Limelight | Anand Jayprakash Vaidya: When I was looking up philosophy, and was transfixed by it

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya was born in Chicago. However, he spent most of his youth in Saudi Arabia. During his stay there he spent a lot of time in Germany and India. Shortly after the 1st Gulf War in 1991, he moved to California.  His early interests were in Indian PhilosophySpinozaHeidegger, Merleau Ponty, and The Philosophy of Law. However, it was his interest in Logic that led him to switch schools. He developed an interest in the Philosophy of Economics and the History of Philosophy and wrote his dissertation on the Epistemology of Modality (how we know what is possible and necessary, as opposed to what is merely actual). His focus was on the use of two-dimensional modal semantics as a foundation for articulating a relation between conceivability and possibility.

The interview is in two parts. Firstly he discusses the western bias in critical thinking and logic, how the Hindu syllogism helps us see this, Gautama Akṣapāda and the  Nyāya School of classical Indian philosophy, whether comparative philosophy without borders is the next step for philosophy, why philosophy should not be allowed to persist on the basis of known epistemic injustices, on Indian philosophy’s contribution to the issue of whether we literally see absences, B. K. Matilal on the Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation, the Mīmāṃsā tradition, the debate between John McDowell and Tyler Burge on perception, metaphysical disjunctivism, fusion philosophy, J. N. Mohanty, public philosophy, experimental philosophy and bringing analytic, comparative and experimental philosophy together.

Then we turn to modality. Here he discusses the epistemology of modality, disagreements with the monumental trio of Chalmers, Williamson and Yablo, his own approach, the importance of Bob Hale, whether a picture based on essentialist knowledge can really deliver an account of objective moderate realist modal knowledge and the role of mental operations in social justice. Take your time here…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya: I can think of three distinct forces that led me down the path of philosophy.

First, there is my personal family history. I come from an Indian family with philosophers and social activists on one side and Ayurvedic doctors on the other. My Dad’s oldest brother founded an Ashram in Gujarat dedicated to building schools, supporting famine relief efforts; and my mother’s family founded one of the largest ayurvedic pharmaceutical companies in India. Mahatma Gandhi was from the small village my father’s family is from and Gandhian politics run strong in my family. My parents came to America in the late 1960s, and I was born in Chicago. My father and brother are engineers (like many immigrants from India), but I consciously wanted to take a different path.

Second, I was a bored and unenthusiastic student in school (aside from chemistry, which I liked). I was also dyslexic and my grammar was horrible. I am still self-conscious about it. My mother was a gifted writer who helped me learn to write. Suffice it to say that I was just not good in school: either in math, writing, or science. I spent most of my time playing heavy metal guitar, riding my motorcycle, and playing soccer and football.

Third, I am naturally curious and argumentative. My parents thought I would be a good lawyer, because I never gave up asking questions. I remember being very young and looking up philosophy in the Encyclopedia Britannica trying to figure out what it was. I also ran across Pierce’s law, when I was looking up philosophy, and was transfixed by it. When I was in the 10th grade, without even knowing who they really were, I bought Marx’s Das Capital and Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. I read them. I didn’t understand much, but I wanted to. I would have to say that like other philosophers I was someone who had a disposition for philosophy but didn’t know that my disposition was for something called “philosophy.”  

The turning point for me came when I took philosophy courses at Humboldt State University, in northern California, my freshman and sophomore years of college. At the time I was angling to be a chemistry and oceanography major.  After studying Aristotle, the Medieval debates on faith and rationality as well as Descartes and Spinoza and Logic I knew I had found something I was interested in. Mary Bockover was an influence on me when I first started out. During this period, I pretty much turned from a person not interested in school who never read anything to someone who could not be bothered to do anything else other than read philosophy. The summer of my freshman year I remember telling two of my close friends that my dream was to be a philosophy professor and live in San Francisco. Because of my interest in Logic, I decided to leave Humboldt State. In 1996 I transferred to University of California, Los Angeles and began the serious study of the history of Western philosophy, Logic, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Language, Kant and Wittgenstein. I was lucky to have amazing teachers, such as Calvin Normore, John Carriero, David Kaplan, Tyler Burge, Tony Martin, Andrew Hsu, Joseph Almog, and Kit Fine.

However, at this time, and for the first time I experienced the way in which philosophy departments can give you an excellent education, but also push you away from certain topics of study. I went to UCLA knowing I wanted to study logic. But I also knew I was interested in Indian philosophy and phenomenology. I was quickly pushed away from those topics.

I recall being invited in my junior year to give an undergraduate talk to the philosophy club. I was eager and adventurous. So, I decided to compare what little I knew of Descartes’ cogito with an idea I was familiar with from Indian philosophy, that I think at that time I got from Śaṅkara. My comparison was focusing on the fact that Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am,” while Śaṅkara  says, “Sat (truth), Cit (awareness), Ananda (bliss).” I was trying to argue that Descartes was making an inference from a cognitive act to an existential fact (non-Sartrean), while Śaṅkara was expressing the relation between finding a certain kind of existential truth about what the self is, becoming aware of this truth as a knower, and subsequently being led to a state of bliss by the awareness of truth. Descartes seemed to have no affective component in the discovery of what the self is, the referent of ‘I’, while in this classical Indian philosophical relation the point seemed to be that one could not realize the truth without being brought to bliss because of what the truth was about, the fundamental nature of the self in relation to reality.

After my brief, and perhaps naïve presentation, I learned that talking the way I did was not appropriate nor the kind of philosophy that was done at UCLA. My initial reaction was confusion, because I thought that one of the great things about philosophy was you could talk about anything. But I didn’t dwell on this correction because at the time I had been taking a class with Tony Martin on the metaphysics of modality, which strongly held my attention. I loved philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, Wittgenstein and Kant as well. So, there was so much to be happy about, complaining was not on my mind. All I ever did during this time was read and take walks. In addition, a friend had given me a copy of Stephen Yablo’s 1993 classic “Is Conceivability a Guide to Possibility?” and later Dave Chalmers’ 1996 classic The Conscious Mind. Collectively, these two pieces set my mind down a path. I was locked into wanting to think about how we know what is possible and necessary. The actual seemed so easy, the possible so difficult.

When I graduated in 1998, I took a half year off to go to India. I had not been to India since the late 80s. So, this was my first adult experience being back. At first I stayed with my grandmother in Mumbai. While reading Ved Metha’s Portraits of India in her living room, she asked, “Why are you reading about India? Why not go out and walk around?”

I went on to study tabla (Indian drums) in Gujrat at my father’s home. While I was there I discussed various ancient thinkers with my uncle, who ran an ashram in Rajkot, and trained as a Sanskrit scholar in Benares. However, I made no plans to pursue Indian philosophy at this stage. I saw Indian philosophy as a conversational partner I wanted to engage with on the distant horizon. It was not pressing on my mind. Rather, I was excited to start graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I could continue training as an analytic philosopher.  I was very lucky at this institution. My teachers were amazing, and I learned more than I thought I would. I got a solid well-rounded education in core areas of analytic philosophy and the history of western philosophy. I had the honor of studying with Nathan Salmon, Anthony Brueckner, Kevin Falvey, Voula Tsouna, Aaron Zimmerman, Anthony Anderson, and Hubert Schwyzer. I was unlike many students that go to graduate school who float around thinking about what they want to write a dissertation on. I left UCLA knowing I would write on the epistemology of modality. Aside from a short period where I was disillusioned with professional philosophy and took some time off to play bass in a band with some friends from LA, as well as consider the more practical law school option, I completed graduate school rather quickly, within 5 years.

During my time in Santa Barbara, intellectually I moved away from logic and philosophy of language and towards epistemology and philosophy of mind. It wasn’t that I was not interested in those fields any more, it was more that I felt the need to grow and learn more. In addition, the epistemology of modality was largely being explored in the context of the philosophy of mind due to David Chalmers’s work, so I thought that in order to really understand the topic I should also study the philosophy of mind proper. Towards the end of my stay I also started thinking more about the job market, and so I developed an interest in topics that might be of interest to a wider audience. The main additions I made at this time were the philosophy of economics and business ethics, especially the capabilities approach to justice and the debate over corporate social responsibility, which to this day I remain interested in.  I also started working with Fritz Allhoff on editing anthologies in Business Ethics, Professional Ethics, and the History of Philosophy.

I took two cracks at the job market. The first year out I got an offer to take a job in the United Arab Emirates. I had grown up in Saudi Arabia for 11 years, and so I seriously considered going back to the desert. I decided to pass, because I had lived through the first Gulf War in the Middle East and didn’t want to experience that again. The second year out I scored a job offer from my current institution, San Jose State University. And there was no hesitation. The dream of the 19-year-old was within grasp. So, I became a philosopher. I love my institution and the people, faculty, staff, and students I get to work with.

I have grown so much from the influence of my institution. I was introduced to Phenomenology, Philosophy of Science, Feminist Philosophy, Mexican Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Aesthetics, Business Ethics, Care Ethics, and Buddhist Ethics. And I think the second act of my education has come from my colleagues, the Late Rick Tieszen, Peter Hadreas, Tommy Lott, Rita Manning, Janet Stemwedel, Bill Shaw, Tom Leddy, Noam Cook, Carlos Sanchez, Karin Brown, Janet Giddings, and Jim Lindahl. I am now a full professor and run the Center for Comparative Philosophy and live in San Francisco. I consider myself very lucky. I get to spend time writing, teaching, and reading philosophy with great people. I still play heavy metal guitar. I also practice yoga, enjoy live music, and go on long walks with my wife, Manjula.

I am now, and have been for some time, on the third act of my philosophical education, which has grown out of the second act. I am and have been learning from both experimental philosophers and comparative philosophers. I have been profoundly influenced in recent times by experimental philosophers such as Edouard Machery, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Ron Mallon, and Stephen Stich. Reading their work really pushed me to go beyond pure analytic philosophy. In addition, I have been influenced by Purushottama Bilimoria, Jay Garfield, Christian Coseru, Jaysankar Shaw, Arindam Chakrabarti, Jonardon Ganeri, Monima Chadha, and Evan Thompson with respect to classical Indian philosophy and cognitive science.

In general, I think of philosophy as a collective effort. And when we fall into the trap of thinking that we have individually succeeded, I remind myself and others that any success one might gain is a function of being part of a larger community of philosophers. The idea that there are purely original ideas in philosophy coming solely from an individual philosopher in a vacuum is a myth we need to dispel in training young philosophers. We need to go in for the collective effort that produces comprehensive philosophical understanding.

 3:AM: The question of whether critical thinking and logic education have a western bias is one that you’ve raised. You say it does and you take a look at the so-called Hindu Syllogism to show what is missing. Can you sketch for us your thinking here and what in particular that example illustrates?

AJV: The target of my inquiry is what, for lack of a better term, we could call the standard model of critical thinking and logic education that is pursued in both the US and the UK as well as those countries that follow their model. And I am talking primarily about those courses taught at universities through philosophy, as opposed to English or rhetoric or history. One way to see what I am pointing at is to simply open up a book, such as Hurley’s Concise Introduction to Logic or Vaughn’s The Power of Critical Thinking, two books that are commonly used in the US and the UK. You won’t find any discussion of any ideas concerning critical thinking or logic from anywhere around the world except from the standard western suspects, Aristotle, Boole, Frege, Russell, and Kripke. So, there are two questions. First: are there contributions from non-Western philosophers? Second: are those contributions worth teaching to undergraduates at the introductory level of logic and critical thinking?

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In a series of papers, I am writing, about one every two years, I search for contributions from different traditions and argue that they are contributions to critical thinking education and should be taught at the introductory level. So far, I think I have good arguments for including contributions from Hindu philosophy, Jain philosophy, and Buddhist philosophy. But I am confident that there are many contributions that we are ignoring. For example, I am fascinated by the idea that we can derive some contributions to critical thinking concerning justice from Maori philosophy. In general, the consequences of colonialism on the rhetoric of rationality are quite scary. One need not look that hard to find quotes such as the following, which can be found in Jonardon Ganeri’s (2001) Indian Logic: A Reader.

  1. Blakely (1851)

‘I have a great doubt of [Indian Logical] views becoming of any value whatever in the cause of general knowledge or science, or of ever having any fair claim to be admitted as an integral part of the Catholic philosophy of mankind. It is absurd to conceive that a logic can be of any value from a people who have not a single sound philosophical principle, nor any intellectual power whatever to work out a problem connected with human nature in a manner that is at all rational or intelligent. Reasoning at least in the higher forms of it among such semi-barbarous nations, must be at its lowest ebb; [and there] does [not] seem to be any intellectual stamina, in such races of men, to impart to it more vigour and rationality.’

(as quoted in, brackets added, Ganeri 2001: 7)

Without getting into all the details of my paper on the Hindu syllogism, I can offer a pathway to seeing why teaching it is useful. I will argue here by analogy. Most introductory texts have a section on Aristotle’s square of opposition. And usually there is a section that discusses both the Aristotelian interpretation as well as the Boolean interpretation. On the former’s view, we have existential import. Universal statements, such as ‘all cows are mammals’ entails ‘something is a cow and a mammal’. On the latter’s view, existential import fails. It is true that ‘all unicorns are single horned creatures’ but false that ‘something is both a unicorn and a single horned creature’. Boole helps us see why existential import fails in certain cases. Yet, importantly, we still teach both. Why? Because it is useful when learning critical thinking and logic to meta-critically think about the principles you are being taught and to question them rather than take them as established fact. Logic is something we argue about, not something we accept and follow without critical thought. Timothy Williamson has a great short piece in The Stone column of the New York Times called ‘Logic and Neutrality’. In this piece he elegantly lays out how and why we need to think meta-critically about logic. In the case at hand, we don’t need to decide whether Aristotle or Boole is correct, we just need to show that there are two interpretations of the square of opposition and there is a way of seeing how each interpretation holds. In more advanced classes students can debate which system they think is correct. But there is no reason why we should not introduce them to meta-critical inquiry about logic right from the start. It is critical thinking after all!

The Hindu syllogism presents an account of the proper form for presenting a good argument. This account is different from what we find in Aristotle. Granted there are similarities, but there are also differences. I should point out that I am not the authority on this. There are many Indian philosophers from the 19th and 20thcentury that have explored the relation between Aristotle’s system and the Nyāya account of good inference. One should consult B. K. Matilal, J. N. Mohanty, Jonardon Ganeri, Arindam Chakrabarti, Stephen Phillips, Mark Siderits, and Brendan Gillion. The account I am offering derives from work I have done with Jaysankar Shaw. Here is a rough differentiation / characterization of an aspect of the two systems. I am going for a high-level presentation here, not a close examination. No characterization of either system can be completely accurate at the level I am discussing it here. Rather, this is an invitation for others to dig deeper and see what they find. For even in classical Indian philosophy we find debate, for example between various Buddhist thinkers and Nyāya thinkers, over debate and the form of a good argument.

Most of us trained in Western philosophy will be familiar with the following example from introductory courses on logic and critical thinking, which almost all of us had to take.

Aristotle:

Major Premise:            All men are mortal.

Minor Premise:            Socrates is a man.

Conclusion:                 Socrates is a mortal.

What we will likely not have seen in the very class that gave us the former, is the latter example from Gautama Akṣapāda, the founding figure of the Nyāya School of classical Indian philosophy.

Akṣapāda:

Thesis:                         The hill has fire.

Reason / Mark:            Because of smoke.

Rule / Examples:         Wherever there is smoke, there is fire, as in a kitchen.

Application:                This is such a case, i.e., the hill has smoke pervaded by fire.

Conclusion:                 Therefore, it is so, i.e., the hill has fire.

With this contrast in play, we can find scholars, such as Ritter, that say the following about the Hindu Syllogism.

  1. H. Ritter (1838)

‘One point alone appears certain, and that is, that they [the Nyāya] can lay but slight claims to accuracy of exposition. This is proved clearly enough by the form of their syllogism, which is made to consist of five instead of three parts. Two of these are manifestly superfluous, while by the introduction of an example in the third the universality of the conclusion is vitiated.’ (as quoted in Ganeri 2001: 9)

In this short passage, we find all the ammunition needed to support the argument that although the Nyāya school had something to offer critical thinking and logic education, what they came up with was incorrect, bad, confusing, and not useful to teach. Ritter is basically saying that the set-up is redundant, superfluous, and confuses deduction and induction. But Ritter’s remarks are based on forgetting to takeoff his sunglasses when the lights are off. If one has Aristotle’s syllogism above in mind, as well as Mill on induction, one will very quickly come to the conclusion that the Nyāya articulation of the Hindu syllogism, deriving from Akṣapāsda Gautama, the author of the Nyāya-Sutras, is useless –because it fails to hit the target: Aristotle’s account. However, if one changes sunglasses to x-ray vision goggles when they enter the dark, they will see something powerful and interesting.

First, there is an interesting distinction between inference for oneself vs. inference for another that is at play in the Nyāya account. The reason Ritter is angry about the five steps is that he doesn’t realize that the pattern presented is for the case of inference for another, as opposed to an inference for oneself, which might look more like Aristotle’s syllogism. In addition, Ritter thinks the set-up is redundant because the thesis and conclusion are the same. But that appears to be the case because he is again thinking about things through Aristotle’s sunglasses. But one of the important components of the Nyāya theory of inference is that it is a causal theory of inferential cognition. It is trying to give an account of what causescorrect cognition through inference. So, the final step and the last step are not redundant, since there are different causal antecedents. In the thesis something is in doubt: is the hill on fire? I see smoke. In the conclusion, there is no doubt. The steps in between remove the doubt –causally. What is written in the conclusion and the thesis are the same, but the causal properties surrounding them are not. Basically, Ritter is not recognizing that one and the same phrase can mean two different things when embedded in two distinct contexts. Finally, Ritter is worried that the set-up confuses deduction with induction. Seeing fire and smoke related to each other once in your kitchen is not sufficient to support the claim that wherever there is fire there is smoke.

So, why is that step there? Granted, it is confusing if you think that what is at play is inductive support for a universal premise in the middle of a deductive argument. But I don’t think that is what is going on. I think that what is going on is that the example is used because we have a case of inference for another. In this set up the person should be engaged in removing doubt from another by causing them through a series of steps to get to a doubt-free state of mind concerning fire on the hill. The example of co-observing smoke and fire in a kitchen is used to get the other person to think about a prior pattern that they have seen. Note, if the other person does not have a kitchen or has never seen such a pattern, then the example is useless on the account I am offering. The example is used so as to get the other person to think about a prior observed instance of fire followed by smoke. That is, in short, the example plays more of a communicative role than an inductive support role. For I agree with Ritter, were it to be playing an inductive support role, we ought to say, well one instance of fire followed by smoke is insufficient to support the claim that wherever there is fire there is smoke. And classical Indian philosophers knew this. They often discussed the case of a hot metal ball submerged in water where it is glowing from the heat. In that case, the ball is on fire, but there is no smoke, so it is false that wherever there is fire there is smoke.

Moreover, I find Ritter style arguments against the Hindu-Syllogism wanting. And I see the attempt to push the Hindu-Syllogism out of the curriculum of critical thinking, based on Ritter’s observations, antithetical to critical thinking itself. Even if the Hindu syllogism is not the best way to reason, it deserves an equal billing to that of Aristotle’s in an introductory text book. It could be taught alongside Aristotle’s syllogism in much the same way we teach Boole’s interpretation of the square of opposition alongside Aristotle’s interpretation with full knowledge that Boole is most likely correct.

In addition, some worry that classical Indian discussions of argument, by focusing on a causal theory of inference, are doomed to fall victim to some kind of normative fallacy deriving from Frege’s work on logic, perhaps in the same way he is said to have critiqued Husserl’s ideas on logic. The line of attack is something like the following. Logic is normative, and since classical Indian philosophers are talking about a causal theory of inference, what they are doing is irrelevant and confused. I find this version of the objection stillborn. While I agree that logic is a normative enterprise in the sense that we cannot derive how we ought to reason from a statistical study of how we do reason, it doesn’t follow from that that examining causation in the mind with respect to transitions between different mental states with differing content is not central to providing an important account of reasoning that has normative bearing. The idea that one cannot give a causal theory that is also normative seems to be the missing step in applying the critique.

Finally, and to reiterate, there is no good reason why the philosophy of logic and critical thinking shouldn’t be a cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary exercise. Should we continue to teach our students that critical thinking is valuable, while sending them the implicit message that it is solely a product of western thinking?

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3:AM: Is this part of what you see as ‘the next step’ for philosophy, one that will mean all philosophy will get used to taking good ideas from wherever they can be found rather than tying them to a powerful but restricted range of traditions?

AJV: Arindam Chakrabarti and Ralph Weber have edited an anthology called Comparative Philosophy Without Borders. Ultimately, what they are arguing for is the idea that philosophy needs to go beyond the borders that have historically been imposed through the epistemic injustices, such as colonialism. And ‘yes’ I endorse this view of where philosophy ought to go. I also believe that this message can be found in Jonardon Ganeri’s defense of why philosophy should go global. I am just one philosopher in a sea of philosophers making the case for why philosophy needs to be open to wider engagement with thinkers from a variety of traditions. Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield have defended a version of where things need to go, and it should be engaged with. Perhaps the main thrust that pushed me in this direction is the work of Purushottama Bilimoria, an editor and chief of the journal Sophia, and Jaysankar Shaw who has worked on comparative philosophy in New Zealand for some 30 years.

Should philosophy be allowed to persist on the basis of known epistemic injustices? I think not, there is room for correction, which will lead to better philosophy. We know what the consequences of colonialism are, on a variety of traditions. In the main, and at times, not all times, it has shielded Western philosophy from having to engage with the ideas that come from non-Western traditions. It is long overdue that we move toward wider engagement. And there are lots of excellent works in the 20th century from writers who are more or less, for the lack of a better word, bilingual or trilingual philosophers.

It makes no sense for philosophy to continue to be monolingual. One step toward ending monolingualism in philosophy is that we go global and teach traditions outside of the West. And we should note the fact that outside of the West philosophy is minimally bilingual. Some of the great thinkers of 20th century Indian philosophy were well versed in both Western and Indian philosophy. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second president of India, is only one example; he held the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. The educational aim we need in philosophy departments in the West is one that fosters a culture of going beyond monolingualism. Philosophy departments need to be trilingual across their faculty, even if some members are only monolingual. There is no reason why some individuals should be more or less monolingual, as long as departments are trilingual. On this model students have the opportunity to get wide exposure to what is out there in philosophy and to speak to a global audience. San Jose State is a shining example of where many departments need to go in terms of diversifying their faculty in a meaningful way.

Let me also separate out two different threads of thought, so as to clarify things. There is a political point and a philosophical point. The political point is that we need to recognize that the history of philosophy is embedded in a situation where epistemic injustices were, and are, present. But when we recognize those injustices we don’t automatically, on my view, say all the ideas are good and worth pursuing. Rather, we need to recognize that moving forward on the basis of not giving others a chance in the philosophical game is the error, but once everyone is in the game, we simply just do philosophy and see what ideas win the day in terms of being pursued. There is a lot of bad analytic philosophy. And I think everyone who is serious about the discipline would agree with me on that. Furthermore, when I look at some of the papers written by 20th century Indian philosophers I really wonder why I was not introduced to this material in my analytical philosophy education. My point is that we need to think about the conditions under which we ratify the direction we as philosophers collectively want to go, if there is such a joint body of individuals doing philosophy. And we cannot ratify this direction if the conditions under which we generate this ratification are exclusionary in a problematic sense. It seems clear that this is so. We have excluded perfectly legitimate work from the conversation and included a bunch of garbage for no good reason.

What we should be aiming for is a certain kind of conversation that yields a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon for all the participants. As a consequence of the setup of the conversation, those interested only in the truth on a matter can derive their view from the fact that the conversation has certain features in place which allow for a good view about what to believe to be brought about. We can distinguish between the kind of understanding we are seeking and the fact that deriving the truth about a matter will be a by-product of the process.

3:AM: You’ve looked at how going to Indian philosophical sources can help tackle the question as to whether we literally see absences. Can you say what you identify as enhancing philosophical enquiry into this question by bringing in Indian philosophy?

AJV: As a philosopher that works on perception I was so pleased to see that analytic philosophers had turned to the question of whether or not we literally see absences. I am very impressed with the debate between Anya Farennikova, Jerome Dokic, and Jean-Remy Martin over whether we see absences or we simply experience an absence of seeing. There are two ways in which I believe that turning to Indian philosophy can enhance the debate. In my paper on absence, with Purushottama Bilimoria and Jaysankar Shaw, I go into a lot of detail that I will have to leave out here, but I can make some brief observations here.

First, building off what I just said, the conversation just seems better when we round out the discussion by paying attention to other traditions. So, on the one hand, what I am simply saying is that inclusive conversations are more inviting to a wider audience and better for seeking the truth. But then someone might push back and say, “all I am interested in is whether we see absences, and not about how to have an inclusive conversation.” I disagree with this picture, since I think as philosophers we ought to be aiming toward a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon, as opposed to mere truth. But I digress from the point of the objection. So, let me move on to address the critics worry: what does the tradition have to offer?

bk maital

B.K. Matilal


One of the most important Indian philosophers of the 20th century was B. K. Matilal. He wrote his dissertation at Harvard with Quine. It was on the Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation, and it includes a rich discussion of absence. One thing we learn from his work, that just pushes us back to classical Indian philosophy, is that many schools of Indian philosophy debated the issue of whether our ontology contains, not only presences, but absences. More recently, Arindam Chakrabarti, Purushottama Bilimoria, Birgit Kellner, Nirmalya Guha have written excellent papers on negation and absence across a variety of Indian traditions. One lesson I take from looking at classical Indian philosophical discussions of the perception of absence is that discussion of the perception of absence comes along with discussion of the ontology of absence. Some schools hold that the world contains absences in addition to presences. And discussions of the perception of absence are linked to ontological views. This is absent in contemporary analytic discussions.

Now this might be a reason for some to say, “well I don’t think the classical Indian schools have anything interesting to offer.” And their reasoning might be tied to the view that the world does not contain any absences. A standard line of thinking is that we perceive presence, and we infer absence from the perception of presence. On this inferential view, I don’t literally see that my computer is absent from the table when I return from the bathroom. Rather, I just see a table and infer, quickly, that it is absent. So, I grant that what Indian philosophy has to offer might be tied in this case to what ontological views one is open to.

More importantly, though, we have an opportunity here. It seems as if the debate in analytic philosophy on the perception of absence is just starting, at least in the recent literature. Why not take a look at the rich, long, and extensive debate over the perception of absence in Indian philosophy as a way of just getting up to speed on the issues? Don’t we already do that when we study other topics in Western philosophy. If I am writing on ethics, I would and should consult the history of ethics when developing my view. Similarily, it seems that we have a rich history of the discussion of absence that can help inform the current debate. And believe me, regardless of whether the views are the best on offer, those that like to think about alternative philosophical moves one can make in a debate will have plenty to be impressed with.

My own interest come from thinking about the Mīmāṃsā tradition. There are two schools: the Bhaṭṭa-Mīmāṃsā and the Prābhākara-Mīmāṃsā. The Nyāya (both old and new) engages in a debate with the Bhaṭṭa-Mīmāṃsā over whether knowledge of absence derives from perception (pratyakṣa) or non-apprehension (anupalabadhi), where non-apprehension is not the same as inference (anumana). Thus, when we look at the logical space of options in the current western debate we see that we have two options: perception and inference. On the perceptual view, we literally see absences. On the inferential view, we infer absences from the perception of something else that is present, as opposed to literally seeing them. However, in the classical Indian context, one of the schools, Bhaṭṭa-Mīmāṃsā, offers an alternative option, non-apprehension (anupalabadhi). Now it is hard to figure out exactly what kind of mental state non-apprehension (anupalabadhi) is, and whether or not there is anything that satisfies cognitively and neurologically the description of non-apprehension. But, there could be something there.

In exploring this question: what could it be that they are getting at? I am inspired by the style of research that one finds in Evan Thompson’s work on whether we remain conscious in deep sleep. In this work he investigates a classical Indian debate over the presence of consciousness in deep sleep through cognitive science. Jonardon Ganeri also engages in a similar style I find helpful in his Attention, Not Self (OUP 2017). In this work he argues that we can locate within vision science correlates for Buddhaghosa’s theory of perception in relation to working memory and stages of vision from early to late. Likewise, I think we might find something that is an alternative to the two options at play in the current debate over seeing absence. In general, I think we should go cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary in order to break the cognitive frame from which we were trained to explore a problem, even if we only end up returning to the original path with renewed confidence. I went to India in 2018 to speak to some very respected Mīmāṃsā scholars who debated in Sanskrit aspects of Mīmāṃsā theory of knowledge (pramāṇa). My hope is that by talking to these learned scholars who train in Sanskrit for most of their lives from a very young age, I might figure out more about the nature of non-apprehension (anupalabadhi).

Finally, within classical Indian philosophy we will find resistance to two ideas. First, that the debate over whether we see absences needs to be carried out in a representationalist paradigm. Second, that the only alternative theory to the perceptual theory of absence is the inferential theory. And positively, one will find rich versions of both the perceptual and inferential theories currently under discussion. Buddhist’s vehemently argued against the view that we perceive absences and against the view that non-apprehension was even a mental state. So, if skepticism against the ontology of absence and the perceptual and non-apprehension views is what one prefers, there is a lot to be found in classical Indian philosophy. But the reason I find turning to Indian philosophy interesting derives not just from the move space, but from the more inclusive conversation that one can generate.

3:AM: Sticking with the philosophy of perception you draw out the question of whether Nyāya perceptual theory embraces disjunctivism or anti-individualism. So first, can you unpack the issue and what these alternatives are?

AJV: At least since the time of my dissertation, 2005, I have been following and working on the debate between John McDowell and Tyler Burge on perception. As I see it the debate can be seen to minimally be a disagreement over how to think about the relation between a veridical, good case, and a non-veridical, bad case, of perception. So, assume we have two cases, one in which you have a veridical perception of a snake before you, and another where you have a non-veridical perception of a rope presented-as a snake. Let us hold constant the viewing distance and ambient viewing conditions in both the good case and the bad case and let us assume that there is no discernible phenomenological difference for you.

Perceptual anti-individualism is composed of two theses. First, that error asymmetrically depends on truth. You cannot misperceive a rope as a snake unless you have seen a rope and a snake, such that the error described as a rope seen as a snake can be attributed to you. Second, the proximality principle that Burge articulates maintains that when you hold constant the antecedent psychological set of the perceiver, a given type of proximal stimulation (over the whole body), and the associated internal afferent and efferent input into the perceptual system, you will produce a given type of perceptual state, assuming that there is no malfunctioning in the system and no interference with the system. Putting those two views together you get the result that there is something of explanatory value in common between the good case and the bad case.

Disjunctivism comes in lots of different forms. But all of them aim to deny some way in which one might claim that the good case and the bad case should be treated as being the same. For example, phenomenological disjunctivism simply denies the assumption that there is no phenomenological difference between the cases. Metaphysical disjunctivism denies that the good case and the bad case are metaphysically identical in terms of a relevant property, such as truth. So, a metaphysical disjunctivist, would hold that although the good case and the bad case are phenomenally similar, because in one case you are related to a fact and in the other you are not, the states are relationally not the same at the metaphysical level. Epistemic disjunctivism denies that the good case and the bad case are epistemically identical in terms of a relevant property, such as warrant. So, an epistemic disjunctivist, would hold that although the good case and the bad case are phenomenally similar, one is warranted in the good case but not in the bad case. And then there is a debate over whether epistemic disjunctivism entails metaphysical disjunctivism. I don’t find phenomenal disjunctivism plausible because of the grain of discrimination in perception. And for reasons that Krupa Patel’s defends in her dissertation on epistemic disjunctivism, I find Duncan Pritchard’s defense the thesis unconvincing.

Summarizing, the analytical contrast is the following. The perceptual anti-individualist holds that the good case and the bad case share a common kind that is of explanatory value, and that the two states in and of themselves, provide the subject with the same warrant. Things can be complicated concerning the part about warrant, but putting things this way, sets up a direct contrast to the other view. A metaphysical disjunctivist denies that the two cases share a common kind of explanatory value for the purposes of some individuation task, such as epistemology. One way to see the motivation for metaphysical disjunctivism is by analogy. It doesn’t follow from the fact that Jadeite and Nephrite share a common property, macroscopic look, that they share another common kind, microstructure, which is then argued to be important for individuation. Water and Gin are both transparent liquids, but we don’t individuate them in virtue of those properties, rather we do so in virtue of their microstructure. Likewise, one might think the good case and the bad case are phenomenally similar, and maybe even epistemically similar, but that does not mean that they should be individuated in terms of those similarities, when we can find additional differences at other levels. And then the question is: what are those other levels? Some in the analytic tradition would take the veritic point of view and say that it is truth.

My interest is in metaphysical disjunctivism, and how it is debated in analytic philosophy in relation to what I see being debated in classical Indian philosophy, especially between Nyāya and Buddhism. I am not sure that metaphysical disjunctivism is true. And I am quite impressed by Burge’s criticism of it. However, I think that the conversation can be massively improved by including the classical Indian debate into the conversation.

3:AM: And what does the Nyāya theory claim from your reading? And again, how do the resources from this philosophical tradition enhance our attempts to figure out misperception?

AJV: Around 2011 Purushottama Bilimoria invited me to work on some of Jay Shaw’s work on Nyāya perceptual theory. This led me to New Zealand where I studied with Jay, and also to a reading of Stephen Phillips and Matthew Dasti’s work on Nyāya perceptual theory and their debate with Jonardon Ganeri over whether Gaṅgeśa was an infallibilist about knowledge sources (pramāṇa). A debate that I find has similarities to the debate between Burge and McDowell, and with the work of Timothy Williamson. So, I got super interested.

I should start off by saying that the view I am going to sketch here has to be seen more as me being inspired by Nyāya as opposed to the letter and law of a specific Nyāya thinker or as a comment on the whole tradition. There are many current philosophers doing great work on Nyāya perceptual theory, such as Nilanjan Das and Amit Chaturvedi and I would prefer to defer to them, or to scholars such as Arindam Chakrabarti, Parimal Patil, Monima Chadha, or Stephen Phillips about the letter of the law. The easiest way to see what I think is interesting comes in six parts.

First, the current analytic debate over metaphysical disjunctivism is pursued on the model of veritic-disjunctivism. On this view the fact that individuates the good case from the bad case is truth. The two cases are different in virtue of one being a relation to a fact and the other not. There is another kind of disjunctivism, I call, causal-disjunctivism. On this view the difference between the good case and the bad case is in terms of the overall causal processes involved. Not in terms of a single causal factor, such as what the subject is connected to, but rather a multi-causal factor story concerning both internal and external aspects of causation prior to and during the subject’s conscious perceptual state while tracking the object of perception. On this account, the good case and bad case are individuated at the level of the state in terms of causal processes, and the truth of the good case, at a certain level of description, is simply a by-product of the causal processes involved. I take inspiration for the multi-causal factor analysis from Nyāya thinkers that posited both positive and negative causal factors for perception to be realized. For example, some say that an object has to be neither too far away nor too near for veridical perception to occur. Where I perhaps part company with them is on the centrality of truth in the causal story.

Second, in the current analytic debate the main line of exploration treats non-veridical cases as if they are all the same. I think there is room to explore not only disjunctivism about the relation between veridical and non-veridical cases, but also disjunctivism about non-veridical cases. Let bad case Ir be a case in which one sees the rope presented as a snake, and bad case Hs be a case in which one hallucinates a snake, but there is no specific object that is presented otherwise. For example, if the subject moved her head in the hallucination case, the snake presentation would continue to follow her, thus showing that the background in general is presented otherwise, but no particular background object is presented otherwise in a stable manner. The causal story going on between these two cases makes it hard for me to accept that we should be treating them as the same metaphysical state. There is something r that is presented otherwise as s in the illusion, but there is nothing xthat is presented as s in the hallucination. Why not make a finer grained distinction in the non-veridical cases, based on this difference? On this account, there is metaphysical disjunctivism about non-veridical perception as well as disjunctivism about illusions and veridical perceptions. Again, I take inspiration for this view from Nyāya thinkers because of an account they give of how to explain the snake-rope illusion. There is also some debate about whether Nyāya thinkers are even concerned to explain cases of hallucination as opposed to illusion. Nilanjan Das has some excellent work on this issue showing how their work can cover the case of hallucination.

Third, in the current analytic debate there is a debate between disjunctivism about perception and the prospects that we have for responding to epistemic skepticism. For example, McDowell debates Wright over whether disjunctivism provides transcendental grounds for a response to epistemic skepticism. One element that seems to be a hangover from the analytical discussion is that we are forced to discuss distant logical possibilities, such as the case of a Brain-in-a-Vat or the Evil Demon, as opposed to natural possibilities only. We might usefully draw a distinction between a logical doubt and a natural doubt. And we might then try to argue that disjunctivism aims to respond to natural doubts not to mere logical doubts. Natural doubts, are well, natural.

On your walk in the woods you come to a clearing and from a distance you see something that then arises in your consciousness in the form: is that a person or a post? That is, you are naturally doubting something because your conscious state is perceptually one of doubt, even perhaps confusion. You don’t reflectively arrive at the view that what you see might be a post, as opposed to a person, because an evil demon could be deceiving you. Rather, your immediate perceptual appraisal is one of: what is that over there? It presented with doubt as either a post or a person. I also find motivation for this view from thinking about the Nyāya theory of doubt.

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Fourth, we might usefully consider what role objective similarity plays in the production of illusions. The rope really is like a snake in important respects. They are both tubular and capable of resting in a coil. And often we are presented with veridical cases of each being coiled. So, we have an imprint / association in our mind with the idea that both snakes and ropes rest in a coil shape. In general, does the fact that a and b share similarity R play a role in whether or not can be presented as b naturally, as opposed to being induced by a crazy nefarious neuroscientist? I am drawn to the idea that objective or inter-subjective similarity can play a role in how we explain the probability of b being seen as a. Clouds don’t look like faces for no reason.

Fifth, we might usefully consider the relationship between our perceptual states and our other affective states in the manner that Matilal accounts for the snake-rope illusion via the Nyāya misplacement theory of illusion. Start with the general question: what role can our affective states play in telling a story about illusions? Think about the more particular version: what role does a person’s fear of snakes play in the generation of the illusion of a rope seen as a snake? Would someone who does not fear snakes be as susceptible to seeing a rope as a snake as opposed to simply being in natural doubt from a distance about whether they were seeing a rope or a snake?

This line of questioning, both general and particular, has powerful ramifications when we think about how perception feeds action on the basis of how affect feeds or is engaged in perception. Why does the police officer see the iPhone as a gun? Just this year in California there was a major incident of this kind, where an officer shot a young African-American who was holding an iPhone. Is it literally only the objective similarity between the iPhone and a small handgun that explains why? Many people in Oakland argued that it could not be that alone. I as well doubt that it could. I would think affective states are in play, much as they are in the rope that is seen as a snake. The iPhone is presented otherwise because of a similarity relation that triggers the affective profile of the subject, who then responds through training. Were their affective profile different they might not see the iPhone as a gun, but rather, like the one who does not fear snakes, be simply in a state of natural doubt, and with appropriate training have restraint.

Sixth, in the current analytic debate between anti-individualism and disjunctivism the theses are presented as being opposed to one another. However, this might be a problem. It could be that these two views are consistent when integrated in the right way. That is, one can be both an anti-individualist and a disjunctivist. The locking horns of McDowell and Burge disappear from a distinct vantage point on perception coming from outside of the western tradition. I actually believe that this is the real question that was puzzling me when I engaged Matthew Dasti’s paper on parasitism and disjunctivism in Nyāya.

Again, these are thoughts that have come to me through reading Nyāya, and mostly 20th century commentators on Nyāya, such as Matilal, Shaw, and Phillips. And ‘yes’ some of these thoughts I think I can tie down to specific thinkers in the Nyāya tradition. But I would not go so far as to say that these are the views of a specific Nyāya thinker I have encountered. The philosophical resources from this tradition have simply given me new ways of looking at the terrain that is already being covered in the current