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The Problem of Universals in Indian Philosophy.

The Problem of Universals in Indian Philosophy. By RAJA RAM DRAVID. Delhi: MOTILAL BANARSIDASS, 1971; 2nd revised ed., 2001. Pp. 384.

The problem of universals, that is, the question of the basis of the general notions of our thought and language, is one that has fascinated and challenged thinkers both in the West and in India. This issue touches upon at least three fundamental questions of philosophy, namely, the ontological question, "What is there?"; the epistemological question, "How do we come to know reality?"; and finally the linguistic question, "What is the meaning of words?" Given the way in which a study of this issue can thus bring to light the central insights of a given philosophical system, it provides a promising basis upon which to compare the various schools of Indian philosophy, all of which have something to say about it. At the same time, the problem of universals is a topic with respect to which Indian thought can be brought into dialogue with Western philosophy. Both of these considerations undoubtedly lie behind the project Raja Ram Dravid undertakes in his book, The Problem of Universals in Indian Philosophy.

As suggested by its title, the book's primary focus is a survey of various positions on this vigorously debated question of universals in Indian philosophy. This discussion occupies roughly two-thirds of the book, while the final eighty pages or so are given to a quick overview of the history of the topic in Western philosophy. The author, however, does not draw nearly as many parallels between the Western and Indian thinkers as the bipartite structure of the book might suggest. In fact, the overview of Western philosophy appears to be little more than a lengthy appendix. However, a careful reading of the book suggests that what Dravid's study of Western philosophy has contributed to his presentation of the Indian thinkers is the categories in terms of which the various positions of the Indian schools are arranged.

The first of these categories, which is associated with the philosophy of Plato, Dravid calls "extreme realism." This is the view that there are real entities in extramental reality corresponding to the general notions of our speech and thought, and that these universal entities have an existence of their own, separate from the particulars with which they are associated. This view is represented in India by the Nyaya-Vaisesika thinkers, who include the universal (samanya) among the six fundamental constituents (padartha) of reality. Dravid next identifies another position he terms "moderate realism," which agrees that there are real universals in extramental reality answering to our general notions, but denies that these universals exist independently of the particulars in which they are instantiated. This is the well-known position of Aristotle, and Dravid finds a parallel with early Jaina thinkers like Samantabhadra and Vidyananda, who maintain that generality and particularity are not two independently existing realities, but rather related aspects of a single reality. At the opposite end of the spectrum are found the Buddhists of the Dignaga school, who, according to Dravid, represent an extreme form of nominalism (although a case could be made that this Buddhist position is a form of conceptualism, not nominalism). This is the view that universal notions are nothing more than mental constructions projected upon an extramental reality containing only particulars.

The debate between the extreme realists, represented by the Nyaya-Vaisesikas and (with slight variations), the Mimamsakas, on the one hand, and the "extreme nominalists," the Buddhists, on the other, dominates Dravid's presentation. The detailed analysis of the arguments used by the realists and the Buddhists against each other is interrupted by relatively brief expositions of the intermediate positions of the Jainas (ch. 6) and the Advaitins (ch. 7), as well as by a very relevant discussion of the debate in the grammatical tradition between those who maintain that the universal (akrti) is the meaning of words against those who argue that it is the individual substance (dravya) (chs. 8 and 9). The section on Indian philosophy concludes with two chapters that return to the realist/Buddhist debate, underscoring the importance of the two "extremist" views in setting the terms for the debate concerning the problem of universals in India.

This book is difficult to evaluate because one's assessment depends on how one characterizes the book, whether as an expository survey of the various philosophical arguments, or as a critical work in comparative philosophy. On the one hand, Dravid does an excellent job in presenting the arguments of the various Indian philosophical schools. His prose is clear and concise, and his selection of texts is judicious. These qualities make the book especially useful for students of philosophy who otherwise might not have access to the Sanskrit texts, most of which lack translations into modern Western languages.

On the other hand, however, Dravid's book is somewhat disappointing as a critical and analytical philosophical work. Although the author stresses the critical nature of his study, his critical evaluative comments--which are, for the most part, clearly demarcated from the expository material--remain on the level of the arguments themselves. Absent is any criticism in the sense of "deconstructing" the arguments to expose the various historical or contextual factors behind a position that are not explicitly stated in the arguments. For example, in presenting the Prabhakara Mimamsaka Salikanatha's refutation of the Vaisesika concept of existence (satta) as the great universal embracing all that is, Dravid does not mention what is the underlying motivating factor behind the Prabhakaras' rejection of the satta concept, namely their concern, against the early Vedantins, to restrict Vedic authority to the object of Vedic injunction (karya), an object which, by virtue of its futurity, lies beyond the ken of the various empirical means of valid cognition (pramana). Without a mention of this underlying exegetical concern, Salikanatha's proposed concept of being as "cognisability by a valid means of knowledge" (pramanasambandhayogyata) remains obscure.

In suggesting that Dravid's apparent lack of concern with historical and contextual questions represents a deficiency, I am aware that I may be unfairly judging his book by a standard of scholarship that he himself may not recognize. The classic studies in Indian philosophy by such great names as S. Dasgupta and M. Hiriyanna generally share a relative indifference to questions of history and context. There is a sense in which these scholars are being true to the classical Indian tradition in taking the arguments at face value and treating them as if their context did not matter. Still, an identification of the various contextual motivating factors behind a particular position--knowing what really is at stake with regard to a particular philosophical issue--can shed light on the logical moves a philosopher makes as he defends a particular position.

With respect to the comparative dimension of the book. Dravid likewise misses opportunities for additional insight into the arguments he surveys. There are a number of issues arising in the Western tradition--issues that get only a cursory treatment in Dravid's survey of Western philosophy--that could shed light on the conceptions and arguments found in the Indian material. For example, a study of the complex and ambiguous relationship between the essence or nature, on the one hand, and the universal, on the other, in the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition could help in assessing the Indian realist's argument that if, as the Buddhists claim, particulars produce general cognitions by their own nature, "then this nature must be a universal and not a particular" (p. 75). In a philosophical work, the (quite appropriate) translation of a term like akrti by "nature" invites some degree of explicit reflection on the philosophical history of the latter term. Another instance where some comparative reflection might be fruitful would be with regard to the rather peculiar Advaita Vedanta conception of brahman as the all-inclusive universal substance that represents the very essence of all things. This understanding of brahman seems to embody an ambiguity curiously parallel to that of Aristotle's conception of substance ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which is at once the ultimate substrate ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and the "essence" or "whatness" of a thing ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Again, the use of terms like "substance" and "essence" calls for reflection on these parallels, since the parallelism has already been drawn implicitly by the decision to use these words in the translation. It should be acknowledged, however, that sustained and rigorous comparative reflection on the aporetic questions of substance and essence would inevitably compromise the orderliness and clarity of Dravid's presentation, thus depriving the book of what is perhaps its chief value.

Perhaps a sacrifice of philosophical profundity for schematic clarity is intrinsic to the problem of universals itself. As mentioned above, the question of universals is interesting and significant because it touches upon the more fundamental questions of being, knowledge, and linguistic meaning. Yet the clear conceptual distinction between the universal and the particular tends to break down as philosophical reflection brings to light the deep obscurity and ambiguity of these more fundamental questions, especially the question of being. For example, Aristotle's concept of substantial form ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the somewhat tenuous achievement of the so-called central books of the Metaphysics, cannot be identified either with the universal ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or, strictly speaking, with the particular (the sensible composite of matter and form, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). A similar ambiguity with respect to these concepts applies also to the Indian concept of vastu, which cannot be identified, strictly speaking, with the particular (vyakti) for someone like Kumarila. Thus, it would seem that at a certain point the abstract schema of the universal and the particular can be retained only at the cost of inhibiting reflecting on the more fundamental questions of being and language. A study such as Dravid's that remains bound to this schema thus runs the risk of becoming philosophically uninteresting. Dravid himself gives an indication of an awareness of this danger when, in the book's introduction, he acknowledges the lack of interest in the problem of universals on the part of many contemporary philosophers.

I might suggest that the way Dravid formulates the problem of universals--namely, whether there is anything in objective reality answering to the generality of thought and language--is too narrow. This formulation presupposes the distinction between the knowing subject and objective reality, and to that extent fails to recognize the ultimate concern of the Buddhists and Vedantins to transcend this duality. Moreover, this way of formulating the problem, inasmuch as it assumes the primordiality of theoretical consciousness, provides little room for a recognition of the role of pragmatic activity in shaping the way human beings apprehend and speak of reality. Significantly, Dravid's survey of Western philosophy contains virtually no mention of the contributions of thinkers like Heidegger on the Continental side or Wittgenstein on the Analytical, philosophers whose respective insights into the practical dimensions of human speech and thought have transformed the traditional question of universals.

That Dravid's formulation of the problem of universals is somewhat dated and narrow does not mean, however, that the Indian texts he surveys are no longer of philosophical interest. Indeed, these texts contain ideas that by themselves could expose the limitations of the classical formulation of the problem of universals. For example, the Indian concept of vyavahara, conventional reality as shaped by everyday patterns of speech and activity, suggests an implicit recognition of the provenance of universal concepts in our practical interaction with reality. Likewise, the Indian concept of pratyaksa, "perception," carries an implicit recognition of the intuitive dimensions of human cognition that are not acknowledged in the medieval Western dictum underlying the problem of universals that cognition pertains to universals while (only) sense perception pertains to individuals (intellectus est universalium, sensus autem particularum). The texts in Indian philosophy that deal with the problem of universals can indeed have a future in the philosophical thought of the West, and while Dravid's book does not pursue the interesting possibilities of thought that these texts open up as much as one might hope, it nevertheless is of value to students of philosophy in providing a clearly written and orderly exposition of some of the most important of these texts.


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Title Annotation:Reviews of Books
Author:Nicholson, Hugh R.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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