Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why should philosophers study Indian philosophy?

If you have ever tried to ask a philosopher, why he never even tried to start reading about Indian philosophy, you surely know his/her answer: I have already too much to do with Western philosophy! (In the worst case, s/he might even just say "I have already too much to do with philosophy").

Here is how the scholar of Buddhist philosophy Jay Garfield replies to this argument (my emphasis):

3:AM: One of the issues you raise is the ethics of approaches to intellectual and cultural traditions less powerful and less respected than the Western ones. How should we think about this?
JLG: Easy. Suppose that someone argued that the philosophical curriculum in their college could not include any texts by women, because there are just so many important books by men, and not enough time to address all of them, let alone to go on to read stuff by women, or that the faculty is not expert in women’s philosophy. He would be howled down not on the grounds that there are indeed not too many books by guys, but that given a history of sexism, it is immoral as well as irrational to ignore the contributions of women in the curriculum. But people get away with saying that their department can’t offer courses that address non-Western philosophy because they are struggling to cover the “core,” that students have so much Western philosophy to learn that they don’t have time to read the non-Western stuff, and that there are no specialists in non-Western philosophy in the department. In the wake of colonialism and in the context of racism, the only legitimate response is to howl them down.
As far as I am concerned, I usually do not stress the fact that it is immoral, and that the West has a debt to pay because of centuries of racism. Rather, I tend to stress the fact that, as in the case of female philosophers, it runs against one's own interests to exclude from the philosophical debate so many important authors. If we want the discipline to advance, it would just be foolish not to take advantage of the many fresh insights we can gain from a different philosophical tradition.

What are your reasons when you explain why Sanskrit/Pāli/Tibetan/… philosophy/history/litetature/linguistics… have to be part of the normal curricula?

I am thankful to Justin Whitaker who, in this post, pointed to the interview. The full interview can be found here.


ombhurbhuva said...

I find Garfield's reasons not very compelling. If it's worth studying for itself then it should be. No extraneous politically correct rationale required.

I could see the difficulty in getting round to it in a philosophy course that was historically led, with themes, problems. Some lectures on the pramanas ought to be given as an epistemological topic. Some work on logic too in relation to abduction and induction.

Jayarava said...

It's not just Indian philosophy. What about Chinese philosophy which is so neglected in the West? What about Native American philosophy or the Australian Dreamtime. The Polynesians and the Papua New Guineans in all their variety. We don't even mention the continent of Africa! Why leave anything out? Or if you do what is your criteria?

I wish more philosophers would have to pass courses in physics, because I keep seeing them say the dumbest things about it.

Those people trying to promote the study of Indian philosophy have to make a case for it. As far as I can see that case is pretty weak so far.

With all respect to Jay Garfield, who is a good scholar and widely praised, gods forbid that everyone would be forced to study his primary subject which is the interminably arcane debates of pre-scientific Tibetans centred on a badly written Sanskrit text that is not really understood by anyone, and which has produced vehement disagreement for almost 2000 years now. Having dabbled in translating it I find myself having thoughts of self-harming. I'm not sure which authors Garfield considers "important", but I can't think of any from his field.

In terms of Buddhism I'm content to see our mindfulness and compassion practices going mainstream backed up by neuroscience research. Most Buddhist philosophy is anachronistic bunk that even Buddhists are better off avoiding. And since they don't avoid it many Buddhists I meet are sadly confused about Buddhism.

If we back up and ask the question of what philosophy we ought to study, then it begs the question of why we study philosophy at all. There might be different answers to this question that require different curriculums. There is no "normal curricula".

Maybe the one thing to teach everyone is to be wary of a discipline which has existed for thousands of years and has never yet produced a consensus?

Justin Whitaker said...

I suppose my reasons might depend on who I was talking to. Some people just won't ever be convinced; with them I'm happy to smile and move along.

But for some, I agree with ombhurbhuva, we should talk about the intrinsic value of Asian (broadly) philosophies. Look at the talk of self-transformation, joy of life and delight expressed in them. Buddha, Shantideva, Milarepa (I don't know East Asian stuff well, but I'm certain there are examples there too) all provide narratives, practices, and understandings of the world that can illuminate our own small corner of the universe.

Second, but not unrelated, we can talk about consequences. These guys (and a sadly small number of women) have inspired millions, no, billions of people over time. Their words and deeds can still be felt in Asia - and of course globally to a lesser extent. Why *wouldn't* we want to understand the roots of Asian cultures? Just as we ignore female thinkers at our own peril, we ignore that other half of the world at just as much our own peril.

Unknown said...

I think that the main point is how we define what philosophy _is_.
Thinking aloud, I suppose it could be considered alternatively a tradition, a method, or a set of themes and questions.
As a tradition, or as I prefer to say, a "genealogy", it is a historical object that emerges out of a specific context (ancient Ionia)and tha bears significance only within a given cultural context (Greek at the begining, then generally "Western"). It could be argued that India had sufficient relationship with this tradition (there is an increasing body of hints towards this) although overall, Indian traditions of thinking were fairly independent mot of the time.
If you opt for a method, it would be hard to deny that Indian thought had schools thhat endorsed a systematic, rational inquiry of reality that is analogically related to the aforementioned Greek trends.
Finally, if you seek common questions and themes, you have a larger set of analogies that encompass not just the "Western" philosophy (which, no need to say, includes Islamic thought insofar it is historically linked to the Greeks) but also a wider range of cultural products from, for instance, China or Mesoamerica.
I am a bit uncomfortable with this latter approach as it blurs the distinction between philosophy and myth, but it has some merit.
Personally, I think that however you define "philosophy", Indian thought deserves a place in it. When it comes to Chinese or Aztec thought, however, things becomes far less clear cut and I would be more cautious (I also don't know that much about Chinese thought).

Is Australian Dreamtime a form of "philosophy"? My gut feeling says "no". But facing the poetry of the Mexican prince Nezahualcoyotl, or the Dao De Jing, I would have hard time answering.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks to you all for this very interesting discussion!
@Jayarava, you raise two different issues. One is about why should one study philosophy (given that it does not make any progress). My answer would be that philosophy is critical thinking. It is, in this sense, a meta-discipline, unlike biology or history. Without a philosophical perspective, it would be hard for a scholar of physics to think of "time before time" (S. Hawking docet), or for a historian to distinguish facts from the interpretative theory in which they make sense.
The second issue is why not studying ALL philosophies. I am in, and I am ready to learn Swahili (or any other language), just like I learnt Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Tibetan, German, French and other philosophical languages as soon as someone will explain me that my theories about Lingusitic Communications will be challenged by the theories elaborated by X in country Z at time Y. But philosophy does not need to be a universal human faculty. I am not claiming that it is not, I am just saying that a philosophy class regards a discipline and not "whatever people said, wherever they were". I think one can make an absolutely strong case for the fact that there is no reason (apart from historical ones) for the neglect of Indian philosophy. There are also little or no reason for the neglect of Chinese ethical theories, but I have never read anything in Chinese about epistemology or logic, unless translations from Skt. I am happy to be proven wrong:-)

elisa freschi said...

thanks again for the comment and for triggering the discussion with your post. I completely agree with your last two lines, although I am also ready to teach classes on philosophers who had little or no influence, if they are on their own right interesting (and have been neglected only for social or historical reasons).

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Marco, your comment clarifies at least in part the conflict which might rise if one objects "If we open to Indian philosophy, then we should study also Australian philosophy, not to speak of the philosophy of wales… and we do not have the time for that".

Unknown said...

It just occured to me that China and Mexico are the only known places where an idependent invention of writing is almost sure to have happened independently from the "West+India" area, whose scripts all derive ultimately from hieroglyphs. Interestingly, this latter area is also the only one where writing has developed to reflect consistently sounds (phonemes or syllables).
I am not sure that this is significant, but in order to study "philosophy" (or lamost everything else) we need it put in writing. It would be damn hard to know the least thing about Dreamtime if some anthropologist had not taken the effort to go to Australia, talked to the aboriginals and put the result in writing, most likely through a Western language and script. Yeah, nowadays the Australian native are at least in principle able to speak for themselves, but have to do largely in "Western" terms if they hope to be understood. or better said, now they are able to express in "Western" terms (including painting their own tradition as "philosophy").
We don't have this kind of filter in China or ancient Mexico; we _do_ have Nezahualcoyotl's and Lao Zi's words transimitted within thir own cultural tradition and we can attempt to understand their words in their terms.
We don't have the same degree of, well, source reliablity, when facing most documents about Siberian Shamanism or even Incan mythical cosmology.
Maybe the existence of a local written tradition is a precondition for the possibility to see a philosophial tradition as such?

Unknown said...

"not to speak of the philosophy of wales"

Did you mean Wales (the country) or whales (the animals)?
Because there a lot of very interesting philosophy from the first and about the latter (and given that at least killer whales are likely to be smarter than us, studying their philosophy should actually be top priority if we could discover they have one).

Unknown said...

"My answer would be that philosophy is critical thinking. It is, in this sense, a meta-discipline, unlike biology or history."

This is what philosophers say when they have to justify grants going to their departments instead of physics. ;)
I am not entirely comfortable with this notion for two intertwined reasons: the first is that while it probably _should_ be so, it is not really the case for what most "professional philosophers" really DO. Philosophy has increasingly become a discipline among other with quite little remaining room for a foundational role. This is in part the consequences of some philosophers' work (most notably Rorty's). The other point is that most of what passes for study of "philosophy" in Continental Europe is actually "_history of_ philosophy". We _know_ that philosophy can be understood historically since we actually do so very often. The reverse is much more tricky. Is it possible to understand history philosophically? (well, you know I am trying to answer this question. But I have to approach it historically, too).

Unknown said...

By the way, all this seems to show that studying Indian philosophy (and at a different level, probably Australian dreamtime as well) should actually be very impoortant for a philosopher of the Western (Greek-Arab-Latin) tradition in general (although it depends on his particular focus) because it leads to meta-questions about what philosophy _means_. :)

elisa freschi said...

@Marco 11.48, that's embarrassing. I meant "whales" (and I would be glad to add dolphins and gorillas at least).

@Marco 11.56, I am not sure that this is what philosophers say. Many try to say that there is philosophical progress (see here: and the conclusion of this post:
As for history and philosophy, I have a lot of posts about how the interpretation of historical data depends on your general theory about them and how dangerous it is not to be aware of such a theory (you might check also Mark Schneider's article about it in the second Coffee Break Conference).
As for the history of philosophy, I am convinced (but I know this will not be accepted by many) that the history of philosophy is part of the philosophical enterprise. Thinking that one can do philosophy in an "original" way, without accepting to take into account centuries of history of philosophy is just a sign of a too big ego. I am not willing to read a new book on the free will only to discover that it is just an unconscious variation on Kant which does not even take into account Hegel's objections.

@Marco 12.00: yes, and many thanks for all these insightful comments. It seems that a conversation is really possible:-)

elisa freschi said...

@ Ombhurbhuva, just in case it was not clear enough: I agree with you. We are not studying Indian philosophy in order to show that we are not racist. We are studying it because it is in our interest (as scholars of philosophy) to do it. Epistemology with epistemology and logic with logic (and so on).

Unknown said...

I agree that philosophy has to take into ccount its history, but doesn't it makes philosophy inextricably linked to history?
I also obviously agree that "philosophical" awareness is necessary, although your point conflates "philosophy" with "general theory about history" (which has some merit).
However, this creates an inextricable tangle. We cannot understand history without philosophy, but we have no hope to understand philosophy if not historically. Heck, was Hegel right in the end?

elisa freschi said...

@Marco 12.54: Yes, you are right in all your points.
1. I used the term "philosophy" although one could speak instead of a "general theory about history" (I would argue that metatheories are philosophical in nature, then).
2. Yes, I tend to be Hegelian here (touchée). A weaker version of my theory could, however, be formulated as a methodological principle: It does not make sense to try anew without having made your thinking skills finer through the study of other people's ideas and arguments.

Unknown said...

Well, Hegel was more right than he himself knew, I think (on some fundamental points at least, not the conclusions). However, it just occured to me that you don't need to understand mathematics _historically_ (though maybe we should)in order not to redo Pythagoras' theorem, you need to know it is true.
Philosophy tends to claim the same status of a priori validity of maths(although not the same degree of certainty, of course).
I would be very uncomfortable in saying that if we study philosophy historically, and see philosophy as fountational to any other knowledge, (including history? It's fascinating to see how long it took to philosophers to deal with history, Aristotle for instance didn't bother) then we arein a loop where history is the basic epistemic foundation of all knowldge, indirectly at least.
More generally, it's the same cognitive tangle Sudipta mentioned some posts ago. A priori (philosophy) and a posteriori (history) knowledge probably have to operate together.
An on another level, this holds true of the reltionship philosohy has with physics (can you really discuss epistemology without taking Heisenberg's Principle into account? And on a related note, was really early quantum physics more akin to philosophy as the Greeks would have seen it?) and arguably any othr disciplin, really.

Yoy0 said...

For all those who doubt indian pholosophy is worth the time of philosophers just go read on jstor "mind/consciousness dualism in samkhya yoga" from Paul schweizer

after reading it my brain hurts, but was worth the while..

Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 2.5 Italia.