21 May 2010

Truth and Philology

I recently attended a colloquium with Professor Sheldon 'Shelly' Pollock (left) at Cambridge University which was ostensibly about philology and culture. Actually the first half was about attacks on philology as a discipline and the second half a mix of talks mostly by historians which touched on the subject of the role of Sanskrit in Indian culture. A major theme of the afternoon consisted of rhetorical questions for Prof Pollock in light of his 2001 article "The Death of Sanskrit". [1] This article appeared as part of a series of articles under the rubric of Sanskrit Knowledge-Systems on the Eve of Colonialism.

I hadn't realised just how poorly philology is viewed by other humanities scholars. It seems that the philological enterprise is closely allied to colonialism in the minds of many scholars. As such it has been seen as a tool of Orientalism (per Edward Said's polemic against European scholars of Islamic literature and culture). If those scholars present were correct then the attempts to curtail academic philology, to divert their funding, and dismantle their departments are coming not from the sciences but from fellow humanities scholars. It was evidently quite a painful topic. Maybe calling myself an amateur philologist is a bad idea? I am a colonial though not, I think, a colonialist, let alone an imperialist. Another thing to come out of the discussions is the poor state of Classical language study in India which is not only not producing world class scholars as it used to, but losing the knowledge of languages and scripts altogether in some cases. See Prof Pollock's article in The Hindu [2]

Several people pointed out that all scholars who deal with texts, especially texts not in their mother tongue and even more so ancient texts in languages which are no one's mother tongue, must of necessity employ philological methods - just as economists and sociologist employ mathematical tools. Though I did not agree that everyone should learn philology just like everyone learns mathematics - Prof Pollock likes to make bold statements in order to stimulate discussion.

One thing which stood out was Prof Pollock's vehement rejection of the post-modern approach to truth. I'm no post modernist, nor well versed in that idiom, but as I understand it the argument is that the 'meaning' of a text is a negotiation between the reader, the text and the author. As such it meaning is entirely relative to who is reading it. Pollock on the other hand was insistent that though each reader does tend to find there own message in a text, that there is a 'true meaning' to any given text and that we can discover what that is by employing the methods of philology.

One of the speakers got a laugh by quoting a Victorian scholar who felt that Sanskrit was not a useful language because it was too rich in synonyms. I didn't catch the name but the theme is an important one in European intellectual history and explored quite entertainingly in Umberto Eco's book The Search for the Perfect Language. The idea is that everything ought to have one unique name in order that the imperfection of ambiguity be removed language. In this view the ideal of communication is the elimination of ambiguity. It has resonances with the idea that before the Tower of Babel incident in the Book of Genesis everyone spoke one language and that synonymy is a product of the sundering of languages. More broadly concern for original truths, the notion that a fundamental truth can be expressed in a text is something specific to the intellectual milieu growing out of religions of the book, especially Christianity, and specifically Protestantism. [3] (The Higher criticism not-withstanding). One powerful symbol deriving from this ideology is the evolution of languages and species described as trees with branches spreading out from an origin. In fact neither species nor languages are related to each other in this way. There is always hybridisation for instance. There are crossed branches (look at English for instance). Regional factors in language - such as retroflex consonants in Sanskrit - cannot be explained by the tree structure since they come from another tree altogether!

My sense is that Pollock subscribes to a variety of this idea, that the role of the philologist is to remove ambiguity from reading texts in order to establish an absolute truth - he certainly emphasised his point dramatically when stating it. I foresee some problems with this. It is quite striking that one of Prof Pollock's repeated statements during the day was that his articles, especially his article on the death of Sanskrit had been misunderstood by his contemporaries and that what people were really arguing with was ideas they imputed to him (having presumably misread his text). Setting down an idea on paper (or in a blog) is far from easy - great writing is a rare gift. The thought is seldom entirely captured by the text. What's more we always bring our own preconceived ideas to reading a text - our conditioning, our education, etc. Pollock seemed to argue that it is possible for us to read a text without somehow triggering any of these factors. Is this really possible? If one's living contemporaries don't get it, then what hope for the rest? I can think of examples of scholars who are not Buddhists who have shed important light on Buddhist texts (Jan Nattier, Sue Hamilton, Richard Gombrich, Paul Harrison, etc); but I can think of larger number of scholars who have simply missed the point of the texts - I can't bear reading comparative religion texts for this reason.

The problem is magnified by an order of magnitude when we consider that the discussion we were having was on texts written centuries ago in a language which may never have been anyone's mother tongue. We seldom gain the same mastery of a second language, that we do of our mother tongue. So that adds a layer of potential confusion to the text. There is always the possibility that having understood the words, we fail to understand the argument. Much early scholarship of Buddhism is like this.

At best a manuscript might be a 5th or 6th generation copy in passable handwriting, and my observation is that handwriting is often appalling in these manuscripts. It will be in a script we have learned only for the purpose. It may or may not accurately record long and short vowels; anusvāra and anunāsika; similar pairs such as b/v, m/s etc. Take into account also the effects of dialects. Although Classical Sanskrit is reasonably well defined there are ambiguities - times when only the context can supply the preferred reading. Other times when the reading remains obscure. Within Classical Sanskrit were still minor dialectical variations, and when it comes to Pāli or other Prakrits and Buddhist Sanskrit then ambiguity radically expands. We translate to the best of our ability, perhaps we consult previous translations and commentaries, but even a complete novice can see the extent of variation that occurs in two expert translations of even a simple text. [4]

We also need to understand the time and place of the author. As I pointed out in my simple example The Stream of Life (April 2010) basic metaphors might be lost on us if we have no first hand experience of the geography which gave rise to the metaphor. Professor Richard Gombrich has reconstructed metaphors and even jokes that were lost for centuries - many more remain so opaque to us that we don't even know to look for them. Political and social events also shape the way an author puts their thoughts into words in ways that we need to comprehend in order to fully understand their idiom. When we are talking about Indian some tens of centuries ago how can we hope to do this accurately. It may be that Prof Pollock had in mind his project on (just) pre-colonial India which is reasonably well documented and represented in thousands of texts, but the situation with pre-sectarian Buddhism is completely different. The context is almost entirely supplied by the texts themselves - there is no neutral view point from which to view the text. We have reason to doubt that taking such a neutral position would ever have occurred to an ancient author.

So can we ever say that we know the 'truth' encapsulated by a text? With ancient Indian texts? Not hardly! It may be that all we can hope to do is approach the 'truth' of a text asymptotically without ever getting to an absolute, but continuing to go deeper approaching the limit, but never reaching it. Does this leave us with post-modern relativism? Well that would be to collapse into pessimism. As Buddhists we have a particular take on texts because so many of them are actually recipes. We have the option, open to everyone but rejected by the objectifying scholar, of baking the cake. While academics argue about the truth of the recipe for meditation, we can sit down and pay attention in the way the texts describe and see what happens. Anyone who has done this knows that something interesting happens, even if we do not feel very adept at it or able to fully commit to that exploration. This unwillingness to commit to practical action based on what the texts say will always relegate the academic to secondary importance in dealing with Buddhist texts. The history of the time, the intellectual arguments are quite interesting, and I for one eagerly read any new insights into these questions, but they are merely interesting and not vital. In putting the recipe to work we can then evaluate the results and adjust it if necessary - our authority is not the recipe, but the cake itself!

In the long-run many of the questions which engage secular objectifying academics are not very important to me. I value their work but only to the point where it helps me to practice more effectively. And I need to be clear that my faith owes a great debt to some scholars and to their intellectual endeavour. Claims to discover truth in texts are always going to be suspect, and if Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, has shot himself in the foot by proclaiming the death of Sanskrit, then he shoots higher up in claiming to be able to determine absolutely what a text means. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

  1. Pollock, Sheldon. 'The death of Sanskrit.' Comparative Studies in History and Society, 43.2, 2001, 392-426. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pollock/sks/papers/death_of_sanskrit.pdf
  2. Pollock, Sheldon. "The Real Classical Languages Debate" (The Hindu, 27 November 2008) http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mesaas/faculty/directory/pollock_pub/real_classical_languages.pdf
  3. I have an untested theory that only the Roman Catholic European philosophers who, historically, do not rely so heavily on the authority of the Bible could come up with the post-modern reading of texts which dispenses entirely with the authority of the text; whereas the Protestant Anglo-Americans who, partly in reaction to Catholicism, take the Bible as their main authority are much less tolerant of the idea that no absolute truth resides in texts. It's something that would require a lot more thought before trying to articulate it more fully.
  4. Paul Harrison is about to bring out a new translation of the Diamond Sūtra which should put all previous translations in the shade. Watch this excellent YouTube video of Prof. Harrison talking about his work. Personally I'm excited by this.
The colloquium was organised by The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Image from their website.

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