Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea. --T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding "When reading the works of an important thinker," T. S. Kuhn once advised, "look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer... when these passages make sense, then you find that the more central passages, ones you previously thought you understand, have changed their meaning." (1) Such advice would have us turn away from where the bulk of contemporary Anglophone philosophical engagement with the history of philosophy in South Asia has directed us to look. After all, for the most part philosophical engagement with the endlessly rewarding world of premodern South Asian philosophy has effectively followed the advice of those like H. A. Pritchard who would have us exclude anything artificial or unconvincing when reading philosophers from the past in order to concentrate on "the most important parts." (2) That phrase, "the most important parts," of course, being one with an almost indexical sense, tending to pick out whatever the speaker happens to value, or something the speaker just might happen to encounter in the most temporally proximate issue of the most valued journal in the field.
Though I do think there are reasons recommending such engagement--not least the fact of the continuing injustice perpetrated by the willful unknowing of the history of philosophy in South Asia and the disinclination to even acknowledge that there is anything worth getting to know in the first place--I shall here court idiosyncrasy if not perversity by following Kuhn's recommendation and not Pritchard's, with the caveat that what prompts my re-reading of a well-known work is not so much something unconvincing or artificial, or even absurd, but something prima facie difficult to place.
Still, I fully recognize that I am in danger of directing your attention to something bearing a family resemblance to one of the "six hundred... needlesse points" the English divine William Sclater in the seventeenth century libelously (if rather wittily) charged the schoolmen with occupying themselves, questions such as whether angels "did occupie a place; and so, whether many might be in one place at one time; and how many might sit on a Needles point." (3) For though this brief essay will conclude by recommending an orientation or, perhaps, a methodological sensibility and style I believe to be useful to students of the history of philosophy in South Asia, my sights are constrained by a somewhat myopic focus, one having to do with collocation no less.
We shall here consider what we can make of a single example provided by Vasubandhu (who flourished in the last decades of the fourth and the early decades of the fifth century C.E.) in his magisterial and influential Treasury of Metaphysics (Abhidharmakosa). The example involves the report that one can, apparently, find in molten metal an environment conducive to the generation of a species of small-scaled critters, which example, however otherwise now bizarre to us (and to a generation of scholars who have passed over it in silence), Vasubandhu appears to believe well known, and capable of supporting striking generalizations about life and matter; and if not angels exactly, we shall here have to consider with Vasubandhu beings no less challenging to theories of the physical world, the forms of life Buddhists believe provide for the continuity between death and re-birth.
Before we tuck in, however, I'd like to suggest why I think such an exercise of close attention to be salutary. I believe making sense of the example is important for three sorts of reasons: textual, philosophical, and, to speak rather self-importantly, methodological. Pursuing this example for its possible source will help widen our sense of the textual world in which philosophers like Vasubandhu worked, one that this example might just show to be far more cosmopolitan than we have otherwise been inclined to believe possible. Pursuing the philosophical implications of the example in turn will help us appreciate more carefully the contours of Vasubandhu's interest in the concepts of life and matter and how they interrelate. And lastly, as I shall touch on at the end, using such an example we can begin to develop an appreciation for the "system of possibility" within which Vasubandhu worked. By that last I have in mind what Ian Hacking did when he spoke of that which constrains the sorts of statements about what is and what is not that are even available as truth evaluable propositions, as candidates, that is, for being true or false. (4)
I am indebted to Ian Hacking for the intuition that it is such systems of possibility that allow us to get a handle on what distinguishes one discourse and practice of knowledge from another, and I share his discomfort with a priori determinations of the boundaries of such discourses, believing that we must eschew any attempt to stipulate in advance what it takes to understand their distinctive contours. In particular, I should be mortified if the reader took away from my brief comments here about prima facie bizarre examples that we cannot understand Vasubandhu or that we cannot feel ourselves into his world. I mean only to show that there is something here that still wants doing, and that--as Hacking puts it with respect to another ancient writer of encyclopedic scope, Paracelsus--to understand the sense of what it meant to know a world "one has to read a lot." (5)
One last thing by way of introduction: it is not only this example that allows me to question whether we can simply line up Vasubandhu's sense of possibilities alongside ours. As we shall see, the example belongs to a set of concerns that take the Buddhist philosopher to the outer boundaries of his received imaginaire and force him and his interlocutors to address concerns that have not, as they put it, come down to them in their tradition; and that strikes me as important.
Thus oriented, let us approach our example with a generalization about matter enshrined in a commonplace we would find readily intelligible. Many Buddhist philosophers speak of the resistance exhibited by some items to co-occupation. Whether such resistance (pratigha, perhaps most closely approximated by Leibniz's notion of antitypy (6)) is best thought of as a dispositional or categorical property, and whether or not we can really use such a property to get at what is criterial of non-mental particulars--two worthy questions that occupied Buddhist philosophers about pratigha--need not occupy us here. (7) What is of interest to me here is whether or not acknowledging resistance to co-occupation committed Buddhist philosophers to the truism David Wiggins believed philosophers in our time are too quick to call in evidence and rely upon: that two things cannot be in the same place at the same time. (8)
There is reason to believe that Vasubandhu, for one, might have wished to see a more careful statement of such a truism:
Beings between death and rebirth are apratighavan, which is to say, they do not encounter pratigha in the sense of "resistance": on account of their not being obstructed even by diamond. apratighavan [3.14c] pratighatah pratighah, so 'syastiti pratighavan, na pratighavan: apratighavan. vajradibhir apy anivaryatvat (Pradhan 1975: 125) (9) If there can be thought to be a form of life possessed of all physical sensory capacities, as these beings between one living form of life and another are thought to be, and yet so constituted as to be able to pass in and out of other materials, even the most obdurate, we will want a more careful formulation of the exact sense in which two things cannot be in the same...