Hermeneutics, “Ricoeurian” and “Jaiminīya,” and the Question of Writing

I am a big fan of Paul Ricoeur. It’s shame, I think, that he never learned Sanskrit, because he was deeply interested in a number of issues that were of critical importance to Indian thinkers: the production of meaning through linguistic signs; the relation between text, discourse, understanding and action; the centrality to understanding of figures such as metaphor; the transformation of the meaning of a text in its reception among historical readers.

One thing that has bothered me, though, about Ricoeur’s thought, evident especially in his book From Text to Action (1986) and a collection of essays called Hermeneutics (2013), is his emphasis on writing as a technology for “stabilizing” discourse. For Ricoeur, writing and writing alone is what transforms language from “discourse,” a happening in time that (in his words) “articulates a subject of discourse, an act of discourse, a content of discourse, a meta-linguistic code, an extra-linguistic reference, and an interlocutor” (Hermeneutics p. 12) into a stable textual object that can be encountered at a limitless distance from its original author. I understand the distinction between an evanescent happening of discourse and a stable textual object, and I do think it’s important for all of the reasons Ricoeur gives, but obviously, as someone who spends a certain amount of time with a system of thought dedicated to the interpretation of texts that are “not supposed to be” written and were certainly “composed” without the use of writing, red flags go off whenever I read arguments like the following:

On the one hand, the phenomenon of inscription gives a special authority to what is written down. On the other hand, the distance thereby established from speaking aloud engenders a suspicion — and a question: how could such a meaningful effect have been produced? (ibid.)

Now we know that precisely this question was posed, insistently, by both the defenders and detractors of the authority of the Vedic texts, and we also know that these texts were not “written down,” or if they were, their being written was entirely secondary to their being “remembered” (āmnāta-). Ricoeur certainly didn’t mean to, but with his presumption that writing is the underlying cause for the “stabilization” of the text, first of all, and secondly of the reflections that this stabilization engenders, he is tacitly supporting an argument like those of Eric Havelock and Walter Ong along the following lines: literacy, especially the “alphabetic literacy” of European societies, is necessary in order to ask certain types of questions and develop certain types of thought, and hence there is a cognitive gap between “oral societies” and “literate societies.” According to this kind of argument, Mīmāṁsā authors should not have been able to raise certain types of questions regarding the gap between, as Ricoeur called it, the text’s authority and its genesis, and if they did, it was only because they already had a well-developed notion of a text as a written object, regardless of whether they spoke of the Vedas themselves in those terms.

There seem to me to be two ways of proceeding.

One approach would be to say that Ricoeur is just slightly mistaken, and that the consequences he elicits—the gap between authority and genesis, the distinction between the deixis patterns of everday spoken discourse and those of a written text, the different stylistic codes that apply to spoken and written discourse—are not triggered by written discourse per se, but rather by stabilized discourse. Writing is one way of stabilizing a discourse, but it is not the only way. A discourse can be stabilized by being memorized and recited, taught from generation to generation, or sung, all of which are “oral” modalities, or possibly in other ways.

But another approach would say that, despite their representations of the Vedas as “timeless” texts, Mīmāṁsakas related to those texts, and analyzed them, in a way that was deeply conditioned by their own exposure to written texts. In other words, people began interrogating oral texts as texts, which raised interpretive problems distinct from those of everyday discourse, only because they already lived in a “literate” culture. I think this is an interesting approach, but one that has a number of real problems. First of all, the action theory of language and interpretation that Mīmāṁsakas proposed did not rest upon a qualitative distinction between “discourse” and “text,” but rather treated Vedic texts as an instance—indeed, the prototypical instance—of discourse in general. Second, I can’t immediately think of any aspects of the Mīmāṁsā project which are obviously indebted to, or impossible without, literacy. Of course, the proliferation of commentary is impossible to imagine in the absence of a manuscript culture, but the system of thought itself, as we find it in Jaimini and presumably also his earliest commentators, doesn’t seem to rely on or refer to writing.

(I leave aside a third way, which would deny that Indian systematic thought about oral texts—whether the Vedas, or the Jain scriptures, or Pāṇini’s grammar, or whatever—is actually “systematic thought” in the Havelock/Ong sense, because that position seems indefensible and ignorant to me.)

2 Replies to “Hermeneutics, “Ricoeurian” and “Jaiminīya,” and the Question of Writing”

  1. Many thanks for this very interesting post, Andrew! My initial idea about Ricoeur (or Derrida) on writing is that they speak from within a specific history (something they would also own) and that within this specific history (the history of the humanae litterae in the Classical world and in the European république des lettres) literacy meant contact with written texts. This happened not to be the case in South Asia, which is one of the many cases in which looking outside one’s history makes one even more aware of the historicity of one’s experience. In this sense, I agree with your first interpretation more than with the second one. By the way, I worked a little bit on the topic while dealing with textual reuse. It appears that we (as heirs to the above tradition) tend to think that oral texts are less stable than written ones, but this is not true in all contexts and there are, e.g., interesting examples of civil poetry in Africa which is orally transmitted and needs to be faithfully transmitted (whereas written texts can be only remembered ad sensum).

  2. Of course, the second option seems less plausible for the reasons you yourself adduce, Andrew. A couple of musings: 1. Perhaps we should also put some pressure on the notion of the ‘literate’ as the contrast to the ‘oral’ in parallel to your call to rethink ‘stabilization’. 2. Somewhat loosely connected to the notion of the ‘literate’, although I agree that the conceptual content of Mīmāṁsa doesnt seem to turn on written culture, should we think a bit more carefully about how the commentarial means of developing the system – which you rightly say would’ve required written text – might actually have affected that content at some point?

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