A plea for more mutual knowledge and cooperation among scholars

If you work on Indian Philosophy in North America, you are probably in a department of Religious Studies (or of Philosophy, or of South Asian Studies), you are a member of the RISA newsletter, attend the annual AAR conference (perhaps also the APA one), publish and read books by North American University Presses, have the problems usually connected with attaining a TT position or a tenure, etc. etc. More importantly, your environment suggests you to include Indian texts in great philosophical enterprises. You need to be aware of the last methodological advancements and to know the jargon and the methods of religious studies (and/or of anthropology, philosophy, etc.).

If you work on Indian Philosophy in Europe, you are probably in an Institute of classical Indology or of Oriental Studies (or of Classics, only rarely of Philosophy or of Religious Studies), you are a member of the Indology newsletter, attend once in three years the World Sanskrit Conference, the IABS conference, perhaps also the DOT and the other various national and international conferences, publish and read books by Brill, Routledge, Harrassowitz, Peter Lang, OUP or CUP and other European University Presses, have the problems usually connected with having your projects financed, etc. etc. More importantly, your environment often suggests you to be precise, analytic, historically, philologically and linguistically accurate in collecting and analysing your data.

Mutatis mutandis, similar differences apply to scholars in Japan and India (where there are also important scholarly communities working on Indian philosophy).

I know, these are gross generalisations and as such they are also incorrect. There are many North American, Indian and Japanese scholars in the Indology mailing list, or publishing on Journal of Indian Philosophy, or at the WSC; as well as there are many European scholars in the RISA mailing list, at the AAR conference or publishing on Philosophy East and West. Similarly, there are Indian scholars publishing on Indogaku Bukkyōgaku Kenkyū and North American ones publishing on the Adyar Library Bulletin and so on.

Yet, it is a pity that, although our community is extremely small (a middle sized bank in a state capital has more employees than there are scholars of Indian philosophy in the world), we often ignore our colleagues’ work, which are published in journals and presses we are not used to check. Thus, European scholars often ignore the achievements of their North American, Indian and Japanese colleagues and vice versa.

Personally, I hope that this blog will be a small contribution towards the goal of knowing each other and working together to the shared goal of improving our knowledge of Indian thought. In this sense, our different methodological strengths could make a cooperation even more important and fruitful.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

17 Replies to “A plea for more mutual knowledge and cooperation among scholars”

  1. Thanks for the great post,and for the work you’ve been doing to bridge this gap Elisa! As a U.S. trained (University of New Mexico) philosopher working out of a philosophy department in Europe (Leiden) I think I know where you’re coming from!

    I think part of the academic-cultural differences you describe above comes from the fact that there’s a small but significant number of philosophers trained at or working in philosophy departments in the U.S. (especially since the philosophy departments of Univ of Texas-Austin, Univ of New Mexico and Univ of Hawai’i and Carbondale have had excellent programs in Indian philosophy). This isn’t absent of course in Europe (at least in England–Liverpool for instance), but most of the work done in Indian philosophy does come out of non-philosophy programs.

    So one thing I’m wondering is whether there’s sense of unity for those working out of South Asian/Language departments, whether in the U.S. or Europe or wherever, vs those working out of philosophy departments. Although as you say, statements like this will always be over-generalizations.

    But I do think the training one gets from various kinds of programs will be very different, and therefore there are somewhat different markers of quality between publications coming out of respective departments (or by persons trained in certain kinds of departments). So it’s much more natural for a philosopher to abstract strands of a tradition and formulate it into a coherent argument, even when this isn’t done as a careful in depth study of a specific text, for instance.

    Anyway, the main point of this comment is to agree that blogs like this can help bridge divisions whether regional or disciplinary, and this is something that I fully agree with you that we should do.

    • Thanks, Stephen and let us hope that the IPh Blog will contribute to this purpose!
      As far as my experience reaches, I would not say that there is a unity among scholars in Europe, Japan, North America and India provided that they all work in a department of South Asian studies (or similar ones). And I, for one, very much enjoy working with people of the universities you mention…

  2. I believe you mean middle-sized banks, I guess 🙂

    Anyway, it’s really strange for me to read such a post which is limited to philosophy and “philolosophers.” We all know this is not the only field to which this type of analysis can be applied. Lately I have a strange feeling, I think of myself as a historian, but alas, I’m not working in a history department. Actually, I’m working with an anthropology department, which can be enriching and frustrating at the same time. Moreover, I think I might be described as a European who is suggested “to be precise, analytic, historically, philologically and linguistically accurate in collecting and analysing your data.” I hope this description fits for every scholar in humanities, regardless of his or her provenance and field of study. So, what to do with this comment of mine? I suggest we broaden the picture to the situation of humanities in general, it might be amusing.

      • Yep, of course you’re right! It’s just that for different reasons lately I’ve been thinking about the state of humanities in western (European and American) academic institutions, and when I read your post it struck me because it fits also to other disciplines.

  3. Thank you, Elisa! I think almost everyone here will agree with your sentiments. As someone in the North American camp, I’ve appreciated reading the blog. I hope we might also hear from more Japanese and Indian scholars on the blog, too.

    One relevant idea I’m thinking about for a future post is to think through what I’m calling “the Matilal strategy” — using comparisons between classical Indian philosophy and contemporary analytic philosophy as a means of making our discipline more visible and interesting to our philosophy colleagues. My sense is that almost everyone who studies Indian philosophy in a philosophy department in the anglophone world has been greatly influenced by Matilal (and also by Mohanty and Karl Potter). But I suspect Matilal’s approach has been less influential in continental Europe and Japan. I wonder why that is. I also wonder if the Matilal strategy has some disadvantages that we should think about as we try to make our field more visible.

    I hope to write a full post about this soon, but I thought I’d mention it, since it seems like a topic where it will help to have the mutual knowledge and cooperation you’re calling for!

    • Many thanks, Ethan! I think I am not alone in thinking that Matilal significantly changed the way I work on Indian philosophy, although you might be right re. his use of comparisons to Analytic world (which is in fact the part of his work I am less enthusiastic about —because, I am afraid it brings people to think that Indian philosophy “is almost as good as” Analytic philosophy).

      By the way, perhaps we should state that we welcome also anonymous contributors? A Japanese colleague told me that he would never dare writing on a blog, for fear of what colleagues and peers might think about that.

      • “Almost as good as analytic philosophy” … that’s a good way of phrasing the concern. I’ve also wondered whether contemporary analytic philosophers might read Matilal style comparisons and think something like, “It’s quaint that these people almost thought about the *real* problems that we analytic philosophers think about.” But on the other hand, maybe Matilal’s approach would get them to acknowledge Indian philosophy in some fashion. This is probably more salient in Britain, North America, and Australia where analytic philosophy is the mainstream.

        Another approach I’ve been thinking about would be to make inroads in the history of philosophy. You like to say, Elisa, that you want to make Indian philosophy a part of philosophy. I think what we actually do in terms of reading and interpreting texts is closer to what our colleagues in ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy do. They also make connections to contemporary philosophy.

        • I think you’re both right on all counts here. I love the “almost as good as analytic philosophy” phrase – if all you are showing is that Indians said the same things as analytic philosophers, then why bother reading the Indians when you could read the analytic philosophers?

          I agree that history of philosophy is really the ideal place to make some inroads, since the concerns of historians of philosophy are much closer to those to scholars of Indian philosophy. It’s also worth paying close attention to the places that mainstream Western philosophers are already thinking about Indian philosophy – notice how much attention both Owen Flanagan and Slavoj Žižek (who don’t exactly have a great deal in common with each other) are lavishing on Buddhism!

  4. Interesting idea, Ethan. Keep in mind that the Matilal Strategy would be called the Vlastos Strategy if you were in Classics and did Ancient Philosophy. IMHO, both men were important in changing the attitudes toward ancient thought, underscoring that the ancient philosophers aren’t dead (so to speak); if we read them with philosophical rigorousness and a little creativity, we can see that they have much to say to say to perennial issues and problems. We need not study them as mere historical curiosities. Of course, Matilal was also facing various sorts of ethnocentric biases as well.

    • Great point, Matthew. I think we have a lot to learn from our colleagues in ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and maybe they could learn from us. Another potential problem with the Matilal strategy is, I think, that a fair amount of analytic philosophers are not really interested in the history of philosophy at all. Maybe we’d be better off thinking of ourselves on a similar path as interesting historians of philosophy like Vlastos, Julia Annas, or Pierre Hadot, all of whom stress what we today can learn from the ancients.

      I’ve been reading some of Matilal’s work lately, and he does explicitly talk about his strategy as a way to undermine ethnocentric biases.

      • Vlastos, Annas and Hadot all sound like great models to me. As is Martha Nussbaum – at least in her early work, which is a major presence in my diss on Śāntideva.

        • I agree with Amod, Matthew and Ethan and personally see my own work as ideengeschichtlich (aiming at the reconstruction of the history of ideas). The only problem is that history of philosophy is itself struggling for survival (at least in the US, as far I can understand) and may in this sense not be willing to open doors to further stimuli. What do you think?

          • I’m not sure if it’s dying, Elisa. In some ways, there has been the increasing recognition that doing the history of philosophy is meaningful and relevant to the discipline, which is a welcome departure from some of the attitudes prevalent in the middle of the 20th century. Thanks to people like Vlastos, people now do history of philosophy in philosophy departments, and in dialogue with their non-historian colleagues.

  5. Elisa, I’d say that your post helped me remember just how different things can be in our different areas (actual physical areas, not theoretical specialties).

    For most of us in America, much of our time is spent in teaching, working with students, and preparing teaching materials. The handful of people who do Indian philosophy at R-1 schools may have more time for research, but they still spend much time teaching and engaged with students. For the rest of us at middle-sized state schools or smaller liberal arts colleges and the like, there is a significant expectation of being a good, engaged teacher. While there is a lot of pious talk about how teaching and research complement each other, at the undergraduate level the two aren’t always so complementary.

    That said, I do think that such absorption in undergraduate teaching helps many of us to recognize the way in which the growth of Indian philosophy will depend in no small measure upon our ability to talk to people like our undergraduates, to make materials that they can be interested in, understand, and become inspired by, and not just talking to–or toward–our specialist colleagues.

  6. Pingback: The Matilal StrategyThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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