Has Philosophy Lost Its Way? — Vaidya on the Case of Indian Philosophy

Anand Vaidya, a contributor here on the blog, has written a series of new posts over at the Blog of the APA (American Philosophical Association).  Anand is responding to some recent discussions about the value of philosophy as a discipline and whether philosophy has, as Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle put it, “lost its way.”  In Part One, Anand explains that much of the discussion revolves around two differing trajectories that Western philosophy has taken.

One trajectory sees the institutionalization of philosophy in the academy as a bad thing, something that robbed it of its quest to answer questions concerned with the good life and social justice. The other trajectory sees the institutionalization of philosophy as a continuation of its function in modern philosophy and a move that ultimately enabled philosophy to flourish in answering and contributing to the production of knowledge and better ways of being.

But much of the discussion has focused on Western philosophy, so he asks,

… what can be said of the development of other kinds of philosophy, such as Chinese Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Latin American Philosophy, Africana or African American Philosophy, or Feminist Philosophy?

In Part Two, Anand looks to Indian philosophy as another possible trajectory.  Drawing on the characterization of Indian philosophy in the work of J. L. Shaw, Anand discusses three terms that can be taken to mean something like “philosophy”: moksa-śāstra, ānvīkṣikī, and darśana.

… within Indian culture, mokśa-śāstra is an engagement with individual, social, and environmental suffering. […]

Ānvīkṣikī, which derives from the work of Kauṭilya (350-275 B.C.E.), a leading political philosopher of ancient India, has three meanings: (i) the lamp of all the sciences, (ii) a resource of methods for doing actions better, and (iii) a shelter for all virtues. […]

… in contrast to mokśa-śāstra and ānvīkṣikī, darśana aims to provide one with the means for realizing truths in one’s mind so as to operate from them in action. The goal of this area of inquiry is to practice and promote certain values.

From here, Anand argues that these terms represent a different trajectory for philosophy.

Although there are three different terms and activities, the union of these three activities, under Shaw’s interpretation, is the proper referent of “philosophy.” More importantly, it is true that all the schools of Indian philosophy, such as Advaita Vedānta, Nyāya, Buddhism, Jainism, Cārvāka, and Mīmāṃsā offer both a theory of reality and a practical guide to life. Hence, Indian philosophy does not, cannot, and would not end with theoretical beliefs alone that are divorced from virtue.

Read the full posts here and here.  Part Three should be available on the Blog of the APA soon.

What do you think?  If you have thoughts on this topic, feel free to leave them here or over at the Blog of the APA.

(Cross-posted to my personal blog)

18 thoughts on “Has Philosophy Lost Its Way? — Vaidya on the Case of Indian Philosophy

  1. I did not read Anand’s second article yet, so I will comment to your summary. In order to avoid misunderstandings, I assume that, according to your summary, the main conclusion would be the last sentence you quote above (Hence, Indian philosophy does not, will not and can not divorce from virtue).
    This is a fascinating thesis, but:
    1. I do not agree with the definition of moksaśāstra as dealing with “environmental suffering” (see the two posts dedicated to Chris Framarin’s book on this blog). In fact, I am also sceptical concerning “social suffering”.
    2. It all sounds too Vivekananda-like, with Indian philosophy taking the lead of world philosophy and bringing it back to what matters most, as in the Theosophical Society. It is a possible interpretation, but I would not present it as if it were the truth.
    3. Personally, I am inclined to think that people can get involved in the technicalities of inference no matter where they were born or where they studied.

    • I would second point #1 here. There is an acknowledgement that suffering is not necessarily “individual” since the idea of an individual is somewhat problematic in the first place – but the locus of suffering does not then become social or environmental in any sense we think of today.

    • 1. I’m not sure what to say about this, but one might look at contemporary Engaged Buddhism to see how earlier views on suffering could imply a concern for social suffering, which is of course a very different claim than saying that an explicit concern with social suffering is present in classical texts.

      2. I don’t get the impression that either Anand or Shaw are trying to bring back a kind of Vivekananda-style idea that “Indian philosophy can save us!” Anand’s point seems to be more modest: Indian philosophy is one tradition that never divorced philosophy from virtue or other goods (I personally don’t think this happened in Western philosophy until very recently, either).

      3. I agree on this point. Several years ago I did a conference paper in which I argued that, however mokṣa-minded they started out, when people like Dharmakīrti and Kumārila get down to business on issues like the nature of perception, they seem to me to be caught up in doing philosophy for the sheer curiosity and joy of it, which then later on comes back to soteriology or some way of life. This is somewhat echoing Daya Krishna’s famous paper on the myths of Indian philosophy, but I do think that Dharmakīrti may have started and ended seriously interested in nirvāṇa, but in the middle he seems to just be doing philosophy. Of course, on the other hand, there does seem to be a sense in which classical Indian philosophy, like Hellenistic philosophy is conceived of as being part of a way of life. But Stoics and Mīmāṃsākas still get to have some philosophical fun along the way!

  2. I appreciate Elisa’s warnings here. Tone is important. But I’d like to discuss a more general point, and we can thank Anand for putting his finger on it.

    I think that in the long-ago past when the Mohantys, Matilals, and Potters of the world were laying the foundation for the work many of us are doing, there was a way that Indian Philosophy was slightly denigrated as being less high minded than the Aristotelian vision “Philosophy begins in wonder.” For our thinkers, to generalize, philosophy has a purpose: to help us live better in some way or other. I think this was, or could have been seen as “merely pragmatic.” Philosophy is not an end in itself, but serves another end. (KK Chakrabarti has a nice 1984 paper that touches on this, something like “Some Remarks on Indian Theories of Truth.”)

    But I think that this is yet another virtue of a Non-western tradition that is only being appreciated more now. We are still escaping from the denigration of philosophy as providing direction in life as was common in mid 20th century academic philosophy.

    Personally, I always thought that this Aristotelian account of the origin of philosophy was really off, suitable only for some grand thinkers like him but not at all how many of us got interested in the subject.

    Maybe it begins like that for a few people. But then is philosophy nothing more than intellectual puzzles for the elite? I prefer the Platonic vision that we start by trying to live well, and we do philosophy because we need to think clearly about really important things to live well. And this, too, is how my favorite Indian thinkers tend to approach the subject.

    Incidentally, this is a major theme of a paper I’ve recently written on Vātsyāyana. It’s here (but behind a paywall).


    Let me add a final note: none of this is to deny the often hair-splitting subtlety in logic, hermeneutics, and metaphysics that some of our authors provide. But they generally underscore that there is a direct line from even this richly theoretical work to some kind of personal good.

    • I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of Indian philosophy (especially Buddhism) as “pragmatic”. I think it is probably true at some level, but highly misleading. In the West we can often associate pragmatism with an almost anti-philosophical attitude of the sort put forward by Wittgenstein, Rorty and Fish (“Philosophy leaves everything as it is”, “Philosophy doesn’t equip you to do anything except more philosophy”). To push that a little deeper, Rorty at one point equates pragmatism with utilitarianism applied to knowledge. And Indian philosophies are very, very far removed from utilitarianism. Charles Goodman takes a controversially utilitarian interpretation of Śāntideva, who is already easier to interpret in that direction than most Indian philosophers, but even he is ready to admit it is something very different from conventional utilitarianism in that it is about minimizing the suffering created by causes internal to the mind.

      Taking it back to your point, what I think we could say Indian philosophy offers, instead, is a high-minded pragmatism: the pragmatism is aimed not at getting people more money (as utilitarianism typically is) but at humanity’s final and highest end, its telos.

    • Good points, Matthew. The oddest thing to me about the so-called “Aristotelian” conception of pure theory is that it doesn’t seem to be Aristotle’s view. In Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle quite clearly situates theoria as a part of the best life for human beings.

      But, someone might object, Aristotle doesn’t see theoria as motivated by a desire for a good life; it’s supposed to be for its own sake, and the good life is a result of it but not the aim of it. Indian philosophers, on the other hand, are apparently motivated by mokṣa; mokṣa is not a mere result of philosophy, but the aim of philosophy.

      I’m not so sure that such a clean distinction between the two can be made. It’s not entirely clear to me that Aristotelians would care much about pure theory if it weren’t tied up in some way with the good life, and it’s not entirely clear that you have to see mokṣa as Indian philosophers’ aim with philosophy as a mere means.

      Both situations may result in a paradox: philosophy is a means to the good, but if you worry too much about it as a means, it won’t result in that good. If philosophy achieves its aim by finding the truth or cultivating a specific mental state or whatever, how can it achieve that aim if you were to think of it merely as a means? Would philosophy result its instrumental aim (mokṣa, the good life, etc.) if you thought of it purely instrumentally?

      Maybe this isn’t a real paradox and I’ve misunderstood something. Still, it might help to aim for a clearer understanding of the ways in which philosophy and the good life/mokṣa could be related.

    • Which, one might then be tempted to say, is a considerably more pragmatic and less high-minded view than any classical Indian philosopher would want to take.

  3. I recall that when I was writing my first book, Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought, some years after Prof. Matilal (my supervisor) passed away, I had some people in our then rather scattered field concerned that I was turning away from the stern task of doing ‘philosophy’ by asking what our classical thinkers were doing the ‘philosophy’ for (mokṣa/nirvāṇa, naturally!). I wish at that time I had known about the work of Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life) and Michel Foucault (The Hermeneutics of the Subject), making a point that was subsequently well explored by eminent philosophers of Greek thought like Richard Sorabji and Christopher Gill, namely that the love of wisdom was rooted in the care for the self, that analysis was a spiritual exercise. The formidable demands of doing comparative or inter-cultural or ‘fusion’ philosophy not just between classical Indian and modern/contemporary Western as most of us do, but also classical Western sources has stopped most of us from, in a way, just dismissing the hyper-anti-teleological attitude of conventional analytic philosophy: look, your own intellectual heritage (yea, even unto Descartes!) goes back to exactly the sort of motivation to inquiry that we find in classical India! So if we take historical context and the long view seriously, there is no real basis for the sort of worry with which we have often been confronted in the form of analytic philosophy’s self-image.

    • That’s a good point about the temporal imbalance of a lot of comparative philosophy. While there’s a lot to be learned from Matilal-style comparisons with contemporary analytic philosophy, I think there’s just as much to be learned from comparisons with ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and, as you point out, even modern philosophers like Descartes! In fact, Indian philosophers are in some cases closer to the contemporary analytic ideal than some Western figures. Compare Naiyāyikas with Epicureans, for whom the only point of philosophy is happiness, which they see as requiring only minimal attention to logic and epistemology.

  4. Thanks for these thoughts, Ram. Your book is definitely one of the important works that have helped ground the rediscovery of what was there but obscured. I think that people like you have had to walk the razor’s edge in another related way: Scholars in our field also push back too hard against the quick claim of yore that all Indian philosophy is spiritual or religious and often go too far in the other direction, secularizing things and making them “respectable” more than is warranted.

    To correctly articulate the varied ways that soteriology and philosophy proper intersect in our thinkers is not easy.

    I would add to all of this that the good that is produced by knowledge is not only liberation, of course. Vātsyāyana, for example, says plainly that we require pramāṇa-generated cognition to succeed in all four of the classical goals of life.

    • Absolutely, Matthew. My current book project is on bodily being in different genres of Indian literature, with very varied expressions of ends: medical, gendered, emotional and erotic.

  5. Hi All

    Great comments. Solid discussion. Just some thoughts. I don’t think that Jay Shaw is trying to bring back any kind of specific philosopher based understanding of philosophy, such as through Vivkeananda. I think he finds within Indian philosophy three strands, which can be defined in different ways. I defer to you all on this, since I am no expert on the issue of how those different strands can and should be defined. I signaled in the article, clearly, that it is controversial. In addition, I don’t think he is saying that Indian philosophy is not technical or that Indian philosophy will save us and usher us all back to what matters. Wow Elisa did I say that somewhere. I did’t find myself saying that. I think he, and his work, suggests that Indian philosophy can be seen to be as technical and as practical as any part of western philosophy where the two are said to be divorced in contemporary work by one reading. Finally, I think the point of the pieces is to use, a somewhat controversial account of Indian philosophy, as controversial as the one’s at play in western philosophy, to suggest that talking about the hope of philosophy without including discussion o non-western traditions, well seems weird. I am mistaken to think that this did not come across. My writing skills must have gone haywire.

    Anyway, all interesting points. Hopefully, we can get more engagement from others in western philosophy and Indian philosophy, and other traditions, who might want to shed light on how we can see this question ” What is Philosophy’s proper home in a different way? ”

    • Dear Anand,
      no, your skills have not vanished at all. I hoped I had clearly stated that I was only responding to the summary of your post (see the first paragraph of my comment) and the risks it implies. Once again, thanks for raising the topic to the attention of a broader public.

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