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Monday, February 20, 2012

Traditional scholars and modern research

Is the one between "traditional" scholars and "modern" researchers a real dichotomy? Are the methodologies of Western scholars and Indian ones so widely different that the two groups cannot communicate?

I often tend to think that this ought not be the case. Often, one thinks that the impossibility of communication is not really between honest researchers, but rather between "researches" used for the sake of a certain agenda. A devout Vaiṣṇava will probably not accept the results of a research written by, e.g., a Christian missionary who strives for the conversion of Vaiṣṇavas. However, it is very easy to claim that everyone has an agenda and that, hence, communication can never be possible. As a solution, I can suggest:
  1. 1. to make that agenda explicit. If I try to look like an objective scholar, only interested in data, but secretly (and possibly without being fully aware of it) seek to convert my readers, I will probably end up hurting the religious feelings of many of them. This will not necessarily happen if I start my study by proclaiming my faith (or my lack of faith, etc.) and try to do my best from within this departure-point.
  2. 2. to accept the existence of concurring points of view. One will never be able to "scientifically" show that the sentence "After praying to St. Therese, my head-ache disappeared" depicts an impossible event. To say the least, praying itself may have a healing effect. Hence, one should avoid regarding "religious" approaches as inherently unworthy.
  3. 3. viceversa, it is not the case that any critical study "destroys" one's religion, so that one has to defend it from "critical attacks". Even if one were to demonstrate that some facts about the hagiography of a certain saint are historically undemonstrated, why should this be felt as threatening one's faith? Isn't faith different from knowledge? If a religion were nothing more than a sequence of established facts, than what merit would one have in believing in it?
What do readers think? How do you relate to the "other" group?

On not liking one's subject of study, see this post and its comments. On the problem of implicit paradigms, see this post.

28 comments:

Vidya said...

All Indian scholars are definitely not traditional scholars and similarly all Western scholars are not modern. In my head, I view a traditional scholar as someone who has studied under a different system of learning which kind of reverses the Bloom's Taxonomy of learning with greater initial emphasis on knowledge and remembering and then moving on to the other aspects of analysis.

That said, yes it does help to have an agenda made explicit. As a reader, research with an agenda - faith/nofaith does not affect me as much as research where the knowledge is on shaky grounds. As an example: I have read poor quality research by modern scholars whose interpretations betray their lack of foundation in vedic grammar and yet make far-reaching conclusions.

Alternatively,good research on the other hand is something like this:
http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/vedol-0-X.html

So even if the above researchers were to present a conclusion based on such valid research which challenges my faith, I would have no problems with it.

A discerning reader should be able to look past polemic and agenda and gather what they need.

elisa freschi said...

Vidya, I agree with your initial claim. In fact I think that much of the disagreement depends on the assumption of Western paradigm by traditional scholars. This makes the two points of view no longer just plausible alternatives, and turns them into competing world-views.

If you allow me a personal question, why should research on Vedic challenge your faith? What has faith to do with aorists?

Vidya said...

Elisa,
Faith has nothing to with it!

I was trying to think in terms of what are the most likely reactions a on encountering modern research and how/why this reaction is different when I read say the purvapaksha arguments in an opposing philosophical text when they attack the other, (have an agenda, and also state it explicitly) and there is a critical attack to someone's faith ..

The Vedic example was just to address the point that perhaps modern research is less likely to be perceived as a threat when it is backed by good data and the reader's confidence in the researcher's expertise.

elisa freschi said...

Vidya, I might have misunderstood your comment, but you raise an interesting issue. A "traditional" scholar is used to very strong criticisms being raised against his/her school, given the dialectic style of Indian philosophy. Hence, one could compaign for what is really important in classical Indian philosophy, among which openness to debate is surely a very important point.
And, for sure, sound research should be a preliminary requirement for all articles!

Anonymous said...

"What has faith to do with aorists?"

Well, if something only happened once, it may not inspire a lot of faith. Imperfects, on the other hand...

(Filippo)

elisa freschi said...

Congrats, Filippo, very well put. But the question holds: why should someone's faith be put into question by something which regards a different domain?

Anonymous said...

"Even if one were to demonstrate that some facts about the hagiography of a certain saint are historically undemonstrated, why should this be felt as threatening one's faith? Isn't faith different from knowledge? If a religion were nothing more than a sequence of established facts, than what merit would one have in believing in it?"

Well, this is definitely the perspective of an unbeliever. I find that people who talk like this (like me), even if they may earnestly love and respect religion (or at least find it interesting) in a rather vague, abstract kind of way, do not really BELIEVE any of it, once we get down to specifics, in an authentic, life-or-death kind of way; while believers, on the other hand, are generally very un-philosophical in their strong commitment to the historicical reality of the events in their mythologies.

(Filippo)

Anonymous said...

"why should someone's faith be put into question by something which regards a different domain?"

Again, I find that this is a distinction that means nothing to believers. No believer I have ever met, Hindu or Christian, would accept that history and religion, for example, are different, mutually irrelevant domains.

(Filippo)

elisa freschi said...

Well, as usual, it is difficult to define what "religion" is. I would say that people who are "unphilosophical in their strong commitment to the historical reality of the events in thier mythologies" are fanatics more than believers. Or at least that they are a sub-class of believers and not the standard.

"No believer I have ever met, Hindu or Christian, would accept that history and religion, for example, are different, mutually irrelevant domains."

Again, it depends on how you define them. That Christ died for us has to be a historical fact for most Christians. But whether this happened in what we call "33 AD" or a some years later (as it seems to be the case) does not seem to be relevant.
People who obsessively look for external validation (e.g., by comparing dates of comets around the years 1 b.C. and 1 AD) seem to me not to have a faith which is strong enough.

But I must admit that these are just my random thoughts, I am no expert on this.

Anonymous said...

"But I must admit that these are just my random thoughts, I am no expert on this."

No kind of expertise is needed, just self-awareness. I don't know about you, but I'm a pretty typically modern westerner, in this regard: I was raised Christian, rejected that religion in adolescence, and gravitated towards Indian religion because it seemed a far more reasonable and credible vehicle of spirituality and philosophy. But lacking the pre-rational roots, planted and nourished in childhood, that are essential for most people to feel really, viscerally grounded in a tradition, I would not dare to claim that I "believe" in Hinduism. I feel that karma, samsara, punarjanma, and so on, are far more attractive and reasonable conjectures about the unknowable than the Christian incarnation and mechanism of salvation, to say nothing of Christianity’s hopelessly primitive and puerile cosmology, if it can even be called that. But when we get right down to the honest truth, can I really claim to believe, for example, that my atma has gone through an infinite number of previous incarnations and will go through many more (at least a few more, since I sure as hell am not getting anywhere close to moksha in this janma anyway)? The answer, sadly, is no, I don't entertain these very beautiful and attractive ideas with anything strong and real enough to be dignified with the name belief. I do not feel quite comfortable using the word "fanatic" for a Hindu, for example, who believes that Lord Krishna literally preached the Bhagavadgita to Arjuna between the Pandava and Kaurava armies (I actually almost believe this myself, since I do believe that there was a Mahabharata war). But in any case, between such a Hindu, fanatic or not, and me (who come a lot closer to belief in Hinduism than the vast majority of indologists I know), there’s little doubt who has the stronger claim on the status of believer.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Filippo,
thanks a lot for sharing this. I see very well your point about not sharing the pre-rational roots of a belief if one has not grown up "within" it. But this seems to me to support my point: if you have grown up believing in the dialogue between Arjuna and Kṛṣna, why should you need an *external* validation, such as archaeological findings? I am inclined to think that one needs such validation only if one intrinsically does not believe in the Gītā and does, instead, believe in "science" and wants to be able to believe in the former through the latter.
You seem to insist on the fact that the dialogue must have taken place in history. Well, no historian will be able to show the opposite, just because a dialogue cannot be historically proven. This is the sense in which I think that history and religion are irrelevant to each other, since they deal with different aspects of the same reality. Even if one could establish that the Mahābhārata war has taken place, this will still tell us nothing about Kṛṣṇa's role in it, and viceversa, the absence of archaeological evidence is no evidence that something did not happen.
What am I missing? Why should a believer who has been believing in something since his/her childhood bother about its historical plausability? Once again, the problem rather arises with new-converts, who need to persuade themselves of the truth of their new set of belief and who usually check it against the paradigm of science/archaeology/etc.

Anonymous said...

"What am I missing? Why should a believer who has been believing in something since his/her childhood bother about its historical plausability? Once again, the problem rather arises with new-converts, who need to persuade themselves of the truth of their new set of belief and who usually check it against the paradigm of science/archaeology/etc."

Well, I do have my ideas about why lifelong believers care about historical plausibility, but the more important point is that they simply do. I know lots of lifelong believing Hindus, my wife included, and I can assure you that they care very much about the historicity of their mythologies, and certainly do not see religion and history as two different and mutually irrelevant fields. Consequetly, how strange is it that they are troubled when they hear unbelievers speaking confidently of this mutual irrelevance (easy for us to say, right?) I stopped believing in Christianity largely because I came to realize the patent absurdity of its historical claims. It is claimed by many Hindus and many Hindu-sympathetic foreigners that historicity does not have the same critical importance in Indian religions as it has in Semitic ones, but I find on the one hand that Hindus who talk this kind of talk do not really believe it, and do really care very much about the historical reality of Hindu mythology, and on the other hand that Hindu-sympathetic foreigners who talk this talk are really just thoroughly modern atheists whose interest in Hinduism is not really a deep as they would like to believe. The same goes for "philosophical" Christians, who claim to believe in salvation as a "mystery" beyond historicity and rationality, but who with a little probing turn out not really to believe in anything much, and to be hiding from their own atheism behind such pseudo-religious posturing.

elisa freschi said...

Filippo, first of all thank you for engaging in the discussion. As you indirectly mention, I might be too "philosophical". I surely prefer the content of a teaching much over its historicity. However, let me just rephrase my two main points:

1. if you need external validation, does not it mean that you believe in science, archaeology, etc. much more than in the religion you profess?
2. what is the religious merit of faith, if this is already confirmed? No one acquires dharma (however you call it) for believing that "water" is "H20".

अश्वमित्रः said...

Ciao Elisa, I'm having to respond to you from memory, because the net connection, as so frequently, is not cooperating.

I have the impression, from my experience with the Hindus I know, who are for the most part traditional and believing, but not orthodox, brahmins: I have the impression that they do not have the concept of "Credo quia absurdum est": people believe in the dharma for the same reason that they believe in any other true thing: because it is true, because its truth has been discovered. Do we feel that our belief in, for example, the heliocentric planetary system, is somehow less valid because it is based on rationally considered proofs and reasons? Do we feel that our belief in, say, the theory of relativity, is somehow less creditable, less meritorious, because we have done the math? I don't find that Hindus distinguish belief into these two kinds, the kind that arises from simply being convinced by discovered truth, and another kind, a religious kind, that is somehow supposed to arise independently of such discovery. I do think that this distinction, this concept of a non-rational faith (or at least a faith that is invoked when one has run out of arguments), is something very Christian.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks aśvamitra, now I am understanding better your point.

You might be right as far as the Hindus you know are concerned and maybe also the majority of Hindus, I do not know. The thesis is surely quite intriguing and I hope I will be able to discuss it with some anthropologist of religious experience. As for my view, I would only add:
—I was not claiming anything like credo quia absurdum, but rather the (Augustinian) distinction between different epistemological approaches to faith and knowledge. If you know, you do not need to believe.
—In my limited experience with Hindu texts, the distinction between epistemological attitudes is evident in Mīmāṃsā: sense-perception rules our common experience, whereas the Veda rules the sphere of what "ought" to be done. This we cannot grasp through any other instrument of knowledge, since it does not belong to the world-as-it-is (in Sanskrit: "to the three kālas"). Hence, one resorts to the Veda. The Vedic statements are, hence, on a completely different level as the worldly ones and the two sets of statements cannot interfere. The first one describes the world as it is, the second one describes the world as it ought to be.

Ciao Elisa, I'm having to respond to you from memory, because the net connection, as so frequently, is not cooperating.

I have the impression, from my experience with the Hindus I know, who are for the most part traditional and believing, but not orthodox, brahmins: I have the impression that they do not have the concept of "Credo quia absurdum est": people believe in the dharma for the same reason that they believe in any other true thing: because it is true, because its truth has been discovered. Do we feel that our belief in, for example, the heliocentric planetary system, is somehow less valid because it is based on rationally considered proofs and reasons? Do we feel that our belief in, say, the theory of relativity, is somehow less creditable, less meritorious, because we have done the math? I don't find that Hindus distinguish belief into these two kinds, the kind that arises from simply being convinced by discovered truth, and another kind, a religious kind, that is somehow supposed to arise independently of such discovery. I do think that this distinction, this concept of a non-rational faith (or at least a faith that is invoked when one has run out of arguments), is something very Christian.

Vidya said...

In addition to the discussion on faith, validation etc, since you mention differences in methodology, there may be another aspect to this topic that I would like to add. In general, I have observed that traditional approach is primarily through 'textual' lens. By textual lens I mean the text and related text.Even the interdisciplinary work is mostly bounded with the norms of that tradition.

This approach is often at variance with using what may be called the use of "unrelated tools". By unrelated methodology and tools I refer to the use of psychoanalytic theories, Freud, Jung and some of the anthropological methods in Indic studies. May be this is where the 'othering' or the dichotomy occurs?

By the same token, one could ask, How easy it is for an analytic philosopher's work to be accepted if he/sheapproaches/evaluates the work of Wittgenstein from the tool set of Madhyamika or Sphotavada? Perhaps there are such 'inner' and 'outer/other' invisible divisions else where too even within academia? In terms of a trivial analogy,perhaps in the eyes of a traditional scholar, the validity of some of the methodology used in modern research such applying Freudian ideas of Sanskrit studies is like attempting to eat a Burger with a chopstick.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Vidya, I hope my post did not sound as if I was showing little respect towards "traditional" scholarship. Personally, I enjoy very much contemporary classical philosophy (e.g., Sanskrit commentaries written in the last century or so). And more in general, there is an aweful amount of information one can only access through insiders.
This being said, I am not completely at ease with your reduction of the traditional/modern dichotomy into an insider/outsider one. Why should a Western philosopher, for instance, be an outsider in regard to Jayanta's epistemological work, whereas a contemporary alaṅkārika would be an insider? This all apart from the fact that a different approach might often be interesting in itself.

अश्वमित्रः said...

"The thesis is surely quite intriguing and I hope I will be able to discuss it with some anthropologist of religious experience."

There must be some Hindus around there whom you could discuss it with?

elisa freschi said...

touchée. But I can add that there are not that many traditional Hindus around, either in Austria or in Japan (where I am heading now). And would a single view add something substantial to the debate?

Vidya said...

Both the post and the comments have been valuable food for thought.

I was not referring to insider/outsider at all! I was trying to say this: With respect to methodology in traditional vs modern research, certain approaches, tool sets, means of research that have already historically established and ingrained in a system will have more acceptance in that system.

Cross/interdisciplinary approaches, attempts to bring in elements from completely different fields are less likely to be accepted. In that sense psychonalysis or even statistics as useful as they are for modern researchers may be considered 'outer' methods as in external to the boundaries of that system. For want or ignorance of a better terminology, I used inner and outer to mean methods that have been traditionally used within and those that are new / not historically used.

अश्वमित्रः said...

I thought you were at la Sapienza, but, yes, knowing what I know about Italian and more generally continental indological departments (a differenza di the British university and even more the Canadamerican one), it did occur to me that there might not be that many Hindus around you. I was thinking more optimistically, not of a single Hindu view but of a variety of them. I certainly don't deny, obviously, that there are many things in Hindu literature, like Mimamsa and other philosophical schools, that non-specialist Hindus cannot authoritatively pronounce on, but in this very deep and broad matter of the nature of Hindu belief, the input of as many Hidus as possible is obviously desirable. You clarified for me the nature of he dichotomy you were talking about: knowledge as the result of direct personal witness, and belief as a kind of “faith” in knowledge received from a source held to be reliable. It sound to me like there may be at least a smidgeon of “credo quia absurdum est” in the orthodox Hindu’s belief in the Veda’s testimony. It may be that this “credo” has generally been a recourse of more learned Christians who have had to come to terms with the manifest absurdity of Christian doctrine; I have been out of touch with Christians for a long time, but I had the impression that, in the modern age, even stupid and ignorant ones have had to resort to it at least in the case of, say, the creation myth of Genesis, and certain other historical claims that at this point could only be accepted by illiterates and maniacs. I guess that a Hindu who believes not only that there was a Mahabharata war, but that Rama’s army was literally composed of monkeys and bears, or that Jnaneshwar really and literally did miraculously cause a bull to recite the Veda, is speaking from a similar credo.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Filippo,

I am afraid you will keep on calling me an atheist in disguise or something like that, since I cannot imagine a Christian believing that the Genesis means that God literally created the world in seven days, etc. The religious significance seems to me much clearer and even the Catholic church agrees on Darwinism, etc. In fact, I guess that only a few fundamentalist churches in the US insist on creationism. And, frankly, I do not think that this implies a lack of belief, but a shift of the realm of belief from historical facts (where its role is not needed) to its proper place (religion, i.e., one's relationship to God —the definition does not attempt to be a general one). You probably know Robert Goldman's article (published on RiSS n. 1, which is freely available on line) about Hanuman's jumps and the like. He tells about Hindu explanations of unthinkable events, such as Hanuman flying to the Himalayas and bringing back a whole mountain in a single day, showing how awkward readers felt in regard to the literal meaning of these events.
As for the credo quia absurdum hypothesis, I do not agree, since I rather tend to think:
a) without an authority, you cannot build an ethical system (ethics does not derive out of sense-perception).
b) but we do need ethics.
c) hence, it is perfectly rational to rely on an authority for it.

The matter is, hence, just to select the right one. Mīmāṃsakas do their best to prove that the Buddha's words are unreliable, because the whole idea of an omniscient human being does not hold. The Buddhist, by contrast, do the opposite, by showing how the idea of a Sacred Text without author (like the Veda) is preposterous. Therefore, I would say that both sides try to use rational arguments…

elisa freschi said...

Dear Vidya,
well, if I understand you correctly now, a philosophical approach should be possible insofar as it is the same one traditionally adopted by Sanskrit paṇḍits working on darśanas, whereas an historical approach may be less welcomed… You might be right and this might be the point. I will look for further instances of conflict and double-check about their origin.

अश्वमित्रः said...

(I am afraid you will keep on calling me an atheist in disguise or something like that)

I was in fact assuming that you must be an atheist. I have to admit that I have never personally known a Christian indologist.

(since I cannot imagine a Christian believing that the Genesis means that God literally created the world in seven days, etc.)

I find it surprising that your experience of Christians is so narrow. I've met thousands of Christians for whom such metaphorical philosophical interpretations are anathema, and I've never even visited the American south. I met them while being raised in Canada, in a majority francophone town near the Quebec border, by a Baptist mother and a Roman Catholic father, and later, while living amongst the poor in Toronto: almost all who spoke of such matters took a "literalist" approach to their religion's doctrines, and naturally enough. I don't know about Christians in Europe, where I lived for all too short a time, nor about Christians here in India, whom I have not had the opportunity to get to know, but I don't know why their mode of belief would be much different from the one I am describing. Of course, intellectual Christians are another matter, but they are a very tiny minority, and it may be that those of them who are not just talking are an even smaller minority still.

(In fact, I guess that only a few fundamentalist churches in the US insist on creationism.)

Well, there's doctrine and then there's reality. Catholics aren't supposed to use birth control either, right?

(And, frankly, I do not think that this implies a lack of belief, but a shift of the realm of belief from historical facts (where its role is not needed) to its proper place (religion, i.e., one's relationship to God)

I think that this statement reveals assumptions and definitions that are far from intuitive.

(You probably know Robert Goldman's article (published on RiSS n. 1, which is freely available on line) about Hanuman's jumps and the like. He tells about Hindu explanations of unthinkable events, such as Hanuman flying to the Himalayas and bringing back a whole mountain in a single day, showing how awkward readers felt in regard to the literal meaning of these events.)

Yes, it was awkward for them because they lived in an age or in a social stratum in which it was impossible for them to believe the historical facts on which their religion was based as presented in the tradition, and so they had to resort to a crude and superficial symbolism in order to salvage those facts in some form, because they could not simply say, "What really matters here is our relationship to Rama".

As for the credo quia absurdum hypothesis, I do not agree, since I rather tend to think:
a) without an authority, you cannot build an ethical system (ethics does not derive out of sense-perception).

If by authority you mean an authority beyond one's own judgment, then this seems to me to be manifestly false, although I do not doubt that the claim finds a place in some highly philosophically respectable texts.

(Therefore, I would say that both sides try to use rational arguments…)

Everybody does, for as long as they can. Sooner or later, unless you have taken refuge in no doctrine at all, you'll reach the point where you hit the bedrock of dogma (credo quia...), and the pretence of rationality will have to be abandoned. For intellectual Christians, this point seems to come very early, for unintellectual ones, not. Hindus and Buddhists, it seems to me, have a lot more latitude, because dogma and canon in the Christian sense are not elements of their religions.

elisa freschi said...

dear Filippo,

I am afraid that the more you play hard against it, the more I tend to defend the Christian faith (a role I am not able to fulfil) —just because of my natural flaw of defending whatever/whoever is attacked:-), but this would turn our debate into a vitaṇḍā rather than a vāda, plus after 25 comments, any possible reader surely stopped following us. Short: I will dedicate to this issue a separate post.

elisa freschi said...

Here is the link to the new post:
http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com/2012/03/belief-knowledge-and-faith-in-classical.html

अश्वमित्रः said...

OK, Elisa. I do understand the reflex of taking the position of the attacked. It's led me into some embarrassing arguments with my wife in particular, and you can find me online in both sides of some debates, depending on which side was being propounded when I walked in. Anyway, I should say that it's all senza rancore on my part, this talk of Christianity. My position is not fixed, and I'm learning something as I go along, as you might be learning some surprising things about the intellectual low and middle levels of Christianity.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Filippo, that's reassuring. And you are right: I am only interested in the philosophical side of religions (hence, I tend not to take into any account low and middle intellectual levels).

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