Roy W. Perrett. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. 249pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. $34.99 (paperback).
When introducing the wide-range of Indian philosophy to a new audience, there have been two major approaches: the schools approach and the topics approach. The schools approach is atomistic; it starts with a focus on discrete traditions of thought, and only then allows the student to build awareness of commonalities and shared threads of concern after she gains familiarity with the individual schools. The topics approach is holistic; starting with large-scale issues or philosophical controversies, the student develops coherent awareness of individual schools and figures by learning where they are placed according to their stances on the broad topics considered. The schools approach was a dominant methodology for a long time, and for good reason. It has a distinguished pedigree, taking its departure from the medieval Indian doxographies themselves. One of the best examples is Chatterjee and Datta’s Introduction to Indian Philosophy, which despite its Neo-Vedāntic flavoring, is quite useful as an introductory map of Indian thought. Times have changed, however, and the pendulum has swung the other way. Recognizing the historical vagaries behind the school-bound view of Indian thought and realizing just how contingent and biased are the presuppositions behind the inclusion and “rankings” of schools in traditional lists, the contemporary academy seems to favor the topics approach.
Roy W. Perrett’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy is a sterling example of this second methodology, the best available that I have seen. It provides a synoptic view of the major concerns, debates, and philosophical positions within the wide expanse of Indian philosophy, taking its departure from enduring concerns that have stimulated philosophical progress in India, then tracing how varied thinkers and traditions respond to such problems and to contrary positions. As befitting the work of a scholar with the comfortable authority born of deep, lasting familiarity with the subject, it is reliable and philosophically acute, exhibiting remarkable economy as it conveys the essential while avoiding undue prolixity. Indeed—and this should be underscored—it reads very, very smoothly. This is a rarity for scholarly literature on Indian philosophy, including, unfortunately, works meant to serve as an introduction to the topic.
Perrett’s choice of chapter topics does cover the most important questions in Indian philosophy, and his ordering of chapters is makes sense from a pedagogical perspective. Starting with a focus on Value (1) and the goals of life, he helps motivate the entire philosophical quest by illustrating that Indian thinkers want to understand the world more clearly because they are convinced it will help us live better lives, up to and including the attainment of supreme felicity. From here, there is discussion of epistemology and cognition: Knowledge (2), Reasoning (3), and Word (4). Then metaphysics, ramping up to axiologically central features of the world: World (5), Self (6), and Ultimates (7). Along the way, most of the genre-defining debates in India are discussed (e.g., theories of perceptual illusion, determinate vs. non-determinate perception, the nature of linguistic reference, whether cognition is self-justifying or not, considerations of the self-luminosity of consciousness, the existence and nature of the self, the fundamental reals in the world, the nature of causation, the nature of the ultimate reality).
Perrett employs several explanatory tools to bring Indian philosophy to the reader. Often, he offers timely, compact articulations of the core dynamics at play in the Indian debates, preventing the student from becoming lost or bewildered. For example, while discussing the world, he helps the reader make sense of the often bizarre-to-the-uninitiated claims of Advaita and certain Buddhist schools by calling attention to revisionary approaches to metaphysics and how they hinge on reasonable views on the criteria for existence and the nature of causation (Chapter 5 passim). He also often identifies broad connections or contrasts with Western thought, (e.g.) arguing at length for a consequentialist reading of the Buddhist tradition of ethics (37-42), while framing much of his discussion of pramāṇa theory by its similarities and differences with Western approaches to epistemology (52-77). This makes good sense given that the intended readership of the volume will include students in college courses that may be their only chance to see the Indian responses to perennial philosophical problems with which they are familiar from the Western traditions. Elsewhere, while engaging with the Indian thinkers, Perrett occasionally takes stands on interpretive matters. For example, he argues that thinkers like Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrīharṣa are “not really skeptics who doubted the very possibility of knowledge . . .” (76) but rather they are refuting “a particular mistaken conception of knowledge” (71). Even where a specialist may wish to add some nuance to his claims, Perrett’s take is always reasonable.
In short, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy is highly recommended, and it is probably the best example of the topics approach to introducing Indian philosophy. Many of the book’s merits were mentioned above. I would merely reiterate that it has an appropriate blend of description and analysis, is philosophically sophisticated without becoming cumbersome, and is exceptionally readable. He also includes helpful suggestions for the reader at the end of each chapter, helping students begin to chart their course through the most relevant secondary literature.
My only significant criticism would be that given how well the volume reads for an introductory student, it is surprising that Perrett still includes quite a bit of Sanskrit, too much, it seems to me, for the novice. Students are likely going to be challenged by the difficulty of the subject matter already; excessive Sanskrit will either overwhelm or lead them to skip over and ignore anything italicized and foreign, such that they will not learn the few Sanskrit terms that they really should. It seems to me that he could have been more judicious in choosing his spots for Sanskrit inclusion, by focusing on a few technical terms (pramāṇa, mokṣa, brahman, etc.) that he’d like the student to learn.
The only other criticism—more accurately a concern—has to do with the topics approach in general. When teaching introductory Indian philosophy in a topical way (as I personally do in the classroom), there is a danger that students will not grasp the individual schools as coherent, robust entities, that they won’t really understand why there are schools at all, and what the stakes are for each of them in the various disputes. One hopes to avoid an outcome where students only retain a nebulous mental list of positions taken by these different traditions on significant issues, or worse, little more than lists of names and short definitions for each school. To combat this, it helps to consistently reinforce the core coherence of the various major schools and why they take the stances they do. Perrett does indeed do this from time to time, but one could argue that it could have been done more consistently. Relatedly, while Perrett does provide a concise discussion of the major schools in his introduction, it may have helped to include a table or appendix on the various traditions as coherent, bodies of thought defined by their central concerns, authorities, and texts.
Reviewed by Matthew R. Dasti, Department of Philosophy, Bridgewater State University