvements. Of course, this implies that the dead-line must allow extra time for substantial improvements. It is just sad to know that you are given no second chance, although the problems pointed out might have been remedied.
  5. 5. Particular caution might be needed in case of papers which cannot be "recycled". In other words, before asking for a paper in Montenegrin about a finety of ancient Indian phonetism, consider whether the author is really likely to produce something you will be able to publish.

By the way, I have just had an article refuted by a journal whose editor had asked me to write something for a special issue (on a topic connected to religions). This made me rethink about the general topic of refuting articles from a different standpoint:-))

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In praise of variants

Philology is a bourgeois, paternalist and hygienist discourse of the family, which cherishes filiation, condemns adultery, is afraid of contamination. A discourse of guilt (the variant is a deviant conduct), which founds a positive methodology (Bernard Cerquiglini).


This sounds like a funny and yet intriguing quote. I found it thanks to Reinhold Grünendahl's "Post-philological Gestures - "Deconstructing" Textual Criticism" (WZKS 52-53), which is in fact a praise of German textual criticism against Deconstructionism and any other attack coming from the side of Said's, Derrida's and Foucault's (alleged?) followers.
The intriguing side of the quote and that —at least in my case— it made me react by thinking that, in fact, I do not condemn at all variants. They are often the most important part of one's work. They tell one a lot about the fortune of a text (has it been understood? misunderstood? wilfully altered?), the milieus where it has been read, the kind of people who read it and their worldview. Besides, it might be the only way to get some insight into the original meaning of the text as conceived by its author.
Interestingly enough, the quote is found in a book which seems to share a similar point of view, since it is called Eloge de la variante: Histoire critique de la philologie (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1989, the quote is from pp.76-77).

On critical editions, textual criticism and variants, you might like these two posts (and their insightful comments).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tips for a better speech, from the point of view of a listener


What makes a speech a very good one —in South Asian studies? No reading, of course, good time-planning (vs. "I now have to skip to the conclusions…" while frantically looking for the right sheet) and being prepared by pronouncing it aloud, but what else?

During and after the last Coffee Break Conference, I collected some good advices from friends and colleagues:
  1. 1. If you are supposed to deliver a paper in a language which is not your mother-tongue, do not fill it words you would not normally use. The effort of remembering them (or, worse!, reading them) will make you nervous and unnatural. Just write your speech in a plain, colloquial way, using the same sort of language you would use for explaining it to a friend.
  2. 2. Focus on conveying an idea.
  3. 3. Examine your audience. Many papers have been enhanced just be the fact that the speakers had had enough time to adjust to the audience.
  4. 4. Less is more. Do not aim at re-shaping the history of South Asian studies, no one will follow you. Instead, convey one core point.

What would readers suggest? What sort of papers do you like more?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Boundaries and sacredness

One of the characteristics of whatever is "sacred" or "religious" seems to be its being segregated from the corresponding normal behaviour (see M.S.'s point about it in this post). This might mean that walking, eating, cooking, etc., might all be secular as well as religious activities and that the difference lies first and foremost in their context. If the context sets a precise boundary, secluding them from normal experience, then they acquire a religious meaning. This is what would happen within a Vedic ritual, which encompasses all sorts of "normal" activities (such as the one listed above).
Does this apply to language as well? Indian grammarians seem to imply that the correct use of language bestows religious merit. But how does this happen? The topic has been dealt with recently by Paolo Visigalli and Marco Ferrante at the second CBF. I am sure I misunderstood most of their papers, but long summaries might be downloaded here. An intesting way to start the discussion is the first vārttika by Kātyāyana on Pāṇini. The vārttika says:
siddhe śabdārthasaṃbandhe lokato 'rthaprayukte śabdaprayoge śāstreṇa dharmaniyamaḥ yathā laukikavaidikeṣu.

In George Cardona's translation:

It is given from every day communication in the world that there is an established relation between words and meanings; it is also given that the use of a word is prompted by a given meaning in that one uses words in order to convey meanings. This being so, a restriction intended for merit (dharmaniyamaḥ) is established by the grammar, like in common and Vedic words.


The last point might imply that Grammar imposes a restriction into language and that only a so-restricted language may convey a meaning. Interestingly enough, the clause yathā laukikavaidikeṣu might mean that no language is intrinsically "sacred" (not even Vedic) and that, rather, sacredness depends on the way one adds special constraints to it. These constraints might be those of correctness, but perhaps also of a conscious usage (one which is made correct by Grammar and not just by the fact that one is a native speaker).
The main point seems to be that religious merit (dharma) has to do with a selection among equally possible options (niyama). Do readers know of other contexts of usage of the compound dharmaniyama?

I never blogged specifically on Indian Grammar, but if you look for "Grammar", you will find several posts dedicated to special issues (such as the minimal significant units according to Indian Grammarians, the interactions between Grammar, Mīmāṃsā and Ritual Sūtras, etc.).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Comments on a Coffee Break Conference


A Coffee Break Conference is one meant to be nothing more than a coffee break conversation. No papers read, just discussion about topics, in an informal, yet passionate way, as it happens while sharing a meal during a boring conference.
I just came back from the Second Coffee Break Conference. As expected, it was great fun to feel free enough to share thoughts I would have normally kept for myself ("Do we really need a Gender approach?"), to ask questions I would not have normally been brave enough to ask ("What is the optimization theory in linguistics?"), to object, discuss, fight and disagree on really important points (such as the influence of one's implicit assumptions).
Hence, many thanks to the organizers and the participants!
Here are some of my favourites of the conference:

  1. M.F. asking: "How far would you go to support your thesis? (Would you consciously omit data or alter them?)".
  2. D.C. answering: "Until the third or forth very bad review of my work".
  3. S.L. destroying our naive dreams by explaining us that "microfinance is just finance".
  4. F.O. stressing the fact that the most honest thing to do is "to make our implicit assumptions explicit".
  5. P.D.S. about "critical areal studies".
  6. G.C.'s point that we should "be aware of the 'pizza effect', while working on South Asian texts with concept derived from the South Asian tradition, such as that of root".
  7. M.S. point that "Sacredness is about segregation" and the way it relates to Kātyāyana's vārttika on dharmaniyama.
In case you managed to attend the conference, what are your favourites?
I plan to discuss some of the panels in the next posts. I posted here the program of the conference and discussed its rationale here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Implicit paradigms

Even if one claims one is not following any theory, one cannot help following one. Hence, it is much better to acknowledge it, unless one wants to be under the influence of an implicit (and hence, far more dangerous) paradigm.
This is what Mary Fulbrook (chapter 3 of her 20o2 book, see photo) says about implicit paradigms in history:
A-theoretical historians, if provoked sufficiently, may be brought to enunciate the view that Theory Is Not History and historians should get on with The Real Job of Doing History. Now for the bad news.
Even those who have no interest in theory are actually operating with implicit paradigms. In fact, the rest of this book is devoted to unpicking the various elements involved even in implicit paradigms. We have just introduced some of these elements, which, if unpacked a little more, include: the constitution and categorisation of "facts"; the selection of which "facts" to include and exclude; notions about the relationship among elements; the significance and weighting given to each element; the constitution of what might be called a Geschichtsbild, the historical picture of the whole, and the emplotment, the tale told about the combination of selected elements (sometimes called the metanarrative); and the general evaluation and emotive colouring given to the final product, the representation of history (including the use of language through which to write and represent selected aspects and interpretations of the past). […]
For example, how should one approch characterization and explanation of the English Civil War —or English Revolution, as Marxit historians (used to) like to call it? […]
[I]t is important to note the fact that any historical explanation entails choices about selection and explanation, whether or not it is considered by its proponents to be theoretical. And what satisfies one historian's curiosity (analysis of key meetings, the specific motives or actions of particular individuals) may seem just a matter of irritating or even trivial detail from the perspective of another historian. (pp.35-37)

(By the way, the present writer never doubted the fact that it WAS a Revolution. Apparently, my History teachers were also influenced by Marxist paradigms but, helas, did not make me aware of them.)

Let us then speak about methodology, all the more because it is something were genuine discussions are really possible (unlike in the case of minor details of one's work).

I already addressed this issue here and D. Wujastyk did it in his comment on this post.
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