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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Varieties of instruments of knowledge — a conceptual hoax?

Is a single source of knowledge (pramāṇa) sufficient enough to generate a piece of cognition (jñāna), or is cognition the result of a complex whole, where different pramāṇas can only artificially be distinguished?  Or, is the very notion of sources of knowledge only a post-cognitive analytical convention? 
For me, it seems to be the last one.  During the cognitive process the very source of cognition is in a state of confusion (since the cogniser is busy cognising the object, and is not in a position to analyse the source of it).  Epistemologists only engage in a postmortem of this “cognitional complex”, i.e. the end-product.   
Pratyakṣa, Anumāna, Upamāna, Śabda, Arthāpatti – all these share a common property of being a pramāṇa; as such these are mere classifications made by epistemologists for the sake of convenience, and there is only one pramāṇa or pramāṇaikatva (again this very notion of pramāṇa is a convention subscribed to by epistemologists).  These pramāṇas can be artificially abstracted from the whole of a cognitive act, just as one can abstract elements such as pitch/sonority/aspiration/occlusion, etc. from a phoneme, although these elements are never perceived separately when one hears a word.  Such classifications again are made by attaching preference to a particular pramāṇa over others in accordance with the immediacy of the particular pramāṇa concerned. 
Thus, when we say, ayaṃ ghaṭa ityatra pratyakṣapramāṇasya upayogo bhavati, we are not denying the role of other cognitive elements, which one could analytically classify as śābdajñāna, upamānajñāna, etc., but which are inextricably melted together; however, merely because of the immediacy of the contact of my eye with the jar, I am only giving preference to it over others.  But this in no way amounts to a negation of the role of other pramāṇas.  Underlying all this, is the suggestion that the discovery of sources of knowledge – one or many, giving preference to one of them over the others, etc. are all an epistemologist’s attempt to understand a “cognitional complex” (= the end product of an act of cognition) within his self-devised analytical framework of sources of knowledge.

[This is a guest-post by Sudipta Munsi, whom you can follow also on his blog here]


falecius said...

Interesting point. In theoretical matters, "how do you know" can be a significant question, and the instrument of the knowledge is, in an obvious sense, a significant part of a discussion about any given topic.
However, I tend to think that the view you propose actually makes sense, as any knowledge is inextricably tied to a "conversation" (not necessarily with other people) where all modes of knowledge act, in different degrees, together.

ombhurbhuva said...

How would you reduce inference to perception? Take for example Sherlock Holmes who draws any number of non-obvious inferences from his sensory data. Compare him to Dr.Watson who cannot see how he does it until it is explained to him. Clearly the one is distinct from the other.

elisa freschi said...

it seems to me that the case of Holmes supports Sudipta's point re. the mixed nature of each act of cognition. Does Holmes ''see'' that someone has smoked a cigar in a certain corner? Or does he infer it? Or does he know it because of what he learnt about cigars' remainants? All three elements cannot be disconnected and mutually influence each other in a virtuous circle.


Sincere thanks to all of you for your comments.

@ Ombhurbhuva, what you say is true. But notwithstanding the fact that what Holmes “sees” inferentially is not “seen” by Dr. Watson, I tend to think as soon as Holmes pronounces it the ensuing knowledge changes its character for Dr. Watson from inference to either verbal testimony (śābdajñāna) or auditory perception (śrāvaṇa pratyakṣa). So the truth of the sensory data is made sense of by Holmes on one hand through inference, while on the other hand Dr. Watson understands it in a connected way (paramparā) through Holmes’s explanation and either of verbal testimony or auditory perception occurs in this case. Also, is it not the case that whether it is anumāna or śābdajñāna or śrāvaṇa pratyakṣa, the "content" of the knowledge that is being transferred from Holmes to Dr. Watson, remains unchanged? In other words, only the identity of the pramāṇa(s) concerned changes from Holmes to Watson and that too for us, i.e. epistemologists, who engage in a post-mortem of the cognitional complex. Thank you very much for citing the example of Holmes. I am a diehard fan of his :-)

Thank you very much, Elisa. Your comment, in fact, endorses my position meticulously.

ombhurbhuva said...

Elisa, Sudipta,
The contrast I am drawing is between the minds of Holmes and Watson. Both have the same visual experience but only Holmes’ mind draws out the wealth of inference. It is the movement of the mind in both cases that I am referring to. Both of you are trading on the equivocal use of ‘see’, ‘see’ as visual or ‘see’ as drawing a conclusion, understanding etc. Holmes had to learn to draw these inferences or ‘see’ in a colloquial sense, his mind had to be trained to use minute elements of sensory experience, data if you like, to draw out all the information from it. The movement of the mind or the inference is the salient difference between the two men. Inference is not an immediate event but one that is mediated by experience, intelligence, reflection etc. On one of his rare bad days Holmes might not ‘see’ what is before his eyes but he is not thereby blind.

How about inferring as such? I mean inferring as a power, a way of knowing? Can it be learned in the way we might learn a new knot? The essence of the idea of pramana is that of an irreducible power. There are no simpler elements to it that can be put together that allows us to say ‘ah, yes, now I see, that’s what inferring is’. It is a capacity. If I might use an analogy, place a ball on an inclined plane, let it go and it will roll down. Having a pramana is not an option in the case of the strictly epistemological ones at least. Sabda/Veda pramana is different.

I think here there may be confusion between a power or a capacity and the exercise of a capacity or power. The seemingly immediate aspect of the use of the capacity may have the effect of reducing inference to perception but inferring as such is not something that you could derive from perception. This is more obvious in the case of upamana which Elisa and I have discussed in the past.

Interesting topic. What do you think of anupalabadhi?

elisa freschi said...

@Falecius, thanks for your additional point.
@Ombhurbhuva, I do not completely get the point of your and Sudipta's disagreement. In fact, your initial question was: How do you distinguish perception and inference? In fact, Sudipta was not trying to reduce all instruments of knowledge to perception. Rather, he was claiming that they are not *actually* distinguished and that one only distinguishes them through an abstraction which follows the actual cognitive act. Now, it is clear that Watson's cognitive act is different than Holmes' one. But is it possible to disentangle the elements of Homes' cognition (see my comment above)?
Further, what do you exactly mean (sorry for being dull) with "The seemingly immediate aspect of the use of the capacity may have the effect of reducing inference to perception"?

ombhurbhuva said...

We are slightly talking past each other here I think. Let me try an analogy. When a native speaker speaks the language they are also using the grammar of the language. They are not both speaking the language and using the grammar as though these were two different activities, speaking the language is just using the grammar, amongst other things. The pramanas are the grammar of knowledge i.e. gaining knowledge. Yet at the same time as a child has to learn correct grammar so too precision and facility in ‘the grammar of knowledge’ has to be acquired. Inferences have to be made on the basis of invariable concomitance not on adventitious or accidental grounds e.g. post hoc propter hoc.

Pramanas then are capacities exercised in the act of acquiring valid knowledge.

elisa freschi said...

Ombhurbhuva, if I am understanding you correctly, you mean to say that Grammar does exist, although a native speaker does not need to think before uttering a grammatically correct sentence. Similarly, pramāṇas exist, although Holmes (and people like him) are able to implement them so quickly, that one does not detect each step in their application. If this is your point, I tend to agree with you, although I can also understand Sudipta's point re. the fact that Grammar and pramāṇas are only an abstraction out of the living reality of language and cognition.

Madhu Kapoor said...

I agree that a native speaker of a language does not need to learn the grammar of that language. He is spontaneous in speech activity. But grammar is needed for those who are learning that language at a later stage in life when it no longer remains the natural course of action. But that does not nullify the relevance of grammar. Rather it assures the logic behind the natural speech act. Of course it has to obtained through post mortem process but that allows one to understand it in a better way. It is like skeleton of the body. One does not see it because of flesh but it supports the body. One may not know it but its intangible existence can be felt.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Madhu, this is a very nice metaphor.

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