The Center for Buddhist Studies Department of Philosophy, University of Mumbai Organizes an International Conference On Buddhist Phenomenology, Culture and Society Between February, 15th, 16th and 17th of 2018

Dear Indian Philosophy Bloggers

I am currently in Mumbai. I have been invited to deliver the keynote talk for :

  • The Center for Buddhist Studies Department of Philosophy, University of Mumbai International Conference On Buddhist Phenomenology, Culture and Society Between February, 15th, 16th and 17th of 2018.

The title of the talk I am giving is: “Buddhist Ethics and the Case of ‘Bad’ Dharmas”

Abstract: I distinguish between two methodologies of reading and understanding: interpretation (explanation by way of what one takes to be true) and explication (explanation by way of validity). Interpretation is easily shown to be irrational and subjective (it violates validity and is contingent on the beliefs of the interpreter), while explication is reasonable and objective (it respects validity and is not contingent on the beliefs of the interpreter). Explicated, every philosophical perspective (darśana) entails a theory that entails its controversial claims. Explicated, Buddhism, as a darśana entails a theory of dharma that entails the darśana’s controversial claims about dharma, like all other schools of Indian philosophy, and what such theories disagree about is the objectivity of morality: the Right or the Good. However, early Buddhists texts distinguish between two varieties of dharmas: dharmas that are helpful and should be emulated, and an opposite variety of dharmas, which are unhelpful and should not be emulated. The Buddhist categorization of the latter phenomenon as an instance of “dharma” is often taken to be evidence against the notion that Buddhist talk about dharma is always ethical. But this criticism is not a result of explication, but interpretation. Explicated, Buddhist dharma is a version of Consequentialism, in which all goods—all dharmas— are of agent neutral importance and justify moral action, and the objectionable dharmas are not bad but wrong: while we should not emulate them, they constitute agent neutral justifications of ultimate Buddhist practice: mindfulness.”

Buddhist philosophy is of course a massive area so I am looking forward to learning from all the other participants in this conference.

While at the University of Mumbai, I have also been asked to deliver two lessons to the philosophy students there. The title of these two lessons are:

(1) The Irrationality of Interpretation and the Discipline of Philosophy.

Here I talk about the distinction between interpretation and explication, their origins in contrasting views of thought, and their implications for the study of philosophy.

(2) Yoga: The Fourth Moral Theory.

Applying explication to the study of Indian philosophy, and ethics in general, I note that there are four basic possibilities:

Virtue Ethics: The Good conditions or produces the Right.

Consequentialism: The Good justifies the Right.

Deontology: The Right justifies the Good.

Bhakti/Yoga: The Right conditions or produces the Good.

For reasons that have to do with basic models of thought assumed in the western and Chinese traditions (that link thought with linguistic meaning) the fourth option is not present there, but it is salient in the Indian tradition. I note in my work that not only is it ubiquitous in Hindu traditions, the core of the argument constitutes the foundation for Gandhi’s policies of direct action, which in turn had an influence on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the US. It forms the bed rock of activist moral theory, which maximizes the disruptive potential of disciplined action for transforming public spaces into one characterized by autonomy (kaivalya).

I hope to be lucid enough to report back on my stay at Mumbai. (It’s a shocking time change coming from Toronto, and I’m here only for the week.) The times that I have had the good fortune of the company of philosophers in India have been great. I’m sure my stay will continue that trend.





About Shyam Ranganathan

Shyam Ranganathan is a philosopher in the Department of Philosophy in York University, Toronto. His research interests cover ethics/political philosophy, the philosophy of thought, philosophy of language, and South Asian philosophy.

4 Replies to “The Center for Buddhist Studies Department of Philosophy, University of Mumbai Organizes an International Conference On Buddhist Phenomenology, Culture and Society Between February, 15th, 16th and 17th of 2018”

  1. Shyam,

    thanks for sharing.

    1. As for dharma, I wonder whether dharma in (most) Buddhist authors just has two meanings (roughly, the dharmas in plural, i.e., ‘things’ (with no ontological commitment), ‘phenomena’, and the Buddhist Dharma), with only the second having an ethical meaning.

    2. I really enjoyed your handbook and have been using a lot both in teaching and in research. Nonetheless, the distinction between interpretation and explanation seems to me to be not defensible, especially if put as if they were two boxes and not two extremes of a continuing line. I think that feminism etc. have done a great job in showing that the interpreter is always present in each cognitive act. Better being aware of it than being influenced by one’s prejudices without even being aware of what is happening.

  2. Hi Elisa,
    Thanks for your kind words and support for the Research Handbook of Indian Ethics.

    It was a cushy padding for your criticism that was pretty strong: that a distinction I am drawing is “indefensible.” My response is not to dispute your conclusion, but to show that it has a history and a methodology, which is contingent and not necessary. We can choose to abandon it and do something else. The history is what I call the West, and the method is interpretation. I talk of West at length in the intro of the Handbook. Basically, it is the tradition of thought that goes back to the ancient Greek idea of logos: one word for thought and belief and language. All explanation is explanation by way of belief on this account: interpretation. And as it has a European origin, it’s the European beliefs that are used in interpretation.

    Let’s first take the methodology, and then get to the history.

    I wrote this a while ago, and then decided to sit on it. But now, in light of your other response to my work, I thought I would post it.

    Entailments of Interpretation
    Both of your main comments to my post are outcomes of a commitment to interpretation. Here’s why.
    Interpretation is explanation in terms of your beliefs, or what you take to be true.

    You hypothesize that there are two differing uses of ‘dharma’ in Buddhist thought—this is an explanation by way of what you wonder, which is to say (tentatively perhaps), what seems to be true to you (about Buddhist thought). If we were to explicate Buddhism, we could not offer this kind of explanation that is mediated through the perspective of the explicator.

    As interpretation is explanation by way of what one takes to be true: (a) all explanation will seem in some deep level biased (as they always refer back to what the interpreter takes to be true), and (b) one will not be able to understand radical disagreement, for you will be committed to explaining everything by way of what you take to be true.
    So, the idea that the distinction between interpretation and explication is indefensible is an example of (b), and the view you attribute to feminist philosophers seems a lot like (a).

    My response here then is to not dispute your conclusions, but to note that they follow from a certain methodology, and to further ask the question of why we are calling this method “reason”? Why not abandon this and do something else? Why not adopt the method of explanation by way of validity (what I call explication)? If logical validity is how we are supposed to reason, then reasoning is not about cognitive acts where we judge something to be true. It’s rather a logical exercise of determining whether conclusions follow from a premise — and so long as this activity does not depend upon judgements about what is true, then we can avoid having to insert our own subjectivity in to the evaluation of reason. P therefore P is not true: it’s just valid, which means that P could be false and it would still entail P. If P then Q, P therefore Q is also not true: it’s just valid—P and Q could be false and the inference would still follow. In other words, we can be completely agnostic about truth, and still converge on the validity of an inference. This is because the entailment relationships are not constituted by what is true. Rather, they are objective: what we can converge on as we disagree about truth.

    The West vs. Philosophy
    Now, in defense of feminist philosophers, I’d like to note that they are not a monolithic group. I have friends and colleagues who are feminist philosophers and they have always treated my work as a contribution to overcoming biases in the study of philosophy.

    In making my argument for explication, I did not toot my own horn, but I think I have to now, for I’ve seen more than one author pretend as though my contribution is merely more of the same — what has already been tested in the literature and shown to be false.

    For the record, I do not think that anyone has ever formulated explication prior to me. In all of my years into research into basic contributions to twentieth century analytic and continental philosophy (I did my dissertation on these texts and authors), the primary model of explanation defended by both camps, is interpretation. Even Quine, in Word and Object, argues that we should interpret alien language (in terms of what we take to be true) in order to understand their logical operators. This history of identifying reason with truth goes back to Plato, who in the Republic identified reason (logos) with that part of the soul that loves the truth.

    I am the first person that I know of (I’m happy to be shown to have company in this) to point out that this tradition’s way of thinking about reason (interpretation) violates validity—the logicians notion of reason. For truth is neither necessary nor sufficient for validity, and yet interpretation makes truth the basic determinant of explanation. This tradition that connects contemporary philosophy in the analytic and continental traditions back to its ancient Greek origins I call the West. It’s definitive thesis is that:

    • thought is linguistic meaning.

    If this is the case, then:

    • to deny a thought is to deny the meaning of what is said, which is absurd. Hence, to avoid this absurdity you have to believe every thought you entertain.

    From this basic linguistic account of thought, we derive the Greek notion of logos: one theoretical construct that covers thought, reason, opinion, and language. It’s the essence of the West, and it relies on a conflation of several differing elements.

    The most egregious feature of this tradition is that it confuses the culturally contingent with the thinkable. But it is even more disastrous as it conflates belief (x believes that p) with a thought (p) to avoid the absurdity of denying the meaning of what you say by way of denying a thought given its account of thoughts. Beliefs and thoughts have differing truth conditions (x believes p is true if x believes it, but p may yet be false), but yet, if we conflate them, then any explanation by way of thought is an explanation by way of belief: interpretation.

    The origins of interpretation is hence the Western tradition of theorizing about thought. As it gives rise to interpretation and interpretation cannot tolerate dissent or disagreement, the linguistic account of thought is Western imperialism. It is an imperialism that not only relies on interpretation, but the beliefs based on the history of the Europe as though it constitutes the default content of the thinkable. Western imperialism begins in the West with the murder of Socrates (who is depicted as trying to explicate) and starts off a long history of the persecution of public intellectuals, colonialism, imperialism, but also the notion that thought is socially and linguistically encoded. All of this is in my introduction to the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Ethics, in greater detail.

    As for your claim that interpretation and explication are not clearly distinct, I can show that the two are discrete and incompatible. They disagree on the following point:

    • Truth is determinative of reason.

    Interpretation affirms this, and explication denies this. Hence, one cannot explicate and interpret at the same time—and there is no sense to the notion that they are two ends of a continuum, for there is no common axis that they bound. Interpretation is irrational but persuasive (relying on our beliefs) and explication is rational but perhaps unpersuasive (relying upon validity). But this is just to note that one cannot be involved in the project of the West’s imperialism while engaging in philosophy.

    The point of my work is not only to bring to light the underlying assumptions of the tyranny of the West, but to also show how it operates in scholarship: Orthodox Indology, where the study of Sanskrit (language) replaces the study of philosophy, and the belief of the Indologists substitute for an analysis of Indian philosophical texts.

    I would finally add that: if your view is that interpretation is inescapable, you are begging the question. If your point is that we in fact do interpret (it’s nothing that we can avoid—something about our psychology) then I would say that you are missing the point of my work. I’m not making a point about psychology. My point is logical, which is to say, normative. So even if it is true that interpretation is unavoidable because of our neurology, it would not follow that explication is a credible alternative.

    • Hi Shyam, when you say “For the record, I do not think that anyone has ever formulated explication prior to me” are you meaning that Carnap’s explication is something different than yours? Because he spent a lot of time discussing explication. Perhaps you are meaning, apart from Carnap? Or if not, how does your notion of explication compare to his?

      (See “The task of explication consists in transforming a given more or less inexact concept into an exact one or, rather, in replacing the first by the second…” and etc. in his 1950 Logical Foundations of Probability.)

      • Hi Malcolm
        Thanks for the comment.
        I first heard the word “explication” from my philosophy professors, who used it as a synonym for what others might call exegesis.

        Later I did learn about Carnap’s idea of explication. In Meaning and Necessity, Carnap writes:

        “The task of making more exact a vague or not quite exact concept used in everyday life or in an earlier stage of scientific or logical development, or rather of replacing it by a newly constructed, more exact concept, belongs among the most important tasks of logical analysis and logical construction. We call this the task of explicating, or of giving an explication for, the earlier concept; this earlier concept, or sometimes the term used for it, is called the explicandum; and the new concept, or its term, is called an explicatum of the old one.” (Meaning and Necessity, Carnap 1947, 8-9.)

        On Carnap’s account, explication might involve replacing concepts we already use.

        What’s the difference you ask between Carnap’s account and mine?

        (1) On my account, explication does not replace our ordinary concepts: it helps us discover the objective philosophical concepts we are already employing and talking about. So nothing is replaced, except perhaps for folk beliefs about what we’re talking about.

        Moreover, on my approach to explication, explication is a method of explanation that relies solely on validity. It’s got two steps: in the first, we identify the entailed reasons of a perspective that entail its controversial claim, and in the second step we identify the concept of a debate as what competing theories in the debate converge on as they disagree. In the second stage too, we get to the basic concept via a consilience of valid entailments.

        Carnap’s account does not define a philosophical concept as what we converge on as we disagree. It seems rather like a version of interpretation, where we stipulate a concept to replace what is ordinarily talked about, presumably because we believe it is better.

        (2) My approach cannot be accurately described as a process of ‘rational reconstruction,’ we find in Carnap. The metaphor is important, for it brings to fore the question of whether we see the task of understanding as creative, or preservative. I see it as preservative: it consists in retrieving what is implicit in a contribution to philosophy. Carnap seems to see it as creative (hence talk of “construction”).

        Good sources (and I post theme here for future reference–—mine especially) on Carnap’s idea of explication include:
        For a defense:

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