Expert knowledge in Sanskrit sources—CORRECTED

Does sense-perception have natural limitations? Or can it be improved through practice and still be perceptual?


The debate is very much present in Sanskrit sources because it is contiguous to the possibility of intellectual perception. In fact, if sense-perception can be constantly improved by practice, it seems plausible to assume that it could be improved until the point in which the intellect can perceive in its own right. And this opens the door to super-sensuous perception.
But let me come back to the case of expert knowledge. The standard example is that of an expert of gems, who can recognise a genuine gem through sense perception. There are interesting debates about what exactly can be perceived through sense-perception in this case. For instance, Veṅkaṭanātha in his Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad PMS 1.1.4 (English translation under preparation by me) says that an expert can recognise the different hues of colours of a gem, which are concealed to lay people due to their similarity. However, even an expert cannot sense-perceive the preciousness of a gem —he instead only infers it, although the inference is not verbally formulated. By the way, Michel X, while commenting on the the post which triggered the present one* expresses some skepticism concerning the experts’ perception in the case of works of art. He might be right, and I can easily imagine Veṅkaṭanātha claiming that judging about the authenticity of a work of art implies implicit inferences rather than sense-perception alone.

To sum up, authors like Yāmuna (in his Ātmasiddhi, the relevant passage is translated towards the end of this article) maintain that perception can undergo an indefinite progress, basically until everything can be directly perceived —so that this argument leads to an evidence for the existence of God. Veṅkaṭanātha, by contrast, claims that perception can be improved through exercise, but that such improvement has precise limitations. Just like different people can jump more and more, but no one can jump until the moon, so visual perception will never grasp what is intrinsically outside the precinct of application of sight, e.g., smell.

Another instance of the argument of the continuous improvement I could find is located in Śaṅkara’s Yogaśāstravivaraṇa (the attribution is doubted, and sense perception does not help, thus I am here following the opinion of an expert, Kengo Harimoto), which has been recently critically edited and translated by Kengo Harimoto (see here). The argument is found in the commentary ad Yogabhāṣya 1.25 and leads to the establishment of an omniscient God through the fact that knowledge can always be improved and that it needs to achieve a peak somewhere. Maṇḍana Miśra, who is believed to have been a senior contemporary of Śaṅkara, rejected the theological part of the argument (see Harimoto, p. 11). Harimoto does not say where, but I imagine that this might be in his Vidhiviveka, around 1.14, where the discussion on omniscience takes place.

UPDATE: A further instance of this argument is discussed here.
*This post has been stimulated by Helen De Cruz’ discussion of the topic, here, and by two comments I received about it (many thanks for them, by the way!).

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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7 thoughts on “Expert knowledge in Sanskrit sources—CORRECTED

  1. Elisa, I got stumped at this first claim:

    “If sense-perception can be constantly improved by practice, it seems plausible to assume that it could be improved until the point in which the intellect can perceive in its own right.”

    Can you flesh this out a bit more? To me it sounds analogous to saying something like, “If motor skills can be constantly improved by practice, it seems plausible to assume that it could be improved until the point in which the mind can kick soccer balls in its own right.” That is, while the mind is an important component in my kicking a soccer ball, it is a leap to claim that improving motor skills allows us to surpass them. In this way, Veṅkaṭanātha’s analogy about the moon seems apt, although that one strikes me as depending on external features (gravity, for instance) rather than internal ones (sense perception just is the kind of thing that requires, well, senses).

    • Thanks, Malcolm. I think the point lies in the fact that pratyakṣa can be understood in two different ways:
      1) Mīmāṃsā (and Veṅkaṭanātha): *sense* perception. In this case, no training of the senses can ever lead to intellectual perception.
      2) Buddhist Pramāṇavādins: *direct* perception (no matter through which means). In this case, an accurate training can improve this sort of perception, which will ultimately be able to grasp all possible sorts of contents.
      Clearer now?
      By the way, I agree with the moon example, although I am pretty confident that they did not know about gravity and thought of it as due to the inner limitations of one’s capacities.

      • Elisa, thanks, yes. I read your conditional as being about sense-perception as in (1) but if you are including (2) I can see the possibility. And I don’t wish to be anachronistic, of course, but I am having a hard time seeing why one wouldn’t respond that in principle we could jump to the moon, excluding gravity etc., but we just haven’t seen someone exercise their faculties to that degree–just as super-sensuous perception is very rare.

        • Thanks, Malcolm. This is exactly the point: Excluding gravity, is it the case that we don’t jump until the moon (well, 20 m would already be unrealistic enough for me) because there are intrinsic limitations of our faculties or just because we did not exercise long enough?

  2. Fascinating topic. I have a post on the more every day expert assessment of chicken sexing. Without giving the full url: paste-
    Just add html at the end after the stop.
    Very, very fine visual cues are the key. They come via practice and even when this skill is attained they cannot be described.
    The idea that highly trained perception can pass over into intellectual discernment and even to the knowledge of God must be due to the universal equivocal use of ‘see’ and ‘understand’. For Sankara in any case enlightenment comes through knowledge and cannot be the result of an action. One continues to have the same visual experience i.e. you see the snake, but you no longer believe in it because you know it as a rope.

    • Thanks, Michael. Your comment made me aware of an ambiguity in the text: I was *not* speaking of perception of the Lord (we perceiving Him), but of His perception, in the sense that an improved perception would resemble His way of perceiving all sorts of possible objects. Thus, if the improvement is possible, it suggests that there must be someone for whom the improvement has reached the outmost level, and this can only be God.