Monday, May 16, 2011

What does "externalism" mean?

Sanskritists and Indologists have not yet developed an unambiguous philosophical terminology and are often unaware of technical usages common in (Western) philosophy. One is of course free to call things as one wishes, but this lack of a common terminology tends to strengthen the tendency (already strong enough) of not including Indian thought within Philosophy. Philosophers would, I believe, feel more compelled to admit, e.g., Prabhākara's theories within a textbook on sense-perception if only Sanskrit scholars would show the significance of his theory of sense-perception in terms acceptable and understandable by Western readers. This is what has happened with Chinese theories of "virtue ethics".

A similar risk has been recently outlined in the Preface to the issue of the Journal of Indian Philosophy dedicated to the proceedings of the Philosophy Section of the 14th World Sanskrit Conference and written by Shoryu Katsura Mark Siderits and Kiyotaka Yoshimizu (available on-line, DOI 10.1007/s10781-011-9131-2). The usage of "externalism" for the Pratyabhijñā belief in the existence of an external object (bāhyavāda) leads to mutual misunderstandings and to the insulation of Indian philosophy —suggest the authors.

What can be done? Writing books which deal with Indian philosophy but within a sound philosophical background and sharing a common terminology with their sister Western disciplines.
What do readers think? Should one forget about the dialogue and just care about using terms which can be understood by our fellow Sanskritists or by philosophers who are well aware of the Indian scenario?


michael reidy said...

The problem about using terms that are taken from very particular areas of discourse in the discussion of an entirely different tradition is that viewed through an alien medium there is inevitable refraction. You could even say that the great divide of Idealism/Realism when applied to Indian thought falsifies it. In another way of looking at it, all the great departures in philosophy wherever they occur create their own medium, their own force field which changes everything. For instance Bergson reconfigures the idealism/realism divide by showing the apparent dyad to be merely different moments in the same limited comprehension of reality.

We may ask whether a proposition is made to be true by facts of the matter in the empiricist tradition or whether we operate on the default assumption that x is the case (the cat is on the mat) until that is shown not to be the case (Vedanta Paribhasa). Is it very helpful to say that the one is externalist and the other is internalist with externalist potential for contrary judgment?

elisa freschi said...

Dear Michael,
yes, you are absolutely right. Using "Western" labels may mislead one from the very beginning. A typical example is the opposition atheism/theism if applied to the Indian world.
But would not you agree that using a label which is common in Western philosophy with a different meaning is also misleading?

In other words, I would say that it might make sense to discuss the externalist/internalist opposition in regard to Indian epistemology (as discussed in Kumārila or in the Vedānta Paribhāṣā), if only one is ready to highlight the differences between the two perspectives. What about you?
I would not use "externalism" in a different meaning, e.g., "belif in the existence of external object" (which I would rather call "realism").

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