Against non Italian scholars studying Latin and non Greek scholars studying ancient Greek

Consider the following:

Italy is now a unified country and no longer dominated by Austrian, Spanish or French rulers. Why do we need only more foreigners to supervise Latin publishing and translations?


Greece is now a unified country and no longer dominated by Turk rulers. Why do we need only more foreigners to supervise ancient Greek publishing and translations?

What do you think? I, for one, would answer that the more and the better scholars engage with these world’s treasures, the better. I am not sure that having an Italian passports makes me a priori a better candidate.

Now, you might consider that I am also not an ideal candidate, since I do not share the same set of beliefs of Cicero or Catullus. However, I am not sure one needs to believe in Aphrodites in order to understand Catullus’ desperate love for Lesbia, nor does one need to believe in Zeus to understand Cicero’s quest for justice. One might say that I am allowed to study Catullus, etc., because no believers of his religion are left but that the principle of “insiders only” still applies in case of religions/political systems/langauges/… of which there is still a living tradition.

This is a legitimate point of view, but one needs to be aware of the fact that it leads to isolationism. One would only be allowed to study people whose religion/language/set of beliefs… she or he shares, with no adhikāra to look beyond his or her field. Moreover, I wonder how one would be able to look critically at his or her field, if she or he had had no chance to learn about how different the world can be.

Long story short: I am still a believer in the enriching power of saṃvāda, ‘dialogue’.

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

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15 thoughts on “Against non Italian scholars studying Latin and non Greek scholars studying ancient Greek

  1. This is a fine argument for saṃvāda, but it would apply to the issue at hand only if there existed saṃvāda, or even any sort of vāda. Instead what we find is people outside a living tradition working on their own, coming to their own conclusions and publishing them in journals and eventually in books, encyclopedias and museums, and claiming to be authorities on a topic, while *at no point* engaging in vāda/saṃvāda with the living tradition.

    How many Western or Western-trained Indologists do you know, who, after arriving at a conclusion or (thinking they are) making a discovery, care to get feedback from someone within the tradition, and publish their work only with such feedback? How many encyclopedia entries are verified with a member of the tradition, or (failing that) add a disclaimer that the contents of the entry represent an outsider view which just possibly may not be the correct view? Without any of these it’s not saṃvāda ‘dialogue’, it’s only a monologue.

    (If the answer is not zero, I’d be very curious to learn.)

    The debate is not about who has adhikāra to look at a field, but about what the process is for someone to claim (either explicitly or implicitly) to be “the authority” or represent “the scholarly consensus” about it. (And thereby ultimately determine what students, either in graduate school or elementary school, are taught about it, which has implications for the continued existence of the living tradition.)

    • Thanks for the reply. I have some problems concerning the concept of “living tradition”. What belongs to a “living tradition”? Once again, am I more eligible than you in studying Latin literature? Italian literature? Italian literature of the Nineteenth century? Italian literature of the 19th c. of my own state? Of my own town?
      In other words, it seems to me difficult to decide who is rightfully representing a living tradition, unless we determine it strictly (see below).
      By contrast, I agree with you that one should not be a priori hostile/suspicious towards what commentators, etc. say about their own paramparā or, at least, that one should (as you suggest) state explicitly what one is doing and why. In other words, one can claim that Mīmāṃsā authors were in fact only faking their commitment to the Vedas, but one should have valid arguments to do that and state clearly that one is going against centuries of commentators ranging until today. If the paramparā reaches until today I think it makes sense to apply the same procedure to its contemporary representatives. But I am not sure, as mentioned above, that it makes sense to apply it to ANY person loosely related to that world. Again, think about my adhikāra for Italian literature (arts, politics, religion…).
      As for people engaging in a dialogue with the tradition, it is easy to mention people like Jonathan Edelmann or the hundreds of European, US and Japanese Indologists who have spent years in Pune or Benares reading with a paṇḍit. In Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta studies, John B. Carman is very sympathetic to the tradition and goes as far as saying that he tried to reconstruct its theology as good as he could, but that he remained on the threshold, being an outsider, and might have missed some important element.

      • Let me address first the question of dialogue. Studying with paṇḍits and claiming to have incorporated their views is not a form of dialogue. A dialogue requires there to exist at least two participants, not one participant claiming to have also spoken for the other.

        There exists a system of dialogue already, which involves actual talking. But even without that, you can carry out a form of dialogue by inviting comments on your works from those you claim to be in dialogue with (and then *publishing* these comments along with your work, not simply reading and claiming to have incorporated them). If neither has been done, I wonder about the sense in which you can claim that there exists dialogue.

        If there has not been dialogue (which is fine too: real dialogue may be impractical for various reasons), then at least I would hope for a disclaimer that there has been no dialogue and that a particular view represents only a particular view, not *the* “scholarly” or “authoritative” view (and is therefore ineligible for being the sole basis of say, an encyclopedia or a textbook or a museum display, without also incorporating the views of whoever the dialogue might have happened with).

        Returning to the question of a living tradition: I think your point is that there is no living tradition in the case of mīmāṃsā, and someone who has lived and studied in Europe or the US is exactly as much an outsider/insider as someone who has studied the Veda, has learned mīmāṃsā śāstra from a paṇḍit in a pāṭhaśālā, etc. I imagine one can extend this to the observation that Rāmānuja or Vedānta-deśika lived in a different century and milieu, and therefore say the same about Viśiṣṭādvaita too: that contemporary Viśiṣṭādvaitins are not part a living tradition either.

        But since you said in the original post that you consider “insiders only” a legitimate but poor policy in cases where there is still a living tradition, assuming for the sake of argument that there exists a living tradition of something, what do you think about a policy of “outsiders only”? My claim is that what we’re seeing, in the absence of real dialogue, is effectively an “outsiders only” policy, when it comes to what is treated as the authoritative description. The question is not about who studies X, but about who defines X.

        • Thanks, Svat. I see your point concerning appropriating another’s voice. Let me, however, disagree with Marxism (until Foucault) and with the unavoidably political value of knowledge and hope that knowledge can be vidyārtha and dialogue be possible under this condition.

          Regarding the rest, I have two types of comments:
          1. I think the contributions of *both* insiders and various types of outsiders is valuable. Insiders may see things outsiders will miss, but the opposite is also true (it happened to me several times that a foreigner made me aware of something of my home town I had always seen without being aware of its strangeness or beauty, I imagine you had this experience as well). However, how many insiders and outsiders can one incorporate in an encyclopaedic entry? By definition, never enough. There will be always new perspectives which are missing. Thus, I think one should abandon the exhaustive intent of encyclopedias altogether and be straightforward about the necessary incompleteness of our work.
          2. I thought my reply was clear enough when I used Italian literature as an example: I did not want to say that there is no living Viśiṣṭādvaita tradition (just like there is a living tradition of Italian writers), sorry for not having been clear enough. But: who is exactly an insider? Do all Śrī Vaiṣṇava believers count as insiders? All Hindūs? All Indians? If the answer to any of this question is “yes”, then I am not sure I can fully agree with this position. Those “insiders” might be interesting voices, but I am inclined to think that a trained philosopher or theologian would be in a better position to evaluate Rāmānuja’s philosophy of language than a Śrī Vaiṣṇava devotee who does not read Śāstric Sanskrit. Once again, both voices might be interesting. But the “insiders” of a philosopher are usually other philosophers.
          (I dealt with this issue some years back, in this post.)

          • (0) Yes, knowledge can be vidyārtha and dialogue is possible. But do you claim that dialogue is happening? My claim is that it’s not.

            (1a) My point is exactly that contributions of *both* insiders and outsiders is valuable (various types of each). I very fully agree. So why systematically exclude the voices of insiders? How reliable is such a system?

            (1b) In a given journal article or book, sure, one can be “straightforward about the necessary incompleteness of our work” (although I note that most articles don’t contain this disclaimer explicitly; it is implicit). But the encyclopedias, and books meant for the general reader, will get written somehow. Which contributions get included then? It is possible to sidestep the question of completeness but it unavoidably crops up eventually.

            (2) I agree with you: if the subject is Viśiṣṭādvaita theology or philosophy, then those who are trained are insiders, but if the subject is making claims about what contemporary Śrī Vaiṣṇava devotees believe, then they too are insiders (as they can be expected to know their own beliefs).

          • (0) Dialogue is hard, since it requires willingness to be proven wrong and openness to the contribution of others. Bettina Bäumer has, for instance, a nice story about Swami Laksmanjoo’s reply when Daya Krishna invited him to a saṃvāda (in Shail Mayaram’s book on DK). That’s why a real dialogue is not as common as one would wish. Please note that a real dialogue is not just the juxtaposition of different views (this is easy to be reached), but entails the openness to undertake in a real shared enterprise.
            As for the question of how often this really takes place, I would say that it is on the one hand quite rare in institutionalised settings (such as the ones DK worked with) but on the other possibly quite common when two vidyārthin kind of people meet and read together.
            (1a and 2) In order to assess to what extent are “insiders” excluded, we should first agree (i) on the definition of who counts as an insider and (ii) on the number of voices to be included. As for (ii), this process is virtually endless, but any attempt will be better than nothing. As for (i), you write that “contemporary Śrī Vaiṣṇava devotees […], they too are insiders (as they can be expected to know their own beliefs)”. I am not completely sure. While I was paid for doing things different than Indology, I read some studies about beliefs among Italian believers and they were highly deviant from what one would have rightly described as “Catholic beliefs”. Popular beliefs might be sociologically interesting, but they are perhaps less theologically relevant.

          • (0) Yes, you are right: as dialogue requires the willingness to undertake in a real shared enterprise, and this is often missing from “traditional scholars”, dialogue is hard and rare. I agree, and if we were trying to seek whom to blame, then much of the blame lies with the so-called “insiders” who have been unwilling to step into unfamiliar ground and adopt new frameworks to discuss things. No doubt that is why real dialogue is not as common as one would wish. But my point is not to blame but simply to point out that dialogue is not happening (for various reasons), and I think you acknowledge that it is not common. In particular, that writing about another group is not a form of engaging in dialogue/saṃvāda with them. It is a valuable activity, and can be highly illuminating, but cannot be called dialogue.

            Tying into this, for (1a), I am willing to accept any definition of “insiders” you like (e.g. for questions of theology, only paṇḍits trained in śāstric Sanskrit and having undergone training in the relevant texts are to be counted, not lay devotees). I am more curious to know in what sense (and whether) you think there is not currently an “outsiders only” state of affairs.

          • Given that we seem to have reached more or less an agreement on most things, I will focus on your last question. I do not think that there are too many “outsiders only” studies on Indian philosophy. I rather think that there are not enough studies of Indian philosophy, either by insiders or by outsiders, not to speak by both at once. Among the “outsiders only” and the “insiders only” studies, I like some and dislike others, probably independently of their being from insiders or outsiders, but mostly in relation to their authors’ grasp of the Sanskrit they are dealing with and philosophical engagement with its ideas. What about you?

          • Firstly, the topic is not just philosophy: your original post gave examples of Catullus and Cicero. So it includes for example, kāvya, history, religious studies, and many broad things like that.

            Secondly, you are looking at it “bottom-up”: how many people are studying, say, Sāṅkhya Yoga or Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā? Yes, very few, not enough. Of whatever exists, some of the work is good and shows a good understanding of the sources and is illuminating (sometimes by being from a fresh perspective), some either misunderstands or simply recycles statements without adding much light. Mixed in quality, just as you say.

            But also consider the “top-down” view: when a major academic encyclopedia or wide-ranging project is begun, whose work is included in it? What is the process by which someone can claim to be the “authority” on a particular topic? That has always been the question, but your answer seems to be that you’ll personally acknowledge incompleteness, and not worry about the system being broken. (That’s fine—we can’t all fix everything about the world all the time—but others may care more about those issues.)

          • You are right, let us include also kāvya, religious texts or any other you might want. Although this implies going somewhat out of my AOS, I still think that we do not have enough scholars, be they outsiders or insiders. In other words, I would not give up any (competent) outsider, given that the total number of scholars is so low. The only people I can easily get without are self-styled omniscient authors writing on, say, “Asian” or “World religions” without any effort to understand their topic better. But, once again, I dislike them because they are dishonest, independently of where they come from.
            As for encyclopedias and the like, I worked for several of them years back. The main problem was persuading the general editors to include any Indian material. If I managed to convince them, they assumed I was an expert of anything Indian because they ignored the complexity of the Indian world and expect me to write each entry, from “Tibetan philosophy” to entries on contemporary Indonesian thinkers and the like (it is not a joke). Are you thinking of cases like that? Or do you imagine some “Orientalist” who is wilfully proposing a distorted image of India? If so, why exactly?

          • (Sorry for the delayed reply; got busy yesterday.)

            Yes I agree with you: we do not have enough scholars, either “outsiders” or “insiders”, and we should not “give up” any competent scholar. And yes I was thinking of cases like the ones you mentioned (very funny BTW 🙂 ), where people are taken to be experts in things they are not. (I was proposing that academic productions should take input from *more* scholars, by trying harder to get feedback from some “insiders” in addition to (not instead of) existing “outsiders” within the university system.)

            I do not think there are any/many “Orientalists” wilfully propagating a distorted image of India. I think most people are sincerely, genuinely, trying to find the truth and be honest and describe things as they appear to them. However, despite best intentions, if everyone comes from certain “outsider” backgrounds and therefore looks at things from a particular viewpoint, then because of the absence of any emendation from insider viewpoints, these natural tilts add up (instead of cancelling each other out), and the picture gets distorted along certain directions. Acknowledging the possibility of this distortion and trying harder to correct it systematically is what I think is missing.

            There are also practical incentives. Apart from bringing to light things that were previously unknown, people advance in their careers when they come up with “new”, “original”, and “groundbreaking” theories — for advancing ideas not articulated before. No one gets famous for writing something like “I have studied and listened to the traditional accounts for many years, and have come to realize that the traditional viewpoint is indeed the best description of the matter”. This is a natural source of bias (akin to what is called “publication bias”), and is not fully acknowledged I think.

            (By the way, we can see even the historical proponents of Orientalist distortions as responding to career incentives that were in place at their time: you would do better in your career if your show that your work helped the Empire, or helped missionary activity. For example, for the sake of an election, Monier-Williams and Max Müller were eager to stress how their research helped with the task of converting the natives of India away from idolatry. We can wonder: What distorting incentives exist today? Or is it clear that there are none?)

          • 1. The only point we seem to still disagree about regards the number of viewpoints involved in a given analysis. I would say it is very vast, probably endless. In this sense, the point is not just to have one outsider and then one insider compensating for the former’s shortcomings (the opposite is also not true, by the way). For instance, approaching the Brahmasūtra just from the perspective of, say, Ninian Smart and of a “pontiff” of a Śaṅkara māth would also not be enough, I think. The fact that an absolute compensation of each other’s biases is not possible also entails that each one should do her best to be outright concerning her biases (personally, I always add a footnote explaining that my personal position on a given issue, e.g., free will, could make me more inclined to read a given author under a certain light) and possibly to overcome at least some of them (such as the political ones you mentioned).

            2. Personally, I think the fashion of novelty is nothing more than that (a fashion) and one which can be easily proven to be flawed (Did you really find a “novel” way to read Śaṅkara? Interesting! Did you really check all Indian papers in all Indian languages, all manuscripts and marginalia? Did you speak with all paṇḍits in India and scholars abroad, from Romania to Argentina?)

            p.s. No need to apologise, blog conversations allow some time for reflection, luckily enough!

  2. My comment here appears to be held in moderation; was it offensive in any way / is that sort of thing unwelcome here? It is your blog of course and you don’t have to publish any comments; I just want to know so as to not leave comments that are unwelcome. 🙂

    • NO, no, it was by no means offensive and I apologise for the delay. I was just on Easter break and with no internet access (the posts had been scheduled before my departure). Thanks for the contribution.