The challenge of postcolonial philosophy in India

Too alien for contemporary philosophers, too modern for Sanskritists?

A conference on the topic announced in the title will take place in Vienna, 28–29.9.2017. The purpose of the conference is to break the boundaries between “classical” and “contemporary” Indian philosophy and between “Indian” and “philosophy”, so as to make it possible for Indian philosophy and philosophers to become part of the ongoing discussion on topics such as ethics, logics and epistemology. You can announce your participation to elisa dot freschi at oeaw dot ac dot at

The full program is available here.

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?

Why is postcolonial Indian philosophy understudied?

Some questions to ponder

As some readers will know already, a workshop on postcolonial Indian philosophy will take place in Vienna at the end of September. It will be closed by a round table and I started thinking about the questions I would like to discuss. Suggestions by the readers are welcome.:

  1. Is Raghuramaraju right in saying that Indian philosophers focus too much on their ancestors (classical period) and too little on their predecessors (18th–20th c.)?
  2. What could be concretely done to let more people engage in postcolonial Indian philosophy?
  3. Is this goal part of the general enterprise of creating more centres for the study of global philosophy or are there specific peculiarities conencted to postcolonial Indian philosophy only?
  4. What are the concrete advantages of engaging with modern and contemporary Indian philosophy for philosophers? And for Sanskritists?

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!

The Deontic Nature of Language

According to the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā approach to language, the sentence meaning is “something to be done” (kārya). In other words, unlike for Nyāya authors, sentences do not convey the existence of something, but rather that something should be done. Sentences which look as if they were conveying a descriptive statements should be interpreted as supplementing a (at times implicit) prescriptive one. For instance “It is hot here” is a supplement of “Please, open the window” and “Vāyu is the swiftest deity” is a supplement of “One should sacrifice to Vāyu”.

Jaimini and Bādarāyaṇa

PMS 1.1.5 strangely inserts the word bādarāyaṇasya ‘according to Bādarāyaṇa’ in its wording. Does it mean that this key sūtra of the school is only the opinion of Bādarāyaṇa? The context makes it clear that it is not a prima facie view and in the commentary on PMS 1.1.5, Veṅkaṭanātha uses the mention of Bādarāyaṇa to substantiate his idea of a unitary system of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta. He explains that Jaimini mentions Bādarāyaṇa in order to show that this view is traditional (sāmpradāyikatā) and accepted by his own teacher.
That Bādarāyaṇa was the teacher of Jaimini is proven by means of some Mahābhārata quotes, which should prove their connection, and also the identity of Bādarāyaṇa and Vyāsa.

Student’s query on PhD programs

A student contacted me with the following query:

I recently finished an MA in philosophy at the University of New mexico, USA. […] I’m writing you because it has been difficult to find a place where I can pursue the project I’m most interested in. I would like to develop scientific and philosophical methods for evaluating the experiential claims made in the meditative traditions of India, and apply whatever data emerges to philosophy of mind/consciousness studies. Do you have any suggestions about where such a project might be done?

When I asked for further details, he added:

I studied Vedānta, Mīmāṃsā, and the Indian debates about consciousness and self, with John Taber, and I studied Nāgārjuna with Richard Hayes. My MA research was on representationalist theories of consciousness and how they do not seem to be able to account for purportedly contentless experiences such asamprajñāta samādhi. I have already started on several facets of the project I suggested in my first message. For instance, I have a paper briefly sketching the project coming out in the Fall APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian American Philosophy, a co-authored paper in the revise and resubmit phase with the Journal of Consciousness Studies, using phenomenological reports of specific meditative experiences to illuminate a poorly understood aspect of Kurt Gödel’s proof of his Incompleteness Theorem(s), a co-authored paper in development on third-person scientific approaches to meditation research for The Oxford Handbook on Meditation, and a co-edited book on objectless experience under contract with the publisher Imprint Academic.

Financial support would be a must, although moving to some areas would be easier than others.

Do readers have useful suggestions? As I see it, the student would need both financial and research support (it would not make much sense to work on his own on such a challenging project).

Again on omniscience: Why talking about it, God’s omniscience and some reasons to refute it

Why is the topic of omniscience relevant in Indian philosophy? Because of at least two concurring reasons. On the one hand, for schools like Buddhism and Jainism, it is a question of religious authority. Ascribing omniscience to the founders of the school was a way to ground the validity of their teachings. Slightly similar is the situation of theistic schools ascribing omniscience to God, as a way to ground His ability to organise the world in the best possible way. On the other hand, for other schools the idea of omniscience was initially connected with the result of yogic or other ascetic practices. In this sense, omniscience was conceptually not different from aṇimā `the faculty to become as small as an atom’ and other special powers.

How does language work?

Meanings of Words and Sentences in Mīmāṃsā

Mīmāṃsakas subscribe to the idea that words convey word-meanings, and thus refute the Bhartṛharian holism. The relation between a word as meaningful unit and its meaning is fixed, as it is proved by our common experience of words, and it cannot be denied in favour of a view focusing on the text as a whole and rejecting without compelling reasons our prima facie experience of words as meaningful units.

Given that one can thus establish that words are meaningful, what exactly do they convey?

First thoughts on omniscience in Indian thought

“Omniscience” (sārvajñya) assumes many different meanings in the various Indian philosophies. The understanding possibly most common in European and Anglo-American thought, which sees omniscience as including the knowledge of any possible thing in the past, present and future, is neither the only, nor the most common interpretation of omniscience.