Basically, I would say no, since there are topics for which it is meaningful and rational to resort to arguments from authority. To name an example, if I want to know how you feel, the best thing to do is to ask you.
But even if you don’t agree, let me point to the distinction between
- the use of such arguments as a way to close a discussion (e.g., “It is the case that X, because an authoritative source said it”)
- the use of such arguments as part of a discussion or as opening a discussion (e.g., “An authoritative source tells us that X, how shall we understand it?”)
The topic is not explicitly discussed, as far as I know, in European or American epistemologists (who all seem to assume that it obviously is), whereas it is relevant in South Asian epistemology of language.
For Mīmāṣakas, a non-defeated belief counts as knowledge as long as the opposite is proven. This means that according to Mīmāṃsakas, for the Veda, the absence of defeating conditions is in itself equivalent to its truth.
This, however, does not amount to its truth from the point of view of a theory which considers only justified true belief as knowledge. Incidentally, the Mīmāṃsā’s refusal to distinguish between justified belief and knowledge offers a way out of a difficulty found in every account of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge, i.e. the problem of how we can understand false utterances (see Chakrabarti 1986, Matilal 1990:61-8, Mohanty 1992:253-5, Ganeri 1999:18-25). Roughly, the problem lies in how we can understand that there is a snake in the next room after hearing the sentence “there is a snake in the next room” although there is no snake in the next room. Linguistic communication is an instrument of knowledge, but the belief that there is a snake in the next room cannot amount to knowledge. How can this content be possibly conveyed? In order to justify that we understand false sentences, Indian theories of linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge would need a (preceding) status of non-committed awareness of the meaning, claim the authors listed above.
However, this is not needed in the case of Mīmāṃsā. Mīmāṃsakas would describe this situation by saying that our initial knowledge of the presence of a snake in the next room is later defeated as soon as we see that there is no snake there.
The trigger for a discussion about the distinction of body and self in Mīmāṃsā is not or not primarily the polemic with the Buddhists, but rather the need to justify the validity of ritual prescriptions. In particular, a sentence, the yajñāyudhivākya `sentence about the one who bears the weapons of sacrifice’ identifies the entity being endowed with the weapons which consist in the sacrifice itself with the one which will reach heaven.
The problem is that the entity which carries these weapons is the body — and the body will clearly not reach heaven, since it will be burnt.
Interestingly, bodily resurrection seems not to have ever been taken into account as an option, so that the resulting dualism is much more radical than in a Christian milieu: Mīmāṃsā authors plainly agree that the body will not go to heaven and that the sentence should rather be read as addressing in fact the real agent of the sacrifice, which is not the body, but the self.
This, however, has an important consequence, namely that the self is identified with the real agent beyond the body’s acts. This makes Mīmāṃsā authors start far away from the Upaniṣadic, Sāṅkhya and Vedāntic ideas of an underlying self which is untouched by change and action.
Thus, Sacred Texts like the above sentence suggest that there is a self. Mīmāṃsā authors point also to further evidences, first and foremost our I-cognitions, that is, the cognition we have of an “I” whenever we refer to ourselves. Objectors can easily contend that “I” is used in sentences which in fact refer to the body, such as “I am tall”, thus concluding that this evidence is valueless. Mīmāṃsā authors answer that metaphorical usages of “I” as referring to the body do not rule out that it usually refers to the subject. Again, this claim bases on the idea that the Mīmāṃsā subject is not a changeless and super-individual entity, but that it is a changing and dynamic person, which can be rightly described in I-sentences such as “I am bright” or perhaps even “I am a scholar of Greek philosophy”.
Studying philosophy through its history is one of the few elements of my intellectual biography I have been adding again and again to all versions of my cv (and I have written many!) and I really believe that philosophy needs to be linked to its history and that history of philosophy needs to engage philosophically with its contents. Now, the last claim is almost incontroversial, since all historians of philosophy agree that they need to be (at least: also) scholars of philosophy.
The first claim, instead, encounters frequent objections. The last time I read one such objections, it came from a younger colleagues suggesting that one should rather weight the independent strength of an argument. This is an admirable task to undertake, but I wonder how one will be able to appraise an argument unless one has been training herself in their history. I might be too pessimistic, but let me be skeptic about anyone’s autonomous philosophical capacities.
Ibn al-Nafīs might be right and an isolated child might be able to refine his faculties on a lonely island until he can rival with learned people. But can this happen also in our infotainment-polluted world? I doubt it. Without history, a self-proclaimed philosopher will just lack the depth to appreciate the degree of innovation of her ideas, possibly thinking she is a genius only to discover at the first journal rejection that several people before her have already discussed the same argument centuries back.
On Ibn al-Nafīs you might want to read Marco Lauri’s forthcoming article on Confluence and, meanwhile, this presentation.
In classical Indian philosophy, linguistics and philosophy of language are of central importance and inform further fields, such as epistemology and poetics. Thus, looking at the debates on linguistics and philosophy of language offers one a snapshot on the lively philosophical arena of classical India.
How can a PhD student be a reliable translator of a complex Sanskrit text? Or, even more difficult, how can she critically edit a text?
The discussion on the epistemological validity of sentences starts in Jaimini’s Pūrva Mīmāṃsā Sūtra (PMS) and in Śabara’s commentary thereon when the opponent notes that, even if —as established in PMS 1.1.5— there were really an originary connection between words and meanings, this would still not mean that the authorless Vedas are a reliable instrument of knowledge, since they are made of sentences, not just of words. And clusters of words are either made by human authors or are just causally put together by chance and are thus meaningless.
Are words an instrument of knowledge? And, if so, what sort of? Are they an instance of inference insofar as one infers the meaning on the basis of the words used? Or are they are an independent instrument of knowledge, since the connection between words and meanings is not of inferential nature?