Nīti and the two ways of “using” texts

On Sunday I was reading Sundarapāṇḍya’s Nītidviṣaṣṭika, an interesting collection of āryā verses on the subject of nīti (something like: how to act in the world), and later on caught up (very belatedly) on part of the debate occasioned by Garfield and Van Norden’s piece in the New York Times. This experience triggered two thoughts.

  1. Surely the Nītidviṣaṣṭika, and the whole ocean of nīti-oriented verses that it floats in, is precisely what the defenders of the Eurocentric status quo in academic philosophy want to keep out, for a whole host of reasons. It is, first of all, in the wrong tradition, since it’s not a “footnote to Plato.” (I’m referring not to Whitehead but to Nicholas Tampio.) It’s in the wrong genre, since it’s not an essay or a dialogue but a collection of epigrammatic subhāṣitas. It’s not argumentative, in the sense of debating positions, but presents its advice as settled conclusions. It is conceptually light, in the sense that it never fully articulates what is meant by the key concepts it invokes—guṇas, doṣas, sajjana, durjana, and so on. So maybe all of the defenders of the Eurocentric status quo, like Anthony Flew, Nicholas Tampio, and some of the others who chimed in in response to Garfield and Van Norden’s piece, are accidentally right when it comes to the exclusion of a vast domain of Indian ethical thought. Accidentally, of course, because most of them have never read a word of Indian nīti literature.

  2. Then I thought: Wait a minute. There is plenty of thoughtful scholarship (see two examples below) that looks at Indian nīti literature as representing a vibrant tradition of thought about fundamental ethical questions, rather than as a pile of unphilosophical banalities. One direction that this rehabilitation has taken (in van den Bossche and Mortier) is reading it as “virtue ethics,” an approach that has been associated mostly with neo-Aristotelians like Alasdair MacIntyre. Another direction (represented by Daud Ali) reads it in broadly Foucauldian terms, as concerned with the formation of ethical subjects. Now I don’t really know whether either of these directions are taken seriously by philosophers stricto sensu; I would guess that the people arguing most strongly for restricting the definition of philosophy to what philosophy professors in Europe and America currently do might see these directions as passing (or past) fads. But I think that Daud Ali makes a very important point in emphasizing the use of nīti-type verses. These verses were written to be recited at the right moment (avasare), in situationally-appropriate contexts, and discussed with others. They were “diacritics” of ethical life. Rather than seeing them as unsystematic or insufficiently theorized, we can see them as one part of a comprehensive and coherent ethical system.

A few months ago, Amod Lele outlined a very pertinent distinction between (I paraphrase slightly) “decision-oriented” and “capacity-oriented” approaches to ethics. The former is concerned with formulating explicit criteria and procedures for ethical action, and hence anyone, regardless of his or her background, could make an ethically-appropriate decision if they formed the correct judgements and they followed the right procedures. Utilitarian calculi and Kantian maxims, so often opposed to each other, are similar in this respect. Amod rightly points out that ethical traditions that are not “decision-oriented” in this way are usually classified as “miscellaneous” or “other,” or even as “anti-theoretical,” but at least some of them are implicitly or explicitly “capacity-oriented.” Virtue Ethics and Foucault’s conception of ethics are explicitly so. They deny that there is an “anyone” in ethics (they might even say that the idea of a neutral subject is a bourgeois myth). They maintain that ethical decision-making and action always presuppose being formed as a subject with particular capacities, dispositions, habits, and so on.

The distinction between decision- and capacity-oriented approaches to ethics is obviously a theoretical one. But I think it probably maps onto disciplinary and methodological differences, or perhaps better, differences of outlook. The notion that ethical problems admit of solutions that can be demonstrated in the way of a logical proof, and the allied notion that “ethics” is a domain in which universal principles can be discovered and applied, very naturally leads to what I will call a “philosophical” use of texts. That is, we read texts because they might have something to say about these universal principles. The questions we ask of them are questions like: What is the argument here? Does the argument work? In contrast, the notion that ethical action arises from dispositions that can only be acquired through cultivation and education leads to a “historical” use of texts. Of course, we can read texts for their arguments, but we can also read texts for the visions of social and ethical life that they represent. We can ask questions like: Who are the subjects addressed here? What are they supposed to actually do? How do the social, the ethical, and the aesthetic relate to each other? How would these texts have been used? Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.

I would be remiss not to give an example of the kind of literature that occasioned these thoughts. Here is a verse collected by Sundarapāṇḍya, which is probably not without relevance to this discussion:

bahv api tattvaṃ jñātvā nṛṣu bahumāne pravartamānena
balavattareṇa viduṣā lokajñāne prayatitavyam

It‘s not enough to know a lot.
If he wants to have influence,
and find respect among his colleagues,
a scholar needs to cultivate worldly wisdom.

Required Reading:
“The Vajjālaggam: A Study in Indian Virtue Theory” by Frank van den Bossche and Freddy Mortier, Asian Philosophy 7:2 (1997), 85–108.
“The Subhāṣita as an Artifact of Ethical Life in Medieval India” by Daud Ali, pp. 21–42 in Anand Pandian and Daud Ali (eds.), Ethical Life in South Asia, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

6 thoughts on “Nīti and the two ways of “using” texts

  1. I have to say that I’m very glad my students start their intellectual lives here with Chinese, Greek, and Indian philosophy in equal measure. All of our students have read the Analects, the Nichomachean Ethics, the Gītā, (along with other texts) and so this week, as my Indian philosophy of language class was discussing rasa and dhvani, it was natural for them not only to raise the kinds of questions you do, but to move between philosophical traditions. They saw the moral implications in Ānandavardhana’s discussion of the sahṛdaya, and we had some excellent discussions about the role of emotions in cultivating ethical dispositions. Not only did Aristotle come up as, but so did Chinese philosophers–so we displaced the “West” as the default comparison class.

    Oddly enough, they had no problem recognizing philosophical questions in the texts, and doing philosophy by thinking about the way the texts were used (both the theoretical texts and the poems on which the texts were remarking). My hope is that, someday, when enough students like these have made their way through academia, their students will find the debates we have been having incomprehensible.

  2. Thanks for this, Andrew. Thought-provoking reflections on a text I wasn’t familiar with (and I suspect I want to become familiar with it).

    I would want to push a bit further on the historical/philosophical distinction or its absence. I agree that the distinction is not a hard and fast one, but it is one that I employ from time to time and sometimes find valuable. I think part of the point for me is that there are different kinds of historical approaches, some philosophical and some not. What characterizes a philosophical approach, for me, is that the one taking the philosophical approach takes herself to be addressed by the text. So the questions you cite as characterizing the historical approach would get modified, though in a form that still relates to the original form you identify: “Am I among the subjects addressed here? What is the text supposed to actually do to me? How do I understand the social, the ethical, and the aesthetic to relate to each other, how does the text understand this relation, and does the latter understanding speak to the former? Should I use this text in the way it would have been used in the past?”

  3. I realized I had a lot more to say about this than that comment, and wound up writing two whole posts on the topic. I’m putting them out on my regular fortnightly schedule, so one will be a week from Sunday (23 October) and another two week from that (6 November). Thanks for a stimulating post, Andrew.

    • In case anyone’s wondering, I’m delaying those posts a bit because my grandfather died this week and my post this week is a eulogy to him. They’ll go up later.

  4. Pingback: Decision and capacity, philosophical and historicalLove of All Wisdom | Love of All Wisdom

  5. Pingback: Philosophical and historical uses togetherLove of All Wisdom | Love of All Wisdom

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