Non-One-Sidedness: Context-Sensitivity in Jain Epistemological Dialogues

Published: 22.12.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London

J ain philosophers have developed, mainly from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, a contextual theory of cognition according to which knowledge is always dependent upon a theoretical background bearing on its very definition, its goal and its domain (this last issue is tackled by their 'theory of viewpoints', nayavāda). With the soteriological project of total dissolution of ignorance in mind, the Jains further developed a 'theory of contextual knowledge statements' (syādvāda) aiming at integrating all possible perspectives on the object of knowledge when assessing whether or not someone can be considered as knowing something. The resulting context-sensitive approach held by Jain philosophers is certainly one of the main Jain contributions to logic and epistemology in India.

Under the supervision of Professor Shahid Rahman, my PhD project is to propose a reading of this approach using modern conceptual tools. The dissertation will include a translation of the chapter on the nayavāda, syādvāda and patravāda ('theory of aphorisms') of the Prameyakamalamārtaṇḍa, The Sun of the Lotus of the Knowables, a tenth-century work from the Digambara ācārya Prabhācandra.

The first aspect of this project is to try to provide an easier approach to selected Jain texts in logic and epistemology. This will be done by transposing the main issues of these texts into a context that is more accessible to a modern reader.

The philosophical and technical issue on which I will focus in this project is the Jain contextualized notion of truth. This notion comes from the link Jain philosophers draw between logic and epistemology on one hand and theory of argumentation on the other. In modern approaches, after the work of Tarski in the fifties, the prevailing way to conceive logic is based on syntax (proof theory), semantics (model theory), and their correspondence. Such a perspective pays little attention to the procedural aspect of inference, and to the way logic is rooted in the practice of rational debate. Alternative approaches have been developed in the past decades which invite us to think again about logic and meaning in terms of interaction between agents in a dialogue. My hypothesis is that these new approaches share much more with Jain discussions on contextualization than other modern approaches to logic. That is why I developed my reading of Jain texts from the viewpoint of one of these new approaches, namely within the dialogical approach introduced by Lorenz and Lorenzen (Erlangen School), and developed nowadays by Rahman. This approach is sensitive to philosophical pluralism (it considers the coexistence of a plurality of sets of rational norms) and to logical pragmatism (it considers meaning in terms of interactions between agents and in relation to a given goal).

The project begins with specifying the notion of context involved in Jain literature. According to the nayavāda, there are seven ways for a knowing agent to apprehend an object. It defines seven types of theory of knowledge (viewpoints) each endowed with its own ontology and theory of meaning. The syādvāda further determines for any predicative knowledge statement in a debate from which viewpoint it is valid, from which it is refutable and from which it cannot be asserted. Three particular features of the Jain approach deserve special attention:

  1. The contextualisation process is not about propositions, but about objects
  2. The determination of context has to be done outside the object language (before testing the formula at stake).
  3. We need to provide Jain theory with a suitable formal theory of meaning which is not model-theoretic, but which is done in terms of argumentative practices.

My hypothesis is that the variations between one viewpoint and another can be understood as contextual structural changes (e.g. rules of substitution only allowed in viewpoints considering universals). Instead of erasing the differences between the seven viewpoints by expressing them in a common modal language, my approach proposes to take into account the nayavāda by permitting several different ontologies and theories of meaning. Let us consider an example. Let a proponent of the second viewpoint, the viewpoint of classes (saṃgrahanaya), and more precisely, according to Prabhācandra's classification in the second subtype of intending intermediate universals, say, 'tale gaṭaḥ', 'there is a pot on the floor'. Now, a proponent of the third viewpoint, the pragmatic viewpoint (vyavahāranaya) also says, 'tale gaṭaḥ'. The Jain claim is that it is mistaken to think that the two of them are saying the same thing and might agree according to material conditions. There is a radical – one would like to say 'paradigmatic' – difference from one sentence to the other. The first speaker is talking about 'a pot' as endowed with the characteristics of being a pot, while the other is talking about 'the pot', this particular one. In essence, while one is grasping essential properties, the other is differentiating for example, my will to cook in my pot and not in my neighbour's pot. For I am aware of the fact that my neighbour might not appreciate the second option. In sum, both the domain of discourse and the theory of meaning differ between one viewpoint and another

The next step is to express the syādvāda. One can do so by incorporating those seven systems into a single logical (meta-) system. The language of such a system must feature a way to talk about different logical systems, which is precisely the formal counterpart of 'syāt'. Giving credence to Wittgenstein's claim that 'meaning is use', the meaning of 'syāt' is in our reading a dialogical move during which the speaker is allowed to choose a specific mode of argumentation for his thesis. For example, when I state, 'syād asty eva gaṭaḥ', 'arguably the pot indeed is', the meaning of 'syāt', 'arguably', is the opening of an argumentation context in which the rules will be either the rules of the viewpoint of classes, or the ones of the pragmatic viewpoint, but never both at the same time. Typically, if I choose to utter within the viewpoint of classes, what I will need in order to test the validity of my thesis within a debate is a given set of rules among which there would be a rule to account for the fact that this viewpoint focuses on classes (properties) and not on elements (individuals). One way to express such a requirement is to allow qualitative identity between the values of first-order variables. In more intuitive terms, it is sufficient that there exists an equivalent class to which both x and y belong and infers that x and y are qualitatively identical.

In conclusion, the resulting meta-system has distinctive modal features, but transposed at the level that may be called 'meta-argumentation'. Firstly, in this system we are unable to enunciate iterated 'syāt' (this might be a sign that this approach better conforms to the Jain sensibility, for as far as I know Jain logicians were not interested in statements of the form: 'there is a viewpoint in which there is a viewpoint in which...'). Secondly, this seems to be exactly what Jain philosophy is about: an argumentation about the different ways one should argue in relation to a given goal.

Marie-Hélène Gorisse, former holder of a MENRT grant (a national grant) in France, is writing her PhD thesis on the theory of knowledge and argumentation in the Prameyakamalamārtaṇḍa. Currently she teaches Sanskrit, Indian Culture and Philosophy of Logic at the University of Lille 3, France.


Prabhācandra Prameyakamalamārtaṇḍa Sri Garib Dass Oriental Series vol. 90, M.K.Shastri (ed.), (First ed. 1912), Delhi: Sri Satguru Publication, 1990.

Balcerowicz, Piotr "Some Remarks on the Naya Method". In Caturaranayacakram. Essays in Jaina Philosophy and Religion, (Warsaw Indological Studies vol.2, P. Balcerowicz and M. Meyor (eds.), 2002), 37-67, First Indian Edition Delhi: Motilal Banarsi dass, 2003.

Ganeri, Jonardon "Jaina Logic and the Philosophical Basis to Pluralism". In History and Philosophy of Logic vol.23-4, 267-281, York: Taylor and Francis Ltd, 2002.

Gorisse, Marie-Hélène "The Art of Non-asserting: Dialogue with Nāgārjuna". In Springer Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence vol.5378, R.Ramanujam and S.Sarukkai (eds.), FoLLi Series, 257-268, Berlin Heidelberg: Springer, 2009.

Keiff, Laurent "Dialogical Logic". In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford. edu/entries/logic-Dialogical/

Lorenz, Kuno "Features of Indian Logic". In Dialogues, Logics and Other Strange Things. Essays in Honour of Shahid Rahman, C. Dégremont, L.Keiff and H. Rückert (eds.), 263-275, London: College Publication, 2008.

Rahman, Shahid and Tulenheimo, Tero "From Games to Dialogues and Back: Toward a General Frame for Validity". In Logic, Epistemology and the Unity of Science vol.15, O.Majer, A.Pietarinen and T.Tulenheimo (eds.), 153-208, Dordrecht: Springer, 2006.

Soni, Jayandra "Issues in Jaina Philosophy". In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E.Craig (ed.), New York and London: Routledge, 1998.

CoJS Newsletter • March 2010 • Issue 5
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