Friday, September 28, 2012

Practical purposes of Indian philosophy

Are we studying Indian philosophy in order to solve problem?

In an interesting comment to this post, Aleix Ruiz-Falqués asks:

There are many problems nowadays (War, Famine, Economic Crisis, etc) and the role of philosophy is to offer a guideline for thinking correctly about these problems, so that we can solve them. This is exactly the practical approach of Indian philosophers. But I wonder if we (philologists and doxographers) are as practical as ancient and modern philosophers. I have heard many times, from academics, that "we are not here to solve problems, but to point them out" - to "problematize", as they call it. I think this is bullshit, because the real agenda is to preserve a teaching post per saecula saeculorum. What do you think? For instance: starting from Mīmāṃsā, how do you approach the recent tensions between Israel and Iran? I remember a Nyāya pandit once told me something like: "For the naiyāyikas, the problems of terrorism are simple to solve: you send the army..." etc.etc. He was Indian, of course, and 100% philosopher.

 I am not completely sure I can subscribe to the idea that Indian philosophers are "practical". I guess that many of them were and many others were not. And problematizing is my favourite activity…

Nonetheless, I see Aleix' point and it is difficult to deny that if philosophers want to be paid through taxes (i.e. by the money earned by simple people) they must be ready to have also a social function. Plus, luckily enough he did not claim that philosophers should solve problem, bur rather offer a guideline to think correctly about them.
This social function amount to, in my opinion, instructing people in the following:

  • logical thinking: e.g., show that if B is included in A and if X claims that ~A (e.g.: no European fundings for agriculture, we do not want to pay taxes for that!), he or she cannot then claim that B (e.g.: more European fundings for tobacco-farms of my county!).
  • epistemological thinking: e.g., show that one cannot believe that A because "someone" (e.g. Wikipedia) said it, unless this "someone" is a reliable source.
  • looking at the broader picture: due to our psychology (or perhaps physiology), we tend to focus on today's egg and cannot take into account the disasters the egg-industry might produce. A philosopher should be brave enough to logically warn about the consequences of today's actions and choices (be it about climate change or about women's instruction).

As for the problems with religious and political fundamentalism, I can see Mīmāṃsā's contribution as highlighting the distinction between a descriptive and a prescriptive reading of Sacred Texts. Once Sacred Texts are not read as descriptions of the way the world is, one will no longer have to condemn people for believing in the existence of dinosaurs, nor will one speak about the "contrast" of religion and science.

What do you consider the purpose of scholars of (Indian) philosophy?

For my thoughts on applied Indian philosophy, see this post. The present discussion with A. Ruiz-Falqués started on this post.

1 comment:

windwheel said...

Wonderful blog! As one of the simple tax-payers, rather than Savants, here is pennyworth.
Indian Philosophy serves two purposes both practical-
1) re. 'Moksha'- there are 3 alternatives- a) you need a specific intentional state to get Liberation or advance towards it. This immediately raises the question of 'authentic' (as opposed to 'zombie') intentionality. So 'Philosophy of Mind' becomes central to Soteriology for a purely practical reason.
b) you don't need a specific intentionality, but do need some 'jnana'of a cognitivist sort. This immediately raises all the fundamental questions of Epistemology and Metaphysics.
c) You neither need an intentional nor cognitivist state but after some point Liberation just happens. As a matter of fact, once Umasvati says all beings eventually gain kevalya then all other traditions cash out as observationally equivalent to this sort of Ajivika position. It also clears the way for pure Occassionalism But, this then raises the apoorva/apurvata problematic because epiphenomenal existnece is nothing but this epoche between the fruition of karmic acts which have already occurred in which only purely gratuitous and unconditioned acts are meaningful. It is as though everybody has already had their head cut off by reason of defeat in debate, or that the Uttara and Purva have been severed from each other, but something is still going forward and the question arises, why should this be so? And what else can we talk about anyway?

2) Apart from 'Moksha' there is the 'applied side' of Indian philosophy- Matilal's strictures notwithstanding- this has to do with the proper interpretation of Vyavahara rules, Smarta Vicharams and other such caste preserving or monastic rules. This dovetails with hermeneutics and sectarian polemics.

The 'speculative' part of Indian thought is not currently considered 'philosophy' though I suppose one could compose a doxography to that end. I can visualize such a work as being useful to people in Game theory of the Philosophy of Maths but it wouldn't be a nice fit for Philological hermeneutics.

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