Monday, February 14, 2011


Since my first memories of myself, I have always been struggling with the problem of identifying myself as part of something. I am the kind of person who likes to be with others and admires groups, but does not easily identify with any of them.
In my professional life, the struggle assumes the form of a difficulty in identificating myself with any of the academic groups I should belong to. Since I work in an "Oriental Institute", I should be an Orientalist, but although I enjoy reading of Islamic Theodicy, I have no professional interest in Contemporary Jakarta (at least no more than I have in any other contemporary human society), nor in Central Asian pre-historic pottery (at least no more than I have in any other witness of a human society). Further, I do not identify myself as a "South Asian scholar", since I have no particular interest in contemporary South Asian literature, cinema, etc. Nor do I have any interest in Vedic India's tribes. This does not mean I do not enjoy reading about these themes, it only means that I do not think that they are professionally relevant to my work. Nor could I say that I am a "Sanskritist", since there is so much which has been written in Sanskrit that I am professionally happy to ignore.
What I think is professionally relevant to me, then? Any philosophical author of Classical, Post-Classical and Contemporary India and many philosophers outside India, insofar as they deal with topics I am interested in. Could I hence just understand myself as a "philosopher" or, better a "historian of philosophy"? The problem with that lies in the lack of a shared background. One can only identify as X if the group of Xs shares similar goals, background, worldview.
But, unfortunately, today's set of "historians of philosophy" has a comparably low interest in the themes I am most interested in (from the epistemology of injunctions to their linguistic role and hermeneutics)–and no interest at all in the authors I am most familiar with. It is hence tough to imagine a fruitful exchange if mutual dialogue is made so difficult. On a minimal basis: I happen to post comments on philosophical blogs and I am extremely grateful for any philosophical comment on this blog. But such instances of true exchange are so rare…

How do readers feel about their "belonging to …"?


Dominik Wujastyk said...

Your question reminds me of a nice statement by the historian Ludmilla Jordanova, in a book in which she is introducing the methodology of historical studies (from memory): "A historian is someone whom other historians agree is one of them."

This whole thing about "belonging" is probably best ignored or left aside, in my view. We all tread unique paths, to some extent. At least, creative people do so. Let other people worry about whether they belong to us, rather.


Ruy D'Aleixo said...

Sometimes I think I'm an Skeptic, but usually I doubt.

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa.

Dominick's view that "we all tread unique paths" is one that the subjects of our study - Indian thinkers - would have been puzzled by, I think. It speaks to the breakdown, and breakup of the societal mainstream that my fellow blogger David Chapman writes quite elegantly about on Approaching Aro. If it were true then we couldn't really understand each other - but we do, so it isn't.

Are you not an Indologist? Or is that too broad. Does not identifying with a particular group present a problem?

I usually notice on academic CVs that scholars have a range of interests and the Indologists almost always combine two or more main fields.

It's better to think of categories of scholars as overlapping fields with prototypical members at the centre, to which you bear a closer or more distant resemblance (Lakoff's theory of categories). One is not in or out, but more or less related to the prototypical member.

I would say, judging by what you blog about, that you're an Indologist with a focus on historical aspects of Indian philosophy. Your primary texts are in Sanskrit, so you are ipso facto a Sanskritist.

elisa freschi said...

Dominik, Aleix and Jayarava, thank you very much for your interesting comments.

@Dominik: I see your point and tend to think that (metaphorically speaking) one should subscribe to many mailing lists (and not just to "indology"). However, I wrote this post after having discussed this issue with several colleagues who answered that they feel absolutely at home in their field –they had not ever felt the need to ask themselves about it.
thanks again:-)

@Jayarava, thanks for telling me who I am (I am not joking, it is really interesting to see it from the outside). I could now rephrase the problem as concerning "Indologists" and "Sanskritists" in general. As for your "ipso facto", would you ever imagine a subject sounding like "English-written-staff (whatever it is)"? Yet, there are millions of Sanskrit texts, on each possible topic! More in general, I do not see the fact that the texts I am interested in have been composed in Sanskrit as constitutive of their being interesting to me. I guess I would be reading them even if they had been composed in Latin (or any other accessible language).
Yes, I will think of Wittgenstein's family-resemblances and think of myself as resembling to some members of the "Indologists" family and to some others of the "Historians of Philosophy" family (I might bare additional resemblances to further members of other families, of course).

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