Philosophy and Cultural Diversity: A Follow Up On Keating’s Questions

The Philosophy Meets Cultural Diversity Conference has now ended. And I wanted to return to Malcolm Keating’s Questions. I won’t address his questions directly, although some of what I say will hit on issues his questions raise. I will begin by talking about my impression of what Stephen Phillips had to say. I have asked him to do a reply post, so as to present his own counter-balanced version of what was said. Here are some basic points I got from his presentation:

(i) It is very important to study Indian thoughts about knowledge and agency through a traditional study of classical Indian philosophy informed by knowledge of Sanskrit and educated intuitions formed through engagement with traditional texts guided by masters of these texts. This method is to be preferred to single empirical tests of folk intuitions about the nature of knowledge by native Hindi or Bengali speakers that some experimental philosophy involves itself in.

(ii) In general, and cross-culturally, philosophy is a first-person response to the cultural heritage from which one is trained in. Philosophy is not identical to or involved in the same type of inquiry as science. Paying attention to science is important for general inquiry, but it may not be that informative for an investigation of, for example, the nature of reasoning, as discussed in the Nyāyasutras.

(iii) Bilingualism understood as both fluency in multiple languages and in multiple traditions is the preferred way to pursue comparative and global philosophy. Experimental philosophy will not add to a deeper understanding of either of these traditions. And the data that is produced may not be that interesting for the amount of work that is put into gathering the data.

(iv) Some traditions of philosophy are quite rich and involved. Others are not so rich and involved. The classical Indian tradition of philosophy is rich and involved, and it takes a lot of time to understand the deep intricacies of what is going on in the development, for example, of pramāṇa in Nyāya from the early period to the later period. Moreover, the folk probably don’t have refined thoughts about realism and idealism, so a study of classical Indian texts is to be preferred to asking the folk in Bengali what they think about object persistence.

I found almost all of what Stephen said to be eye-opening, helpful, and worthy of engagement. Some of the crowd pushed back taking a negative message from his points. I read them in a more positive way. I thought the encouragement was, as he said, to take the plunge into classical Indian philosophy. I read this message as being: Do both A and B, where A = classical Indian philosophy, and B = experimental philosophy. I read this as a way of improving experimental philosophy by studying classical Indian philosophy seriously. The message being: it is a bad idea to just study the intuitions of folk speakers of the language, such as Bengali folk intuitions about knowledge by students at a university in Indian. Some people took his comments as suggesting that one should not do experimental philosophy, but rather just do classical Indian philosophy, since there won’t be that much that comes out of experimental philosophy. It might best for him to clarify exactly what the message is.

Moving off of his points I will now add in some of my own.

(i) Indian philosophy is an enterprise that is wholly nondependent on experimental philosophy or anthropology or cognitive psychology. However, experimental philosophy is dependent on Sanskrit, classical Indian philosophy, and cross-cultural linguistics.

(ii) Those interested in classical Indian philosophy do not need to be keeping up with the literature from experimental philosophy and, for example, anthropology, when investigating classical Indian philosophy. Anthropologist, likewise, need not be worrying about classical Indian philosophy. However, they may want to take note of Sanskrit studies.

(iii) There is an interesting and engaging enterprise that can come from combining comparative philosophy and experimental philosophy. The combined philosophy, call it TCE involves the following. T = theoretical: identifying a phenomenon in the human condition, such as knowledge or agency, and presenting a question about it conceptually, such as does knowledge require truth. = cross-cultural: articulating a cross-cultural investigation of the phenomenon, such as knowledge and agency, through comparative philosophy. E = experimental / empirical: adumbrating the comparative work with relevant material from experimental philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, social psychology. The complete package functions in the space of public philosophy and not in the space of academic philosophy. The aim is collective enrichment through cross-cultural and multidisciplinary inquiry. Of course classical Indian philosophy in the hands of those that are bilingual in Phillips’ sense have a lot to contribute to the T and components of the project. And in collaboration with E-stye specialists, there is much to be gained. However, I think the gain is most relevant on the public philosophy side, not on the academic side. For example, classical Indian philosophy is not going to be improved by research from cross-cultural linguistics or experimental philosophy, since classical Indian philosophy requires more Sanskrit research and more knowledge of the core texts non-experimentally studied.

(iv) Variation in intuitions between native Hindi and Bengali speakers in contrast to U.S. college students is problematic for a number of reasons, some of these reasons are well known, and people are working on how to ameliorate the problem. Here there are two that need to be distinguished: (a) access to quality data vs. (b) what quality data would show.

Concerning (a) there are also two issues. First, there is the underdetermination problem. A response to a question on a survey about whether a case presented in Hindi is a case of knowledge or simply a case of mere belief does not uniquely determine what is driving the response. In order for the response to matter, it must be the case that the respondent is being sincere, attentive in their reading, and responsive for the right reasons (i.e. not simply trying to get the right answer but actually giving their answer to the question based on their intuitive response). Second, there is the much discussed individuation problem. If two communities of speakers, for example, native Bengali vs. native English, give different answers (in their own language) to the question Does A know X or Merely Believe X, then one could simply say that the speakers don’t share a common concept. The general issue is the following. For divergence in responses between two speakers, A and B, to show variation under the same concept, it must also be true that A and B agree over certain other features, and sufficiently many. For example, Suppose A, B, and C have the following profile:

A: Thinks that knowledge does not require justification, but it requires truth.

B: Thinks that knowledge does require justification, and it requires truth.

C: Thinks that knowledge does not require justification or truth.

Now depending on what parameter the investigator thinks is important we get different answers about variation. Suppose truth is dominant, then A and B share a concept, but differ over justification. So, knowledge, varies cross-culturally with respect to justification. But, suppose that justification is dominant, then A and C share a concept, but differ over truth. So, knowledge, varies cross-culturally with respect to truth.

In general, this could be called the investigator-dependence problem. Given a data set with sufficient variation, the investigator must impose a criterion for selecting what concept is in common, such that variation can be discovered.

Some people argue that this problem puts an end to the possibility of experimental philosophy. There is a wide literature on this problem, and some of my earlier papers deal with this issue. But again, there is a lot on this problem.

But suppose we could avoid these issues, and actually get quality data, what would that show? Suppose it turned out that there is variation over some parameters. We could then potentially discover what the common core of our concept of knowledge is, by seeing what parameter stayed in common, if any. Consider the example of A, B, C, from that case, there is no common core to knowledge. However, it could turn out otherwise, say that C actually thought truth mattered, then A, B, and C would share a common notion of knowledge with respect to truth, but vary over the importance of justification. Along these lines one of the speakers (Eve Danzinger) argued that perhaps the common core of knowledge is being held accountable. The idea being that when someone says they know something, they are putting themselves out there as being held accountable for what they have said.

Ultimately, I thought that the conference was eye-opening in that it raised a lot of old issues, concept individuation, in a new way and a new place. I felt that there is a lot to learn from cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy. Thus: If the question is: how should classical Indian philosophers modify their practice and research in light of these ideas and new ways of engaging things? I would say: don’t worry. Nothing here changes classical Indian philosophical practice. However, if the question is: Can classical Indian philosophers contribute to a new enterprise that will help present important ideas from the tradition to the public and to other parts of academia? I would say: absolutely. So the real issue is one of involvement. Do you want to be involved in a new direction of collaborative engagement?Where you can help control how Indian philosophy may make its way into other parts of academia and the public? Many of the experimental philosophers expressed a strong interest to learn from comparative philosophers and classical Indian philosophers in order to practice their discipline in a more informed way.

I will post more in the replies. Enough for now.

6 Replies to “Philosophy and Cultural Diversity: A Follow Up On Keating’s Questions”

  1. Anand, thanks for writing such a detailed summary of the conference and your thoughts. I’m curious to hear more about your point (iii). You make two claims–first, that the gains from what you’re calling the “TCE” model of philosophy are on the public philosophy side and second, that “classical Indian philosophy is not going to be improved by research from cross-cultural linguistics…”

    I’m interested in hearing in what way you think there are gains in public philosophy (perhaps just describing what you mean by “public philosophy” would help). You say it leads to “collective enrichment”–is this just the idea that people would come to have more knowledge of the perspectives of different cultures? Or do you have something else in mind?

    I’m also curious about why you think, for instance, cross-cultural linguistics won’t turn out to be helpful for classical Indian philosophy. If what you mean is just that it doesn’t help us understand the intentions of the authors writing in Sanskrit many years ago, that much seems right. But it seems to me that cross-cultural work in, say, pragmatics (metaphors, wordplay, etc.) could help us critically engage with the categories drawn by Ālaṅkārikas. And work in cognitive psychology on language processing seems relevant to thinking about how, say, dhvani-vādins might be right to see a “reverberation effect” in some varieties of non-literal speech. Perhaps you would classify that as more “comparative philosophy,” however.

  2. Hi Malcolm,

    Thanks for the response. I am going to do a separate post soon on the public philosophy question. For now, let me just address the other question about cross-cultural linguistics that you raised.

    You say:

    But it seems to me that cross-cultural work in, say, pragmatics (metaphors, wordplay, etc.) could help us critically engage with the categories drawn by Ālaṅkārikas. And work in cognitive psychology on language processing seems relevant to thinking about how, say, dhvani-vādins might be right to see a “reverberation effect” in some varieties of non-literal speech.

    To which I agree completely. Especially on the point about cognitive psychology. I only meant to reduce the significance of cross-cultural linguistics to reading primary texts, as you suggested. But even here I feel I may have over stretched. The safer claim is that the significance has not been brought to my attention yet. And I would be delighted to learn of the significance, since I generally promote cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy.

    More on public philosophy to come soon. And I will address the questions you asked.

  3. zrI-gaNezAya namaH, Thanks, Ananda, for taking away much from my talk. Let me summarize your main points, but first I’d like to stress that I do not believe that philosophers need to learn Sanskrit in order to incorporate classical Indian positions into their theories, any more than one needs to know Greek in order to incorporate what Plato says in the *Meno* into a contemporary theory of knowledge. With textbooks as well as with philosophic theories, on the other hand, carefully crafted positions emerging in whatever culture should, it seems to me, ideally inform efforts.

    Consider the textbook in critical thinking that you were describing to me. Surely one would want to include the disputational theory forged by Islamic philosophers who broke with the Aristotelian mainstream, but not, I take it, an anthropological study of what people in the street in Cairo think. You would not need an anthropological contribution, written from the third-person perspective, reporting “Cairo critical thinking.” Not that that would not be interesting to some, but it would not carry us far for, e.g., a philosophic understanding of debate.

    Similarly, what people say about Gettier problems in Delhi or Hong Kong does not seem to me to be nearly as relevant for a philosophic theory of knowledge as the pramANa theories of classical thinkers, which were ironed out over generations. Probably intuitions about perception or inference or testimony as possibly erroneous would emerge in the course of contemporary interviews, and indeed one can find non-factive usages in the epics and elsewhere in Sanskrit literature. But, to speak about NyAya, philosophers had their intuitions shaped by a theoretical inheritance upon which they then built, intuitions that came to restrict an understanding of genuine perception, inference, and testimony to that which is true. A contemporary theory of knowledge needs to heed such educated intuitions if it is not to be hopelessly ethnocentric but not the uneducated intuitions reported by anthropologists.

    Now of course I need not be so either-or in making this point and I admire your spirit of the both-and, of the inclusion of anthropological studies, as you suggest. Yes, this may be right when it comes to theory of knowledge; at least I cannot at the moment think of any good reason to exclude scientific studies. But consider the knowledge source of testimony. Is the man or woman in the street even going to have an opinion about ambiguity, or indirect indication, or dhvani (suggestion as a third power of words), or sentence meaning as opposed to word reference? Yes, as Malcolm Keating says, linguistics may help us here, but not anthropology. Surely the great philosophic traditions take us far deeper into such subjects than can be expected from a person not educated in philosophy. What’s wrong with philosophic training or shaping of concepts? Why must we try continually to reinvent philosophy? I found the attitude of some of those who wanted to be open to other cultures through the anthropological route to be highly ethnocentric, giving anthropology as an excuse not to take the time to be enriched by other traditions reflecting patient examination of knowledge and action over generations of response and fine-tuning of philosophic theories which are best responded to by engagement and first-person incorporation.

    May there be prosperity in every way, Stephen

  4. Hi Stephen

    Thanks for a wonderful post, and for counterbalancing my representation of your ideas. There may be little difference in what we are saying, since I am simply on the both-and point and you are not pushing a strong either-or point. But let me clarify that I agree that we learn a lot from being bilingual in the sense you were suggesting at the conference: learning the literature of both Classical Indian philosophy. and what evolves from it, in conjunction with Classical Greek philosophy, and what evolves from it. So, I am wholeheartedly in the camp that wants to push philosophers of the future into the direction of being at least bilingual if not multilingual. But I also sense a need for experimental work from any number of disciplines, such as cognitive science, anthropology, experimental philosophy, not to mention math and physics, to be inserted alongside high quality bilingual philosophy. I guess my pitch for that has to do with my interest in cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy as a form of public philosophy aimed at collective enrichment in understanding through the reduction of cognitive and cultural biases inherent in knowledge acquisition and understanding. But I will say more on that in response to Malcolm’s request for a broader account of my picture of public philosophy. Once again, thanks so much for you wisdom at the conference and here on the blog.


  5. Pingback: “Gettier” Intuition Across CulturesThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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