Thursday, December 23, 2010

How to evaluate within the humanities?

The evaluation of projects is a crucial topic today. In fact, (nearly) all paradigms of evaluation have been developed having in view natural sciences. Hence, in order to avoid the unreflected application of this kind of criteria as if they were the only viable options, scholars interested in the humanities should (I believe) try to propose other criteria.
The following ones are the criteria I suggested in order to evaluate the degree of success of a project involving the critical edition, translation and study of the fifth chapter of Jayanta Bhaṭṭa's Nyāyamañjarī:

• Increase of interest among scholars for Indian linguistics and philosophy in general and the NM in particular.

• Publication of the research's results on international and peer-reviewed journals. The journals involved should a wide dissemination of the research's results, to a European, US, Asian and Japanese audience, focusing mainly on South Asia, or on Asia in general, on philosophy and philology. In order to improve the dissemination of the research's results, particular attention should be given to the open access of articles and research reports.

• Dissemination of the research's results through the research's website and partnerships with related websites, such as TEI: Text Encoding Initiative, Perseus, TITUS, GRETIL, SARIT (the present team is already in touch with some of them). As a first presentation of the project, a page should be created also on Academia (

• Dissemination of the research's results and their usage also by scholars external to the present group. In order to evaluate it, I suggest the following criteria: (i) Access to the research's website and its achievement of a leading role among scholars interested in the NM, in (Indian) linguistics, philosophy of language and epistemological investigation on language as instrument of knowledge. (ii) Use of materials elaborated or collated by the present team in further articles, books, research projects by other scholars. (iii) Most importantly, the edition and translation produced should become the standard reference works for scholars working on the NM.

• The research's team becoming the centre of attraction for international research on the NM, (Indian) linguistics, philosophy of language and epistemology, as testified also by the success of the international seminars organised.

• The adequacy of the translation and the quality of the explanatory glosses and commentaries of the NM could be verified also through the degree of usability of the output edition for scholars not provided with a special training in Sanskrit and in Indian philosophy. In order to test it, one should plan to organize some presentations of our results within international conferences devoted to linguistics, philosophy of language and epistemology of language (i.e, on the role of testimony and of language in general as an instrument of knowledge). One should be able to explain the importance of the NM for contemporary disciplines, and to stimulate the interest and the curiosity of scholars working in different fields of humanities.

• Particularly, no Sanskrit philosophical term must remain without a translational equivalent in modern terminology.

• Furthermore, since the final outcome of our project must be an internet site presenting the electronic edition of NM 5, the usual criteria for web sites apply here, that is:
- clearness and completeness in covering the declared scope;
- accuracy of the presentation and authority of the sources;
- possibility to obtain the output edition in other formats than HTML (such as PDF file, CD-ROM, etc);
- feedback with users;
- speed and responsiveness of the user interface;
- searchability of the resource.

• More technically, the outcome web resource must be compliant with the standards involved, such as the XML standard elaborated by the Text Encoding Initiative for cases similar to ours (with special variants intended for the encoding of manuscripts and for morphological tagging of texts), HTML5, Unicode Collation Algorithm, and SQL for database queries. In addition to these, some further formal standards may be taken into consideration in case our project is accepted as a part of a greater project, such as the TITUS electronic database of Indo-European texts (University of Frankfurt, Germany).

Do readers have other suggestions, particularly in different connections?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sanskrit Translations

What do we want to achieve with the translation of a Sanskrit term? Who are our target-readers? This seems to me to be the chief question while deciding about a translation. In fact, in many cases a translation ends up being understandable only to specialists.

A good example is, in my opinion, the translation of vyāpti, the invariable concomitance holding between the elements of an inference, e.g., between fire and smoke.
Vyāpti is a nomen actionis from the root vyāp-, which literally means 'to pervade'. Hence, many (most, I would say) authors translate vyāpti with 'pervasion'. This has almost become a terminus technicus in the works dedicated to Sanskrit logic. But is it a good choice? Is not it only understandable by an elite, which hence runs the risk to appear non-interested in communicating with any scholar outside itself?
To elaborate, 'pervasion' seems to me to be not-understandable for non-Sanskritists. It does not correspond to any logical term (as, instead, probans for hetu) in Western logic, nor is it intuitively understandable (as 'invariable concomitance' for vyāpti, which at least describes what is at stake). 'Pervasion' is just a literal translation of the Sanskrit term, which tries to reproduce the metaphor in English. Personally, I (and I suspect many others) only understand it, because I automatically translate it back into Sanskrit.

However, against 'invariable concomitance' Michael Williams (Manchester) made me aware of the fact that it does not point out that a vyāpti is not necessarily a commutable relationship. For instance, wherever there is smoke, there is necessarily fire, but it is not the case that wherever there is fire there is smoke. Indeed, according to the Ancient Indian Physics, there is fire in a piece of melting iron, though there is no smoke accompanying it.
Hence, one could use a paraphrase, such as "Smoke is invariably concomitant with fire", thus implying that the opposite is not necessarily the case.
Moreover, 'pervasion' is delusory also as for the 'direction' of the relationship. In the standard example, the point is that there is no smoke without fire. But, if one says that "Fire pervades smoke", does the listener understand that fire is a larger set than fire? Or does not s/he imagine fire 'permeating' (i.e., becoming diffused within) smoke, thus implying that smoke is a smaller set?

Friday, December 17, 2010

What determines the fortune of a text? The case of Jayanta

Jayanta Bhatta's NM is a rich compendium of the philosophical debates on ontology, epistemology and linguistics in classical Sanskrit literature, and it is thus an invaluable tool for investigation on these topics. Due to its clear prose and thorough exposition, the NM has been often used to access a wide range of crucial themes in Indian philosophy.
Jayanta was active in Kashmir, in the late 9th c. CE and belonged to the pracīna ("old") tradition of Nyāya ("Indian logic"). His opus magnum, the NM, is introduced by him ("maṅgala", vv. 4-8, p.1 of NM 1895, the editio princeps) as a mere re-arrangement of former exegeses of Gautama's Nyāyasūtra (the root text of the Nyaya tradition, henceforth NS), in acknowledgment of his debt to his predecessors. Jayanta also clarifies at the very outset of the NM (NM 1895:12) that his work focuses on the classification of categories utilised in Nyāya and on the definitions of these categories; he thus informs his reader that the third type of sūtras present in the NS, the parīkṣāsūtras ("examining aphorisms"), will be discussed by him only occasionally.
Jayanta was acquainted with earlier commentaries of the NS, including works that are still extant such as the Nyāyabhāṣya, which was probably his main source, and others which are lost, such as Śaṅkarasvāmin's commentary. He was also conversant with major works of the main interpreters of the Indian philosophical context, from Buddhist Pramāṇavāda ("epistemology"), to Mīmāṃsā (more precisely Pūrvamīmāṃsā, "Vedic ritual exegesis"), Vyākaraṇa ("grammar"), etc. Thus the NM is a key link in the history not only of Nyāya, but of other traditions as well.
The NM unfolds in 12 books called āhnikas ("daily lessons"). It is conceptually structured in two major parts: the first 6 books treat the pramāṇas (means to acquire knowledge, such as sense perception, inference and language); the second 6 the prameyas (objects of knowledge) and the other 14 padārthas ("categories") listed in Nyāyasūtra 1.1.1. Of the four pramāṇas accepted by the Nyāya tradition, śabdapramāṇa ("language as an instrument of knowledge", "verbal testimony") alone is discussed in books 3 to 6.
Why has this masterpieces rarely quoted and copied? Why has it not been as influential within Indian Philosophy as contemporary interpreters would expect?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What does a sentence mean? Again on Indian linguistics

A little longer than the first one (discussed in the last post), is the second part of NM 5, which is dedicated to the sentence-meaning. Various discussants oppose each other maintaining different theses about it. Interestingly enough, most of them agree that the meaning conveyed by a sentence consists in an action. Furthermore, some specify it as a bhāvanā (or arthabhāvanā), a verbal noun derived from the causative of the root bhū-, "to be", i.e., a "[force] causing to be" a certain result. The bhāvanā-theory is central in the Mīmāṃsā tradition since Śabara (5th century or before). It represents a view on the process of linguistic signification, and is notably distinct from that of the Vyākaraṇa (Grammar) tradition (Mīmāṃsā and Vyākaraṇa being the two most ancient and influential traditions as for language investigation in India). A bhāvanā is an action and it is so called insofar as it "causes to be" the planned result. Kumārila — whose views are accurately reproduced in NM 5 — innovates the theory through his introduction of an additional, linguistic bhāvanā (called śabdabhāvanā) which constitutes the efficient force inherent in the language itself. To explain, a sentence such as "He brings the cow" has as its core meaning a bhāvanā, namely, the fact of causing to be the bringing of the cow. On the other hand, "Bring the cow!" has as its meanings both the above-mentioned bhāvanā and a linguistic one. The latter is meant to explain the fact that one is led to undertake an action (a bhāvanā) by hearing a prescriptive sentence (or, as Austin would put it, an illocutionary speech act).
Hence, maintains Kumārila, prescriptive sentences include in themselves a force causing to be a specific result (the undertaking of the action). Such linguistic bhāvanā is located, according to Kumārila, in the prescriptive component of a finite verbal form.
The topic of bhāvanā, in sum, is a stimulating one insofar as it focuses on the peculiarity of prescriptive sentences, which are not considered as an exception among normal, descriptive ones. Unfortunately, it has still not been sufficiently studied and even the exact meaning of the two terms "arthabhāvanā" and "śabdabhāvanā" is not yet settled. Along with the paucity of insightful studies on bhāvanā within Indian philosophy, also any appraisal of their possible significance for Western linguistics and philosophy of language lacks altogether.
The above sketch will possibly demonstrate how a direct translation of these theories within a Western terminology is not easy. The Indian debate on language does not reproduce the subject-partition we are used to and a Western reader may feel uneasy while reading of the epistemological value of language as a means for communicating knowledge side by side with discussions on the semantic value of optative endings (which are used, in Sanskrit, to convey an illocutionary speech act). However, I believe that theories which are alien to the Western mainstream may prove efficacious in providing further stimuli, especially insofar as they propose new questions and new fields of investigations.
One of such fields might be the primacy of the illocution within linguistic communication, another the connection between linguistics and epistemology, coalescing in the analysis of language.

Working on Indian (Sanskrit) linguistics

Jayanta Bhaṭṭa, a 9th c. Kashmirian philosopher of the Nyāya school, offers to beginners a great chance to have a glance of the richness of the Indian philosophical debate, particularly in regard to language. Chapters 3 to 6 of his encyclopaedic Nyāyamañjarī (NM) are dedicated to language.
Within it, the purpose of NM 5 is to examine the nature of language and, hence, its ideal readers are not just expert in Sanskrit but are also versed in the treatment of some important problems of language studies (such as the problem of word reference, and the problem of the sentence meaning relatively to the different speech acts).
Language, explains Jayanta, is experienced as words and sentences (elements smaller than the word, such as phonemes and morphemes, are not taken into account since they do not convey any meaning per se). Since words are the constituents of sentences, their nature is investigated in the first part of NM 5. The main focus is on the meaning and the reference of words. Three solutions are suggested and discussed: word meaning as an individual (a token, in modern terminology), word meaning as a universal category (akin to a what is called a 'type' in modern terminology), and word meaning as the exclusion (apoha) of everything else (akin to the Saussurean conception of differential meaning of the linguistic sign and his notion of linguistic value). The controversy whether the individuals or the universals are to be considered preeminent is a classical topic of Western philosophy, but in India it has characteristically a linguistic bias.
The Indian theory of Apoha has been elaborated by the buddhist Pramāṇavāda in order to account for the conundrum of the efficiency of language in referencing reality although it is does not either correspond to the former nor describe it as it is. In fact, language is conventional and moreover results from human super-impositions on reality. External objects are not accessible as such to mediate knowledge (the reasons for that are linked to the ontological presuppositions of Pramāṇavāda; this opinion, however, is shared by several Western philosophers). Hence, words cannot directly denote their reference, since there is no one-to-one relationship between words and objects. Still, we understand each other while talking. This is possible because, though words do not denote the same object for everyone, yet, they denote in the same way the exclusion of whatever is not meant. So, utterances such as "Bring the cow!" are usually followed by someone bringing an actual cow because the word "cow" denotes "whatever is not a non-cow". In short, the word "cow" denotes the exclusion of whatever does not fit with the mental image of a cow.
The Pramāṇavāda further elaborates on these basic assumptions, while Kumārila Bhaṭṭa tries to defeat the Pramāṇavāda stance from the viewpoint of direct realism. As in the case of the controversy about universals, typically Indian is the linguistic viewpoint on ontology.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Indian Philosophy and working on a team

Indian Philosophy has still not reached the consideration it deserves within Western studies. Apart from historical reasons, this can be explained as a result of the lack of viable editions and translations of Sanskrit philosophical texts. Again, this absence is also due to the many tasks required by the editor and/or translator of such texts. On the one hand, one needs both philological and philosophical skills. On the other, Indian philosophers themselves were not specialists of only one subject and rather discussed with scholars of different affiliations. The very texture of Indian philosophical texts is made of objections and various replies held by exponents of both the so-called "orthodox" traditions (that is, the traditions which accept the authority of the Vedas) and of Buddhist (partly also of Jainist and materialist) ones. Hence, team work is not just a desideratum in Indian studies. In many cases (especially among young researchers who may not have acquired wide-ranging knowledge about the whole Indian Philosophy) a team of specialists in the different philosophical traditions is the prerequisite for a sound study of Indian texts.

Did readers working on their own find a different solution?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Basic Sanskrit Syntax

I mainly read śāstric Sanskrit, that is, ``scientific" Sanskrit. I have not been reading epics and purely religious texts since years, I am not able to enjoy poems and I highly enjoy philosophical and theological (in a large sense) debates.
In all these cases, Sanskrit seems to be much less difficult than usually thought, and relatively easy to master, if one does not take into account its semantic richness.
In fact, I mainly read sentences structured as follows:
A [is] B. Because of C.
This can be expressed as:

  1. 1. B A [asti/bhavati…]. C-tvāt.
  2. 2. B A [asti/bhavati…]. A hi C.
  3. 3. B A [asti/bhavati…]. tathāhi A1 [asti/bhavati] C.

(with A1 included in A).
There are also negative versions of the above, showing that the opposite cannot be admitted. Apart from pure negations (na hi…), one might read:

4. B A [asti/bhavati…]. A nonB-anupapatteḥ.

If the sentence is more complex and the author wants to elaborate further on C, s/he can add a further reason:

5. B A [asti/bhavati…]. C-tvāt, D-tvena.

And B A [asti/bhavati…] can again be expressed in several ways:

  1. 6. B A [asti/bhavati…].
  2. 7. A-[VI ending] B-tvam.
  3. 8. A-[IInd ending] prati B-tvam.
  4. 9. A B-tvena [dṛśyate…].

If one wants to stress that B is the predicate:

  1. 10. B eva A [asti/bhavati…].

Or, mostly in comments:

  1. 11. A B ity [arthaḥ/bhāvaḥ/yāvat]

Moreover, an objector might have something against it:

nanu.…iti cet?

Which forces the siddhāntin to reply:


Either he partially corrects the objector:

satyam. kintu

Or he altogether refutes him:

tad ayuktam. yataḥ…
tan na sambhavati. E-tvāt

Monday, November 22, 2010

Is the ātman 'me'?

Can one identify the absolute consciousness of Vedānta (the ātman) as "himself'"/"herself"? The problem lies in the fact that the ātman is beyond this-worldly subjectivity, whereas "I", "my", etc. are this-worldy concepts, at least according to Advaita Vedānta.
Wolfgang Fasching (in his contribution to the Sussex conference I already discussed) suggests that nonetheless the ātman is what "I" truly am. Independently of all this-wordly connotations, "I" am first and foremost an ātman. This seems to be linked with Husserl's (and Zahavi's) claims about the mineness of experience. So re-phrased, the question sounds: Can ther be an "I" (and a "my") beyond or before this-worldly subjectivity? If one transcends not only one's identification with the body and some similar accidents (e.g., one's first or family name), but also whatever belongs to one's being different from the others, is there still an I left?
Fasching answers affirmatively:

Yet one could reply that my present experience is mine (the experience I am experiencing) totally independent of any distinction I draw to what is not me (i.e. of my having an I-concept).

That is, my experience would be felt as "mine" even if I would not feel my experience and myself distinct from the others and their experiences. Is it really so? Can there be an I which does not ipso facto posit a non-I? Does not "my experience" presuppose that I am experiencing something different from the experiencer?
I am not asking a metaphysical question, but a phenomenological one. I am not interested in knowing whether experiencer and experienced are ultimately real, but whether the event of experience can be experienced as belonging to one without implying its postulating an experienced object.

Fasching quotes Zahavi saying that

first-personal givenness ‘is not a contrastive phenomenon’, it ‘does not arise thanks to any discrimination between self and the world […].

But, he then asks, why should one call this non-contrasted experience of subjecthood "mine"? Because, Fasching explains, eventually the non-conventional subject we identify which does not exist, and "we" are nothing but that non-contrastive experiencer. Hence, the ātman is ontologically 'me'. What about its being 'me' from a phenomenological point of view? I tend to doubt it. Do Vedāntic readers have other clues?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Can one perceive other people's thoughts?

Śaiva authors believe the subject to be tantamount to cognition. There is no difference between the two and it does not make sense to say that the former has the latter. Consequently, a cognition should never become the object of another one, since it is intrinsically identical with the agent of the cognitive act. And it an agent could not become an object and still remain identical with its own nature of agent! But the upholders of this view have to face two powerful objections, that of memory, where a previous cognition seems to be the object of today's memory of it, and that of the yogic perception. In fact, yogins (or omniscient beings in general, the same applies to Buddhas) can allegedly have access to other people's thoughts. And this seem to imply that these thoughts are accessed as objects!

These objections are expressed in the text translated below, which is an excerpt of Utpaladeva's ĪPK-Vivṛti. Utpaladeva (the X c. Kaśmīrian founder of the "School of Recognition [of oneself as identical with the Supreme Lord]"), in fact, elaborates on these themes in his well-known Īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā (stanzas on the recognition with the Lord, ĪPK). The stanzas have been commented by the author twice. His vṛtti is an essential comment, often just clarifying the meaning of the stanzas. The vivṛti, on the other hand, is an elaborated philosophical commentary, which could also be read on its own. To the only extant fragments of this text, Raffaele Torella dedicated several essays and many seminars. In this post, I will examine the text of the Vivṛti ad 1.4.5, edited by this scholar in Mélanges tantriques à la mémoire d'Hélène Brunner.

[Obj.:] But it is impossible that something (e.g., whatever an object) is illuminated if it does not penetrate into the light. Nor is there, by saying so, a singleness of what is illuminated and what illuminates, because the grasped-part, like an illuminated pot, distinct from the grasper, although it is [ultimately] inseparated from the light, shines forth [as if separated from it]. In the same way, in the case of yogins (who can allegedly have access to other people's minds) the cognition of other cognisers apperas as a "this", i.e., as something else. Else, there would follow an error [since yogins would not be able to distinguish other people's cognitions from their own]. Therefore, if [as you claim] the cognition cannot be grasped by another cognition, how can there be a unity of memory, which has as content a [previous] experience and the experience [itself]?
The text seems at first quite difficult, partly because of the overlapping terminology. "Grasper" is in fact the same as "light" and "illuminator" and they all refer to the agent of cognition.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What will future conferences look like?

Personally, I hate conferences where the speakers are in fact readers of (usually boring) papers. Even more so, if the papers have been used and re-used at several conferences. These conferences, I believe, are only useful because of their coffee-breaks, when one can meet interesting people, discuss interesting topics, get really into a stimulating theme.
But if it is so, why do not we organize conferences which resemble more the coffee breaks and less the reading rooms?
Apart from my past proposals (see under the label "methodology"), I am now considering the idea of a conference embedding a workshop. One could discuss the general problems involved by the conference in an open session, where stimulating questions may come from the public (I would not allow than 30' for each speaker and in any case not less than 15' for discussion, right after each presentation). Within the conference (e.g., on the second out of three days, or about midday of a single day), a more restricted circle might meet and discuss the technicalities the general theme implies. The restricted circle would involve only people who are really interested (and have registered, say, two weeks in advance). One would discuss problems which are yet to be solved in a more specific way.
For instance, the general session might be about the use of manuscript sources (are they reliable? unavoidable? dependent on the scribe's mood?) and the workshop on conventions for reproducing lacunae (or the like).

What do readers think? What worked for you? From which conference did you come back happy and enriched?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Contrary to duty obligations in everyday life

Can we explain away contrary to duty obligations through an historical analysis of the texts implying them? Yes and No.

A comment by VS on my last post proposes the above solution and suggests that contradictions might be due to different textual layers. This is certainly true in many cases, but
  1. 1. it does not solve the intrinsic problem of whomsoever wants to make sense of the text prescribing the contrary-to-duty obligation. This applies to people who believe in that text (e.g. Mīmāṃsakas and the Veda, Christians and the Bible, etc.), to people who depend on it (such as law scholars having to do with a Costitution) and to thinkers who, like me, apply the principle of charity in order to make sense of the texts they analyse.
  2. 2. contrary-to-duty obligations may perhaps arise also outside texts.
Point 2 is connected with the general point of whether obligations may arise independently of an (external) authority (be it a text or not) enjoining them. One might propose (so also Angot) that they may arise out of one's own inner sense of duty. But I am not sure whether this is also not felt as an Authority.
Whatever the case, for sure contrary to duty obligations might arise out of the mixture of two different sources. For instance: What should one do, if one has promised to harm someone, given that a) one should do what one has promised to do and b) one should not harm others?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Contrary to duty obligations

One of the critical junctions of Veda's validity and moral action is the Śyena sacrifice. This is a malefic sacrifice prescribed in the Veda and aiming at damaging one’s enemy. Prabhākara, like Śabara and Kumārila, firmly denies that such a sacrifice is to be performed. But why, asks an objector, since it is prescribed in the Veda, like all other sacrifices? (A Western parallel may be evoked by some cruel penalties prescribed in the Bible for what we now consider to be minor offences.)

How can the Veda, which is an instrument of knowledge (pramāṇa) prescribe something which should not be performed? And how can we state that it should not be performed, if it is in fact prescribed in the Veda? Obviously not because of some over-ranking moral principle (such as "Morality"), since the Veda is the only Absolute acknowledged by Mīmāṃsakas and much of their philosophy would collapse if only they would not adhere to this economy of principles. Hence, Mīmāṃsakas state that the śyena should not be performed because of the Vedic rule "One should not perform any violence" (na hiṃsayāt). However, one might object that violent acts (namely, animal sacrifices such as the Agnīṣomīya one) are prescribed elsewhere in the Veda and are indeed performed. So formulated, the problem amounts to the presence of contradictory statements within the Veda. Nor could one or the other be eliminated, since the Veda is a valid instrument of knowledge in all its parts.

How can one logically explain cases of conflicting obligations, such as the Śyena one? One might suggest that the only condition that would allow one to perform the Śyena, namely the desire to harm one's enemy, entails itself something forbidden. This leads to an interesting ethical dilemma, i.e., is desire to perform violence in itself to be punished? The inclusion of desire within ethics implies a stoic approach to emotions, which seems to harmonize with Rāmānujācārya's one one (in Tantrarahasya IV).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Desire, cognition and action

The Naiyāyikas explain the reasons for one’s action according to the sequence of cognition-will-action. One acts because one strives for something and in order to strive for something one has to know it as pleasant.
In other words,



As expressed by Vātsyāyana in his NBh ad NS 1.1.1, objects are known in order to understand whether they must be desired or avoided. Hence, the succession of knowledge, will and action. See the NBh’s Introduction ad NS 1.1.1:
This knower, after having grasped with a means of knowledge an object, either craves for it or wishes to leave it. The desire of such a person, set in motion by crave or disgust, is called initiation of the action (pramāṇena khalv ayaṃ jñātārtham upalabhya tam īpsati va jihāsati vā. tasyepsājihāsāprayuktasya samīhā pravṛttir ity ucyate).

The Mīmāṃsaka reply to this Naiyāyika view is that to believe that cognition (jñāna) is enough for will to arise does no hold. The intellectual view of Nyāya is thus refuted. Desire is, according to Mīmāṃsā, a primary factor which cannot be explained away through its antecedents.
Instead, many other Indian philosophical schools explain desire as a consequence of
(erroneous) cognitions. See the Buddhist 'dependent origination' (pratītyasamutpāda), the Naiyāyika discussion on 'connection with a recollection' (smṛtyanubandha) and 'ignorance' (avidyā) in connection to the arousal of desire…
What do readers think? Is desire a consequence of (erroneous) cognition? Can it be explained (away) in this way?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Sacred Texts' Loop

The possibility of understanding Sacred Texts is established within Theistic traditions by the will of God who reveals them. In the atheistic Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, it is based on our linguistic expertise: we have to rely on worldly meanings of words even while reading Sacred Texts since, else, we would not have any key as to how to interpret them. Hence, the mastery of worldly meanings is a pre-condition for the understanding of a Sacred Text. But what if that texts prescribes a kind of duty which is fully new (apūrva), un-preceded, that is, non-attainable through any other (worldly) kind of knowledge? Should not it remain beyond any possible grasp?

More in general, the issue here sketched raises thought-provoking questions for all theological discourse. How can, in fact, the non-human be expressed in terms accessible to human beings?

However, let me situate the problem within the school I know better, Mīmāṃsā.
According to both the Bhāṭṭa and the Prābhākara school of Mīmāṃsā, the relation betweeen a word and the entity it means is perpetual (nitya). Nonetheless, this does not amount to say that everyone, upon hearing for the first time a word, automatically understands its meaning. Rather, one needs first to acquire proficiency in language use through the usage of elder people and through the ensuing activities (both these aspects may be referred to as vyavahāra). E.g., after having heard one's grandfather ordering:“Bring [the] cow!," one sees one's father bringing a cow. Through many similar instances, one eventually learns the meaning of the words “Bring!” and “cow”.

But, according to the Prābhākara, the meaning conveyed by the Veda is a duty (kārya) which is unprecedented (apūrva). Hence, how could it be possible to learn the relation between a word and a meaning such as the unprecedented duty through the usage of the seniors? And if this is not possible, how could one understand the meaning of the Vedic words referring to it? In fact, though the relation between Vedic words and the unprecedented duty is fixed, a meaning can be grasped only by people who have previously understood, by means of the linguistic usage of senior speakers, its relation with the word signifiying it. Nor can it be said that one can learn the meaning of Vedic words referring to an unprecedented duty through the Veda itself, as in this case there would be a vicious circle (the elders' usage would depend on the Veda, whose understanding depends on the elders' usage).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta: a historical problem

The relation between Mīmāṃsā (also called Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, that is Earlier M.) and Vedānta (also called Uttara Mīmāṃsā, that is Later M.) is more than controversial. Indian authors, both ancient and contemporary, all agree in linking the two currents of thought. But how is this relation to be understood?

  1. 1. Did Uttara Mīmāṃsā evolve out of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā?
  2. 2. Were PM and UM once the same school?
  3. 3. Did PM and UM just become similar?

Pre-Halbfass scholars of Indian Philosophy usually assume something like n.1, and in fact Vedānta adopt the whole hermeneutic structure of PM.
Asko Parpola (WZKS 1981 and 1993) holds theory n.2, and maintains that the basic text of the Ur-Mīmāṃsā, the original "Mīmāṃsāsūtra" was composed of what became later known as the Mīmāṃsāsūtra and of what became later known as the Brahmasūtra. The names PM and UM refer, hence, to the first and the second part of a text (and not of an earlier and a later school).
Johannes Bronkhorst (see his Introduction to Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta: Interactions and Continuity) upholds n.3. In summary, he maintains that the Vedānta evolved in a very different milieu than the Brahmanic milieu of PM, namely the śramaṇic milieu of Jainas and Buddhists. Later, the Vedānta adopted the hermeneutic strategies of PM because they were prestigious and thus granted it acceptance and favour.
Against 2: Parpola's evidences are interesting, but far from being conclusive, especially insofar as he could not locate an early source talking of "PM" or "UM", not to speak of the absence of passages referring to a "pūrva-Mīmāṃsāsūtra" and to an "uttara-Mīmāṃsāsūtra".
Against 3: Why are so many Vedāntic authors (such as Bādārayaṇa) reverentially quoted in the earliest texts of the PM? This would not have been the case if the two originated in altogether different milieus. Could one maintain that Vedānta authors later used these names (and their texts?) to support positions which were completely new?
Do readers have an opinion about it?

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Philosophy" in India

Angot, in the book discussed in my last post, defines philosophy as intimately connected to the exercise of doubt:
*Since* the method of (ancient) Nyāya includes the methodological doubt and inquires *without limitations* and in all domains of knowledge, the label "philosophy" is appropriate for it, although Vātsyāyana etc. did not ask the same questions as Socrates or Kant. But outside ancient Nyāya and Sāṅkhya the situation (=i.e., the appropriateness of the label "philosophy") becomes more complicated. And the fact that Nyāya is considered philosophy does not exclude the reflection we need to do on the modern usage of this term (=philosophy) in the Indian context.
(my translation, my parentheses and emphases, p. 23)
I like the last sentence, but for the last words. In fact, as Angot himself points out, we need to question our usage of "philosophy" altogether, since we have no problem in considering Nietzsche, the Aquinas, Epicurus, and so on as "philosophers". As another French philosopher, P. Hadot (also quoted by Angot) notes, "philosophy" in Ancient Greece (and in India? and in some Christian authors? and in the contemporary "Applied Philosophy"?) includes a practice of life. This is quite far from the "philosophy" at the time it "became professionalizes in Europe, by the end of the 18th c." (p. 24). As for Angot, he is fine with this use of "philosophy", if only –so it seems– the requisite doubt and scope mentioned above are also there.

But does this make sense?
A part from possible problems within Western philosophy, I wonder:
  • whether a generalised doubt is altogether possible
  • why should not specialised inquiries not be considered "philosophy"?
Nāvya Nyāya seems a plausible candidate as "philosophy", although it focuses (only) on certain topics. But, if so, then why not accepting as "philosophy" those schools which explicitly acknowledge the authority of the Veda and then philosophize in other domains?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Doubt in Nyaya Philosphy

I started reading M. Angot's introduction to his translation of the Nyayabhasya. The text is fascinating because and although it is very provocative. The author maintains that Indian philosophers were first of all performers, namely they performed debates. They were not contemplative sould detached from worldly worries, but rather sanguinely engaged in confrontations. The standard form of expression in Sanskrit, writes the author, is indeed that of confrontation.
Angot then adds, without any apparent explanation, that philosophy after the Nyayabhasya "surrendered to religion". Abhinavagupta could be a great philosopher, but only insofar as he was first of all a theologian, and so on. On the contrary, authors until the NBh could doubt everything, including the Veda. They were, Angot suggests, like the sophists in Ancient Greece.
What do readers think? So much food for thought and I've only read the first 12 pages;-)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is there a "norm" in the Upaniṣads?

Were "norms" already availble to the authors of the oldest Upaniṣads? If so, how did they identify the breaking of a norm? Can contemporary readers detect the authors' identifications of some episodes as counter-normative?
Sven Wortmann, using Brian Black's narratological approach (already discussed in this blog here), read a paper at the IIGRS2 conference in Cambridge on these themes. He maintains that through a narratological reading one can identify the cases where a norm is broken. Specifically, one could use as identification marks the following ones:

  1. 1. the text explicitly indicates the content as counter-normative
  2. 2. other texts indicate it as such
  3. 3. the content becomes a motif
  4. 4. the content is deleted in other parallel or later texts
To elaborate, S.Wortmann discussed two cases (the king Ajātaśatru which teaches and initiates a brahmin BĀUp 2.1, and Satyakāma and his mother Jāvalā, who does not know to which gotra his father belongs, in ChUp). The paper has raised a very interesting discussion. Personally, I can't see why point 2. should yield any evidence in favour of the breaking of a norm (there are many motives which re-inforce a norm or that are norm-neutral). Others objected against the very idea of the normative in the Upaniṣads, or against the examples chosen. Are casts already fix at the time of the BĀUp? Don't they rather refer to specializations (so that it is strange that a king initiates a i, but it is not counter-normative)?
A last interesting questions regard the context of this allegedly counter-normative motives: have they been composed by kṣatriyas? By urbanised (i.e., progressive) brahmins?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is there time without consciousness?

Time, as is well known, is according to Augustine extensio animi, an extension of one's soul. Hence, it does not exist apart from it.
However, Sartre maintained that the most fundamental level of consciousness is pre-egological and Husserl supported (only) a transcendental ego –that is, one which does not appear as such in consciousness. Buddhist thinkers were explicitly non-substantialist, at least after Vasubandhu.
Does time-consciousness entail a (transcendental, at least) ego?
Husserl's claim that there is a moment of retention within every instant of experience, might help one in avoiding to postulate an ego and yet account for time-consciousness. However, one might object, such a retention is itself momentary and hence cannot account for long-term memory.
While dealing with such questions, Matt MacKenzie admitted that retention is one of the conditions of possibility of memory, and it is still not the depiction implied by memory. In order to get it, one needs to add an account of the sedimentation of retention-traces (in Sanskrit one would call them vāsanā or saṃskāra). This is the role of the depository consciousnessm the ālayavijñāna. A presentist (and at the conference on Self: Hindu Responses to Buddhist Critiques this role has been performed by Jan Westerhoff) could instead object that there are, in fact, NO RECORDS of the past. What appears as a record of the past is in fact a present cognition, which we misinterpret as relating to the past. In other words, it only "looks" as a record, but it exists in the present as something else.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Are objects enough or do we need a subject experiencing them?

Are external objects able to convey information? Are they, that is, independent of me meaningful objects?
During the open discussion following the paper of Wolfgang Fasching I have summarised before, Joel Krueger (who asked, by the way, some among the most interesting questions during the whole conference) challenged Fasching's approach from the point of view of Gilbert's ecological psychology. In summary, Gilbert proposed that the only world we experience is a world made of already meaningful objects. That is, they are already meaningful, even before me attributing them a meaning. Consequently, they are also able to tell me some information about myself. Hence, the world itself is a continuous space of self-specifying information (=information specifying myself, yourself, etc.). If this all is true, we would need nothing more than a consciousness interpreted as sheer openness.
Instinctively, I would have objected like Irina Kusnetsova did, that is by claiming that objects can convey self-specifying information only in relation of me. They are telling insofar as I "interrogate" them, they tell me about me because they tell me how I like or dislike or am attracted, etc. them.
Once again, I am back at the problem that if all we want to establish is a sheer consciousness, without personal characteristic, then it seems that even less than that would do (just the saṃskāras instead of the owner of memories, for instance). A full-shaped sense of mineness seems to me the minimal requisite to distinguish between a "mental state" and a subejct.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why talking about methodology?

A primary concern of mine is to become more and more aware of the plurality of possible methodological approaches within every field of study, and of the non-neutrality of the choice of one approach over another.
An acknowledged methodology, I believe, might be challenged and discussed, whereas an apparent “non-methodology” might be much riskier and subtler. In fact, an absolute absence of methodology is just impossible. Hence, authors who avoid methodological questions, or claim they do not need to face them, actually implement one methodology and suggest to their readers that this is the “natural”, the “right” or the only plausible one. In some cases, this amounts to say that one subliminally absorbs a methodological approach (for instance, one teachers' one) and then tends to reproduce it uncritically. In others, a similar procedure may have the negative output of making its upholders sure that there is no space for authentic research outside it. Hence, adopting another methodological approach would be tantamount to being no “appropriate” researcher at all.

Does a phenomenological approach lead us to a self-as-consciousness?

I have argued in this blog (see label "subject") and elsewhere in favour of a phenomenological interpretation of the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā theories of the self. I understand them as referring to the kind of persons we experience in our everyday life and not to take into account "minimal selves", since they have nothing to do with such an experience. Even if there were one, it would be as remote from my experience as the Buddhist ālayavijñāna and saṃskāras. But one can use phenomenology to achieve different conclusions (favouring a self-qua-consciousness vs. a person).
In the Self: Hindu Responses to Buddhist Critiques conference, the phenomenologist Wolfgang Fasching was probably the only speaker being a "pure" philosopher (with no training in Indian languages). The fact that everyone enjoyed is paper and that some of us thought it was the best one, is a further evidence of the fact that one can start thinking philosophically about Indian texts –even as an outsider lacking an accurate knowledge of Sanskrit. Obviously enough, this does not imply that no further work on primary sources is required, nor that everyone can understand all kind of Sanskrit texts. Nonetheless, Fasching's paper was an interesting example of philosophical acumen applied to Advaita Vedānta.

The paper examines the idea (possibly akin to the one proposed by C. Ram-Prasad in the same conference) of an ego-substance "beyond or behind the experiential realm":
Such an entity would have to remain a purely metaphysical conjecture […] and it is not even clear whether the position of such an ego-entity would in fact provude us with an adequate answer to our question [namely: what *is* this experiencing I that constitutes the essential subjectivity of experience?] […] On the other hand, […] we cannot seem to do *without* an I that experiences its experiences, since mineness belongs to the very essence of experience itself. (p.3)

Fasching maintains that the Advaita Vedāntic ātman is a fitting answer for the above question:
So the self in the Advaitic sense is not a particular entity I could find in addition to the things in the world which I experience as being external to me –it is rather the world-experiencing itself (p.4).
What are we left with, now? Is this self-as-consciousness still something graspable, or is it nothing more than a minimal requisite, a "purely metaphysical conjecture"? In fact, several questions at the end of Fasching's presentation, focused on similar objections. M.MacKenzie claimed, for instance, that mental states are such because they are undergone, *but* asking "undergone by *whom*?" points to nothing more than a grammatical problem. Ram-Prasad added further insights on the evolution of the Advaita Vedāntic teaching on this point after the disapperance of Buddhism from India. In fact, until Buddhist opponents challenged them, Advaita Vedāntins sticked at their claim of a difference between vṛttijñāna (intentional knowledge of the world) and sākṣījñāna (consciousness). But thereafter, departing from Madhusudana Sārasvati, one wanted to avoid to end up with the sākṣin as a substance.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Conferences are difficult to organize and often also expensive. Do they yield enough benefits to justify one's efforts?

In fact, some of the benefits produced consist in (please tell me if I missed some important ones): 1. enhancing the prestige of the organising institution and of the speakers, 2. allowing the participants to meet and get in touch with previously unknown colleagues, 3. allowing the participants to strengthen one's personal relationships with colleagues and friends, 4. enabling the participants to listen to interesting papers, 5. enabling the participants to engage in fruitful discussions.

I especially value point 5, considering 4 to be reached also through intense reading (especially since the internet has now made much more material easily available, and enables exchanges of pre-print drafts in a smoother way). Point 3, which lies often at the basis of a fruitful common enterprise can be achieved, I hope, through point 5.

Let me now speculate a little bit more on why should an open discussion be a value in itself. We all know geniuses who have been able to produce incredible achievements while leaving in complete isolation. The following lines do not address them, since their case is so unique that no educational or cultural system may realistically try to contribute to their genius, not to speak of “creating” it. But what about all other average students and scholars? They must certainly read and study on their own, but why should they from time to time try to meet and confront? This has to do, in my opinion, with the value of non-technical knowledge in general and humanistic knowledge in particular. In fact, why should one care for the furthering of non-technical knowledges, which lack any practical output? A possible answer is their indirect connection with technical ones. A further answer is their intrinsic value for reasons different than the ones implied in the definition of a “practical output”. Reading novels may be said, for instance, beneficial to one's ability to prove empathy for others, and, hence, to one's ability of being a good citizen, a caring relative, a compassionate human being. The study of distant cultures may be similarly held to enhance one's openness towards other people, while fretting one's prejudices. A mind trained in logic might be more able to distinguish among valid arguments and fallacies in other people's claims and hence be less liable to be cheated. All these (and many other) outputs are, in my opinion, further enhanced by encounters and sincere exchanges with others.

Am I too utopistic and far off the mark?

The Self in the Upaniṣad

How far does the narrative structure influence the philosophical content of a text? And can they contradict each other?

The first paper discussed at the conference "Self: Hindu Responses to Buddhist Critiques" was Brian Black's "The rhetoric of Self in the Upaniṣads and Majjhima Nikāya". Notwithstanding the generic title, Black focused on two among the most ancient Upaniṣads, that is the BĀUp and the ChUp.
One of his main points was the stress on the plurality of voices in the Upaniṣads. Sometimes the ātman is described as passive, others as dynamic and these diverse theories cannot be reduced to one.
Hence, in order to make sense of them it is better to take into account their literary and social dimension. In this connection, Black frequently mentioned Bronkhorst's theory as exposed in his Greater Māgadha. Bronkhorst maintains that there were two distinct cultures at the time of the Upaniṣad/Pāli Canon, a brahmanical one in the North West and a "śramaṇic" one around Māgadha, with the first bearing no influence on the latter. Black suggests that this theory make help us to make sense of seeming exceptions, such as the Sāṅkhya system (which, according to Bronkhorst, belongs to the Greater Māgadha culture and not to the brahmanic one, hence its stress on duḥkha).
However, I am not sure whether Black's own paper supports Bronkhorst's view, since Black acutely showed how the contents of the theory of the self in the Upaniṣads and in the Majjhima Nikāya are utterly different, although their narrative frames are often quite similar. Moreover, in the Nikāya theories about non-self are debated in "rehearsals" for verbal encounters with opposers ("if someone should ask you this, you should answer that"). The main audience is made of monks and nuns, often anticipating such possible confrontations. Although Black stated that there are no examples of direct confrontations with Brahmans, the dialectic context seems to me to point to deeper interactions than envisaged by Bronkhorst. Moreover, Black showed how the Buddhist discours on the non-self shares many points in common with the Upaniṣadic rhetoric of the self (Upaniṣadic metaphors, for instance, are reversed; and dialectic stategies are repeated –although with a different purpose).
Last, Black's respondant, Kate Wharton, asked whether it is not that the Buddhist emphasis on the charismatic Buddha implicitly contradicts the rhetoric of non-self, whereas the Upaniṣadic plurality contradicts the rhetoric of a single self. In fact, maintains K.Wharton, both Buddhists and Brahmans agree that the self is not the body, nor is it sensations, etc. What, hence, really distinguishes the two sorts of texts is the cohesive narrative of the Nikāyas, which are built around the Buddha as philosophical hero. He is the real "glue" of the Nikāyas, more and over the non-self doctrine.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reflective consciousness AS the self/Thinking beyond the history of Indian Philosophy

Granted that consciousness is reflective, that is, aware of itself, do we need anything like a "self" on top of that?

During the conference on Self: Hindu responses to Buddhist Critiques, Matt MacKenzie proposed an updated version of Śāntarakṣita's account as the best solution to the debate on self and subjectivity. According to his interpretation (provided that I understood it correctly), Dharmakīrti maintained, as Brentano, that every consciousness act is a complex of subject and intentionality. Śāntarakṣita, instead, pushed the Buddhist position closer to the Advaita one insofar as he identified prakāśatva ('the fact of being luminous', that is, reflective, auto-aware) of the consciousness, with the fact of being sva-prakāśatva ('the fact of being self-luminous', self-aware). Further, he described such svaprakāśatva as the essence of consciousness, which could not present objects unless it were svaprakāśa. In other words, the fact of being self-luminous is not an accident to consciousness, but its true essence. Consciousness throws light on objects insofar as it is self-reflective.

At this point, there seems to be not much difference left between Śāntarakṣita's and the Advaita Vedānta position, apart from the issue of temporality. In fact, as argued also by C. Ram-Prasad, the two positions would be undistinguishable if not for that.

But here comes the most intriguing move of MacKenzie. Actively engaged in the philosophical enterprise initiated by Śāntarakṣita's innovations, MacKenzie proposed to emend the latter's proposal. In fact, temporality is a problem for Śāntarakṣita's account, according to MacKenzie. Its problematicity is proved by the tension, within Yogācāra Buddhism, between the stress on momentaryness (kṣaṇikatva) and that on the depository-consciousness (ālayavijñāna). In fact, the latter accounts for temporal continuity and causal connections, but risks to contradict the former.

However, maintains MacKenzie, this is a false choice. It is possible to have both non-substantialism and diachronical persistence, IF ONLY we give up momentariness. Hence, getting rid of momentariness improves the Yogācāra account of consciousness as it allows for phenomenological temporality. An external reader (such as myself) might ask how can temporality be phenomenologically present, although not substantially real. MacKenzie can answer this rebuttal through Husserl's account of the phenomenological time-consciousness. According to it, every experience is made of retention (of the past moment)-experience of the present moment-protention (towards the next). In this way, we can experience a melody as melody (through retention of the last heard note, experience of the present one, protension towards the next expected one).

I am still in trouble, since retention seems not to last long enough to make sense of recollections or only of experiences interrupted by gaps (such as that of looking for one's drink while watching a movie).

Indian Philosophy, debate and conferences

I am just coming back from a UK-tour (London-Lewes-Cambridge). The (chronologically) second purpose of the tour was to attend the conference "Self: Hindu responses to Buddhist critiques", which is part of the omonymous project lead by C. Ram-Prasad and J. Ganeri. The following ones are my first comments on it:
  1. 1. all papers have been precirculated and, contrary to my expectations, have actually been read by most speakers/listeners. I guess readers will automatically understand that this implies that the audience was limited in number and made of only quite interested and active members.
  2. 2. hence, every speaker had 15' to read excerpts of his/her paper (which seemed to me not to be the best use of one's time), to propose a fil rouge through it, to summarize it, or to explain its etiology (as Brian Black did –and I have to admit I enjoyed this a lot). Next, a respondant had 10' to comment on the paper and then 35' of open discussion followed. As a rule, I enjoyed this last part most, since the other speakers/listeners have been able to propose several interesting insights and criticisms. It was the first time at a conference I really had the feeling of talking through philosophical traditions. Which leads me to the next point:
  3. 3. The most quoted authority (again, contrary to my expectations) has been Edmund Husserl. His phenomenological account has been mentioned by both supporters and deniers of an enduring self. Does this mean, as John Taber asked at last, that in fact Indian Philosophy has nothing "new" to offer to Contemporary Philosophy, since the latter has already achieved on its own what Indian philosophers realised (perhaps, some centuries in advance)? Or does it only mean that we have to come to terms with the unknown (Indian philosophy) in "our" terms (hence, through Husserl)? Once this "unknown" has found its way in our thought through such a doorway, it may still plant interesting seeds in it…

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What if there were a further self beyond the self?

Let us assume that there is in fact a transcendental self, which is responsible of the empirical one we experience. The transcendental self cannot be experienced, but it is the condition for the possibility of experience, the space, so to say, where experience can take place.
Could one not argue, then, that we need a more transcendental self which make the transcendental self possible? If one has acknowledged once the necessity of something beyond experience in order to account for experience, how can one stop requiring always higher order entities to justify the previous ones?
In other words, how can we be sure that the homunculus (if there is a small man within oneself which controls the external man, than one could argue for the necessity of an even smaller man within the small man and so on) argument does not apply to the Advaita Vedānta self?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What if one could prove the existence of a transcendent self?

The Nyāya and Advaita ātman could be though of as beyond the risk of being harmed by transplanted memories and the like, since it lies beyond "personal" experience, it is the sheer fact of being aware, devoid of any content. Hence, since experience is always, necessarily, intentional (that is: it is experience of something), such an ātman lies beyond experience. It is akin to Kant's Ich-denke (I think).
In this way, if I am not misunderstanding him, Ram-Prasad (in Siderits 2010, forthcoming), describes the Nyāya and Advaita ātman. He also adds the further note that the Nyāya ātman is the substance of which consciousness is a quality, whereas the Advaita one is itself tantamount to consciousness.
But of what "use" is this ātman, which cannot be experienced? Theoretically, even if one could prove its existence (and this can be done, according to Ram-Prasad, through the very fact that one remembers, apart from the memories' contents), one still had to prove its connection with one's "personal" feeling of being an I. One's true explanandum, hence, would not be explained through this unconditioned ātman.

Can one control emotions?

As a young teenager, I loved (I can't say I understood it) Erich Fromm's The art of loving. And I have always been more or less sure that one can learn to be happier and that one is responsible even of one's emotions and "nature".
This, however, contradicts centuries of poetry about love as an uncontrolled emotion surprising one at once, about spleen, about depression and sadness as inescapable. One could almost argue that the lack of control on emotions seems to be a characteristic mark of many extra-ordinary artists and historical figures (or is it only a "selective" lack of control?).
Personally, I met many people who live fatalistically, wishing and hoping that the future will bring them something better and enduring the present instead of trying to change it. However, I never met someone who could claim no-control whatsoever on his/her thoughts. Emotions seem in this sense to be different from, e.g., inductions, as they imply less effort and can hence be thought of as "externally" determined.
All of this seems connected with the belief on a persistent self (on this connection, see here), an agency that pervades present and future moments and can hence influence them. But the two beliefs are not necessarily connected. One could belief in a persisting agency and at the same time in its being a victim of events –in particular, emotional ones. And Theravāda Buddhism is an example of cultivation of emotions'control without believing in a self.
Do we negate a distinctive character of emotions (and, hence, miss an important potential inhering in them) if we assume that they can/must be controlled?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Self, persons and electroshocks

The possibility of implanting memories could distruct the idea of the persistence of the person in whose mind the memory has been implanted.
In fact, if in the mind of person A all the memories of person B were implanted, A would no longer be just A. She would be affected by B's experiences, tastes, etc. Hence, memory is not enough to establish a lasting person –at least if one wants it to face such extreme cases.
But, I wonder, why should one not accept that A-after implantation is a different person from A-before it? In fact, they share the same body –but this is no argument, if one does not share a reductionist viewpoint. They also share A's former memories. Is this enough not to admit their being different? An interesting literary (and medical) case would be that of Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the case of a person undergoing an Electroshock is depicted. The author claims to be not the same person his wife and children would recognise as him –notwithstanding his sharing the same body and many memories with him.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Action and Knowledge in Mīmāṃsā

In the same book discussed earlier today, Ram-Prasad writes that "the subordination of knowledge to action in Mīmāṃsā is expressed through two claims:
1. Knowledge informs and motivates action; and
2. it is action which takes the person to the highest good."
I wonder whether there is not a third claim (explicit, at least in Someśvara):
3. knowledge is a sort of action. Hence, it is not an alternative to it.

Action and knowledge

Can one construe knowledge as not being an action? Can it be, in other words, just a status and not a process? Only if it can, then the Advaitic claim that knowledge is not something one achieves, makes sense.

I am presently reading Ram-Prasad's Indian Philosophy and the Consequences of Knowledge (Ashgate 2007). The III chapter is dedicated the debate between Kumārila and Śaṅkara on action and knowledge. In Ram-Prasad's interpretation, Kumārila argues that it is not true that correct knowledge stops wrong actions, although it is true that correct knowledge may lead to right action. Hence, the superiority of action over knowledge:

This [difference] is vital for Mīmāṃsā. If knowledge is allowed to stop action, then that amounts to acknowledging that knowledge is the later and superior mode for the attainment of the highest good, since knowledge would then exist without action. On the other hand, if knowledge only leads to action, as in the symmetry Kumārila upholds, then knowledge becomes only the way to –and therefore an auxiliary of– action; and action remains as the later and superior mode. [p.106] […]
Śaṅkara seems to make almost the same point about the possibility of cognition and actions being without mutual influence.
«Whether it is a failure of cognition or a doubtful cognition or erroneous cognition, miscognition is always removed by true cognition; but not by action in any form whatsoever, for there is no contradiction between them (i.e. action and cognition)» (Śaṅkara III.iii1, p. 245).

Now, all of this only makes sense if it is possible to imagine knowledge as not being part of action, that is a state of awareness/consciousness, possibly what Indian authors meant with cit. Then, however, coming to know something could not amount to any genuine "progress". Consciousness should have been always there. And also the act of "disveiling" it could not be understood as the active removal of something…how then?

(I just came back from holiday, sorry for the long silence)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Individuality and Subjectivity

Is there any concept of the difference between individuality and subjectivity in Indian philosophy?
That is, does the critique of the concept of a subject also embed a critique of any possible individuality? Are individuality and subjectivity well distinguished in Western philosophy in general? And in Western common sense?

I just stumbled in this statement by Birgit Kellner (in her contribution to Hans-Dieter Klein's Der Begriff der Seele in der Philosophiegeschichte, 2005):
[…] hier wird kein Unterschied gemacht zwischen personenbezogenen Termen wie Eigennamen , "Person" oder "Seele", und dem Personalpronomen "ich" –eine Differenzierung von Subjektivität und Individualität ist zumindest in diesem Bereich buddhistischer Philosophie nicht auszumachen (B. Kellner, Der Begriff der Seele in der buddhistischen Philosophie, p. 192).

Kellner discusses here Vasubandhu's critique of the ātman in his Abhidharmakośa (chapter pudgalapratiṣedha) but her point is perhaps more general. In fact, whenever the aham ("I") is considered as different from the ātman, this is rather out of different concerns, primarily because it is a theorised concept (a vikalpa), and not something which could be directly and intuitively grasped.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Subject, no subject and their consequences on one's happiness

Let me try an experiment in applied philosophy: is one's sense of being a subject enduring through time going to enhance one's future happiness or not? I'll sketch the two options in a rather extreme way:

1: Enduring Subject. I have an excellent memory and my memories play a major role in shaping my actual life. I am also a self-narrator: I regularly rehearse and revise my interpretation of my life. I am a great planner and knit up my life with long-term projects. In fact, I enjoy remembering, rethinking and understanding past events and I enjoy even more thinking about the future and trying to do my best in order to achieve what I would like to (the first part of this description has been adapted from Galen Strawson, 'The Self', pp.14-15). I can also add that I have somehow been trained to be one, insofar as my father writes/used to write a diary and likes/used to like to talk about his past life and to 'understand' it. My mother does/did it much less, but appreciates/appreciated it.
Nonetheless, I never thought of that as a particular ability, since it seems spontaneous to me to plan and remember. I also tend to think that this made possible many important decisions in my life —the ones I am now happy about. For instance, if I had not been a planner, if I had just jumped from one thing to the other (again, Strawson), I would not have decided to interrupt my South Asian studies in order to study Western Philosophy. I did it because my long term project was to study Indian philosophy and, hence, I knew I needed a better philosophical training.
People who do not remember, are likely –again, in my opinion– not to learn from their mistakes and, hence, to repeat them again and again. They might marry beautiful women because they are at first sight fascinated by beauty, only to then understand that they in fact would have preferred a caring one. Similarly, people who do not plan may not be able to finish their studies or to engage in whatever activity is not at every moment rewarding –and this category includes, in my opinion, most really significant jobs.

2. Momentary Subject. Other people, and G.Strawson claims to be one, "have a very poor personal memory. And it may not be simply poor. It may also be highly quiescent, and almost never intrude spontaneously into their current thought. […] They have no early ambition, no later sense of vocation […]. Some merely go from one thing to another". More in detail, Strawson avows that "Using 'Me*' to express this fundamental way in which I think of myself, […] I can accurately express my experience by saying that I do not think of Me* as being something in the future. It is also accurate fo shift the 'not', and say, more strongly, that what I think of as being in the future is not Me*". Assuming that such an extreme case is possible, this would lead to some unwanted consequences, such as the ones I listed above (but also teeth cavity: since one does not identify with the subject who will later experience pain, why should one care about cleaning one's teeth?). On the other hand, it might have its pros: since one does not think of oneself as existing in the future, one is not afraid of examinations, loss of one's job, loosing a beloved person, etc. Further, one does not regret past events, nor does one have to bother about planning one's future, especially if this involves painful decisions. More radically, a Buddhist might argue that one is many steps ahead in the path away from 'I' and 'mine'.

I know, the analysis is too crude, especially insofar as (in 1) it presupposes the existence of a self when it describes the possible shortcomings of position 2. To say the least, one might argue that it is senseless to try to learn from one's mistakes, since there is no special link between, e.g., 'my' mistakes when I was 13 and 'my' mistakes now. Instead, it might be better to investigate on 'common mistakes' of people in a certain age-group or social class, etc.

What do readers think? I'm curious to know about insights from the latter kind of experience.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Memory and an enduring self

The phenomenon of Memory seems to me perhaps the biggest obstacle to the theory that there is no enduring self. If there is no such one, how could one be aware of one's memories?
Kant's idea of the 'elastic ball' effect, suggests that a self at time t1 could cause to be a self at time t2 and so on, until one reaches one's present self, which has been caused by a chain of preceding 'selves' and which, only because of that, shares many characteristics with them. I sense that some Buddhist arguments about the self might be similar to this one.
Both sorts of argument can explain the fact that the 'subject' at t1234 can remember something which happened at the 'subject' at t678. But what they fail to explain, I am afraid, is how is the phenomenon of memory possible. In memory one is not just aware of a past event. One is aware of is as past. Hence, one is at the same time aware of oneself in the present moment, no matter how dimly, of the oneself one used to be, and of their identity. Memory, in short, is not just a repetition of a past experience. It adds to the repetition of this past experience the sense that it is past and that it is one's own. Eduard Marbach observed (in his contribution to Exploring the Self, 2000) that this makes memory different from hallucination or dream.
Śaiva authors (I am thinking especially at Utpaladeva's vivṛti on his Īśvarapratyabhijñākārikā + vṛtti) elaborated a lot on memory as evidence for an enduring self. However, as far as I know, they did not derive from that the logical consequence that memory is a distinct instrument of knowledge, since it does not just repeat the previous event, but adds to this repetition the knowledge that it is of a past event.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Agenthood and Independence

Following a previous discussion (see here), let me return to the topic of agenthood and how it is conceived by Mīmāṃsakas. I just came across a statement of Prabhākara's commentator, Śālikanātha, who writes that "agenthood is sovereignty" (kartṛtvam īśvaratvam, Ṛjuvimalā ad Bṛhatī 6.1.1.). A few pages before, he and Prabhākara discussed about "sovereignty" over an act as the fact of being the Master of that act (svāmin), just like one can be the Master of a village. Prabhākara further claimed that this amounts to have the right (adhikāra) over that act. This all seems to point to the fact that an agent is someone who is able/free to act. I guess some reader may think that "agent" may well not have its grammatical meaning here, but my point is exactly that Mīmāṃsakas interpreted kārakas according to their kāraka-status (karaṇa is that through which, karman is the object desired, kartṛ is the agent).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Are unconnected thoughts possible?

Some philosophers conclude that there is no persistent self out of the fact that our thoughts (in a loose sense of the term) follow each other without any necessary connection to the former ones. And, even if there is some connection, this can be due just to the previous thought and not to the fact that both belong to the same subject (cf Kant's "elastic ball" argument while discussing the Third Paralogism, KrV, A 363-4). For instance, Galen Strawson writes:

Consider the diachronic case first: imagine that a series of seff-conscious thoughts or 'I-thoughts' occurs in the same brain, one at a time, while none of them ever involves any awareness of any thought earlier … than itself. […]

Some may want to say that there is nevertheless a single thinker, simply because a single brain is the locus of all thoughts. But why should the fact of non-mental diachronic singlesess decisively overrule the natural judgement that there is no plausible candidate for a diachronically single mental self in this case? ('The Self' in Models of the Self, edited by Gallagher and Shear, 1999)

I remember an acquaintance of mine who, after a training in Vipassana meditation, could described her mind as "pauselessly transmitting stupid spots as a popular radio". However, I wonder whether there can be a similar series of unconnected thoughts. Are thoughts so 'subject-independent' (I'm sorry if this could seem to beg the question)? Is 'my' thought of /pleasure while eating a vanilla ice cream/ the same as yours, given the same sensorial feeling? Let us for instance assume that I am an Italian man, who has been eating ice creams all his life long and you a Japanese chap who never had the pleasure of a home-made ice cream. Isn't my emotion (or "thought") deeply mine since it is connected with my memories of happy days eating ice creams? Isn't yours different in a significant way?
In Pramāṇavāda terms, one might object that the basic thought is the same, whereas just the following vikalpas differ. This might be true. But isn't it the case that the vikalpas are unavoidably part of the flux of consciousness? Can there ever be a series of vikalpa-less "thoughts", which, hence, bear no specific link to their subject?

Friday, July 30, 2010

SESMET and Buddhist "selves"

Is there any significant difference between the claim that there is no-self (anātman) and that the self is nothing more than the instantaneous, self-aware experience of a patch of blue, an emotion, etc.?
I am currently reading and enjoying several of Galen Strawson's articles on the self (Strawson 1997, 1999, 2000). In the most recent among the ones I read (his contribution to Zahavi's Exploring the Self, 2000), Strawson somehow adjusts his previous theses and states:

I claim that it is in the limiting case possible for a being to lack any significant sense of itself as an agent, and as something that has a personality, and as somehting that has long-term persistence, and still experience itself as a self or mental subject at a given time.

Many disagree … I won't say more about it now, except to note that there are recognized pathologies that can involve the weakening or loss of all three of these aspects of ordinary human self-experience –aboulia, apraxia, depersonalization, passivity phenomena in schizophrenia, autism, and loss of time sense…. [p.46]

I want now to consider the ontological question:… Do there in fact exist (1) subjects of experience that are (4) single (3) mental (2) things during any gap-free period of experience, whether or not they can persist across gaps in experience?

I think there are. … I will call them SESMETs (Subjects of Experience that are Single MEntal Things). I think that gap-free periods of experience are always short in the human case… So I think that many SESMETs exist in the case of a human being. In all essentials, in fact, I agree with William James… He holds that "the same brain may subserve many conscious selves" that are entirely distinct —numerically distinct— substances. […] On this view the apparent continuity of our conscious experience […] derives from the fact that SESMETs "appropriate" […] the experiential content of their predecessors´ experiences. They do so in a way that is entirely unsurprising in sofar as they arise […] from brain conditions that have considerable similarity from moment to moment even as they change.

I understand that the reference to the brain and to the SESMET as a "thing" could not be endorsed by modern and classical Buddhists. But what about the rest of the claim? Is this more similar than my preceding, Humean proposal, to the Pramāṇavādin conception of the self? (I refer to the Pramāṇavādins since they developed a consistent philosophy of Buddhism).

As far as I am concerned, I share the doubt Strawson attributes to a hypothetical reader (p.48): even if they were true, these SESMETs seem to be useless as they are too far away from our experience of ourselves.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Subject, agent, language and reality

In his Tantrarahasya, Rāmānujācārya discusses various interpretations of Kumārila's theory of linguistic signification as regards prescriptive sentences (e.g. "The one who desires heaven should sacrifice"). Why do these sentences impel one to act? –asks Kumārila. It is noteworthy that the Mīmāṃsā account does not presuppose a speaker as a necessary condition and focuses instead on the listener's point of view. In the passage below, Rāmānujācārya investigates about one of the possible ways of constructing Kumārila's theory, namely, that the prescriptive force (the force expressed by prescriptive sentences and inducing one to act, in Sanskrit śabdabhāvanā, see here) is a cognition. But if it so, asks an objector, how can a linguistic unit (śabda), which is usually the object of a cognition, be at the same time its instrument? Rāmānujācārya's answer is that one should not conflate the way one expresses things (language) and the way things are (reality). One can express the same action in different ways, but this does not affect the nature of the action. Hence, that the word appears as object and as instrument of the cognition in different sentences is no hindrance. Similarly, the axe can be an instrument (if one says "I fell the tree with an axe") or an object ("I lower the axe").
This point leads him to an interesting excursus on kārakas (linguistic functions, cf. Chomsky) from the Mīmāṃsā point of view. Rāmānujācārya either slightly modifies or re-interprets Pāṇini's definitions (see, especially, his understanding of svatantrakartā which in Pāṇini identifies the "subject" as independent of any semantic burden, whereas in Rāmānujācārya stresses its independence as for the initiation of the action).
Unfortunately, Mīmāṃsakas do not share Pāṇini's concern in distinguishing kārakas from vibhaktis (i.e., logical functions from the case-endings expressing them).

[UP:] «But if a cognition (jñāna) were the denotative (abhidhā) function (vyāpāra), then how could the word (śabda) –which is the syntactical object (karman) in regard to a cognition (e.g., “Devadatta knows a word”)– be [at the same time] the instrument (karaṇa) with respect to this [denotative] function (vyāpāra)? Indeed, the usage (prayoga) “Devadatta understands a meaning by means of a word (śabda)” is [commonly] seen [so, the word is commonly known to be the cognition's instrument, and how can it be both instrument and object?]».

[PP/Bhāṭṭa:] «It [must] be said [in reply]: The distinct settlement (vyavasthā) of the factors of action (kāraka) like object, instrument, agent [is not made] with respect to the general (mātra) form (rūpa) of the activity (vyāpāra), rather it is made with respect to the delimitation (avacchid-) of the activity (vyāpāra) by means of this or that result,
even though the own nature (svarūpa) of the activity is the same. To elaborate, when precisely (eva) that cognition which [has been previously expressed as] having the word (śabda) as syntactical object (karman), is delimited (avacchid-) by a result characterised as the apprehension (pratipatti) of the meaning, and includes (vyāp-) the word (śabda) (in sentences such as “she knows that meaning through that word”), then the word (śabda) is an instrument because it is included in the activity (vyāpāra) initiated (pravṛt-) for another purpose (i.e., it is an instrument because it is necessarily part –vyāp– of the action though not being the most desired element of it, the object). The meaning is, on the other hand, the syntactical object (karman) because it is the substratum of the action’s result. And then that cognition receives the title (vyapadeśa) of “designation” (abhidhā) because it (the title “designation”) has been comprehensively learnt (vyutpatti) in this regard (that is, in regard to what has as its syntactical object the apprehension of a meaning). When, on the other hand, one wishes to express (vivakṣā) the autonomy (svātantrya) [of the word] with regard to the function (vyāpāra) [of denoting], then the word (śabda) is the agent which designates (abhidhā) the meaning (and in fact the agent is defined in the Aṣṭādhyāyī as svatantra, “autonomous”). But when just this word (śabda) is made by the cognition into [its] content (viṣaya), then the word, partaking (bhaj-) of the result (because the word is the substratum of the result, through the connection of word and meaning), i.e., the displaying of the meaning, is the syntactical object (karman), like in “she knows [p.46] the word (śabda)”. Then, indeed, the cognition does not partake of (bhaj-) the title (vyapadeśa) “designation” (abhidhā). Rather, it must be simply called “cognition”, because the word (śabda) “designation” has not been learnt (vyutpatti) with regard to that (knowledge of the word, not of the meaning). Like an axe: like an axe is the syntactical object (karman) in regard to raising (udyamana) and sinking. When raising and sinking are delimited (avacchid-) by the result of splitting into two, and the axe is included (vyāp-) by them, then the axe is an instrument (karaṇa) because of being included in an activity (vyāpāra) initiated (pravṛt-) for another purpose (artha) (that is, chopping the tree). The wood-logs, instead, are the syntactical object (karman), since they are the substratum (āśraya) of the action’s (kriyā) result. And raising and sinking, then, receive the title of “cutting”, since [the word “cutting”] has been learnt (vyutpatti) in their regard. However, when in regard to this same function (vyāpāra) one wishes to express [the axe's] autonomy then [the axe] appears as the agent, as in “the axe cuts the wood-logs”. When on the other hand precisely those raising and sinking are designated (abhidhā) by “he raises” and “he sinks”, expressing (vācin) [an action] delimited by a result which is the conjunction (saṃyoga) [of the axe] with the upper or lower space-region, then the axe is the syntactical object (karman), partaking of (bhaj-) the result, i.e., [its] union with this or that (region), like in “he raises [and] sinks the axe”. Therefore, it must be considered (dṛś) that the activities (vyāpāra) expressed (vac-) by this or that verbal root (dhātu) (“to raise”, “to sink”, and “to cut”) –though sharing a single (prātisvika) own nature (svarūpa), (i.e., chopping a tree)– are the cause of a distinct settlement (vyavasthā) of these factors of action (kāraka) because of a different delimitation (avacchid-) by means of this or that action's result, and that they (activities) are expressed (vac-) by this or that word (śabda) [again, according to the different delimitation through this or that result, and not because of the activity expressed by the verbal roots themselves, which remains the same]. If, for a distinct settlement (vyavasthā) of the factors of action (kāraka), merely (mātra) the own nature (svarūpa) of the activity (vyāpāra) would be required (apekṣ-), the action (kriyā) designated as “he walks” could become transitive (sakarmika) like the one designated as “he goes (which can have a prāpya karman, and hence be transitive.)”,
or the action “he goes” may become intransitive (akarmaka), and there would not be any distinction (vyavasthā) in use (prayoga) (that is, “he walks” and “he goes” describe the same activity, so if it were just up to the activity itself, they would be precisely the same and there would not be any difference in their employment). [The above explained procedure] can be applied (yuj-) accordingly (yathāsambhavam) also when the denotative (abhidhā) function (vyāpāra) is characterised (lakṣana) as a mnestic trace (saṃskāra). Among the [action factors], agent (kartṛ), object (karman) and instrument (karaṇa) are factors of action (kāraka) reciprocally distinguished (pravibhakta). The agent is autonomous (svatantra) in regard to the action (kriyā), the syntactical object is endowed with the result of the action, the instrument is [necessarily] included in an action (kriyā) which has been initiated (pravṛt-) for another purpose (artha). The intrinsic characters (svabhāva) of dative, ablative and locative, on the contrary, are intermixed with [those of] the [two] factors of action (kāraka) agent, and [syntactical object]. For instance, the locative is the the substratum of either the agent or the object, like “Devadatta sits on the mat (kaṭa), he cooks rice in the saucepan”. The dative is what is held in view through the object, e.g. “he gives a cow to [his] teacher”. [Finally,] the ablative is the general limit (avadhi) [of the action] of the agent (kartṛ) factor (kāraka), e.g., “a leave falls from the tree”. [The distinct settlement of the action factors] must be considered in this way, according to what is suitable in each case (yathāsambhavam)».

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What is the use of our purpose?

I finally read the Introduction to P. Patil's Against a Hindu God (recommended to me by Malcolm Keating, see here). Interestingly, Patil writes:
In interpreting and critically explaining these arguments, I am moving beyond the usual historical and philological task of restating, in English, complex arguments formulated in Sanskrit. I am committed to viewing these arguments not just as historical artifacts from someone else's intellectual past but as an interculturally available source from which we can learn today. What is at stake for Ratnakīrti (and I hope for some of us) in these arguments is nothing less than the nature of rationality, the metaphysics of epistemology, and the relevance of philosophy to the practice of religion (p.4).
One can easily imagine a proud author beyond this statement and Patil is indeed one of the relatively few (although not as few as his "usual" might imply) who try to do philosophy along with Sanskrit sources. Why is this so important? Why choosing Sanskrit sources? What do we want to achieve through comparative philosophy (as distinguished from comparative history of philosophy)?
Last, I understand Patil's point, but am also convinced that history and philology are a conditio sine qua non for the proper understanding of a text, not just for its preservation (and preservation is also important, if we want future scholars to benefit of the sources we had the pleasure to read).

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