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)
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