Thursday, February 16, 2012

The ambiguous status of philosophy

Philosophy is at the same time a specialist discipline and one which is part of everyone's life.
No one who is not a physician or a scientist dares write on a journal for Immunology. No one would claim to be able to discuss topics of quantum mechanics if s/he has no background on physics. This is not the case with language (everyone thinks to have some valuable opinion about the way s/he uses her own language), psychology, and philosophy (and soccer, if one happens to live in Italy).
I will not discuss about the risks of having linguistics depending on the judgement of people who have not been trained in linguistics, etc. Rather, I will now argue that people do have some legitimation in thinking they can discuss about topics such as free will, or the roots of ethics, or the existence of God, although they lack any philosophical training. They can legitimately do so, because, as members of the humankind, they cannot avoid asking themselves questions, and try to find answers. Sometimes, naïve questions might even be inspiring, since they may question a wider perspective instead of focusing on a minor detail. However, as already argued for (see this post), not having an explicit training in philosophy does not amount to have a "fresh vision". Rather, it usually means that one has an implicit paradigm, one one is not aware of and is hence not able to control. Consequently, one might be led to think that "whatever philosophers say is just non-sence", because one has an implicit materialistic or pragmatic paradigm. A philosopher should first of all be aware of what happens within himself or herself and be able to discuss himself or herself as part of the problem s/he is addressing.

How does this affect studies in Indian philosophy? Sanskrit scholars working on medicine (etc.) might be aware of the fact that they need some special training in order to be able to understand what they are working on. By contrast, scholars working on Sanskrit philosophy might feel they are working on a non-technical field and they do not need to fulfil any special precondition to edit or translate a certain text. This is part of why philosophy appeals so much to all of us… But this does not legitimate us to forget how much a text or a topic is probably deeper and more problematic than what we are ready to accept and understand

Let us enjoy the beauty and suggestion of Vedānta, the intricacies of Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā, the paradoxes of Madhyamaka, etc. But without forgetting that this level of appreciation is just the tip of a technical iceberg. The more one understands it, the more it becomes interesting and intriguing.

Have you ever been surprised by the non-technical approach of the author of an essay on Indian thought? Or do you think that the better essays on Indian philosophy have been written by non-philosophers?

On the topic of how to edit philosophical texts, see this presentation. On implicit paradigms, see this post.


Jayarava said...

"Have you ever been surprised by the non-technical approach of the author of an essay on Indian thought?"

Almost every day, when I read my own writing :-)

elisa freschi said...

Jayarava, I am afraid that after so many years of in-depth study of Buddhism you no longer qualify as an outsider, sorry;-)

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