Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Jaina Propaedeutic for Metaphysical Relativism, Perspectival Rationalism and Contextual Pluralism

Ceiling inside the large Jain temple at Rankpur, Rajastan, India.

Immediately below is a slightly edited version (I’ve removed all but one of the hyperlinks and references and some diacritics were unavailable) of a section from Wikipedia’s entry on the Jain doctrine of Anekantavada. Jaina contributions to rationality and logic are among the sources of inspiration for how I’ve come to think about questions of fact and value, and especially truth and objectivity, so I thought to introduce it here by way of a preface or propaedeutic to a forthcoming post on “facts and values, truth and objectivity.” The Jains enable us to see what may be involved in formulating an “epistemology of perspective” that is at once pluralist, relative and objective, thereby exemplifying, among other things, the epistemic virtues of scepticism without succumbing to what Michael Williams has defined as “radical scepticism” (2001: 59).

Anekāntavāda is one of the most important and fundamental doctrines of Jainism. It refers to the principles of pluralism and multiplicity of viewpoints, the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth.

This is to contrast attempts to proclaim absolute truth with adhgajanyāyah, which can be illustrated through the parable of the "blind men and an elephant". In this story, each blind man felt a different part of an elephant (trunk, leg, ear, etc.). All the men claimed to understand and explain the true appearance of the elephant, but could only partly succeed, due to their limited perspectives. [….]

The etymological root of anekāntavāda lies in the compound of two Sanskrit words: anekānta (‘manifoldness’) and vāda (‘school of thought’). The word anekānta is a compound of the Sanskrit negative prefix an, eka (‘singularity’), and anta (‘attribute’). Hence, anekānta means “not of solitary attribute.” The Jain doctrine lays a strong emphasis on samyaktva, that is, rationality and logic. According to Jains, the ultimate principle should always be logical and no principle can be devoid of logic or reason. Thus, the Jain texts contain deliberative exhortations on every subject, whether they are constructive or obstructive, inferential or analytical, enlightening or destructive.

Anekāntavāda is one of the three Jain doctrines of relativity used for logic and reasoning.

The other two are:
syādvāda—the theory of conditioned predication and;
nayavāda—the theory of partial standpoints.

These Jain philosophical concepts made important contributions to ancient Indian philosophy, especially in the areas of skepticism and relativity.

Syādvāda is the theory of conditioned predication which provides an expression to anekānta by recommending that the epithet Syād be prefixed to every phrase or expression. Syādvāda is not only an extension of anekānta ontology, but a separate system of logic capable of standing on its own. The Sanskrit etymological root of the term syād is “perhaps” or “maybe,” but in the context of syādvāda, it means “in some ways” or “from a perspective.” As reality is complex, no single proposition can express the nature of reality fully. Thus the term “syāt” should be prefixed before each proposition giving it a conditional point of view and thus removing any dogmatism in the statement. Since it ensures that each statement is expressed from seven different conditional and relative viewpoints or propositions, syādvāda is known as saptibhangīnāya or the theory of seven conditioned predications. These seven propositions, also known as saptibhangī, are:

syād-asti—in some ways, it is,
syād-nāsti—in some ways, it is not,
syād-asti-nāsti—in some ways, it is, and it is not,
syād-asti-avaktavyah—in some ways, it is, and it is indescribable,
syād-nāsti-avaktavyah—in some ways, it is not, and it is indescribable,
syād-asti-nāsti-avaktavyah—in some ways, it is, it is not, and it is indescribable,
syād-avaktavyah—in some ways, it is indescribable.

Each of these seven propositions examines the complex and multifaceted nature of reality from a relative point of view of time, space, substance and mode. To ignore the complexity of reality is to commit the fallacy of dogmatism.

Nayavāda is the theory of partial standpoints or viewpoints. Nayavāda is a compound of two Sanskrit words—naya (‘partial viewpoint’) and vāda (‘school of thought or debate’). It is used to arrive at a certain inference from a point of view. An object has infinite aspects to it, but when we describe an object in practice, we speak of only relevant aspects and ignore irrelevant ones. This does not deny the other attributes, qualities, modes and other aspects; they are just irrelevant from a particular perspective. Authors like Natubhai Shah explain nayavāda with the example of a car; for instance, when we talk of a “blue BMW” we are simply considering the color and make of the car. However, our statement does not imply that the car is devoid of other attributes like engine type, cylinders, speed, price and the like. This particular viewpoint is called a naya or a partial viewpoint. As a type of critical philosophy, nayavāda holds that all philosophical disputes arise out of confusion of standpoints, and the standpoints we adopt are, although we may not realize it, “the outcome of purposes that we may pursue.” While operating within the limits of language and seeing the complex nature of reality, Māhavīra used the language of nayas. Naya, being a partial expression of truth, enables us to comprehend reality part by part. [….]

Thus Jaina "standpoint" epistemology or perspectival rationalism entails in the first instance the idea that the nature of an object cannot be expressed by any one proposition, such a proposition necessarily expressing only a conditional or relative point of view. It's not that the Jainas are thereby committed to a non-propositional theory of truth but instead, it seems, to a para-propositional theory insofar as propositions rely on presuppositions and assumptions and these selfsame propositions are necessarily partial. And yet we cannot dispense with these propositions: hence a para-propositional theory rather than a non-propositional theory of truth. The Jaina doctrines sketched in outline form here bring attention to little noticed features of our concepts and certain structural characteristics intrinsic to our philosophical language, for example, that there are "hidden parameters in belief and assertion" and that our propositional utterances are subject to a high degree of under-specification. In short, our knowledge claims are invariably perspectival and partial, in addition to being primarily presumptive (in the sense that, as Michael Williams says, 'no move in the game of giving and asking for reasons is presuppositionless' and that all moves made by both claimants and challengers 'depend for their legitimacy...on commitments currently not under scrutiny, at least some of which have the status of default entitlements'), and thus it behooves us to understand rationally expressed and seriously held alternative claims or views as liable to possession of at least some measure of truth. While we may not want to go as far as the Jains in viewing all contradictory claims as, in some sense, merely ostensible or prima facie contradictions, perhaps we could adopt such a stance as a preliminary or presumptive heuristic until or unless we definitively conclude that we're confronted with an insoluble (for even the Jains) or an intractable or real contradiction.

Jonardon Ganeri has termed the apparent meta-metaphysical or meta-philosophical aspiration of these Jain doctrines a "rationality of reconciliation" (or 'harmonization'), the goal of which is the complete knowledge of truth, although the Jains, like other Indian philosophers (e.g., the Advaita Vedāntins and the Buddhists), believe we are also capable of possessing (God-like) omniscient knowledge, that is, absolute truth (kevalajñāna; the functional equivalent of [nirguna] Brahman-realization for the Advaita Vedāntin and nirvāna for the Buddhist). I'm more interested in the former sort of knowledge (thus setting aside soteriological concerns), particularly insofar as Jaina rationality and logic reflect, in Matilal's words, a concern that is "somewhat ethical," meaning that a

Rejection of a seriously held view is discouraged lest we fail to comprehend its significance and underlying presuppositions and assumptions. [....] [The Jainas] emphasize not only different facets of reality, not only the different senses in which a proposition can be true or false, but also the contradictory and opposite sides of the same reality, the dual (contradictory) evaluation of the same proposition and the challenge it offers to the doctrine of bivalence or reality.

This "somewhat ethical" concern is likewise evidenced in an intriguing point made elsewhere by Matilal, namely, that the Jaina doctrine of truth as a metaphorical many-faceted gem (or light refracted through a prism) entailed carrying their well known (if at times extreme) adherence to the principle of nonviolence "from the physical and practical plane to the intellectual plane."

Metaphysical and epistemological insights related to those we find among the Jains can be gleaned from the views of a handful of contemporary philosophers as diverse as Willard Van Orman Quine (e.g., the indeterminacy of 'radical translation' thesis), Hilary Putnam, Nicholas Rescher, Michael Lynch, Nelson Goodman (e.g., 'frames of reference'), Peter Unger, and David B. Wong. Consider, for instance, the following from Unger's Philosophical Relativity (1984):

The answer one prefers for a certain philosophical problem will depend on what assumptions one has adopted in relation to that problem. And, irrespective of the problem in question, assumptions crucial to one's answer will always be somewhat arbitrary, not determined by objective facts, including facts of logic and language. A certain set of assumptions yields one answer, another set another; whatever facts pertain to the problem fail to decide between the one set or the other.

Unger illustrates his "hypothesis" with an examination of "contextualist" and "invariantist" arguments in semantics as equally plausible "reference frames," a discussion that suggests a comparison with the semantic implications of Jain ideas. But here I'll confine myself to noting one obvious difference between Unger's general account of "philosophical relativity"and the Jaina idea that the means and method of acquiring knowledge are necessarily perspectival. Unger states, "Emphatically, I consider these relativity theses as no more than hypotheses, not as propositions for which we now, or soon will, have ovewhelming or even compelling reason." Of course Unger's theses on relativism were restricted to a particular class of problems in philosophy, not all philosophical topics or questions. By way of contrast, the Jaina rationality of reconciliation and non-onesidedness, apart from being global in scope, has been described by Matilal as "dogmatic:" "above all, the Jains were non-dogmatic, although they were dogmatic about their non-dogmatism." Given the soteriological motivations of Jain doctrine (which we've set aside for our discussion), alongside the vigorous religio-philosophical milieu the Jains were members of, we might forgive them for at least this type of dogmatism (that environment included both āstika sad-darśanas: Nyāya, Vaiśesika, Sāmkhya, Yoga, Mīmāmsā, and Vedānta, as well as the nāstika philosophical systems: Jainism, Buddhism, and Cārvāka).

Although we could conceivably call upon Jaina ideas in support of this or that form of cognitive pluralism, strictly speaking, it would seem their doctrines fall within the ambit of syncretism, in which the various viewpoints or perspectives are integrated so as to get a truer or complete picture of what is real. Ganeri makes this clear in his discussion of the Jaina application of these doctrines to an ontology of objects in which statements are "conditionalized" by the "somehow" operator (the syād prefix above):

A complete description of an object is a description with explicit reference to the state of the object at each [of the values of the otherwise hidden parameters of substance, place, time, and state]. What the insertion of 'somehow' [ syāt/syād] allows us to do is to begin to build up such a pointwise description of the object, each somehow-conditionalised statement carrying information along a line of sight of points. As more statements are added, a picture builds up of the whole object, just as (to use a favourite metaphor of Sukhlalji Sanghvi) we build up a picture of the whole house by inspecting it from different sides, inside and out. [....] But a question still remains—can we ever by this means, reach a complete description of the object? [....] The Jaina rationality of reconciliation certainly leads to ever more complete descriptions, but does the description ever become complete?

We need not here try to answer this otherwise important question. But we should note that, within the Indian philosophical environment at least, these selfsame doctrines might equally be characterized in toto as "synthetic," if by that we mean, with Rescher, "the construction of a combining standpoint that mixes a piece of one position with some different piece of another—that grants one the right in this respect and another the right in that one." Rescher thereby proffers at least one reason Matilal is justified in describing the Jains as "dogmatic about non-dogmantism:" "every standpoint (perspective, doctrinal stance), however 'synthetic' it may be, is just exactly that—just one more particular standpoint," even if we detect meta-metaphysical or meta-philosophical implications or possibilities as a result of this standpoint. We can similarly conclude that the Jains did not succumb to what Rescher calls "relativistic indifferentism" in formulating their doctrine of non-onesidedeness (or conversely, 'many-sidedness'), for even "if we are pluralists and accept a wide variety of perspectives as being (abstractly speaking) 'available,' we still have no serious alternative to seeing our own stance as superior—at any rate, if we have such a stance at all, as we must do if we are actually philosophizing."

The overarching moral I'd like to draw from Jaina philosophy as a propaedeutic to my forthcoming post on "facts and values, truth and objectivity," is largely metaphorical if not "ethical" in the sense invoked above by Matilal, which is to say it is more about the spirit than the letter of these particular Jain doctrines. Put differently, it revolves around notions of philosophical temperament, the motivation of our philosophical endeavors, and the possible metaphysical and epistemological lessons we might discover in a sensitive examination of the conditions provided by a global environment or civil society defined by a commitment among its members to "moral minimalism" if not democratic values, principles and praxis or cosmopolitan justice. Among these lessons might be an appreciation of the significance of metaphysical relativism and perspectival epistemology or rationalism, or simply something on the order of what Rescher calls "contextualist pluralism." This would mean that, with the Jains, we have begun to appreciate the non-onesidedness (or the complex and multi-faceted nature) of reality or the many facets of truth, a realization underwritten by the different contexts of experience unique to each of us, thereby "combin[ing] a pluralistic acknowledgement of distinct alternatives with a recognition that a sensible individual's choice among them is not rationally indifferent, but rather constrained by the probative indications of the [reflective] experience that provides both the evidential basis and evaluative criteria for effecting a rational choice" (Rescher).

References and Further Reading:

  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Philosophy in Classical India. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Long, Jeffery D. Jainism: An Introduction. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.
  • Lynch, Michael. Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. The Central Philosophy of Jainism: Anekāntavāda. Ahmedabad: L.D. Institute of Indology, 1981.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna (Jonardon Ganeri and Heeraman Tiwari, eds.). The Character of Logic in India. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna, "Religion and Value," in Jonardon Ganeri, ed., The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Ethics and Ethics (Philosophy, Culture and Religion). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Rescher, Nicholas. Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1993.
  • Sharma, Arvind. A Jaina Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001.
  • Unger, Peter. Philosophical Relativity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • Williams, Michael. Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Wong, David B. Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.


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