Over at Daily Nous, Justin Weinberg points to a website, created by Derek Bowman, that is hosting a series of interviews with “free range” philosophers, people who are academically trained as philosophers but have chosen to do something else with their careers. An interview there with Bharath Vallabha caught my eye as being of interest to our readers. A description:
Bharath Vallabha received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University, and he held a tenure-track position in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College before leaving academic employment. In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about the experience and challenge of integrating his familial introduction to Indian philosophy with his academic training in Western philosophy, the philosophical necessity of pluralism, his reasons for leaving a tenure-track position, and his take on the challenge and promise of being a philosopher outside of the academy.
Here’s one part of the interview:
DEREK: Would it have been helpful for you as a student if there were classes in Indian philosophy, or generally non-western philosophy, alongside classes on Aristotle and Kant?
BHARATH: Yes, absolutely. In fact, more than helpful: it was a necessity for me as a student which my education failed to provide.
Pluralism is sometimes criticized as “identity politics”. The idea is that if someone like me wants classes in Indian philosophy, it must be because I care more about affirming the Indian part of my identity than pursuing truth. This is nonsense. My desire to have classes in Indian philosophy wasn’t so that I can mindlessly affirm Indian culture, but so that I could think critically about my background.
I grew up with concepts key to Indian culture and philosophy such as dharma, moksha, atman, reincarnation and so on. As a student at Cornell and Harvard I wanted to think critically about these concepts, so as to make up my mind about what I think about them, and to reject them if necessary. I was happy to learn Plato and Kant. But when I tried to apply the western philosophy I learnt to the concepts I grew up with, I hit upon questions such as: Is the concept of reincarnation the same in Plato and the Gita? How does dharma relate to the categorical imperative? Is atman the same as a Cartesian soul? The questions didn’t seem like only translation issues, but philosophical questions in their own right. And yet there was no one to turn to for help. It was impossible to tell how to connect western philosophy to Indian philosophy when the latter was not even taught.
Sometimes it is said, “But Indian philosophy is taught in Indian studies departments, or the Divinity school, etc. Stop complaining about philosophy departments: go study it where it can be found.” Of course there are wonderful philosophers in these departments. But the issue is not where experts in Indian philosophy are located. It is how to foster systematic dialogue between traditions such that it is evident to students what it means to connect Indian philosophy with western philosophy, and vice versa. It is not a matter of taking some classes “over there”, but of seeing that a cosmopolitan education requires a dialogue between the world’s traditions.
As long as it is treated as normal that Indian philosophy is taught only in Indian studies departments and not in philosophy departments, it will be natural to think that Indian philosophy is local and not universal. People who equate pluralism with identity politics naively assume that the current institutional set up is tracking some essence of Indian philosophy; that while western philosophy can be separated from its culture (“it has its own department!”), Indian philosophy cannot be (“it is part of Indian studies!”). It is really time to get past this simple minded adherence to the status quo, and think critically about fostering greater dialogue.
Check out the whole thing.