Why do people respond to commands?

Why do people obey to commands? Because they are immediately inclined, in a behaviourist way, to obey? Or because they realise that the action commanded is an instrument to the realisation of a coveted goal? Or are there further explanations?

This question has been debated at length in Sanskrit philosophy, oscillating especially among three main positions. I discussed these positions with some accuracy in previous posts, but this time I would like to try a bird-eye view about what is at stake.

On the one side, Maṇḍana claimed that the only motivator for undertaking actions is the awareness of the fact that the action to be undertaken is the means to obtain a desired goal. On the other, Prabhākara’s followers claimed that we immediately obey to commands because we feel enjoined, and only later analyse what is being asked and why. The role of the mention of the listener’s desire in commands such as “If you want to lose weight, try this shake!” is not meant to say that the enjoined action is an instrument to realise the desired output. Rather, the mention of the desire is meant for the listener to understand that they are the person addressed by the prescription. It picks up the person, who immediately relates with their own desires, but does not describe the existence of an instrumental relation between enjoined action and result. The last position can be connected to Bhartṛhari’s pratibhā theory. As depicted by Maṇḍana, this is a general theory about meaning, which includes both commands and descriptive sentence. According to it, human as well as non-human animals have innate inclinations which make it possible for them to perform activities they could have never learnt but are still able to perform, such as swimming or breastfeeding in the case of a baby. The pratibhā theory can be extended to commands which one would respond to because of an innate inclination.

Maṇḍana’s theory has the clear advantage of being a reductionist theory. By following it, one does no longer need an ad hoc semantic theory for commands, which can be reduced to descriptive sentences explaining the relation between the action enjoined and the expected output. Similarly, Maṇḍana provides a single theory covering all aspects of motivation to act, both in the case of commands and in the case of autonomous undertakings of action. In all cases, one is motivated to act because one thinks that the action is the instrument to get to the expected result. What are the disadvantages of this theory? First of all, Prābhākaras have a point when they describe our first response to commands. We immediately feel enjoined even before starting to analyse the action we have been required to perform. Secondly, Maṇḍana’s theory might have problems when it comes to people who know what would be best for them, but still don’t act. Can this all be explained just in terms of desires and instruments?

As declared at the beginning, the above is my attempt to give a short overview of the debate. Comments are 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 “Why do people respond to commands?”

  1. as you stated it, elisa. the theory follows directly from the way Sanskrit is parsed, not by any subject-predicate logic. but. by compounding conditions: so that a possible action emerges as a continuity between ones possible actions and the state or outcome desired, corresponding to the karaka relation. But I find very little recognition of these fundamentals of the language in philosophical commentary. Analytical philosophy did us a great disservice by making English the default metalanguage. Reading the theory this way places it moving on from the impact of the grammatical philosophy. So I’m not convinced by your appeal to reduction: it seems to me actually much like your previous examples stressing transparent sense of the words.

  2. Elisa, this provides a much clearer view of what’s at stake for a newbie like me. Thank you.

    Now, being a rash fool and ready to jump at any association, I am encouraged to take another stab in the dark. Given your description of it, pratibhā seems like something innate and linguistic. That immediately reminds me of Chomsky’s universal grammar.

    In particular, there’s indicative and imperative mood. If our understanding of these is innate, and in the case of the imperative mood, involves our readiness to bring about what is stated in that mood, then these could be what the Prābhākaras had in mind by the role of pratibhā in motivating action?

    And about pratibhā being contentless: perhaps what is meant is that the mood in which the content is stated is independent of the content. After all, the same content can be stated either in the imperative or the indicative mood.

    And perhaps the Prābhākaras can object that Mandana’s theory does not capture the imperative nature of the prescription. We can simply describe that X is the means to Y in an indicative sentence, and that would be enough to motivate the person who desires Y to act on X. But all that this shows, perhaps, is that Y has been the sole motivator all along, and the prescriptive force of the means-end cognition plays no role in the motivation. Any additional prescriptive force that it has must be ascribed to the imperative mood in which the content is couched (I assume that in Sanskrit we will have to refer to the la-kaaras).

    • Please correct:
      “Y has been the sole motivator all along”
      “desire for Y has been the sole motivator all along”

    • Thanks, Boram. Yes, Prābhākaras (like Rāmānujācārya) oppose Maṇḍana’s point by saying that he ignores the difference between “X is the instrument for Y” and “Do X!”. And yes, I think you are right concerning the reason Prābhākaras can reuse the pratibhā theory in the Vidhiviveka. I am less sure about the following comment by you:

      “And about pratibhā being contentless: perhaps what is meant is that the mood in which the content is stated is independent of the content. After all, the same content can be stated either in the imperative or the indicative mood.”

      This seems to mean that the claim that pratibhā is contentless just means “it has a content, but the mood of its expression is irrelevant”. Is this what you mean? And why should the same content be expressible in the imperative or indicative mood? The main content of a command is the instigation (pravartanā) and this is absent in an indicative sentence.

      • Hi Elisa, to respond to your questions:

        (1) This seems to mean that the claim that pratibhā is contentless just means “it has a content, but the mood of its expression is irrelevant”. Is this what you mean?

        My first impulse is to say no, but thank you for pressing me to be more precise. Suppose that we have the sentence, “The cat is on the mat”, which is decomposable into constituent linguistic components. The corresponding mental thought, in order to be articulate in the same way, ought to be decomposable into constituent mental components. I am suggesting that pratibhā is one of these mental components, specifically one that corresponds to the linguistic component that we call “mood”.

        To be even more precise, let’s distinguish between mental state, content, and object (artha). Then I would suggest that pratibhā is a mental state with a content. That content is what corresponds to the mood of a sentence. But it does not refer to an object (artha), such as मार्जार or कट or even सत्.

        (2) And why should the same content be expressible in the imperative or indicative mood?

        To be honest, here I was thinking of content as the proposition that p, which can have different directions of fit according to Anscombe, etc. Or, to which we can attach attach modal or deontic operators so that we have “it ought to be the case that p”, “it is actually the case that p” and so on. This presupposes that (propositional) content is something that can be abstracted from direction of fit, mood, modality, and so on.

        But clearly this is a modern Western way of thinking about content. Would it be possible to abstract content from mood in the traditional Indian context? My suggestion is that it is possible.

        The vibhakti-s show how the subanta-s relate to the tinganta. I take it that the subanta-s express objects, the tinganta expresses an action, and the vibhakti-s in most cases express the kaaraka-s or causal relations by which the objects bring about the action. I suggest that this state of affairs, represented by the mind, is the content that can be abstracted from mood. And the mental state corresponding to mood does not represent any state of affairs, but only signals whether the represented state of affairs is the case, or should be the case.

        • I should have said that vibhakti-s plus verb endings (active or passive) express the kaaraka-s. So nominal endings plus active/passive verb endings are needed to express states of affairs. Perhaps what I should have said is that the lakaaras corresponding to different moods can be abstracted from other linguistic components that express states of affairs (= events brought about by various causal factors).

          But more importantly what I’d like to know is if this has any bearing on what Bhartrihari says about pratibhaa, and where I can look to learn about his views on the matter.

          • Thanks for explaining!
            1. I’m not sure we can speak of “a modern Western way of thinking about content”, unless by “Western” you mean “Analytical”. I’m even less sure of the existence of a univocal “traditional Indian context” and I would distinguish answer according to the author we are talking about.
            2. Concerning your final question, the go-tos for pratibhā are an article by Hideyo Ogawa “On a bias for doxographical accounts in later commentaries on the Vākyapadīya of Bhartṛhari” (don’t let the title mislead you, it’s about pratibhā) and the work by Hugo David.

        • Some desultory reading suggests to me that for Bhartihari and Prabhakara Mimamsaka-s, sentence meaning is primitive and the meanings of sentence constituents are derivative. But insofar as sentence meaning is decomposable what I say above should be applicable?

          Anyway, to illustrate my suggestion:
          Take a sentence of the form (1) “idam anena kRtam”, and another sentence of the form (2) “idam anena kartavyam”.

          My suggestion is that both (1) and (2) represent the same state of affairs, the same objects in the same causal relations. But (2) expresses something different from (1) that is left unexpressed by that state of affairs. That is the pratibhaa that motivates the eligible hearer to realize the state of affairs expressed by (2).

          • Thank you for this additional comment. Your thesis is really interesting and I would love you to write it down (ideally in Sanskrit:-), but it does not seem to much the sources, which speak of pratibhā not as the additional deontic element, which is, instead, called pravartanā (or similar terms).
            In Kumārila’s terms, the primary meaning of a deontic statement is pravartanā and the action enjoined (say, kṛ- in your example) is the object to be brought about by the pravartanā. The action, in turn, has an object (idam).

          • Elisa,

            Thank you very much for the additional information. I couldn’t find Hideyo Ogawa’s article online, unfortunately.

            But in your judgment, does the Prabhakara opponent of Mandana accept Bhartrihari’s account of pratibha wholesale, or does s/he make modifications?

            Also, I wonder how pravartana is different from pravartaka. Am I correct in assuming they are different? If so, how? Perhaps the first is the linguistic item that motivates, and the second is the corresponding mental item?

            Despite the obscurity of the debate, I am definitely leaning towards the Prabhakara side.

  3. Maṇḍana’s theory matches the view in economics, that “if there’s gain in it, people will be doing it,” which is a generalization, abstracting from many details of conduct and motivation. As such. it matches the reading of the sentence as a (thematic or karaka) role-binding, and the salience of occupational roles in the culture, as innumerable castes.
    But a reduction is properly not a generalization, rather an abstraction which preserves what is specific or distinctive in the case. There I get didactic, from a background in natural science and mathematics. I also see legal argument over occupational hazards, involving also medical expertise, as an important stimulus to the historical development of Samkhya in relation to Caraka’s medicine.

    • Orwin, I see your point concerning Maṇḍana’s ideal agent as similar to the homo oeconomicus and I agree with it. The only difference would be that Maṇḍana starts with already undertaken actions and already expressed commands. Thus, he is not saying “If there is gain, people will do it”, but rather “Since people are doing it, there is surely gain in it”.

  4. My reading as above also picks up Hippocrates in Greek medicine On Reduction of Fractures, as from industrial accidents. And Boram’s analysis matches Archytas making the question “what is to be done?” a distinct topic in deliberation. He was like Kapil’s, a legendary military leader, and his imperative topic contrasts with the buddhi-samveda from Sanskrit lore, as the intelligence report. which must never be read as an imperative! What matters here is that Archytas was most widely remembered simply for distinguishing form and matter, or content as Boram has it.
    Language does prove to be harder than these themes from natural philosophy! What I can contribute here is the sense that Vedanta grew out of the ancient veda-, and Maṇḍana’s theory reads against that background. Vacaspati can be seen tackling reductions in the strict sense, and a stimulus to the later revival of Samkhya.

  5. Boram, I hadn’t seen your last post, which does what I can’t with the language, and seems to pose a telling contrast between an integral and an aggregate meaning, or alternatively, a top-,down and a bottom-,up construction. The tradition strongly validated the former, while the latter corresponds to syntactic reduction as understood in the West, in logical positivism, or early Wittgenstein. Chomsky was after a syntactic graphing, that would generate the integral form a priori. but he lost the linguistic argument to Panini. That’s where I came in, with a lead from an Indian book on natural language processing, in the way of Panini. His lexical morphology is way more efficient than anything you can do with trees in computer science. But here that’s just tech-talk: I would value a a simple explanation of how your two sentences differ.
    I know very well how the reduction works in mathematics, and in the logic thereof, where it’s called compositionality: a formula reducible to its terms. I found a classic analysis of that in Proclus on Euclid. and extracted it: it could be by Philo of Larissa, marking his return to a dogmatic Platonism. Plotinus followed, and could then not understand why he had a body, that could connect in action the way you now demonstrate. And that’s where Ken Wilber went wrong, as Amod is saying on the other thread.
    Lagrange did the compositional analysis of mechanics, and got shredded by Jacobi in Berlin for not understanding constraints, like the ligaments binding our muscles. So this has a direct bearing on robotics: how to construe the robot as a transparent instrument of action directed beyond it to an object. In the Hamilton-Jacobi theory one could minimise the action between agent and object. Perhaps that amounts to a desultory reading!

  6. Interesting post, Elisa. It seems to me that Prabhākara’s position is considerably more realistic than Maṇḍana’s. I think the latter gives us way too much credit, makes us look way more rational than we are. Christine Korsgaard (in The Sources of Normativity I think) notes that we respond “with the alacrity of obedient soldiers” when we hear our telephone ring: we have to make a decision not to answer it, our instinct is to answer it. So we are often inclined to follow others’ injunctions before we think about any purpose in doing so.

  7. Elisa, this is a very interesting debate, but on a slow line I miss your replies. I have a grave doubt about bringing Kumarila in here, because he is known to argue explicitly for compositionally! If Maṇḍana manages a compromise with his position, you would have to show how. and how he justifies it.

    As for Amod’s example, to respond to a phone as a machine is rational, and not indicative of interpersonal conduct, where we are routinely unimpressed by perfunctory treatment. There is, though, a thread of argument running from early Samkhya through Buddhism and Advaita, which takes the Purusa to be unconscious, like the non-dual state. But I don’t see Maṇḍana in that stream, and the close analysis of his Brahma-Siddhi by Allen W. Thrasher gives a semantics close to Boram’s. But there Maṇḍana’s rejection of compositionality appeals to tradition, and does not state his own position.

    Your inversion of the economic argument begs the question of motivation, or the impulse that generates activity. It is true that when these arguments were first rehearsed in the West, Behaviourism fell for just that hollow stance, effectively defining pleasure and pain by outcomes which they are supposed to explain. In the classic debate between Aristotle, Eudoxus and Speusippus, this was called circular argument. Interestingly. CS Peirce, who was a Brahmin, showed that there are valid circles in logic, and one showed up at the time in geometry, leading to Poincare’s Recurrence Theorem. Are you saying, Elisa. that Maṇḍana’s behaviours are recurrent patterns, as seen in astrology?

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