Contemplating lists. List-making as spiritual exercise in Indian thought

Start - End 
2019 - 2022 (ongoing)
Department of Languages and Cultures



In "The Infinity of Lists", Umberto Eco contrasts two modes of artistic representation. One is bound to a definite aesthetic form. It conveys a comprehensive idea, closed on itself. The other has more fluid boundaries, since its inspiration appears unfathomable, even infinite. It is expressed through lists. Eco observes that: “At first sight we might think that form is characteristic of mature cultures, which know the world around them, whose order they have recognized and defined. Contrary to this, the list would seem to be typical of primitive cultures that still have an imprecise image of the universe and limit themselves to listing as many of its properties as they can name without trying to establish a hierarchical relationship among them [2009, p. 18].” Yet, as Eco realizes, list-making has been a feature of Western cultures from Classical times up until the modern and post-modern world, carrying on through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque periods. This, he concludes, is “a sign that we are subject to the infinity of lists for many diverse reasons [Ibid.].” However appealing, Eco’s exploration into list-making could not afford an infinite scope, and so limited itself to the cultural realm of the Western World. Nonetheless, this initial foray into a stylistic pattern located at the very core of some of the most sublime depictions of the world recalls a forgotten literary continent, where doctrinal lists of all sorts are told not only to reveal the hidden secrets of the universe, but to hold the key to man’s emancipation, Indian philosophy. 
As knowledge vectors, lists are universally linked to educational practices. While humans developed ever new ways of sharing information, one methodological paradigm which never shifted is the organizational need for lists. If the pupils of old had to learn lists of contents by rote, students of the digital age are trained to use the many list-browsing tools suiting their epistemic leanings. In a technological age of information overload, investigating the role of lists in learning practices is crucial. While Eco’s work paid tribute to the infinity of lists in Western culture, it is now time to decolonize our thought and to enlist the thinkers of the East in our survey, starting with India. The nature of lists in Indian philosophy is imbued with a distinct aura, denoting their preeminent function. Their study will renew our perspectives on the formative and performative influence of lists and raise deeper issues in relation to the structural framework of ideologies.