Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Interpreting an Alien Philosophy: What Works for Me

[Dear readers: I am happy to present the following invited guest post from Dr. Elisa Freschi of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Freschi (BA +MA in Indology and Tibetology, BA in Philosophy, PhD in South Asian Studies) has worked on topics of Classical Indian Philosophy and more in general on comparative philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language and on the re-use of texts in Indian philosophy (about which she has just finished editing a volume). She is a convinced upholder of reading Sanskrit philosophical texts within their history and understanding them through a philosophical approach. She has worked at the Austrian Academy of Sciences since September 1, 2012, with a Lise Meitner project on Epistemology of Sacred Texts in Vedāntadeśika’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā. For more information about her work see here.]

No matter whether one focuses on Classical Chinese philosophy (as probably most readers of this blog) or on Classical Indian philosophy (like myself), one works on something which is different than oneself. I will contend that this feeling is useful also if one focuses on contemporary Chinese, or Indian (or Tibetan and so on) philosophy, or on Classical, Medieval, Modern Western philosophy, since it alerts one to a key factor, namely the difference between oneself and one’s object of study.

One should be aware of all too rapid identifications and remember to allow the texts to claim something different than the categories one would instinctively like them to represent. For instance, if you have just found out that X’s philosophy of language is “identical” to Grice’s, pause and reflect. You are most probably missing something distinctive and run the risk of overlooking the specificities of both. Moreover, you are missing the chance to be challenged by X’s philosophy, since you are interpreting it through the lens of something familiar, thus domesticating its extraneousness.

Taken to its extremes, this move is what will eventually lead one to think that “There is no Chinese logic” or “Indian philosophy was not aware of history”. Oversimplifying and being blind to differences makes the history of philosophy and thereby also philosophy itself far less interesting and challenging.

I assume that the audience of this blog is too philosophically engaged to need to be warned against the opposite risk so that I will just mention it: By contrast, I also try to avoid the risk of thinking of the texts I work on as completely alien. They were written by authors who, like myself, wanted to communicate something. If they seem to be communicating something senseless, before condemning the “lack of rationality” of the text, I programmatically assume that I am wrong.

A consequence of the first point, i.e., the emphasis on difference, is the need to study not just philosophy, but also the history of philosophy. I am convinced that, at least in my case, the awareness of a historical perspective has greatly deepened my understanding of each single issue. I can see clearly that there are trends and that “idealism” has not always meant the same thing and I am, therefore, much less prone to fashions, such as cleansing Vasubandhu of idealism  (Vasubandhu was a 5th c. Buddhist philosopher who was long thought to be an “idealist” and then interpreted differently after a certain point because idealism was out of fashion in contemporary Anglophone philosophy and one unconsciously wanted to “rescue” Vasubandhu from what one deemed to be a mistake).

A further consequence of the emphasis on difference is that one often needs to consider the fact that an alien philosophy not only has different answers to offer, but often asks different questions. An easy example is that of the controversy about what there is, which in Western thought often – and in modern and contemporary thought automatically – assumes the form of a quest for the origin of the world. A symptom of this attitude can be seen in the questions posed to Stephen Hawkins at his public lectures. They mostly regard Hawkins’ theory of time, asking “What was there before the Big Bang”, and they so much resemble each other that Prof. Hawkins could prepare automatic answers for them. The automatic translation of one problem (the explanation of what is given) into another (the temporal origin of what is given out of a cause different than itself) is avoided in the case of other philosophical traditions, from classical Greece to India and China. The same applies to the controversy about free will, the specific elements of which are linked with the history of Western thought, from the Greek tragedy to St. Augustine and so on.

Turning back to the main point, this ability of different philosophical histories to unsettle our commonsensical questions is annoying for the editors of volumes about, e.g., “Theodicy in world philosophies”, who think they cannot find the answers they are looking for. Nonetheless, if one regards philosophy not as the professional business of editors and publishing houses, but as an ongoing enterprise, then there is nothing a philosopher needs more than the encounter with a thinker or a thought that unsettles her and allows her to perceive how much is nonreflective in what she considered to be her original ideas. Thus, let us all study Chinese, Indian, African, ancient Greek philosophies, or any other philosophy which is far enough from our common sense, be it temporally, geographically or through other conditions.*

This being said, interpreting an alien philosophy is not an episteme. It is at most a techne. What works for you?

 

*I am thinking here of critical feminist philosophy, critical philosophy of race, critical philosophy of disability and so on.

 

Hannah Pang detail

 

October 22nd, 2014 Posted by | Buddhism, Comparative philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Methodology | 24 comments

24 Responses to Interpreting an Alien Philosophy: What Works for Me

  1. Geoffrey Redmond says:

    I would extend the idea that Chinese or Indian philosophy is “different from me” to say that all philosophy is. Is Confucianism different from me in a way Plato or Marcus Aurelius are not? Alll are unfamiliar when first encountered. Athenians perceived Socrates as alien.
    Is there something imherent in us as Westerners that makes Confucius different but not Plato?
    I agree that the philosophies are different but suggest that this is not inherent but due to education and, more important, to how we affiliate ourselves.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Geoffrey. I agree with you and this is what I meant when I wrote that ” I will contend that this feeling is useful also if one focuses on contemporary Chinese, or Indian (or Tibetan and so on) philosophy, or on Classical, Medieval, Modern Western philosophy, since it alerts one to a key factor, namely the difference between oneself and one’s object of study.”
      Thus, difference in time is surely as important as different in space, and the same applies to different in conditions. However, I would say that, supposing you are an analytic philosopher, your fellow analytic philosophers are less alien. They share your jargon and your preliminary assumptions and goals. In this sense, some thinkers are less unfamiliar than others, don’t you think?

      Reply
    • Bill Haines says:

      Point taken.

      (Geoffrey in particular seems to be at least as deeply into Asian as into anglo philosophical practices, judging by what shows up quickly on line.)

      I take the original post to be directed at least partly to beginners. For Westerners who are not trained philosophers, I think much anglo philosophical work is harder to understand than is some of the Chinese and Indian work best known in the West (given that one at least knows the natural language of the original, which I think your post assumes).

      I’m thinking of simple early texts – the Analects, the Mencius, the Dhammapada, maybe the Gita – that are not addressed to academic specialists. They are not formulated in technical language, and their purpose is not to construct a theoretical academic enterprise (a project few people share). In that respect those early Asian are closer to everyone, in a way (though the conditions they aim to address may have passed). I think beginning students tend to feel that they are far more accessible than (say) Mill or Rawls.

      Reply
      • Yes, one immediately understands something and one can immediately relate. But this immediateness is risky and I would ask students and scholars alike to then take one step back and rethink about the text anew. If it is just “nothing more than”, say, Stoicism, then I would assume that they misunderstood it.

        (sorry for the late answer, I did not notice this comment)

        Reply
  2. Bill Haines says:

    I agree with almost everything Elisa says. These are very important points. I also agree with Geoffrey – normally in reading philosophy, one encounters and should recognize the same sorts of challenge.

    One small point: I’m surprised to hear that “controversy about what there is … in modern and contemporary thought automatically … assumes the form of a quest for the origin of the world.” Among philosophers, I think ontology is usually not tied very closely to cosmogony. I’m not so sure about physicists.

    Reply
    • Bill, I see your point. My problem was that there is no English world for “theorethical discussion about the cosmos” apart from “cosmogony” (and its synonyms, such as cosmogenesis), which implies a discussion about the origin of the world. Even “cosmology” is defined as a theory about the origin of the world.

      Reply
      • As far as I know, “cosmology” includes theories about origins, but it also deals with the structure and workings of the cosmos. “Cosmogony” deals exclusively with origins.

        Reply
      • Bill Haines says:

        Some people do occasionally say “cosmology” when they mean cosmogony, and some dictionaries honor the practice. (‘Cosmogenesis’ means the event itself, not the study of it.)

        Inspired by etymology I guess, Western philosophers often distinguish “the cosmos” from “the universe”—the term ‘cosmos’ is supposed to refer to the world as a kind of orderly whole (e.g. with the earth in the center of the spheres, or humanity between heaven and earth), whereas the term ‘universe’ simply aims to catch everything that exists, or everything in time and space.

        Thus if you think the earth is in the center of the spheres, and outside the spheres there’s nothing but a few stray dust bunnies, you might hold that the cosmos encompasses almost everything in the physical universe.

        The ontologist Parmenides thought the universe is just the one real thing, and arguably he thought there is no cosmos.

        Physicists talking with Hawking would be talking within or about the many-universes hypothesis, which I think implies that (a) there is no such thing as the origin of everything, and that (b) the terms “the universe” and especially “the cosmos” (as I explicated it above) are in error. But I imagine the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology where Hawking works uses the term ‘cosmology’ in a wider sense.

        Ontology may cast its net even wider. One of the main traditional concerns of Western ontologists is whether there are things that are perhaps outside the world that the physicists talk about, outside of space and time and therefore lacking in origins – e.g. numbers, universals, God.

        There is still plenty of life in the ancient controversy about whether such proposed eternal entities might be important to explaining what happens in space and time. God, numbers, geometry, universals all arguably have familiar roles to play in proposed causal explanations of events in daily life. For example: “Why doesn’t that bronze thing roll down the hill?” “It’s square.”

        *

        I wonder whether in the Chinese tradition there is anything like a discussion of whether there are existents that are in some perhaps philosophically troubling sense “not part of the world.”

        From what little I know of old Indian philosophy, I imagine the idea “the cosmos” might be especially problematic to import into the Indian discussion. On the one hand, I gather that Indian thought tended to associate physicality with unreality, so that one would not be tempted to draw even a rough equivalence between “the whole physical world” and “all of what there is.” I don’t know how far there was a concept of “matter” to sharpen up a concept of the physical. On the other hand, I gather that a common Indian view was that the history of everything was ordered in an endless series of some kind, so that there was an order to the whole of everything, and in that sense there was a cosmos.

        *

        Elisa, I think your main point in this example was more about causation than about cosmogony, and really hardly at all about ontology? I think you were talking about the idea that Western philosophy’s idea of what it takes to explain anything (or: anything in the world?) has narrowed to something like Aristotle’s efficient causation (or rather, Humean or Hempelian explanation by antecedent conditions and covering laws), perhaps inspired by Newton; and that this narrow vision of explanation is widespread enough to be taken for granted by Hawking’s audiences of amateurs, but widespread among modern Westerners only.

        I think people still ask for explanations like “why did you do that?” and “what’s the spleen for?” – and I think that anglo philosophers these days don’t in general identify explanation with Carl Hempel’s picture. I don’t think the general public or philosophical specialists have abandoned searches for Aristotle’s other three becauses, though there’s perhaps more of an appreciation of (a) how their role in something like Hempelian explanation can make them more explanatory, and (b) the falsehood of natural teleology at the most basic level.

        But I completely agree that views about this sort of thing can vary from time to time and place to place.

        Some people who ask Hawking the recurring questions may not be confusing causal with any other kind of explanation; they may simply be interested in what caused the Big Bang.

        But I think some of them may be confusing the following two questions:

        1. What (prior thing) caused the Big Bang?
        2. Why is there something rather than nothing?

        To confuse these two questions is to confuse two objects of explanation–two things to explain. A satisfactory causal answer to the question “What caused the Big Bang?” on the basis of some previous thing would of course not be an answer to the second question.

        Even recently, Western philosophers have addressed this second question without confusing it with the search for antecedent causes.
        sfu.ca/~rpyke/cafe/parfit.pdf
        ndpr.nd.edu/news/24442-why-there-is-something-rath…

        I think the root of the confusion between questions 1 and 2 is a confusion between two objects of explanation, rather than between two kinds of explanation. Because of the special object of the second question—Why is there something rather than nothing?—this question obviously can’t have a satisfactory answer in the form of a previous causal event. So if the question makes sense, it must be seeking some other kind of explanation, or at least hoping that there is some other kind of explanation. But similarly, the big question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” can’t be seeking a non-causal explanation on the basis of something not wholly included in the object to be explained.

        If indeed the root is a confusion between the two objects of explanation (one object being Everything, the other object being The-Big-Bang-Plus-Everything-It-Explains), then the confusion might be special to special topics like the Big Bang and God; a confusion between causal and some unspecified other kind of explanation might not pervade people’s thinking about other things.

        Some of Aristotle’s four becauses might be thought of as explanations on the basis of something wholly included in the thing to be explained—if we think of what’s being explained as things rather than events.

        (Elisa, does the Indian tradition define further kinds of because, or kinds of explanation?)

        *

        The confusion between explaining the Big Bang by something prior, and explaining Everything on the basis of that same prior thing, looks analogous to the confusion between explaining the Cosmos on the basis of God and explaining Everything on the basis of God.

        A closer look at the Big Bang might be helpful in thinking about this, and maybe ultimately in drawing comparisons with the Indian tradition.

        One might think we can make partial progress toward explaining why there is something rather than nothing, if we can explain almost everything on the basis of almost nothing, and if we can continue to refine the explanation so that we’re explaining more and more on the basis of less and less. One might even say that the Big Bang is a vivid example of that kind of idea—and that it sort of stands for the idea of an infinite series of improvements in explanation, covering an infinite series of events that are ever briefer as we go back in time, yielding what we might call a starting-point in time, and (at the limit, as it were) an explanation of everything on the basis of nothing.

        In which case the question “What caused the Big Bang?” would arguably miss the exciting point.

        (And if it doesn’t take anything to make a universe, then one might well expect there to be any number of them.)

        (But how much explaining, rather than mere sequence (sequence without laws), is really going on in physicists’ stories about what happened near the beginning of the BB?)

        Reply
        • Bill Haines says:

          (Digression: Is there a real difference between the following two claims? I don’t know.

          1. In the Big Bang, the universe started out as tiny as you please, and then rapidly grew. In other words, if we extrapolate current trends backward, we look back to a universe that grew from something so small as to approximate nothing.

          2. The universe has not changed in size, but toward the beginning of its history the stuff in the universe was rapidly shrinking. In other words, if we extrapolate current trends backward, we look back to a big universe full of stuff we wouldn’t recognize, and we can’t look farther back.

          The former picture suggests that the universe came to be from nothing. The latter picture makes no such suggestion, unless the idea is that the earlier we go, the more undifferentiated was the stuff in the universe. But that idea seems to go against the idea that entropy doesn’t decrease. So I don’t know what to think.)

          Reply
          • Bill, thanks again for this interesting cosmological thoughts. I am not sure I can follow your last comment, though (the one on October the 29th, 6:01). I would imagine entropy to increase in the standard Big Bang theory (more energy at the beginning, less energy upto no energy at all at the end).

            More in general, the Big Bang theory is interesting and fascinating, but I think that part of its appeal is due to our (=Western trained contemporary scholars and readers) crave for a first cause. What do you think?

          • Bill Haines says:

            1. Not about cosmology

            My remarks outside of parentheses were not “cosmological thoughts”—ideas or proposals about the cosmos. I have nothing to offer about that.

            My comments addressed instead (a) things you and Scott had said about words such as ‘cosmology’ and (b) a point I thought you might be making about Westerners’ narrow conception of explanation, and whether the example you offered fit the point.

            2. Western culture craves a first cause?

            Here I’d like to pursue your proposal that part of the appeal of the Big bang theory is due to a culturally Western craving for a first cause.

            I want to argue that that’s sort of right and sort of not; and that the more fundamental explanation is the one that I offered earlier: confusion between two objects of explanation.

            First, I submit that the Big Bang theory is not a theory whose origin or popularity is based on a cultural craving. I think the Big Bang theory had to fight for its rights by means of serious evidence. The original evidence, I think, was the observation that all the galaxies seemed to be moving rapidly apart. That immediately suggested that they were once all together, hence that the universe was an ongoing explosion; no craving was necessary. But people resisted the Big Bang. They came up with the Steady State theory – that the universe is expanding in the sense that things are all moving farther apart, but the universe is infinite in time and space, and kept at a steady density by a constant insertion of new matter from nothing, throughout. (One might think: if a whole universe can come from nothing, then surely little bits can, here and there.)

            But further evidence conflicted with this Steady State theory, so the Big Bang is now generally accepted among scientists (I think). I think the rest of us just follow their lead.

            My guess is that people would rather believe that the universe is in a steady state (with or without expansion and new matter). As a small boy I was very disappointed by the victory of the Big Bang Theory. For that theory goes with the view that, at least for practical purposes, the universe will die. It will disperse into meaningless dust, or collapse onto itself.

            There is another reason to find the Big Bang troubling. If the Big Bang means that there is a First Cause, then it opposes the idea that everything has a cause. It puts great focus on the idea that something really important has no cause at all.

            I imagine that is why Hawking keeps encountering the question, “What caused the Big Bang?” The question seems to spring not from any details of the Big Bang Theory, but rather simply from the fact that the theory offers what looks at first glance like a First Cause. That’s what the questioner is rebelling against. The questioner seems to display a discomfort precisely with the idea of a first cause, a discomfort with the idea that there is a cause of everything-else that does not itself have a cause.

            If the questioner had asked for an uncaused causeof the Big Bang, then the question would have displayed a wish for, not against, a First Cause.

            In short, any inclination to think events have to have causes is a drive against the idea of a First Cause, unless people are just confused about something, as I have suggested they are. I have suggested that people tend to confuse the idea of (a) a cause or explanation of everything, with the idea of (b) a cause or explanation of everything else.

            People want (a) a cause of everything, but they confuse that with (b) a cause of everything else.

            Any craving for a First Cause is, I submit, one unstable pole in a kind of mental oscillation based on that confusion.

            The even more fundamental underlying problem, I meant to suggest earlier, is that although we want an explanation of Everything (the whole), it’s not clear that we have a promising relevant conception of explanation that allows the explanation (the aition) to be part of what is explained.

            3. On your entropy question

            The point of my whole digression in parentheses – the “last comment” you refer to—was to say that one of my earlier points had been too hasty.

            About entropy, what I was trying to say in my parenthetical digression was this:

            Picture 2 that I laid out does not suggest that the universe came to be from nothing, unless we take the picture to say that (A) the earlier we go, the more indifferentiated was the stuff in the universe [for this in turn suggests an original complete lack of differentiation, which is arguably the same thing as there being nothing at all]. – – – – But view (A) seems to say that cosmic history, or at least early cosmic history, is the history of increasing differentiation. And that would seem to imply decreasing entropy. Which physicists seem to say can’t happen. So view (A) seems unavailable. And the unavailability of view (A) is a reason to think that Picture 2 should not be seen as suggesting that the universe came to be from nothing. So it seems as though we have two prima facie equivalent pictures, 1 and 2, except that one of them suggests that the universe came to be from nothing and the other doesn’t. That’s odd. I’m left not knowing what to think.

            By the way, I think it’s not the case that physicists tend to identify a decrease of energy with an increase of entropy. On the contrary: the standard view has been that entropy remains the same or increases, while energy never increases or decreases.

            And yet, so far as I can tell by a brief glance into cyberspace, physicists don’t have any agreed view about whether the conservation of energy applies during the early moments of the Big Bang, and there’s a theory of “dark energy” that may upset the “law of conservation of energy” more thoroughly. (I don’t know anything about “dark energy” except what I’ve just said.)

        • Bill, thanks for this long and interesting answer. I apologize for the late reply.

          From what little I know of old Indian philosophy, I imagine the idea “the cosmos” might be especially problematic to import into the Indian discussion. On the one hand, I gather that Indian thought tended to associate physicality with unreality, so that one would not be tempted to draw even a rough equivalence between “the whole physical world” and “all of what there is.” I don’t know how far there was a concept of “matter” to sharpen up a concept of the physical. On the other hand, I gather that a common Indian view was that the history of everything was ordered in an endless series of some kind, so that there was an order to the whole of everything, and in that sense there was a cosmos.

          I hope you can forgive me if I start by saying that —due to the methodology I explained in the post— I cannot answer in the name of “Indian Philosophy”. Perhaps in some cases a claim made in name of “Indian Philosophy” tout court would make sense, e.g. in the sentence “Indian philosophy discusses the issue of retribution and rebirth”. However, in the case of ontology, views abound and are far apart from each other. What you refer to when you write that “Indian thought tended to associate physicality with unreality” is only true for *some* trends of Advaita Vedānta, which happened to arrive in the West soon enough to be associated with “Indian Philosophy” in general, but which are not more representative of “Indian Philosophy” in general than, say, a given Christian sect is representative of “Christianity” in general.

          Elisa, I think your main point in this example was more about causation than about cosmogony, and really hardly at all about ontology? I think you were talking about the idea that Western philosophy’s idea of what it takes to explain anything (or: anything in the world?) has narrowed to something like Aristotle’s efficient causation (or rather, Humean or Hempelian explanation by antecedent conditions and covering laws), perhaps inspired by Newton; and that this narrow vision of explanation is widespread enough to be taken for granted by Hawking’s audiences of amateurs, but widespread among modern Westerners only.

          My general point was that most Western-trained scholars and lay readers tend to think along some fix guidelines, e.g., monodimensional temporality, creatio e nihilo (a.k.a. Big Bang for lay readers), need of a cause. It is, e.g., very challenging for most Western-trained contemporary scholars and lay readers to think of beginningless time as an option which is not less conceivable nor less justifiable than time-with-beginning. I agree with you that causation is another similar problem. It is very difficult for most Western-trained contemporary scholars and lay readers to think of causeless events. This holds true for the Pramāṇavāda Buddhist theory that destruction does not need a causal explanation, but also for the theory of (Western) physics that not only stasis, but also movement is —unless a change of state occurs— eternal and does not need a causal explanation (I hope I am using the right English terminology —I have being schooled in a different language).

          (Elisa, does the Indian tradition define further kinds of because, or kinds of explanation?)

          Yes, this is an interesting topic. Philosophers of the Nyāya school distinguish between three types of causes and Buddhist Pramāṇavādins (`epistemologists’) also discuss at length of the elements which make up the causal complex leading to a certain result. However, I am not aware of any distinction mirroring Aristotle’s one. The different causes are rather seen as complementary (the agent’s will is needed along with a material cause and so on).

          Reply
        • Bill Haines says:

          Sigh! Oh well. Thanks for all this, Elisa!

          (A) Method versus Cultural Generalizations?

          You write,

          I hope you can forgive me if I start by saying that —due to the methodology I explained in the post— I cannot answer in the name of “Indian Philosophy”.

          Though I didn’t ask, I did hope you would comment about Indian philosophy, which you did: you said my impression of it in general was false: that Indian thought tends to associate physicality with unreality.

          (My proposed illustration for your point about the pitfalls of attributing concepts to others doesn’t apply to as many people as I thought.)

          I think the points of method in the post are these (too briefly): “Don’t assume too much or little strangeness in a text. Read widely around the text.”

          Are you saying these rules forbid us from considering broad generalizations? I don’t see how they could. Also you seem to be willing to make detailed claims about “most Western-trained scholars and lay readers” and about what’s automatic in “modern and contemporary thought.”

          Maybe you just meant to reject the idea that “Indian Philosophy” names a philosophy. Using the term in that way would indeed be senseless, like using “modern thought” to name a thought (which of course I assume you didn’t do).

          (B) Western fixed ideas?

          You say that Western-trained people tend to think in terms of (i) things coming into being from nothing and (ii) the need of a cause. I argued in a comment above, later than your comment here, that the contradiction between these two is very striking. No one person’s thought can fit both of these ways of thinking.

          You write,

          I agree with you that causation is another similar problem. It is very difficult for most Western-trained contemporary scholars and lay readers to think of causeless events.

          I didn’t mean to suggest that.

          Is it your position that current Westerners anxiously want to believe in a First Cause, but find it very difficult to conceive such a thing? I wonder whether it is possible to want something without being able to think of it. But I don’t think there’s any actual difficulty involved in conceiving an uncaused thing. There’s the thing, and before that there isn’t a cause. That’s it. That’s the whole concept. Easy. Maybe you mean Westerners are very uncomfortable with, they are repelled by, the idea of something uncaused. That would imply that they are uncomfortable with, are repelled, by, the idea of a First Cause – yes?

          You also say that Western-trained people tend to think in terms of (iii) monodimensional temporality. But Western-trained physicists believe in the dimensional quasi-interchangeability of time and space, the relativity of time to velocity; and nonphysicists with a good general education believe them. Less famously, some physicists speak of multiple universes, and I suppose the universes are not supposed to have any temporal relationship with each other – so that there would be many times. Continental philosophers have sometimes spoken of circular time. Everyone has encountered stories, movies, and TV shows and series built around time travel, wormholes, etc. The serious problems with circular time and time travel are better appreciated by professional thinkers than by lay readers and viewers.

          Thinking of time as a plain linear sequence is of course the simplest and most natural view anywhere. Are departures from this idea more common in India than the West?

          Reply
          • Thanks again for these comments. You are right, I run the risk of generalising Western common-sense when I speak of what Western-trained contemporary scholars will be more likely inclined to believe without even being aware of their choices. One would need to be more cautious with such claims, if one were to write an essay about philosophical common-sense in the Western academia in the 21st century. However, I am using common-sense only as the automatism we should become aware of in order not to be prey of it. In this instrumental sense, I hope it can retain some utility —at least it does for me, does not it for you?

            Last, I do not think that

            thinking of time as a plain linear sequence is of course the simplest and most natural view anywhere

            first because cyclical time is a well-spread option in many authors, second because I am convinced that ideas have a history and are not just a given (think at the impact of the ninth chapter of Augustin’s Confessiones on our conception of time), and, more importantly, because I do not believe in claims based on what is “of course” and “natural”. I think we tend to attribute to “nature” what we are just used to think to be such (think at the arguments about women being “naturally” not inclined to abstract thought and all what we have read for centuries by thinkers who were probably sincere and unaware of their acting in favour of the preservation of well-established priviledges).

          • Thanks again for these comments. You are right, I run the risk of generalising Western common-sense when I speak of what Western-trained contemporary scholars will be more likely inclined to believe without even being aware of their choices. One would need to be more cautious with such claims, if one were to write an essay about philosophical common-sense in the Western academia in the 21st century. However, I am using common-sense only as the automatism we should become aware of in order not to be prey of it. In this instrumental sense, I hope it can retain some utility —at least it does for me, does not it for you?

            Last, I do not think that

            thinking of time as a plain linear sequence is of course the simplest and most natural view anywhere

            first because cyclical time is a well-spread option in many authors, second because I am convinced that ideas have a history and are not just a given (think at the impact of the ninth chapter of Augustin’s Confessiones on our conception of time), and, more importantly, because I do not believe in claims based on what is “of course” and “natural”. I think we tend to attribute to “nature” what we are just used to think to be such (think at the arguments about balck people being “naturally” not inclined to independent action and all what we have read for centuries by thinkers who were probably sincere and unaware of their acting in favour of the preservation of well-established priviledges).

  3. An interesting counter-perspective can be read in this post, where Amod Lele explains how he deals with the Zhuangzi: loveofallwisdom.com/blog/2014/10/philological-and-…

    Reply
    • A while back I put together a long essay on early Chinese ideas on cosmogony and cosmology (as part of my series on Classical Daoism). I don’t think a concern with first causes (or a Prime Mover) is “Western.”
      baopu81.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/classical-daoism-…

      Reply
      • Thank you, I will look at it. Just a minor point: I did not want to say that *only* Western trained contemporary scholars and readers think in terms of first causes etc., but that they do tend to think in this way and that this is a pre-judice which could make them blind to different approaches.

        Reply
  4. Bill Haines says:

    I think there are three main points of interpretive method in the original post:

    (1) Don’t simply project your own ideas into the text
    (2) The Principle of Charity: Try hard to resist the conclusion that a reputable text makes a stupid mistake.
    (3) Toward interpreting any one text, read widely among antecedent texts.

    Each of these, I agree, is extremely important. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts about them.

    (3) Read antecedent texts

    In some sense there’s a circularity here, especially if we think that being older tends to make a text more alien. I think being older can tend to make a philosophical text less alien (see my remark of 4:58), but anyway to read a philosophical text one also wants antecedent non-philosophical texts.

    In any case of course the point is that one can improve one’s understanding of the texts in a tradition by reading other texts in the same tradition—a point that involves no regress.

    (2) The Principle of Charity

    Elisa, I think you are right to say that for most readers of this blog, the Principle of Charity is already familiar. It is a standard part of anglo undergraduate training on how to read any philosophy, or any reputable philosophy. Obviously lots of texts in the Indian and Chinese traditions are greatly respected by many very smart people, so they qualify.

    There are more and less demanding versions of the Principle, of course. On two main dimensions: the question which texts it applies to, and the question how small are the mistakes we should resist attributing to the text.

    Very demanding version:

    For any text that someone bothered to copy or print,
    if it seems to be making a small mistake,
    assume you have misread it.

    Very undemanding version:

    For any of the 100 most respected texts in the world,
    if it seems to be utter gibberish,
    assume you have misread it.

    The demanding version above is probably very bad advice. The undemanding version above is good advice but says too little to be very informative or helpful.

    The version you lay out is a little unclear about the first dimension (choice of text), and seems very undemanding on the second dimension (size of mistake):

    I also try to avoid the risk of thinking of the texts I work on as completely alien. They were written by authors who, like myself, wanted to communicate something. If they seem to be communicating something senseless, before condemning the “lack of rationality” of the text, I programmatically assume that I am wrong.

    That you trouble to say this, and that you put “lack of rationality” in quotes, and that you put that line in boldface, — each suggest to me that you think there is today a non-negligible number of scholarly readers of important Indian or Chinese texts who condemn the texts as being devoid of “rationality.”

    Are there? Can you give some examples? Can you clarify what you mean by “rationality” here?

    (1) Don’t simply project your own ideas into the text

    We do make mistakes of projection – inevitably, I suppose, since projecting some of one’s own ideas onto a text is the only way it is possible to read anything. But I think it might be uncharitable to imagine that one’s audience can benefit from being told (1) in the abstract.

    So I think the interesting question becomes: how to formulate useful guidelines for projecting enough and not too much.

    I think that’s why you offer Rule (3), and I agree. For one thing, the extra reading gives us more concepts, ones that are more suitable to be projected on the text.

    Reply
  5. Thanks for these further stimulating thoughts, Bill. Regarding your point (3), i.e.,

    (3) Toward interpreting any one text, read widely among antecedent texts.

    I agree that it is a circle and that it is not a vicious one. In philosophical terms, it is a hermeneutic circle. The more you read, the more you can make sense of what you read, and the fact that the process is endless is not a logical fault, since philosophy is necessarily a never-ending enterprise. In this sense, your first point, i.e,.,

    (1) Don’t simply project your own ideas into the text

    is something we have to be aware of all the time, since it assumes forms which are every time different. If I know nothing about Indian Philosophy, I will be tented to say that the Mīmāṃsā philosophy of language is “identical with” Grice’s one. After some years of study, I will fail to acknowledge the differences between Dharmakīrti’s and Dharmottara’s epistemology and so on and so on, with projections which become less dangerous and also less faulty, but have nonetheless to be counterbalanced (through the awareness of difference, I suggest), if we want to become sensitive to different thoughts.

    As for your questions concerning:

    (2) The Principle of Charity: Try hard to resist the conclusion that a reputable text makes a stupid mistake.

    you are right in asking further concerning the way I interpret it. My tentative answer would be something like:

    For any text that someone bothered to compose, if it seems to be claiming something senseless (say, if it contradicts what it has said a few lines before), assume you are missing some key element.

    For instance, when I read Prajñāpāramitā texts, I tried to assume that what seemed like a blatant contradiction was instead a paradoxical statement, perhaps one which aimed at making readers/listeners aware of their own unability to look beyond discursive thought.

    The constraint becomes stronger, in my own research, when I am dealing with philosophical texts, and even stronger in the case of philosophical texts by authors I know well and know to be lucid authors. In these cases, I tend to mistrust my acumen more than theirs and if I encounter sentences I cannot make sense of, I pause and look for an answer —usually by reading cognate texts. This being said regarding the kind of text, I can add that the principle of charity is useful especially in the case of crucial points. Small mistakes can be due to faults in the transmission or can be irrelevant, whereas what I really care for is not to underestimate a major point. You might remember that the distinction between case-endings and deep-cases, which has been theorised since around the 5th c. b.C. by Indian grammars, was at first considered a useless hair-splitting by Western theorists as important as Whitney —until Chomsky “discovered” it anew:-)

    Since you ask for further examples, I will go on with the category of students. I developed the rules above after having heard translations which just did not make any sense by people who did not rebel against this meaninglessness. I have nothing against mistakes or problems in interpreting Sanskrit (after all, that’s why I am there as a teacher!), but I am annoyed by people who translate sentences in a way which just does not make any sense and do not bother to think about it and fail to find out that their translation cannot be right. I discussed some other annoying mistakes (such as the claim that Mīmāṃsā authors upheld “the eternality of sound” —a claim which just opposes common sense so that one should have asked oneself a few more questions before attributing it to a philosopher) here: elisafreschi.com/2014/09/09/enough-with-the-eterna…

    Are you lucky enough not to have to deal with such cases in your students’ and colleagues’ writings?

    Thanks for your nice conclusion (which I repeat here):

    So I think the interesting question becomes: how to formulate useful guidelines for projecting enough and not too much.

    I think that’s why you offer Rule (3), and I agree. For one thing, the extra reading gives us more concepts, ones that are more suitable to be projected on the text.

    Reply
  6. Bill Haines says:

    Hi Elisa,

    Thank you so much!

    I don’t share that experience of students. It’s been many years since I saw my last classroom, and I only ever taught a few classes (instances of classes) on Asian or Chinese thought. In just one class I had some students who read at least modern Chinese.

    You say, “before condemning the ‘lack of rationality’ of the text” – but it sounds like the students you mention barely notice that what they are ascribing to the text doesn’t make sense, and weren’t condemning anything. ?

    I thought you might be suggesting that there’s a problem, today, of Western philosophers dismissing Indian philosophy because they fail to exercise even minimal charity – they condemn texts as lacking rationality before trying hard to find another reading (and they do it enough to get a wrong idea of a whole tradition).

    People often write particular things that are unimportant, or mistaken, or nonsensical in spots. I do it constantly.

    You say Whitney and others said a certain distinction in some Indian texts is trivial. Worse would be: mistaken. Even worse would be: irrational. Even worse would be that a whole text lacks rationality.

    I gather there’s some controversy about whether a translator, faced with what seems to say “eternal sound,” should try to solve the problem or should leave it as a problem for the charitable reader of the translation.

    I don’t know who or when Whitney was — whether he was a philosopher or had influence among philosophers.

    I would still like to ask: Is there a problem of a non-negligible number of philosophers, or scholars influential among philosophers, condemning Indian texts as lacking rationality? (Before or after trying to resist that conclusion?)

    *

    The idea of an eternal sound is intriguing! Eternity doesn’t fit the physics of sound or hearing; but that’s not the issue, right? Pitch is about frequency and hence about fast and slow, but so far as I can tell, perception of pitch doesn’t essentially involve awareness of changes, of speeds. Perception fades if the stimulus continues too long without change, but that can’t happen outside of time. To me the idea of eternal sound isn’t plainly senseless. But I don’t know the context.

    Reply
  7. Geoffrey Redmond says:

    A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
    I have thought a lot about the question of whether Chinese philosophy is ‘different’ in a way Socrates/Plato is not.

    Let us suppose two well educated, intelligent people, gender unspecified, but who have never read or studied their cultures philosophy. Then let us suppose they both read Confucius and Plato. But they read modified editions. In Confucius the personal and place names are replaced by Greek ones. For Plato the reverse is done, so that Greek names become Chinese ones.

    The question is would the readers in the West find Confucius more alien and would Chinese find Plato more alien. I suspect the answer is yes for both but isolating what makes each alien to the other is not so easy to define once names are altered to remove exotic elements.

    I’d be interested in what others think

    Reply
    • Paul R. Goldin says:

      I think Plato would be considered very strange and implausible if people didn’t know that it was all Plato …

      Reply
  8. Bill Haines says:

    I think Geoffrey asks a terrific question, worth thinking about for a variety of reasons. It’s a very nice device for stimulating ideas about particular differences and similarities among the four cultures involved. Of course it could be asked about many different Chinese/Western pairs of philosophers.

    1

    To Paul’s comment:

    If Paul’s suggestion is that people – mainstream Western philosophers, say – are irrationally swayed in favor of the things Plato says by the cachet of his name, I’m inclined to think that that’s largely not the case.

    I think Plato is considered very strange and in very many places implausible by most anglo philosophers who admire him. I think he was probably considered even more strange and implausible by his Athenian contemporaries.

    Plato was a highly literary dramatist who wrote mainly in the voices of his characters – characters who often expressed uncertainty on their own account. Plato was a bold and playful philosophical innovator whose characters spoke in image and metaphor. (There is still controversy over the extent to which e.g. the Republic is about cities at all.) Also Plato seems to have changed his mind several times on core points.

    If Paul’s point is only that the intellectual value of Plato’s works is not immediately and easily apparent to the casual reader, the beginner or non-philosopher, so that his work would tend to be dismissed by most who tried him were it not that his good name inspires persistence, I think that might be true. It illustrates the more general and uncontroversial point that basic respect for respected members of a field is part of rationality in the field, and is a necessary condition of rationality in thinking about what they do.

    2

    There is much in Plato that I guess would have been strange to Confucius’ contemporaries (or even a Chinese readership before the late 1800s), but would not seem strange to today’s Mainland readers. Examples:

    – The idea of deciding among forms of government.
    – Most of the particular forms of government Plato discussed.
    – The practice of discussion as cooperative investigation.
    – The idea that the main defense of an idea is itself a structure of ideas rather than an authoritative person or tradition. (Further, the idea of an a priori intellectual project, wholly independent of personal authority — and of mathematics as a clear example.)
    – The associated practice of giving (and tolerating) complex and lengthy defenses of ideas. This is a quantitative matter.
    – The associated norm and project of defining key terms (or describing key things) in ways that are impersonally clear, literal, and general, allowing strangers in different situations to have common discourse.
    – The associated concern for methodology of investigation, and for the forms of reasoning (granted, the Mozi has a smidgen of this).
    – The idea of philosophical innovation?
    – His genre: dramatic fiction (was Zhuangzi China’s pioneer in this?)

    However, I don’t see that it would be difficult to communicate these ideas even to Confucius’ contemporaries. Might something very like Plato’s actual works have done the trick?

    3

    What in Confucius would be similarly unfamiliar to a current US (or ancient Athenian) readership, absent the Chinese names? I was going to work up a list myself, but I’ve delayed too long already.

    Reply

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