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The Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā School

Interview by Richard Marshall.

[Art: Christian Schloe]

We have a hermeneutic tradition which focuses on sacred texts without referring to god’s intention (the school is atheist, as no doubt we’ll discuss later) and without allowing for any interference between sacred texts and direct experience (no geocentrism because the sacred texts say it, for instance). At this point, a Euro-American reader is likely to ask about the origin of such texts, given that there is no god. Well, the point is that they have no origin.’

Which kind of god do Mīmāṃsā authors attack? Surely the first three kinds, and Kumārila has especially hilarious arguments about the inconsistencies of the god of rational theology. This can either be non omnipotent, or cruel, since he tolerates suffering in the world. He can either be bodiless (but then, how could he interfere with matter?) or have a body (but then, who created it?) and so on.

The first thing to be noted here is that the debate on freewill is so important in European philosophy that we might be inclined to think of it as one of the main questions of philosophy. Instead, part of the importance of the question is historical and it is linked to the debate between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam (without which we would not speak of a “free” will).’

Since our common experience testifies in favour of the existence of a self, the burden to demolish the idea of a self is all on the Buddhist side, think Mīmāṃsā authors, and the Buddhist arguments are ultimately unconvincing and unable to account for phenomena like recognition and memory.

You cannot speak of “Indian philosophy of language” unless you are aware of the fact that your concept of “philosophy of language” is likely to be affected by the fact that it is a recent development in European philosophy and you are probably thinking that it is (therefore) less essential than “ontology” (for which there is even an own word!), and so on.’

Elisa Freschi has worked on topics of Indian Philosophy (especially Mīmāṃsā and Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta) and more in general on comparative philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language, deontic logic and on the re-use of texts in Indian śāstra (about which she has edited a volume, published as two special issues of the Journal of Indian Philosophy). She is a convinced upholder of reading Sanskrit philosophical texts within their history and understanding them through a philosophical approach. Here she discusses the Mīmāṃsā school, the challenges of Mīmāṃsā for Euro-American scholars, being careful about importing cultural assumptions into translations of these works, the Vedas, why Prabhākara is ready to imagine that there are words whose meaning is not a thing “out there”, nature, various principles needed to make sense of Vedic texts, the strangeness of the atheist/theism debate in this tradition, whether there’s free will in Mīmāṃsā, Mīmāṃsā and the Buddhist no-self theory, their theory of action, why the issue of what makes a text a commentary philosophically rewarding, issues of translation, and the Coffee Break project.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Elisa Freschi: You know, I was educated in Italy and I was taught that “philosopher” is a title of honour, one you do not attribute to yourself (others can call you a philosopher, you should rather not). Hence, I would rather define myself as a scholar or researcher of philosophy. I was also educated in milieu which offered me many philosophical stimuli (for which I am mostly indebted to my parents, Patrizia Armandi and Marino Freschi). My first philosophy teacher when I was 16 to 19 (Luigi Venturi) deeply influenced me with his Crocean approach to the history of philosophy, and so did my ancient Greek teacher (Luigi Senzasono) with his lessons on the Greek tragedy or on Giovanbattista Vico. Long story short, before starting university I had been lucky enough to have already encountered enough fascinating texts and ideas and could not help but study philosophy. It seemed the thing that mattered most.

3:AM: You’re an expert in aspects of Indian philosophy. One interest is the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā school, one of the big six traditions of Indian philosophy. Can you first sketch for us when and where it was started and where it fits with other schools, such as the Jains and the Buddhists. Are the obscurities of the texts for Western trained philosophers connected with their close links with ritual matters and what are the methodological challenges for Western Academics approaching Sanskrit philosophy – and does this school still exist?

EF: I hope you can bear with me if I slightly correct some parts of your question. The idea that there are six schools of Indian philosophy, to begin with, is hardly more than a doxographical myth (there is a wonderful study by Wilhelm Halbfass on this topic in his India and Europe. However, it is correct to say that thinkers and ideas of the Mīmāṃsā school were among the main protagonists of the philosophical debates in pre-modern South Asia. The school originated in the last centuries BCE out of a tradition of exegesis of sacred texts and therefore focused on topics like the epistemology of testimony, philosophy of language and deontic logic (since Mīmāṃsā authors considered sacred texts to be authoritative not as for the “is”, but only as for the “ought”). By the 5–6th c. CE the school witnessed the work of two of its main champions, namely Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and Prabhākara. The two sub-schools of Bhāṭṭa and Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā were named after them.

With Kumārila (who slightly preceded Prabhākara) the Mīmāṃsā school became one of the 2–3 main philosophical players in India. Kumārila argued against the main Buddhist champions, i.e. Dignāga (4th c.) and Dharmakīrti. The polemical discussions between Kumārila and Dharmakīrti (who were contemporaries and reacted to each other in various works) deeply permeated their age and all successive discussions on central topics of epistemology, logic, philosophy of language and philosophy of religion. Later Buddhist philosophers continued to argue with Kumārila and his successors on these topics until the disappearance of Buddhism from South Asia around the 12th c. CE. At that point, most Mīmāṃsā arguments knew a new life within the emerging Vedānta schools, especially within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. Nowadays, most if not all Mīmāṃsā thinkers are primarily Vedāntins.

The Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā took slightly longer to reach a central position, which it achieved with Śālikanātha (9th c.), whose systematic genius produced a lasting contribution which no later thinker could avoid engaging with, especially as for philosophy of language.

Let me now move to the challenges of Mīmāṃsā for Euro-American scholars (I don’t like the label “Western” since it evokes an amorphous “Eastern”, and I usually explain in a footnote that I include our colleagues from Australia, New Zealand and the like within “Euro-American”). The first challenge lies in the simple fact that most of South Asian philosophy has not been either edited or translated. For instance, the only surviving work by Prabhākara, his Bṛhatī, has never been translated in any European language (!). A few texts have been translated, such as two among Kumārila’s works, but the translations are usually not understandable by non-Sanskritists, since they are full of technical terms and often just reproduce the syntax of Sanskrit with English words. In this sense, editing and producing philosophically accessible translations is a primary duty for all those who are able to master philosophical Sanskrit, I think. The second challenge is way less significant and you rightly pointed it out: when Mīmāṃsā authors try to explain their arguments by means of examples, they use ritual examples which are usually not understandable for us. However, there is a lot of technical ritual literature which is extant and with some homework a scholar should be able to explain the examples and make the Mīmāṃsā texts accessible again.

3:AM: One thing that comes across strongly in your work is that we need to be careful about importing cultural assumptions into translations of these works. So one expectation of a Euro-American trained philosopher would be to expect metaphysics and ontology to be the first elements of Mīmāṃsā philosophy, but this would be a misstep wouldn’t it? So what’s the main focus in this school and what difference does this make? Is it important to the direct realism, empiricism and atheism the school adopts?

EF: Yes, I think this is one of the cases where our implicit biases could become real obstacles for our understanding. We tend to imagine that there are “main” areas of philosophy, the ones every philosopher needs to address. These areas are often influenced by Plato’s sixth letter and his tripartition (Politics, Ethics, Truth, with the latter leading to Metaphysics and Ontology and Epistemology) and in this sense they are a historical product and not the result of the intrinsic superiority of, say, political philosophy over philosophy of language. One of the advantages of dealing with South Asian philosophy from the outside is that it is an extremely rich and systematic tradition which therefore offers one a counter-approach to one’s automatic way of classifying ideas and theories. In other words, if you approach Mīmāṃsā and ask where are A (say, philosophy of mind), B (say, political thought) and C (say, ethics), you might end up rethinking your classification and asking whether your favourite Analytic philosophers have an account for imperative sentences and whether they are a satkāryavādin or an asatkāryavādin when it comes to causality (i.e., whether they believe that the effect is inherent in the cause).

Enough with the methodological part. Let me now roll up my sleeves and start with Mīmāṃsā. As hinted at above, the school started with a focus on a canon of sacred texts, called Vedas. These are considered authoritative only in their prescriptive part, all the rest being only a supplement of prescriptions. Thus, we have a hermeneutic tradition which focuses on sacred texts without referring to god’s intention (the school is atheist, as no doubt we’ll discuss later) and without allowing for any interference between sacred texts and direct experience (no geocentrism because the sacred texts say it, for instance). At this point, a Euro-American reader is likely to ask about the origin of such texts, given that there is no god. Well, the point is that they have no origin. Their presence is a brute fact, just like the existence of language is a brute fact and theories about their origin are much more cumbersome than the acceptance of the fact that they exist and that one could not imagine a scenario without them. One cannot imagine a scenario without language because it is impossible to create a language unless you already have linguistic resources (how else would you communicate with others about the conventions you want to stipulate?). One cannot imagine a scenario without the Vedas because there is no way to invent a teaching about our duties out of direct experience, since there is no fundamental link between what there is and what ought to be. Human beings could not achieve any deontic idea out of the sheer observation of the world as it is. The Veda is, therefore, our only access to the ought. Either one follows it, or there is no way to know about one’s duties.

Now, you might object that you have a pretty good idea of what your duties are although you never read the Vedas. A Mīmāṃsā could reply as follows: You might have derived your ideas from a completely independent source, e.g., a new prophet telling you that you should transfer to her your complete bank account. Mīmāṃsā authors like Kumārila (see Kei Kataoka’s Kumārila on omniscience) think that this source can be proven to be misleading since ordinary human beings have no way to access the realm of the duty from the realm of what there is. Should one counter that their prophet is omniscient, Kumārila would point to the fallacies involved in this claim (most of all: How could you recognise an omniscient, given that you yourself are not omniscient?). Alternatively, you might agree with Kant and say that we have an innate access to the moral law. A Mīmāṃsā thinker would say that in general, this claim sounds like blind faith. However, they would agree that good people have an inner access to what is right, although they claim that this is due to their direct or indirect familiarity with the Vedas. Even the Buddhists acknowledge the value of non-violence, because they have been long enough in touch with people practicing Vedic ideals.

Long story short, while looking at Mīmāṃsā it might be a good idea to start with their focus on the Veda. And while focusing on the Veda in their approach, we must remember to forget all we thought we knew about sacred texts (no god, no author, no conflict with our experience of the world…). Once you have done that it becomes easy to follow why Prabhākara is ready to imagine that there are words whose meaning is not a thing “out there”, because the primary meaning of Vedic sentence is a duty and duties don’t exist in the realm of what there is.

3:AM: Does this attitude of not putting ontology and metaphysics first mean the Mīmāṃsā authors don’t agree with the positive views about nature found in Buddhist and Hindu and Jain systems of thought?

EF: I am not sure about what you mean with “positive views about nature found in Buddhist and Hindu and Jain systems of thought”, and not only because I disagree with such broad generalisations. In fact, I am afraid that “nature” is one of the categories which look like a “natural type” but in fact is not. South Asian authors are exemplary in their revealing that there is no obvious binary distinction between (all) “animals” and (all) “humans”, something we should know, given that we are way more closer to dolphins than they are to ants. The Bhāṭṭa thinker Sucarita (11th c.) has for instance interesting passages about the way some animals are able to produce inferences, though without formulating them linguistically. Śabara (5th c.) explains that animals, like human beings, act insofar as they are motivated by desires and that the only reason why they are not eligible to perform Vedic rituals is that they would not be able to perform some actions and duties imply the ability to perform them (no eligibility without ability, also known as the “ought entails can” principle).

In general, given the fact that most South Asian authors agree with some form of the law of karman, they all assume that all conscious beings (ranging from deities to blades of grass) share some common traits, such as the ability to experience pain and pleasure.

(I discussed the topic in my 2015 article “Systematising an absent category: discourses on ‘nature’ in Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā).

3:AM: You say that the way to understand the prescriptive texts of the Mīmāṃsā school is to discover the rules and logic of the deontic system that is applied but never directly discussed in them. Is that right? So can you sketch what this deontic system is and why this is the way to approach Mīmāṃsā texts?

EF: Mīmāṃsā texts discuss various principles needed to make sense of (Vedic) texts and deal with seeming conflicts. These principles are systematically organised and have indeed been also applied to other texts, ranging from South Asian jurisprudence to literary theory. Some basic outlines of the system are:

There is a vast number of principles, which are organised hierarchically, so that some principles are more fundamental than others and should not be violated, whereas others can eventually be superseded if there is a relevant reason. For instance, direct denotation is generally preferred over metaphorical signification, but the text should never become meaningless, so that a metaphorical interpretation can indeed be used if the text would otherwise end up being meaningless.

This hierarchy of principles helps making sense of deontic statements. For instance, one of the fundamental principles is the idea that each precept (I include within this label all deontic statements) should communicate something new. Therefore, a precept like “One should eat the five five-nailed animals” cannot communicate the duty to eat certain animals, since one is already naturally inclined to eat meat. Rather, the precept should be interpreted as prohibiting the eating of all other animals. Similarly, Mīmāṃsā authors identify the part of each precept which is a repetition of something known and the part which includes the thing to be done (topic and comment in modern linguistics). For a similar hermeneutical problem, think of a signal saying “Animals should be carried on the escalator”, which does not mean that one needs to carry an animal in order to take the escalator.

Mīmāṃsā authors distinguish between different types of prescriptions and between prescriptions and prohibitions. Among prescriptions, there are prescriptions regarding fixed duties and prescriptions regarding actions one undertakes in order to get a certain result. The first kind of duties needs to be performed at the best of one’s capacities, whereas the second type needs to be performed exactly as enjoined, otherwise one will not obtain the desired output. Why so? Because there was a priori no need to undertake such elective duties, hence if one undertakes them, one necessarily need to be sure to do everything exactly as enjoined. For an everyday example, think of dress-code in your everyday life and for a fancy party. You need to go to work every day, hence no one will expect you to spend too much time in choosing your cloths. However, no one could accept that you join a party requiring black ties without a black tie, given that you were not required to go and that if you wanted to join, you needed to wear one.

Mīmāṃsā authors consider prescriptions and prohibitions not to be symmetric. A prohibition to do X is not like the prescription to do not X. Why so? Because prescriptions lead to results if fulfilled, whereas prohibitions involve sanctions if transgressed. This means that statements including a negative particle can nonetheless be considered to be prescriptions if they involve a result (e.g. “Don’t look at the rising sun”, which involves a positive result) and vice versa. A further problem requires the distinction between prohibition which apply to people throughout their lives (e.g. “Don’t tell lies”) and prohibitions applying to a given context (e.g. “Don’t wear shoes in a fitness club”).

The various kinds of prescriptions and prohibitions (and permissions) can interact in complex ways and Mīmāṃsā authors elaborated various ways to make them interact suspending, but without invalidating, each other. For more details, please refer to the website of my deontic logic project, mimamsa.logic.at.

3:AM: Any atheist/theism debate is strange in this philosophy isn’t it? Actually, it sounds like it’s not atheist but kind of theological. There’s a chapter on deities isn’t there which involves Vedic sacrifices feeding and worshipping deities and so on? That doesn’t sound like an atheist text. What’s going on? Is this kind of atheism really just a denial of a hands-on personal kind of deity but not a denial of some impersonal supernatural force?

EF: This is one of my pet topics, so I hope to be able not to say too much. The chapter on deities in the Aphorisms of Mīmāṃsā (the fundamental text of the school) denies the existence of deities and explains that rituals work independently of their alleged intervention. In this sense, the Mīmāṃsā can be officially labelled an atheist school. However, the main problem is that “atheism” and “theism” depend on each other and that you need to know what theos you are talking about in order to deny it. Given that most Euro-American philosophy developed in an Abrahamic milieu, we risk not to be aware of the problem. In my work, I pragmatically distinguish between five ways of understanding “god” in a South Asian milieu:

god as devatā ‘deity’: a superhuman being which is better than a human one, but only insofar as s/he has the same qualities of a human being in higher degree, like the Greek and Roman deities of mythology. This kind of deity is, in South Asia like in ancient Greek and Rome, in direct continuity with other superhuman beings like nymhps, etc. This is the god most atheist schools make fun of, see R. Dawkins 1985, Preface.

god as nityasiddha `perpetually perfect’: a superhuman being who is a model for one and must therefore be meditated upon, but has no direct impact on one’s fate. This is the god of the Yoga system, but also the way Jaina authors revere the Jina.

god as īśvara ‘Lord’: the omniscient, omnipotent (and often also benevolent) being of rational theology, both in Europe and in South Asia (within the Nyāya school of philosophy). One might adore him, but this is not essential.

god as brahman ‘impersonal being’: the impersonal Absolute of most monisms, including Bradley’s and Śaṅkara’s one.

god as bhagavat ‘personal God’: the personal God one directly relates to in prayers, without necessarily caring for His/Her omnipotence or omniscience, but rather focusing on Him/Her as spouse, parent, child, etc.

Which kind of god do Mīmāṃsā authors attack? Surely the first three kinds, and Kumārila has especially hilarious arguments about the inconsistencies of the god of rational theology. This can either be non omnipotent, or cruel, since he tolerates suffering in the world. He can either be bodiless (but then, how could he interfere with matter?) or have a body (but then, who created it?) and so on. Far less clear is whether Kumārila would have attacked also the concepts of god no. 4 and 5. Historically, thinkers like Bhavanātha (11th c.) explicitly said that the attacks against the inference about the existence of god did not amount to a denial of a personal god. This paves the way for a conception of god devoid of ontology (perhaps a god beyond being as in Levinas, if you allow me some continental philosophy). But how could one think of god without being? Again, let us try to avoid the primacy of an ontology of solid entities and embrace the possibility of focusing first on relationality. God would in this sense be first of all a “Thou”.

 

3:AM: Another area of interest is whether there’s free will in Mīmāṃsā. In the Euro-American tradition this is a question that tangles with theories of causality, determinism and agency. So what positions does this Indian philosophy have regarding these? How important is the philosopher Veṅkaṭanātha in this for Mīmāṃsā thinking? So if there is determinism and freewill in Mīmāṃsā what’s the basis for this compatibilist position?

EF: The first thing to be noted here is that the debate on freewill is so important in European philosophy that we might be inclined to think of it as one of the main questions of philosophy. Instead, part of the importance of the question is historical and it is linked to the debate between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam (without which we would not speak of a “free” will). In these cases I suggest mapping the topic and highlighting what are its essential elements, in order to identify them and then possibly check for overlaps in a different context. In the case of free will, the main element appears to be the contrast between two sources for one’s acts, typically God’s will and one’s own one, or one’s neuronal functioning and one’s phenomenological impression of acting freely. In a Mīmāṃsā context, free will is simply presupposed. One understands that this is the case because actions are prescribed by the Veda or are undertaken on the basis of one’s natural desires, but there seems to be no hindrance to one’s acting on the basis of one’s desires, apart from a calculus about costs and benefits.

The situation changes dramatically during the second life of Mīmāṃsā within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (see Q1), a theist school. Veṅkaṭanātha (14th c.) wrote also about Mīmāṃsā but was primarily a Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin. He therefore needed to address a problem we are familiar with, namely the contrast between God’s omnipotence and freewill. His solution is to suggest that God’s voluntarily restricts his omnipotence thus allowing for the free actions of people. One would not be able to do anything if God did not allow it, but one remains fully responsible for one’s actions, since moral responsibility accrues to the one who acts, not to the one who only allows for something to happen.

3:AM: Did the Mīmāṃsā authors take a stance against Buddhist no-self theory?

EF: Yes, they did. One aspect of it is that Mīmāṃsā authors uphold the theory that you should credit your experience unless and until contrary evidence arises. Since our common experience testifies in favour of the existence of a self, the burden to demolish the idea of a self is all on the Buddhist side, think Mīmāṃsā authors, and the Buddhist arguments are ultimately unconvincing and unable to account for phenomena like recognition and memory. An interesting aspect of the Mīmāṃsā defence of a self is that they do not defend a minimalist view of the self, like the Advaita Vedānta school does. The Mīmāṃsā self is an agent and a knower and, as explained by Kumārila, corresponds to our notion of an “I”.

3:AM: What are Mīmāṃsā views about the self ? This idea of a desirous one seems to be an interesting counter view to the one that requires that we suppress desires to find our true selves? Do Buddhists agree with the Mīmāṃsā idea that selves and desires are connected – is this why they want to kill desires and also selves? Do you think it’s useful to compare the Mīmāṃsā views on the subject with Western ones – and also Buddhist views?

EF:  I will start with the last question. In general, I think it is always useful to compare views, since comparison sheds light on both sides of any given topic. Looking at a philosophical topic, including one we are most familiar with, from a fresh perspective makes us aware of new aspects that might have been missed. In this sense, looking at the subject as being identified primarily insofar as s/he desires something, insofar as s/he is evoked by his or her desires, is an interesting alternative to what we would be more familiar with, from the notion of a subject as rational agent (as in Aristotle), to his or her being able to suffer (as in Peter Singer) (I hope readers can bear with these short simplifications).

This being said, Mīmāṃsā authors disagree with the Buddhist eliminationism concerning the self and also with the Advaita Vedānta idea that there is a core self,distinct from one’s “I” (see Q10 or Dan Zahavi’s research). For Mīmāṃsā authors, the self is exactly the one which manifests itself as knower, agent and desirous one. Desires don’t need to be eliminated to come to one’s deeper self and in fact Kumārila makes fun of the Buddhist idea of the Buddha having overcome desires. If this were true, says Kumārila, the Buddha would also stop teaching, since all actions, including teaching, are motivated by a desire. It might be interesting to note that some later Jain authors took up the challenge and claimed that the Jina, the omniscient teacher of Jainism, did in fact not desire to speak. Teachings just emanated out of him like music from an instrument moved by the wind. This might refer to the idea of a way of speaking  which is so disinterested as to occur automatically, just like one automatically moves one hand to cover one’s eyes when the sun is blinding.

A Mīmāṃsā author would have claimed that such types of actions contradict our everyday experience, in which actions are always motivated by desires, and that one should not leave one’s everyday experience unless led by a strong evidence contradicting it. This commitment to everyday experience is part of Kumārila’s intrinsic validity theory of epistemology, according to which each piece of cognition should be considered knowledge unless and until it is falsified. The opposite idea (needing to check for defeaters before accepting a cognition as knowledge) is just nonsensical, thinks Kumārila, since it leads to an infinite regress. In fact, one would need to check for defeaters also with regard to the checking cognition and so on forever. Attentive readers will immediately see that the theory of intrinsic validity entails important consequences when it comes to the epistemology of testimony, especially in the case of the Veda, since this is the only source for the ought and can’t therefore be falsified.

3:AM: What’s at stake when we ask whether Mīmāṃsā authors formulated a theory of action, in particular for the role of hermeneutics, exegesis, linguistics and philosophy in general?

EF: Mīmāṃsā authors started formulating a theory of action departing from hermeneutical concerns, i.e., insofar as they examined the way in which Vedic sentences prescribe actions. Consequently, they recognised that each action involves a ‘bringing into being’ (called bhāvanā) of a new status. This makes it possible for Mīmāṃsā authors to conceptualise also knowledge as a type of action (against the thinkers of the Advaita Vedānta and of the Nyāya school). Each bringing into being requires an agent, a result, an instrument and a procedure. The latter is described as the instrument’s instrument. For instance, cutting a tree requires an agent (the lumberjack), a result (the cut tree), an instrument (the axe) and a procedure (raising and lowering the axe). In philosophy of language, this means that one often needs to distinguish within a verb between the action-element and the instrument-element. The former is typically expressed by the ending, the latter by the root. For instance, in “The one desirous of heaven sacrifices with Soma”, heaven is the result, the person desiring it is the agent and the action expressed by the ending is the bringing into being. The root “to sacrifice” is rather interpreted as the instrument of this bringing into being, so that the whole sentence is analysed as “The one who desires it brings about heaven by means of a sacrifice endowed with Soma”.

What about commands? These are described as actions bringing into being another action. For instance “The one who desires heaven *should* sacrifice with Soma” is analysed as follows: The one who desires heaven is caused to bring about the action of bringing about heaven with a sacrifice. This interconnected theory of action and of its linguistic expression has a deep impact also for the definition of what counts as action, since it distinguishes it from physical movements while at the same time excluding from actions the content of verbs like “to be”.

3:AM: Why is the issue of what makes a text a commentary philosophically rewarding when raised in the context of Indian philosophy? Does this issue link with that of the reusing of texts in this same tradition?

EF: Yes! It is a question of etiquette. Our scholarly etiquette (see, for instance, the guidelines of any big funding agency) emphasises concepts like “novel” and “ground-breaking” and looks down upon “incremental”. Does this mean that all projects are really that novel? Hopefully not, since we also need databases, proofs of concepts and incremental progress. By contrast, the South Asian etiquette looked down upon novelty and emphasised the continuity with one’s past. Does this mean that there were no innovations? Not at all. But innovations are more difficult to detect, since they are not emphasised (one does not find them in a book’s blurb) and are often even camouflaged as if nothing new had really occurred. As an example, let me take Śālikanātha’s theory of arthāpatti. This is an instrument of knowledge allowing one to understand out of “The fat John Smith does not eat at daytime” that he must eat at night. Prabhākara explained that this is not a case of inference, but Śālikanātha was not at all convinced by his reasons. Therefore, he forced the interpretation of Prabhākara’s text on arthāpatti so as to accommodate his own (much more powerful) defence of arthāpatti as distinct from inference insofar as it involves a belief-revision (“So, it is not the case that eating involves eating at daytime!”). The same scholarly etiquette is also responsible for the fact that textual reuse is the norm in South Asian philosophy. Every thinker of a given school is encouraged to reuse passages (e.g., handy definitions) of his predecessors and this is not seen as plagiarism since one is just advancing one’s school.

3:AM: Do you think that Euro-American philosophy has not grasped yet the sophistication of, for example, the philosophy of language found in ancient Indian traditions because translations have not been done by philosophically sophisticated translators – largely because of default assumptions that texts were primitive and naïve? Is this changing now?

EF: Yes! For instance, some translators used the term “letter” for varṇa, thus obliterating the fact that Indian authors were well aware of the distinction between phonemes and phones, not to speak of that between them and their graphic representations. Is this changing? I am doing my best, and, more importantly, there are excellent scholars of Mīmāṃsā philosophy of language out there nowadays (I am thinking especially of Larry McCrea, Andrew Ollett, Hugo David, and —for a less Sanskrit-focused approach— Malcolm Keating).

[Hendra Gunawan’s Pandawa Dadu (The Dice Game from the Mahabharata Epic)]

3:AM: As a take home can you say something about the Coffee Break project and its work to refuse to essentialise the Other, renounce the idea of a neutral ground and stay self critical in order address a Eurocentric approach to philosophy?

EF: Thank you for asking. The Coffee Break project is a brave initiative, especially if you think that it has been brought into being by a group of (at that time) young and (largely still) untenured scholars. We organise workshops which feel relaxed and engaging like a conversation during the coffee break (hence the name) and have been using them to dig deeper and deeper in our unspoken assumptions, such as the idea that there is a natural kind called “Indian philosophy” or even “Asian thought”. Could the use of disciplines instead of geographical categories help? Yes and no. In fact, we then moved to an understanding of the historical nature of disciplines and discovered that these are also not natural kinds. You cannot speak of “Indian philosophy of language” unless you are aware of the fact that your concept of “philosophy of language” is likely to be affected by the fact that it is a recent development in European philosophy and you are probably thinking that it is (therefore) less essential than “ontology” (for which there is even an own word!), and so on. Can this critical approach help? Yes, especially insofar as it makes one constantly aware of the risk of having further implicit methodological assumptions. Can it be paralysing? Yes, if one pushes it too far. We try to stay pragmatic and to help each other noticing our pre-judices while not stopping to work on new topics. By the way, the next Coffee break conference will take place from the 1st to the 3rd October 2019 in Turin (NW Italy) on the topic of translation. Feel free to contact me if you want to join one of the panels or need more information.

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

EF: If I could include Sanskrit titles, I would say that I was greatly influenced by Kumārila’s Tantravārttika (Commentary on the Mīmāṃsā system), by Śālikanātha’s Vākyārthamātṛkā (On sentence-meaning), by Jayanta’s Nyāyamañjarī (Florilegium of logic), by Veṅkaṭanātha’s Śatadūṣaṇī (Hundred refutations) and by Rāmānujācārya’s Tantrarahasya (The essence of the Mīmāṃsā system). But I guess the rule is no Sanskrit, right?

Then, let me mention again Wilhelm Halbfass, for instance his India and Europe (SUNY 1999), for the ability to build a dialogue.

 

Then, Ganganath Jha’s Purva Mimamsa in its sources (1942) as a place-holder for great books of the past we too often neglect to read because they are no longer fashionable but which are exemplary for their depth.

Next, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s Divine Self, Human Self (Bloomsbury 2013) because it is audacious in going beyond divides (analytic-continental, European-South Asian, philosophy-theology…) and offers new food for thought whenever you open it.

Last, Kei Kataoka’s and John Taber’s translation and study of Kumārila are among the few Mīmāṃsā texts accessible to English-speaking philosophers. They are called Kumārila on Truth, Omniscience, and Killing (VÖAW 2011, by Kei Kataoka),

And A Hindū critique of Buddhist epistemology: Kumārila on perception (Routledge 2005, by John Taber). And, once you are on board with Mīmāṃsā, don’t forget to also read Larry McCrea’s articles!

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is biding his time (with a couple of Euro-American reps).

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, February 2nd, 2019.