An Interview with Nilanjan Das

Nilanjan Das is currently a post-doctoral fellow at UNC Chapel Hill, but he will be moving to Shanghai in September of 2017 to take up his post as Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the philosophy department of NYU-Shanghai. Das works primarily on Nyāya, focusing in particular on their epistemology, although he’s recently been looking at Buddhist theories of self-knowledge and their relationship to inference. He has a forthcoming co-authored publication in Noûs, “Transparency and the KK Principle.”

1. What are you working on right now, and what do you hope to achieve by it?

I am currently working on two projects, which might be of interest to the readers of the Indian Philosophy Blog.

I am interested in the late Nyāya theory of perceptual knowledge. Recently, psychologists and philosophers have debated whether cognitive penetration of perception is possible, i.e., whether the contents of perceptual experience can be directly influenced by our other cognitive states, e.g., our expectations. In the historical component of my project, I show how late Naiyāyikas like Raghunātha Śiromaṇi, Harirāma Tarkavāgīśa, and Gadādhara Bhaṭṭācārya took perception to be cognitively penetrable in this sense. These philosophers motivated cognitive penetrability of perception by appealing to a wide range of phenomena, like perceptual recognition and perception of absence. But my aim is not just to describe their views. I want to claim that this account of cognitive penetration can help us solve certain stubborn problems that naive realists face when it comes to explaining some cases of non-veridical perception, e.g., cases of total hallucination.

I am also working on Buddhist theories of self-knowledge. In contemporary epistemology and philosophy of mind, many have come to favour the view that we come to know our mental states purely by inference. Call this view inferentialism about self-knowledge. Some inferentialists, e.g. André Gallois, Alex Byrne and Jordi Fernandez, have claimed that we know facts about our mental states by inferring them from observable facts about the external world. Others, such as Gilbert Ryle, Peter Carruthers, and Quassim Cassam, have claimed that we know facts about our mental states by inferring them from observable facts about ourselves, e.g. from our own observable behaviour or inner speech. By drawing upon certain arguments offered by Dharmakīrti in Pramāṇavārttika and developed by Prajñākaragupta in his commentary Vārttikālaṅkāra, I articulate a general challenge for inferentialism about self-knowledge.

In both these projects, my primary aim is to ask whether some arguments offered by Indian philosophers can be useful in addressing open questions in epistemology and philosophy of mind.

2. How did you come to study Indian philosophy, and how is it related to your current position?

I think I developed an interest in Indian philosophy while I was in high school. My mother taught Indian philosophy at a college in Calcutta, and we had books on Indian philosophy—both Sanskrit texts and secondary texts in English and Bengali—lying around the house. As far as I remember, the first book on Indian philosophy I read was a beautiful Bengali introduction to the philosophy of the Cārvākas by Dakṣiṇāranjana Śastrī. Later, I took my BA and my MA at Jadavpur University, where almost half of the curriculum was devoted to Indian philosophy. My time at Jadavpur was pivotal in my intellectual development. My teachers not only read the core texts of Nyāya and Vedānta with us, but they also encouraged us to independently assess the arguments presented in those texts. This, for me, was an important pedagogical lesson: something I want to take seriously in the future. I will be joining NYU Shanghai next year as Assistant Professor. At Shanghai, I hope to offer courses which will not only introduce students to central debates of classical Indian philosophy, but will also encourage them to examine why these debates are relevant to our current theoretical interests.

3. What advice would you give to students wishing to pursue the study of Indian philosophy?

Anyone who wants to pursue the study of Indian philosophy should try to acquire the skills required to write about Indian philosophy for an international audience of philosophers. Two skills come to mind. First, one requires some mastery over the languages in which the primary texts in the field are written. That almost goes without saying. Second, one needs some training in philosophy. Often, people discuss classical Indian philosophy badly, not because they lack understanding of the texts themselves, but rather because they are not careful enough about the theoretical concepts they are using to frame their discussion. So, studying philosophy in general is just as important as learning the relevant languages.

4. What have your major intellectual influences been, philosophical or otherwise?

My main intellectual influences have been my advisors at MIT, especially Julia Markovits, Robert Stalnaker, Roger White, and Stephen Yablo. My interests in epistemology have been shaped by the work of Timothy Williamson, especially his Knowledge and its Limits. For my general outlook towards Indian philosophy, I am indebted to Bimal Krishna Matilal’s work, especially his Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis and Perception.

5. What do you think you’ll do next?

I want to continue to explore the connection between live questions of contemporary philosophy and debates in classical Indian philosophy. Here is one topic that I am planning to work on.

Iteration principles for knowledge and belief have been a topic of much controversy in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. Timothy Williamson has argued against the KK principle, i.e., the principle that if one knows that p, one is in a position to know that one knows that p. Inspired by Moore’s observation that it seems infelicitous to assert, “p, but I don’t believe that p,” others have wondered about the BB principle, i.e., the principle that if one believes that p, one believes that one believes that p. Traditionally, these principles are seen as connected to a controversial Cartesian approach to epistemology and philosophy of mind. What I find interesting is the fact that arguments for similar principles have been given by classical Indian philosophers, e.g., by Bhāṭṭa Mīmāṃsakas, who do not have a Cartesian approach to epistemology and philosophy of mind. So, reading these philosophers might help us discover less controversial, but novel arguments for the KK and BB principles. That is something that I am hoping to do over the next year or so.

6. Where do you think the field should go next, in terms of priorities and projects?

I can’t presume to know where the field should go next. However, I do hope that people engaged in the study of Indian philosophy will try to increase the visibility of classical Indian philosophy in mainstream philosophy journals. As far as I know, only a handful of articles on Indian philosophy have been published in prominent non-specialist philosophy journals in English in the last decade. To reverse this trend, we need to produce work that will have a good chance of getting accepted to these journals.

7. Finally, a question (originally asked on the 3AM Interview Series): What books do you recommend to help our readers be taken further into your philosophical world?

Robert Stalnaker’s work has influenced my views in both epistemology and philosophy of mind, so I recommend his Inquiry and Context and Content. Fred Dretske’s Knowledge and the Flow of Information has been another significant influence. In relation to Indian philosophy, I have already mentioned Matilal’s Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar and Perception. I also find Jonardon Ganeri’s Semantic Powers quite inspiring: it’s a great example of how the formal rigour of late Nyāya can be fruitfully brought into contact with the concerns of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. Dan Arnold’s Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief engages with some parts of Mīmāṃsā epistemology that are relevant to the debate about iteration principles that I just mentioned.

Previous interviews in this occasional series:
Anand Vaidya
Constance Kassor
Matt Dasti
Shalini Sinha

About Malcolm Keating

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

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Nilanjan Das

    • Yes, that’s nice! Two things stand out to me, aside from the excellent selection of readings and the way the narrative is pitched: (1) presenting contemporary readings as “commentary” on primary sources and (2) presenting Western philosophy as “counterparts” to Indian philosophy. The first is a good way for students to think about what a commentary is (not merely exposition but an intervention) and the second nicely flips the usual presentation of “East/West” dialogue.

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