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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Blog on Indian Philosophy?


There are no common enterprises on Indian philosophy on the web and this is a pity. I tried several times to make this blog an open platform (by the way: if you are interested, just send me your contributions!), but always failed. I am not sure about the reason, but I have recently been discussing it with Prof. Manyul Im, who has been the creator of a great blog on Chinese Philosophy, which is now run by several scholars (Im included) and which has played —I believe— a great role in the dissemination of Chinese philosophy. Below is part of my answer to a recent post:

As for your questions, since I "discovered" your blog (which was still only Manyul Im's one) I have been hoping to find something like that on Indian philosophy. I think it is incredibly good and healthy to have a place to discuss. Among other things, it improves ideas and methodologies and it makes common strategies possible (and common strategies are more than needed, if we want non-Western philosophy to find some visibility also in the West) (plus, it is fun).
I also tried to suggest to some colleagues to open one. Unluckily enough, my proposal has not lead to anything concrete. This might be due to sociological reasons (one might speculate on the intrinsic differences between people working on China or on India…) or maybe only to the fact that it is quite difficult to initiate a new blog. Adding oneself to one which is already well-known and well-established is surely easier and more appealing. Hence, it might work. I would certainly be happy to contribute and to look for further contributors and I could start a preliminary inquire among friends, colleagues and readers.


What do you think? Would you be interested in such an enterprise?

As for previous essays, you might check this post (on Indological forums), this one (on Indological blogs) and this one (on a concrete essay of building a forum).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is the scope of recognition as an instrument of knowledge?

Is recognition (pratyabhijñā) reliable? It is part of direct perception (pratyakṣa)? Is it a distinct instrument of knowledge?

Many Indian authors use recognition as evidence in their arguments. They may say that the same thing can be touched and then seen and that we know through recognition that it is the same thing (Nyāya). Or, they might say that the fact that we recognise things through time is evidence of the fact that there is an "I" (Nyāya). Or, they claim that this "I" can recognise its nature as identical with Īśvara (Śaivas such as Utpaladeva). Recognition might also play a role within analogy (upamāna), when we recognise the gayal as being the animal about which we heard that it was similar to a cow.
Yet, Indian authors do not generally state that recognition is a distinct instrument of knowledge. Hence, to be reliable it should be included in another instrument of knowledge. The best candidate seems to be pratyakṣa, but Rāmānujācārya, for one, says that pratyakṣa is "purely born out of the sense-faculties" (saṃskārajamātra) and that "purely" is meant to exclude recognition, which, like memory (smṛti), depends also on recollection traces (saṃskāras) (TR I).
Recognition is itself different of memory, since it does not depend only on saṃskāras (so Śālikanātha, PrP).
Hence, how can recognition be reliable? Perhaps, because a part (aṃśa) of it is perceptual and hence reliable. In the standard formula of recognition, sa eva idam ("this is the one [I cognised before]''), the perceptual part is the idam ('this'). This does not seem to entail more than the sheer perception of something. However, since perception includes, according to Mīmāṃsakas and against Buddhists, also its qualifications, the idam-part may include its resemblence with the previous saḥ. Even if notion of the saḥ depends on saṃskāras, then, the sheer fact of similarity could be perceptually established.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Should Indian philosophy always be "useful" for contemporary Western philosophy?

If one thinks in a philosophical way, one is very likely to take philosophy very seriously and to take its problems in serious consideration. One will then (innerly at least) take part to the discussions depicted in the texts one is reading and not just observe them in a detached way. One will try to understand what is exactly the word-meaning, or whether an enduring self exists, or whether there are universals, or substances, etc.
Hence, if one is conversant with a rather neglected area of philosophy (like Indian Philosophy), one might be inclined to add it to the discussion, hoping that some answers might be found through its contribution, that new questions will be asked, or that old ones will be seen from a different perspective.
However, this attitude entails a risk, as far as I can see, namely, that one sees Indian Philosophy only as ancillary to contemporary (mainstream, i.e., Western) philosophy. This is unfair and risky, insofar as one risks to loose grasp of the historical perspective of the arguments one is dealing with and, most importantly, to overlook important texts and ideas just because they do not correspond to today's fashionable topics. By contrast, philological work on ancient ideas may contribute to the ideodiversity and hence promote future discussions, exactly insofar as it is free from the dictatorship of today's trends and musts.

What do readers think? Am I exaggerating the risk?

This post has been stimulated by Peppe's comment (see here).

On the importance of an historical approach, see this post. On the purpose of West-India comparisons, see this post.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Writing about Indian philosophy for philosophers


Do we want Indian philosophy to be a private area of study for Sanskritists? Or do we want to engage in wider dialogues with philosophers of different specialisations?

One of my long-term goals is to make Indian philosophy part of "Philosophy" tout court. That is, I hope that future text-books about philosophy will discuss causation including the satkārya- vs. asatkāryavāda debate; will discuss epistemology taking into account the pramāṇa approach, etc.
This is not something a single scholar will ever be able to achieve, hence I firmly believe in team-work. But even as a team, what could/should one do? One thing is to propose articles on Indian topics to philosophical audiences. Krishna Del Toso has just done it in a recent article submitted to the Open Journal of Philosophy. But a single article will not be enough. In order to raise interest among philosophers, one needs to feed them regularly with Indian stimuli. This is nothing Krishna (or any other) could do on his own.

Should not we co-ordinate our efforts so that each of "us" (whatever this means) has, e.g., an article every five or ten proposed to a philosophical journal?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Free will and desire

Are we free only when we act independently of desire? Or can one speak of free will also in the case of acts determined by desire? In other words, is eating while hungry an instance of free will? Or is only the whimsical movement of one's arm with no exact reason a free act?

The second example is the one discussed by Lev Tolstoj in War and Peace and it is the standard example of free will. Maybe so standard, that it is almost purely speculative. At least according to several schools of Indian philosophy, desire is a fundamental part of the decision process. We do not go on moving our arms randomly, without any purpose. Our usual behaviour is much more finalized (, and hence belongs to the first category). In fact, the arm-case might be re-interpreted as just an instance of the "desire to prove that one has free will", with this desire having itself previous causes (one's education, etc.). Then, the question amounts to the problem of the link between desire and resolution. Are one's resolutions free, if they have desire at their basis? Or does free will only exist independently of/against desire? Indian schools such as Mīmāṃsā have naturally acknowledged the role of desire (and also Aristotle explains the human tendency to speculate as caused by a natural desire). The second option, by contrast, seems to be too much determined by the Western manichean approach to flesh vs. spirit.

What do you think? What is the view of the schools you are more familiar with?

On the necessity of desire for an action to be undertaken in Mīmāṃsā, see here. For the Nyāya stance, see here. On free will, se here. On free will in Indian philosophy, see here. For a Western point of view on the topic discussed above, you might want to read this question raised on academia.edu (and its "answer" by Richard Price).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Do we have to write in a dry, unadorned style?

I recently read Friedhelm Hardy's Ideology and Cultural Contexts of the Śrīvaiṣṇava Temple. The official reason for it is that I am working on Vedānta Deśika and I am hence indirectly interested on Śrīvaiṣṇavism in general. But there is an additional reason, which is the intrinsic pleasure I derive in reading Hardy (or Steven P. Hopkins). He is not just a scholar, but also a writer, and has not the scholar inhibition which usually prescribes me (and others) a dry style. In fact, he also translated many Śrī Vaiṣṇava poems in a lyric way, which does not only reflect their historical significance, but also their poetical value. Consider the following verses of the Periyatirumoli about Viṣṇu:

Was he a thief?
He came like a big black bull and said to my daughter:
"Come! Come!"
He took her by the hand which white bracelets adorned,
and they abandoned the mother who gave birth to her.


I do not read Tamil, but am inclined to think that Hardy is quite good in conveying the idea of the thief-God, who is at the same time seductive and threatening in His power.

I tend to implicitly assume that a dry style is more "scientific" than an imaginific one. This might be, but Hardy's style has the advantage of making more people reading him (I adore Oetke's articles, but often have to force me into reading them) and of giving one a side-glance into the style of the texts he deals with. Of course, at least in my case, the style has to be functional to what it conveys. Although I like Hardy, I am strongly ennoyed by imaginific styles which only make Advaita Vedānta (for example, but many imaginific writers deal with Vedānta or Buddhism) look confused and imprecise.

What do you enjoy reading? And do you write in the same style?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Free will

Although free will is not my main field, I started thinking about it more and more in the last months, since I have been asked to write a contribution on free will in Mīmāṃsā within a volume dealing with free will in Indian philosophy. Of course, one of the most important questions is whether it makes sense to speak of "free will" in Indian philosophy. From the literal point of view, one's will can only be defined as "free" if there is the chance for it to be bound. Is this the case in India? There is something like that in some Śaiva schools, where it is said that God alone is completely free (īśvara and svatantra), whereas we are all like cattle (paśu), bound by three fetters. Further, one might suggest that karman might be thought to obstruct one's will, although in philosophical schools I never found a deterministic view of karman being explicitly endorsed (this happens, rather, in dramas, cf. the attitude of minor characters in the Śākuntalā). I am very much inclined to think that also Buddhism is not deterministic, cf. the fact that Dharmakīrti refutes the possibility of inferring a result from its causes, so that even a karmic cause cannot be said to invariably lead to a certain result.
Furthermore, the issue of free will strictly depends on how one understands action and in this sense Indian schools of thought have very interesting investigations to offer on the abode of action and most of all on the resolution to undertake an action.

What is instead missing, if I am not wrong, are several of the issues connected with free will in the Western traditions. Starting from the obvious lack of the original sin (apart from the theology of the ISKCON movement), the balance between God's omniscience and free will seems to be less of a problem. Possibly because God is rarely seen as directly interfering in worldly matters (He rather uses karman to do it), I am not aware of philosophical discussions about whether human beings alone are responsible of good and evil or God is corresponsible as well, insofar as He favours the first and lets the latter happen. One also does not find the kind of reflections one finds in Islamic thought, asking why God does not let future evil-doers die while they are still harmless children… Nor does one find the problem of the coexistence of God's goodness and free will. I tend to think that the Christian answer to this problem would be that free will is so precious, that God prefers people to be free rather than forcing them to be good. This might be due to the fact that God himself wants to be chosen freely and freely loved. But one might object that this desire of Him implies that there are also evil-doers, who might harm other people. How can one justify a desire, if this indirectly implies harming others?

On the issue of free will in Eastern theology and, hence, on many of the issues above mentioned, just read an interesting article by David Heith-Stade (you might also want to have a look at his interesting blog).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gullability and stupid people

I am passionate about the issue of Linguistic Communication (aka testimony) (you can see here my italian blog about it). Many authors tend to think that Liguistic Communication should not be admitted among the instruments of knowledge. But this leads to terrible consequences, since without it our everyday life would just turn out to be impossible. How could we systematically doubt whatever we are told? We know by being told even the most important things in our lives, such as our name and date of birth.
Hence, I tend to favour the Indian shcools such as Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā, which admit śabda (linguistic communication) among the means of knowledge (pramāṇas). I am also always interested in reading Western accounts about it. Recentlty, I read the ppt of a talk by Stephen Wright discussing gullability and rational behaviour. Stephen summarises the arguments by Burge about the fact that people are rational beings and that, hence, they lie if they have good reasons to do it and tell the truth if they have good reasons to do it. What happens if they have no good reasons for doing either? All else being equal, they would tell the truth. In fact, telling the truth is better for your reputation and it is better because next time people are more likely to believe you, even if you are lying. Hence, even if you are ready to become a liar, it is convenient for you not to lie whenever you have no good reasons for doing it.

I am happy with the conclusions of this argument (we are entitled to believe what people say as our default attitude), but I am not totally persuaded by its bases. If the entitlement is based on the theory that people behave rationally, then how to face the fact that stupidity is by definition more common than one could imagine and that, hence, there are many many people who behave in a non-rational way. How to answer this objection?

To elaborate: as for "stupidity" I refer to the distinction among human beings drawn by the historian Carlo M. Cipolla (who used to teach economic history at Berkeley) in his famous essay on stupidity. 'According to his graphics, one can distinguish for classes of human beings: those who do good to other people, despite the fact that they might be at the same time harm themselves are "disgraziati" (NAIVE, unwary people), those who do good to other people when this also mean doing good to themselves are INTELLIGENT people ("intelligenti" in the diagram), those who harm other people when this benefits them are CRIMINALS ("banditi") and those who harm other people and themselves at the same time are STUPID ("stupidi"). The last category is, maintains Cipolla, the most dangerous one, since it is unpredictable. One can imagine what the behaviour of a evil person will be (s/he will try to gain as much as possible out of each situation, not caring at all about other people). But who knows how a stupid one will act?
Last, Cipolla maintains that exactly because stupid peope are so "different", non-stupid ones tend to think stupid people do not exist and to interepret their choices as if they were rational. Hence, the real number of stupid people is always underestimated. By definition, every esteem is always an under-esteem.

As for the diagram: the X-axis represents oneself (on the left there is harming oneself, on the right benefitting oneself), the Y-axis represents other people (on the top there is benefitting them, on the bottom harming them).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Distinction between the ontological and the linguistic level

The naive view, the one istinctively shared by people not trained in philosophy of language is that there is no gap between language and the reality it describes. Things are the way we talk about them. This approach presupposes, thus, a precise correspondence between linguistic entities and real ones, although it does not consciously postulate it. By contrast, the direct realism approach consciously claims that the world is the way we see it and might also maintain that it is also faithfully represented by language. The difference is the same as the one between naive people saying that "the sun has raised" and Ptolomeus claiming that the earth is the centre of the universe. It is no surprise that one finds everywhere people saying that "the sun rises" or "the sun sets", and this does not represent the degree of advancement of their cultural milieus. In order to understand how much advanced are the scientifc knowledges of a certain country, one should ask scientists rather than men of the street (who could answer that "the sun has just set" in the Middle Ages just like in the XXI c.). The same procedure applies in the case of ancient civilization. In order to understand whether it was aware of the mutual position of sun and earth, one cannot rely on its plays or novels. Hence, in order to judge about the Indian belief in a correspondence between language and reality, one cannot ask lay texts (which represent the naive, default, stance), but linguistic ones.

On the "principle of correspondence" as a guide-line throughout the entire Indian philosophy, one might wish to read Johannes Bronkhorst's Langage et réalité: Sur un épisode de la pensée indienne (summary available here).

What do readers think? Are linguistics and ontology distinguished in Indian philosophy? Or do Indian philosophers just conflate the two?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

God and karman

The Mīmāṃsā argument against God as the ruler of karman is (as it is often the case with Mīmāṃsā), an application of what we call Ockham's razor:

Can God alone rule the people's destiny? The standard Indian answer is that He needs karman as His tool. But if karman is anyway needed, why not getting rid of the extra element, i.e., god?

Similarly, if we anyway need the people's karman and/or material elements to create the world/keep it going, why adding on top of them also a god?

Of course, these arguments have nothing to do with God as the object of one's longing and passionate devotion.
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