Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ways of Knowing
As Professor Narasimham explained in today’s Yoga Sutra Chanting and Philosophy of Yoga class at the Anatha Research Foundation (which, to my chagrin, I’ll only be able to attend a handful of times before departing) Patanjali, in the yoga sutras, talks about three ways of acquiring “right knowledge” (essentially, what I have been trained to call “true belief,” knowledge being, by definition, true or “right”).
These three are pratyaksha (perception), anumana (logical inference), and agama (testimony or tradition, including scriptural knowledge.)
One of the students in our class made the insightful observation that the first two are essentially Western philosophy’s empiricism and rationalism, which she also thoughtfully pointed out are often seen from the perspective of our tradition as in conflict with each other since the days of the Ancient Greeks, whether it’s Aristotle vs. Plato or Hume against Descartes, with maybe Kant off to the side trying to mediate things.
Additionally, in my world, testimony or tradition tends not to be seen as a reliable knowledge-generating methodology, at least without further empirical or logical justification. In fact, accepting “received knowledge” at face value is generally seen as an informal fallacy of logic, the so-called “appeal to tradition,” the very same mistake in reasoning that has people believing all sort of wild claims and, as a result, having misguided opposition to same-sex marriage, birth-control, or women’s collegiate athletics.
What I found puzzling, and had to ask about (even though I felt a bit presumptuous posing a question in my very first class—but hey! It’s my last week here!) was whether Patanjali envisioned a hierarchy in the reliability of these various knowledge-generating techniques, as, for instance, we tend to do in the West, depending on whether our intuitions lie with the Rationalists or Empiricists.
But as Dr. N. pointed out, the three techniques work together so that, let’s say, pratyaksha is seen as reliable unless it conflicts with anumana, as in the case, for example, of “seeing” a solid table but knowing via received knowledge from the sciences that, in fact, it’s actually made up of atoms with more space between them than matter. Thus, none of the three gets to hold the epistemological high ground; it's rock-paper-scissors all around.
And what was particularly interesting to me was that, as I understood it, anyway, even scriptural knowledge doesn’t therefore get to be incorrigible; if it’s illogical and/or conflicts with sensory perceptions, then it can be rejected as not providing “right knowledge.”
Too bad for same-sex marriage, birth-control, and women’s collegiate athletics, this isn’t more a more prevalent idea in the West.