Advaita Vedānta, Baruch Spinoza, conferences, Eckart Förster, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, pedagogy, Stonehill College, Upaniṣads
Not long ago I attended a conference on a particular genre of educational technology. The conference presenters were endlessly positive, uplifting – they sought to inspire the attenders with the potential that their subject could offer for student learning. But some discontent rumbled among the attenders, rightly I think: these presenters are not really saying anything. Their theories are abstractions, perhaps even platitudes, that are difficult to disagree with but mean very little in application. Emotionally they can inspire us; rationally they give us no value.
In the conference’s smaller- group discussions (of which there were fortunately many), there was more of a chance to speak of problems, to complain, to be negative – and paradoxically, by being negative they were able to be more constructive. Why? It is far easier to understand what to do when you understand what not to do; you learn what’s true in part by learning what’s false. Endless affirmation of how good something is won’t tell you anything about what makes it good, let alone about how to put it into practice successfully.
As it happens, on the way to this conference I had been reading a book about Kant. In The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy, Eckart Förster notes that for Kant concepts require determination – determination meaning “the ascription of a predicate under exclusion of its opposite” (109). That is, to say what something is, we must also say what it is not. That, in a variety of ways, is what the conference presenters were not doing: in their positivity, they gave us little concrete detail about what was bad, what was a problem, what to avoid. Spinoza, in a letter to a friend, went further than saying that concepts require determination: he noted that determination is negation (determinatio negatio est). Hegel would soon be more emphatic still: “all determination is negation.” To say something is to negate something.
There’s an epistemological issue here that goes much deeper than any one conference. I’ve often struggled reading difficult thinkers (like Kant or Hegel) in the original for the precise reason that I often have nothing to contrast them to. I worry when I read something and nod my head thinking “that sort of makes sense”. If I find reason to oppose it, then I know I’m really grappling with it. The same goes double when I teach: if students parrot ideas they hear or even paraphrase them, I am concerned that they haven’t got it. Most of the students I taught at Stonehill had a very positive attitude, which made them happy but uncritical. They wanted and tried to affirm each other’s viewpoints; but to get them to learn, I needed to encourage them to negate.
That determination is negation seems to be widely understood among philosophers. We’ve seen something like it above in Kant and Hegel. I asked myself which philosophers wouldn’t accept the idea, and my mind went first to the philosophers who think all is one: the Neoplatonists and especially Advaita Vedānta. Surely for them, the ultimate is something affirmed as purely postiive?
I shortly realized that even they would likely be quite willing to accept the basic idea that determination is negation – with a twist. The Advaitins draw their philosophy from the Upaniṣads, and one of their favourite quotes from the Upaniṣads is neti neti — “not thus, not thus”, or more literally just “‘not’, ‘not'”. That is: of the ultimate one reality or truth (brahman, sat), nothing can really be said. And with good reason. Why? Because concepts are determinations, and determination is negation! To say anything about brahman – even to call it brahman – is to limit it. And therefore ultimate knowledge of it must eventually come on some nonconceptual level. The concepts with which we speak of it are like fingers pointing at the moon, rather than the moon itself.
I agree that to disagree is a good thing. Lately I mentioned in a post the notion of the counterpositive (pratiyogin) an important element in advaitin epistemology, which might be of interest in this regard.
Amod Lele said:
It is an interesting relation – the counterpositive can be negated, which the ultimate effectively can’t (at least according to Advaita as I understand it).
Within the Buddhist context, this reminds me of the key insight of Dignaga’s and Dharmakirti’s logic, namely the theory of apoha or anyapoha (Skt; Tib. “gzhan sel ba”).
It is standard in Buddhist logic and epistemology, as taught in the Tibetan tradition (under the name lo-rig, i.e science of the conceptual mind) to explain that particulars are known by detection (through the senses mostly), whereas generalities are known conceptually through negation of what they are not.
See Dreyfus, “Recognizing Reality” for more details than any sane person woudl want :)
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, dharmanomad, and thank you. That’s a good point – I hadn’t thought of this in terms of apoha but I agree, this seems to be the point being made there as well.
I am still trying to grapple with the philosophical implications of the point overall – I am not yet sure what they are, but they seem to be large! :)
Molly Ruggles said:
Hi Amod, This post caught my interest. Very interesting. What is being said here is basically that every time we make a choice to do something, we are also making a choice to ‘not’ do something else. And there is a bit of yin/yang balance related to that.
I think you’re also touching on a key point about our society’s relentless pursuit of the positive… that we aspire to live in a state of constant up-beat-ness, and that we think this is a worthy goal. But what we’re actually doing is cutting ourselves off from a full experience of the world as it really is.
Amod Lele said:
Hi Molly – great to see you here! I think it was the existentialists who said “not to choose is itself a choice”. You’re definitely on to something here. I’ve actually been thinking about these issues a bit in terms of my own life – I’ve always been a little reluctant to close off possibilities, but possibilities mean nothing unless at some point they become actualities, and that necessarily implies some possibilities being closed.
Thought question: compare and contrast to the idea of “falsifiability” in science? Knowledge only advances if you are disproving something, and by extension a proposition is only coherent if it is potentially susceptible to negation.
Amod Lele said:
Not quite the same, I think – though perhaps one could argue that scientific falsifiability is a special case here. As I understand it, scientific falsifiability (at least in Popper’s sense) needs to be empirical specifically, and this is something that goes a lot broader.
What I’ve been trying to get at in the post is less about a statement being itself susceptible to negation – and more that by being made, it negates something else. Though establishing a connection between the two could be interesting.
Ben as you say a proposition whose opposite is not conceivable is not an empirical one. Truth that is ‘trikala abhada’ (uncontradicted/uncontradictable (?) in the three moments of time/past,present,future) is not empirical. This is the ultimate truth in Advaita so it is not empirical but yet not analytic. neti, neti. But what?