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’’?


skholiast said...

I cannot venture a competent opinion on the Mīmāṃsakas, but I have been reading Chisholm, and have some sympathy with his 'innocent til proven guilty' line; it seems to me a bit like Moore's Common-sensism, or (in a very different key), like Buber's philosophy of encounter: there is some aspect of experience that is just taken as a datum. The theorizing of the subject-as-the-desiring-subject also seems potentially modern, but the analogy is more with something out of psychoanalysis. But as I say, I am in unfamiliar territory here.

Incidentally, I looked for the link in yr CV for the paper you reference but could not find it. I'm very interested in the theorization of the Vedic sacrifices and the way this plays out later. Did I just miss it?

elisa freschi said...

Thanks skholiast, I did not notice the link was not there! I added it on my cv, and here it is: (you have to scroll down until you find it).

I am also close to Chisholm's position. I do not think common sense is a priori right, but I think that, if it is not, one has to explain why an error is shared by many. In short, the ontological aspect (e.g.: the existence of an ontologically distinct self) might be wrong, but one has still to explain why the phenomenology of something (e.g.: our own perception of ourselves as lasting over time) led to the allegedly wrong common-sense notion one wants to dispute (e.g.: the assumption of an eduring self distinct for each of "us"). As for desire, I am inclined to think that it has a phenomenological role apart from its psychoanalitical one. We do perceive ourselves as desiring, isn't it? And, if one thinks at children or psychic handicapped people, desire may be the case when one is more aware of oneself.

elisa freschi said...

By the way, I just found a passag where Chisholm himself acknowledges the link with Moore:
I assume that we should be guided in philosophy by those propositions we all do presuppose in our ordinary activity […] A list of the propositions constituting our data would be very much like the list of truisms with which G.E. Moore began his celebrated essay "A Defence of Common Sense".

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