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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Philosophy and Philology of Sanskrit works

Are we doing philosophy, when we are trying to understand what jāti means in Bhartṛhari? Consider the following passage from a comment by Aleix Ruiz-Falqués to this post:

I think […] that doxography includes studying the views of old philosophers:
What I mean is that when we study (let's say) Kant, we spend more time discussing what he really says than what he says. So instead of learning from Kant, we speculate about Kant, as if unearthing a treasure, as if Kant's philosophy was not explained in Kant's books. In Indian Philosophy there is a lot of doxography. I'm reading right now a book on Bhartṛhari and Dignāga, and I can't believe there are so many different interpretations of the word jāti in Bartrhari (let alone other words in Bhartṛhari, let alone the word jāti in other philosophers). I think that when we spend hours and hours trying to understand what Bhartṛhari means by "jāti", we are doing philology, not philosophy. Philology is great, no doubt. But we should not be confused about this: one can do philology on philosophical texts, and still one is not doing philosophy. I think we should do philosophy, without giving up philology. The first ones that come to my mind are Schopenhauer and Chomsky (among those influential Western thinkers who benefited from Indian ideas). I have no special sympathy for any of them, but still, they are or were modern thinkers and they did/do not read Indian Philosophy esoterically (emphasis added by me, EF). 

This is a very important point and I am grateful to Aleix for being brave enough to raise it. Personally speaking (see also the last paragraph below), I tend to think that trying to understand what Kant really meant is not just philology, because understanding requires the exercise of one's critical thinking. But let me be more precise:

  • Suppose I try to understand what Dharmakīrti means while referring to the non-conceptual perception of a patch of blue. Now suppose that I dive into the concept of "blue" (nīla) and read kāvya and other texts to understand what exactly is meant by this term in Sanskrit (speculating about the fact that it must be a darker blue than the one of the sky in a sunny day, given that Kṛṣṇa's complexion is said to be so black that it becomes blue and so on). This is a valuable exercise, one for which one needs to know texts and context and it is part of philology.
  • Suppose, by contrast, that I choose to focus on "non-conceptual perception" (nirvikalpapratyakṣa). I might need to read a lot of Dharmakīrti, and of Kumārila's criticism against it. In several cases (e.g., in Taber's Kumārila On Perception), one will also consider the concept of perception in Russell and in several other contemporary philosophers. Would not you say that this is part of a philosophical enterprise? 
More in general,

  • does not philosophy amount (also) to "thinking clearly" (the definition is Daya Krishna's)?
  • is exegesis not part of philosophy (at least after H.-G. Gadamer)?

This does not mean to say that we should only pause on terms and forget about the broader picture. On the contrary, we can only understand the meaning of each key-term of a philosopher once we have understood her whole thinking. But assuming that this is by itself clear might be misleading. I am personally not convinced by the idea that Kant is crystal clear and that one only needs to read him in order to understand him. Not to speak about Dharmakīrti, whose context was so far away from ours that we surely need plenty of philological work to reconstruct it and whose contribution needs plenty of philosophical efforts in order to be evaluated.


  • it is probably true that in most countries of Europe Indian philosophers are examined overwhelmingly from a philological point of view,
  • but elsewhere they are dealt with "philosophically" almost independently of what they actually said.

It lies on the shoulders of researchers to find a suitable balance. Have you found it? Which authors do you think did find it? I have my own list, if someone is interested.

(When I read Aleix' comment, I could not help thinking "touchée", since I am exactly working on an article where I discuss the meaning of jāti (vyakti, artha, viṣaya, piṇḍa… and various other terms related to the semantic sphere of "meaning" and "referent") in Jayanta, thus be warned: I might be biased.)

The post which originated this interesting discussion is this one. For my own thoughts on philosophy vs. history of philosophy, see this post.


ombhurbhuva said...

Is this fine parsing and analysis a feature of the Indian tradition and a sort of idea that Sanskrit is a divine language in which words (Vedic words) capture truth and in some sense create that truth. Understanding the word in all its contexts is then taken to coincide with a full understanding of the reality. That view however does not account for creativity in philosophical understanding, it may even deny it. Words on their own mean not very much, shading and full light on their meaning is given in sentences and propositions. How much more that is useful, for Advaita, can be said about ‘upadhi’ and ‘adhyasa’? Now is the time to think through the variant meanings and get a sense of what is coherent with a complete picture. Or what does cause mean? or necessity? for Hume or for Aristotle?

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for the remark. You are right, I should have specified that while discussing the second case (nirvikalpapratyakṣa) I was not talking about single words, but rather words in their philosophical contexts. Personally, I do not believe in the etymon as the real truth of a word.

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