Richard Hayes’ review of Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s *Eastern Philosophy*

As discussed in the comments on Andrew’s thread, here are some excerpts from Richard Hayes’ review of Eastern Philosophy by our esteemed friend of the blog, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad. What is most relevant is the way in which it discusses the challenges and nature of cross-cultural philosophical exploration. Ram’s work has long been exemplary in navigating this challenging space with dexterity.

Originally published here, in Financial Times.

 

In 1935 the eminent German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued that philosophy is a distinctively European activity and that nothing quite like it ever existed in Asia until Asians were exposed to western culture. Husserl acknowledged that there were certain resemblances in the activities of western thinkers and certain Chinese and Indian writers. But he claimed that these similarities were superficial and served to mask profound differences that were far more important. The distinguishing feature of genuine philosophy, he said, is not simply the enterprise of discovering universal truths, living in accordance with them and forming social organisations dedicated to educating future generations. More than anything else, said Husserl, the enterprise of philosophy should be understood as a purely theoretical attitude, an exclusively intellectual practice, whose descendants are pure mathematics and pure theoretical science.

Traditional Asian thinkers, he observed, never got away from the practical issues of serving humanity, ordering human life in the world and making the human as happy and free from disease and distress as possible. Since Husserl’s time, other European and American intellectuals have cautioned against applying western cultural terminology to what non-western cultures have done. Debates have been waged over whether Confucius, the Buddha and Zhuangzi – admirable and intriguing as they are – should be mentioned in the same breath (or taught in the same courses) as Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes and Husserl.

Partly because these issues, like most that philosophers debate, are unlikely ever to be resolved, and partly because doing justice to the contours of two-and-a-half millennia of European, Indian and Chinese thought is a daunting task, books treating all three philosophical traditions are almost as scarce as unicorns.

It is not only because Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s book has so little competition that it stands out as an achievement in the field of comparative philosophy. The intelligent arrangement of the book, and the clarity and charm of his writing, make Ram-Prasad’s work one that is likely to endure.

***

Ram-Prasad has the wisdom not to try to do the impossible. Instead, he offers a tasteful blend of Asian philosophy on its own and on western terms.Ram-Prasad starts by laying the groundwork on which the the book is built. He observes that Indian thinkers were most concerned with what it means to say of something that it exists – that it is real as opposed to being merely an appearance or an illusion.

Questions of what is real, and how real things interact and cause one another, and what is essential and what is accidental, belong to the domain of philosophy that has come to be called metaphysics. Indian philosophy is metaphysical through and through, says Ram- Prasad, in that these metaphysical questions are the foundation of everything else Indians discussed. All consideration of what is good, practical, ethical or beautiful ultimately take root in the soil of metaphysics.

In China relatively little energy was expended on these metaphysical questions. The ultimate concern in ancient China, and in virtually all subsequent Chinese eras, was how people ought to live, what they must do to achieve inner and social harmony, what wise government is and what it means to be a responsible citizen. If other questions do arise, they relate to these ultimate meta- ethical questions.

Ram-Prasad argues that because these orientations are so different, when Chinese intellectuals were exposed to Indian ways of thinking, mostly through the introduction of Buddhism into China, they were barely able to make sense of what the Indians were saying. As a result, Chinese Buddhism evolved into a system of doctrines and attitudes that Indians would barely have been recognised as Buddhism. The book then offers an insightful and subtle discussion of ways of looking at the self. Although the main focus is on Indian and Chinese thinking on the self, the treatment also brings in western notions of self, personhood and agency. Ram-Prasad endeavours to explain why some Indian Hindus argued that the basic stuff of the entire universe is one’s true self, whereas Indian Buddhists argued that there is no self except as a convenient social fiction.

While Indians agonised over this problem for centuries, the Chinese barely addressed the issue. While metaphysical Indian Buddhists were busy denying that the socially conditioned self has ultimate being, the metaethical Chinese Buddhists were busy explaining why being selfish makes one socially unfit. Having discussed the self, Ram-Prasad devotes two chapters to what is good: the “Outward Good” and the “Inward Good”. He discusses how a variety of thinkers, Indian and Chinese, saw how the outward goods of social justice, harmony and stability are related to the personal virtues of wisdom, compassion, humanity and sincerity. Generally speaking, he argues, Indian philosophers emphasised the cultivation of personal virtue, of which social goods were a fortunate by-product, while Chinese philosophers focused on the importance of social goods, which personal virtues are deemed necessary to achieve.

***

If you’re looking for a book that systematically lays out the thought of Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Mozi, or the schools of Indian or Chinese Buddhism, Ram-Prasad’s work is not the one. But if you want to see the kinds of questions that have arisen on just about every aspect of being human, and are prepared to encounter a thrilling array of possible answers, this book is sure to be stimulating. Ram-Prasad has a gift for laying out philosophical positions so they all seem reasonable and compelling, no matter how much they differ. And in this he shows himself to be a first-rate writer of philosophy – even by Husserl’s narrow definition.

About Matthew Dasti

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

4 thoughts on “Richard Hayes’ review of Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s *Eastern Philosophy*

  1. While browsing through “Indian Philosophy and the Consequences of Knowledge” yesterday, I noticed that reference to Sri Aurobindo is absent while Gandhi (as mandatorily) is there. Even the chapter on Consciousness, though alluded to certain notions Sri Aurobindo has foregrounded, doesn’t mention him. While this reticence and exclusion is not uncommon, neglecting Sri Aurobindo’s Supramental Evolutionary theory doesn’t do justice to the treatment of the subject. Transformation through Knowledge has also a bearing on our bodily existence and the hope of surmounting Death. Regrettably, such profound applications of Philosophy is being downplayed by current commentators. [TNM55]

  2. Lest anyone (e.g., young students, non-experts, and the like) be tempted to infer from this that Aurobindo has routinely been neglected in the study of religions and philosophy (comparative or otherwise) I want to note that my late friend and beloved teacher, Ninian Smart, one of the trailblazers in the global and comparative study of religions and worldviews (including their philosophical examination), did not forget or ignore Aurobindo’s works. For instance, Ninian penned an entry on Aurobindo in the well-known four volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Paul Edwards (Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967), wrote the essay, “Integral Knowledge and the Four Theories of Existence,” for H. Chaudhuri and F. Spiegelberg, eds., The Integral Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo: A Commemorative Symposium (George Allen and Unwin, 1960), wrote the entry on Aurobindo for A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, S. G. F. Brandon, ed. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1970), wrote “The Transcendence of Doctrines,” published in the Sri Aurobindo Circle, No. 16 (August 1959), contributed an essay, “Sri Aurobindo and History,” to Art and Letters: India, Pakistan, Ceylon, (London) The Royal India Pakistan and Ceylon Society, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1961), and included a discussion of Aurobindo in his book, World Philosophies, Oliver Leaman, ed. (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2008). (This is not an exhaustive list of all the places Ninian mentioned or discussed Aurobindo, but it highlights the more prominent treatments.)

    Some readers may also not be aware of Stephen H. Phillips’ book, Aurobindo’s Philosophy of Brahman (Brill, 1986) (he’s also published a fair amount of articles on this or that aspect of Aurobindo’s philosophy as well as reviews of works on Aurobindo’s thought).

  3. You are right, Patrick.

    Phillips was my dissertation advisor and while he doesn’t focus on Aurobindo, he has published on Aurobindo in a number of venues. The interpretation of Aurobindo is also the primary subject of his recent review of Bhushan and Garfield’s recent *Indian Philosophy in English: From Renaissance to Independence* (http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/philosophy_east_and_west/v063/63.4.phillips.html)

    Finally, let me again say that the best way to make it clear that a thinker is relevant is not to complain that others aren’t paying enough attention to him. Rather, make the case by arguing *why*. There are literally hundreds of thinkers that Ram could have discussed in this small book, but didn’t, given the space constraints in such a book.

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