Monday, January 30, 2012

Open Access in South Asian Studies

Should we give up "traditional" journals? After all, why should the government pay me for doing researches my colleagues cannot afford to read because of the high prices of scientific journals?

Dominik Wujastyk keeps on stimulating the public of the Indology mailing list he founded with references to articles such as this one by George Monbiot. Here is a short quote:

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose. […]

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

It’s bad enough for academics, it’s worse for the laity.

Personally, I try to upload all my papers (as drafts) on and I wrote far more blog posts than articles. However, I need articles on peer-reviewed journals in order to access public funding (the last FIRB programme in Italy expects from a young researcher to have at least 10 or 15 printed publications). Beside that, I am still inclined to think that publishers may do an important job (and one readers alone would not be able to do), insofar as they:
  1. 1. select articles (distinguishing bona fide scientific ones from ones which could attract readers but are not soundly founded),
  2. 2. check articles (emend typos, suggest appropriate fonts for "unusual" languages, etc.),
  3. 3. look for relevant peer-reviewers,
  4. 4. provide feed-back,
  5. 5. edit articles (although I must say that in my personal experience all the editorial comments I received came from non-paid guest editors or the like),
  6. 6. distribute articles.
This cannot be done for free and if it does not generate profit, it must be state-funded. Of course, one is left wondering why products by Brill or Springer are so much more expensive than excellent journals published elsewhere… But this only means that journals and books should cost less, not that they should not cost at all.
Would not readers (if left as the only judges) prefer articles on "The Buddha in your every day life" rather than on "Was the Brahmajāla Sutta post-Aśokan?"? Even granting that many articles of the latter type could disappear without anyone noticing it, don't you agree that text-based research is needed, although it might look not as fun as "applied Buddhism" (etc.)? Or can one imagine that scholarly trained readers will automatically select an open access platform where only "scientific" articles are published and ignore the others? If no one is paid to select them, would not readers just select them because of their authors, thus making it almost impossible for a young researcher to be read?

What do you think? Where do you publish?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Philosophical creativity

Are contemporary philosophers just bound to write footnotes to Plato's works?

Arindam Chakrabarti is one of my personal favourite scholars of Indian philosophy. He masters Sanskrit and philosophy, both Western and Indian, at the same time. In a very recent essay he discusses the feasability of philosophical creativity. He recalls a conversation he had with a poet who told him that poetic creativity
is a constant battle against the staleness of words and thoughts. The battle is often lost by most poets por philosophers], but sometimes it is won with those very stale words and thoughts (A.C., New Stuff: On the Very Idea of Creativity in Philosophical Thinking 2011).

Personally, I tend to think that the battle can only be won throught those very stale words and thoughts. This is also the reason why I enjoy reading Sanskrit philosophical commentaries, especially post-classical ones, since their authors were well aware of the fact that a glorious tradition was already behind them.

(I am grateful to Daniel Raveh's 2011 book Exploring the Yogasūtra who made me discover Chakrabarti's text.)

On fields of Indian philosophy which need a creative thinking to come into existence, see this post (on applied Indian philosophy).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Usage of commentaries

Should one use commentaries? Or are they just the lesser evil?

One of the positive traits of Kei Kataoka's last book (Kumārila on Truth, Omniscience and Killing. A Critical Edition of Mīmāṃsā-Ślokavārttika ad 1.1.2 (Codanāsūtra), Vienna 2011) is how much of its methodological approach is explicitly offered to the reader to ponder about. Kataoka discusses his choices and describes his criteria, at the risk of raising criticism. This is apparent in the case of the interpretation of Kumārila, since Kataoka strongly upholds the view that commentaries may be used only as a third and last resource (after Kumārila's own other texts and Kumārila's predecessors' ones) and that one should be cautious in using them and always make readers aware of the fact that one is doing it:

A scholar who reconstructs a temple, if he has no choice but to use later materials, ought to explicitly mark the items so that other scholars will not be left in ignorance and confusion. Reconstructing an original idea of the seventh century through an interpretation in the eleventh century, for example, is anachronistic if unconsciously done, however labor-saving it is and however aesthetically attractive is the result (Part 2, pp, 108-9).
I see Kataoka's point and I deeply appreciate the fact that he spells it out. However, I wonder whether an 11th c. paṇḍit is not often in a better position than a 21st century (Western) Sanskritist to understand a text. The paṇḍit has most likely an own agenda (but so does the Sanskritist, although s/he might not be aware of it —which is even more risky) and he might try to make the text say what he wants it to say, in order to justify a certain development within the school, for instance. Whatever the case, I am inclined to think that one should take commentaries seriously. One might disagree with them, but one has to show why they preferred a different interpretation (they wanted to make a Dvaita text into an Advaita one? there were no longer Buddhists around and hence they wanted to shift the polemics against another target?).

More in general, commentaries are more than welcome if what one is reconstructing is not the Ur-intention of a certain text, but rather the understanding of it by the tradition. In Kataoka's metaphor, not the 2nd c. b.C. temple, but the Middle Age church built over it.

How do you work with commentaries? Do you acknowledge you used them whenever your interpretations relies on them?

On acknowledging one's methodology, see this post. On this book by Kataoka, see this post (discussing his translation).

Monday, January 23, 2012

The inner power of rituals

Why do rituals survive for centuries (or even millennia)? One reason could be that they are just rules without meaning (as suggested by Frits Staal) and that their formality is what preserves them notwithstanding the unavoidable changes in the mentality which initially "invented" (in its literal meaning) them.
A further postilla might be that they are rules without a fixed meaning. They do have a meaning, but this varies with time and according to the one who performs it (or, one might add, attends it).
From a study of Marion Rastelli, published in 2005 in Words and Deeds:
In their study on the Jaina pūjā, Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw have shown that ritual acts have no meaning that is intrinsic to them (Humphrey and Laidlay 1994: esp. 5, 35, 41). There is no immediate correlation between the external appearance of a ritual and the meaning that is attributed to it. From the observation of a ritual action one cannot infer the meaning being ascribed to it.

This remark could end many discussions on the interpretation of Vedic rituals (was the Soma-offering initially meant to propitiate rain? Is it a fertility rite? and so on). However, one might suggest that this view only regards rituals as they are observed and that it is indeed possible to speculate about their original meaning in history.
A further consequence of Humphrey and Laidlaw's point is as follows:
If the meanings attributed to a ritual and the intentions being pursued are independent from the outer form of a ritual, the meanings and the performer's intentions can change without transforming the ritual itself.
(Rastelli 2005, p. 115)
In other words, a worshipper of a personal God may perform the same ritual a monist is performing, although attributing to it a very different meaning. One might object, again, that phenomenologically there might be huge differences in the intentions of the performers, but that these differences can be understood historically and that it is not the case that any ritual means everything, but rather that every ritual has an history and, hence, a historical stratification of meanings, partly alternative to each other.

What do you think? And how close are Staal's and Humphrey and Laidlaw's theses?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Āgamas and "Aboriginals"

Are the Āgamas the product of a non-Aryan and, hence, anti-Vedic influence in Indian culture? Are they just an evolution of the Aryan thought responding to new stimuli?

Personally, I tend to disagree with both sides of the argument. I do not think that arguments are bound to races ("Aryan" and "Dravidian" or "Aboriginal"). Ideas tend to travel faster than people and in this sense it makes (in my opinion) hardly any sense to speak of a "Dravidian" argument.

However, I could not resist writing about it after having read a statement about it by V. Varadachari in his Āgamas and South Indian Vaiṣṇavism. I do not know well Varadachari's work, but I tend to have a positive opinion of it. Anyway, here is the statement:

Suggestions have been made by some writers that the Āgamas are antivedic and should have arisen under the impact of the ways of life of the aborigines of India. It is to be observed here that borrowing, whether, linguistic, religious or cultural, is always from those who are spiritually and morally superior or politically dominant in power: minor impacts could have been there on the cultured class coming from the tribes but wholesale concept of the Āgama way of worship could not have emanated from the tribes: the Āgamas must therefore be treated as supplementary to the Vedas (vi-vii).

I understand Varadachari's agenda and his dissatisfaction with the opponents' argument. But I think he should have rather asked "What does anti-vedic mean?" instead of throwing himself into hot water. In fact, an opponent may easily reply that the non-Aryan aborigenals were the large majority of the population in South India and that they could hence easily influence the general culture through their religious beliefs and habits. A parallel could be that of a linguistic substratum. Hence, the conclusion might be true, but the second premiss (the non-Aryans were a minority) does not hold.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How to do editorial work on other people's papers

How much freedom should an editor have? And how much freedom are you ready to grant her?

I enjoy working as an editor (for the Rivista di Studi Sudasiatici, for the Coffee Break Conference proceedings, for my own project on quotations, etc.) and my papers are always read by someone else (be it the peer-reviewer of a journal or the editor of a volume), who usually heavily edits them. Generally speaking, I enjoy engaging with a careful reader, who might also strongly disagree with me. It makes me aware of possible rejoinders, forces me to sharpen my points and to clarify my thought.
What I do not like that much, by contrast, is
  • 1. when typographic things are discussed instead (just delete the extra space and don't bother me with that! Put the inverted commas as you prefer them, it has nothing to do with the content and you do not want each author to utter her opinion on it or you'll never end your volume).
  • 2. when the editor wants to write the paper himself or herself. I am happy to add, emend, clarify, but I cannot be forced to add a distinct chapter on X in contemporary philosophy just because I happened to use the word X while discussing something else.
Point 1 is, I believe, annoying but trivial. It is linked with the fact that many editors do not remember that form and content are distinct.
Point 2, by contrast, is crucial, especially for South Asian scholars. We often share so little background with our editors, that we might have completely different ideas about what should be in our articles. I am quite convinced that it is legitimate to speak of "Philosophy" while referring to Kumārila, Dharmakīrti, etc. Do I really have to make this point clear every time I write an article? Even a reference in a fn. might be too much if the article does not focus on philosophical subjects and just happens to use the word "philosophical texts". The same applies to translations (I cannot explain in every article the rationale behind each of the technical translations I adopt). Shall one write a methodological article to be published on one's web site and constantly updated where issues such as "Why I believe that Mīmāṃsā needs to be studied" and "Why do I believe that 'inhering cause' is not a suitable translation for samavāyikāraṇa" are dealt with? Or should one try to write only for suitable editors (if it is ever possible)?

What do you do?

On a related topic (how to refute a paper), you might read this post.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

15th World Sanskrit Conference —general considerations

It was a great experience to be in India for this WSC. Beside the sheer fact of being in India, the following ones are, in my opinion, the plus points we could experience. I am listing them in increasing order of importance:

  1. 1. great theater performances every night.
  2. 2. many Indians (who are often not able to reach expensive locations in the West or in Japan) could come. Hence, the many facets of Sanskrit studies could interact a little bit more, or at least have a glimpse of what was going on "abroad" (i.e., in places different from one's own one, whatever this is).
  3. 3. we could listen to a lot of stimulating debates held in Sanskrit, held by some terrificly interesting paṇḍits.

The minus points are those intrinsic to each WSC, i.e., the extreme heterogeneity of the subjects involved (is the fact that they happen to involve Sanskrit really enough to discuss them in the same occasion?), the awful numbers of parallel sections (so that one could get only a snippet of what was really going on), the fact that the time allotted for each paper was comparatively short and that there were too many papers per day (12, with each one having max. 30' time, inclusive of discussion). Further, notwithstanding the excellent convenors, several uninteresting papers crept in. I tend to be encouraging when young researchers are too emotional to deliver a good speech, but I cannot understand how they made their way into an international conference without any previous experience. Would not it make better sense to start "training" in an undergraduate conference (such as the excellent IIGRS)?

Generally speaking, I would prefer less speakers and more time for discussion. After all, we all went a long way and we did it not just for some 3 to 10 minutes feedback at the end of our papers. One might object that one's paper is usually just the beginning of an on-going discussion which will find place during coffee-breaks etc. I agree. Yet, I wonder why not to include the coffee breaks into the conference, or, better, to just make the conference look like a relaxed coffee break discussion.

In case you attended, which were your favourite papers and why? What would you change?

All the posts of the first two weeks of January 2012 are dedicated to the WSC. You might check this one (on discussions in Sanskrit) and the following four on single papers: Lubin's, Cardona's, McAllister's, Iwasaki's.

Monday, January 9, 2012

World Sanskrit Conference 5 — paṇḍitapariṣat

Today I tried to listen to as much Sanskrit as I could, imagining that this a chance I will not easily get back again in a close future. Unfortunately, I missed a lot, but fortunately no one really read his or her paper (I miss almost everything if people read in Sanskrit). Plus, the discussions were lively and relatively easier to follow.
One of the points of debate was the future of Sanskrit studies. Some speakers have been courageous enough as to say that one has to include new fields of study in the old tradition, which seems to me to be a brave statement. In fact, the faculty to add more topics and to make sense of them within one's own tradition testifies of how much alive the tradition is. An intriguing remark has been that the present one is not the first parivarta (turning point) in the history of Sanskrit śāstras. Bhartṛhari has been a parivarta after Pāṇini, Kātyāyana and Patañjali and the same could be said of so many innovative authors.
By contrast, one can easily see how much endangered is the Sanskrit heritage. It is easy to imagine that the relatively few people who are its representatives might be reluctant to undertake further studies about (seemingly) alien subjects and might prefer to focus on the preservation of such an important lore.
I am inclined to think that hybridization is the only way to survival, but I see their point.
What do you think?

For an instance of a field of Sanskrit tradition which grew up including more and more (namely the dharmaśāstra), see this post.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

World Sanskrit Conference — 4 (dharmaśāstra)

How did dharmaśāstras develop? What are their sources and the people they address?

Timothy Lubin's presentation showed how they are intimately connected with Gṛhyasūtras (whereas he deems Śrautasūtras to be part of a different world). Gṛhyasūtra authors, Lubin maintains, already introduced many concepts which later became crucial for Dharmasūtras. Among them, he focused on ācāras and on the way social duties are differentiated. It seems that the differentiation among Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriya and Vaiśya was already current in the Gṛhyasūtras, with the first one as the default category, and the others defined through their differences with it.

ācāra seems to gain an increasing importance, with Dharmasūtra texts which show an increasing openness, accepting yathācāram 'according to custom' as a possible option. In a text mentioned by Lubin, after various options even yathākuladharmam 'according to one's family dharma' is presented as an option.

When it comes to their realm of competence, even women are mentioned as authorities. And, only in Dharmasūtras, even śūdras might have a certain authority in specific cases. Interestingly, the rules known from śūdras and women are not defined ācāras (a term which is only reserved to śiṣṭas).

Why this increasing openness? Possibly because, in comparison to Gṛhyasūtras, Dharmasūtras try to make more and more room for elements that do not fit in the śiṣṭa-defined world-view. Hence, they need specific sources for that. These sources might be the śiṣṭas, i.e., the Brahmins imbued with the Veda, so that they are reliable, their ācāra `custom', but also the behaviour of other groups, if one needs to rule a field where there is no śiṣṭa-rule at hand to apply.

DELENDA CARTHAGO: Japanese scholars read their papers, but at least distribute the written version, so that one can follow it. I tend to think that one should 1. avoid reading, 2. at least "recite" one's written text, 3. if none of the above is possible, at least distribute the written text.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

World Sanskrit Conference—3 (George Cardona)

Everyone must read Cardona's work on Pāṇini and one cannot go without him if one wants to understand something about Pāṇinian grammar. However, until now I was not an unconditioned estimator of his written work, since this is often very technical.

Yesterday, however, I had the real pleasure of listening to his talk at the WSC, which is was terrific. Not only he made his point very clearly, he is an amazing speaker, both in English and in the following debate in Sanskrit. The following is a short summary of the main argument:

In the case of anubhū- and of the other verbs-cum-preverbs, the aṅga for augment, reduplication, etc. is bhū-, not anubhū-. Hence, for grammatical purposes, dhātus (verbal roots) and upasargas (preverbs) are to be considered as separate padas (words). By contrast, from the semantic point of view they are to be considered as a single pada, since the meaning of anubhū- is different from that of anu+bhū-.

Semantically, anubhū- is a separate dhātu, grammatically, it is not. But how could the two stances coexist? Grammarians and lexicographers needed to achieve a compromise and in fact they achieved an interesting one: We treat the verb as if it had multiple meanings and upasargas as only dyotakas ('illuminator'). The rationale is that preverbs only help the listener to focus on one of the meanings the root already had in itself. Hence, it does not make sense to speak in absolute terms of whether something is X or Y. All depends on what is your aim!

In short, once again, we have to do with a functionalist approach against an ontological one (this last line is obviously mine).

DELENDA CARTHAGO: No one is forced to deliver a paper in a conference. Hence, if one decides to do it, why not preparing, so that one can avoid reading or at least recite one's written text?

Friday, January 6, 2012

World Sanskrit Conference — 2 (meaning in apoha)

During the second day of the WSC, the philosophy panel has been paused and I had hence time to explore other panels. But before that, I had the pleasure to listen to the brilliant paper by Patrick McAllister. McAllister discusses whether, within the theory of apoha, we should understand śabdārtha as word-meaning, word-object or word-referent. McAllister proceeded in a critical and sound way (imo), since he started his investigation by discussing meaning, object and referent within Western philosophy of language, highlighting how translators must be aware of the terms they use, in order to avoid confusion. I could add that confusion already risks to rule this field of study, due to Frege's choice of calling the external object Bedeutung, lit. meaning. His English translators dissented with this provocative choice and used instead reference (or referent) to translate Frege's Bedeutung. At this point "meaning" was free again and it has been used to translate the other side of Frege's opposition, i.e., Sinn (which might be better translated as sense). In this way, Quine's "meaning" is not tantamount to Frege's Bedeutung, but rather to Frege's Sinn.

Accepting meaning in this second way, can apoha be said to refer to a meaning? No, maintains McAllister, since the śabdārtha in the apoha theory is just the referent. What about synonymity, then? One might in fact remember that Frege introduced Sinn in order to explain why "The morning star is the evening star" is more informative than "The morning star is the morning star". But synonymity can be explained by Dharmakīrti through the comparison with the case of two people affected by an eye-disease (timira), who thus both see a double moon. One tells the other about the double moon and the second understands and thinks he is now grasping the same double moon conveyed by the first one, although in fact they understand each other only because, by chance, they share the same mistake, but not because of a special characteristic of meaning (understood as a mental entity). The moon remains only the external one (and it is one only), there is no mental (double) moon words refer to.

Why do we hence tend to understand each other? Because our karman make us share the same mistakes? The answer was that we share similar kleśas, tastes, etc. and hence also "our" jñānasantānas share similar cognitions.

Delenda Carthago: Reading has really no excuses, especially monotonous reading. If one feels unsure, s/he should practice as long as she can know the paper by heart. Everything is better than this terrible habit of reading for oneself.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

World Sanskrit Conference — 1 (author's intention)

The 15th World Sanskrit Conference just started. Until now there have been only two parallel sections (I attended two panels: "Sanskrit and Science" and "Philosophy"). As often stated on this blog, I can't understand why many people read instead of talking. There is just no need to have further reasons to be boring.

By contrast, the present conference is made much more exciting by many interesting discussions. The paṇḍits participating to it, for instance, really had many appealing arguments to Iwasaki Yoichi's learned paper on the topic of tātpāryajñāna 'cognition of the intention'. Basically the problem under examination was that of polysemy. Nyāya authors solve it by recurring to the speaker's intention. One will know whether Rāma refers to Balarāma, Paraśurāma or Sītā's husband because the speaker meant only one of them. Now, Gaṅgeśa, while referring to Prābhākara theses, also speaks of tātpāryajñāna. How can this be, given that Prābhākaras are known to refute the tātpāryajñāna, since they claim that the Veda has no author? How could they solve the problem of polysemy in the Veda? Personally, I would say that there are many ways to solve this problem even without any author. But what does Gaṅgeśa mean by speaking of tātpāryajñāna while dealing with the Prābhākaras? The paper's author, Yoichi Iwasaki, proposed that tātpāryajñāna might have meant (pace the commentators) the text's intention. I have never read of tātpāryajñāna in the Prābhākara texts I can remember and I do not agree with the suggestion that it might have been in some lost texts. Could it mean the intention of the hearer? Given that the meaning is not arbitrary according to most Indian theories, the intention of the hearer cannot miss the meaning. It will be based, e.g., on context.

On reading in conferences, see this post. On an alternative idea of conferences, see this one and the corresponding wiki.
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