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).


ombhurbhuva said...

This may tie in with what Amod has been discussing re assumptions. To get back to the sense and meaning of the original we have to find some way of avoiding the 'commentary' that is embedded in ourselves. That may be impossible but a way of getting at the writers meaning is to initially focus on historical texts that were contemporary during the period in question. This helps to avoid philosophical anachronism. This then 'inoculates' us against the contagion of later commentary.

Dominik Wujastyk said...

I once said, and still think (Roots of Ayurveda, 2003, xxxi):

"In general, however, the language is relatively straightforward. In spite of this, phrases from Suśruta and Caraka (especially) are occasionally unclear, and their technical terminology for diseases, flora, and fauna can be difficult to interpret. The medieval commentators, in particular Cakrapāṇidatta (11th cent.), Ḍalhaṇa (12th cent.), and Aruṇadatta (12th cent.), who elucidated the texts of Caraka, Suśruta, and Vāgbhaṭa respectively, are a great help in many cases, although they are not to be followed uncritically. They provide numerous variant readings from the manuscripts of their day, quotations from sources otherwise lost to us, and references to varying regional traditions. Conversely, the lack of any surviving medieval commentary for Kaśyapa's Compendium or the Bower Manuscript is a real hindrance to their interpretation.

[I sometimes ignored their remarks. This can be surprisingly hard to do, since they were obviously very well versed in the medical tradition, and provide extremely plausible explanations of difficult passages. However, as with commentators in most pre-modern traditions, they were more interested in ironing out wrinkles in the interpretation of the text than wrestling with the problems from a text-historical point of view.]

But the commentators were, after all, separated from the texts by centuries or, in some cases, even millennia. And for all their fluency in the intricacies of the tradition, sometimes it seems to be possible to look over their heads, so to speak, and to wrestle a fresh interpretation directly from the original text itself. Because I have sometimes departed from the text as interpreted by the commentators, and rashly tried to understand some difficult passages from first principles, my translation sometimes reads differently from other available English translations. The Sanskritist will find that in these passages the other translators are usually translating the commentary, rather than the root text itself. The question of a translator's relationship with the commentators is a famous old chestnut, and turns up again and again in the writings of people who try to say something sensible about the theory and methodology of translation. But like any human relationship, it is ultimately irreducible to a neat set of rules: one struggles along from sentence to sentence, accepting some things, rejecting others, hoping that in the long run one will turn out to have done justice to all parties."

Phillip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elisa freschi said...

@ombhurbhuva: It all depends on whether one wants to get at the original text, or whether one prefers to focus on the way it has been understood by the tradition which followed. Thank you very much for the tipps. I guess the idea of looking at the coeval philosophical context first is really well-deviced.

@Dominik, you raise a very important point, i.e., that commentators "were more interested in ironing out wrinkles in the interpretation of the text than wrestling with the problems from a text-historical point of view". This is probably true and they were surely very much trying to avoid any inconsistency in the text. I definitely agree that we have, by contrast, to look at the texts from a historical perspective and to focus on what may have changed, say, from Pāṇini to Nāgeśa. However, the principle of charity seems to me a preferred option, while dealing with philosophical texts. Hence, I would not reject by deafault a charitable interpretation by a commentator (I am not saying that you did it).

Anonymous said...

"I definitely agree that we have, by contrast, to look at the texts from a historical perspective"

That is, when we are being philologists, and trying to trace the historical development of a text, idea, tradition, by unearthing precisely those errors, inconsistencies, fault lines that premodern pandits were at such pains to conceal, and certainly would not thank us for pursuing. If we want to engage with the _content_ of these texts as living philosophy, we have to do precisely what the pandit commentators did: try to iron out the wrinkles in the systems, treating them as vehicles of timeless truths whose imperfections are to be gradually and quietly refined away.

elisa freschi said...

I already had this argument before. At the risk of looking hegelian, in my opinion, the history of philosophy does not go against philosophy as a "living enterprise". It rather belongs to it. Studying the history of an idea means rethinking it and this exercise is part of philosophy. Better: it is the nourishment of philosophy, insofar as no one just thinks ex novo. As for the case at stake: appreciating the historical depth of a text makes one aware of its intricacies and its multiple layers of meaning. It is definitely better than just ironing wrinkles away by pretending they are just not there. (I am not implying that this is what you were suggesting and I am inlcined to think that you would also agree on thinking along the text and exploring a way to make sense of it in a consistent way.)

Anonymous said...

OK, right, I was thinking more of philology, which has a non-creative, non-interventionist attitude to the history it studies: it unearths and observes, but does not disturb, and the "projection" of one's own attitudes onto the object of study is the ultimate sin. The philologist is not the fellow-traveller of his text's author in the quest for truth. How many indologists actually write books offering their own original solutions to the perennial problems of indian philosophy? And even those who do write books for the larger, non-indological public observe the same ethic of impersonal re-presentation. But you are right, philosophers also take the history of philosophy into consideration, even when they are offering their own very personal and original brick in the wall of the philosophic enterprise. I would think that Shri Aravinda is an indian example of this kind of creative re-seeing of philosophical history, in the modern period.

elisa freschi said...

Do you mean the philosopher known as Aurobindo?

Anonymous said...

That's the guy.

Very randomly: I guess Nikos Kazantzakis' continuation of the Odyssey would be an example of creative re-engagement with an ancient text that bases itself on modern philology. So might Roberto Calasso's Ka, though the creative element of that mysteriously overhyped book seems pretty small to me. Sukthankar thought the Mahabharata commentator Nilakantha got as close as he could, in his time, to what we think of as textual criticism. That approach, that tool, would have been in harmony with the pandit's way of thinking.

elisa freschi said...

I agree about Kazantzakis and I do not know Nīlakaṇṭha (my fault).
May I humbly suggest that expressions such as "the pandit's way of thinking" may run the risk of imagining a way of thinking which never changed throughout centuries? Don't we risk to worship an imagined idol instead of hundreds of thousands of concrete human beings who creatively engaged with a re-thinking of their heritage?

Anonymous said...

You're right. The modern western academic approach to the sanskrit tradition certainly represents an extraordinary break with the past, perhaps unprecedented in its extent, and that's why I lumped all that went before under the term "the pandit's way of thinking". But obviously panditya was anything but static over the centuries, and that's one thing that makes the indologist's historical study, particularly of commentaries, important and fascinating.

elisa freschi said...

I agree…as you know, I am fond of commentaries, especially if they look ot make sense of the system/the text they inherited.

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