Interview with a “free range” Indian philosopher

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.

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

5 thoughts on “Interview with a “free range” Indian philosopher

  1. I identified a lot with this essay, as a fellow “free-range philosopher”. The part that particularly resonated was when Vallabha said his father “argued that making philosophy my job would make me beholden to institutional momentum and interfere with the independence required for questioning everything. It is the kind of point Sextus Empiricus might have made to Plato, or Kierkegaard to Hegel.”

    I feel this a lot. I am so much less constrained by “institutional momentum” these days than I was when I needed an academic job in order to eat. I can write about what I want. And, I can ignore that very separation that Vallabha bemoans: the kind that pushed me to do my doctorate in religious studies instead of philosophy because philosophy departments didn’t do that sort of thing.

  2. I appreciated the points that Dr. Vallabha raised and his candid account of why he left academe. However, as I was reading I couldn’t help but wonder whether he had been poorly served by his undergraduate mentors who steered him to Harvard for his Ph.D. What if he had gone into a philosophy Ph.D. program at Texas or Hawaii instead?

    No doubt those schools lack the immediate name recognition of Harvard, and that that makes it more difficult to land a job upon graduation. Yet I do think it is possible to be true to one’s personal interests in Asian philosophy in the context of an academic department, both as a student and as a professor–it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. Furthermore, just as there are advantages to being “free-range,” there are also advantages to working from within the system. One big advantage is the possibility of using the levers of the current academic system to change the system itself (although admittedly sometimes it feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall).

    I hope scholars such as Dr. Vallabha continue to speak out on issues of inclusivity, and that thanks to their activism future students won’t face the obstacles and bias that he did.

    • In the end, he didn’t get a faculty job and won’t be working the system from within, nor will this Harvard grad – I entered the religion department rather than the philosophy department so that I could study Indian philosophy.

      In retrospect, I might well have been better served with a degree from Texas or Hawai’i, as might he – but that is because we didn’t get academic jobs anyway, so what does the pedigree even matter anymore? If one does want to change the system from within, pedigree counts a lot.

      • He had a tenure-track position at Bryn Mawr–as you say, perhaps one he wouldn’t have gotten without the Harvard pedigree. It is unclear from the article whether he stepped away willingly or was denied tenure at Bryn Mawr.

        There are good examples of folks with non-Ivy Ph.D.s who have managed to get tenure-track positions (Malcolm Keating and Matthew Dasti, for starters!). But I take your point.

        My situation is a little different; I saw the writing on the wall after getting my M.A. in Philosophy, and ended up going for a Ph.D. in a South Asia Studies program. Now I am fortunate to be in a situation where I can influence the graduate philosophy curriculum at my university, albeit through the back door.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>