Daṇḍin and the Philosophy of Poetics

I’m taking a cue from Malcolm’s contention that the tradition of poetics (alaṅkāraśāstra) can and should be brought into “philosophical” conversations. And since I recently attended a workshop in Jerusalem (organized by Yigal Bronner, David Shulman, and Charles Hallisey) devoted to one of the most influential works of poetics in Sanskrit, Daṇḍin’s Mirror of Poetry (Kāvyādarśa), I’ll share a few thoughts about the philosophy–poetics interface.

First, it’s beyond question that Sanskrit poetics ultimately became more or less a full-fledged śāstra—an intellectual discipline, with a distinctive set of questions and problems. And it’s also beyond question that many of the topics of this śāstra are properly philosophical and fully deserve to be brought into comparative and contemporary discussions of, for example, theories of meaning. But Daṇḍin wrote around 700 CE, and he is largely uninterested in, or unacquainted with, the more technical and philosophical aspects of language and figuration. Like Bhāmaha, who likely preceded Daṇḍin by several generations, Daṇḍin based his Mirror of Poetry on a traditional list of a few dozen figures of speech, which he defines and exemplifies. As several participants in the workshop (notably Lawrence McCrea) pointed out, “the Kashmiris” such as Ānandavardhana, Rudraṭa, Abhinavagupta, Ruyyaka and so on, whose contributions to poetics gave the discourse its systematic and philosophical character, were not particularly enamored of Daṇḍin. He was, as Abhinavagupta called him, “old” (cirantana) and maybe “old-fashioned.” He didn’t propose a single organizing concept for poetics, as Ānandavardhana did with suggestion; he didn’t reorganize figures on the basis of some principled classification, as Rudraṭa did; unlike Ānandavardhana and Ruyyaka, he doesn’t explicitly thematize his interventions in the field. We might want to say: the philosophy faculty at your local university might let in Ānandavardhana or Ruyyaka, but they wouldn’t be so fast to let in Daṇḍin.

But reading Daṇḍin as a contemporary philosopher—or as a Kashmiri intellectual of the 10th century—is only one way to read him. The very things that might aggravate that kind of reader might make the text attractive to other kinds of readers: the lack of a single conceptual “key” that everything relates to (or alternatively, an avoidance of reductionism); the lack of an overarching theory of meaning (or alternatively, an openness to several competing theories of meaning); the lack of closure in the elaboration of figures, signalled by Daṇḍin’s constant reminders that the subvarieties he chooses to list or exemplify by no means exhaust all of the possibilities. And the Mirror of Poetry was indeed attractive to many readers, from Mongolia to Sri Lanka; clearly they saw in it a text that does not simply theorize an existing practice, but (to quote Nagaraja Rao) actually encourages people to compose poetry. Does this mean that poets have gotten more out of the Mirror than philosophers? Maybe, but maybe the bigger lesson is this: there are things that Daṇḍin and his readers knew, which they didn’t know “in a philosophical way,” which they were perhaps not even aware of knowing, but which can serve to ground and focus our own discussions of the issues that arise from the figurative use of language.

What are those things? To start with, language is a social practice. The norms of language use are socially enforced: as Daṇḍin memorably says, language is your personal wish-granting cow when you use it correctly, but when you use it incorrectly, you become the cow. Literature especially is a highly normed practice, with conventions, metrical forms, languages, and canonical texts that participants are expected to be very familiar with. This background knowledge is extremely important for adjudicating questions of meaning.

Second, every “archetypal” figure, such as simile, has “ectypal” variants. Sometimes these variants can be classified into well-known and exhaustive categories (e.g., “past,” “present,” and “future,” or “partial” and “complete,” or “compounded” and “uncompounded”), but often the variants are characterized by one of a countless variety of syntactic or semantic operations that add a twist (my colleagues in Jersualem would probably say: “intensification”) to the figure: reversal (the moon is like your face), negation (your face is not like the moon [because the moon is blemished]), co-construal (the moon is like your face and your face is like the moon), non-construal (your face is like your face [alone]). Daṇḍin’s treatment often revolves around the “intensification” of a figure by these subsidiary operations. Each figure is therefore a complex of several elements. Hence, although there is one sense in which the semantic functions of a verse culminate in a self-contained meaning, there is another sense in which the “reader’s meaning” goes beyond this syntactically and semantically self-contained target and extends to “intertexts” (those other texts that the present text calls to mind) and “interfigures” (those other figures that the present figure calls to mind).

Third, the general and the specific are seamlessly integrated in the Mirror in a way that few other texts, in any language, have managed to duplicate. What is a simile? We can define it in general and abstract terms (the expression of a relationship between a standard of comparison and a target of comparison on the basis of one or more shared qualities), or we can instantiate it with one of several ubiquitous examples (your face is like a lotus). Daṇḍin is committed to doing both, although often elements of the definition only become clear in the example, and more generally, the top-down approach and bottom-up approach complement each other. I am not quite sure what to make of this complementarity, but there are seem to be implicit claims about the relationship of categorial knowledge to concrete knowledge, of theory to practice, and so on.

5 thoughts on “Daṇḍin and the Philosophy of Poetics

  1. Thanks for the post, Andrew, and thanks also to Malcolm for having prompted it:-)
    I have been thinking a little bit about the issue of the relation between alaṅkāraśāstra and philosophy in the last weeks, since I am teaching a class on Indian theories about language, which incorporates some alaṅkāraśāstra material (especially from the Dhvanyāloka and its Locana). My tentative answer would be that alaṅkāraśāstra became part of philosophy, although it started as a technical śāstra dealing with figures of speech and the like. This shift occurred at a relatively late stage, so that Ānandavardhana –who is, as you aptly note, akin to what we would call a “philosopher” because of his quest for a single principle of explanation– can still speak of an implied (pratīyamāna) vs. expressed (vācya) meaning without even considering Kumārila’s distinction of abhidhā and lakṣaṇā in the context of sentence-meaning. By contrast, once Abhinavagupta enters the field with his undoubtedly philosophical background, the alaṅkāraśāstra is clearly philosophical (see, again, the often cited Locana ad DhvĀ 1.4). Long story short: Something appears to have occurred around and after the 9th c., so that some alaṅkāraśāstrins like Ānandavardhana and Mukula Bhaṭṭa started to adopt philosophical devices (like the quest for a single explanation of multiple phenomena) or even (in the case of Mukula) to discuss strictly philosophical topics (like the epistemology of arthāpatti). This might have paved the way for the entrance of philosophers like Abhinavagupta in the field.
    What do you, experts, think?

    (In case it was not clear: The Locana ad 1.4 has been recently discussed by Hugo David and Andrew Ollett on the Journal of Indian Philosophy (2015). On Mukula and arthāpatti see Malcolm Keating on the same journal (2013).)

  2. I think everyone would agree with the statement that the discourse on figures became part of philosophy—the tricky part is figuring out what exactly it means for a discourse to “become philosophical.” Is it the same thing as “becoming a śāstra? Larry McCrea and Yigal Bronner have focused on a phenomenon that you’ve noted in your comment: the use in alaṅkāra works of terms, concepts, and ways of thinking from other knowledge-systems, and above all from Mīmāṃsā. This “cross-fertilization” of śāstra doesn’t start with Abhinavagupta: Ānandavardhana is already very involved (according to Abhinava he wrote a commentary on one of Dharmottara’s works), and Bronner has emphasized that the trend begins with Udbhaṭa, who mobilizes precisely the abhidhā/lakṣaṇā distinction from Kumārila that you mentioned.

    My point in this post, though, was not to reinscribe the lines that make Abhinava’s alaṅkāra works “philosophical” and Daṇḍin’s “pre-philosophical.” Daṇḍin’s project, “pre-philosophical” as it might have been, was enormously influential and provided one of the key starting-points for whole traditions of literary practice, and so I think it’s worthwhile to point out and more explicitly thematize some of the “ways of thinking” exemplified in the Mirror. Maybe we can even say that later alaṅkāra works, philosophically sophisticated as they are, assume the perspective of an analytical reader who is concerned above all with understanding how language works, and this is fundamentally a different perspective than that of the Mirror, which speaks to people who participate (or seek to participate) in a social practice of literature (composing, evaluating, reciting, etc.).

    • “the tricky part is figuring out what exactly it means for a discourse to “become philosophical.”
      This is a very interesting point, as it has to do with the (difficult, yet in a sense unavoidable) definition of “philosophy”. I would say that alaṅkāraśāstra (or anything else) becomes philosophically engaged when:
      1. it starts thinking systematically, looking for underlying explanations, instead of localised accounts.
      2. it engages in a critical analysis of the data.
      But also:
      3. it engages with the philosophical scenario.

      I can easily imagine that one might contend that No. 3. is too much a sociological requirement and not a theoretical one. But, although this is true, I still think that it is relevant for the self-definition of a scholar (which, in turn, will have an impact on his or her work). Someone who imagines himself or herself as part of the same enterprise pursued by Dharmakīrti, Kumārila or Uddyotakara will engage with their thought and it is not by coincidence that they do engage with each other. I do not want to rule out the possibility of an isolated genius, who develops compelling philosophical arguments without engaging in a dialogue with other thinkers, but I do not think of it as more than an extreme exception.

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