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.