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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Using Western Philosophy while working on Indian philosophical texts?


Although I work chiefly on an Indian philosophical system, the Mīmāṃsā, my readers find many references made to both classical and modern Western Philosophy in my texts. It is so because I do not think it is possible to leave my Western background, which constitutes also the background of my philosophical understanding, completely out of the enquire. Therefore, I have tried to explicitly point out all similarities and analogies which could have in any way influenced me. However, I am not proposing a comparative study of, say, Kumārila and Anselmus, but am rather using comparison as a method. Besides that, the texts I will be dealing with are chiefly philosophical ones and could be hardly understood without philosophically re-thinking them.
From a different point of view, the study of another philosophical tradition, I believe, often offers new and useful points of view even in regard to our most basic tenets. Commonly agreed conclusions may seem the only possible ones and one could fail to weigh their value if one does not compare them with radically different solutions offered to the same (or a similar) problem by another culture.

Do you acknowlede your philosophical background? Do you think you can obliterate it altogether while approaching an Indian text?

On the same topic, see also this post. On the problem of "implicit paradigms", see this post.

4 comments:

falecius said...

Well, I've been think similar things about the Arab philosophers I'm studying myself. Of course, there is a great difference since Arab philosophy is actually openly derived from the Greek one, so that a degree of similarity is plain obvious. However, I find rather striking how some lines of thinking in Medieval Islam recall Early Modern Western questions. I cannot help thinking of Hobbes, Leibniz and even Hegel when reading Ibn al-Nafis, for example.
Problem is, this kind of comparison, while largely unavoidable, is risky. When I say that Ibn al-Nafis or Ibn Khaldun are doing "philosophy of history" am I understanding them as they understtod themselves (sorry about taking a Struassian slogan)? Or am I forcing their thinking into categories alien to them, and, thusly, misconstrue the very meaning of what they say? I suppose the risks are reduced as much as the comparisons are done mindfully and consciously.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Falecius,

thanks, a very interesting contribution. I see your point, but let me react with a provoking remark:
Don't you think that we anyway (even if we don't use the label explicitly) tend to understand Ibn al-Nafis according to our own categories? Acknowleding our appraoch make us aware of it —and hence, enables the possibility to take distance from it.

falecius said...

Elisa,
I agree. That's why I think we should approach any author with full awareness of our own categories.
I seriously doubt it is possible for a modern Western reader to understand a text from a largely different cultural context (including Western Middle Ages for example) without using his own categories. So, while acknoledging the risk, I think there is little alternative to taking it.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Falecius,

In fact, the risk of misinterpreting or overinterpreting (the latter is often my case) is big. But it is not just a risk. It is also an opportunity. It enhances our interpretative skills, because we know not only the context of what we are studying, but also our own one. It is as if an historian could look at the future while working on the present. (At least I hope).

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