Language and action in early Brahmanical philosophy

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Attention: This page reflects the state of 2016. It is meant for documentary purposes and will not be updated any longer.

The project “Language and action in early Brahmanical philosophy” (P 25287-G15) developed from reflections that arose during research on the religious background, theories of rational agency and the doctrine of scriptural authority in the works of Buddhist philosophers of the late first millennium CE. These thinkers were recognized as presupposing a specific concept of human agency and the conditions in which it is considered rational, granting that humans, inasmuch as they are not omniscient, have no perceptive knowledge of the future and cannot validly infer the future results of their present actions.

Starting from these premises, the project aimed at investigating whether and to what extent the Brahmanical philosophers, who were the most uncompromising opponents of the Buddhist philosophers, had complemented their theories of scriptural authority and epistemology with an account of human religious action. The main focus of the research was thus a translation and a study of important parts of the Vidhiviveka (“An enquiry into the cause of human action”) by Maṇḍana Miśra (660/720?), one of the main proponents of the school of Vedic exegesis known as Mīṃāṃsā as well as one of the founders of Vedānta as a separate school of philosophy and hermeneutics. In the course of the project, it appeared that such an enquiry could be fruitfully extended to other texts in which the question of rational agency is analysed, together with its most crucial epistemological presupposition, that is, the dispute about whether humans can have knowledge of supersensible things and events.

The project has produced remarkable scholarly results, which have appeared in various publications. It has greatly improved our knowledge of Maṇḍana’s Vidhiviveka regarding both the structure of the text and the work’s conceptual contents; it has shed new light on the historical relationship between the two schools of Vedic exegesis (Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta), in itself one of the most thorny issues in reconstructing South Asian cultural history; and it has provided new insights into the way South Asian epistemology conceived, developed and debated the problem of extraordinary knowledge. With regard to this last point – a thread common to many aspects of the project – the research has shown how this question had elusive philosophical beginnings but soon became central in the self-representation of most classical South Asian thinkers, being deeply connected to their religious identities, their apologetic strategies and, in due course, their attitude towards life and afterlife.

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