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Monday, November 28, 2011

Should Indian philosophy always be "useful" for contemporary Western philosophy?

If one thinks in a philosophical way, one is very likely to take philosophy very seriously and to take its problems in serious consideration. One will then (innerly at least) take part to the discussions depicted in the texts one is reading and not just observe them in a detached way. One will try to understand what is exactly the word-meaning, or whether an enduring self exists, or whether there are universals, or substances, etc.
Hence, if one is conversant with a rather neglected area of philosophy (like Indian Philosophy), one might be inclined to add it to the discussion, hoping that some answers might be found through its contribution, that new questions will be asked, or that old ones will be seen from a different perspective.
However, this attitude entails a risk, as far as I can see, namely, that one sees Indian Philosophy only as ancillary to contemporary (mainstream, i.e., Western) philosophy. This is unfair and risky, insofar as one risks to loose grasp of the historical perspective of the arguments one is dealing with and, most importantly, to overlook important texts and ideas just because they do not correspond to today's fashionable topics. By contrast, philological work on ancient ideas may contribute to the ideodiversity and hence promote future discussions, exactly insofar as it is free from the dictatorship of today's trends and musts.

What do readers think? Am I exaggerating the risk?

This post has been stimulated by Peppe's comment (see here).

On the importance of an historical approach, see this post. On the purpose of West-India comparisons, see this post.

8 comments:

Sabio Lantz said...

Four thoughts by a naive non-scholar:

(1) One must be clear on "Why" do philosophy at all before entertaining how to mix systems. If two people have differences on this issue, then they will be talking past each other on the answers. And answering this question is so bound in self-interests, historical accidents, and unaware biases that it is optimistic to expect a clear agreement.

(2) I find it odd when people ask that their field be allowed to play in the dominant field but ignore the other outside players: Chinese Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy.

(3) All these areas are so vast, so complex, so tied with culture and history that significance can be lost by sticking in one field. The problem with comparative work is that the filters used to often contain agendas unknown.

(4) Personally, I love comparison. I love experts sharing in comparative manners. I love efforts to try to transcend culture. Yet the rich playground of language, culture and history is also another favorite forest I love to wander. These two are necessarily pulling in different directions. The tension will never disappear.

Sabio Lantz said...

When I was in grad school, I took a course in Indian Philosophy. I had a great THIN book that summarized the main classical and non-orthodox schools. I forgot the author and title.

I was hoping you could perhaps add a page that gives readers an annotated list of your favorite "Intro to Indian Philosophy" texts/book.

Sabio Lantz said...

PSS: --
Sorry, I could think of a great text title:

"Intro to Indian Philosophy for Buddhists"

I think that would be a big seller.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Sabio,

thanks for the interesting comments. As for 1, I would say that one does not need to agree before undertaking the comparative journey, philosophy is much more an attitude than a result and in this sense one might also only agree on the fact that the effort is worth trying.
I have nothing to add to point 2, especially if it becomes a "mors tua vita mea" kind of issue, with scholars working on Chinese or Indian philosophy fighiting for a single "non-Western" seat at the conference!
I tend to agree also with no. 3 and 4 (I do not like to do *just* comparison), but I am afraid something is missing from the syntax of no. 3. Could you explain it again?

elisa freschi said...

As for the books' suggestions, it is a nice idea. I shall certainly dedicate a post to it in a close future.

Sabio Lantz said...

Sorry, #3 was simply:

Each avenue has its pitfalls:

When immersed in one philosophical system, one can get lost in all the details of fads, language, history and not see beyond the blindspots of one's cultural habits.

However, in a comparison avenue, one has to pick what is worth comparing and thus miss important details.

All this is too abstract. But maybe that explanation was more clear.

So, are you going to work with Jayarava and write the book: "Hindu Philosophy For Buddhists"? :-)

shreevatsa said...

This is a great post.

Yes, the risk exists. In fact, there is another risk: if a field is promoted too early, before the writing of sufficiently many "accessible" (to outsiders) introductions, or the recognition of enough that it has to offer, then the outsiders may be unimpressed on their first look, and turn away and not look again for a long time to come. (I don't know about philosophy, but I know this has happened in other areas.)

But it's worth trying anyway.

elisa freschi said...

@Sabio: :-DDD

@shreevatsa, you raise a very important point, one I have not been thinking of. I have had many times the experience of raising interest in my "public" and then "loosing" them again as soon as I had to admit the scarcity of accessible translations etc.
It reminds me of what a friend explained me about advertising techniques: one has first to distribute a product and *then* to start advertising. If one were to see the ad and would not find the product on shelves, one would be very ennoyed.

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