Whither Indian Philosophy?

In light of these recent posts about places for pursuing graduate training in Indian philosophy, I would like to invite a different (but related) sort of discussion: specifically, about the future of Indian philosophy, given recent debates about progress in philosophy.

Do specialists in Indian philosophy think there are any or even enough resources in the Indian philosophical tradition for advancing debates in metaphysics and epistemology about, say, things like causation, perception, concept acquisition, and the nature of self-knowledge, given the irreversible changes wrought by naturalism? Is progress in Indian philosophy going to be confined exclusively to the illumination of ancient (or even early modern) views for contemporary audiences?

Let me offer some thoughts on this issue that might (hopefully) get the discussion going. Philosophers from Dharmottara to Gaṅgeśa to Raghunātha have debated at length such central epistemic notions as ‘defect’ (doṣa) and ‘excellence’ (guṇa) while pondering the issue of whether cognition is intrinsically or extrinsically ascertained. They noted that veridical cognitions could not be based solely on beliefs one held intrinsically because they recognized the potential fallibility of belief. That is why from Gaṅgeśa onwards, the tendency is to place the burden of epistemic responsibility not on the belief itself (and how it is held), but on its sources: that is, on belief formation itself. If I know exactly how it is that I come to perceive a face in the mirror, say, on account of my understanding the properties of light and surface reflectance, then I can no longer believe there is a face in the mirror, however mysterious these properties turn out to be. So, if epistemic reliability is a factor of descriptive accuracy, then one can no longer hold the view that there are such things are brute common sense facts.

There is a long lineage of Indian philosophers seeking naturalistically respectable accounts of belief formation. But (and here is the crucial point) one can go only so far in describing the epistemic properties of belief formation without the benefit of cognitive science, neuroscience, biology, neurobiology, and the like. Ditto for pondering the nature of what there is à la Vaiśeṣika, Abhidharma, and the rest without the benefit of modern physics.

Is there anything at the cutting edge of Indian metaphysics and epistemology that can help advance the debate about progress in philosophy, where such debate is not merely about achieving clarity and understanding, or even enlightenment (in the common sense of that term) in articulating specific philosophical views, but about knowledge?

Descartes occupies a turning point in Western philosophy because he shows an awareness of the dangers of being so drawn into one’s own study of the past to the point of forgetting the reasons one got into it in the first place. If modernity ever arrived in India prior to the colonial period, it must have done so differently, perhaps as “thinking with the texts and beyond them” (as Ganeri has recently suggested in his The Lost Age of Reason). This possible early arrival is, however, yet to be fully assessed. Regardless, a whole generation of 20th c. Indian-born philosophers, from Daya Krishna to Matilal and Mohanty have expressed ambivalence about how best to do Indian philosophy in a modern key (notwithstanding the challenges of writing it in a language, English, shaped by a completely different philosophical culture). Ideally, it should be read such that one neither imports too many alien concepts into it, nor writes it merely as a chapter in the history of something like ‘global’ philosophy. Now that there are respectable ways of doing Indian philosophy outside of Indology, how should the question of progress be framed? Can it be framed?

Can these (for the most part classical) texts point far enough beyond them to occasion some kind of philosophical progress given that scientific naturalism is here to stay?

Least there is any confusion, let me just add that my question (a multi-part one, I admit) is not about whether such progress should entail that some version of (Cārvāka-like) physicalism (or any comparable metaphysical theory) is true, but about whether theories of knowledge (and reality) originating in the Indian philosophical tradition can be extended to accommodate the vast bodies of empirical knowledge we now have.

About Christian Coseru

Christian Coseru's current research is in the philosophy of mind, phenomenology of perception, naturalized epistemology, and Buddhist philosophy. His most recent work focuses on the intersections between phenomenology and cognitive science, and on classical Indian and Buddhist theories of perception. He is the author of Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2012), and his articles have appeared in various journals and edited collections. He is currently working on his second book entitled Presence of Mind: A Theory of Reflexive Sensibility.

27 thoughts on “Whither Indian Philosophy?

  1. Christian, thank you for this.

    If I understand your question(s), the idea is that as scholars of Indian philosophy, we perhaps face a special instance of the general problem of “what philosophy has to offer” nowadays. It seems like there are concentric circles, which get smaller, as we ask this question of distinct domains. Most generally “philosophy”, then “philosophy in pre-modern times”, and then finally “philosophy in pre-modern times, carried out in what is now known as “South Asia”. It seems that this is not just a problem for Indian philosophy or premodern philosophy, but for philosophy in its most basic form anywhere (as illustrated by occasional hostile comments about “philosophy” from popular science writers who think it has little to add.) Whatever circle we are concerned with, so to speak, we are charged with finding what is of genuine relevance in the philosophical traditions to contemporary problems of knowledge, given the explosion of scientific understanding which now informs what were purely philosophical questions like “self” or “knowledge”, etc.
    That’s how I am understanding your provocative questions.

    Given this, a few thoughts.

    1. It may help to bracket the most basic question of what philosophy has to offer given the scientism of our day, since that is everybody’s problem, and think about Indian philosophy specifically, our main disciplinary focus. But, I would just say this in passing: As soon as someone claims that scientific methodology is a privileged way of knowing, one can ask “why?”, and at this point, we can’t help but engage in fairly traditional reflection on epistemology, and indeed, on what constitutes a source of knowledge, and the ancients already have much to say that is of relevance.

    2.Further, whatever the current state of scientific development may be in this or that domain of inquiry, there are ineliminable normative questions that are philosophical in spirit, and open to contributions from the pre-moderns. For example: why is knowledge important anyway? Timothy Williamson, in answering this, goes back to Plato, and the point that knowledge is the most secure way to help us navigate the world. And this is, we should underscore (or perhaps shout at the top of our lungs) is profoundly similar to the point made by Vatsyayana in his opening lines of the Nyaya-bhashya so long ago, and in such a distant land. In short, there are some questions of import that are philosophical to the core, and perennially important, and Indian thinkers had much to say about them.

    3. Philosophical dialectics have a remarkable feature that they are capable of being discovered in situ, but fairly easily generalized and made to fit in other contexts. We can see that in the same historical context, questions of dependence relations in epistemology (infinite regress of justification, vs. a circle, vs. self-support) are roughly isomorphic to those in metaphysics (infinite regress of metaphysical dependence, vs. a circle, vs. self-support). Work in virtue theory in ethics has been successfully translated into theories of epistemic standing by people like Zagzebski and Sosa. And so on. A sensitive philosopher-historian can “translate” the dialectic to a new field. So, for example, while the classical Indian notion of manas is quite unsophisticated as far as cognitive science goes, we can take Indian theories of perception, which often speak of something akin to the manas as a causal component in perceptual experience, and “translate” the dialectic in a way that keeps what is essential and leaves behind the antiquated scientific content, and is still pertinent to contemporary questions.

    It’s true that this sort of thing requires great skill, both philosophically and philologically. It’s just too easy to say “hey it’s the same thing!”. But it is possible. Indeed, it is actual, as seen in work like your own! So, given the way that philosophical dialectic is “transferable”, it is possible to take the best of Indian thought, and translate it in ways that are relevant to contemporary problems, even informed by the best of scientific discovery. Here’s one more example, a bit conjectural, but: the locus classicus for the problem of science vs. first-personal accounts of the world is Sellars’ “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”. Now, while embedded in a very different discourse community, the problem of the two-truths is a perennial problem for Indian theorists, and I would think that there is much there that speaks to the question of navigating the problem of two domains of this sort.

    4. Finally, I think that we need to be a little, well, courageous about pushing back against “the modern” as setting the agenda for legitimate topics of inquiry (not accusing you of this, at all, but the issue lingers around our topic.) For example, consider the philosophy of testimony. Consider this remarkable passage from Surendranath Gupta, the most eminent historian of Indian philosophy in the formative time of the discipline.

    Śabda or word [testimony] is regarded as separate means of proof by most of the recognized Indian systems of thought excepting the Jaina, Buddhist, Cārvāka and Vaiśeṣika. A discussion of this topic however has but little philosophical value and I have therefore omitted to give any attention to it in connection with the Nyāya, and the Sāṁkhya-Yoga systems. . . Evidently a discussion of these matters has but little value with us, though it was a very favorite theme of debate in the old days of India. (Dasgupta 1922: 394.)

    We know that there has been nothing less than an explosion of research on testimony and more generally social epistemology in recent analytic philosophy, and it is an entirely scientifically respectable topic of inquiry. Dasgupta’s embarrassment over Indian concern for the issue has more to do with the internalist, individualist, and deontological biases of the “respectable” philosophy of his day than it does with the actual philosophical value of Indian treatments of testimony as a mode of knowing.
    (I took this last point from something I’ve written elsewhere).

    I have more on my mind about this, but I’ve already written too much. Doubtless, you have already thought about these sorts of answers, and either came to similar conclusions or you can help me understand why they don’t help. But I thought your provocative post deserved a serious (though admittedly prima-facie and somewhat off the cuff) response.

    • Matthew: thank you for your comments.

      You are right to note that the problems raised concern not just Indian philosophy but philosophy in general. That does not make the challenge any less daunting. That so much work in Indian philosophy has at times been pursued in isolation from the mainstream of the discipline explains why methodological and metatheoretical questions of this sort are so seldom entertained.

      The question of progress arises precisely because philosophy, once at the forefront of knowledge, and spawning new disciplines left, right, and center has been lately on the retreat. Incidentally, I attended that workshop on ‘Progress in Philosophy’ jointly organized by ANU (my alma matter) and Harvard at Harvard three years ago. There was a general feeling that philosophers need not apologize for the highly specialized and technical nature of their various enterprises. After all, no one reproaches hard scientists for their highly mathematized and impenetrable prose. Popular science writing takes care of disseminating the results of their research. So there.

      Philosophy, however, is in a bind, because the educated public expects it to still play its traditional role of providing answers, or at the very least guidance, to life’s pressing questions. Few today share that conviction (or think that to be their role), though again, many would agree (and most at the conference did) that philosophers should occasionally try and disseminate their insights more widely (give TED talks, engage in public debate, challenge uncritical assumptions in society, politics, science, etc.). Many also noted that science-envy is more pervasive among philosophers than historians and others in the humanities.

      Why should one privilege science and its methodologies–you ask–especially considering how many scientific theories turn out in the end to be false? I don’t know, because science is better at pursuing the same questions armchair philosophy has pursued for centuries, and with better results? Then again, a lot of the best theorizing comes from philosophically-minded scientists or philosophers of science.

      Of course, Plato and Vātsyāyana deserve our admiration and praise for having realized the importance of knowledge. But last time I checked, there is widespread agreement that knowledge is not justified true belief. Likewise, the kind of direct realism that Nyāya advances (with its causalist epistemology) has not fared any better, given what we now know about the underlying processes of conscious cognitive activity.

      I agree with your second point about the portability of philosophical dialectics, and I think that, to take just one example, a great deal of philosophically-oriented scholarship on Madhyamaka has helped to prop up a version of global antirealism. Though, again, that depends on how far you allow your exegesis to be trumped by systematic reflection.

      My initial question is not about whether, and how much of Indian philosophy can be translated in ways that are relevant to contemporary problems. It’s not about how we can use the wealth of Indian philosophical padding to make our armchair reflections less error prone. Rather, it is about whether this dialectical ‘upholstery’ counts as progress in Indian philosophy.

      As to your final point, yes, philosophical fashions come and go, and Dasgupta need not perhaps have felt embarrassed that so much Indian philosophy dealt in a seemingly outmoded currency (I hear philosophy of religion is back in the game, now that more rigorous accounts of reasonable disagreement have been on offer). Of course, there are ways to integrate Indian philosophy into various contemporary debates. The questions remains, though, whether that counts as progress in and/or for Indian philosophy.

  2. Thank you Christian for sparking the debate…..

    To claim that scientific ways of knowing are privileged is dogmatic. But then, a philosopher’s claim that “we can’t help but engage in fairly traditional reflection on epistemology, and indeed, on what constitutes a source of knowledge, and the ancients already have much to say that is of relevance” is equally dogmatic. For both the positions are propping within the erected boundaries of these different disciplines where one is ignorant of the outside.
    My position on the issue is different. Though ancient Indian (even there are some contemporary philosophical interventions, which nobody talks about here!!!) have much to say, philosophy remains primarily a conceptual study to questions for which other disciplines (esp. science) have no response. Moreover, why are we bothered more by naturalism and scientism. Is it that only these categories are a threat to philosophy? why is that Chalmers is only comparing philosophical progress with the progress of sciences? can’t we move beyond this traditional Cartesian/Kantian captivity when we have shed most of their conceptual endeavors and moved beyond? Why philosophy continues to be held captive by science?

  3. Muzaffar: Chalmers is comparing philosophical progress with progress in the sciences because he takes seriously Peter van Inwagen’s challenge that “disagreement in philosophy is pervasive and irresoluble.” There is disagreement in the sciences too, but there is also a stable body of knowledge. There is nothing like that (so the argument goes) for philosophy, whether Western or Indian. So, if we could agree on a core set of answers to big problems in philosophy, perhaps by streamlining arguments so there is no fundamental disagreement when they bear on empirical claims, that, Chalmers thinks, would count as progress.

    The technical vocabulary of Navya-Nyāya is undoubtedly recognized as a step forward in perfecting conceptual analysis (and, with Gaṅgeśa, in providing a more robust account of things like pervasion, so essential to Nyāya epistemology). But its understanding of what perception can and does disclose is awfully inadequate. When Matilal writes in his Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge book that “‘What do we perceive directly?’ is, to be sure, not a scientific question” (p. 224), he showcase the limitation of an epistemology wedded to naïve realism (whether or not that’s also his personal view).

    Why is philosophy held captive by science? Why do people rob banks? Because that’s where the money is. Where else would you be looking for evidence nowadays?

  4. Hi Christian,

    I also wanted to thank you for sparking the debate. I also agree with much of what Matthew said about the question applying to philosophy in general as well as Indian philosophy. I wanted to add a small point. I think it is something that you have already acknowledged as important in framing your question, but at the same time you have set up your question to an engagement on that particular issue. No fault of yours, but here is the issue.

    The point is the following: philosophy, science, and religion form a triangle in inquiry. And by philosophy I mean philosophy that is from every tradition. Together they provide a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon in the human condition, and not simply a true account. A comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon in the human condition is important because it contains the elements of understanding that are necessary for counter-biasing, the elimination of cognitive blind spots, and in general it departs from a place of meta-epistemic non-negligence.

    Now to take an example. In the case of knowledge, perhaps science and philosophy of science lead the way forward now, although they did not always. But I think it is plausible to say that as a community of thinkers we don’t just want the maximally justified account of x, we want a comprehensive understanding of x as a cultural object of value.

    There are two ways to tell the narrative about knowledge, assuming we have it. The first way simply says: knowledge is F. The second way tells the story in a way that provides a comprehensive understanding of knowledge by weaving the story from a philosophical, scientific, as well as a religious point of view.

    Why is this comprehensive understanding valuable. The main reason, as stated earlier, is that were we to hand over to philosophy alone, science alone, or religion alone the task of determining the nature of knowledge we might find that the inquiry is riddled with implicit bias, unchecked assumptions, and no reflective engagement with the widest available contrasting views. That is no diversity in the inquiry. I think that a comprehensive understanding departs from a place of meta-epistemic non-negligence, the opposite of meta-epistemic negligence, which occurs when one presupposes prior to investigation that a phenomenon in the human condition is to be analyzed from only a single perspective.

    My points here about the science-philosophy-religion triangle extend to why I would say that Indian philosophy, as well as Chinese, Arabic, etc… all have to be a part of philosophy. To take them out is to allow for meta-epistmeic negligence. This makes the search for a genuine comprehensive phenomenon in the human condition a multi-generational effort as well as a cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary effort.

    In addition, I would say that the problem of pervasive disagreement in philosophy stems from the attempt to aim solely at the true account of something rather than a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon. Sure we can debate internalism and externalism about knowledge, but we have a better understanding of knowledge by grasping the logical space in which we can cross-culturally comprehend knowledge on that axis.

    Of course, I think some of what I say here you would agree with. And I think you carefully qualified your question so as to acknowledge that understanding and clarity is something that philosophy brings to the table and which of course classical Indian philosophy brings to the table as well. My hope is that some of these remarks may allow for a re-orientation toward the role of clarity by emphasizing that with the triangle in place we get a comprehensive understanding which has an epistemic property, counter-biasing, that is actually beneficial.

    Thanks for raising the question.

    • Thanks, Anand. I could not agree more: yes, we need philosophy, science, and religion to provide a full account of this phenomenon we call human existence and/or experience. But surely you don’t mean to suggest that the picture we get from each has equal standing when it comes to making truth claims. Nor, I hope, do you take these classical philosophical traditions (Western, Indian, Chinese, etc.) to be offering a complete and unrevisable picture of the phenomenon.

      • Hi Christian,

        The account I was offering doesn’t take each to have equal standing, as you point out, with respect to making truth claims. Surely, science has that in the first-order world making domain, philosophy in the philosophical domain, and religion in its own domain. In addition, the picture does not rest on a static account of understanding. Rather the account is dynamic and by construction open to revision, that is partly the role that philosophy plays in the model — challenging assumptions of both religion and science.

        As for the truth claim part I think the main thing is that by bringing these three together, so as to sit at the table, there is a lean toward how each can check each other in the process of searching for a true account. I can see someone objecting to the picture I have offered by saying that a properly diverse group of scientists can do this without the need of philosophers or religious scholars. But what would that properly diverse group be? I would think one that has members that are sensitive to critical thinking that is properly informed by philosophy and religious thought as opposed to being completely in the dark about it. So, the challenge is perhaps blunt.

        Anyway, hope that was of some interest.

        • Hi, Anand. That helps, thanks.

          Whether we like it or not science is not given to sitting put in its own domain but keeps on encroaching on others. I assume that’s because it sees itself as an all-encompassing enterprise. Incidentally, that’s precisely how religion used to behave when priests and brahmins were the arbiters of truth. As for philosophy, it is almost synonymous with encroachment (didn’t it practically give birth to every discipline, and don’t philosophers sit at the origin of just about every social, scientific, and cultural revolution?—How ironic, indeed, Dharmakīrti’s lament about being unappreciated by his contemporaries seems now).

  5. There is a lot to say about this, but I’d begin by problematizing “progress” as the goal for this thing we call “Indian philosophy,” especially when it’s defined in scientistic terms. Positivism is popular now, not among philosophers and maybe not even among scientists, and its model of knowledge is progress toward a more complete description of our reality. I would say that “Indian philosophy”—not our discipline, but the stuff we study—offers an alternative model. It doesn’t say: “know what others in the past have not known,” but “know for yourself what others in the past have known, but know it better—be able to explain, justify, and defend it.” There is something appealing to me in this model, maybe because I have long since given up hope that neuroscience (or what-have-you) will come along and answer all of the questions that we’re supposed to care about.

    I have to agree with all of Matthew’s points concerning progress in “Indian philosophy” as an academic discipline. We’ve been jumping up and down for the past 50 years, trying to convince philosophers that philosophy happened in India too. People are more likely to believe us now, but they’re also less likely to care. That’s because philosophy itself doesn’t care whether Gaṅgeśa hit upon a version of the “verification principle” (let’s say) 750 years before the Vienna Circle. The task is not just to bring Indian philosophical texts into a modern philosophical context, to turn -vādas into -isms, but to use these texts as a new set of starting-points for philosophical inquiry, and hence to redefine what philosophical inquiry is. Yes, we need to be more courageous in setting the agenda. I would say that Indian philosophical texts are far ahead of their Western counterparts when it comes to the analysis of language generally (although the analytic and generative traditions have recently caught up), and the analysis of prescriptive, normative, injunctive or “irrealis” language in particular. This is not just one domain where Indian concepts can and should be translated into English concepts. This is a domain, I’d argue, where we would see some real “progress” not necessarily if we adopted Kumārila’s doctrines, but if we were able to take for granted some of the things that Kumārila did (such as the idea that language is always oriented toward action), and if we weren’t able to take for granted some of the things that we seemingly have to now (such as the correspondence theory).

  6. Well, my reaction to Chalmers is that there is a more fundamental question: what the heck is progress? (And why would we want that often poisonous concept to be relevant to philosophy?) “Progress’ is always a matter of having an implicit telos. To take the most extreme case, medical progress requires already the idea that an exponential growth in the human population is a permissable consequence of the telos of individual human health. And as we know, it runs exactly in the face of environmental progress, which has a quite different telos. We know how the civilizational progress of European imperialism worked; very little of what the Victorians thought was progress makes much sense now. (Consider what white Australians thought was progress to aboriginal Australians…). What exactly does technological progress mean, when advances in navigation brought the smallpox that wiped out the Caribs, or advances in transportation made slavery industrial, or advances in drug-processing has led to epidemics of addiction, and so on? And what exactly is the pettifogging arrogance of analytic philosophy’s notions of progress done for humanity?

    Ooops, as I finally got around to send this (having forgotten to do so), I notice loads of people have been saying variations of these things, AND the other points I was going to make, so I shall stop.
    Glad there is so much constructive consensus, and good of you to have got us to articulate these ideas, Christian.

    • Ram-Prasad: The notion of ‘progress’ here in play is a benign one: progress in understanding, progress on the path, progress in solving a given problem, etc. It’s progress to know that celestial bodies don’t move according to first principles, that color perception is mostly foveal, and that the classical theory of concepts (based on the definition view) cannot tell us why, for instance, concepts and categorizations admit of a certain degree of indeterminacy and typicality. It’s progress also to realize that you don’t have to limit conventional truth (in the two truths schema) to whatever the ‘man in the street’ knows.

  7. One more remark: I feel like the ground is unsteady as I try to think more about what you are looking for, Christian. I keep asking myself: Progress for whom, or in relation to which tribunal exactly? For other academic philosophers? For laypersons? For hard-nosed scientists? For the academy in general? These all offer different criteria. Andrew and Ram have problematized progress above. And this is a good point.

    Normal folks turn to philosophy to understand their own human condition with more subtlety and depth, in a way Anand spoke of, not necessarily to discover whether substances or tropes are the best way to account for the chair over there (though this latter point is important, no doubt, when we get into the roots of things). There are different tasks of philosophy, and progress, if to be made, is to be judged according to different standards.

    Regarding normal folks, I can say unequivocally that my own students, by and large, report that their own lives are improved by (e.g.) studying Confucius with me. Is that scientific advance? Well no, but it is helping them live better lives and as it does so, it opens their minds to the contributions of non-western thinkers to our own problems and concerns. This is progress (in the good sense of the term) in terms of contributing to their lives, and progress in terms of a wider-appreciation that these “distant” traditions have something to say to us right now.

    Perhaps what we need more of is philosopher-historians writing for normal people and not just each other, realizing that it is possible to write “popular” books without selling-out or cheapening the product, as it were. I just got a notice of this book by Amber Carpenter today: which is not just speaking to other academics but to interested non-specialists: http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/49472-indian-buddhist-philosophy/

    It is hard to think of many books out there that have been embraced on a large scale by non-academics, yet are faithful to the demands of scholarly accuracy in dealing with Indian philosophy. Ed Bryant’s translation and commentary on the Yoga-sutras is one, having been taken up by many in the yoga world who want a deeper understanding of the intellectual traditions behind the practice (http://www.amazon.com/The-Yoga-Sutras-Pata%C3%B1jali-Translation/dp/0865477361). I remember that Edwin told me specifically that he wanted a non-academic publisher for this one (it is published by an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

    Are there other examples?

    Perhaps also, it is time to completely shed the flippant disdain for the life-guiding role of philosophy exemplified by the high-tradition of Analytic thought. We can recognize and share the therapeutic and life-assisting parts of philosophy with students and non-academics without fearing that we are bluffing and putting ourselves forward as priests or exemplars. When run well, a course on applied ethics helps students think through important issues, gaining conceptual refinement and awareness of the range of possibilities to approach challenging issues. Why can’t Indian thinkers help students in this way as well, whether it be moral, epistemological, religious concerns, etc.?

  8. I could not agree more, Matthew: what counts as progress certainly depends on who’s doing the counting and for what (or whom). I only raised the question of progress because, as you and everybody else on this forum knows, philosophy has been a lot in the news lately, and I thought that was a good opportunity to invite a bit of self-reflection. I wouldn’t want to put it in quite those legalistic terms (no tribunal here), but yes, it is a question about what it is that those of us who reflect on and with classical Indian philosophers consider progress.

    Bryant’s book on Yoga is wonderful, written in a lucid and accessible prose, but so are Benardete & Bloom’s or Nehamas & Woodruff’s translations and discussions of the Symposium. I love the classics (Indian, Greek, Chinese) as much as the next person, and I commune with them as often as I can, but that’s not what I had in mind when I raised the question of progress. Philosophy has moved on since Patañjali and Plato.

    • Thanks for your reply, Christian. I guess I am still a bit uncertain. I think that what many people are saying is that much of what philosophy does is orthogonal to the sciences. Not all of it, to be sure, but much of what we turn to it for is not something we turn to science for. So why a problem at all?

      And, I am not sure what “moved on” means in the last sentence. If taken to be a brute historical fact regarding preferences then we need not be bound by it, as I argued above. Society as a whole has “moved on” from contemplative reflection too. Not a net gain, imho.

      If taken to be a statement of normative significance, that is still very much up for debate–indeed the very issue at stake and far from a given. At best it means that science has advanced. But the topic at hand is what this means for the ancient thinkers, not that we are done with them. We can all agree that we don’t turn to them to figure out what science should believe. I think that here, many of us are saying that there is still much of vital significance there. If this isn’t what you are asking, I apologize for still being uncertain about what is going on.

      Do you have an opinion on the issue? Clearly your work is on the classical thinkers as informed by contemporary cog-sci. You must have your own take. What do you think? Perhaps telling us will help us understand more precisely why the sort of answers given above haven’t really quelled your concerns.

      To be clear, I’m not trying to be obtuse or anything. I am much enjoying this exercise, and I am grateful for your contributing to the blog in this way.

  9. No worries, Matthew. I’ll try again, and this time I will volunteer a personal view on the matter.

    First, let me note that I use ‘naturalism’ primarily in a methodological rather than ontological sense, though I don’t mean to give short shrift to those who regard science as displaying some kind of unargued commitment to naturalism as a doctrine. And it’s important also (though I think that’s already been said) not to mistake naturalism with physicalism (the latter is just a metaphysical theory).

    Now, the kind of naturalism I have in mind is methodological: it is a view about philosophical practice that sees science and philosophy as part of the same knowledge enterprise (with the requisite caveat that in the philosophy of religion, methodological naturalism is typically restricted to the sciences). There has been some push back, mainly from folks working in the Phenomenological tradition, but overall the effects have been positive: if anything, it has helped sharpen the conversation.

    Of the various strategies (really more like working hypotheses) of naturalization that Roy, Petitot, Pachoud and Varela discuss in their superb introduction to Naturalizing Phenomenology (http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=406), the one that seems most promising for Indian philosophy, I think, is that of ‘mutual constraining,’ better known in the literature as the embodied or enactive approach in philosophy of cognitive science (the others include things like reductionism, functionalism, etc.). Of course this mutual constraining strategy is not without its problems (as the NCC program has shown). By assuming a certain isomorphism between the two domains it creates a chasm that can only be bridged by what the authors call “shared logical and epistemic accountability.”

    That much, I hope, is sufficiently clear.

    As for my view on the issue, I think the nascent naturalism present in some strands of Indian epistemology could benefit from further naturalization. The thesis I put forward in my book, for instance, is that an enduring solution to some of those classical epistemological disputes cannot (or no longer) be had without taking into account the structure of our cognitive architecture. That is, not if we are doing philosophy and not just exegesis. We know a lot more about this structure now, and it makes sense to want to inquire how far these empirical intuitions (grounded in better evidence) can extend the arc of Indian epistemology.

    Admittedly, this is not an easy task, but you know what they say about fools.

    And its worth noting that this process of cognitive science-informed cross-cultural philosophical reflection has already begun, so I’m not just talking hypothetically here.

  10. Many isuues discussed above from testimony to applied ethics have been duly dealt with by Sri Aurobindo in his epochal book titled, “The Life Divine” which deserves to be the point of departure for any rethinking on the status (or progress, if you will) of Indian Philosophy. Why no one ever refers to his insights on this blog is certainly a mystery, which, I feel, must melt. Why blame science; philosophy not recognising philosophy itself is the culprit. Just imagine, how much you are deprived of by ignoring Sri Aurobindo here! [TNM55]

    • Perhaps it is because amongst the (sadly) small number of committed contributors to this site, no one is a Sri Aurobindo scholar. I enjoy reading his works occasionally for edification, but am far from qualified to speak of him as a scholar would.

      Best would be for those who are enthusiastic about Sri Aurobindo, and who think he has something to say, to skillfully cite appropriate passages and bring them to bear on conversations in a way that is insightful and obviously relevant. Simply pleading for others to do so, repeatedly, and sometimes in apparently tangential contexts may come of as excessive guru-bhakti that tends toward evangelism and is off-putting. If anything, such repeated pleas end up having the opposite effect, leading people to associate their felt distaste with the evangelism with the object of the evangelist’s veneration.

      • One thing worth noting about Aurobindo is the close association between him (and his ashram) and many pre-independence academic philosophers active in the Indian Philosophical Congress. As is well-known, the IPC even felt the need to hold a special session (at Almaner in 1950) on whether Aurobindo had refuted māyāvāda by shifting the emphasis from ‘illusion’ (māyā) to ‘play’ (līlā). Opinions seem to have been mixed, but nonetheless they reflect the seriousness accorded to Life Divine even outside Advaita (and neo-Advaita) intellectual circles. Hard to assess to what extent that is still the case today.

        Garfield and Bhushan have an informative essay on this topic (‘Bringing Brahman Down to Earth’) that prefaces the papers read at that session of the IPC (by Indra Sen, N.A. Nikam, H Chaudhuri, and G. R. Malkani). Check out their recent anthology on Indian Philosophy in English. Definitely worth a read (http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199769254.do).

        Nikam’s essay, I think, sums it best: “Between the Māyāvāda of Śaṅkara and the Līlāvāda of the Life Divine, there is a Major Premise which is common to both. Māyāvāda says:

        The world is a dream
        Dreams are unreal
        Therefore, the world is unreal.

        The Līlāvāda of Life Divine says:

        The world is a dream,
        dreams are real.
        Therefore, the world is real.”

        Nikam takes Aurobindo to have successfully refuted māyāvāda, and offers an interesting outline of the new metaphysical theory:

        “(i) In sleep, the waking activities are in abeyance, but the “inner consciousness is not suspended but enters into new inner activities.”
        (ii) the whole of this inner activity we do not remember, we remember only what is near the surface.
        (iii) near the surface there “an obscurer subconscious element which is a builder” (e.g. “dream-builder”).
        (iv) but behind it is the “subliminal” self which is the totality of our inner being and consciousness…”

        From this analysis, he concludes (by noting, in passing, the regressive nature of the dream argument) that the meaning of ‘dream’ has changed such that one can now even substitute the Cartesian cogito with something like “I dream, therefore, I exist”!

        I’m no scholar of Aurobindo either, but it’s creative appropriations like these that served as a vehicle for modernity in India in the early decades of the last century (with, one may add, varying political consequences).

        It’s also appropriations like these that got the likes of Matilal and Daya Krishna to build entire careers arguing that rationalism is the de facto core of Indian philosophy, or D. P. Chattopadhyaya to claim that the only living strand of Indian philosophy is in fact materialism!

        The goal these days, of course, is a lot more modest as most everybody grapples with an ever wider range of problems (error theory, disjunctivism, the problem of other minds, arguments against physicalism, critiques of foundationalism, etc.).

        That’s certainly progress, but it’s not the one I articulate in my initial query.

  11. First of all, I would like to thank Coseru for the question which , as an Indian we can locate in its proper Historical background in our recent colonial Past –

    “Whether theories of knowledge (and Reality) originating in the Indian Philosophical tradition can be extended to accommodate the vast bodies of empirical knowledge we now have.”
    This question, in one form or another, can be recognized to have started taking shape during the colonial period in late 19th Century Bengal.

    And this very question in its ‘colonial version’ was certainly at the heart of motivating grounds of a typical brand of Philosophy of Science in Indian context , which can be identified to have taken shape as a part of ‘Hindu’ response to West in colonial Bengal ( Hindu , because Buddhist scholastic tradition was almost out of picture during the past 600 years or so , and Muslims in Bengal were just not interested in any version of West reached India by then ) . In fact , West reached India much earlier at around the 16th century ; but it is only during the colonial phase the reception got a kind of social relevance which eventually was led to such BINARIES as traditional- modern , Eastern- Western , religious- secular , rational-mystical , colonial-national … ! These binaries can be made sense in context of the cultural (con)fusion motivated by the British colonial strategies set up during the early 19th century. ‘Modern’ Indian philosophy as well as the embryonic philosophy of science started being written right from the late 19th century can be understood largely as different modes of expressions committed to these Binaries. And in that way , modern Indian Philosophy during the colonial period was almost all about different notes of response composed by the English educated Hindu scholars trained mainly in Universities ( not in Tols ).

    The wide spectrum of tonal variations of these all responses has really played the role of deciding factor in our recent social History , but we need not get into that details here .. But this is exactly the question , which motivated a few of us ( mainly trained in Physics as well as Philosophy) here to explore the possibility of opening a DIALOG with the existing Buddhist scholars in India nearly a decade back …., with an AIM to bridge between the perennial wisdom and the ‘new’ empirical findings.

    Unfortunately , it was gradually realized that , we don’t even have yet a common linguistic framework to communicate meaningfully , let alone any possibility to explore ways to extend ‘traditional understanding’ to accommodate within the scope of ‘new’ empirical findings . How to do this extension /integration so far we talk in terms of a very different framework of language as well as a metaphysical superstructure based on the languages.

    Of course, this is not a question of relative superiority of one knowledge paradigm over the other, but something which can be described as lack of exact norms of comparison.. So far ‘traditional understanding’ is compared with Physical scientific paradigm . Let me clarify further my point – given a concrete problem, for example, in foundational debate of quantum mechanics .., it is very difficult to locate any unambiguous point of entry in ‘traditional store’ to make any further sense of the issue ! At least any direct Logical link is hard to establish.. This is of course true, as Matthew mentions in his reply, for the whole Philosophical paradigm. But in case of Indian theoretical tradition the question is far more difficult. I can say a lot about what makes it more difficult.. , but that will unnecessarily lengthen this comment. I will only mention one aspect of history of Indian Philosophy before I conclude, though I am sure that, you are aware of this aspect.

    Philosophy in ‘Pre-colonial’ India was far from something like an academic discipline as we understand it today ; this was very much a part of socially legitimated Agenda … and Philosophers ( mainly Brahmin Pundits – the Priest class ) had a well defined / secured role to play within the system of socio-economic hierarchy in different ways .. But colonial India brought a definite end to that socio-economic structure … along with the typical style of Thought / reasoning nurtured within that very framework!! This has left, effectively, little possibility for us – if not trained exclusively in Philosophy , to follow the style of reasoning …

    However, it is more likely to expect Neuro-scientific paradigm Today to have in its store data that can be fruitfully reconciled with Indian philosophy .

    • Debajyoti: Thank you for your comments.

      Your are right to note that although philosophy in 17 and 18th c. India did not operate in an institutional framework comparable to that of the Western university, nonetheless it saw itself as still actively pursuing knowledge, though, again, by embracing a kind of neo-scholasticism rather than open engagement with the world outside Sanskrit scholarship (for social and political reasons, mainly).

  12. Matthew: A follow up on my last comment about the sort of avenues naturalism could offer by way not simply of engaging with problems in classical Indian philosophy, but perhaps reaching some kind of resolution to centuries-old debates. Here’s one example: the debate (mainly between Advaita Vedānta and Nyāya) about whether consciousness is absent or present in dreamless sleep.

    Apart from the fact that the Indian materials allow for interesting new ways to conceptualize consciousness, there is much in there that also suggests new experimental protocols.

    The argument goes something like this:

    1. Advaita holds the view that consciousness continues in dreamless sleep, thus rejecting the notion that continuity is achieved via a retrospective inference across the gap when there is complete absence of consciousness (as per Nyāya).

    2. But the Advaita argument is transcendental. It is a conceivability argument about what must be the case in order for some aspect of consciousness to be possible. It is also a self-knowledge argument: what are the conditions of possibility for one to have knowledge of consciousness in dreamless sleep?

    4. Now, the good news is that this argument need not be put in transcendental terms. If we reframe it phenomenological terms, it becomes an argument about experiential access to different states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep, etc. The phenomenological model thus allows for the retentive aspect of time-consciousness to play an explanatory function: dreamless and waking consciousness are bridged in one’s experiences of a just-past instance of dreamless consciousness immediately after waking up.

    5. Furthermore, on such a phenomenological reading, what the ‘I just woke up from sleep’ picks is an embodied rather than autobiographical or pronominal self (as required by the Nyāya).

    6. One need not regard this self as a sort of transcendental witness consciousness but simply as a minimal, embodied, and pre-reflective cognitive awareness.

    Now that we’ve identified just what is at stake in this classical Indian debate, the issue is to see just where we stand on the empirical front. So, what does the neuroscience of sleep have to say about all this? Well, the waking state of consciousness correlates with a complex pattern of large-scale activity across many interconnected regions (as EEG measurements show). During deep sleep EEG measurements indicates that responses to stimulation are stronger than during wakefulness, but they remain localized and have a shorter time span (150 milliseconds).

    Does consciousness correlate only with effective connectivity and large-scale activity in the brain? Or is less connectivity and more localized short burst of activity enough? The evidence seems to be pointing toward some kind of modularity, though it’s hard to tell at this stage how far these correlations extend, largely because the neuroscience of dreamless sleep is still in its infancy.

    Finding the right sort of experimental protocol to frame questions such as these might be one way to solve an age-old debate between Advaita and Nyāya. Maybe.

    In any event, this is the sort of progress I had in mind.

    For more on the implications of this sort of research for Indian philosophy check out this excerpt from Evan Thompson’s forthcoming book:

  13. This thread has grown too long already (and I too weary), so I will conclude, for now, with just one more example of the sort of classical philosophical problem about which we can reach some consensus by availing ourselves of current empirical research.

    In a passage from Pramāṇasamuccayaṭīka (8a1-3), Jinendrabuddhi takes it upon himself to deny that erroneous apprehension has a basis in perception, if perception is as Dignāga defines it: free of conception.

    Here it is (with all but one square bracket removed):

    “In that case, by means of this word for an exception, namely “sataimira,” the cognition whose sensory system is impaired through external or internal causes, though free from conception, should not be treated as a perceptual appearance; and in the word “sataimira,” obscurity (timira) merely indicates those causes of impairment that are present in the sensory systems because even cognitions of impaired sensory systems qualify as instances of perception. Thus, the qualifier “nonerroneous” [added by Dharmakīrti] should not be used in the definition of perception, because it is an accepted fact that even certain erroneous cognitions caused by impaired sensory systems still qualify as instances of perception in certain aspects.”

    And this is what I have to say about it in my book (pp. 188-189):

    “It is obvious that Jinendrabuddhi follows Dignāga’s view that “non-erroneous” is an unnecessary qualifier for those types of cognition (viz.,inference, memory) that operate outside the perceptual domain. The problematic issue, however, concerns whether cases of illusory perception should be excluded from the domain of warranted empirical awareness. Could it be the case that Jinendrabuddhi is here simply defending some kind of Husserlian intentional stance that all our perceptual experiences, including the illusory ones, are experiences of something? Is he saying that we may be wrong about the content of a given instance of cognitive awareness but not about its type? That is, is Jinendrabuddhi advancing the view that I can never be mistaken about the character of my perceptual experience even when a specific type of impairment prevents me from having, say, optimal color vision? It is difficult to gauge Jinendrabuddhi’s intention in this context. It may be true that perceptual illusions are warranted cognitions insofar as they indirectly reveal the limitations of our cognitive systems. But the illusory or erroneous character of the respective perception becomes apparent only after the event. The colorblind person does not know she has this perceptual defect until she undergoes testing. We are generally not aware of our blindspot until it is revealed to us by experiment. Since illusory perceptions lack pragmatic efficacy, they cannot serve as reliable instances of cognition, though they are nonetheless forms of direct apprehension. Specifying the criterion of “nonerroneousness” as a necessary condition for warranted empirical awareness is then necessary if perception is to have the epistemic status the Buddhist attributes to it.”

    This is just one of those instances where, as Matthew noted in his first comment, it is possible “to take the best of Indian thought, and translate it in ways that are relevant to contemporary problems, even informed by the best of scientific discovery.”

  14. Thanks for your further remarks and clarificatory comments, Christian. I think I get your point better now, and am enthusiastic about the vision of research you embrace. I would only add the (already mentioned) qualifier that I think that much of philosophy can be *consistent with* the cutting edge of empirical scientific research while not *subsumed by it*, or even directly informed by it, as a good deal of philosophy’s normative content seems to go beyond what science can directly tell us.

    I also think that many of us (myself included) restrict ourselves to smaller, piecemeal sorts of investigations, because the wide-ranging expertise that is required to do the sorts of things you advocate may just be beyond our ken, for various reasons.

  15. Having read Evan Thompson’s short extract on Sushupti (Deep Dreamless Sleep) I am more than ever convinced of the danger of ‘psychologism’ by which I mean that there must be an empirical element to the knowledge that I have been in that state. Yes advaitins do speak of memory in relation to it but I believe only in the loose sense of a present awareness of some event that is in the past. It must surely be an epistemic bedrock that where there is no experience there can be no memory. Nor can D.S. (the knowledge that we have been in a state of D.S.) arise out of an inference. Sankara in his commentary on Brh.Up. IV.iii.30 seq. and in Upadesasahasri II.83 and II.93 insists that D.S. is in fact an immedate non-inferential knowledge and a limit case of the sort of knowledge we have of mental modifications (vritti) cf.#83.

    The answer ‘I just know’ to the question ‘how do you know’ may be unacceptable to the naturaliser. It was the answer Thomas Reid gave to Locke and Hume so it’s probably not stupid.

  16. Getting rather meta for a moment, consider the possibility that the Vedic perspective was originally based on physiological states of consciousness, and that much of the debate over the centuries has been between people who weren’t in the states mentioned in the oldest Vedic literature.

    This perspective was first proposed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he first started to encourage his students to perform scientific studies on meditation and had to defend the very idea of studying a spiritual discipline using Western science:

    “Every experience has its level of physiology, and so unbounded awareness has its own level of physiology which can be measured. Every aspect of life is integrated and connected with every other phase. When we talk of scientific measurements, it does not take away from the spiritual experience. We are not responsible for those times when spiritual experience was thought of as metaphysical. Everything is physical. Consciousness is the product of the functioning of the brain. Talking of scientific measurements is no damage to that wholeness of life which is present everywhere and which begins to be lived when the physiology is taking on a particular form. This is our understanding about spirituality: it is not on the level of faith –it is on the level of blood and bone and flesh and activity. It is measurable.”

    The recent WAVES (World Association of VEdic Studies) conference was held at Maharishi University of Management, and many/most of the presentations made by MUM faculty were informed by the above perspective:


  17. Christian’s original post seems to have spawned two paths of discussion.

    I believe his intent was to spark discussion on the lack of cutting-edge Indian philosophy scholarship being done. An example of such scholarship would perhaps be examining what impact a modern understanding of cognitive and emotional processes within the brain have on various concepts found within the Indian philosophical tradition (e.g., “What does neuroscience have to say about manas?”).

    I have nothing to offer with respect to that line of discussion, other than empathy. I’m reading everyone’s posts and comments with this much knowledge of Indian philosophy under my belt: I’ve read the Yoga Sutras (in handout form, so I don’t know the translator), the Bhagavad Gita (translation by a relative of an Indian family I once stayed with), and Sue Hamilton’s Indian Philosophy, a Very Short Introduction.

    Being a novice, I’m most interested in the second line of discussion: “Whither” in terms of whether public interest in Indian philosophy is on the decline.

    Here I’d like to detail what I have observed to be the most common pathway of how a non-Indian becomes exposed to Indian philosophy:
    1) A person enrolls in an asana class (a.k.a., yoga class).
    2) They love it. (One argument why would be asana’s uniqueness in the realm of physical activity—with asana there’s no exterior, environmental focus: no opponent, field, trail, stage, music, etc.)
    3) They love asana enough to want to know how it originated. This is the point of exposure to Indian philosophy (the: “Whoa, that region of the world has a rich tradition of thought on the nature of reality?” moment).
    4) At this point, for the person who loves asana (maybe millions in the world), who wants to know about the philosophical tradition that birthed it (maybe hundreds of thousands in the world), what resources do they have to fulfill that desire for knowledge?

    The first is their asana teacher. That teacher will likely offer three reading recommendations (of course it could be more, but these are the “Big 3”), without specifying particular translations: the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

    If the interested layperson is confused by these old texts, where can they turn for guidance? For example, if you come upon the concept of karmagyoga in the Gita, and you are still confused after Krishna’s monologue, who’s offering explanation? Answer: numerous hobbyists—kooky hippies, Indian nationals of various professions using their free time to promote their cultural treasures, gurus claiming enlightenment, and asana teachers pressured to be philosophy teachers by their students and seeking the extra billable hours afforded by teaching philosophy.

    My question is where are the Carl Sagans and Stephen Hawkings of Indian philosophy? I think it is partly because no academics are leading lights in popular education, that so many random hobbyists—some well-meaning, some not—are thriving as sources of knowledge on Indian philosophy for the general public.

    And I think the effect these hobbyists are having is by and large very negative. In the world today, there are plenty of foreigners who have dropped out of mainstream society because that’s what they believe Indian philosophy advises them to do. They are practicing some degree of asceticism, and in their minds they are noble iconoclasts. Are they interpreting Indian philosophy correctly, or is misinformation hurting their lives?

    In conclusion, I believe with every surge in asana popularity, there will be a surge in public interest in Indian philosophy. So, that interest is not in danger of withering. Rather, where there’s a problem is how that interest is being served—far too often, by the blind leading the blind.

    • Thank you, Allen, for this very interesting post. I agree with you on one point: I am often asked what to read as an (easy and accessible) introduction to Indian philosophy and I do not know what to say. The same repeats itself when it comes to the quest for (easy and accessible) translations of Indian philosophical texts. I have often deplored the fact that we (Indologists, Sanskrit scholars…) spend too little time on creating tools for non-insiders, so that we cannot then lament the lack of interested readers, students (and funding). Why is it so? In part, because it is too early to have a general overview of a largely unstudied field. In part, however, because it is too late. Meaning that there are some very good tools produced by scholars of the past (Frauwallner, notwithstanding his immoral political tendencies, Tucci, La Vallée Poussin…) and which we should re-discover and try to present to interested lay readers, before they start reading crap just because they cannot find anything else.

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