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Friday, May 31, 2013

Absence in Ontology and Epistemology: a new article

Nirmalya Guha has just published on the Journal of Indian Philosophy (2013, no. 41) an interesting article about "An Onto-Epistemic Analysis of Absence". Guha's article is clear and well-written and nicely separates ontology and epistemology. The ontological question about absence (abhāva) is, in Guha's formulation,
Is an absence ontologically different from its locus?
Whereas the epistemic question is:
Does a separate epistemic tool (pramāṇa) other than sense organs apprehend an absence?
Further, Guha draws a nice table summarizing the answers of Nyāya and of Bhāṭṭa and Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā to the two questions.
Last, he offers his own support to the Prābhākara view that absences are not ontologically different from their locus and that no separate epistemic tool is required to know them. In fact, he explains, the absence of X is real, but at the ontological level it is nothing but the presence of Y, W, Z. And for him "making ontology is making an inventory of the world. And my claim is that such an inventory does not need any absence". As for the epistemic question, no further instrument of knowledge is required, agrees Guha, although a further psychological process is in fact needed, to shift from one's perception of the floor to one's cognition of the absence of the pot on it. But, as with Prābhākaras, "Since no epistemic instruments capture x —rather they fail to capture x— when the subject cognises that 'x is absent from y', the cognition of absence is not caused by any epistemic factor. […] But cognizing absence is an introspection of some sort" (p. 127).
If you think that Guha's denial of a separate instrument of knowledge for seizing absences is parasitic on the denial of an ontological existence of absences, I think you are right. Guha argues as follows:
  1. 1. no absence exists
  2. 2. instruments of knowledge only grasp existing things
  3. 3. thus, no distinct instrument of knowledge for absence exists

A different perspective is Kumārila's, according to whom absences do not exist ontologically as separate state of affairs, but are a modality seized by a distinct instrument of knowledge (the one which enables us to notice "my glasses are not on the desk!" instead of just seeing the desk's surface).

This being said, Guha's article has a weak point, i.e., the fact that the author ignores much interesting material on the topic of absence (even on the smaller topic of absence in Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā), a topic to which I will dedicate a separate post.

For my remarks about ontology as to be kept apart from epistemology, see this post. This one discusses about linguistics and ontology (pace Bronkhorst). This one discusses ontological and hermeneutical arguments about the ātman.


ombhurbhuva said...

It is important to state what this pramana is: the non-apprehension of existence. This is to be distinguished from the apprehension of non-existence which is an impossibility. We cannot apprehend that which does not exist, it cannot be seen, touched, felt etc. The non-apprehension of existence comes about via an expectation. I am told that the book that I seek is in the dining-room on the table. I go there, look at the table and I do not see it. I have a non-apprehension of its existence in the locus. My friend is to be in the cafe. He is not there. I have a non-apprehension of his existence at the appointed locus. This is knowledge which is not an inference or a perception for the simple reason that I cannot see that which is not there. It is a means of
valid knowledge not based on any other thus a pramana.

Guha’s formulation of the epistemological question:
Does a separate epistemic tool (pramāṇa) other than sense organs apprehend an absence?
is therefore based on a misunderstanding of the pramana because of course as I stated you cannot apprehend what is not there. There are moreover an infinite number of things that are not there at the locus but the non-apprehension is of an expected presence.

I have an idea that the problem in understanding this pramana comes about through a ingrained search for justified true belief or knowledge that is based on some evidence. The non-existence of something can’t be an evidence so this pramana is discounted.

ombhurbhuva said...

We have talked in the past about the sterotypical or canonical examples e.g. gavaya/bos gaurus, as masking understanding. The pot on the floor in the abhava-pramana is such an example and is hard to connect to the consideration of expectation. Then it occurred to me. In an Indian kitchen the large unglazed earthenware water pot is an absolute fixture on the floor in the corner. That is the expectation i.e. the pot on the floor. Not seeing it there, perhaps it was broken that morning, is a shock and a non-apprehension of its existence.

Dharmaraja Adhvarindra speaks of Karmadharaya meaning a “non-apprehension that is possessed of capacity”. So the pot if it was there could be seen, we are talking about things that could be seen. The notion of the counterpositive is brought in here. The counterpositive of the non-apprehension of existence is the apprehension of existence.

This concept of counterposition is interesting in relation to illusion or more precisely confusion. The counterpositive of the false silver in the nacre is real silver. This is the realist approach, insisting that illusion is parasitic on reality.


“वस्तुतस्तु अनुपलब्धेः पृथक्प्रमाणत्वे स्वीकृतेऽपि तज्जन्या या प्रमितिरुत्पद्यते सा किल अभावस्यैवापरोक्षानुभवरूपा। प्रमाणानां वैजात्यं प्रमागतवैजात्यानुसारेण भवतीति नियमो नास्ति। यतः पूर्वोत्तरमीमांसयोः प्रमाणानां षण्णां विद्यमानत्वेऽपि प्रमायाः पञ्चविधत्वमेव स्वीकृतं तत्तदाचार्यैः। सुतरामनुभववैजात्यानुसारेण प्रमाणवैजात्यं भवतीति नियमः। तथाहि - ज्ञानरूपाणि यानि करणानि - अनुमितिं प्रति व्याप्तिज्ञानम्, उपमितिं प्रति सादृश्यज्ञानं, शाब्दबोधं प्रति तात्पर्यवच्छब्दज्ञानम्, अर्थापत्तिं प्रत्युपपाद्यज्ञानं, तेभ्योऽजन्यो योऽभावविषयकानुभवः तस्यासाधारणं कारणमनुपलब्ध्यात्मकं प्रमाणमिति भावः।

ननु ज्ञानरूपकरणेभ्योऽजन्योऽपि चक्षुरादिजन्यो योऽभावानुभवः तस्यासाधारणं कारणं चक्षुरादिकमेव भवतु, अनुपलब्धिस्वीकारस्य कोऽवसरः? येनेन्द्रियेण यद्द्रव्यं गृह्यते, तेनैवेन्द्रियेण तद्द्रव्यं तद्गता जातिस्तदभावश्च गृह्यते इति नैयायिकराद्धान्त इति प्राप्ते वयं ब्रुमः, घटस्यानुभवः घटाभावस्य च यदनुभवः उभयोर्मध्ये विजातीयता अनुभूयते न वा? न द्वितीयः, प्रत्यक्षानुमितिप्रमयोरपि अनुभवत्वसाम्येन तुल्यत्वात् उभयोर्वैजात्यं मास्तु। अतएव यथाऽनुभवसाम्येऽप्युभयोर्भेदः सिद्ध्यति, एवमेव घटानुभवस्य घटाभावानुभवस्य चानुभवत्वसाम्येऽपि उभयोरभेदत्वं नास्ति। प्रथमपक्षे अनुभववैजात्ये प्रमाणवैजात्यस्यावश्यकत्वादभावात्मकमनुपलब्धिज्ञानं प्रमाणान्तरमेव येनेन्द्रियेणेति सिद्धान्तस्त्वपसिद्धान्त एव; निरूपस्य, निस्स्पर्शस्य, निर्गन्धस्य, नीरसस्य, निःशब्दस्य चाभावस्य ऐन्द्रियत्वायोगात्। सुतरां प्रमाणवैजात्यमनुभववैजात्यानुसारेण भवतीति नियमः, तस्मात् अनुपलब्धिप्रमाणादेवाभावस्यापरोक्षानुभवो भवति।..... नैयायिकादयः दार्शनिकाः अभावप्रतियोगिनः अनुपलब्धिमभावप्रत्यक्षे सहकारिकारणतयाऽवश्यमेव स्वीकुर्वन्ति, परन्तु प्रमायाः करणत्वेन प्रमाणरूपेण वाऽस्याऽनुपलब्धेः सत्तां नाङ्गीकुर्वन्ति। अद्वैतवेदान्तसिद्धान्ते प्रमायाः असाधारणकारणत्वेन प्रमाणत्वेन वा अस्याः प्रसिद्धिर्वर्तते। अन्यसिद्धान्तोक्तं प्रमाणरूपमिन्द्रियमभावस्याधिकरणज्ञाने प्रयोजकमिति।” (pp. 54-55, “Anupalabdhiḥ”, editor’s introduction, Naiṣkarmyasiddhi with the Bhāvatattvaprakāśikā gloss of Śrī Citsukhācārya, critically edited with an introduction and notes in Sanskrit by Dr. Swami Prajñānānanda Saraswatī)

elisa freschi said...

@Ombhurbhuva, I would not say that your interpretation is necessarily the only one.
As I was trying to say, one might construe abhāvapramāṇa as:
---grasping an absence (in case the absence exists as such, as with Naiyāyikas)
---grasping an absence (through expectation, as in your second comment)
---non grasping a presence (as with Pramāṇavādins who interpret abhāva as anupalabdhi, and as in your interpretation)

elisa freschi said...

For those of us who do not read Sanskrit: the first paragraph of Sudipta's quote makes a very interesting point: although Mīmāṃsakas accept 6 instruments of knowledge (pramāṇa), they only accept 5 types of knowledge-results (pramā). abhāvapramāṇa does not produce a distinctive type of knowledge.
The second paragraph addresses Ombhurbhuva's objection, insofar as it starts by questioning the need of abhāvapramāṇa, given that it seems to be tantamount to the non-perception through sense-faculties. But the author refutes this possibility, on the basis of the non-sensorial nature of abhāvapramāṇa.

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