Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Quick note: Jackalopes, al-mi'raj, and śaśaviṣāṇa

In searching for some śaśa-viṣāṇa (horns of the hare) clip art in the form of a jackalope, I discovered this article on Wired.com explaining the origin of the "hare's horn" myth in the US. The idea of a rabbit with horns is not only found in Indian literature (as an example of an impossibility), but also in the American West and in Arabic poetry (known as al-mi'raj). Apparently there is a viral infection that causes some unfortunate rabbits to sprout growths that look like horns, though they don't look as nice as the ones below. (You can Google for images on your own!) So, perhaps it's not an non-referring term after all?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Arrival: gaviṣṭi and gavagai

Dr. Louise Banks tests the aliens' linguistic capabilities...
Last night I finally saw Arrival. The film hasn't been released in Singapore, so I had to avoid spoilers and watch it during my break in the US. It was worth waiting for, although I guffawed at a few points and found the major reveal to be disappointing. (My post below has spoilers.)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Peacocks in the rain

One of the poems my students encountered this semester in Classical Indian Philosophy of Language is found in both in Mukula Bhaṭṭa's Abhidhāvṛttamātṛkā and Ānandavardhana's Dhvanyāloka. It describes "the cloud's friends" who cry out at the rain clouds. My students weren't sure who the "cloud's friends" were, and why it would mean "peacocks," even though Mukula explains that it is because they have similar qualities of fondness.

I explained their role in Sanskrit poetry, but without actually having seen peacocks singing and opening their feathers in the rain, it's difficult. Then I found this nice image, a woodblock by a fellow named Ralph Kiggell, in a book called The Third Thing. If you click you can read the accompanying Sanskrit poem (which I haven't tried to track down). It is by Yogeśvara and was translated by John Brough in Poems from the Sanskrit--I am not sure why the book says "anonymous" and doesn't credit the translator!

With tail-fans spread, and undulating wings,
With whose vibrating pulse the air now sings,
Their voices lifted, and their beaks stretched wide,
Treading the rhythmic dance from side to side,
Eyeing the rainclouds dark, majestic hue,
Richer in color than their own throat's blue,
With necks upraised, to which their tails advance,
Now in the rains, the screaming peacocks dance.

This made me think a bit about the difficulty of translating poetry. Here there is rhyme, which signals "this is a poem" to a lot of readers, but at the expense of a sing-song quality that may not match the original meter. What is it that translators aim at when translating poetry? Since poetry is "sound and sense" as the Alaṁkāra tradition puts it, it's basically impossible to get both together precisely in source and target language. Here's the Sanskrit of the poem my students read:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Malcolm and Fabian at Cendana

Today I, along with another YNC professor, Fabian Geier, presented a philosophy café to our students here at Yale-NUS College at the Cendana Residental College. It was Star Trek-themed, beginning with an introduction to the Original Series and its cultural context, shifting to the Next Generation and concluding with a clip from Deep Space Nine.

Given my interests, it will not come as a surprise that I chose parts of the episode "Darmok" to screen and discuss. If you're not familiar with the episode, the core of it is introduced in the first two panels of the Chainsawsuit comic above. There is an alien race, with requisite face-bumps and strange clothing, that speaks in a way the Universal Translator can't quite parse. They say things like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" and "Shaka, when the walls fell" but seem to think they're communicating something more--and they are frustrated when the Enterprise crew doesn't understand.

And then Captain Picard and their captain (Dathon) are beamed down to a planet's surface to fight a monster and talk about being human and using language. Quickly the crew of the Enterprise orbiting above figures out that "Darmok" and "Jalad" are names, and Tanagra is a place. But they don't know what that expression is supposed to mean, and they engage the Tamarians in a fight while Picard and Dathon are becoming friends on the planet surface below. Of course, it all ends well, and Picard recounts the Epic of Gilgamesh along the way after figuring out that Darmok and Jalad met independently on some island, battled a common foe, and left as friends.

There's a lot of attempts to explain what's going on in the episode. Counselor Troi says that "images" are important to the Tamarians (the bumpy-faced aliens), and Picard says that "Darmok on the ocean" is a metaphor for being alone, and later seems to think of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" as an analogy or allegory in some sense. At one point, it's suggested that they don't use pronouns like "I" and "you." In the real world, an article at the Atlantic argued that

Monday, September 19, 2016

What's in a name?

During the past several months, there's been some attention online to the question of what counts as "philosophy" in Anglophone academic departments. Below is an overview of the conversation, followed by just a small observation.

First, Jay Garfield and Brian Van Norden say, "If Philosophy Won't Diversify, Let's Call it What it Really Is." Their conclusion is that "any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself “Department of European and American Philosophy.”

Brian Leiter replies that philosophers in Anglophone departments are united by a certain style not by geographical focus (apparently unaware of the existence of the analytic Indian philosophical style). Jonardon Ganeri comments on this post--and is ignored by everyone there--that
It has been well known for several decades that much philosophy written in Sanskrit is highly analytical in style (one need only consult B. K. Matilal's *The Doctrine of Negation in Navya-Nyāya* to see this). So the argument from style itself favours a diversification of the curriculum and the canon.
Lots of other conversation ensues at Daily Nous. Remarks like

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Tantravārttika series: unpublishing

After a bit of thought, I'm taking down the series on the Tantravārttika translation I've been publishing. The reason is that it's a project which I would like to see published in a more official manner in the future, and I worry about some journals and publishers who might consider it to have been already published, even though in an earlier state. As well, my initial aim was to generate some conversation on the work, and that hasn't happened (my blog isn't high-traffic, which I'm actually happy about).

If you're reading this and are really disappointed because my weekly-to-occasional post was the highlight of your day, then drop me an email and I'll gladly share the work with you.

Otherwise, I will be presenting a related paper ("The Self is a Sky-Flower: Doing Metaphor with Empty Terms") at the 2017 Pacific APA as part of a panel entitled "Dealing with the Unreal", and so I will likely put up a summary of that talk here.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Translation Comparison as Pedagogy

For the first day of my Classical Indian Philosophy of Language class, I am introducing the students to the challenges and rewards of reading Indian philosophy in translation. One of these challenges is that students often worry that the translation they have is an obstacle to the "true" text.

We're going to take this challenge head-on by looking at four English translations of Nyāyasūtra 1.1.1. Two of these translations are by the same person, which is intentional--I want them to consider why a translator might make different choices at different times and contexts. I thought it would be fun to post the versions here, just to see how they vary. Below I've also provided the Sanskrit text, though I don't for students.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Quick note: Tantrarahasya on ellipsis and arthāpatti

Right now I'm in Hawaii for the East-West Philosophy Conference that starts in a few days. I am taking a break from my usual weekly schedule of Tantravārttika blogging in order to make a few comments on the Tantrarahasya of Rāmānujācārya.

Subsentential speech in Zits, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, www.zitscomics.com
The Tantrarahasya is a Prābhākara introductory text dating to the sixteenth century which has not yet been translated in its entirety. Elisa Freschi has translated a portion which deals with the interpretation of injunctions in her Duty, Language, and Exegesis. Apart from that, and a summary by K. T. Pandurangi, the text is, unlike the Mānameyodaya, the Bhāṭṭa introductory text dating to around the same time, still available only to Sanskritists.

This is a shame, since the Tantarahasya, as far as I can tell, is the first Mīmāṃsā text to focus on a case of subsentential speech in its discussion of postulation, or arthāpatti. Earlier, the Prakaranapañcikā of Śālikanātha Miśra, in his discussion of vākyārtha, claims that elliptical insertion (adhyāhāra) is understood by arthāpatti. He defends the arthādyāhāra view, that what is understood through elliptical insertion is a meaning and not a word. However, the discussion is very general and does not give any linguistic examples.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Bubble gum and joss paper: living in Singapore

If people in the United States know anything about Singapore, it's that gum is illegal here. In fact, it's so illegal that you will get caned for having it. At my going away party in Austin, I was given a farewell gift--an assortment of gum. Wrigley's, Trident, that pink foot-long bubble gum tape. Now, as it turns out, like a lot of things in Singapore, the actual bureaucracy involved is a bit different.

Friday, April 15, 2016

First year as an assistant professor

Today marked the last day of classes here at Yale-NUS College. On my walk home along the bridge over the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE to locals*), it hit me that I had made it. I just finished my first year as an assistant professor.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha to first-year students (cross-posted from the Indian Philosophy Blog)

The post below was originally published at the Indian Philosophy blog, and I encourage readers to submit comments there (comments here are closed).

What follows is a reflection on my experiences teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha, as I promised in the comments to a recent post. Part of my job at Yale-NUS College is to teach a college-wide common curriculum course that spans two semesters. It's called "Philosophy and Political Thought" (PPT). The course introduces students to three intellectual traditions categorized roughly by geography: Chinese, Indian, and Greco-Roman-Western thought. (While demarcating these boundaries is contentious stuff, for the purposes of teaching, we do have to mark boundaries somewhere.) The current semester begins with Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra and ends with Hannah Arendt, "Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture."
Teaching the Tarkasaṃgraha: How and Why
Two weeks ago, before spring break, our students read the "inference" chapter (anumānapariccheda) of the Tarkasaṃgraha (Primer on [objects of] Reasoning), along with a few selections from his Dīpikā on the text. Why this text? Well, for one thing, part of what we want our students to consider in this course is how to reason well, and the Primer's discussion of anumāna gives them a framework to think about when claims are justified, what to do in the face of a counter-argument, and so on. They also were introduced to epistemology with selections from Descartes' Meditations, and the Primer is a nice way to challenge some dichotomies they might think are neatly carved out there--between empiricism and rationalism, for instance. It also uses doubt in a different way, as a spur for reasoning, and as a possible defeater, but at local, not global level.
As I have done for introductory-level classes the last few years, I put a selection of the text on Classroom Salon for students to annotate. We focused on the opening part of the chapter, which distinguishes between svārthānumāna and parārthānumāna, and addresses the pūrvapakṣin's worries about vyāpti, or regular concomitance. Having just been exposed to Descartes, they were quite worried that we could ever have certain knowledge of the relationship between smoke and fire, for instance. The result of their discussion online and in class was that we were able to talk about what bhūyodarśana ("abundant experience") is, and why the Naiyāyikas might begin there, rather than with the sort of project Descartes has in mind.
Further, while the pedagogical focus was not explicitly what Anand Vaidya calls "the character view," in my opening lecture, I gave the students some context about debate culture and the burgeoning cosmopolitanism in Annaṃbhaṭṭa's time (for which see Ganeri's The Lost Age of Reason). The goal was for students to see connections between their PPT course and its multiple textual traditions as well as their contemporary position in an increasingly global world. We could then talk about the role of the examples in parārthānumāna and what kinds of inferences are compelling and why. The biggest challenge for them was to see that, now that they had all experienced arguments for and against certain beliefs, they were in a tricky epistemic spot, given the fallacy known as "`counter-argument." Can they claim that they know that the self exists, for instance? As we move in the course to focusing on the skill of formulating good objections and responses, my hope is that they will be more sensitive to the virtues of argumentation.
Challenges of Teaching
One of the topics we've talked about on this blog is the challenge of introducing Indian philosophy into the default "Western philosophy" courses. I'm in a special situation at Yale-NUS, where this course is, by design, incorporating multiple traditions, and it is team-taught. Yet there are still similar obstacles as in any other institution. My peers are generally experts in areas other than Indian philosophy (save for Amber Carpenter and Gavin Flood--not on this year's teaching team) and when introducing a new text, they do not have time to get up to date on the secondary literature on Nyāya. This means it is my job to teach other philosophers Nyāya epistemology in a way which (1) enables them to feel competent teaching the text and (2) is philosophically robust enough to satisfy their own questions. This process (which I have also had to do for the Gīta-bhāṣya-s of Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, and Uddyotakara and Vatsyāyana's commentaries on the Nyāya-sūtra) has been humbling and eye-opening. While I'm in no position yet to be writing textbooks for introductory courses, I have a better sense of what such resources might need to do for non-specialists wanting to teach.
There are two major difficulties these kinds of books need to surmount. First is the well-known problem of "Sanskritese" translations. I adapted G. Bhattacharya's translation (Calcutta: Progressive Publishers, 1976), along with V.N. Jha's (Kerala: Chinmaya International Foundation Shodha Sansthan, 2010), with reference to some Sanskrit editions, in order to put together something a bit more readable and accurate (no reference to "middle" and "major terms", for instance). However, there are still spots which could be clarified--which my colleagues helped me see, as they are unfamiliar with the kinds of locutions common in these translations. Second, there are questions that philosophers not trained in Indian philosophy will naturally ask which need to be answered or reframed. So, in teaching anumāna, how deeply should one get into the debates over its monoticity, its purportedly hybrid inductive/deductive character, on the ways in which it can be represented formally? (That isn't to say these aren't questions that those of us trained in Indian philosophy ask--we do--but we may not ask them at the same places, or find them obstacles in the same way.) These questions are bound to arise, and something needs to be said, even if it is only to remind the reader of the limitations of certain categories.
Finally, a difficulty that the students seem to have with Indian philosophy and not so much with Chinese philosophy, is the successful employment of these concepts in a modern context. While they (generally speaking) do not fault Zhu Xi's metaphysics of Pattern and qi for being out of step with the deliverances of science, this is a worry for Indian philosophers. I think this is in part because Indian philosophy reads in a way that is more "technical" than Chinese philosophy (whether such a difference exists is a further question). Second, the claims are more immediately comparable for introductory students. It's hard to know how to determine whether Pattern and qi are consistent with what first-year college students think of as "science", but they can come up with objections to claims about earthiness being characterized by the property of having odor. For this reason, I've been focusing on motivating the metaphysics behind the Nyāya examples--emphasizing the way in which categories map onto sense modalities. And second, I've been challenging them to come up with their own examples using Annaṃbhaṭṭa's structure. In this way, they could see that the scientific method of hypothesizing about cause-and effect is not so far off as they originally thought (I had one set of students construct a kevala-vyatireka or "negative-only" inference using mercury instead of earth!).
All in all, the feedback (so far) from my colleagues has been that the text was at the right level of challenge for the students. It was difficult, but not insurmountably so. One colleague had students construct the Nyāya-Bauddha debate using the inferential forms they learned--a good way for them to see in retrospect what was going on when they read Vasubandhu, Uddoytakara, et al. The text also lacked any explicitly religious elements, which I think was helpful for the students to see that Indian thought is not only religious, which is a sense they might get if they only read the Gīta, Buddhist texts, and Gandhi. So, for anyone looking to incorporate some Indian philosophy into an epistemology, intro, or logic course--try the Primer on Reasoning? It is, after all, written to be an introductory textbook.