Philosophical and historical uses together

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

Last time I examined Andrew Ollett’s distinction between “decision-oriented” texts like Kant’s Grounding and “capacity-oriented” texts like Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, and the ways in which that distinction might suggest a “philosophical” versus a “historical” approach to those texts. I discussed what I found problematic about that application of the distinction, but noted Andrew’s quote that points beyond it:

Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.

For me, this claim calls our attention to an important point, related to my recent methodological reflection on religious studies: one of the key things valuable about religious studies is that it steps beyond the text itself to ask about practice. Buddhist texts certainly lend themselves to being approached this way. Buddhaghosa is not merely trying to argue that his statements are true; he wants them to be put into practice, in action. But then – and I think this point is key – one could say the same thing about Kant. If a reader read the Grounding and concluded intellectually that its claims were all true, yet continued to make false promises and harm others without shame, I think Kant would himself have concluded that the text had failed to do something that he had intended it to do. Indeed, I believe Kant wrote his later Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone for just this reason: Kant there takes up a chastened intellectualism, arguing there is a “radical evil” within human beings that prevents them from doing what is good even when they know it to be good, and some form of practice – perhaps a community – is required to deal with it.

The important thing to me, though, is that a proper approach to ethics requires both of these elements – as I think Buddhaghosa and Kant both provide. We need practices to make us better people. But we also need a vision of what being a better person actually is! And if we are to avoid delusion, we cannot simply absorb this and take it for granted; we must think about it, reason about it. For of course texts disagree with each other about what the good life is. The Jaina kevalin, seeking a solitary transcendence of worldly things, would look to Confucians like a monster, and a Jain might think the same of the Confucian life, entrapped in the delusions of family and politics. Practices leading toward one may hinder the goal of the other. Buddhaghosa and Sundarapāṇḍya would themselves not have seen eye to eye on the nature of the good life. And that is where argument matters: we need to identify the right practices, to be as sure as we can that our practices are making us better and not worse.

Now Andrew rightly refers to Michel Foucault as an inspiration for the “historical” approach to ethics. And for Foucault there is a deliberate, programmatic reason not to ask whether any text one studies is true, whether it is Christian or otherwise, for truth claims are best understood genealogically as effects of the operation of power. But it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not the approach taken by Indian texts themselves, which tend to be quite concerned, one way or another, with satya or sacca as something inherently good and worthy of our realizing. A Foucauldian approach is always already Western. And while any approach we moderns can take will be at some level Western, our approach does not have to be only Western. If we ourselves ask what true dharma is, we are now asking non-Western questions as well; but if we limit ourselves to interrogating the power dynamics behind questions of true dharma, such a purely Foucauldian approach will be Western and nothing more.

Instead, I think it is helpful for us to meld the “historical” and the “philosophical” questions – making the historical more philosophical and vice versa. As I said in my original comment to Andrew, we should modify the “historical” questions to make them more philosophical, such that they can apply to us. “Am I among the subjects addressed here? What is the text supposed to actually do to me? How do I myself understand the relations between the social, the ethical, and the aesthetic, how does the text understand these relations, and does the latter understanding speak to the former? Should I use this text in the way it would have been used in the past?”

But just as much, we should modify the “philosophical” questions to make them more historical, aware of context. When we ask “What is the argument here?” and “Does the argument work?” it is also fundamental to ask “What are the argument’s assumptions? How do those assumptions affect whether the arguments work or not? How dependent are those assumptions on the work’s historical context? Could they be assumptions we now share as well? Should they be?”

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

8 thoughts on “Philosophical and historical uses together

  1. Thank you, Amod, for this interesting post. I have the feeling, we have been discussing about similar topics for years now, thus, I hope not to be too repetitive: I am not sure that an ontological approach (saying what is X) must precede a deontic one (prescribing that X). The priority of the ontological over the deontic is the mainstream approach in European philosophy, but not necessarily so in South Asia, see the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā.

    • Thanks, Elisa. I think that point is compatible with the main point here: even if one takes the deontic as primary, one must still establish deontic truth – that is, which injunctions are the proper injunctions to follow. For example, I would be very leery of cultivating the habits and capacities that a Mīmāṃsā text is designed to cultivate; I think it is bad to preserve a cosmic-ritual-social order divided sharply and fundamentally by hierarchies of varṇa and gender! I think many Mīmāṃsā claims about what a human being should do are false, and I think you do too. That matters.

      • Dear Amod,

        thanks for the prompt answer. Your position is very close to the Viśiṣṭādvaitin reinterpretation of Mīmāṃsā: deontic must be based on truth (i.e., prescriptive statements logically depend on descriptive ones). This is a philosophically intriguing position, as it solves many philosophical problems (such as that of the truth of prescriptive statements), but it is by no means the only possible way of dealing with deontics. I, for one, am a non-reductionist (prescriptions are fundamentally not reducible to descriptive statements, no matter how long you try, just because the “is” does not translate into the “ought”).

        Incidentally, I also do not think that Mīmāṃsakas mainly aimed at preserving a social-order based on a hierarchy of varṇas and gender. For instance, PMS 6.1 explains that women (and animals) are equal to men as for their being full-fledged subjects (“person”), since they can desire, and therefore can be rational agents (kartṛ). The reasons for their inferiority are, according to the same book, accidental, insofar as women have no property. More in general, as we discussed in a different context (concerning the use of masculine pronouns for a generic subject in Sanskrit, Latin, pre-20th c. English, etc.), I am not sure we should not distinguish between the historically given background of a given philosophy and its innovative aspects.

        • If you don’t want to talk about the truth of deontic injunctions, we can talk about their goodness and badness, or even appropriateness and inappropriateness. Some deontic injunctions should not be followed. Period. Even the staunchest Mīmāṃsaka would believe that. And we need to be able to tell which we should follow and which we shouldn’t. That’s the heart of my point here.

          • yes, some will not be followed. But a Prābhākara would say that this depends on their source, the Veda or the cheating talks of the Buddhists, the Pāñcarātrins, the Śaivas etc. (I am not saying I subscribe to this view!!). If one had a criterion to decide about which injunction to follow, than this criterion would be higher than the Veda, and this cannot be the case.

  2. (Replying to the above since the chain can’t go any deeper.)

    So at this point I’m not understanding what the Prābhākara is saying. It seems to me that the dependence of proper injunction on its source is a criterion. (A criterion that the Prābhākara accepts, and that you and I don’t.)

    • I might have misunderstood you, but I thought you were looking for something within the content of the prescriptions themselves, something about what they prescribe and the fact that it must be true… (coming back to the original post: “we also need a vision of what being a better person actually is!”). Their source might be a criterion, but has nothing to do with deciding about the validity of each prescription on the basis of whether its content is true/fits some background assumption about what it means “being a good person” and so on.

      • I did put it in those terms originally, but modified and generalized the point in the earlier comment. My larger point is that we are not doing philosophy – Indian or otherwise – if we are merely content to describe the effects a text has or the practices it enjoins. We must evaluate them. I happen to think their truth or falsity is important to the evaluation, and I think most Buddhist, Advaitic or Naiyāyika texts would agree with me on that point about truth or falsity. It is fair to point out that the Mīmāṃsakas would disagree with it, but even enlarging the discussion to include them, the larger point still stands.

        This post and the previous one are intended together as a response to Andrew’s apparent recommendation that we ask of Indian texts merely “Who are the subjects addressed here? What are they supposed to actually do? How do the social, the ethical, and the aesthetic relate to each other? How would these texts have been used?” Even from a Mīmāṃsaka perspective, these questions are not enough; what a bauddha text enjoins its subject to do is bad, and making that judgement of such a text is important to Mīmāṃsā thought.

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