The “Hillary Clinton” effect in Sanskrit studies

Why do we look for excuses for not engaging with recent Sanskrit scholarship?

To my knowledge, Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā (henceforth SM) has been commented upon only once in Sanskrit, namely in the 20th c. within the 1971 edition. The title of the commentary is Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā ‘gloss on subtle meanings’. As often the case with commentaries, some moot issues are just not commented upon, but the commentary is very often insightful and useful at the same time, providing identifications of speakers and adding interpretative cues. Also relevant is the fact that its author is a outspoken Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin who, unlike the author of the SM, does not feel compelled to assume a Mīmāṃsā standpoint. Therefore, in case of conflict (for instance, at the beginning of the commentary on PMS 1.1.6, pp. 88–89 of the 1971 edition) he highlights the differences between the Mīmāṃsā perspective presented in the main text and the Viśiṣṭādvaita one. Thus, he makes it indirectly visible that Veṅkaṭanātha’s choice of reading PMS 1.1.6 as focusing on the signification power of language instead of on the permanence of phonemes is not only one legitimate interpretive choice within Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics, but also an effort aiming at the harmonisation of the PMS with the lore of Viśiṣṭādvaita Veṅkaṭanātha needed to take into account.

In this way, the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā‘s author also indirectly points out the gigantic effort Veṅkaṭanātha undertook, almost seven centuries before, when he tried to propose a synthesis of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta.

These reasons should make it clear why I deemed it relevant to include a translation of the Sūkṣmārthaṭīkā to my study of the SM. I can also add that in general recent Sanskrit scholarship often tends to be neglected only because it is recent and Sanskrit, whereas I cannot see any a priori reason for not engaging in a close study of both recent and ancient texts in Sanskrit, and for not reading both English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Sanskrit recent scholarship.

PS: I wrote that I don’t see any a priori reason, because I can understand that life is short and one needs to decide what to read, and that reading one’s colleagues’ or future evaluators’ articles might be pragmatically the most advisable choice. But studying Sanskrit is already a non-pragmatic life choice, so that it cannot be reduced to career moves. Moreover, preserving ideodiversity (copyright: Houben), even within the Sanskrit ekumene should be at least part of the mission of people engaging with such non-pragmatic life-choices. Don’t you think?

Open access papers on philosophy of language etc.

For a lucky coincidence, two long term projects of mine reached completion almost at the same time.

You can therefore read on the 2017 issue of the Journal of World Philosophies the (Open Access) papers on philosophy of language which are the result of a project led by Malcolm Keating and myself (see here). I am grateful to the journal’s editor, Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach for her help and support throughout the process.

On the 2017 issue Kervan you can read the lead papers on epistemology of testimony, printed cultures and conceptualisation of sexuality which are the result of the 2013 Coffee Break Conference held in Turin and edited by Daniele Cuneo, Camillo Formigatti and myself. I am grateful to the journal’s editor, Mauro Tosco for his help and support throughout the process.

Enjoy and please let me know your comments and criticisms!

Project on deontic logic in Mīmāṃsā

Why is it interesting to deal with Mīmāṃsā deontics?

Most deontic theories conflate two different approaches:

—ethics

—deontics

The Mīmāṃsā approach is interesting exactly because it separates the two. In other words, suppose we say that a person O(p) because p is good or because it is God’s will etc. In this case, you are using your ethical (and metaphysical) assumptions to ground the validity of your deontic statements. By contrast, Mīmāṃsā authors analyse deontic statements on their own. Just like they analyse the epistemic validity of statements independently of the authority of their authors, so they analysed the deontic validity of statements independently of a further background.

This does not mean that it is ethically good to bring to poverty all human beings. In fact, if you do that, you are surely transgressing the prohibitions to harm human beings and will get negative consequences (=negative karman) out of it, but you do not need ethical presuppositions to make sense of the Mīmāṃsā theory.

For some news on my newly approved project on deontic logic in Mīmāṃsā, please read its website, here.

God and the reality of the world — UPDATED

Marginal notes about a workshop in Hawai’i, part 3

Do we need God to make sense of the world’s reality? Michael Dummett, who was surely not known for his religious fanatism came to this conclusion. God is, for this well-known philosopher, the objective perspective from which the world is intelligible as it is. In this sense, God could also be said to be needed in order to avoid the idea of a world as noúmenon, i.e., real but never grasped as it really is.

Against that, one might object that there is no intrinsic reason whence the world needs be intelligible. Yes, it would be hard to imagine that the world is unintelligible for us. But being “hard to believe” is not enough to rule out a view, unless you have a fundamental premiss saying that you prefer what looks reasonable (i.e. harmonises with your background belief). The “reasonability” premiss would rule out all gnostic or Matrix-like world-views, but there is no intrinsic reason to choose it over them.

In other words: Dummett’s thesis is based on the premiss that it is unintelligible to conceive the universe as never having been observed. Dummett sees this premiss as needed in order to safeguard subject-independent direct realism.

However, as it has been argued by Alex Watson, this premiss is not necessarily shared by Indian realists. Some of them, like most Mīmāṃsakas and the author(s) of the Vaiśeṣikasūtra, and even theists among them like Praśastapāda and Udayana do not mention God in relation to the thesis that all existents are knowable. So, even after God has been introduced into Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, He does not play the role of rescuer of the external world. In other words, in spite of claiming that the world is intelligible, Indian realists did not see this as committing them to idealism (the world is not just contained in God’s thoughts) and even less do they see God as the rescuer of the external world.

My contribution, by contrast, focussed on another problem connected with the idea of God as support for the world’s reality, namely the conception of God it requires.

NOTE: The post has been updated thanks to Alex Watson’s thoughtful comments. All shortcomings remain mine only.

The first two parts of my marginal notes on the workshop on Omniscience, Realism and God/no-God have been published here and here.

God and realism

Marginal notes on a workshop in Hawai'i, part 2

Can God as the perfect omniscient knower guarantee the possibility of a reality disidentified from all local perspectives and thus independent of them, though remaining inherently intelligible (by God Himself)? It depends on how one understands God.

As discussed already here, Indian authors can mean at least four different things when they speak about “God”, namely:

  1. —the devatās of mythology, like Indra and Zeus (during this workshop in Hawai’s, Andrew Nicholson has shown several examples of how philosophers make fun of this naive conception of Gods)
  2. —the īśvara of rational theology. He is usually omniscient and omnipotent and mostly also benevolent. In Indian thought, He can be proven to exist and to be such through rational arguments (e.g., through an inference from the fact that mountains, being an effect, need a creator, like pots).
  3. —the brahman of Advaita Vedānta is an impersonal Deity. In some forms of Vedānta it is interpreted pantheistically as tantamount to the universe.
  4. —the bhagavat kind of God is the one one is linked to through a personal relationship. His or Her devotees might consider Him omniscient or omnipotent, but in fact their reasons for loving Him of Her are different and regard their being in relation with Him or Her.

Which God can help guaranteeing the world’s reality? The devatā kind of Gods are clearly irrelevant for this purpose, since they are not even omniscient and surely do not represent an impartial perspective. The brahman kind of God is omniscient only in a sense akin to the Buddha’s being omniscient, namely insofar as it does not lack any relevant information, but it does not at all guarantee the reality of the world of direct realism. In fact, the world is for Advaita Vedāntins an illusion.

The īśvara kind of God seems the best candidate. But which kind of īśvara? Matthew Dasti‘s talk elaborated on the early history of īśvara in Nyāya, showing how the system’s basic premisses at least facilitated the elaboration of an īśvara concept. This evolution culminates in a full-fledged rational theology by Udayana. For Udayana, the īśvara he tries to prove rationally is not just any intelligent maker that can be inferred as the cause from the premise that the earth, mountains and plants sprouting from it are effects. That intelligent maker had to be:*

  • A super-soul with eternal knowledge of everything, and especially of the past and future good and bad actions of all human beings that ever lived.
  • One who has natural control or lordship over the material universe and other individual souls whose bodies he creates according to their beginninglessly earned merits and demerits.
  • One who joins the eternal atoms in the beginning of each cosmic cycle according to a remembered blue-print giving rise to the two-ness in a dyad by his primordial act of counting.
  • One who makes the otherwise unconscious “destiny” (unseen karmic traces, adṛṣṭa)) or law of moral retribution work.
  • One who acts directly through his eternal will and agency without the mediation of a body, although all the “intelligent makers” one has ever encountered produce effects with a body of their own.
  • One who composes the Vedas which tell human beings how to live a good life, through “do”s and “don’t”s, which would otherwise be devoid of the imperative force that they command.
  • One who establishes the conventional connection between primitive words and their meant entities.
  • One who, after creating the world, also sustains and in the fullness of time destroys it.
  • Showers grace on humans and other creatures so that each soul can eventually attain their summum bonum—final liberation from all ensnaring karma and suffering.
  • One who remains constantly and uniformly blissful through all these actions which do not touch his changeless essence and for which he has no “need”.

Such an īśvara has been discussed by Arindam Chakrabarti in his final talk on Vācaspati, insofar as He seems to be the only kind of God who can be said to be omniscient in the “hard” sense of possessing a complete knowledge of all states of affairs. However, He is vulnerable to objections to omniscience raised both in European and Indian philosophy. E.g.: How to delimit the range of “all” in “omniscience“? Can He really know also future events? If so, this seems to contradict our free will and even the possibility of non-necessary, contingent events. More in general, how can God know past and future events as such, though being Himself atemporal (this topic has been dealt with by Shinya Moriyama in his talk as well as in his 2014 book)? Not to speak of the pragmatic problems caused by omniscience, namely that it is altogether different from the way we usually experience knowledge to happen, i.e. in a processual way, and that one could never be sure that anyone (even God) is omniscient, since we are not omniscient and, therefore, could not test Him. Last, as outlined by Arindam (and by Patrick Grimm’s Cantorian argument against omniscience), God’s omniscience seems deemed to fail, since it cannot be proven to be logically conceivable.

The general problem appears to me to be that the īśvara is at the same time the knower of all and part of the system which He should know completely, so that He cannot escape the restrictions which apply to this world (in which knowledge is experienced to be processual, entities are not at the same time temporal and non-temporal, and one element cannot know the whole).

*The following points are all discussed by Udayana. For further details, see Chemparathy 1972. The present formulation of the list is largely indebted to Arindam Chakrabarti.

Shinya Moriyama also wrote a report about the same workshop, unfortunately (for me) in Japanese. Google translate was enough to understand that it is quite interesting and gives one a perceptive insight in the Philosophy Department in Hawai’i. You can read it here.

Omniscience and realism

Marginal notes about a workshop in Hawai'i

A non-intelligible entity cannot be conceived to exist. But, if the world needs to be known in order to exist, we need to postulate a non-partial perspective out of which it can be known. Since the perspectives of all human beings (as well as those of other animals, I would add) are necessarily partial and cannot be reconciled (how could one reconcile our perspective of the world with that of a bat?), this perspective needs to be God.

Reuse and Intertextuality in the Context of Buddhist Texts

The real TOC!

The latest issue of the Buddhist Studies Review (33.1—2, 2016) has been published online. The printed issue will follow soon.

The core of the issue is constituted by a collection of articles on the topic of “Reuse and Intertextuality in the Context of Buddhist Texts” and edited by Elisa Freschi together with Cathy Cantwell and Jowita Kramer. Please scroll down for the table of contents.

I would be happy to receive any feedback on the project of dealing with reuse and intertextuality within the specific subfield of Buddhist texts. The Introduction is available OA on Academia.edu.

P.S. the TOC below replaces the wrong one which was erroneously sent out on Monday the 23rd.

“But is Indian thought really philosophy?”

We can answer the question “What is it?” for a religion or worldview by proceeding either sociologically or doctrinally. […] In philosophy, for example, the question “But is it philosophy?” can be not so much a question about the boundaries of the discipline taken doctrinally as it is a rejection of any approach not already favored by the elite in power, In that case, the genus within which the question “But is it philosophy?” falls is not philosophy but rather politics, or maybe even just bullying. (Eleanore Stump 2013, pp. 46, 48).

What counts as philosophy?

On the normative disguised as descriptive (SECOND UPDATE)

As a scholar of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā I am well aware of how the normative is often disguised as descriptive. “It is seven o’ clock” says the mother, but what she means is rather “Get up! You have to go to school”.

Podcasts on Indian philosophy: An opportunity to rethink the paradigm?

Some readers have surely already noted this series of podcasts on Indian philosophy, by Peter Adamson (the historian of Islamic philosophy and Neoplatonism who hosts the series “History of philosophy without any gaps” —which I can not but highly praise and recommend, and which saved me from boredom while collating manuscripts) and Jonardon Ganeri.
The series has several interesting points, among which surely the fact of proposing a new historical paradigm (interested readers may know already the volume edited by Eli Franco on other attempts of periodization of Indian philosophy, see here for my review). They explicitly avoid applying periodizations inherited from European civilisations, and consequently do not speak of “Classical” or “Medieval” Indian philosophy. What do readers think of this idea? And of the podcast in general?

I have myself a few objections (which I signalled in the comment section of each podcast), but am overall very happy that someone is taking Indian philosophy seriously enough while at the same time making it also accessible to lay listeners. In this sense, I cannot but hope that Peter and Jonardon’s attempts are successful.

The series includes also interviews to scholars: Brian Black on the Upaniṣads, Rupert Gethin on Buddhism, Jessica Frazier on “Hinduism” (the quotation marks are mine only), myself on Mīmāṃsā. Further interviews are forthcoming. Criticisms and comments are welcome! (but please avoid commenting on my pronunciation mistakes.)