Monday, June 28, 2010

On falsification in Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and some contemporary philosophers

I found a further interesting hint of similarity between Roderick M. Chisholm, as depicted by his detractors, and Kumārila. At p. 252 of his critique of Chisholm's epistemology (Chisholm on Empirical Knowledge, discussed in this post), in fact, Bruce Aune writes:

Thus, the moral of a good share of my argument [against t-C] is fundamentally the same: the epistemic status (or value) of a contingent belief always depends on facts extrinsic to it –on contingencies involving both the agent and the subject-matter of the belief.
This immediately strikes everyone who has ever studied Kumārila's epistemology since one of its chief tenets is, in fact, the svataḥ prāmāṇya (lit. "validity by itself") theory. That is, all cognition drives from itself alone the reasons why it is valid. It does not need an external, additional piece of evidence. From the outside can, instead, come evidences to the opposite, i.e., elements falsifying that piece of cognition. But unless and until this happens, that piece of cognition is on its own right valid, and does not need anything else in order to be accepted. In Kumārila's thought, this tenet is deemed to avoid a regressus ad infinitum (which piece of evidence would then justify the validity of the piece of evidence justifying the validity of the initial cognition?) and, more in general, to make empirical knowledge fully valid (until proven to be wrong). In sum, Kumārila and Chisholm share a similar concern in taking care of all our knowledge-lore. Invalidity, even as far as ordinary knowledge is concerned, is not the rule. Validity goes by default.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Indological blog or forum?

An interesting discussion raised by a recent post made me consider the following points.
  1. I assume as self-evident that it would be positive for whomsoever deals with Indian textsto have a (virtual) place to meet and share ideas.
  2. Previous essays did not lead to satisfying results, often due to the "laziness" of scholars of South Asia, who are not enough keen to dedicate time and energy to a collective enterprise.
  3. Hence, I proposed the idea of a multi-authored blog, in order to avoid the zombie-look of a forum with no participation.
But which kind of blog?
As far as the topics involved, I must admit that I often cannot follow the very interesting posts several of us dedicate to IT issues. I imagine that, in a similar way, several of my posts may seem very boring to many readers. Hence, either one finds a common topic (say: inquiries based on an ancient Indian text), or one distinguishes, within the blog, several headers. I have seen it other blogs and I thing it works quite smoothly. In this way, one could have, for instance, "Indian philosophy", "kāvya", "Veda", "IT tools", etc.
Even more complicated is the identification of the authors. As already hinted at, I would be happy to welcome all readers/authors, maybe asking them to write a motivation letter first.
Does this mean that one could start with a small group and then wait for others to join? Or should one invite all bloggers already writing about classical South Asia? If the latter, I assume that they would all be glad to keep on blogging on their home pages. Even if it were the case, I still think that the multi-authored blog would improve on the present situation, since:
  • being "forced" to post on the multi-authored blogs, many of us would be tempted to comment on others' posts, too.
  • for readers it would be easier to check at once all news on the field.
What do you think? And, in case you would prefer the single-topic option, which posts of mine would you like to avoid?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Self as the Unifier

The main obstacole to be overcome if one wants to prove the existence of a self is that of putting together scattered elements. No one but the sceptic would doubt the existence of a memory, a desire, an action, a thought. But it is only when one is justified to say that "I remembered how good that ice cream tasted and hence decided to buy one and went to the seller", that a good case for the existence of a self is done.
It might be the case that the Mīmāṃsaka (and particularly, Prābhākara) insistence on action and desire as characteristics of a subject points exactly to the result of highlighting two things which cannot but go together and, hence, inductively prove that there is a unitary substance to which all the scattered elements listed above belong.

On the role of epistemology

I just read Bruce Aune's harsh critique of Chisholm's epistemology (Chisholm on Empirical Knowledge, in Ernest Sosa (ed.), Essays on the Philosophy of R.M. Chisholm, Amsterdam 1979). I am not able to state how much and how far the Chisholm who is the target of Aune's criticism corresponds to R.M. Chisholm. Sometimes, there seems to be a huge difference between the two. Consider for instance the following re-phrasing of Chisholm by Aune's:
[Chisholm] then formulates the principle that, necessarily, if it does seem to S that he has a headache or believes that p, then it is evident to S that he seems to have a headache or believes that p.
In my view, this way of setting up an epistemological theory –that is, assuming that we do know (more or less) what we think we know, and then formulating criteria by which this assumed knowledge can be justified– is objectionable (p.239, my emphasis).
Here Aune seems to misunderstand Chisholm's claim, which is not that we know that p, but rather that we believe that p. And I, for one, would easily agree that if one believes that p, than it is evident for her that she believes it.
However, this is not the point I would like to address. On the other hand, what I want to underline is that this target-Chisholm (henceforth t-Ch) seems very close to Kumārila Bhaṭṭa's epistemology. He, then, offers a good example of how Kumārila's epistemology could enhance the contemporary philosophical debate. In fact, t-C and Kumārila share the idea that epistemology must serve to explain our knowledge and that knowledge is indeed possible. Aune's critiques are often to the case that we cannot trust our memory, perception, etc., because we might have been drugged, or old, or gullible. This is all true, but it risks to boil down to the assumption that knowledge is hardly if ever possible. An epistemologist may not be concerned with that and carry on with his/her task of accomplishing a single piece of genuine knowledge. But t-C and Kumārila (just like, in a way, Kant) are more concerned with knowledge-outside-epistemology. Epistemology is for them a preliminary step in order to ground the validity of other kinds of knowledge. If epistemology ends up with nothing, then –they would argue– it has just failed. One might object that Aune's epistemology (again, I am only referring to Aune as the author of the article mentioned above and not to his previous and later works) does not deny that knowledge is possible. Indeed, he claims that knowledge is possible, but that t-C's epistemology (just like any other) fails to justify it. But this would be no good news for t-C or Kumārila, since they intend epistemology as the foundation of other branches of philosophy (and knowledge in general).

A further question in this connection: analytical philosophy has often been busy in finding counter-examples (the brain-in-the-vat one, or the theory of possible worlds, etc.). Aune is no exception, and he tries to imagine cases where, e.g., Smith could believe that p without that being evident to him. Such counter-examples might be useful, but they might be misleading also. In fact, t-C's and Kumārila's epistemology do not intend to cover all possible instances of right cognition. On the other hand, they want to explain by and large, how is ordinary knowledge possible. Exceptions are possible, hence Kumārila devises the falsification principle (every cognition is valid unless and until it is proven to be false). In these cases, a counter-example is only effective if it hits the core of the theory. That Brown has been trained while under hypnosis to believe that p and that he hence believes that p without that being evident to him seems not to threaten the core of t-C's theory.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Indological Forums: a failure?

Several years ago, I actively participated to the creation and the life of an Italian forum about South Asian studies ( Whoever would like to find it on the web will fail, since the forum closed after a short while. Its administrator decided to do it because of lack of active participation. In fact, the only frequently visited section was the one about events relating to South Asia. A similar story has been told to me by Adrian Cirstei about another attempt of building a forum.
I am nonetheless sorry these forums closed. And, just like me, many other colleagues and students told me they miss it and used to read it regularly. As usual, there might be many accidental reasons connected to this failure. More in general, however, I would like to ask the following question: Why do the ones who now say they miss it never/hardly participated to it? (which could amount to: Why do we expect others to do what we do not have time enough to do ourselves?) Obviously enough, a forum cannot be made out of a (few) hero(s)' efforts. In order for an interesting discussion to occur, one needs several participants. On the other hand, an indological forum has the disadvantage of not clearly defining who its authors/readers should be. As I wrote in a previous post, I do feel closer to a colleague studying philosophy than to one who studies Bolliwood films (or Vedic preverbs). However, one might suggest a minimal definition of a forum for whomsoever is interested in reading Sanskrit texts. This would not be my favourite website (I am not particularly interested in whatever has been written in Sanskrit just because it is in Sanksrit), but I guess that no website would ever be my favourite one and I would certainly contribute to it.
As for readers/authors: a too large audience is by definition excluded (there are not so many people reading Sanskrit and among them the most part is rather of the lonely type and would not ever dream of participating to a forum). Hence, in my opinion, the forum should aim at covering all the rest of the audience, with no a priori exclusion (I do not believe that closed forums work, unless they are meant for a very specific purpose, such as discussing a book among coeditors).
Turning back to the initial question: how could one make Indologists write and discuss? One could not just hope they will. The system makes them rather focus on personal enterprises, such as writing articles/critical editions, etc., since they are academically rewarded (wehereas forum discussions are not). A forum might be hopefully useful, so that one wants to read (and, in case, participate) to discussions about, e.g., usage of terms one frequently encounters. On top of that, it has to be fun. Since, as already mentioned, there is no academic reward, one needs to enjoy doing it, just like one enjoys chatting with friends. Hence, although I am against closed forums, I would not engage again in one unless with a group of friends I really like chatting with. Moreover, it helps to have a common agenda (mine, as many readers already know is: making Indian philosophy part of Philosophy tout court).
Last, in my experience this implies also that one needs to enroll some graduate students (or people who are graduate students in spiritu). That is, one needs people who enjoy what they do and are still idealist enough to like discussing for hours about it. These qualities are rare, but they are even rarer among members of the academic staff (me included, of course).
What do you think?

Friday, June 18, 2010

How do Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā arguments for the subject differ from some Western ones?

It easy to see how several of the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā arguments in favour of the existence of a subject have been implemented also by Western thinkers.

The appeal to common sense is particularly evident in Roderick Chisholm's claim that there are some pre-analytic facts about the self which are “innocent until proven guilty”. In this way, he can discuss common-sense notions (such as that of the self and of its ownership of feelings, thoughts and desires) in order to state that either one accepts them, or one is bound to give a satisfying explanation of such a well-spread error.

This would, however, not apply necessarily to a Buddhist thinker, who would reply that common sense is, in fact, our gaoler and, therefore, we cannot rely on it if we want to escape worldly existences.

The continuity-argument is also the key point of Chisholm's dealing with mereology. In several of his essays, Chisholm ponders the problem of what happens of a thing whose parts have, gradually, all been substituted. Does it still exist as such? Chishom does not yield a definitive answer, but he is sure that even if we were to say that it still “exists”, this would only be in a loose sense. This position is called “mereological essentialism”, as it states that parts are essential to things and that things cease to exist if they loose their parts. On the other hand, argues Chisholm, I do not cease to exist if I loose a hand. Hence, persons can be said to last in a sense in which things cannot. I am the same person as one year ago, although the material components of my body might be altogether different. On the other hand, a chair whose parts have been replaced may be said to last only in a loose sense. Hence, from mereological essentialism one can conclude that we are not to be identified with our bodies.

One might propose a different kind of link between body and subject. But Chisholm stresses the sharp distinction between body and what he calls “person”. In doing so, he argues, in an Indian garb, about the necessity for qualities to inhere in quality-endowed substances:
Therefore it is not possible for modes to have modes; and it is necessary that every substrate be a substrate. A further consequence is that the person is not a mode of his body. For it is obvious that the person has modes. […]
Could I be a mode of my body? It is certain that I have modes; there is one for each of my psychological properties. But we have seen that modes themselves do not have modes. Therefore I cannot be a mode of my body.
(Chilsholm, Self-Profile in Roderick M. Chisholm, pp. 71, 73).

Further, his concept of “person” might be said to be especially close to the Mīmāṃsā one, since it includes the abilities to think and desire, which are not necessarily included in the self in classical Indian philosophy (Advaita Vedānta excludes desire and Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika denies thought as characteristic of the self). In fact, Chisholm writes:

We could use the term “mind”, as Descartes had used the term “mens”, to refer to that which has psychological properties – to that which thinks, senses, believes, desires. In this case, we would be using “mind” to mean the same as “person” and hence to designate such entities as you and me.
(Chilsholm, Self-Profile} in Roderick M. Chisholm, ed. by Rogdan Bagu, p.71).

Finally, Chisholm is quite close to the (nearly) Pan-Indian way of distinguishing a subject from its instruments, even the ones allowing it to think and perceive, such as the sense-faculties and the inner sense (or “mind”, manas). Observe his reply to an imaginary objector:

“Persons, being thinking things, must have a complex structure. […] After all, you can't think unless you have a brain. And those little things [what Chisholm calls “persons”, see below about the body/subject problem] don't have brains!”
The hypothesis being criticized is the hypothesis that I am such a microscopic entity. But note that I do have a brain. And therefore, according to the hypothesis in question, the microscopic entity has one, too –the same one that I have, the one that is inside my head. It is only a confusion to suppose that the microscopic entity […] has another brain which is in fact inside of it.

The brain is the organ of consciousness, not the subject of consciousness –unless I am myself my brain. The nose, similarly, is the organ of smell and not the subject of smell –unless I am myself my nose. But if I am one or the other –the brain or the nose– then, I the subject, will have some organs that are spatially outside me.

How far is, on the other hand, Chisholm's approach from the Mīmāṃsā one?

  1. Mīmāṃsakas are quite clear about the fact that the subject is not a material substance, whereas Chisholm does not rule out the possibility of the “person” being a material substance with no parts, possibly situated in the brain.
  2. The body is according to Mīmāṃsakas not just a material substance whatsoever. It is linked with the subject through the latter's karman and it is the abode of its experiences.
More in general, the point seems to be that, according to Chisholm the postulation of an extra entity, purely psychical, such as what one commonly refers to as “mind” has no epistemological grounds. Psychical properties can be ascribed also to a material substance (according to what he calls a “double aspect theory” (Chisholm, On Metaphysics, p. 123). Hence, “we” can well be a material substance having also psychical properties. But what material substance are we? As already seen, we cannot be our body, since this is an ens successivum, whereas a person is not (On Metaphysics, pp.124-5):
[T]he theory does not imply that there is certain matter that is incorruptible. It implies rather that there are certain material things –in all probability, certain material particles or subparticles– that are incorrupted and remain incorrupted as long as the person survives.

The theory would be, then, that I am literally identical with some proper part of this macroscopic body, some intact, nonsuccessive part that has been in this larger body all along. This part is hardly likely to be the Luz bone, of course; more likely, it would be something of a microscopic nature, and presumably something that is located within the brain.
(On Metaphysics, p. 126).

This also means that neither “liberation” nor further existences are possible.

According to Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, the material substance constituting a body can become the vehicle of experience of its guest, the subject, which is intrinsically linked to it through its karman. In sum, the material body is the result of mental properties like the good or bad actions (intended by Mīmāṃsakas as initiations of actions and not as body movements) done in one's past.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Subject, desire and action

As I have argued in an article of mine (Desidero ergo sum, RSO 2007, see my cv for details and link), historically, Mīmāṃsakas started inquiring into a ‘‘subject” independently of the emergence of the controversy on the nature and existence of a Self which was deemed to extend throughout classical Indian philosophy. They were led to the theme because of the Vedic prescriptions related to the agent of sacrifice. As a matter of fact, they interpret Upaniṣadic statements about the ātman (‘‘Self'') as referring to the agent of sacrifice, thus relating the ātman with concrete instances of an agent. Such an agent is in turn identified by his/her desire for the result of the sacrifice. In summary, the agent emerges as ‘‘subject” because of his/her desire for something. The inseparable bond of subject and desire seems, by the way, to contradict the common view that liberation is attained through the extinction of desires. Either this stand-point is not shared by Mīmāṃsakas, or the Mīmāṃsā theory of the subject is meant to explain only the worldly status of the subject and the subject who attains liberation is out of its precinct of application.

Since the subject is interpreted as, first of all, a desiring subject, it is also active. This stress on activity is typical of Mīmāṃsā (and, later, Kashmir Śaiva philosophies), against the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Advaita-Vedānta idea of a subject withdrawing from any kind of worldly concern, including knowledge. On the other hand, this desiring subject is not identified with the body, which is only said to be one of its instruments. Hence, the Mīmāṃsā position refutes any kind of reductionism and physicalism (including the milder form of a subject unavoidably and originally inseparable from its body, as maintained by P.F. Strawson in Individuals, 1959) and stresses instead the willing dimension of the subject.

By maintaining this view, do Mīmāṃsakas aim at an ontology of the self, or at reconstructing our inner experience of the subjectivity-phenomenon? If the former, can the Mīmāṃsā account face the challenges of contemporary critiques of the self (reductionism, "Bundle theory", Strawson etc.)? Does it differ from R. Chisholm's approach of the self as ‘‘innocent until proven guilty’’?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Useful" conferences?

Since I received many personal comments on the posts I wrote about conferences, I am back to the theme. I do not mean to say that there is an only way to make a conference "useful". Conferences can fulfil many purposes. One of them is to make your peers aware of your qualities. Another, is to bring together experts of a certain theme. In these cases, one has to be as technical as possible and the following discussion, if there is any, may also be quite fruitful and technical at the same time.
However, I am not primarily dealing with this kind of conference now.
  1. First, because I have never been part of such a small and fruitful group of experts, and hence I tend to even doubt about its existence. I have rather learnt a lot from people coming from different fields of expertise. Apart from Western philosophers/historians of Western philosophy, who often opened my eyes to problems I had overseen, I benefited from contacts with historians of art, political development scholars, sociologists, theologians and so on. This may have to do with the fact that my alleged field of expertise, "Indology" is in fact hardly more than a label for "whatever has been thought/done/said in South Asia, no matter when".
  2. Second, because I think that addressing a wider audience (at least that of the whole academia) can be fruitful both for the speaker and for the audience. To address a wider audience means, no doubt, to leave aside many details. Hence, one writes essays for technical readerships. But I do not think an audience would be able to follow these details when they are presented orally. Hence, why not rather forget about them (if they are unessential) and focus on the main point? Simplifying means choosing what is essential and what is not and this critical task can only be done by someone who knows the subject. Hence, it is not at all an easy task, nor does it demand a just superficial domain of the subject.
  3. Third, because conferences who are honestly 'oral' are funnier, lively and non-predictable. Hence, they are more likely to impress one for a long time and to mark a significant shift in one's intellectual life. Nor can I see any more important task for a conference (as distinct from an essay in a scholarly journal).
What are the ingredients of the type of conference I am thinking at? In general,
–Surely, no reading.
–Papers have to be pre-circulated. Even if not everyone is going to read them fully, someone will and most will at least have a glance at them.
–Not too much advertisement (too many people may ruin the atmosphere: they become a public and no more a critical audience).
–Most important, chairpersons have to prepare speakers. But how?
Apart from the above, speakers should pick up a fundamental question, one which is likely to be understood by even lay listeners. In the last conference I attended, a speaker, Rosaria Compagnone, decided to speak about the Padmasaṃhitā's role in the Pāñcarātra tradition. If the subject sounds boring, have a look at how she started her speech: (I am quoting by heart) "The Padmasaṃhitā is the key text of the Pāñcarātra religion, but it contradicts its main tenets. It is in favour of castes, rituals, etc. How is this possible?". I totally disagree with Dr. Compagnone, but she succeeded in making everyone's eyebrows rise.
What do you think?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

(Saints') corpses: polluting or pure?

One of the papers which have been discussed at the last STIMW dealt with death in the ISKCON movement (whose members are also known as Hare Krishna). Through that (and thanks to the STIMW habit of pre-circulating papers) I started reading about the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas attitude towards corpses. Apparently, something has occurred between the ancient Indian idea of the pollution through dead bodies and the Gaudīya Vaiṣṇavas' cult of the saints' corpses. Phyllis Granoff, in a recent article (Phyllis Granoff, "Relics, rubies and ritual: some comments on the distinctiveness of the Buddhist relic cult", Rivista di Studi Orientali 2008) collects several examples of an early not-so-negative attitude towards saints' bones and so on, but they are not at all comparable with these later commemorations and cults. Hence, I wonder whether there is an Islamic influence as the source of them. After all, in some schools of Islam, pilgrimages to the tomb of a Saint are quite common, and there are several such examples in India.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Again on conferences and how they can be really fruitful

I have just attended the STIMW conference in Manchester (here is the program for 2010). It is a very interesting concept of conference, since papers are not read but written well in advance and pre-circulated among participants. In this way, everyone reads everyone else's papers and the time allotted at the STIMW is all dedicated just to discussion, after a short introduction to the theme of the paper. The organisers of the STIMW have been clever enough to decide that the introduction has to be done by someone else and not by the author of the paper itself. In this way, the author of the paper does not get a chance to speak before the questions start. Hence, there is no clear distinction between authors and "listeners". This atmosphere is enhanced also by the fact that there is no seat distinction: all tables are placed in horseshoe shape and there is no microphone. Although for every paper 40' time are allotted for discussion, nonetheless they have never been enough.
A further, interesting point is the following: there is an admission fee to be paid by whomsoever wants to attend the conference. This might sound audience-unfriendly but it worked perfectly. The small fee allowed for papers to be pre-circulated and it selected an audience which was sincerely interested.
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