Philosophy and Theology – Let’s be clearer

In a previous post, Indian Philosophers in One Paragraph, we discussed who should be included in a list of India’s all time great philosophers. People like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja were included. Here I wanted to raise an issue that has bothered me since the very first time I read Śaṅkara in a second year undergraduate Sanskrit course at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and about which I wrote an article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

I think Indologists, philosophers and theologians who examine Indian texts, and religious studies scholars could more carefully distinguish philosophy from theology, even if the two are not mutually exclusive and have considerable overlap. This is especially true in a “Hindu” context (I acknowledge the difficulty of that word). The differences between philosophy and theology are generally well known and respected in the larger worlds of Christian theology and Western philosophy, yet such distinctions are less frequently known and respected among those who work on Indian texts.

In brief, philosophy uses anumāna and tarka in the course of argumentation, whereas theology engages and interprets śabda-pramāṇa (conceived of as a revealed source of knowledge) in the course of argumentation.

Philosophers like Udayana, Gaṅgeśa or the early Yogasūtra commentator Vyāsa, use anumāna and tarka as the primary methods for establishing their point. Śabda, conceived as an unauthored or a divinely authored śāstra, is quoted only after a position was argued for by means of anumāna or tarka, if at all. Scripture may motivate their reasoning, but it does not form the basis of their reasoning. On the other hand theologians like Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Kumārilabhaṭṭa, etc. see their roles as interpreting a revealed śāstra. Anumāna and tarka serve the purpose of illuminating a fault-free śāstra’s meaning, and using śabda to establish an interpretation of śabda is considered reasonable.

Whereas philosophy proceeds rationally, theology does so exegetically. In the West too (for at least 500 years), the word philosopher refers to people who use reason to think about epistemology, metaphysics, etc. and not to people who see their primary roles as that of a scriptural exegete. The words theology and theologian were reserved for that. These two very different approaches to the use of reason are often conflated by scholars work on Indian texts, and at great cost.

A disregard for the difference can mislead. While pursing a BA in (Western) Philosophy I took Sanskrit as well. Śaṅkara had been discussed as one of the most important Hindu philosophers. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what philosophers did, having taken specialized courses on Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Quine. When I started reading Śaṅkara, however, it clearly was not philosophy and he was clearly not a philosopher. If Śaṅkara was a philosopher, he was unlike every philosopher I had studied. The text we read was, I believe, from his Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya. Śaṅkara was trying to illuminate the meaning of the root text in light of his Advaitavāda. None of the philosophers I read spent any time carefully interpreting Biblical texts. It wasn’t until later when I read that Śaṅkara was a theologian – a scholar who accepts apauruṣeya-śabda as pramāṇa – that his project began to make sense.

If we don’t adequately distinguish the philosophers from the theologians we run the risk of confusing newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.

About Jonathan Edelmann

Assistant Professor of Hinduism University of Florida

18 thoughts on “Philosophy and Theology – Let’s be clearer

  1. I believe you are mistaken about Shankara being purely a theologian. Have a look at the Brahma Sutra Bhasya where he deals with Buddhist doctrine. His section on Subjective Idealism is especially interesting II.ii.28. Anywhere he discusses the non-orthodox (nastika) he uses rational argument and in discussion of the orthodox where they deviate from Scripture he shows how by a rational dismantling of the concept. Pradhana as inert in Sankhya for instance. As well have a look at Chapter II of Upadesasahasri on Self Identity in Dreaming and Deep Sleep. That’s just a small sample.

    • Dear Michael,

      I don’t think Śaṅkara is purely a theologian, in fact I said there is often overlap between philosophy and theology, as you have rightly noted. But at least in terms of what Śaṅkara says in the BrS Bhāṣya and elsewhere, the BrS reveals Brahman, something no other pramāṇa can do. So, indeed, he is arguing against nāstika schools like Buddhism using anumāna, etc., yet in the background is his stated conviction that Brahman is known only through śabda-pramāṇa. I could be wrong, and I am happy to be corrected, but it seems like most of Śaṅkara’s work is exegetical.

      I teach in a philosophy and religion department, and it is widely accepted that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc. are theologians who made important philosophical contributions. That is different than saying they are philosophers who made theological contributions. I agree: they aren’t purely one or the other, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t more of one than the other. Of course a scholar can be many things at once (think of someone like Goethe!). Matthew mentioned Plato as a geometer; while that is true, Western civilization hasn’t preserved his work for over 2000 years because he was a geometer, but because of his philosophy.

  2. I haven’t spent too much time thinking on this, but I really don’t think it is possible to separate ‘philosophy’ from ‘theology’ in the case of the shastras, simply because these words don’t map well into the indic context just as ‘logic’ and ‘epistemology’ doesn’t in the Nyaya context (frankly, I don’t see them mapping well even into a medieval/early modern ‘western’ context either — I don’t think it was clear then where modus ponen ends and where modus theologicus begins). On top of my head, I am thinking of the bit where there is a discussion on the scope of sabda between the prabhakar mimamsikas in the sabdapramanyavada of the Tattvachintamani. Also, iIt’s interesting you place Udayana as a philosopher, given his Nyayakusumanjali.

    • I’m not sure I understand your point, DS. Are you saying that one should call Indian thought philosophy or theology? What then? Also, what is it about the Nyayakusumanjali that is odd?

  3. Thanks for this provoking post, Jonathan, it is really an interesting topic.

    I completely disagree with the post (which is why I find it interesting) and would rather reverse your argument: the idea that philosophy is rational inquiry, performed independently of any reference to Sacred Texts or to any other authority is a chimera which has been introduced at a certain point in the history of Western Philosophy, I would say, by Descartes and by his attempt to ground philosophy e nihilo. Before him, references to “Ipse dixit”, meaning “Aristotle said it” as a way to settle the discussion were quite common, and so were references to Augustine or to the Bible (have a look at Thomas the Aquinas). Well, Descartes allegedly started a new philosophy, one which did not need any external support and could count only on itself with his Cogito. But what did he do just one step after that? He claimed that cogito was tantamount to being a res cogitans. Where does this res come from? It is clearly an Aristotelian relic, and moreover an unacknowledged one.
    Long story short: we cannot avoid Linguistic Communication as a source of knowledge. It is naïf to believe that we could ground a system on nothing but anumāna. If one tries to do it, one risks to end up with śabda just creeping in without one being aware of it.
    Some (more honest or at least more realist) thinkers (I am trying to use a neutral label) have realised that one has to come to terms with LInguistic Communication in order to avoid being influenced by it without being aware of it.
    This being said, one can decide to speak of “theology” for everyone who accepts śabdapramāṇa, and this will have several advantages, if only one has also explained that some of them could happen to be atheist. But I would avoid adding the remark (implicit or explicit) that “philosophy” is purely “rational inquiry, with no space for śabdapramāṇa“, or we will end up justifying the belief that there is no philosophy in India (a belief which is, in my opinion, based on a misunderstanding).

    As for your bewilderment when you started reading Śaṅkara, I would say that it is a positive sign. I do read Sanskrit Philosophy to be bewildered and shaken in my (often naïve) convictions.

    • Elisa, I agree with your analysis of Descartes, and I don’t think anyone reasons freely of a “tradition.” That wasn’t my point! The issue is method and how Indian authors are defined in a contemporary context. As I said to others, I didn’t say philosophy and theology are entirely different. Whatever the case, I agree with many of your points.

  4. While I commend your concern with putting theology on the map, not reducing all Indian theology to philosophy, imho, you have gone too far in the other direction. Many thinkers are both, and need not be classified as theologians only. Shankara, it seems to me, is both a theologian and philosopher, as was Augustine. And Udayana was a natural theologian (who by definition use anumana and tarka to defend/understand the nature of deity) and a philosopher. You can be both. Plato was a geometer and a philosopher.

  5. Dear Jonathan,

    Thanks indeed for voicing this concern. You write: “Whereas philosophy proceeds rationally, theology does so exegetically.”

    Empirically, this seems to be false. Philosophy journals are filled with arguments that are barely more than commentary. One of the problems of pure argument is that it needs a backdrop for context, and commenting on other people’s work is a way to make this happen. This is as old as philosophy itself: Socrates commenting on other people’s arguments, Aristotle on Plato… This is what I think we find with Vedantins. If they were really just commenting, one would expect that they say the same things when they comment on the same text. But their interpretation of the Vedanta Sutra is a thinly veiled pretext to do philosophy.

    There is a cultural point to: in the Indic context, it was thought to be rude
    to claim to have a new idea, everyone wants to attribute their views to their acaryas. So the only way to do philosophy in this context is as exegesis. Incidentally, I think the same etiquette dominates contemporary philosophy (everyone needs to pay homage to the acarya of the day), which may be one reason that philosophy moves slowly.


    • Hi Shyam,

      This is an excellent point, and one which I’ve thought about too. We have a visiting fellow in our dept now who works only on Hume, and has written widely on Hume’s ethics, epistemology, etc. He freely admits to being a Hume exegete, but he doesn’t see Hume’s words as the sole means of knowing Brahman or as infallible, unauthored text. He sees Hume as making important contributions, but fallible.

      The other points about context I fully agree with.

      • Hi Jonathan,

        But then it seems that the issue isn’t about pure reason vs. exegesis: the question is whether one is a falibalist or not. Hume, and your visiting fellow are falibalists, and Mimamsakas in the wide sense are not. This is a distinction internal to philosophy:not one that distinguishes philosophy from other disciplines.

  6. I want to underscore, and add to my previous comments, that the fact that you are arguing that theology as a category should not be ignored when discussing Indian thinkers is a very welcome contribution. And your JAAR paper is a really good one, well argued.

  7. Thank you for the post, Jonathan. I must respectfully disagree with it. I agree with Elisa’s and Shyam’s comments, and would take them what I think is a step further. It’s not merely that some philosophers will provide an “as Plato says” or “as Hume says”, but that even those who don’t do that rely on śabdapramāṇa, whether they know it or not. This applies even to natural science; no scientist has been able to do every experiment in every relevant domain herself! They must rely on others’ word for some element of knowledge. Beyond even that, I tend to be a Gadamerian on this score – even everyday nonphilosophical inquiry is constituted by tradition, whether they know it or not. So there is a certain sense in which nobody really a philosopher, by this distinction.

    Applied to the more substantive points you’re making, I would probably argue that the difference you speak of here wrt Śaṅkara is primarily one of literary genre – and that the commentarial genre can be just as philosophical as the essay or the dialogue.

    • Hi Amod,

      I must have expressed myself poorly or hastily because I find myself reading each posting and saying to myself, “but I agree! and I am not saying what you think!”.

      Of course the use of reason (anumana, tarka, etc.) are embedded within a tradition. I’ve written an entire chapter in my book _Hindu theology & biology_ OUP 2012 in which I attempt to show that EVEN the natural sciences – which are often framed by leading scientists as based only on sense perception – in fact rely on śabda.

      RE commentary (bhāṣya, tīkā, etc.) as philosophy: I fully agree with what you’ve said.

      • So I guess then I’m left confused as to what you are saying. If we agree that bhāṣya, ṭīkā, vivaraṇa etc. rely on śabda as well as anumāna and tarka, and that scientists and Western philosophers do the same thing, then how can we make sense of “philosophy uses anumāna and tarka in the course of argumentation, whereas theology engages and interprets śabda-pramāṇa (conceived of as a revealed source of knowledge) in the course of argumentation”? Isn’t everything then both of these? And then why argue for making the distinction?

  8. there is clearly a lot to disagree with here, especially regarding the narrow construal of “philosophy,” which clearly reflects an enlightenment-era ideal of “reasoning without tradition” that is not only western, but even excludes an enormous amount of what had previously counted as philosophy in the west. i will limit my dissent to an obvious point: there may be “theology” and “philosophy” (maybe), but there are not “theologians” and “philosophers.” this is one instance of the myth of the schools, according to which everyone who ever wrote in india was a card-carrying member of one and only one philosophical (or should i say theological?) school. is kumārila incapable of philosophical thought because his primary output was commentaries on a system of scriptural interpretation? instead of kicking every important indian thinker (except for the later naiyāyikas, i guess) out of “philosophy,” we need to change our idea of what “philosophy” is. or maybe we need to ditch the label of “philosophy” altogether, constricting and judgmental as it is, and focus on the history of indian intellectual traditions.

  9. Pingback: The 162nd Philosophers’ CarnivalThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>