Garfield vs. Ganeri on Indian Modernity

Apropos of some of the conversations we’ve been having here lately, there is a discussion between Jay Garfield and Jonardon Ganeri in the latest issue of The Philosophical Quarterly, on the question of modernity and Indian philosophy. The context is Garfield’s review of Ganeri’s newest book, The Lost Age of Reason. A few passages speak directly to our concerns:

Ganeri takes modernity to consist not in a rejection of a classical tradition but ‘in a profound reorientation to it. The ancient texts are now not thought of as authorities to which one must defer, but regarded as the source of insight in the company of which one pursues the quest for truth’ (p. 1). He illustrates the explicit endorsement of such an attitude by at least some Indian philosophers of this period in this passage quoted from Raghunātha:

The demonstration of these matters which I have carefully explained is contrary to the conclusions reached by all the other disciplines. These matters spoken of should not be cast aside without reflection just because they are contrary to accepted opinion; scholars should consider them carefully … (p. 4)

Now there are different ways to develop the idea of modernity. Depending on how one chooses to characterise modernity, one will either see the thought of Indian philosophers in the period Ganeri investigates as of a piece with that of early modern Europe or not. Ganeri is aware of this and asks us to take the relevant intellectual kind to involve simply a commitment to a non-deferential stance with respect to the authority of the classics. We can take this as a stipulative definition for the purposes of this investigation. But to do so not only elides many important questions about the connections between the phenomena often associated with modernity. . . .

If we were to attend not to this period but to philosophers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we do see the very cluster of tropes often associated with European modernity co-present, suggesting that this later period might be more characteristically modern than that to which Ganeri directs our attention, and that the period he addresses is more properly conceived as one of a late scholasticism.

Please see Garfield’s full review here. 

Ganeri’s response begins:

My book defends the claim that there was a kind of early modernity in Sanskrit philosophical communities from the 16th and 17th centuries, the centuries before colonialism. Jay Garfield, one of the leading authorities in Tibetan Buddhism, is well known for his defence of an alternative hypothesis: that modernity arrived in India only with the colonial introduction of English as the new medium of philosophical exchange. It is unsurprising, therefore, that he wants to argue that I have not made my case.

And ends:

In short, I believe that my claim that there was an early modernity in the philosophy of the Sanskrit intellectuals of 16th and 17th century India withstands Garfield’s criticism. I do not find an echo of that modernity in writings in English in the 19th and 20th centuries; indeed, on the contrary, I believe that colonialism was largely fatal to this incipient early modernity, forcing it underground where before it had been prominent and public, and that is why I called the book The Lost Age of Reason. There is certainly interesting philosophy written in English in colonial India, primarily of a neo-Kantian and neo-Vedāntic persuasion, but it is in no way an inheritance from the philosophical communities whose very existence my book sought to bring to light.

Here is Ganeri’s full response.

For further discussion, please see our own Andrew Nicholson’s review of Ganeri’s book in the JAOS.

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

One thought on “Garfield vs. Ganeri on Indian Modernity

  1. Sri Aurobindo happens to be a prominent member of the “philosophy written in English in colonial India” club. The diverse dimensions of his work defies precise labelling and safe genealogical mapping. But how he reconciles the demands of reason with the primarily intuitive utterances of the Upanishads is a treasure for the present generation. Integrating the Veda with Vedanta by bringing them to identical wavelength is his unique contribution and hence any treatment of disparate texts sans the connotations he unveils should seem as inchoate and arbitrary. The just released updated volume of his “Hymns to the Mystic Fire”
    (freely available online at
    http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/ashram/sriauro/writings.php )
    stands as testimony to his profound hold on the original intention of these ancient pronouncements. So, to neglect the hermeneutical tools Sri Aurobindo brings to the table would mean to geld Sanskrit of its native splendour and Indian Philosophy its vital wonder. [TNM55]

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