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The Karmic a Priori in Indian Philosophy

Author(s): Karl H. Potter


Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Jul., 1992), pp. 407-419
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
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The Karmic A Priori in Indian Philosophy

KarlH. Potter

What are we looking for when we look to Indian thought seeking an a


priori?One thing that we do find recognized in Indian philosophy is what
I shall call "interpretation," which is understood to be distinguishable
from the "given." The notion that we-our "minds"-contribute some
but not all of what determines our experience is a notion frequently met
with in Indian philosophical treatises. There is a series of terms, familiar to
those who study Indian thought-terms such as vikalpa and kalpanawhich might be translated as "conceptual construction." Such constructing or interpreting is viewed by all systems of Indian thought as the
mechanism of our ignorance and bondage. But are these conceptual
constructions a priori?
The term "a priori" is sometimes used to describe a statement or
proposition embedded in an interpretative scheme the structure of which
is internally necessary, such that the relations among its constituents are
fixed in advance of its application. By extension, the scheme itself comes
to be referred to as "the a priori."We say that one can know a priorithat
2 + 2 = 4, meaning that it is in some sense inconceivable or impossible
that it be otherwise, that the necessity of this truth is independent of
counting apples or otherwise applying this structure to experience. By
contrast, a contingent or a posteriori judgment is one the truth or falsity
of which is not fixed by the structure of the interpretative scheme in
which it figures; its truth-value is dependent upon something beyond
the internal structure of the scheme.
The question about synthetic a priori truths is one that concerns
what determines the fixity of its interpretative structure. Are all a priori
statements analytic? That is, is logical consistency among the concepts
that figure in the scheme the only consideration determining the necessity or contingency of statements in it? Or are there other factors which
might fix the structure of a scheme so as to make it unavoidable for us
to interpret things that way? Ifthe latter, there arises the possibility that a
statement, a priori because embedded in a fixed scheme, might still be
synthetic because it is not "true by definition."
A revered teacher of mine, who had a great influence on the Harvard
philosophy that Bimal Matilal and I were involved in at different points in
its history, was Clarence Irving Lewis. In his Mind and the World Order
Lewis treats the a priori and the given at length in order to repudiate
views which ascribe the fixity of an a priori interpretative scheme to
sources independent of our decisions. If the scheme is determined entirely by factors beyond our control, our freedom to improve our understanding to make conceptual progress in science and in practical affairs,
seems to become illusory. One such view Lewis finds in Kant. Kant locates
the a priori principles of sensibility and categories of the understanding

Professor in the

Departmentof
Philosophyat the
University of
Washington

Philosophy East & West


Volume 42, Number 3
July 1992
407-419
? 1992
by University of
Hawaii Press

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in the very nature of human rationality. It is because we are the kind of


beings we are, with "minds" limited to developing structures of a sort
which reflect human rationality, that we find each other thinking in ways
which we can recognize and share, characterized by the familiarrelations
of time, space, causality, and so forth. Not to recognize and respect these
categorical relations is to be irrational, to deviate from the essence of
humanity. We have no choice but to think in these categories, says Kant,
and that is why a statement such as "every event has a cause" is a
necessary truth-to think otherwise would be irrational.
Lewis finds this Kantian conception of the a priori objectionable. In
attacking it he sets out an interesting analysis of what the a priori must
(or ought to) be, as a way of indicating what is wrong with Kant's notion.
According to Lewis' analysis, the a priori must have three properties: (1)
It must have features of a sort which will allow us to use it to "catch" the
"given" (that is, the data given to us in sensation). Characteristically, we
employ the a priori to distinguish "reality"from what is not "real,"that
is, to tell truth from error, and we couldn't do that, Lewis argues, if our
concepts didn't have any features which could match or fail to match the
given. (2) It must be "true no matter what," it must legislate rather than
report. It cannot be dictated by experience if it is to be useful in organizing that experience. This is the "fixity"of the a priori of which I have
spoken.' (3) It must be "unrevisable"in the sense that it is a scheme which
we can choose to apply or not to apply, but with which we cannot
tamper without destroying it.
Lewis argues that his own conception of the a priori,which he calls
the "pragmatic a priori,"satisfies these requirements both in letter and in
spirit. Where Kant finds the necessity of the categories to be a result of
the limitations of human reason, Lewis argues that this necessity derives
from our social nature. "The categories," he says, "are our ways of
acting," by which he means that it is our practical concerns, including
communication with others, which are responsible for the nature of the
categories we adopt. The reality which our chosen categories define is a
common reality. "Our categories and definitions are peculiarly social
products, reached in the light of experiences which have much in common, and beaten out, like other pathways, by the coincidence of human
purposes and the exigencies of human cooperation."2
It is instructive to compare the implications of this remark with
the three requirements just mentioned, and to contrast them with the
Kantian conception. The first requirement is that the a priori must have
features of a kind which enable it to "catch" or "match" the given. It is
doubtful if Kant thought that this was true of his "pure reason," since his
"given" has no cognizable features. On the Kantian conception in its
most consistent form, the "given," that is, the "manifold," consists of
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"things-in-themselves" which have no features at all, at any rate no

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features we can grasp without using our reason. The things-in-themselves


do not even possess spatial and temporal locations; they possess neither
primary nor secondary qualities. Now if, in spite of all this, one is still
inclined to say that the categories must nevertheless "catch" or "match"
the given for Kant, it will be in a very mysterious sense, involving a
catching or matching which we are unable to verify in principle. It
becomes a puzzle on this conception how it is that the givens of our
experience could accommodate or resist the application of one category
rather than another. In point of fact, there is no experience for Kant prior
to interpretation.
By contrast, Lewis' theory of the given grants it features, so that our
understanding may either capture it or fail to do so. The given or quale
has features. The activity of interpretation is depicted by Lewis as the
business of selecting certain of these features-the
ones that display
or
for
instance-and
repetition
regularity,
identifying these as the features of "reality" while disregarding the other more chaotic or fleeting
characteristics of the given. Lewis thinks of experience as a flowing
presentation of sensory qualia. In The Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation he is even led to consider the possibility of an "expressive language"
in which we might be able to speak about the given in its nature prior to
the application of the a priori. Given this conception, he supposes, it is
no longer a mystery how the categories can fit the given.
The second requirement is that the a priori is necessarily true in a
fashion completely independent of the given. Kant's a priori fails this
requirement. For Kant, the necessity of the a priori stems from the
impossibility of our conceiving things otherwise, an impossibility deriving,
however, from an assumed fact, namely, that the workings of the human
mind are subject to just these limitations. Ifwe legislate to the given, then,
it is only in a secondary manner; Mother Nature, or whoever gave us
our reason, is ultimately responsible for the "legislation."
Lewis' conception, on the other hand, makes the necessity of the a
prioria matter of our decision. We legislate to the given in a fashion analogous to the way that, in stipulating a definition, we legislate linguistic
usage. Thus it is hardly surprising that Lewis has no use for the synthetic
a priori.The a priori is always analytic for him, in that we can if we wish,
and must as long as we are consistent, maintain the relationships among
our concepts which they have by virtue of their definitions, definitions for
which we (and not Mother Nature) are ultimately responsible.
The third requirement of "unrevisability"is adhered to by both Kant
and Lewis, but in rather different ways. Kant's a priori is unrevisable in
view of who we are; to revise it is merely to become irrational. Lewis will
agree that an inconsistent conceptual system is irrational, but urges that
what Kantfails to see is that there are indefinitely many possible conceptual systems, each one internally self-consistent and so rational. Though KarlH. Potter

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we cannot rationally "revise" such a system, we can reject it, exchange


it for another. Indeed, thinks Lewis, this ability to adopt new conceptual
schemes is a measure of our freedom, making sense of the pragmatist's
affirmation of meliorism as opposed to the "block-universe" quietism
which follows in a world in which whatever is must be.
There is a possible misunderstanding about the a priori which Lewis
finds himself attending to at length in The Analysis of Knowledge and
Valuation. There he controverts a position he dubs "conventionalism." A
conventionalist might accept all that Lewis says about the a priori,taking
particularly seriously the second point about its analytic character. The a
priori is indeed true by definition, says the conventionalist, and thus it is
true because of our linguistic conventions. It is our decisions on how to
use words which determine reality, and to exchange one conceptual
scheme for another involves merely exchanging one set of conventions
for another. We saw that Lewis points to the mechanism of stipulative
definition as a model or analogue explaining the analyticity of an a priori
conceptual scheme. The conventionalist takes stipulation not as an analogy but as itself the very mechanism for exchanging conceptual schemes.
To adopt a new scheme is, on conventionalist assumptions, to stipulate new definitions for our terms, or to create an artificially improved
"language."
Lewis recoils from this view (which he presumably found in the
thought of Harvard colleagues and others of a positivistic bent) since it
seems to grant us too much freedom, so much as to make the improvement of our conceptual systems a trivial matter, astonishingly easy. The
conventionalist (as Lewis views him) supposes he can make anything the
case merely by defining it so. Lewis claims that this is to confuse "sense
meaning" with "linguistic meaning," to fail to recognize that a concept
embedded in a conceptual system has a character in virtue of that
embedding which makes it impossible to redefine it. If it is a necessary
truth about our conceptual system that Wednesday is the day after
Tuesday (to appeal to his own example), then that necessity is not lessened or removed by defining the day after Tuesday as (say) "Shrewsday."
To do this is merely to trade in one name, "Tuesday,"for another name,
"Shrewsday"; it is not to exchange one conceptual system for another.
The "criteria-in-mind," as Lewis calls them, which we use to identify
what we (now) call "Tuesday" and what we are being asked to call
"Shrewsday" are presumably the same, and that is why these are two
names for the same thing. If we go farther, but not all the way, in our
stipulations we will obviously produce an incoherent scheme which on
Lewis' principles is no a priori at all.3
Where the Kantian a priori is too rigid, the conventionalist a priori is
too flexible. Lewis believed that his a priori, the pragmatic a priori, like
PhilosophyEast&West Baby Bear's porridge, is just right. Indeed, it is arguable that if we mean

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by "a priori"what Lewis says we should mean by it-a concept answering to the three requirements I have indicated-then only the pragmatic
a priori is a genuine a priori,the Kantian and conventionalist a prioris not
answering to all the requirements. This is a verbal point, needless to say,
and I shall assume that Lewis' requirements are not definitive of the
notion of a priori but rather constitute a recommendation or theory
about the nature of what the a priori should be.
Now: is there an a priori in Indian thought? For there to be one, it
would seem that it would either have to be analytic, as the conventionalist and pragmatic conceptions hold it to be, or, if in part synthetic,
it would have to be "necessary" in some way that makes it impossible for
us to revise that synthetic part, as in the Kantian conception of the forms
and categories.
I do not think there is any systematic concept of analyticity in Indian
philosophy. Characteristic symptoms of analyticity are absent from what
Indians think and say about necessary relationships. Sanskrit doesn't have
terminology to distinguish "necessary" from "regular"or "lawful."They
use such terms as virodha or asambhava both in contexts where we
should be likely to say "impossible" as well as in contexts where we
should say "contrary to fact."
Consider the kinds of examples of empty terms which one finds
scattered through the pages of Indian technical philosophy. One favorite
among such illustrations is "the son of a barren woman." Others, used for
exactly the same purposes, are "sky-flower" or "hare's horn." We would
say that it is impossible for there to be a son of a barren woman because
to be barren means to have no children, while the nonexistence of
flowers growing in the sky, or of horns growing on rabbits' heads, is a
matter not of meaning but of fact. It is not logically impossible, we intone,
for a flower to grow in the sky, or a horn on a hare's head; these
conceptions are not self-contradictory, as "son of a barren woman" is.
Yet Indian thought regularly assimilates all these instances into a single
sort.
Definitions do not work in Indian thought the way they do in ours.
The Sanskrit term we translate into English as "definition" is laksana.
Laksana means a "mark,"a feature by which we demarcate or recognize
the definiendum (in Sanskrit,the laksya). Likewise,when Westerners offer
a definition they specify a feature or group of features by which one may
demarcate or recognize the definiendum, call it X. But that a feature
demarcates or brings on the recognition of something is not sufficient to
qualify that feature as a definition. That a feature is a defining characteristic of X can be challenged by asking whether something lacking that
feature would still be called an X. Thus to say that Y is a defining
characteristic of an X is to say that Y is a logically essential characteristic,
that the presence of Y is a logically necessary condition for anything to

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be an X. By contrast, an Indian definiens is satisfactory merely if in fact it


does not overlap or "underlap" the definiendum. Therefore to be "true
by definition" in Indian thought is merely one way of being true; it is not
a different kind of truth ("logical truth").
We do not find speculations about possible worlds in Indian thought
of the kind that has become respectable in modern analytic philosophy.
Indians don't believe that their reason is capable of exploring other
possible worlds. That there are other actual worlds is a commonplace
assumption among Indians, entrenched in their psyches by a grand
tradition of myth and legend. But Indian philosophers agree that whatever we know about those worlds we know ultimately through the
testimony of those who have been there-we can't reason out what it
must be like there. Or at least if we can they aren't interested.
Many writers have remarked on the lack of "formal" logic in India.
There is no concern to discover the structure of validity as distinct from
the procedures of sound inference. The notion that from "all pigs have
wings" and "my Bessie is a pig" I can validly infer "my Bessie has wings"
never seems to have occurred to classical Indian logicians.4 At least there
is no explicit discussion of formal validity. Now one may insist that it must
"be there" anyhow-but that is not my point; my point is about what
they thought, not about what we may think they ought to have thought.
Along with the lack of explicit attention to formal logic one must
marshal the point that mathematics, though an Indian science, has little
or no connection with Indian logic. Indian logicians do not appeal to
mathematical examples as paradigms, nor to mathematical truth as a
model of, or extension of, or even analogy to, logical truth. There is no
logical truth distinct from factual truth, so far as I can tell, in classical
Indian philosophy.
The Indian conception of interpretation, then, is neither of the pragmatic nor of the conventionalistic variety, since Indians do not confine
necessity to analytic relationships. But what about the Kantianvariety of
a priori, which allows for synthetic a priori judgments but locates their
necessity in the limits of human reason? Isthe Indianconception like that?
The answer is no. Classical Indian thought insisted that we can reject
our conceptual categories and replace them with others. I do not think
Indians even supposed that this must be done holistically: their view
allowed for piecemeal revision of a conceptual system. Lewis deems such
a scheme insufficiently rigorous to allow for its application to the given.
Certainly it seems to present problems for those attempting to follow the
development of theories if the meaning of a term may change in the
course of the development. But some have viewed this as a standard
feature of dialectical progress, and Indian thought is full of dialectical
arguments involving shifts of "levels." More disturbing would be the
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possibility that every term can mean anything at all, and something

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different from moment to moment. With such a chaotic instrument to


try to catch a given and hold it long enough to identify it, relating it to
others would be a chancy business-and how would we know when we
had succeeded?
Interpretation, even if not a priori,should have some structure, some
fixity over at least the period of inquiry, it seems. Does the Indian concept
of interpretation grant it even that much? Certainly. It is time for me to
attempt to say in positive terms what the Indian conception of interpretation is.
Despite their rejectability and even revisability, within limits Indian
conceptual constructions are not random or chaotic. The general assumption governing the Indian account is that our concepts are generated by our karmic inheritance, and that within the limits of the theory
of karma it can be manipulated, revised, or exchanged for something else.
Let me call this the "karmic a priori,"for even though it lacks the features
which Lewis requires of a true a priori, or even the features that Kant's a
priori has, it is supposed to have the same general function that those a
prioris have, namely, to order our experience into "true" versus "false,"
"real" versus "unreal." That it can do this requires that it have some
regularity of structure in advance of the given, on pain of our not being
able to tell whether any worthwhile ordering has been accomplished.
Without some a priori, language and thought would not occur at all.
According to the karmic a priori it is not the limitations of human
reason which determine the categories of interpretation that we use. It is
rather those habits of mind that have been generated from past lives.
These habits are held by Indians to be the outcome of two kinds of
conditioning factors. On the one hand are what are called vasanas, rather
general dispositions toward the taking of certain sorts of attitudes which
help lead to the development of certain sorts of beliefs and desires. These
vasanas cooperate with more specific factors arising from specific acts in
past lives, factors referred to as samskaras, "traces," or more specifically
as karmasaya, "karmic residues."
It is difficult but not altogether impossible to gather information
about the working of these factors from the textual materials. There is an
irritating tendency to treat karma as a well-known matter which needs
little explanation and sometimes none at all. Still, there are clues. For
example, in the Yogasutra and its major commentary the Yogabhasya of
Vyasa, we get a clear suggestion that the vasanas and samskaras of a
human existence arise from past human existences and not one's former
lives as other animals or other kinds of beings. We can infer this from
passages which tell us that the karmic forces activated when one is born
as a cat are feline dispositions and traces arising from a former feline
existence.5 It is evident that the parallel point follows for a human being.
Thus there is a sense in which a sort of Kantian conception is reflected: if

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"human rationality" is a set of dispositions (to "reason," that is, to think


in a rational way) and if that is regularly present in any human existence
or condition, then its presence is determined by causes which are outside
that existence or condition but which are nevertheless in a sense the
result of our free choice, albeit a choice exercised in the past. Let me
explain.
According to what we may call the "philosophical" version of karma
theory (there are many popular versions which deviate widely), each time
one is born, a certain portion of one's karmic residues are tabbed to be
"activated" and thus "burned off" during the coming lifetime. This portion is known as one's prarabdhakarman,the karma that is due to mature
during the present birth. Since there is a definite time that it will take
for just these residues to mature, it is also held that at the time of birth
one's length of life is determined by the same mechanism. The maturation or "burning off" of these residues is accomplished through one's
having appropriate sorts of experiences. Thus there is a sense in which
one's experiences are determined by the karmic residues they burn off.
Now as one goes through life having experiences and thus burning off old
karmic residues, one performs new actions and lays down new residues
which in turn will have to be burned off at some subsequent point either
in this life or another. It is debatable just to what extent the nature of
one's actions is determined by past residues; obviously, if the determination were complete this would lead naturally to a kind of fatalist feeling
("Iam at the mercy of my past karma and can't do anything about it"),a
fatalism which has been felt, by some who have studied Indian attitudes,
to have led to villagers' passivity and to quietistic teachings in certain
kinds of Indian literature. In philosophical contexts, however, it is not
construed that way, since philosophical writings clearly assume the ability
of individuals to change their attitudes and beliefs, to perform actions the
results of which will bring pleasure in the future rather than pain, or to
achieve a kind of awareness of things which leads to cessation of action
and release from transmigration. One suspects that such a change of
heart and mind will involve revising one's va,sanas, the general dispositions which incline us toward certain kinds of concerns rather than
others, and this suspicion is born out in several ways, though one would
like a more straightforward statement to that effect somewhere in the
texts.
If we adopt the nonfatalistic, philosophical reading of the karma
theory as sketched above and construe our a priori conceptual scheme
as a function of karmic causes such as vasanas, we get a kind of a priori
which is both fixed and revisable. It is fixed in that those karmic residues
which are due to mature in this lifetime are going to do so regardless of
what choices, decisions, or even changes of attitude and belief we may
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judged to be considerable. Samkara, for example, holds that persons who


have achieved release from bondage during a human existence must still
experience the fruits of their prarabdhakarman, and he is followed in
this by many other theorists. We may say, then, that inasmuch as the
maturing of one's prarabdhakarman involves our viewing things as human beings do rather than as cats do, the human vantage point must be
maintained until the conclusion of this lifetime. To that extent there is no
possibility of rejecting the a priori or exchanging it for some completely
different scheme.
Yet inasmuch as we are only sometimes human beings, but sometimes cats and so forth, human rationality is not an unavoidable inheritance. Not that we would perhaps choose to be a cat-but many would
sensibly choose to be a god, since the divine state is held forth in Indian
thought as a genuine kind of birth. However, that is to blur my present
point somewhat, which is that even though we must in a given human lifetime maintain our reason insofar as it is an expression of our
prarabdhakarman, we can attempt to condition our future dispositions
so that future lives, or even the future part of this one, will be different
than otherwise. It is never suggested that this will be easy. But what is
suggested is that one can with difficulty repress-though not to the point
of exclusion-one's
inherited vasanas and replace them with others
deemed preferable.
The texts especially speak of this process in connection with the
gaining of release from bondage to karma altogether. The various instruments of such change include, notably, yoga and meditation as well as
devotion to God and overt habituation to righteous kinds of activity. The
purpose of any of these is to produce a change in one's ways of interpreting the given, in one's a priori if you will, or perhaps to eliminate the
interpretative process altogether, at least in the sense of no longer taking
its categories seriously, of not being attached to it. Which conception of
release and which type of instrument one should prefer are what mainly
distinguish the Indian schools of philosophy from one another.
Thus we are brought back to the term vikalpa or "conceptual construction," which I suggested at the outset is the closest Sanskrit term to
"a priori."Many Indian schools view vikalpa as that specific factor which
occasions bondage, and whose removal must yield release or liberation.
For example, the Yoga systems of both Hinduism and Buddhism
spend a lot of time on vikalpa. The Buddhist variety expounded by such
writers as Dignaga and DharmakTrtitakes the external world to be a
construction. Whether it is a construction from a given with features
which the constructions match or fail to match is a puzzle which scholars
are not altogether clear about. Both classical Indian writers and modern
Western scholars have apparently thought that the given in this type of
Buddhism is like Kant's things-in-themselves, without features that we KarlH. Potter

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can identify, although closer inspection of Buddhist texts of this school


raises questions about that interpretation.
Another type of Buddhist Yoga system, championed by Vasubandhu,
seems to have thought that it is karma which is responsible for the given
as well as for the constructions or interpretations of it. Vasubandhu's
argument is that our experiences are determined by our karmic residues
in exactly the way other Indian philosophers believe our dreaming experiences are. In dreams, it is commonly believed, the mind projects visual,
tactile, and so forth sensations and proceeds to interpret them as bases
for (dream) beliefs and actions, thus working off more of its karmic
baggage. Vasubandhu sees no reason to suppose this is not true of all
experiences, waking as well as dreaming.
Patanjali'sYoga system finds the function of construction as leading
to confusions between idea, word, and object and, as a result, to the
development of our characteristic interpretative categories. Patanjali,the
author of the Yogasutras, counsels practicing, at a crucial stage in the
yogic meditative process, attainment of a kind of trance state called
nirvikalpakasamadhi, in which one directly confronts the object as it is
in itself, without any linguistic or conceptual distinctions obscuring this
clear insight. This would seem to imply that, contrary to Buddhist Yoga,
Patanjali believes that there are objects "out there" with identifiable
features.
In the Advaita Vedanta system pioneered by Gaudapada, Mandana
Misra,and Samkaracarya,there is constant interplay between the notions
of construction, by which we interpret the given, and creation, by which
someone- is it God or ourselves?-generates the given. All conceptual
distinctions are the product of construction, which is viewed as always
involving the making of distinctions. The appreciation that distinction
or difference (bheda) is a nonapplicable category, that discriminating is
the source of bondage, is fundamental to the realization which is selfknowledge and release. Yet Samkara is unwilling to side with Vasubandhu
in assigning the determination of the given to our minds, even though he
has often been taken to be an idealist of that sort. In fact, he regularly
insists that any constructing requires a ground. Ultimately that ground
is undifferentiated Brahman, so that one may still be unsure whether
Sarmikarareally admits the mind-independence of the given in any interesting sense. Still, some Advaitins-perhaps including Gaudapadahave located the source of the given in God's handiwork. God is the
cause of the world, as the Brahmasutrastell us. The mechanism by which
God manages to create the world is termed maya. God controls this
maya, not we; but the given is manipulated in a fashion designed to
suit our karmic requirements. Thus in an indirect sense our karma may
control the given. Advaitins generally tend to reject the notion that we
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of the relation between God's creation and our interpretation is dilated


upon by later Advaita scholiasts.
All the systems surveyed in the last few paragraphs agree that constructing is the source of bondage, that thinking and talking are ultimately the enemy, the removal of which constitutes the liberation sought
by both Hindu and Buddhist thinkers. An important exception to this
linguaphobic tendency is to be found in the twin schools of Nyaya
and Vaisesika, accompanied by the philosophical branches of MTmamsa
founded by Kumarilaand Prabhakara.These systems connect the formation of concepts closely with the registering of givens. As they see it, when
our senses interact with an object of a certain kind, the mind cannot help
but record the presence of a property instantiated in the particular
datum. We construct neither givens nor concepts out of whole cloth,
they insist. Erroneous understandings arise from the misrelating of givens,
not from projecting inappropriate mind-constructed concepts upon
them. God creates a world in accordance with our karmic requirements
but independent of our wishes (or, in the MTmamsa systems, it is just
primordially there). We commerce with this real external world through
our sense organs, and as long as we continue to do so we are in bondage.
To gain release it will not be enough to stop misinterpreting the given; we
shall have to purify ourselves so that we no longer reach out through our
organs to commerce with the world at all. In Nyaya-Vaisesika there are
"constructions" (vikalpa) but what Naiyayikas mean by that term is the
interrelating, for purposes of recognition and language, of characterized
givens, givens not themselves supplied by construction. We may interrelate these givens successfully or unsuccessfully, which is to say, we may
frame true or false cognitions about them, but as long as we interrelate
them at all we are subject to and creating further karmic traces. And we
shall go on interrelating them unless and until we lose interest in the
world altogether because of our nonattachment to, our disinterest in,
what goes on there. It will still go on, though, stimulated (by God in the
case of Nyaya) in accordance with the karmic requirements of others not
released.
Though these systems hardly begin to exhaust the distinctive varieties
of Indian speculation on the relations among karma, the given, and the
a priori,they may serve as examples. We have, even in such a truncated
sampling, a spectrum of views running from Vasubandhu's idealism to
Vaisesika realism. Here "idealism" means "both given and interpretation
mind-dependent," while "realism"means "neither given nor interpretation
mind-dependent," and there are compromise positions up and down the
spectrum for which names will have to be invented. But for all of these
views, realistic or idealistic or in between, the interpretation is karmically
dependent, either as arranged by God or mechanically in God's absence,
on one's past actions and the habits of conceptualizing they determine.
KarlH. Potter

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Philosophy East & West

Then-is there an a prioriin Indian thought?" "Well, it depends what


you mean...." Questions requiringthat kind of answer most often should
be rephrased, and that is likely the case here. It seems to me that what
is interesting is not so much what "a priori" should be understood to
mean, but rather what sort of necessity characterizes an interpretative
scheme, what is responsible for that necessity, and what we can do
about it.
Forthe traditional empiricist the necessity of the interpretation lies in
the relations among the terms or meanings constituting it, relations which
define that very conceptual scheme and without which we would not
have that scheme but something else. The source of the necessity lies in
that definitional constituting, and what we can do about it is to exchange
it for another one with different definitions but equally strict in its relationships. Both Lewis himself and his "conventionalist" are types of traditional empiricist: they differ over the source of the necessity. While the
conventionalist allegedly finds that source in our conventions of the
moment, however whimsical, Lewis locates the source in our common
interests as social beings having to rub against each other in active
communication and practical carryings-on. As a result, while the conventionalist may view the exchanging of conceptual schemes as a technical
exercise-relatively simple given enough of the kinds of materials that a
computer, say, commands: time and tape-Lewis sees it as much more
difficult, involving insightful changes in our ways of getting along with one
another, new ways of thinking which are accepted by practically everyone as nontrivial solutions to common problems. Both Lewis and the
conventionalist accept the existence of an independent world of givens,
data of sense which our interpretation must match on pain of eventual
rejection. Failure to match these givens is precisely what leads us to
consider exchanging our present scheme for another.
The traditional empiricist considers himself liberal, in contrast to the
Kantian, in that he allows to us the ability to exchange conceptual
schemes. Forthe Kantian,the only way we could exchange a conceptual
scheme would be to graduate from the human state to something
nonhuman-and since we cannot as humans conceive what that might
be with any real clarity, he is not inclined to follow that thought very far.
The Kantian believes that the necessity of the interpretative scheme we
have stems from the structure of the human mind. We can't do anything
about it, it would seem, except to recognize its implications. Among these
are the featurelessness of the given for us, and thus the impossibility of
making sense of the notion that a concept matches a given. The reverse
side of that coin is that it is likewise impossible for us to know whether
any of our concepts, however necessary and fundamental they are (God,
freedom, and so on), represent anything other than internal whirrings of
the apparatus of "pure reason."

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The Indianor "karmic"position is not a logical alternative to these, but


a way of considering things which makes possible in principle analogues
to these and other views about interpretation and the given, yet without
involving the triviality of the conventionalist, the practical urgency and
implicit publicity of the pragmatist, or the conservatism of the Kantian.
The interpretation, the karmic a priori, was determined by us, the karmic
account holds, through our past actions. It is fixed by the products of
and traces-and its necessity derives from
those actions-dispositions
that. Yet we can, by future actions, revise the products of our actions so
that what is determined will be different in the future from what it has
been up to now. We can do this without becoming any less human, and
our conceptual scheme may become different as a result. We can, say
many Indian wise men, improve our interpretations morally and spiritually and gain heaven in another birth. But we should, if we are truly wise,
stifle our interpretations altogether. None of this settles the question
about the nature and source of the given. Perhaps it is featurelessBrahman. Perhaps it does have features, in as Nyaya, and we can discover
what its features are. Perhaps, although it has features, we cannot discover what they are. Perhaps we cannot even know whether or not it has
features. Perhaps, says the wise man, it doesn't really matter. Perhaps not,
if you're a wise man.

NOTES

1 - Lewis says that "The paradigm of the a priori in general is the definition" (Clarence I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order [New York:Dover
definitions legislate meaning
Publications, 19291, p. 239)-because
rather than report facts.
2 - C. I. Lewis, "A Pragmatic Conception of the a Priori,"in Readings
in Philosophical Analysis, ed. Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars (New
York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949), p. 239.
3 - I think Lewis' strictures here were in fact heeded-although
perhaps
not even needed-by
his opponents: the holism of Quine's "Two
Dogmas" and the Kuhnian picture of scientific revolution are cases
in point, even though the notion of "criteria-in-mind"remains something of a whipping boy, suggesting a procrustean urge to hypostatize
meanings.
4- A possible exception might be urged in the case of late Buddhist
logic as in DharmakTrti,but even here the case is debatable.
5 - Cf. Patanjali, Yogasutra IV.2-3, and Vyasa's Bhasya thereon.

KarlH. Potter

419

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