Monday, February 27, 2012

The self is not changeless

If the self is changeless and eternal, how can it really act and know? If it does not really act nor know (as claimed by Sāṅkhya authors), how can it be conscious? If it is just conscious of itself, with no further content, who could desire liberation? Would you be satisfied of an eternal act of self-awareness, with no further content?

Mīmāṃsā authors took a different way and stated that the self is not changeless. Not in the abvoe way, at least.
A great contemporary Mīmāṃsā scholar, K.T. Pandurangi, writes:

"The concept of substance of the Bhāṭṭas and the Prābhākaras is the same as that of the Nyāya-vaiśeṣikas. However, in the case of ātman, which is considered as a substance, the Bhāṭṭas accept pariṇāma or avasthāntara in the process of cognition" (Pandurangi 2006, p. 104). "[T]here is am important difference between the Bhāṭṭa concept of ātman and the Nyāya-vaiśeṣikas concept of it. While cognition is an attribute of ātman according to Nyāya-vaiśeṣikas, it is a modification or a state of ātman according to Bhāṭṭas'' (Pandurangi 2006, p. 145).

Pandurangi's Pūrvamīmāṃsā from an interdisciplinary point of view is an excellent book. Unfortunately, very much like Indian classical works, it rarely mentions the exact source of a certain statement. In this case, it is probably Kumārila's Ślokavārttika, Ātmavāda:

It is not prohibited to say that the self is not fix (nitya) |

if what one means is just that it can evolve (vikriyā), [since] there is no cessation of it by that ||

If there were an absolute destruction of it, there would be destruction of the actions performed and accrual of actions non-performed |

but not in the case it reaches a different stage, like in the ordinary experience of childhood, youth and [adulthood] (when the same person is said to be a child, then a young person and then an adult) ||
(nānityaśabdavācyatvam ātmano vinivāryate | vikriyāmātravācitve na hy ucchedo 'sya tāvatā || syātām atyantanāśe 'sya kṛtanāśākṛtāgamau | na tv avasthāntaraprāptau loke bālayuvādivat || 22cd-23cd)

On the subject in Mīmāṃsā, see this post (on Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā views) and the tag "subject".

Friday, February 24, 2012

God and free will in Indian philosophy and in Mīmāṃsā in particular

Possibly because God is rarely seen as directly interfering in worldly matters (He rather uses karman to do it), I am not aware of philosophical discussions about whether human beings alone are responsible of good and evil or God is corresponsible as well, insofar as He favours the first and lets the latter happen. One also does not find the kind of reflections one finds in Islamic thought, asking why God does not let future evil-doers die while they are still harmless children, in order to prevent them from doing evil and, hence, to eternally suffer in hell... Nor does one find the problem of the coexistence of God's goodness and free will. I tend to think that the Christian answer to this problem would be that free will is so precious, that God prefers people to be free rather than forcing them to be good. This might be due to the fact that God himself wants to be chosen freely and freely loved. But one might object that this desire of Him implies that there are also evil-doers, who might harm other people. How can one justify a desire, if this indirectly implies harming others?

Mīmāṃsā authors deny any role to god as a philosophical entity. They may personally adore a personal God, but tend to be quite strict in denying to Him/Her any ontological foundation. In other words, god has no place as a justification for the system and there is, consequently, no need to discuss one's freedom in respect to his omnipotence. The absence of any comparison with god also entails that Mīmāṃsā authors do not need to specify in which sense one can be said to be free, given that one is not as free as god is, since, for instance, god can assume every possible form and we cannot. (Pratyabhijñā authors, in this connection, suggest that the limited subjects only enjoy a fraction of the God's infinite power of freedom.)

Are you aware of discussions about God and free will in Sanskrit texts?
On free will in Mīmāṃsā, see this post.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Library of Babel Solution

What do you do when you look for an answer to a problem and cannot find it?

  1. 1. Many people just think about it until they find the suitable answer.
  2. 2. Others do something different (playing golf, relaxing, playing music…) until the solution arrives, all in a sudden.
  3. 3. Others keep on looking at the same text/problem trying to see in it something they had overlooked before.
  4. Still others ask for help (thanks Jayarava!).

Personally I practice all three ways, but I by far prefer the "Library of Babel" solution. According to Jorge Luis Borges' wonderful novel The library of Babel (whence the following translation), the universe is a library with infinite books. Since the letters are in finite number and since all the books have the same number of pages and lines per page, all combinations of letters are represented in the library. It goes without saying that most books bear no meaning at all. But somewhere hidden is also the book which, by chance, contains everything about you personally:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. […] These examples made it possible for a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. […]

I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For example: no book can be a ladder, although no doubt there are books which discuss and negate and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a ladder.

Accordingly, when I face a philosophical problem (be it "Does it make sense to speak of 'free will' in Mīmāṃsā?'' or ''What does prasaṅga mean in pre-Classical texts?") I just keep on reading, hoping to find the answer. Unlike the librarians in the novel, I do have some trace (books of the same author, or of the same school, or of opponents). But I also learnt to look for books dealing with the same topic within another culture (given my theses, the obvious case is that I look for books on Western philosophy). This make me feel more confident than the average librarian in Borges' novel.

Many thanks are due to Jayarava who made me realise that while travelling alone within the library I forgot the option of asking a librarian for help.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Validity of Sacred Texts other than one's own

How can one accept the validity of Sacred Texts other than one's own without ending up in relativism?
Jayanta starts the section of his Nyāyamañjarī dedicated to this topic with the following question:
Is this validity established only in regard to the Vedas |

or is this a hint (dik) for the validity of all other Sacred Texts (āgama)? || (edited by Kataoka 2004)

Even more interesting is the way he spells out the consequences of the second view:

They (Sacred Texts) would all end up being false, since they contradict each other ||

This is exactly the point. How can one accept the simultaneous validity of conflicting statements? One way out is the Advaita Vedānta one, namely to say that all statements are relatively valid, whereas only one's position is ultimately so. But I wonder whether, e.g., a follower of Dvaita, of Sāṅkhya or a Pāśupāta would be content with being just relatively true.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A plea for meaningful rejections

Being rejected is never nice. Thus, at least, a rejection should be a chance to learn how to improve. Editors for journals and collections have a hard work to do, by before "just" rejecting articles they might remember how they felt as young students, when they first waited trepidantly for an acceptance from a journal. A few explanations make it easier to accept a rejection and most of all suggest the author how to improve.
Thus, if you are fed up of unexperienced authors or methodologically unsound articles, don't just reject them. Explain why you are doing it. How could their authors understand what they need to improve, if not at the time of a rejection?
(Personally, I usually find myself writing sentences like "your methodology is not clear enough", "you are too much focused on a single instance, generalizations out of it are undue", or "explain why your case-study is relevant".)

Have you ever rejected an article/had an article rejected in a meaningful way? What did you write/receive?

On articles' rejection, see also this post. The issue has been raised again by a question on academia.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Traditional scholars and modern research

Is the one between "traditional" scholars and "modern" researchers a real dichotomy? Are the methodologies of Western scholars and Indian ones so widely different that the two groups cannot communicate?

I often tend to think that this ought not be the case. Often, one thinks that the impossibility of communication is not really between honest researchers, but rather between "researches" used for the sake of a certain agenda. A devout Vaiṣṇava will probably not accept the results of a research written by, e.g., a Christian missionary who strives for the conversion of Vaiṣṇavas. However, it is very easy to claim that everyone has an agenda and that, hence, communication can never be possible. As a solution, I can suggest:
  1. 1. to make that agenda explicit. If I try to look like an objective scholar, only interested in data, but secretly (and possibly without being fully aware of it) seek to convert my readers, I will probably end up hurting the religious feelings of many of them. This will not necessarily happen if I start my study by proclaiming my faith (or my lack of faith, etc.) and try to do my best from within this departure-point.
  2. 2. to accept the existence of concurring points of view. One will never be able to "scientifically" show that the sentence "After praying to St. Therese, my head-ache disappeared" depicts an impossible event. To say the least, praying itself may have a healing effect. Hence, one should avoid regarding "religious" approaches as inherently unworthy.
  3. 3. viceversa, it is not the case that any critical study "destroys" one's religion, so that one has to defend it from "critical attacks". Even if one were to demonstrate that some facts about the hagiography of a certain saint are historically undemonstrated, why should this be felt as threatening one's faith? Isn't faith different from knowledge? If a religion were nothing more than a sequence of established facts, than what merit would one have in believing in it?
What do readers think? How do you relate to the "other" group?

On not liking one's subject of study, see this post and its comments. On the problem of implicit paradigms, see this post.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Free will in Mīmāṃsā

I already discussed how free will does not appear as much a crucial conundrum, if seen from the point of view of Indian philosophy, which in general silently embraces compatibilism (between determinism and free will).

In addition to the general points already brought forward, it is worth remembering that Mīmāṃsā authors in general tend to favour accounts which mirror one's experience. If, for instance, one experiences one's cognition of a chair one gradually distinguishes in a dark room as a ''sense-perception'', there should be very strong reasons to refute it this status (see Taber 2005, discussing this point in Kumārila). Similarly, since we obviously feel that our will has a role in the process of undertaking an action, Mīmāṃsakas do not dispute this. Unlike their Western colleagues, Mīmāṃsā philosophers do not question the degree of freedom of the decisions one experiences as free. They do not, e.g., argue for the fact that our experience of freedom might just be an epiphenomenon accompanying the process of undertaking an action, or that our experience of freedom might be in fact a fake, since our decisions are completely determined by who we are, which is a priori determined by facts we cannot interfere with, such as genes and early education. The fact that decisions are experienced as free is enough for Mīmāṃsā authors to treat them accordingly.

Thus, for Mīmāṃsakas the issue of free will strictly depends on how one understands action. Within this framework, one could also just speak of ''will'', since from the point of view of the way a single action is caused, nothing changes if the general laws of the universe allow freedom or not.

On the topic of free will, a very recent article by Johannes Bronkhorst ("Free Will and Indian Philosophy", Philosophia Antiquorum, forthcoming) also argues in favour of an experiential approach. In our experience, we all know what it is to be free and this experience is perfectly compatible with determinism, since (see this post), we would keep on feeling free even if determinism were the case.

On free will in Indian philosophy, see this post (and the others tagged "free will").

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The ambiguous status of philosophy

Philosophy is at the same time a specialist discipline and one which is part of everyone's life.
No one who is not a physician or a scientist dares write on a journal for Immunology. No one would claim to be able to discuss topics of quantum mechanics if s/he has no background on physics. This is not the case with language (everyone thinks to have some valuable opinion about the way s/he uses her own language), psychology, and philosophy (and soccer, if one happens to live in Italy).
I will not discuss about the risks of having linguistics depending on the judgement of people who have not been trained in linguistics, etc. Rather, I will now argue that people do have some legitimation in thinking they can discuss about topics such as free will, or the roots of ethics, or the existence of God, although they lack any philosophical training. They can legitimately do so, because, as members of the humankind, they cannot avoid asking themselves questions, and try to find answers. Sometimes, naïve questions might even be inspiring, since they may question a wider perspective instead of focusing on a minor detail. However, as already argued for (see this post), not having an explicit training in philosophy does not amount to have a "fresh vision". Rather, it usually means that one has an implicit paradigm, one one is not aware of and is hence not able to control. Consequently, one might be led to think that "whatever philosophers say is just non-sence", because one has an implicit materialistic or pragmatic paradigm. A philosopher should first of all be aware of what happens within himself or herself and be able to discuss himself or herself as part of the problem s/he is addressing.

How does this affect studies in Indian philosophy? Sanskrit scholars working on medicine (etc.) might be aware of the fact that they need some special training in order to be able to understand what they are working on. By contrast, scholars working on Sanskrit philosophy might feel they are working on a non-technical field and they do not need to fulfil any special precondition to edit or translate a certain text. This is part of why philosophy appeals so much to all of us… But this does not legitimate us to forget how much a text or a topic is probably deeper and more problematic than what we are ready to accept and understand

Let us enjoy the beauty and suggestion of Vedānta, the intricacies of Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā, the paradoxes of Madhyamaka, etc. But without forgetting that this level of appreciation is just the tip of a technical iceberg. The more one understands it, the more it becomes interesting and intriguing.

Have you ever been surprised by the non-technical approach of the author of an essay on Indian thought? Or do you think that the better essays on Indian philosophy have been written by non-philosophers?

On the topic of how to edit philosophical texts, see this presentation. On implicit paradigms, see this post.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Titles in Sanskrit studies

Which titles impress you more? Do you prefer intriguing or descriptive ones (e.g., The art of thinking properly or An introduction to Nyāya)? Which ones do you remember after a long time? How much does the title influence your choice to read or not to read a book? How much does it influence your ability to recall it once you have read it?

In my case, I like intriguing titles, dislike obscure ones (e.g., Does the Barth conundrum apply to Bhartṛnātha?) and sadly tend to forget descriptive ones. Further, an appealing title makes it much easier for me to pick a book from the shelves of a library (or of a bookshop) and makes it much easier for me to remember its content.
Among my favourite authors on Mīmāṃsā, I am very much helped by several of the titles chosen by John Taber (a typical example is Much ado About Nothing, which deals with absence as an instrument of knowledge in Kumārila —the smart title makes me smile everytime I think about it and I am hence more likely to think about it). By contrast, I always have to struggle remembering the meaning of the title of his Is Indian Logic non-Monotonic? Kei Kataoka tends to have more descriptive titles (e.g., Reconstructing the Dharma-abhivyakti-vāda in the Mīmāṃsā tradition). This is fair, because the reader gets what s/he expected, but it does not help my memory and I frequently need some time to recall where did he write about a certain sentence I want to quote.

However, intriguing titles may lead to disappointment, since they are vague enough to raise different expectations in different people and cannot satisfy them all (think of Anna-Pya Sjödin's The Happening of Tradition, which is in fact a book about Vallabha, a late Naiyāyika). Further, they can be found by chance by many people (who are not directly interested in their topics), but many others (who would have been interested in their topic) might miss them, just because they do not appear while googling for key-words. Suppose X wrote a fundamental book on how to describe manuscripts and calls it The concealed source. Will codicologists find it?

Further "intriguing" titles I like: Ich und das "Ich", by Claus Oetke. Le soi et l'autre, by Isabelle Ratié, The Self's Awareness of Itself, by Alex Watson, Contrary Thinking (collected essays of Daya Krishna) edited by Nalini Bhushan, Jay L. Garfield and Daniel Raveh, Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy, by Christopher Framarin, The concealed art of the soul, by Jonardon Ganeri. And my favourite title ever: Thinking Ritually, by F.X. Clooney, which I think gives the whole book an adequate framework.

Which titles do you prefer? Which ones do you choose for your writings?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why we cannot but be free

I am inclined to think that the free will vs. determinism problem is only a seeming problem. No matter what natural scientists will decide about determinacy and indeterminacy, the status of electrones will not change the way we think about ourselves:

Standing there [between a cake you want to buy and someone with an Oxfam tin on the steps of the shop, with a single note in your pocket], you might believe that determinism is true. You may believe that in five minutes' time you will be able to look back on the situation and say, of what you will by then have done, 'It was determined that I should do that'. But even if you do believe this, it does not seem to undermine your current sense of the absoluteness of your freedom, and of your moral responsibility for your choice. (G. Strawson, Free Will in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Of course, one could reply that this is just a psychological attitude, and that just like we are deterministically inclined to believe in continuity after death, so are we also inclined to believe that we are free. But even if this could explain, it does not change our basic intuitions about freedom. Why? Because they belong to a different precinct than laws about the "external" world. If I do feel pain, I will not be convinced by my very learned physician that tells me I should not feel any pain in my knee, since it is intact. Pain and freedom, in other words, belong to subjectivity, in the sense that they are not subject-independent, although they "subjective" in the sense of "personal, different for each human being". One cannot explain them away from an "objective" point of view.

Indian authors seem to have chosen the middle path of compatibilism, see this post.
Are you aware of Indian works favouring determinism or predestination?

On free will on this blog, check the corresponding tag. For other blogs, you might be interested in this discussion on Amod Lele's one.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Free will in Indian philosophy

Free will is one of the most central topics of Western philosophy. In contrast, it is hard even to find an adequate synonym in Indian philosophy. Why? Possibly because:
  1. 1. Indian philosophy is not dominated by Theism as a philosophical position (there have been several theistic philosophies, but the core of Indian philosophy —Nyāya, Mīmāṃsā, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Buddhism, Jainism…— does not need a personal God),
  2. 2. the theory of karman introduced determinism as a pre-condition, so that the only option left was some sort of compatibilism and everyone automatically adjusted.

Most Indian authors are in fact by default compatibilists. They assume automatically that we are determined by karman, but also that karman is not an inestricable chain. If it were one, no liberation would be possible without a Divine intervention. Predestination is, thus, admitted by some Theistic schools such as Madhva's one (and possibly presupposed by some verses of the Bhagavadgītā referring to eternal hell). However, predestination cannot be accepted by all the schools who stress the importance of one's path, such as Buddhism, nor be a philosophically viable option for the schools who do not recognise a personal (and, hence, arbitrary) God as fundamental to their system. If there is no God arbitrarily deciding to rescue the one and send to hell the other, what would be the rationale of predestination? A Materialist might answer that one just happens to be among the lucky ones or not, but materialism is, again, an extreme position within Indian philosophy.

On the topic of free will in Indian philosophy, see this post (and all other posts under the tag "free will").

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Non-ontological approach in Mīmāṃsā

What is prescriptive (normative) and what is just descriptive in the Brāhmaṇas and in Mīmāṃsā?

Elaborating on the identifications frequent in the Brāhmaṇas, Lars Göhler (Reflexion und Ritual in der Pūrvamīmāṃsā, 2011) writes:

Mylius (1976:146) writes that the [identifications in the Brāhmaṇas, E.F.] are based on the desire to systematise reality. The style and formulation of these identifications hint, however, also at a further purpose: The Brahmans did not just ascertain such identities, they conjured up them: in the identifications there is not only an ''is'', but also an ''ought''.

(Mylius (1976:146) schreibt, dass ihnen der Wunsch, die objektive Realität zu systematisieren, zugrunde lag. Stil und Formulierung dieser Identifikationen deuten aber noch auf eine weitere Absicht hin: die Brahmanen haben diese Identitäten nicht nur festgestellt, sie haben sie geschworen: In den Identifikationen findet sich nicht nur ein ''Sein'', sondern auch ein ''Sollen'', Göhler 2011: 20).

This harmonises with the caution against a default ontological interpretation pronounced by Göhler at the beginning of his book. Moreover, it throws some light on the prescriptive approach to the Veda which is typical of Mīmāṃsā. If one focuses on how the Brāhmaṇas and then the speculation on them do not merely describe reality, but rather prescribe how this should be, some of the striking peculiarities of Mīmāṃsā (and of Indian philosophy), such as the complex semantics of artha, meaning at the same time 'object' and 'purpose', become clearer. A little bit later, Göhler convincingly argues that also pramāṇa has in Mīmāṃsā a rather normative meaning (''Damit gehört Pramāṇa eher in die Nähe von Gültigkeitsbegriffen im Sinne von 'normativ gültig' oder 'handlungsverbindlich' '' (Göhler 2011: 36). Even MS 1.1.4, with its rejection of sense perception as instrument to know dharma is audaciously re-interpreted by Göhler from a non-descriptive perspective. The sūtra states that sense perception is animitta. This is usually understood as meaning that it is not the cause of the knowledge of dharma. By contrast, Göhler stresses the ritual background of nimitta and translates as follows: ''it does not promote (a ritual action creating something new)'' ("[…] sie veranlasst nicht (eine rituelle Tätigkeit, die etwas Neues schafft)'', Göhler 2011: 38).

In my opinion, the opposition between a descriptive and a prescriptive approach is a fundamental one when looking at Mīmāṃsā and possibly at Indian philosophy in general. A prescriptive meaning, further, cannot be interpreted through a direct-realist lens, insofar as it cannot directly correspond to an external state of affairs already existing at the moment the sentence referring to it is uttered. In other words, this is a further case of a non-ontological approach current in Indian philosophical texts (the topic has been recently discussed in this very interesting post by Jayarava).

What do readers think? Further evidences of non-ontological approaches?
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