Thursday, 31 October 2013

Shankara on Analogy (illustration)

Shankara's way with analogies (illustrations) has its contradictions but his starting position is that an analogy of its nature cannot be congruent with what it analogises.

Brahma Sutra Bhasya: III.ii.19, 20:

Opponent:The comparison with the reflection of the sun in water cannot be reasonably upheld her (in the case of the Self), since nothing like that is perceived (here). A material thing, such as water, is seen to be clearly separate from and remotely placed from the sun etc. which are themselves material entities (with forms). There it is proper that an image of the sun should be formed. But the Self is not such a material entity (having form); and since It is all-pervasive and non-different from all, It can have no limiting adjuncts either separate or remote from It. Hence this illustration is inapt:

Vedantin: The objection is being remedied:
On the contrary, this illustration is quite apt, inasmuch as the point sought to be illustrated is pertinent. For as between the illustration and the thing illustrated, nobody can show equality in every respect over and above some point of similarity in some way, which is sought to be represented. For if such an all-round similarity exists, the very relation between the illustration and the thing illustrated will fall through. Moreover, this illustration of the reflection of the sun in water is not cooked up by anybody's imagination. But this illustration having been already cited in the scripture, its applicability alone is being pointed out here.

Opponent: Where, again, is the intended point of similarity?

The reply is this: "A participation in increase and decrease”, inasmuch as the reflection of the sun in water increases with the increase of water, and decreases with its reduction, it moves when the water moves, and it differs as the water differs. Thus the sun conforms to the characteristics of the water, but in reality the sun never has these. Thus also from the highest point of view, Brahman, while remaining unchanged and retaining Its sameness, seems to conform to such characteristics as increase and decrease of the limiting adjunct (body), owing to Its entry into such an adjunct as the body. Thus since the illustration and the thing illustrated are both compatible, there is no contradiction.

This is a defence of the utility of the illustration of pure consciousness/Brahman as being like the sun reflected in many vessels of water. It may appear to be many according to the forms of limitation of the vessels but it is the one selfsame sun. When an illustration is taken as alike in every respect to the entity, an aspect of which it seeks to illuminate, then I would say that the analogy has become a metaphor. The curious thing is that Shankara appears to do this himself on occasion. More anon.


skholiast said...
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skholiast said...

I think I follow your thought (see here) until the end, when you say, Shankara is no longer analogizing but metaphorizing. Care to gloss that distinction?

ombhurbhuva said...

Your post is dead on. There are the metaphors that fall through and go too far like those sermons where God is like a bank manager and concepts such as grace, forgiveness and dessert are theologically manifest as credit, re-structuring and foreclosure etc.

That was the teaser in ‘more anon’ but to sketch out my understanding of Shankara’s devastating swerve which has also puzzled Prof. Mohanty (Essays on Indian Philosophy available on I would have to examin in some detail the famous preamble to Shankara’s commentary on the Vedanta Sutras/B.S.B. The gist of my proposed treatment is this:
(a)aporai - how does the material object come to somehow be in me as a cognition? Is it a presupposition that this cognition is the object as it is? (another aporai but not gone into by Shankara)
(b) The doctrine of Superimposition is offered. It is like when we take the rope to be a snake. There is a translation of one reality into another. In the case of the cognition the object gets transferred into the mind. The elaboration of what the ontological reality of an object is to allow this to happen is covered in Advaita. Here we are at the basic starting point or primary insight
(c) The Swerve: An opponent objects: Superimposition/adhyasa as you presented it occurs between two external objects. How can this apply to the superimposition of the non-self on the self i.e. the cognition pure consciousness?

What one might have expected of Shankara if he was consistent would be the response that I detailed in my post viz. an illustration and what it tries to explain are not globally similar. The snake/rope illustration is an attempt to make superimposition intelligible. You are trying to read too much into it. This is merely the first stage of the exposition of a substratum ontology. Reading global similarity into my illustration is turning it into a metaphor.

This what happens in those strongly illusionistic understandings of Advaita. The world becomes a rope/snake.

However to get back to the Shankara swerve. He responds to the opponent that it is not invariably the case that superimposition occurs between two sensible objects. It can also occur between a known and a non-sensible object. The examples that he chooses of optical ullusions seem to me not to have much ontological purport. They do not seem to advance the understanding of the aporai of cognition.

Is this a function of the polemical approach, to blast the opponent thou roughly, to allow him no purchase whatever. Is it taking the opportunity to introduce what has been called the second adhyasa which is a refinement of the first snake/rope type? Perhaps it is a matter of excessive compression or an imperfect text produced by an inattentive amanuensis.

Skholiast: You are probably more elaborately puzzled than before and it may be no consolation that trying to clarify it for you helps me to get to grips with it.
That’s dialectic. Come back.

skholiast said...

Not sure, but it is clear that both S. and his (perhaps not purely hypothetical) opponent(s) are conversing within an accepted tradition with given mores and assumptions. E.g., S.'s remark defending the sun-in-water image: "this illustration having been already cited in the scripture..." Both parties are answerable to a set of textual references; but surely there is also a sense in Sankara that experience trumps exegesis? In any case, thank you for your explanation, which rather than Byron-like asking you to explain I will re-read a few times. I think I at least take your point about the strong illusionist interpretations of Advaita, which in fact has always sort of bothered me, at least, if I understand you correctly.

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks for your careful and astute reading. You are right that there are certain common problem fields that can be referred to tangentially by the participants in a discussion, a background of invisible peers. This was a world before print and certain central examples could be used in several ways. The snake/rope analogy could be used in a discussion of confusion and the veridical or as an ontological illustration. It isn’t easy to keep everything separate. In my back files from 2003 I found the following:

The basic problem of Shankara’s philosophy is how pure consciousness appears, in ordinary experience, to be individualised (“my consciousness”) and to be of an object (“consciousness of blue”)

Looking at Mohanty’s characterisation of the insight of Shankara generally taken to be expressed in the preamble to the B.S.B. Speaking about pure consciousness and individualisation is to already have a structure in place before investigation has taken place. We need to go back even further into what Sartre called the pre-reflective cogito. Eric Mascall in ‘Existence and Analogy’ puts it well: “As the Scholastics were well aware the real problem about knowledge is how such a remarkable activity should occur at all. For it is queer that we should be able to get other things inside ourselves. There may not be a better description of knowledge than is given by such Thomist tags as – “The mind is able in some way to become everything” , “The mind abstracts from the sensible object its intelligible essence”, “the thing is in the mind by intentional being”.

The problem about this is that a lot of philosophers don’t get it. They are not taken by this reading of the ‘hard problem’.