A preliminary understanding of Maṇḍana’s pratibhā

Within chapter 11 of his masterpiece, the Vidhiviveka `Discernment about prescription’, Maṇḍana identifies the core element which causes people to undertake actions. Maṇḍana expands on Kumārila’s intuition about human behaviour being always goal-oriented by offering a radical reductionist hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, being a motivator is nothing but communicating that the action to be undertaken is an instrument to some coveted result. In this sense, prescribing X to people desiring Y is nothing but explaining that X is the means to achieve Y.

At this point, Maṇḍana introduces some opponents, mainly one upholding pratibhā.

The term pratibhā is found in Bhartṛhari, whom Maṇḍana extensively quotes in chapter 11 of his Vidhiviveka. It is clear that Maṇḍana suggests the pratibhā as an alternative way of making sense of what motivates people to act. In this sense, pratibhā is a pravartaka `motivator’, something causing one to act. It is the key alternative to Maṇḍana’s own proposal that the knowledge that the enjoined action will lead to a desired result is what causes people to act. The pratibhā theory radically opposes this one.

In fact, Maṇḍana’s theory is primarily cognitive (you act with regard to X because you know something relevant about X), whereas the pratibhā theory is almost behaviourist (you act with regard to X because of the pratibhā inducing you to act).

The Prābhākara opponent within Maṇḍana will later appropriate this theory and join it with their own deontological understanding, according to which we act primarily because we are enjoined to do so, thus adding a deontological nuance which was absent in Bhartṛhari’s view of pratibhā.

But what is pratibhā before its Prābhākara reinterpretation? A key passage for the understanding of the pratibhā theory in Maṇḍana before its Prābhākara appropriation is the very sentence introducing it, at the beginning of section 11.3. There, the opponent suggests pratibhā as the thing causing one to undertake an action. An uttarapakṣin asks which kind of artha this is and the answer is at first sight surprising: It is no artha at all (na kaścit). What is it then? It is a cognitive event (prajñā) leading to action.

The point seems to be that there is no mental content, but only the urge towards acting. The pratibhā is a mental state without intentional content.

A further hint is found at the beginning of 11.5, where Maṇḍana responds to the paradox that the pratibhā cognition has no object, but it causes activity. This results, says Maṇḍana, in an undesirable consequence. In fact, if in the case of pratibhā the cognition of the connection between word and meaning plays no role, because the pratibhā has no intentional content, a person hearing a prescription should act independently of any cognition of the meaning.

But can we have purely agentive mental states? Can there be incitement to action without any content?

I am grateful to Hugo David for an inspiring talk on pratibhā back in 2018. This interpretation should, however, not be blamed on him. Similarly, I am always grateful to Elliot Stern for his edition of the Vidhiviveka and for the work we shared in the last 12 months.

Cross-posted on my personal blog.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

13 Replies to “A preliminary understanding of Maṇḍana’s pratibhā”

  1. Thank you, Elisa, for this fascinating post!

    One contemporary debate that does seem relevant to the question you ask is the debate about intellectualists and anti-intellectualists about know-how. According to intellectualists, knowing how to perform an action requires propositional knowledge, i.e., knowledge that W is the way to perform that action. In contrast, for the anti-intellectualists like Ryle, typically, know-how might just be an ability that doesn’t involve any explicit representation of any state of affairs (or, more generally, any representation at all). On the latter view, therefore, contentless mental states can guide action. So, the theory of pratibhā that you sketch here may well be similar to this form of anti-intellectualism about know-how.

    On one way of filling out your interpretation of Maṇḍana, then, pratibhā would simply be an ability to perform an act in a certain way for a certain goal in accordance with the circumstances. It needn’t represent anything about the world, just as our ability to swim or to ride needn’t involve any explicit representation of different possible ways of moving our bodies.

    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about this answer to your last question!

    • Thank you, NIlanjan! As you know, Maṇḍana adds to the picture habits practiced in previous lives but, yes, I basically agree with your interpretation. It is also relevant that the examples Maṇḍana mentions are connected with know-hows (swimming, flying (in the case of birds), building nests, knowing what the appropriate food is, knowing what animals are your enemies, suckling (babies)…).
      Still, let me add some complexity to the picture:
      1. The opponent in the VV claims that this pratibhā is at the basis of *each* command, even the ones uttered through language. This means that the theory you mention is an interesting parallel, but not a match (not that you claimed it).
      2. Bhartṛhari connects pratibhā with a subtle form of śabda (so, he could be read as disagreeing with your reconstruction, although that subtle śabda is not discursive).
      3. I am basing my interpretation on the enigmatic kaḥ arthaḥ? na kaścit, but I am sure people might downplay the role of the na kaścit.
      (follow ups welcome!)

  2. This is interesting, Elisa, but I am having trouble grasping what kind of mental entity pratibhā might be. So it is prajñā, but can it refer to affective or conative states, or to habitual dispositions?

    Hume thought that unlike cognitive mental states, passions were not representations, but original existences or modifications thereof. So, while beliefs have intentional content, passions do not. (This also has the implication that for Hume there was no such thing as practical reasoning, according to Elijah Millgram in “Was Hume a Humean”?) But passions can be causally connected to beliefs and actions. Perhaps pratibhā is similar?

    Or, think of empathy, not the kind that occurs reflectively via higher cognitive processes, but reflexively via imitation or contagion. Someone winces in pain, and seeing it my face too contorts into a grimace, which perhaps causes via afferent feedback a much fainter feeling of pain in my own mind. I doubt that there can be such an automatic process at work in responding to commands, but perhaps it could be a habituated response to cues that one has learnt to feel as authoritative, and such cues can be linguistic as well (linguistic in a broad sense, including illocutionary and perlocutionary features of speech acts, pronunciation, intonation, etc.).

    • Dear Boram,

      many thanks for your stimulating question. As a rule of thumb, I do not think we should try to see which European theory a Sanskrit theory is a match of (not that you were doing it, but as a methodological premiss). This means that in theory we should be ready to be surprised (otherwise, we would never learn). This being said, the parallel with passions might be appropriate because it highlights the possiblity of non-cognitive states causing actions. Maṇḍana’s use of prajñā suggests a different ontology (every mental event is cognitive), but this is perhaps not decisive. Still, pratibhā does not seem to be connected necessarily with emotion. In many cases, it seems just akin to another “catch-all” expression we use to encapsulate thinks we don’t understand, namely “instinct”. This brings me to your suggestion of habitual disposition —although, again, we need to connect it to the theory of beginningless rebirths which means that the disposition might de facto be there forever.

      When it comes to commands, again, I think that Maṇḍana is using the theory in a way (to explain the effectiveness of commands) Bhartṛhari had not anticipated. Can we still use the theory of habitual dispositions for this purpose? Possibly yes, since one can be habituated to respond to an authoritative tone of voice, etc. (as you suggested above).
      However, this step needs a pan-deontic theory of the world (which seems presupposed by the opponent in Maṇḍana, who does not distinguish habitual dispositions as a rule and the case of habitual dispositions connected with our response to commands).

  3. Hi Elisa,

    Thanks for bringing once again pratibhā to the front.

    As you know, quite a lot has been written about the topic, including elaborate discussions of those passages in the Vidhiviveka you are also referring to in your post; recently, there is a rather provocative article by Ogawa (2012), and the reworking of my own 2018 presentation (to be out in the next Vienna volume, but I’m happy to share a pre-print). It’d be nice if you could explain how your own reading of the ViV differs from – or agrees with – existing ones.

    Basically, as you will remember from our workshop in Vienna, I’m arguing for the kind of non-representational (or “non-intellectualist”, “non-cognitive” or “behaviourist”) view of pratibhā you seem to be also leaning towards, but Ogawa insists that this doesn’t reflect adequately Bhartṛhari’s view (or Maṇḍana’s, for that matter). His interpretation of Maṇḍana’s puzzling definition is also not that of a cognition “leading to action”, and I must say he has a few good points.

    Thanks again to Nilanjan for pointing out Ryle’s evergreen “know-how” chapter (also a nice reminiscence of our discussions around the 2018 Jayanta-workshop). I read it following your suggestion at the time, and you’re absolutely right one really feels at home in Ryle’s arguments. The comparison would certainly be very reductive for Bhartṛhari (after all, many instances of pratibhā have nothing to do with action), but Maṇḍana is himself quite reductive in his use of the Vākyapadīya, and taken in isolation both positions might come quite close (though I would perhaps tone down a bit the importance of the “goal”, which may not be that central in a number of cases).

    Looking forward to more discussions of this interesting subject!

    • Hi Hugo and thanks for joining the discussion.
      Concerning “It’d be nice if you could explain how your own reading of the ViV differs from – or agrees with – existing ones.”
      I would be *very happy* to receive a pre-print of your contribution to be able to be more specific.
      Ogawa’s interpretation is, learned and insightful. For readers who might not know it, Ogawa highlights the equation pratibhā=vākyārtha—»pravṛtti in Bhartṛhari. A key point of Ogawa’s article is also the fact that he highlights how pratibhā is always dealt with by Bhartṛhari in connection to undertaking an action. It was Puṇyarāja, says Ogawa, that connects pratibhā with vākyārtha in general. He assumes that Maṇḍana and Vācaspati will speak of the same theory. He therefore says that one undertakes action because of pratibhā (e.g., in the case of a tiger) because “the hearer must have integrated the presence of a tiger, the tiger’s nature ob being a flesh eater, the killing by the tiger, and so on. This integration is brough about by a pratibhā”. Thus, pratibhā has, for Ogawa, an intentional content (on p. 6, column b he speaks of “conceptualisation”). Personally, I am not convinced that Bhartṛhari’s pratibhā is the same as the one meant by Maṇḍana’s opponent (who, again, seems closer to a Prābhākara attitude). I guess I will read your answer in your paper…

  4. Hi Elisa and Hugo, thank you for your helpful comments!

    Here are three quick responses to Elisa’s comments. First, if we are anti-intellectualists, we can take pratibhā to be a language-indexed ability, i.e., an ability to do certain things in response to linguistic items of a certain sort. So, the relevant linguistic item in this case will be the utterance of an optative verbal ending, etc., which will trigger a specific manifestation of that ability. Thus, the relevant linguistic ability/disposition will be similar to our ability to perform certain mental operations like adding, subtracting, etc. when faced with questions like, “3+4=?” and “8-9 = ?” Insofar as we understand what “+” and “-” mean, we have a disposition to react to the uses of those symbols in certain ways. We don’t have a representation of the operation or any rule in our head. [This is actually how some anti-intellectualists about know-how understand semantic knowledge.] Similarly, the generic language-indexed ability to understand commands may be manifested through specific ability to form an intention to perform a prescribed action in response to a specific command.

    Second, though I am no expert in Bhartṛhari, here’s one way of undertaking what he says. If by “śabda-bhāvanā” he merely picks out an ability to understand language or form judgements or intentions (perhaps in a language of thought or mentalese), then the kind of ability may be quite broad. In adults, it may be manifested through bits and pieces of inner speech (which very much resembles the language we actually use). In animals and children, it may be more primitive. This also fits the kind of species-relativity of śabda-bhāvanā that both Bhartṛhari and Maṇḍana harp on.

    Third, I should I say am slightly sceptical of the anti-intellectualist/non-representationalist reading of Maṇḍana here. On the one hand, there’s a question of what an artha or an ālambana is for Maṇḍana. If it is merely an existent (intentional) object, then saying that pratibhā lacks an existent (intentional) object doesn’t commit Maṇḍana to contentless mental states. Other hand, Maṇḍana also says, “na hīdam ittham anena kartavyam ity anupajāta-pratibhā-bhedaḥ pravartate pratyakṣādy-avagate’py arthe” (which we could translate as, “Unless a certain pratibhā that takes the form, ‘This is to be done in this way by this means,” arises in a person, he doesn’t undertake any action with respect to an object that is known by perception, etc.”) If we take the iti-clause as marking the content of the relevant mental state, then we still have a problem for the anti-intellectualist/non-representationalist interpretation of Maṇḍana.

    • Your third point here is interesting. Perhaps pratibhaa can represent the means (indicated by the instrumental case), but not the end/object (“artha”)? Are there examples where a pratibhaa can represent the end-state that is to be achieved?

      If it can be used to specify end-states and not just the means for bringing them about, then It raises one possibility that I had in the back of my mind. Perhaps Mandana does not mean to accept the position that pratibhaa lacks intentional content altogether, but the position that its intentional content has a direction of fit (artha-to-mind) that differs from that of cognitive mental states (mind-to-artha).

      • Thank you, Boram. I think that also Hugo’s answer to Nilanjan (below) points in the same direction of reading the sentence as focusing on the “anena” part. The use of an iti-sentence in “na hīdam ittham anena kartavyam ity…” could be Sanskrit-based and be due to the difficulty to explain that pratibhā is both without an intentional object and be about something, perhaps like a know-how.

        • Hi Elisa,

          I don’t remember speaking of “focusing on the ‘anena’ part”; rather what I said is that speaking of a representation of a means is as problematic as speaking of a representation of goals in that theory. Also, I don’t think that delineating the form of a cognition (what is given by the iti-clause) means quite the same thing for Bhartṛhari and Maṇḍana as establishing its intentional content (although admittedly in some other systems it does, but Sanskrit is not to be blamed for that).

          • I beg your pardon. Let me rephrase:

            Thank you, Boram. I think that also Hugo’s answer to Nilanjan (below) points in the same direction of reading the sentence as focusing on the know-how (what he calls “ability”).

  5. Hi Nilanjan!

    Just picking up on your third point; isn’t it that ‘idam ittham anena’ precisely describes what you elsewhere called an ‘ability’ (in the language of the bhāvanā-theory, which admittedly is anything but anti-intellectualist, but the blame here is on Maṇḍana, not the pratibhā-theorist)? When I take advantage of my ability to swim, or play tennis, I certainly have some sort of cognition – and yes, possibly *also* some kind of representation, which need not however be “causally connected” to my action. That cognition can be described in those terms from outside, but to think of it it as the representation of ‘means’, ‘goals’ and ‘procedures’ (in intentional terms) is, I think, going one step too far in the other direction, and somehow missing the point. The question of ālambana is, of course, rather tricky, and already has quite some history when Maṇḍana picks it up, we’d need to discuss this texts in hand.

  6. A lay opinion on “prathibha” :
    I understand “prathibha” as skill in thinking ,like intelligence.
    “X” is the means to achieve “Y”.
    Everybody will be having a database of past experiences and knowledge based on concepts & beliefs.We can imagine this database as collection of isolated items.When we are required to achieve a result “Y”,our “prathibha” discovers the relevant isolated items of database to be related in constructing
    the right “X”. This makes “prathibha” a remote motivator.

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