“Seeing absence”

I am reading “Seeing absence” by Anna Farennikova (2013) on the epistemological experience of knowing that something is absent. The article (kindly suggested to me by Jack Beaulieu) deals with exactly the topic dealt with by Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya authors speaking of abhāva (absence) and seemingly in the same terms!

The starting point is the fact that our phenomenological experience of not seeing our laptop on the table once we come back after a short break has perceptual, i.e., immediate character. We don’t feel like we are inferring an absence.

However, should not perception only be about “colours and shapes”? (yes, Farennikova says the same as Sanskrit authors speaking about rūpa.) She thinks that this does not need to be the case and that we can indeed see absence, provided that our seeing is led by “visual expectations and a visual matching process”. The former requirement is the one discussed by Kumārila in the abhāva chapter, namely you only see an absence of X if you were expecting X to be there. (Cf. our grasping the absence of the Twin Towers from the skyline of NY, compared to our children’s lack of experience thereof). The other element, i.e., visual matching, is in fact the requirement of a mismatching between what you see and what you expect to see. That is, it is not a further element, but rather a complement of the first one.

This seems to leave out the requirement by Kumārila, namely udbhūti or ’emergence’. Does this mean that at times we can grasp absences also independently of our subjective expectations, but just due to their conspicuousness? Or that expectations and conspicuousness can work together? Possibly something inbetween (I will come back to the topic with regard to Kumārila in future posts). Suppose I knock at someone’s house and someone opens me the door. I do not have specific expectations about the room in which they’ll lead me, it could have a sofa or a table etc. etc. But, if I were led to a room being completely empty, than that absence would probably impress me more than what I am actually seeing (e.g., the empty floor, the curtains, possibly an apple rolling in a corner etc.).

Back to Farennikova: Her analysis is based on the acceptance of “epistemic seeing”, i.e., “a type of seeing which essentially involves categorization, conceptualization, or some other form of epistemic appraisal of sensory input”.
I.e., in Mīmāṃsā terms: savikalpapratyakṣa. Long story short, pity that Farennikova does not know about the Mīmaṃsā-Nyāya debate about absence. We (scholars of Philosophy in the Indian subcontinent) shall not do the same mistake and read her work.

Comments welcome.

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.

18 Replies to ““Seeing absence””

  1. Hi Elisa

    It is a great paper! In my paper on absence I engage her work through the lens of Nyāya and mimamsa!

    I also think the response piece by Jerome Dockic and Jean-Remy Martin is useful! And finall Sigel’s book on visual experience helps also!

  2. Hi Elisa, many thanks for this. I had a question/worry about the overlap between the things discussed in the Farennikova piece and the Indian debates about perceiving absence, and would love to hear your and others’ thoughts on this. So, here it is.

    One observation that Farennikova does make in her paper is that our awareness of absence has an immediate sensory quality. The relevant notion of immediacy or directness seems to track something about the phenomenal character of our awareness of absence. My question: Do you think that the notion of directness or immediacy at play in the Indian debates tracks differences in phenomenal character of these awareness-events? My impression is this. As it is discussed in both Udayana and Gaṅgeśa, the notion of directness (sākṣātkāritva) is epistemic/causal rather than phenomenological. In Kusumāñjali, Udayana defines it in terms of “ajñāta-karaṇakatva”, i.e., having an instrument isn’t an object of awareness. In TCM, Gaṅgeśa defines in terms of “jñāna-akaraṇakatva”, i.e., not having an awareness as instrument. In either case, the notion is either causal (i.e., specified in terms of the causal mechanisms by which the awareness is generated) or epistemic (i.e., specified in terms of whether an awareness based on some other awareness that provides support for it). So, it’s not obvious that we are dealing with a phenomenological notion of directness. Does that strike you as right?

    If that is correct, then the strategies that someone who doesn’t want to allow for perception of absence would have to adopt against these writers would be quite different from the ones that are available against Farennikova.

    • Thank you, Nilanjan. As usual, you provide both interesting ideas and solid Sanskrit bases for them. Now, you know Udayana better than I do and Udayana is himself quite hard, but my understanding of ajñāta-karaṇakatva was phenomenological, in the sense that one is not aware of an intermediate step. This is indirectly confirmed by Udayana’s opponents, i.e. Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors who insist that abhāva must be a distinct pramāṇa because we don’t come to “nāsti” via a further thought. In other words, Nyāya and Bhaṭṭa Mīmāṃsā authors seem to me to agree about the distinct character of absence cognitions and to recognise to them a primitive character. They then diverge as for how to explain it.
      (Gaṅgeśa’s rephrasing, I agree is causal.)
      Does this make sense?

  3. Thank you, Elisa – that’s extremely helpful! I agree that, for Udayana, directness as a natural property of awareness-events may be reflected in how one is conscious of one’s awareness-events. (I am not sure whether to call that a difference in phenomenal character in the contemporary philosopher’s sense, but that perhaps isn’t very far away.) This, in turn, may be explained precisely by the fact that there is no instrumental cause of the awareness (or an intermediate step, as you put it) that one is conscious of.

    I apologise for another lengthy response, but I am not still sure on two counts. First, if Udayana is talking a purely negative difference in phenomenology (i.e., the absence of an awareness of an instrumental cause), then it’s not obvious that this difference makes a positive contribution to the intrinsic phenomenal character of the awareness of absence in particular. That I think is what Farennikova wants: on her view, coming to see the absence changes something in the way in which one experiences the scene before oneself. Second, in Udayana’s own argument (under Nyāya-sūtra 3.20), the appeal to directness depends on the causal aspect of the notion. His principle is: if two awareness-events are produced by different or incompatible kinds of causes, then they belong to different (epistemic) kinds. So, since direct awareness-events have a different etiological profile than indirect ones, they should fall into different (epistemic) kinds. (The same principle comes up in his sub-commentary under Nyāya-sūtra 1.1.4 when he is responding to the Buddhist claim that qualificative awareness (savikalpaka-jñāna) isn’t perceptual.) Then, it still doesn’t seem like a purely phenomenological notion. I hope that makes sense!

    • Dear Nilanjan, thanks for your engaging answer.
      Yes, I agree with you that for Udayana (but perhaps for most or all Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā philosophers?) the phenomenology of a cognitive event is linked to its etiology (apart from the case of one’s awareness of a cognitive event, which in fact occurs later on, but one is not aware of the temporal succession). I also agree that this same principle can be used to claim that savikalpapratyakṣa must also be perceptual in nature.
      The thing I am missing in your answer is:
      —Farennikova wants to find an explanation for the phenomenologically perceived directness of one’s experience of absence
      —Udayana speaks of directness in the sense of etiology and phenomenology
      —Hence, why would not Udayana’s answer address the same concern as AF?

      Thanks and best!

  4. Thank you, Elisa, for a probing response. Here’s my last piece of clarification, and then I’ll stop. When Farennikova is appealing to the method of phenomenal contrast, she thinks that, when I notice the absence of something by looking, my awareness of absence involves a proprietary visual appearance which isn’t shared by a corresponding awareness of purely positive entities. This visual appearance is supposed to lend support to the claim that an absence becomes an object of my visual awareness. (Siegel’s use of the method in her first book highlights shifts of visual appearance, not the introspective awareness of background awareness-events.) My claim is simply that no Nyaya philosopher is ever running such an argument from phenomenal contrast.

    • Thanks, Nilanjan. I am sorry to keep on discussing here, but
      I am not sure I get your point about AF and I’m sure I’m not getting it about Siegel (which page or chapter of “The contents of visual experience” are you thinking of?).
      Concerning AF, I thought she meant something like “my experience of the table at the café is ≠ my experience of the table at the café if I left my laptop on it and it is now missing”. In Nyāya terms, this makes also sense, insofar as the bhūtalamātra experience is ≠ ghaṭābhāva experience. This leads Nyāya authors to admit, unlike DhK’s school, that absences must have an ontological existence. (But perhaps I am too biased by Mīmāṃsā discussions thereof).

      • No worries – thank you for the question. We see Naiyāyikas giving arguments of two sorts. The first sort of argument attempts to show that absences aren’t reducible to other things, such as the bare locus or some awareness of the empty locus. The second sort of argument – directed against the Bhāṭṭas – attempts to show that, at least some of our awareness-events about absence, are perceptual. I don’t think philosophers of perception like AF are in the business of giving arguments of the first sort (though Roy Sorensen is an exception). So, let’s set those aside.

        Now, suppose it is common ground amongst us (as it is between Bhāṭṭas and Naiyāyikas) that absences are distinct entities that we are sometimes aware of. Are some of those awareness-events perceptual? AF’s argument from phenomenal contrast (which, to be fair, she rejects) answers this question in the following way.

        P1. Some awareness-events about absences involves a proprietary visual phenomenal character that is absent from (similar) visual awareness-events that are purely about positive entities.
        P2. If an awareness-event involves a proprietary visual phenomenal character, then it is visual.
        C. Some awareness-events about absences are visual.

        My claim is this. This argument shouldn’t be conflated with the argument from immediacy or directness that Naiyāyikas discuss. While directness (in either sense mentioned above) might make a difference to what it’s like to undergo an awareness, it is not indexed to any sense-modality. So, it may not make a difference to visual phenomenal character (as opposed to tactile phenomenal character). For we are only saying either that we aren’t conscious of its instrument or that it isn’t produced by an instrument that is an awareness. This can be shared by both my tactile awareness of the absence of pot and my visual awareness of that absence.

        Finally, this brings me to your objection that there must be a difference in phenomenal character, since there is a distinctive content. After all, my awareness is of the absence, not the locus! That is an interesting argument. But that can’t be an argument for the view that awareness-events about absence are perceptual (though it may be construed as an argument for the irreducibility of absence). For even the Bhāṭṭas can acknowledge that our awareness-events about absence have distinctive phenomenal character, just not perceptual phenomenal character.

        • Sorry to belabour the same point. But there is a further piece of evidence that Naiyāyikas, like Udayana and Gaṅgeśa, can’t be thinking that our perceptual awareness-events about absences involve proprietary phenomenal character indexed to particular sense-modality. For example, both think that it is possible for us visually perceive the absence of colour in wind (or absence of odour in a rock). What does the distinctively visual appearance of this property in wind consist in? Wind isn’t visually perceived at all! G. even thinks that it can’t be perceived by touch; it is imperceptible, and is inferred on the basis of tactile qualities.

          • Thanks for belabouring, Nilanjan!
            OK, absence of colour in wind is a really stimulating case. If you are a (Mīmāṃsaka and a) Naiyāyika (apart from G, you say, which is surprising and you’ll have to explain me more about) you think that wind is only perceivable by touch. This means, you feel the warmth or coolness of air, no more than that. If you are a Mīmāṃsaka, this means that —unless in specific cases, such as aliens just arrived on the earth— you will not have any cognition of absence of colour, because you don’t anticipate colour to be there in the first place (no jighṛkṣā) nor is the absence of colour “conspicuous” there. But, if you are a Naiyāyika, you take absences seriously. They exist as padārthas, but what exists ontologically must also be a prameya. Hence the conclusion that you must be able to see the absence of colour in wind.
            Long story short: The case of wind is where you end up with with a theory that was not designed for it. You first postulate ontic absences to account for the absence of the expected pot and then end up with ontic absences you have to perceive also when not anticipated. At least, this is what I would say now…

  5. Perhaps its best to realize the artful suggestion is that space and its voidal blackness is a cloaked message. We are space, No? Oh, everyone believes their images….right. Still, we are Space, Just ask Siva.

  6. It depends on the school. Basically:
    —Nyāya: they are an ontological category (padārtha), but are grasped by perception
    —Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsā: absences are not an ontological category, they are a real (vastu) aspect of things (asadrūpa), but they are grasped by an ad hoc epistemological instrument (abhāvapramāṇa)
    —Dharmakīrti’s school: neither nor

    I hope this helps!

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