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Hindu Syllogisms and Dark Necessities Go Fusion

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Anand Jayprakash Vaidya was born in Chicago. However, he spent most of his youth in Saudi Arabia. During his stay there he spent a lot of time in Germany and India. Shortly after the 1st Gulf War in 1991, he moved to California.  His early interests were in Indian Philosophy, Spinoza, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, and The Philosophy of Law. However, it was his interest in Logic that led him to switch schools. He developed an interest in the Philosophy of Economics and the History of Philosophy and wrote his dissertation on the Epistemology of Modality (how we know what is possible and necessary, as opposed to what is merely actual). His focus was on the use of two-dimensional modal semantics as a foundation for articulating a relation between conceivability and possibility.

The interview is in two parts. Firstly he discusses the western bias in critical thinking and logic, how the Hindu syllogism helps us see this,  Gautama Akṣapāda and the  Nyāya School of classical Indian philosophy, whether comparative philosophy without borders is the next step for philosophy, why philosophy should not be allowed to persist on the basis of known epistemic injustices, on Indian philosophy’s contribution to the issue of whether we literally see absences,  B. K. Matilal on the Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation, the Mīmāṃsā tradition, the debate between John McDowell and Tyler Burge on perception, metaphysical disjunctivism, fusion philosophy,  J. N. Mohanty, public philosophy, experimental philosophy and  bringing analytic, comparative and experimental philosophy together.

Then we turn to modality. Here he discusses the epistemology of modality, disagreements with the monumental trio of Chalmers, Williamson and Yablo, his own approach, the importance of Bob Hale, whether a picture based on essentialist knowledge can really deliver an account of objective moderate realist modal knowledge and the role of mental operations in social justice. Take your time here…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya: I can think of three distinct forces that led me down the path of philosophy.

First, there is my personal family history. I come from an Indian family with philosophers and social activists on one side and Ayurvedic doctors on the other. My Dad’s oldest brother founded an Ashram in Gujarat dedicated to building schools, supporting famine relief efforts; and my mother’s family founded one of the largest ayurvedic pharmaceutical companies in India. Mahatma Gandhi was from the small village my father’s family is from and Gandhian politics run strong in my family. My parents came to America in the late 1960s, and I was born in Chicago. My father and brother are engineers (like many immigrants from India), but I consciously wanted to take a different path.

Second, I was a bored and unenthusiastic student in school (aside from chemistry, which I liked). I was also dyslexic and my grammar was horrible. I am still self-conscious about it. My mother was a gifted writer who helped me learn to write. Suffice it to say that I was just not good in school: either in math, writing, or science. I spent most of my time playing heavy metal guitar, riding my motorcycle, and playing soccer and football.

Third, I am naturally curious and argumentative. My parents thought I would be a good lawyer, because I never gave up asking questions. I remember being very young and looking up philosophy in the Encyclopedia Britannica trying to figure out what it was. I also ran across Pierce’s law, when I was looking up philosophy, and was transfixed by it. When I was in the 10th grade, without even knowing who they really were, I bought Marx’s Das Capital and Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. I read them. I didn’t understand much, but I wanted to. I would have to say that like other philosophers I was someone who had a disposition for philosophy but didn’t know that my disposition was for something called “philosophy.”   

The turning point for me came when I took philosophy courses at Humboldt State University, in northern California, my freshman and sophomore years of college. At the time I was angling to be a chemistry and oceanography major.  After studying Aristotle, the Medieval debates on faith and rationality as well as Descartes and Spinoza and Logic I knew I had found something I was interested in. Mary Bockover was an influence on me when I first started out. During this period, I pretty much turned from a person not interested in school who never read anything to someone who could not be bothered to do anything else other than read philosophy. The summer of my freshman year I remember telling two of my close friends that my dream was to be a philosophy professor and live in San Francisco. Because of my interest in Logic, I decided to leave Humboldt State. In 1996 I transferred to University of California, Los Angeles and began the serious study of the history of Western philosophy, Logic, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Language, Kant and Wittgenstein. I was lucky to have amazing teachers, such as Calvin Normore, John Carriero, David Kaplan, Tyler Burge, Tony Martin, Andrew Hsu, Joseph Almog, and Kit Fine.

However, at this time, and for the first time I experienced the way in which philosophy departments can give you an excellent education, but also push you away from certain topics of study. I went to UCLA knowing I wanted to study logic. But I also knew I was interested in Indian philosophy and phenomenology. I was quickly pushed away from those topics.

I recall being invited in my junior year to give an undergraduate talk to the philosophy club. I was eager and adventurous. So, I decided to compare what little I knew of Descartes’ cogito with an idea I was familiar with from Indian philosophy, that I think at that time I got from Śaṅkara. My comparison was focusing on the fact that Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am,” while Śaṅkara  says, “Sat (truth), Cit (awareness), Ananda (bliss).” I was trying to argue that Descartes was making an inference from a cognitive act to an existential fact (non-Sartrean), while Śaṅkara was expressing the relation between finding a certain kind of existential truth about what the self is, becoming aware of this truth as a knower, and subsequently being led to a state of bliss by the awareness of truth. Descartes seemed to have no affective component in the discovery of what the self is, the referent of ‘I’, while in this classical Indian philosophical relation the point seemed to be that one could not realize the truth without being brought to bliss because of what the truth was about, the fundamental nature of the self in relation to reality.

After my brief, and perhaps naïve presentation, I learned that talking the way I did was not appropriate nor the kind of philosophy that was done at UCLA. My initial reaction was confusion, because I thought that one of the great things about philosophy was you could talk about anything. But I didn’t dwell on this correction because at the time I had been taking a class with Tony Martin on the metaphysics of modality, which strongly held my attention. I loved philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, Wittgenstein and Kant as well. So, there was so much to be happy about, complaining was not on my mind. All I ever did during this time was read and take walks. In addition, a friend had given me a copy of Stephen Yablo’s 1993 classic “Is Conceivability a Guide to Possibility?” and later Dave Chalmers’ 1996 classic The Conscious Mind. Collectively, these two pieces set my mind down a path. I was locked into wanting to think about how we know what is possible and necessary. The actual seemed so easy, the possible so difficult.

When I graduated in 1998, I took a half year off to go to India. I had not been to India since the late 80s. So, this was my first adult experience being back. At first I stayed with my grandmother in Mumbai. While reading Ved Metha’s Portraits of India in her living room, she asked, “Why are you reading about India? Why not go out and walk around?”

I went on to study tabla (Indian drums) in Gujrat at my father’s home. While I was there I discussed various ancient thinkers with my uncle, who ran an ashram in Rajkot, and trained as a Sanskrit scholar in Benares. However, I made no plans to pursue Indian philosophy at this stage. I saw Indian philosophy as a conversational partner I wanted to engage with on the distant horizon. It was not pressing on my mind. Rather, I was excited to start graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I could continue training as an analytic philosopher.  I was very lucky at this institution. My teachers were amazing, and I learned more than I thought I would. I got a solid well-rounded education in core areas of analytic philosophy and the history of western philosophy. I had the honor of studying with Nathan Salmon, Anthony Brueckner, Kevin Falvey, Voula Tsouna, Aaron Zimmerman, Anthony Anderson, and Hubert Schwyzer. I was unlike many students that go to graduate school who float around thinking about what they want to write a dissertation on. I left UCLA knowing I would write on the epistemology of modality. Aside from a short period where I was disillusioned with professional philosophy and took some time off to play bass in a band with some friends from LA, as well as consider the more practical law school option, I completed graduate school rather quickly, within 5 years.

During my time in Santa Barbara, intellectually I moved away from logic and philosophy of language and towards epistemology and philosophy of mind. It wasn’t that I was not interested in those fields any more, it was more that I felt the need to grow and learn more. In addition, the epistemology of modality was largely being explored in the context of the philosophy of mind due to David Chalmers’s work, so I thought that in order to really understand the topic I should also study the philosophy of mind proper. Towards the end of my stay I also started thinking more about the job market, and so I developed an interest in topics that might be of interest to a wider audience. The main additions I made at this time were the philosophy of economics and business ethics, especially the capabilities approach to justice and the debate over corporate social responsibility, which to this day I remain interested in.  I also started working with Fritz Allhoff on editing anthologies in Business Ethics, Professional Ethics, and the History of Philosophy.

I took two cracks at the job market. The first year out I got an offer to take a job in the United Arab Emirates. I had grown up in Saudi Arabia for 11 years, and so I seriously considered going back to the desert. I decided to pass, because I had lived through the first Gulf War in the Middle East and didn’t want to experience that again. The second year out I scored a job offer from my current institution, San Jose State University. And there was no hesitation. The dream of the 19-year-old was within grasp. So, I became a philosopher. I love my institution and the people, faculty, staff, and students I get to work with.

I have grown so much from the influence of my institution. I was introduced to Phenomenology, Philosophy of Science, Feminist Philosophy, Mexican Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Aesthetics, Business Ethics, Care Ethics, and Buddhist Ethics. And I think the second act of my education has come from my colleagues, the Late Rick Tieszen, Peter Hadreas, Tommy Lott, Rita Manning, Janet Stemwedel, Bill Shaw, Tom Leddy, Noam Cook, Carlos Sanchez, Karin Brown, Janet Giddings, and Jim Lindahl. I am now a full professor and run the Center for Comparative Philosophy and live in San Francisco. I consider myself very lucky. I get to spend time writing, teaching, and reading philosophy with great people. I still play heavy metal guitar. I also practice yoga, enjoy live music, and go on long walks with my wife, Manjula.

I am now, and have been for some time, on the third act of my philosophical education, which has grown out of the second act. I am and have been learning from both experimental philosophers and comparative philosophers. I have been profoundly influenced in recent times by experimental philosophers such as Edouard Machery, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Ron Mallon, and Stephen Stich. Reading their work really pushed me to go beyond pure analytic philosophy. In addition, I have been influenced by Purushottama Bilimoria, Jay Garfield, Christian Coseru, Jaysankar Shaw, Arindam Chakrabarti, Jonardon Ganeri, Monima Chadha, and Evan Thompson with respect to classical Indian philosophy and cognitive science.

In general, I think of philosophy as a collective effort. And when we fall into the trap of thinking that we have individually succeeded, I remind myself and others that any success one might gain is a function of being part of a larger community of philosophers. The idea that there are purely original ideas in philosophy coming solely from an individual philosopher in a vacuum is a myth we need to dispel in training young philosophers. We need to go in for the collective effort that produces comprehensive philosophical understanding.

 3:AM: The question of whether critical thinking and logic education have a western bias is one that you’ve raised. You say it does and you take a look at the so-called Hindu Syllogism to show what is missing. Can you sketch for us your thinking here and what in particular that example illustrates?

AJV: The target of my inquiry is what, for lack of a better term, we could call the standard model of critical thinking and logic education that is pursued in both the US and the UK as well as those countries that follow their model. And I am talking primarily about those courses taught at universities through philosophy, as opposed to English or rhetoric or history. One way to see what I am pointing at is to simply open up a book, such as Hurley’s Concise Introduction to Logic or Vaughn’s The Power of Critical Thinking, two books that are commonly used in the US and the UK. You won’t find any discussion of any ideas concerning critical thinking or logic from anywhere around the world except from the standard western suspects, Aristotle, Boole, Frege, Russell, and Kripke. So, there are two questions. First: are there contributions from non-Western philosophers? Second: are those contributions worth teaching to undergraduates at the introductory level of logic and critical thinking?

Indian Logic

In a series of papers, I am writing, about one every two years, I search for contributions from different traditions and argue that they are contributions to critical thinking education and should be taught at the introductory level. So far, I think I have good arguments for including contributions from Hindu philosophy, Jain philosophy, and Buddhist philosophy. But I am confident that there are many contributions that we are ignoring. For example, I am fascinated by the idea that we can derive some contributions to critical thinking concerning justice from Maori philosophy. In general, the consequences of colonialism on the rhetoric of rationality are quite scary. One need not look that hard to find quotes such as the following, which can be found in Jonardon Ganeri’s (2001) Indian Logic: A Reader.

  1. Blakely (1851)

‘I have a great doubt of [Indian Logical] views becoming of any value whatever in the cause of general knowledge or science, or of ever having any fair claim to be admitted as an integral part of the Catholic philosophy of mankind. It is absurd to conceive that a logic can be of any value from a people who have not a single sound philosophical principle, nor any intellectual power whatever to work out a problem connected with human nature in a manner that is at all rational or intelligent. Reasoning at least in the higher forms of it among such semi-barbarous nations, must be at its lowest ebb; [and there] does [not] seem to be any intellectual stamina, in such races of men, to impart to it more vigour and rationality.’

(as quoted in, brackets added, Ganeri 2001: 7)

Without getting into all the details of my paper on the Hindu syllogism, I can offer a pathway to seeing why teaching it is useful. I will argue here by analogy. Most introductory texts have a section on Aristotle’s square of opposition. And usually there is a section that discusses both the Aristotelian interpretation as well as the Boolean interpretation. On the former’s view, we have existential import. Universal statements, such as ‘all cows are mammals’ entails ‘something is a cow and a mammal’. On the latter’s view, existential import fails. It is true that ‘all unicorns are single horned creatures’ but false that ‘something is both a unicorn and a single horned creature’. Boole helps us see why existential import fails in certain cases. Yet, importantly, we still teach both. Why? Because it is useful when learning critical thinking and logic to meta-critically think about the principles you are being taught and to question them rather than take them as established fact. Logic is something we argue about, not something we accept and follow without critical thought. Timothy Williamson has a great short piece in The Stone column of the New York Times called ‘Logic and Neutrality’. In this piece he elegantly lays out how and why we need to think meta-critically about logic. In the case at hand, we don’t need to decide whether Aristotle or Boole is correct, we just need to show that there are two interpretations of the square of opposition and there is a way of seeing how each interpretation holds. In more advanced classes students can debate which system they think is correct. But there is no reason why we should not introduce them to meta-critical inquiry about logic right from the start. It is critical thinking after all!

The Hindu syllogism presents an account of the proper form for presenting a good argument. This account is different from what we find in Aristotle. Granted there are similarities, but there are also differences. I should point out that I am not the authority on this. There are many Indian philosophers from the 19th and 20th century that have explored the relation between Aristotle’s system and the Nyāya account of good inference. One should consult B. K. Matilal, J. N. Mohanty, Jonardon Ganeri, Arindam Chakrabarti, Stephen Phillips, Mark Siderits, and Brendan Gillion. The account I am offering derives from work I have done with Jaysankar Shaw. Here is a rough differentiation / characterization of an aspect of the two systems. I am going for a high-level presentation here, not a close examination. No characterization of either system can be completely accurate at the level I am discussing it here. Rather, this is an invitation for others to dig deeper and see what they find. For even in classical Indian philosophy we find debate, for example between various Buddhist thinkers and Nyāya thinkers, over debate and the form of a good argument.

Most of us trained in Western philosophy will be familiar with the following example from introductory courses on logic and critical thinking, which almost all of us had to take.


Major Premise:            All men are mortal.

Minor Premise:            Socrates is a man.

Conclusion:                 Socrates is a mortal.

What we will likely not have seen in the very class that gave us the former, is the latter example from Gautama Akṣapāda, the founding figure of the Nyāya School of classical Indian philosophy.


Thesis:                         The hill has fire.

Reason / Mark:            Because of smoke.

Rule / Examples:         Wherever there is smoke, there is fire, as in a kitchen.

Application:                This is such a case, i.e., the hill has smoke pervaded by fire.

Conclusion:                 Therefore, it is so, i.e., the hill has fire.

With this contrast in play, we can find scholars, such as Ritter, that say the following about the Hindu Syllogism.

  1. H. Ritter (1838)

‘One point alone appears certain, and that is, that they [the Nyāya] can lay but slight claims to accuracy of exposition. This is proved clearly enough by the form of their syllogism, which is made to consist of five instead of three parts. Two of these are manifestly superfluous, while by the introduction of an example in the third the universality of the conclusion is vitiated.’ (as quoted in Ganeri 2001: 9)

In this short passage, we find all the ammunition needed to support the argument that although the Nyāya school had something to offer critical thinking and logic education, what they came up with was incorrect, bad, confusing, and not useful to teach. Ritter is basically saying that the set-up is redundant, superfluous, and confuses deduction and induction. But Ritter’s remarks are based on forgetting to takeoff his sunglasses when the lights are off. If one has Aristotle’s syllogism above in mind, as well as Mill on induction, one will very quickly come to the conclusion that the Nyāya articulation of the Hindu syllogism, deriving from Akṣapāsda Gautama, the author of the Nyāya-Sutras, is useless –because it fails to hit the target: Aristotle’s account. However, if one changes sunglasses to x-ray vision goggles when they enter the dark, they will see something powerful and interesting.

First, there is an interesting distinction between inference for oneself vs. inference for another that is at play in the Nyāya account. The reason Ritter is angry about the five steps is that he doesn’t realize that the pattern presented is for the case of inference for another, as opposed to an inference for oneself, which might look more like Aristotle’s syllogism. In addition, Ritter thinks the set-up is redundant because the thesis and conclusion are the same. But that appears to be the case because he is again thinking about things through Aristotle’s sunglasses. But one of the important components of the Nyāya theory of inference is that it is a causal theory of inferential cognition. It is trying to give an account of what causes correct cognition through inference. So, the final step and the last step are not redundant, since there are different causal antecedents. In the thesis something is in doubt: is the hill on fire? I see smoke. In the conclusion, there is no doubt. The steps in between remove the doubt –causally. What is written in the conclusion and the thesis are the same, but the causal properties surrounding them are not. Basically, Ritter is not recognizing that one and the same phrase can mean two different things when embedded in two distinct contexts. Finally, Ritter is worried that the set-up confuses deduction with induction. Seeing fire and smoke related to each other once in your kitchen is not sufficient to support the claim that wherever there is fire there is smoke.

So, why is that step there? Granted, it is confusing if you think that what is at play is inductive support for a universal premise in the middle of a deductive argument. But I don’t think that is what is going on. I think that what is going on is that the example is used because we have a case of inference for another. In this set up the person should be engaged in removing doubt from another by causing them through a series of steps to get to a doubt-free state of mind concerning fire on the hill. The example of co-observing smoke and fire in a kitchen is used to get the other person to think about a prior pattern that they have seen. Note, if the other person does not have a kitchen or has never seen such a pattern, then the example is useless on the account I am offering. The example is used so as to get the other person to think about a prior observed instance of fire followed by smoke. That is, in short, the example plays more of a communicative role than an inductive support role. For I agree with Ritter, were it to be playing an inductive support role, we ought to say, well one instance of fire followed by smoke is insufficient to support the claim that wherever there is fire there is smoke. And classical Indian philosophers knew this. They often discussed the case of a hot metal ball submerged in water where it is glowing from the heat. In that case, the ball is on fire, but there is no smoke, so it is false that wherever there is fire there is smoke.

Moreover, I find Ritter style arguments against the Hindu-Syllogism wanting. And I see the attempt to push the Hindu-Syllogism out of the curriculum of critical thinking, based on Ritter’s observations, antithetical to critical thinking itself. Even if the Hindu syllogism is not the best way to reason, it deserves an equal billing to that of Aristotle’s in an introductory text book. It could be taught alongside Aristotle’s syllogism in much the same way we teach Boole’s interpretation of the square of opposition alongside Aristotle’s interpretation with full knowledge that Boole is most likely correct.

In addition, some worry that classical Indian discussions of argument, by focusing on a causal theory of inference, are doomed to fall victim to some kind of normative fallacy deriving from Frege’s work on logic, perhaps in the same way he is said to have critiqued Husserl’s ideas on logic. The line of attack is something like the following. Logic is normative, and since classical Indian philosophers are talking about a causal theory of inference, what they are doing is irrelevant and confused. I find this version of the objection stillborn. While I agree that logic is a normative enterprise in the sense that we cannot derive how we ought to reason from a statistical study of how we do reason, it doesn’t follow from that that examining causation in the mind with respect to transitions between different mental states with differing content is not central to providing an important account of reasoning that has normative bearing. The idea that one cannot give a causal theory that is also normative seems to be the missing step in applying the critique.

Finally, and to reiterate, there is no good reason why the philosophy of logic and critical thinking shouldn’t be a cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary exercise. Should we continue to teach our students that critical thinking is valuable, while sending them the implicit message that it is solely a product of western thinking?

Comparative Philosophy without Borders

3:AM: Is this part of what you see as ‘the next step’ for philosophy, one that will mean all philosophy will get used to taking good ideas from wherever they can be found rather than tying them to a powerful but restricted range of traditions?

AJV: Arindam Chakrabarti and Ralph Weber have edited an anthology called Comparative Philosophy Without Borders. Ultimately, what they are arguing for is the idea that philosophy needs to go beyond the borders that have historically been imposed through the epistemic injustices, such as colonialism. And ‘yes’ I endorse this view of where philosophy ought to go. I also believe that this message can be found in Jonardon Ganeri’s defense of why philosophy should go global. I am just one philosopher in a sea of philosophers making the case for why philosophy needs to be open to wider engagement with thinkers from a variety of traditions. Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield have defended a version of where things need to go, and it should be engaged with. Perhaps the main thrust that pushed me in this direction is the work of Purushottama Bilimoria, an editor and chief of the journal Sophia, and Jaysankar Shaw who has worked on comparative philosophy in New Zealand for some 30 years.

Should philosophy be allowed to persist on the basis of known epistemic injustices? I think not, there is room for correction, which will lead to better philosophy. We know what the consequences of colonialism are, on a variety of traditions. In the main, and at times, not all times, it has shielded Western philosophy from having to engage with the ideas that come from non-Western traditions. It is long overdue that we move toward wider engagement. And there are lots of excellent works in the 20th century from writers who are more or less, for the lack of a better word, bilingual or trilingual philosophers.

It makes no sense for philosophy to continue to be monolingual. One step toward ending monolingualism in philosophy is that we go global and teach traditions outside of the West. And we should note the fact that outside of the West philosophy is minimally bilingual. Some of the great thinkers of 20th century Indian philosophy were well versed in both Western and Indian philosophy. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second president of India, is only one example; he held the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. The educational aim we need in philosophy departments in the West is one that fosters a culture of going beyond monolingualism. Philosophy departments need to be trilingual across their faculty, even if some members are only monolingual. There is no reason why some individuals should be more or less monolingual, as long as departments are trilingual. On this model students have the opportunity to get wide exposure to what is out there in philosophy and to speak to a global audience. San Jose State is a shining example of where many departments need to go in terms of diversifying their faculty in a meaningful way.

Let me also separate out two different threads of thought, so as to clarify things. There is a political point and a philosophical point. The political point is that we need to recognize that the history of philosophy is embedded in a situation where epistemic injustices were, and are, present. But when we recognize those injustices we don’t automatically, on my view, say all the ideas are good and worth pursuing. Rather, we need to recognize that moving forward on the basis of not giving others a chance in the philosophical game is the error, but once everyone is in the game, we simply just do philosophy and see what ideas win the day in terms of being pursued. There is a lot of bad analytic philosophy. And I think everyone who is serious about the discipline would agree with me on that. Furthermore, when I look at some of the papers written by 20th century Indian philosophers I really wonder why I was not introduced to this material in my analytical philosophy education. My point is that we need to think about the conditions under which we ratify the direction we as philosophers collectively want to go, if there is such a joint body of individuals doing philosophy. And we cannot ratify this direction if the conditions under which we generate this ratification are exclusionary in a problematic sense. It seems clear that this is so. We have excluded perfectly legitimate work from the conversation and included a bunch of garbage for no good reason.

What we should be aiming for is a certain kind of conversation that yields a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon for all the participants. As a consequence of the setup of the conversation, those interested only in the truth on a matter can derive their view from the fact that the conversation has certain features in place which allow for a good view about what to believe to be brought about. We can distinguish between the kind of understanding we are seeking and the fact that deriving the truth about a matter will be a by-product of the process.

3:AM: You’ve looked at how going to Indian philosophical sources can help tackle the question as to whether we literally see absences. Can you say what you identify as enhancing philosophical enquiry into this question by bringing in Indian philosophy?

AJV: As a philosopher that works on perception I was so pleased to see that analytic philosophers had turned to the question of whether or not we literally see absences. I am very impressed with the debate between Anya Farennikova, Jerome Dokic, and Jean-Remy Martin over whether we see absences or we simply experience an absence of seeing. There are two ways in which I believe that turning to Indian philosophy can enhance the debate. In my paper on absence, with Purushottama Bilimoria and Jaysankar Shaw, I go into a lot of detail that I will have to leave out here, but I can make some brief observations here.

First, building off what I just said, the conversation just seems better when we round out the discussion by paying attention to other traditions. So, on the one hand, what I am simply saying is that inclusive conversations are more inviting to a wider audience and better for seeking the truth. But then someone might push back and say, “all I am interested in is whether we see absences, and not about how to have an inclusive conversation.” I disagree with this picture, since I think as philosophers we ought to be aiming toward a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon, as opposed to mere truth. But I digress from the point of the objection. So, let me move on to address the critics worry: what does the tradition have to offer?

Image result for B. K. Matilal

[B.K. Matilal]

One of the most important Indian philosophers of the 20th century was B. K. Matilal. He wrote his dissertation at Harvard with Quine. It was on the Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation, and it includes a rich discussion of absence. One thing we learn from his work, that just pushes us back to classical Indian philosophy, is that many schools of Indian philosophy debated the issue of whether our ontology contains, not only presences, but absences. More recently, Arindam Chakrabarti, Purushottama Bilimoria, Birgit Kellner, Nirmalya Guha have written excellent papers on negation and absence across a variety of Indian traditions. One lesson I take from looking at classical Indian philosophical discussions of the perception of absence is that discussion of the perception of absence comes along with discussion of the ontology of absence. Some schools hold that the world contains absences in addition to presences. And discussions of the perception of absence are linked to ontological views. This is absent in contemporary analytic discussions.

Now this might be a reason for some to say, “well I don’t think the classical Indian schools have anything interesting to offer.” And their reasoning might be tied to the view that the world does not contain any absences. A standard line of thinking is that we perceive presence, and we infer absence from the perception of presence. On this inferential view, I don’t literally see that my computer is absent from the table when I return from the bathroom. Rather, I just see a table and infer, quickly, that it is absent. So, I grant that what Indian philosophy has to offer might be tied in this case to what ontological views one is open to.

More importantly, though, we have an opportunity here. It seems as if the debate in analytic philosophy on the perception of absence is just starting, at least in the recent literature. Why not take a look at the rich, long, and extensive debate over the perception of absence in Indian philosophy as a way of just getting up to speed on the issues? Don’t we already do that when we study other topics in Western philosophy. If I am writing on ethics, I would and should consult the history of ethics when developing my view. Similarily, it seems that we have a rich history of the discussion of absence that can help inform the current debate. And believe me, regardless of whether the views are the best on offer, those that like to think about alternative philosophical moves one can make in a debate will have plenty to be impressed with.

My own interest come from thinking about the Mīmāṃsā tradition. There are two schools: the Bhaṭṭa-Mīmāṃsā and the Prābhākara-Mīmāṃsā. The Nyāya (both old and new) engages in a debate with the Bhaṭṭa-Mīmāṃsā over whether knowledge of absence derives from perception (pratyakṣa) or non-apprehension (anupalabadhi), where non-apprehension is not the same as inference (anumana). Thus, when we look at the logical space of options in the current western debate we see that we have two options: perception and inference. On the perceptual view, we literally see absences. On the inferential view, we infer absences from the perception of something else that is present, as opposed to literally seeing them. However, in the classical Indian context, one of the schools, Bhaṭṭa-Mīmāṃsā, offers an alternative option, non-apprehension (anupalabadhi). Now it is hard to figure out exactly what kind of mental state non-apprehension (anupalabadhi) is, and whether or not there is anything that satisfies cognitively and neurologically the description of non-apprehension. But, there could be something there.

Attention, Not Self

In exploring this question: what could it be that they are getting at? I am inspired by the style of research that one finds in Evan Thompson’s work on whether we remain conscious in deep sleep. In this work he investigates a classical Indian debate over the presence of consciousness in deep sleep through cognitive science. Jonardon Ganeri also engages in a similar style I find helpful in his Attention, Not Self (OUP 2017). In this work he argues that we can locate within vision science correlates for Buddhaghosa’s theory of perception in relation to working memory and stages of vision from early to late. Likewise, I think we might find something that is an alternative to the two options at play in the current debate over seeing absence. In general, I think we should go cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary in order to break the cognitive frame from which we were trained to explore a problem, even if we only end up returning to the original path with renewed confidence. I went to India in 2018 to speak to some very respected Mīmāṃsā scholars who debated in Sanskrit aspects of Mīmāṃsā theory of knowledge (pramāṇa). My hope is that by talking to these learned scholars who train in Sanskrit for most of their lives from a very young age, I might figure out more about the nature of non-apprehension (anupalabadhi).

Finally, within classical Indian philosophy we will find resistance to two ideas. First, that the debate over whether we see absences needs to be carried out in a representationalist paradigm. Second, that the only alternative theory to the perceptual theory of absence is the inferential theory. And positively, one will find rich versions of both the perceptual and inferential theories currently under discussion. Buddhist’s vehemently argued against the view that we perceive absences and against the view that non-apprehension was even a mental state. So, if skepticism against the ontology of absence and the perceptual and non-apprehension views is what one prefers, there is a lot to be found in classical Indian philosophy. But the reason I find turning to Indian philosophy interesting derives not just from the move space, but from the more inclusive conversation that one can generate.

3:AM: Sticking with the philosophy of perception you draw out the question of whether Nyāya perceptual theory embraces disjunctivism or anti-individualism. So first, can you unpack the issue and what these alternatives are?

AJV: At least since the time of my dissertation, 2005, I have been following and working on the debate between John McDowell and Tyler Burge on perception. As I see it the debate can be seen to minimally be a disagreement over how to think about the relation between a veridical, good case, and a non-veridical, bad case, of perception. So, assume we have two cases, one in which you have a veridical perception of a snake before you, and another where you have a non-veridical perception of a rope presented-as a snake. Let us hold constant the viewing distance and ambient viewing conditions in both the good case and the bad case and let us assume that there is no discernible phenomenological difference for you.

Perceptual anti-individualism is composed of two theses. First, that error asymmetrically depends on truth. You cannot misperceive a rope as a snake unless you have seen a rope and a snake, such that the error described as a rope seen as a snake can be attributed to you. Second, the proximality principle that Burge articulates maintains that when you hold constant the antecedent psychological set of the perceiver, a given type of proximal stimulation (over the whole body), and the associated internal afferent and efferent input into the perceptual system, you will produce a given type of perceptual state, assuming that there is no malfunctioning in the system and no interference with the system. Putting those two views together you get the result that there is something of explanatory value in common between the good case and the bad case.

Disjunctivism comes in lots of different forms. But all of them aim to deny some way in which one might claim that the good case and the bad case should be treated as being the same. For example, phenomenological disjunctivism simply denies the assumption that there is no phenomenological difference between the cases. Metaphysical disjunctivism denies that the good case and the bad case are metaphysically identical in terms of a relevant property, such as truth. So, a metaphysical disjunctivist, would hold that although the good case and the bad case are phenomenally similar, because in one case you are related to a fact and in the other you are not, the states are relationally not the same at the metaphysical level. Epistemic disjunctivism denies that the good case and the bad case are epistemically identical in terms of a relevant property, such as warrant. So, an epistemic disjunctivist, would hold that although the good case and the bad case are phenomenally similar, one is warranted in the good case but not in the bad case. And then there is a debate over whether epistemic disjunctivism entails metaphysical disjunctivism. I don’t find phenomenal disjunctivism plausible because of the grain of discrimination in perception. And for reasons that Krupa Patel’s defends in her dissertation on epistemic disjunctivism, I find Duncan Pritchard’s defense the thesis unconvincing.

Summarizing, the analytical contrast is the following. The perceptual anti-individualist holds that the good case and the bad case share a common kind that is of explanatory value, and that the two states in and of themselves, provide the subject with the same warrant. Things can be complicated concerning the part about warrant, but putting things this way, sets up a direct contrast to the other view. A metaphysical disjunctivist denies that the two cases share a common kind of explanatory value for the purposes of some individuation task, such as epistemology. One way to see the motivation for metaphysical disjunctivism is by analogy. It doesn’t follow from the fact that Jadeite and Nephrite share a common property, macroscopic look, that they share another common kind, microstructure, which is then argued to be important for individuation. Water and Gin are both transparent liquids, but we don’t individuate them in virtue of those properties, rather we do so in virtue of their microstructure. Likewise, one might think the good case and the bad case are phenomenally similar, and maybe even epistemically similar, but that does not mean that they should be individuated in terms of those similarities, when we can find additional differences at other levels. And then the question is: what are those other levels? Some in the analytic tradition would take the veritic point of view and say that it is truth.

My interest is in metaphysical disjunctivism, and how it is debated in analytic philosophy in relation to what I see being debated in classical Indian philosophy, especially between Nyāya and Buddhism. I am not sure that metaphysical disjunctivism is true. And I am quite impressed by Burge’s criticism of it. However, I think that the conversation can be massively improved by including the classical Indian debate into the conversation.

3:AM: And what does the Nyāya theory claim from your reading? And again, how do the resources from this philosophical tradition enhance our attempts to figure out misperception?

AJV: Around 2011 Purushottama Bilimoria invited me to work on some of Jay Shaw’s work on Nyāya perceptual theory. This led me to New Zealand where I studied with Jay, and also to a reading of Stephen Phillips and Matthew Dasti’s work on Nyāya perceptual theory and their debate with Jonardon Ganeri over whether Gaṅgeśa was an infallibilist about knowledge sources (pramāṇa). A debate that I find has similarities to the debate between Burge and McDowell, and with the work of Timothy Williamson. So, I got super interested.

I should start off by saying that the view I am going to sketch here has to be seen more as me being inspired by Nyāya as opposed to the letter and law of a specific Nyāya thinker or as a comment on the whole tradition. There are many current philosophers doing great work on Nyāya perceptual theory, such as Nilanjan Das and Amit Chaturvedi and I would prefer to defer to them, or to scholars such as Arindam Chakrabarti, Parimal Patil , Monima Chadha, or Stephen Phillips about the letter of the law. The easiest way to see what I think is interesting comes in six parts.

First, the current analytic debate over metaphysical disjunctivism is pursued on the model of veritic-disjunctivism. On this view the fact that individuates the good case from the bad case is truth. The two cases are different in virtue of one being a relation to a fact and the other not. There is another kind of disjunctivism, I call, causal-disjunctivism. On this view the difference between the good case and the bad case is in terms of the overall causal processes involved. Not in terms of a single causal factor, such as what the subject is connected to, but rather a multi-causal factor story concerning both internal and external aspects of causation prior to and during the subject’s conscious perceptual state while tracking the object of perception. On this account, the good case and bad case are individuated at the level of the state in terms of causal processes, and the truth of the good case, at a certain level of description, is simply a by-product of the causal processes involved. I take inspiration for the multi-causal factor analysis from Nyāya thinkers that posited both positive and negative causal factors for perception to be realized. For example, some say that an object has to be neither too far away nor too near for veridical perception to occur. Where I perhaps part company with them is on the centrality of truth in the causal story.

Second, in the current analytic debate the main line of exploration treats non-veridical cases as if they are all the same. I think there is room to explore not only disjunctivism about the relation between veridical and non-veridical cases, but also disjunctivism about non-veridical cases. Let bad case Ir be a case in which one sees the rope presented as a snake, and bad case Hs be a case in which one hallucinates a snake, but there is no specific object that is presented otherwise. For example, if the subject moved her head in the hallucination case, the snake presentation would continue to follow her, thus showing that the background in general is presented otherwise, but no particular background object is presented otherwise in a stable manner. The causal story going on between these two cases makes it hard for me to accept that we should be treating them as the same metaphysical state. There is something r that is presented otherwise as s in the illusion, but there is nothing x that is presented as s in the hallucination. Why not make a finer grained distinction in the non-veridical cases, based on this difference? On this account, there is metaphysical disjunctivism about non-veridical perception as well as disjunctivism about illusions and veridical perceptions. Again, I take inspiration for this view from Nyāya thinkers because of an account they give of how to explain the snake-rope illusion. There is also some debate about whether Nyāya thinkers are even concerned to explain cases of hallucination as opposed to illusion. Nilanjan Das has some excellent work on this issue showing how their work can cover the case of hallucination.

Third, in the current analytic debate there is a debate between disjunctivism about perception and the prospects that we have for responding to epistemic skepticism. For example, McDowell debates Wright over whether disjunctivism provides transcendental grounds for a response to epistemic skepticism. One element that seems to be a hangover from the analytical discussion is that we are forced to discuss distant logical possibilities, such as the case of a Brain-in-a-Vat or the Evil Demon, as opposed to natural possibilities only. We might usefully draw a distinction between a logical doubt and a natural doubt. And we might then try to argue that disjunctivism aims to respond to natural doubts not to mere logical doubts. Natural doubts, are well, natural.

On your walk in the woods you come to a clearing and from a distance you see something that then arises in your consciousness in the form: is that a person or a post? That is, you are naturally doubting something because your conscious state is perceptually one of doubt, even perhaps confusion. You don’t reflectively arrive at the view that what you see might be a post, as opposed to a person, because an evil demon could be deceiving you. Rather, your immediate perceptual appraisal is one of: what is that over there? It presented with doubt as either a post or a person. I also find motivation for this view from thinking about the Nyāya theory of doubt.

Image result for rope snake visual illusion

Fourth, we might usefully consider what role objective similarity plays in the production of illusions. The rope really is like a snake in important respects. They are both tubular and capable of resting in a coil. And often we are presented with veridical cases of each being coiled. So, we have an imprint / association in our mind with the idea that both snakes and ropes rest in a coil shape. In general, does the fact that a and b share similarity R play a role in whether or not a can be presented as b naturally, as opposed to being induced by a crazy nefarious neuroscientist? I am drawn to the idea that objective or intersubjective similarity can play a role in how we explain the probability of b being seen as a. Clouds don’t look like faces for no reason.

Fifth, we might usefully consider the relationship between our perceptual states and our other affective states in the manner that Matilal accounts for the snake-rope illusion via the Nyāya misplacement theory of illusion. Start with the general question: what role can our affective states play in telling a story about illusions? Think about the more particular version: what role does a person’s fear of snakes play in the generation of the illusion of a rope seen as a snake? Would someone who does not fear snakes be as susceptible to seeing a rope as a snake as opposed to simply being in natural doubt from a distance about whether they were seeing a rope or a snake?

This line of questioning, both general and particular, has powerful ramifications when we think about how perception feeds action on the basis of how affect feeds or is engaged in perception. Why does the police officer see the iphone as a gun? Just this year in California there was a major incident of this kind, where an officer shot a young African-American who was holding an iphone. Is it literally only the objective similarity between the iphone and a small handgun that explains why? Many people in Oakland argued that it could not be that alone. I as well doubt that it could. I would think affective states are in play, much as they are in the rope that is seen as a snake. The iphone is presented otherwise because of a similarity relation that triggers the affective profile of the subject, who then responds through training. Were their affective profile different they might not see the iphone as a gun, but rather, like the one who does not fear snakes, be simply in a state of natural doubt, and with appropriate training have restraint.

Sixth, in the current analytic debate between anti-individualism and disjunctivism the theses are presented as being opposed to one another. However, this might be a problem. It could be that these two views are consistent when integrated in the right way. That is, one can be both an anti-individualist and a disjunctivist. The locking horns of McDowell and Burge disappear from a distinct vantage point on perception coming from outside of the western tradition. I actually believe that this is the real question that was puzzling me when I engaged Matthew Dasti’s paper on parasitism and disjunctivism in Nyāya.

Again, these are thoughts that have come to me through reading Nyāya, and mostly 20th century commentators on Nyāya, such as Matilal, Shaw, and Phillips. And ‘yes’ some of these thoughts I think I can tie down to specific thinkers in the Nyāya tradition. But I would not go so far as to say that these are the views of a specific Nyāya thinker I have encountered. The philosophical resources from this tradition have simply given me new ways of looking at the terrain that is already being covered in the current analytic debate. Again, I am not a historian of Indian philosophy, and I don’t read Sanskrit. So, if you are interested in the best presentation of what is said by that tradition, I would encourage you to read the experts, such as Prabal Kumar Sen, Kisor Chakrabarti, Stephen Phillips, Jay Shaw, or Arindam Chakrabarti.

Finally, I had the honor of studying both Kant and Externalism with Tyler Burge at UCLA, and it strikes me as very interesting that the kind of externalism he has been pursuing for some time can be found in various writings of the Nyāya tradition. I would hope that there could be some kind of cross-cultural engagement between Nyāya and the work of externalists like Putnam, Burge, and others.

3:AM: Are you generally travelling in the direction of ‘fusion philosophy’ as articulated by the likes of Jay Garfield, Evan Thompson, and Christian Coseru? Can you tell us something about what fusion philosophy is and what it aims to achieve?

AJV: I am always travelling in the direction of supplementing and widening my engagement with philosophers from different traditions. This is actually what led me early on to want to study with experimental philosophers. I was dissatisfied with the project of only doing a priori conceptual analysis. I found Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich’s (2001) experimental study of the Gettier Intuition across cultures, including folks with an Indian background, fascinating. This led me to move into that area of research. But after 4 years of study and an NEH seminar on x-phi I realized that their work was a kind of comparative philosophy and depended on more traditional comparative philosophy. So, I moved on to comparative philosophy and Indian philosophy.

The term ‘fusion’ philosophy can be used in many different ways. And I am not the person that coined the term. I believe Mark Siderits first coined it. I also believe his use is different from the one that Evan Thompson has, and that the term ‘cross-cultural’, sometimes used by Jay Garfield, overlaps with some uses of ‘fusion’. There are technical differences both in how the term is presented and what the goal of the project is. So, I would prefer not to speak of the uses made by others, but rather turn to a distinction that I find useful, which I believe overlaps with certain aspects of ‘fusion philosophy’ and ‘cross-cultural philosophy’. One pathway to the term I will use take the following point of departure.

Comparative philosophy seeks to, at least, compare philosophers. But this can be done without arguing for who has a better answer to a specific problem. Fusion philosophy, if taken on the model of fusion cooking and fusion music, aims to mix philosophical traditions. But this can also be done without evaluation. Fusion music does not evaluate the music, it simply mixes it. It creates a new musical discourse. And by analogy fusion philosophy constructs a new philosophical discussion and even new vocabulary. I think both of these styles of philosophy are excellent projects, even if they are not the best descriptions of the work being done by Garfield, Thompson, and Coseru. But the phrase that attracts me the most and which I believe to be descriptively accurate is: cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy.

As a philosopher I seek a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon, such as the self or consciousness. As a consequence, I think I need to look at what many different cultures and disciplines have said about the phenomenon. I use this as a base for generating and synthesizing a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. In this sense, I think the methodology of philosophy I like might just be a combination of feminist standpoint epistemology unified with components of Jain philosophy, such as nayavada (epistemic stances). Progress in philosophy, at least some of the time, simply consists in the improvement of our understanding of something. This can be understood itself in different ways, such as through building better models. I think cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy just provides a good base of resources for building better models and having a better overall conversation. I don’t think truth alone is the goal of philosophical engagement. I think it is comprehensive understanding. I can understand how ordinary dry goods operate perfectly well for some purposes using Newtonian Mechanics. But I do get a better model for more things when I turn to Einsteinian Relativity Theory. And when I want more than a causal story, I might need to go into grounding.

At present I am very interested in the work that Jay Garfield, Evan Thompson, and Christian Coseru have done and continue to do because a lot of what they are doing is providing a corrective to views that simply do not engage with a wide enough range of resources. And, importantly, some of what they are defending seems to be true. Enactive Embodied Cognition Science is a massive improvement over Cartesian Cognitive Science. Buddhism seems to fit well with a lot of stuff coming out of the mind sciences. In fact, I would say that some of the views I am exploring, such as the Nyāya theory of perception are harder to defend than the views that have been advanced by the marriage of phenomenology, certain schools of Buddhist thought, and cognitive science. But more importantly, I am trying to acquire a supplementation to my education. An education I want and believe that future generations of philosophers ought to have simply by being in a philosophy department.  I am super lucky that I get to study phenomenology, Buddhism and cognitive science with these eminent figures of philosophy. There work is really engaging.

But, if you want to know what I am really up to. There is nothing to hide. I am trying to pursue a path similar to that of J. N. Mohanty. In 20th century philosophy Mohanty is known both as a scholar of phenomenology, especially the work of Husserl in relation to his debates with Frege, and as a scholar of Indian philosophy. No serious phenomenologist thinks of Mohanty as an occasional phenomenologist, and no serious Indian philosopher thinks of Mohanty as an occasional Indian philosopher. Although I could never accomplish what he has done, I would like to see myself twenty years from now as someone who has pursued a deep engagement with core debates in analytic philosophy, especially the epistemology of modality, but also someone who has helped develop cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy in a serious way. I am very taken by the view, expressed by A.C. Mukerji, the early 20th century Indian philosopher, that some problems of philosophy actually require the resources of two or more traditions and disciplines. This is what I see cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy providing. But my engagement there I hope doesn’t make others see me as less of a scholar in the epistemology of modality. And I hope in time that my work on the epistemology of modality doesn’t stop those working in Indian philosophy from someday taking my contributions there seriously. I am playing the long game.

3:AM: You discuss all this in the context of ‘public philosophy’ so can you first say what you take ‘public philosophy’ to mean and why it is important to your position?

AJV: The term ‘public philosophy’ also gets batted around in a number of different ways. I am not an expert on it. There are people in this space who do excellent work, such as Janet Stemwedel’s blog Adventures in Ethics and Science. What I am trying to motivate is a move toward public philosophy within the context of the recent history of comparative philosophy, broadly understood. When I became co-director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at SJSU with Bo Mou, I wanted to chart out a direction for the center that was consistent with the massive amount of theoretical work that Bo had done to build the Center. Because his work was focused on the deep theory of the methodology of comparative philosophy, I wanted to look at how that methodology could be used in the public sphere. At the time I was thinking about this there were many public philosophy outlets, such as The New York Times’ column: The Stone. But within these outlets, I didn’t see that much non-western philosophy. So, I thought that it would be useful for comparative philosophers to jump into that arena. Today we already see major increase in representation. Just look at what is in Aeon or New Philosopher Magazine or your own 3:AM Magazine.

On my account ‘public philosophy’ can be understood in two different ways. On the philosophy-to-public direction of fit, the goal of public philosophy is for philosophers to discuss topics that fall squarely in the public realm, such as ethics, political philosophy, and social justice. But more importantly, they do so by not taking a lead from the public, but rather from their academic training being applied to concerns in the public realm. On the public-to-philosophy direction of fit, the goal of public philosophy is for philosophers to listen to and take direction from non-academic philosophers that are philosophically engaged in the world. My articulation of this distinction comes directly from two sources.

Image result for experimental philosophy

First, I see a lot of work that experimental philosophers do to be an instance of public philosophy. Why? Because the public is directly involved. Just look at the massive studies that Edouard Machery, Stephen Stich, Shaun Nichols, Jonathan Weinberg, and Josh Knobe have done with the non-philosophical public. One might think that the kind of public philosophy they are doing is a kind of citizen science, directly involving the public in the collection or analysis of data for the purposes of scientific investigation.

Second, my work and discussions with three people have powerfully influenced me in the direction of the public-to-philosophy direction of fit.

Baz Dreisinger, the author of Incarceration Nations, has motivated me to think a lot about how philosophy can do much more in the realm of education that leads towards the eradication of the problems associated with mass incarceration around the world. My own university is now in the process of building a prison-to-college pipeline program with critical thinking and ethics education. Victor Pineda, the disability rights activist and founder of the AWE movement (A World Enabled) has pushed me to see the importance of the phenomenology of disability as a guide to understanding the phenomenology of being and the meaning of life. And the public intellectual and journalist, Jessica Kraft, was in fact the person that sent me down the path of thinking about cross-cultural critical thinking by getting me to think about the role of hip-hop in debate competitions concerning social and political issues.

Ultimately, I think the kind of cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy that I advocate is perfectly suited for public philosophy. It just seems to me to be a better conversation when you mix cultures, traditions, and disciplines. I find that one can usefully blend analytic, experimental, and comparative philosophy together.

3:AM: So how do you think analytic, comparative and experimental philosophy can come together?

AJV: You cannot get away from conceptual analysis and clear argumentation, that is all I mean by ‘analytic philosophy’. ‘Analytic philosophy’ on this use is not something we only find in England, Europe, America, Australia, and Canada. If ‘analytic philosophy’ can reasonably be taken to refer to a method or style, as opposed to a movement that had a method and style at various time periods, then it is found in many different traditions across time and geography. In particular, it is absolutely present in classical and contemporary Indian Philosophy. What I think is key about “analytic philosophy”, in my view of how to put it together with experimental and comparative philosophy, is simply conceptual analysis that does not aim at being definitive in terms of yielding an analysis that is the ultimate truth about a concept’s relation to the world. In some cases, conceptual analysis is complete and gives us a definitive answer. This might be the difference between concepts in mathematics and the ordinary world. Wittgenstein was correct to point at that in a great number of cases something like family resemblance turns out to be the case between various concepts as opposed to strict necessary and sufficient conditions.

What he was wrong about, if he is read in the strong voice, is that this holds for all cases. Some concepts are classical, others prototypical, and yet others different in other ways. Conceptual pluralism, as the thesis that many different kinds of things fall under the concept concept seems true to me on deep reflection. In addition, we can always think about how concepts relate to each other through conditional analysis without saying that conditional is definitive about the concept. For example, we might explore the claim that if x knows that p, then x is justified in believing that p, without holding that in every culture that relation between knowledge, belief, and justification holds. Rather, analysis on my view aims in the first case at something that helps one get clear about how they apply concepts and how their concepts cut up reality and allow them to navigate reality. Once that analysis has been done and we are reflectively aware of what our concepts are doing, we might choose to do something like Carnapian explication with a specific concept or go in for full conceptual engineering, which can involve figuring out whether a concept is fitting for a purpose. We might even choose to evaluate concepts in various ways, such as deleting them because of pernicious effects or fixing them so as to work in certain areas where they malfunction because they are, perhaps, inconsistent. We can ethically investigate concepts to see whether or not we should keep them or replace them with better concepts for a given purpose.

Although this might sound weird, I think basic conceptual analysis is almost an act of ethical reflection. What does it mean to live in this world and not reflect on the concepts you possess and how you apply them and to find ways to make conceptual distinctions that actually have ethical benefits? Isn’t that what an education is for? But once you have done some reflection on your own concepts and the community from which they came you are in a position to improve on your analysis by doing two things.

First, cross-cultural inquiry to see if your concepts map across languages and cultures. To this end the goal might be to find out whether another language expresses a concept that is more fitting than the one already found in your own language. For example, I am really taken by the idea that Sanskrit pramāṇa theory might contain some epistemic concepts that are better for epistemology than the western notions of justification and belief, which as I discussed a moment ago, some would argue are definitive components of knowledge. Why do cross-cultural conceptual investigation? My answer is: Why believe that your language has the best concepts for certain purposes?

The other way you can improve on your own conceptual analysis via reflection on cases is by doing some experimental philosophy. To this end, I think the goal is to see what relation there is between your philosophical investigation and the way the folk use relevant terms in the semantic range of the term you have for the specific concept. Again, we can look at how Americans at Rutgers University use ‘knowledge’ and we can meaningfully compare that to how Malayali fisherman in Kerala use a term that is in the semantic range of ‘knows’ in English, such as ‘ariv’.   The experimental philosophy role I am thinking of does not battle with analytic philosophy. Rather, there is a supplementation or complementation between the two. I see things through the lens of what I call ACE Philosophy. Analytic philosophy united with Cross-Cultural philosophy, united with Experimental methods.  A priori analysis, if it is that at all, rather than armchair analysis, requires anchors. The two anchors I find interesting come from experimental investigation (this also includes work from cognitive science and neuroscience) and cross-cultural investigation (this also includes work in natural language semantics and formal semantics).

The fact that I want to pursue them in combination does not mean that these investigations alone are not worthy and should not be pursued by others alone, and it does not mean that debates about metaphilosophy are meaningless. In fact, the opposite is true. Debates about metaphilosophy are meaningful because they help us see what we are doing in philosophy in relation to a very wide audience: non-philosophers from many different cultures, and philosophers from different cultures.

On a personal note, I must say, I don’t know why these three camps war with one another. I try to listen to all of them. I think we get a better conversation, at least for the purposes of bringing philosophy to the public, when we mix them together. Sometimes I worry that because I want to pursue all of these, some members of these groups will try to exclude me from them. The reason why is because professional philosophy for most practitioners is territorial. If you are part of one group, Analytic philosophy, you are not supposed to talk to another group, Experimental philosophy, and if you like either of those than you should not hangout with Comparative philosophers. This is sad, and I am a trespasser who likes to go across boundaries and genuinely take other philosophers seriously. Somehow professional philosophy is at odds with what it is really supposed to be about. This is likely because of jobs and economic factors. My hope is that both theoretically, through my aim at unification, and practically through my participation with a variety of communities I will be able to bring people together for a larger more significant conversation. Just because you bat for one team on one day, doesn’t mean you cannot bat for another, and then return to the former, or even move on, yet still be involved in the others. It is all about seeing which point of view is most important in a specific debate at a specific period of inquiry.

3:AM: You’re also an expert on the epistemology of modality, which is roughly the study of how we know what is possible, necessary, essential, or impossible. Before getting into your position, can you explain what focus has dominated that field and what is at stake in all this?

AJV: No. I am, if anything, only an expert in the epistemology of modality, and not even the metaphysics or logic of modality. I have been kindly allowed into the wonderful communities of experimental and comparative philosophy to study and learn. And I really work hard to learn about these fields and stay up to date on what is going on. However, the only field in which I am an expert, work on continuously, and obsess about, is the epistemology of modality, which I have now been working on for 20 years, since 1998.

The dominant focus in this field is based on the traditional set up of the problem. We know that somethings are merely possible, as opposed to actual and possible, and other things are necessary or impossible. However, many believe that things that are merely possible or necessary, are not things we can know simply by examining the actual world. For example, how do we determine if it is possible for there to be one more electron then there actually is? Can we do that by looking at a non-actual electron? Or suppose we are curious about whether it is necessary that 2 + 2= 4. Can we look at anything that tells us that it is necessary as supposed to just merely true. It seems as if we don’t do that by perception, or even that we cannot do that by perception. So, we are led down the road of asking: how do we know these things? This is the traditional story. You can find a version of it in Kant’s slogan that experience only teaches us what is so, not what must be so or can’t be so. Against this backdrop, there is a classical rationalist story that can be filled out in many ways. But the overall story is that we must have some a priori access to the modal realm. This kind of basic rationalism can take a moderate form, such as what you find in Christopher Peacocke or a strong form as you find in David Chalmers.

However, there has been a shift in focus in the past decade. On the one hand, many researchers are interested in an empiricist, deflationary, or non-rationalist approach to the epistemology of modality. Otavio Bueno and Scott Shalkowski, Bob Fischer, and Sonia Roca-Royes fall in this area. On the other hand, there is a movement toward defending and developing the work of E. J. Lowe, Bob Hale, and Kit Fine in a way that accepts some form of rationalism, but also combines it with empiricism by investigating the role of essence in relation to modality and grounding. In this camp one can find the work of Michael Wallner, Antonella Mallozzi, and Tuomas Tahko.

And then there is the important attempt to develop Timothy Williamson’s work on the counterfactual account of the epistemology of modality, which has been carried out by Margot Strohminger and Juhani Yli-Vakkuri in their engagement with Peter van Inwagen’s classical challenge to all of modal epistemology  –to offer a reasonable account of the proper scope and range of modal knowledge from radical skepticism about it. The work that has been done by them in my opinion offers the most powerful response to the modern challenge to modal epistemologists presented by van Inwagen.

I also find that there is an interesting set of developments that are underway in the epistemology of modality currently. For example, if one combines the insights of Williamson’s work on armchair knowledge of modality through counterfactual reasoning and perceptual theories of modal knowledge, such as developed by Margot Strohminger, Barbara Vetter, and Catherine Legg, the frame for the traditional problem of modal knowledge disappears. On the classical frame, the problem is: given that we know somethings that are (i) merely possible or (ii) necessary, and perception is always of the actual, how can we know either (i) or (ii)? As I pointed out the rationalist drive to intuition or conceivability is often motivated by that setup. We are led to believe we need a priori intuition because we can’t see what is possible or necessary. Perception is said to be categorically irrelevant, thus we need something purely a priori. But what if the a prioria posteriori distinction is bogus. Maybe some instances of knowledge are, as Williamson argues, neither strictly a priori nor a posteriori, they are instances of armchair knowledge. And what if we can see some possibilities through seeing what we can do and some necessities through diagrams. For example, it seems that I can now see that my coffee cup could be just a little to the right of where it is even though it isn’t actually, and I can see that a certain situation concerning quantity relations is necessary by looking at a Venn diagram. 2If these two conditions, perceptual access and armchair access, are coherent, it would seem that the traditional problem of modal knowledge would completely alter so as to almost make it seem that that it had evaporated and was ill-motivated. I am really excited by this prospect.

Moving back to the core of your question. The dominant focus in this area has been on metaphysical modality with acknowledgement of the use of possible worlds semantics, the nesting model, and the debate over inflationism and deflationism about metaphysical modality within the nesting model. Possible worlds semantics is a theory of the truth conditions of modal statements, such as that it is possible for a cup  c, which is actually located at L, to be located at L*. The truth of a modal statement at a world w is determined by the truth of the non-modal statement at a world that is accessible to w. That is, we explain modal truth in relation to worlds. So, it is possible for c to be located at L* is made true at w by the fact that at some other possible world, w*, accessible to w, c, or something suitably similar to it, is located at L*. On the nesting model, physical possibility is a subset of metaphysical possibility, and the latter is a subset of logical possibility. There are two forms of skepticism about metaphysical modality. Inflationism is the view that metaphysical modality is identical to logical modality, and that there are only two kinds of modality. Deflationism is the view that metaphysical modality is identical to physical modality, and there are only two kinds of modality. I am not a skeptic about metaphysical modality. I think that the investigation of metaphysical modality is kind of like the investigation of the continuum hypothesis in the philosophy of mathematics. The question for me is the following: is there a natural kind of modality that falls between both logical and physical modality that plays an important explanatory role in the following: (i) accounting for absolute, as opposed to relative, modality; (ii) explaining the nature of logical modality, possible vs. impossible worlds, if there is a distinction, (iii) the nature of physical modality, normative modality, and conceptual modality, or just space pluralism about modality in general; (iv) certain beliefs we have about what is physically possible that are based on a commitment to the idea that the laws of physics could have been somewhat distinct from what they actually are. Finally, nothing important hangs on the word ‘metaphysical’ in metaphysical modality other than the fact that it appears to have come from Kripke’s Naming and Necessity and that it is tied in a clear sense to the work of Aristotle. What I am interested in is the explanatory role of locating a kind of modality that is distinct from logical and physical which can also explain, for example, the differences between them and the sources of modality..

3:AM: Where do you disagree with the views of Dave Chalmers, Tim Williamson and Stephen Yablo?

AJV: These three figures are monumental contributors to the epistemology of modality. In many ways I agree with each of these views with respect to a specific aim. I think Yablo presents a very clear account of how we can have defeasible justification for modal beliefs based on conceivability. The story he offers is highly plausible for simply telling us how it is that conceivability can give us justification for modal beliefs. However, conceivability is just one mechanism for arriving at modal knowledge. What about perception, intuition, and inference? He says nothing about those methods. I think Chalmers presents us with a technically rich account, within two-dimensional semantics, of how a priori conceptual analysis would work, and why we should be interested in a priori conceptual analysis. However, not everyone believes in the project of conceptual analysis as Chalmers carries it out. And how does the rich story he tells fit with ordinary modal knowledge –cases where want to find out if it is possible to get the couch up the stairs? Trust me this is a real problem. I think Williamson presents us with a coherent and scientifically-based view of how a major stream of philosophical engagement is not an exceptional form of inquiry drastically different from other forms of inquiry and weird in some pernicious sense. That is, there is a defense of a certain practice in philosophy that engages with modal beliefs that is consistent with other practices. And the counterfactual story is also quite elegant and simple. But one might wonder how the method gets off the ground. It seems like this is a story of how we arrive at modal knowledge using our skills in counterfactual reasoning and off-line imagination. We still need to know what the input is into the system that gets the whole thing running. So, I am looking into that.

In terms of disagreement, there is both a high-level critique and a technical critique. The high-level critique is that I simply disagree with some of these philosophers with respect to the target of the investigation. Maybe it is better to put it by saying that I am pursuing a different project from what they are pursuing. I am seeking a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon that is studied within the epistemology of modality. Some of these philosophers appear to be using the epistemology of modality in order to tell a larger story about the nature of philosophy. And this is not a new thing. Descartes, Hume, Kant, Husserl all did the same when they talked about metaphysics. On my view, there is a certain point in time when modal knowledge becomes somehow wedded to the identity of being a philosopher. Thus, some of the greatest minds in Western philosophy are wedded to defending and examining how we have modal knowledge. Robert Nozick in Invariances even commented on the fact that necessity for philosophers is like the moth to the flame. I am interested in the overarching story, related to, but also independent from philosophy, of our epistemic relation to modality. The puzzle has been with me since 1996 when I read Dave Chalmers Conscious Mind. The actual seems easy, the possible difficult. I am interested in the whole story.

The technical critique is also simple. There is a problem, which Michael Wallner and I call, the problem of modal epistemic friction that all mental operation accounts face. Mental operation accounts have three properties, input into the system, an operation defined on the system, and an output or a registration state that says what the output of the system is relative to the input and the operation. The main mental operation accounts involve either conceivability, imagination in counterfactual development, or deduction from premises, modal and non-modal, to a modal claim. In each of these cases, we think the account in question faces the problem of modal epistemic friction. The basic idea of this problem is the following. How do we reliably constrain the free reign of conceivability or imagination in counterfactual development so that the result we get is informative about the modal claim we are interested in? How does imagining an iron bar that is floating and transparent help us form a good belief that it can be so? It seems like the way in which it will do this rests on the nature of the inputs themselves. If I have sound beliefs about what iron is, the nature of floating and transparency, then I can expect that when things go well, imagining gets me to a good belief. But this just highlights the issue. Mental operations seem to depend almost completely on the inputs and the nature of the process. This is the technical problem we think these views face, which has motivated me to constantly look into other kinds of views.

3:AM: So what’s your position?

AJV: I am still working on it. As I said, I have been working on it for 20 years. I think I will have it completed in 5 more. I still need to do more work on non-Western ideas, learn more about phenomenological views, do more empirical work on modal cognition, and study more work on modality in linguistics and the metaphysics of laws, causation, grounding, and their relation to essence and modality. Here is where I am at.

Bob Hale, sadly, passed away recently. You actually did, perhaps, the last interview with Bob. He was a major architect of contemporary debates in the epistemology of modality. He was central to the Arche investigation into the epistemology of modality. He drew an important distinction between two ways of looking at the epistemology of modality. A necessity-first approach takes it that we first gain knowledge of necessities and are justified in believing possibilities by way of believing that there are no conflicting necessities. Necessity is dominant, possibility is recessive. A possibility-first approach takes it that we first gain knowledge of possibility and are justified in believing in necessities by way of believing that there are no conflicting possibilities. Possibility is dominant, necessity is recessive. Bob defended a necessity-first approach based on essences. I call this the Hale-Branch of the epistemology of modality. Others, such as Sonia Roca-Royes, defend a possibility-first approach based on similarity. I am justified in believing that the messy table before me can break because (i) the messy table I owned before broke, and (ii) the old one is sufficiently similar to the new one.

I am currently trying to navigate myself between these two options. On the one hand, I find the similarity-based approach quite appealing and a massive step forward in the field. On the other hand, I am inclined to think that at bottom the ultimate source of modal knowledge is something like the following. We base what is possible or necessary for an object on what we take the object to be. The essence of an entity is the guide by which we are justified in believing that something is possible or necessary for an entity. Ultimately, we move from beliefs about what things are essentially to what they could be and cannot be. The more justified we are in believing that a is essentially f and g is incompatible with f, the more justified we are in believing that a could not have been g. This is a rather simple story, but I think it is powerful. And it is consistent with the view that there are many tools we can use to acquire modal knowledge, such as conceivability, counterfactual reasoning, or similarity-based reasoning.  What I don’t know yet is (i) what essences are and (ii) how we arrive at essentialist knowledge. But I am working on it with a group of philosophers, which includes Michael Wallner and Antonella Mallozzi.

My real worry is whether a picture based on essentialist knowledge can really deliver an account of objective moderate realist modal knowledge. I worry sometimes that if you go down the road I, and others, are paving you are forced into a retreat from realism where you have to concede that what modal properties an object has are not knowable independently of background assumptions. That is, we have coordinative knowledge of de re modality. By this I mean that there is an entanglement between what is out there and what is going on with us. And in this entanglement between us and the world we coordinate the modal properties we think hold for objects with our beliefs about what the object essentially is. There is something out there independent of minds. But our beliefs about what is possible for an object depend strongly on what we take to be out there. Quine, in Reference and Modality, was dead wrong to hold that de re modality does not make sense. However, I do think that the way we think about de re modality is not as clean as Kripke and others make it out to be. We are coordinating our beliefs about modality with our beliefs about non-modal matters, and this is neither an anti-realist nor a realist picture, but an entanglement picture that respects the intuition that how things could be is not determined by what we think, and the intuition that our beliefs about how things could be is based in part on our beliefs about what things are.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, one interesting connection that I have been exploring a lot, which is an application of my view, is the role of mental operations in social justice. My initial interest in conceivability as a guide to possibility was focused on debates concerning consciousness as well as the nature of how thought experiments, which involve conceivability, help to provide us with justification for modal beliefs about concept application. More recently, through my study of the problem mass incarceration, I have come into contact with the work of Angela Davis. I find that in her work there is a rich examination of the way in which failures of conceivability and imagination are barriers to social justice because they are barriers to seeing a more just situation for everyone involved. I now think that one of the key areas that the epistemology of modality must turn to is the discussion of the role of essentialist cognition in judgments of inconceivability and impossibility with respect to matters of social justice. Bob Fischer and I have discussed how modal cognition might be importantly implicated in moral cognition.

It is, perhaps, because a person cannot imagine a woman fighting effectively on the front line that they might ultimately come to judge that it is morally impermissible to allow it. If you ought to do something, then it follows that you can do it. So, if someone believes that someone cannot do something, they will be inclined to think that person ought not to be allowed to do it. How do we figure out what can and cannot happen? We try to imagine it. When we imagine, either explicitly or implicitly, the essences that we think things have guides the judgments we make. Unless we come to uncover the conceptions (i.e. essences) that drive our judgements of possibility and impossibility, how can we make progress in social justice?

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Interestingly, I think that the Los Angeles based band Red Hot Chili Peppers has a song about what I am talking about. It is called Dark Necessities. In the chorus they sing: you don’t know my mind, you don’t know my kind, dark necessities are part of my design. I think they nailed the modal truth I am getting at, even if they were singing about something else. It is part of human nature to have deep implicit beliefs about necessary connections. It is part of our design that we have dark necessities, beliefs about necessary relations that we cannot access easily. In addition, because we don’t always deeply reflect, we don’t know our own or each other’s minds very well, especially when we come from different tribes or cultures. We lack a certain kind of modal self-knowledge. In general, we don’t know what kind of person someone is when they come from something very different from our own experience. Consequently, we don’t know what kinds of deep beliefs each of us has about morality and justice and the proper structure of society. And to the point, we often don’t know what dark necessities are embedded in our mind that drive our modal cognition about what is possible and impossible.

If you cannot conceive of a just society without prisons because you think something is essentially the case (i.e. necessary) about the nature of humans in certain categories, you will be inclined to believe that we ought to have prisons, and that they are necessary. You might not be aware of the dark necessity (essentialist belief) deep in your cognition. But by critically reflecting on the conceptions of things you have and reconceiving things and engaging in some conceptual engineering you might ignite a pathway that leads to a transformative modal experience – an experience where one comes to see an apparent necessity for what it is, a simple contingency that through fixation gives one the appearance of necessity. Forgiveness is perhaps a great example of this. We often believe that we cannot forgive those that have harmed us or our family in some way. Yet personal experiences with those that have done the harm and hearing their stories actually does lead to a transformative modal experience where we see that what we thought was impossible, forgiveness, is actually possible and preferable.


3:AM: And finally for the curious readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?



Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (Clarendon Paperbacks): Matilal, ...

A turning point in my education was reading Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge by Bimal K. Matilal. If you have any doubts about how powerful cross-cultural philosophy was in the 20th century and where it can go: read this work. The prose alone will make you cry. In general, philosophers are not great at writing. This is not true of Matilal. And the material in the work is simply fascinating.

Necessary Beings

As I noted earlier, Bob Hale just passed away. So, I have been re-reading portions of his Necessary Beings: A Study in Ontology and Modality (OUP, 2013). This work contains some of his last thoughts on how to develop an essence-based approach to the epistemology of modality. Something that I am working off of in the construction of my own view.

Philosophical Investigations 4E

For the first time since 1998 I am going to be teaching Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations this fall. After some 20 years of being disenfranchised with his work I have decided to return to it for a careful study. I am interested in thinking about the relation between rule-following and self-knowledge. I believe there is a deep connection between his skeptical thoughts on rule-following and the possibility of a certain kind of authoritative self-knowledge.

Philosophy and Model Theory

Since my undergraduate days of exploring mathematical logic, I have been really interested in model theory, the study of mathematical structures. I think this is an important area of logic that more philosophers should study and get a basic handle on. I was thrilled to discover that Sean Walsh and Timothy Button have completed a work on  Philosophy and Model Theory (OUP, 2018). So, this is something I am diving into.

9788189059439: Navayana Publishing Are Prisons Obsolete

Many philosophers wouldn’t consider Angela Davis a proper philosopher. I completely disagree with that view. I taught a class on her Are Prisons Obsolete? And I found within it lots of philosophy, as well as a new direction for the epistemology of modality –the project of finding out how essentialist beliefs via their connection to modal beliefs enable or disable forward progress in social justice.


[Archive footage of interviewer with 3:AM ‘End Times’ series editorial board by Sir Lennicus Bibby]


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 7th, 2018.