Book Review of An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Roy W. Perrett (Reviewed by Matthew R. Dasti)

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

10 thoughts on “Book Review of An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Roy W. Perrett (Reviewed by Matthew R. Dasti)

  1. I wanted to bring something up that is too nitpicky for inclusion in the review itself, so I will post it here. Perhaps Professor Perrett (or other scholars of skepticism like Ethan Mills) could provide thoughts on a question about his use of “skepticism” and the implication that the Indian thinkers discussed above aren’t really skeptics, full stop, since they do not deny that knowledge is possible. Instead they are ‘skeptics’ (in shudder quotes) in order to suggest that the label isn’t a perfect fit for what they do.

    Here, it seems to me that by the reasoning Perrett provides, Sextus Empiricus would not be a full-blooded skeptic either, as he allows for guidance by unjustified presentations, social conventions, and bodily impulses, something that we could just call knowledge* just as Perrett implies we could do for the life-guiding, conventional presentations allowed by Nāgārjuna and the rest.

    To be clear, I don’t disagree with the interpretation of the Indian thinkers here, but rather the appropriate scope of the term “skeptic” in its primary sense. It seems to me that the term “skeptic” need not be interpreted to mean “those who deny knowledge”; it need only mean something like “those who deny that knowledge claims (as typically made) are inapt, or unjustified.”

    • This is a good point, Matthew. Others should feel free to respond, but here’s how I understand the issue.

      One problem I’ve had in communicating my treatment of philosophers like Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi is that I see them as skeptics in something much closer to the sense in which Sextus Empiricus was a skeptic than in anything quite like the modern and contemporary sense (although I have argued that Vasubandhu’s dream arguments can be taken to be somewhat like Descartes’s). So I think you’re right that there are different senses of skepticism at play here, what I’d call, speaking overly broadly, ancient, practical skepticism versus modern, theoretical skepticism.

      In particular, the real target of ancient skeptics (e.g., Sextus, Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, etc.) is philosophy itself, or at least the typical ways that philosophers talk about certain issues; it’s a therapy to stop engaging in certain types of philosophical activities rather than a theoretical claim about knowledge. Sextus and Jayarāśi, at least, don’t seem too concerned to offer a critique of everyday knowledge claims; all of their targets are things philosophers say about knowledge. As a Buddhist, Nāgārjuna’s designs are far more revisionary, but in my opinion still directed at philosophers as a sort of therapy for intellectuals (there are plenty of other Buddhist therapies for everyday issues, but a deep critique of Abhidharma or Nyāya doesn’t seem necessary for that).

      I’m tempted to say, somewhat provocatively, that the modern and contemporary sense of skepticism as a theoretical claim within epistemology is the aberrant one. Pyrrhonians, for instance, would call modern skepticism a form of negative dogmatism, and even Academic skeptics, as described by Cicero, would at most say that they have a persuasive impression that knowledge is impossible as part of the pursuit of a non-dogmatic way of life. Calling Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa skeptics is to take the term in something closer to its original meaning in the Western tradition.

    • Nowadays writers on ancient Greek philosophy standardly differentiate between ancient and modern understandings of “scepticism”. In my book (p.70) I glossed “philosophical scepticism” as the view that “knowledge is impossible, or at least that we can never know for sure that we have attained it”. I took this to be roughly the modern sense of “scepticism” and the one likely most familiar to my readers, and I was simply concerned to argue there that Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi and Śrīharsa weren’t sceptics in this sense of the term.

      Now it may well be that Sextus isn’t a sceptic in that modern sense, but that wouldn’t bother me if that’s true. With regard to the question of whether the ancient or the modern sense of “scepticism” is the “primary” sense of the term, I have no strong feelings. I would like to point out, however, that “primary sense” here is presumably not equivalent just to “older sense”. Thus the term “consequentialism” was introduced into moral philosophy in Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”, but now its primary sense in contemporary ethical theory is very different from the one she originally gave it and it would be crankily pedantic to insist that earlier usage is still the “primary” sense of the term in anything other than a simply historical sense of “primary” (= “earlier”).

  2. Thanks for this, Matthew. I found your description of the topics approach as holistic and the schools approach as atomistic interesting, as I would put it exactly the other way round. The topics approach tends to approach particular questions in isolation from other questions, whereas the schools approach situates each question in the larger context of an overall worldview.

    • Hi Amod. Maybe it’s an imprecise use of philosophical analogy, or maybe we are starting with different ideas of the objects of the analogy.

      As I put it, the schools approach is atomistic in *relation to other traditions of thought.* Understanding of the big picture is “built up” by focusing on the individual schools first. I agree though that insofar as we are *considering each individual school by itself* it is more holistic, as it looks to the internal integrity and coherence of each individual tradition of thought. I try to underscore in the last paragraph of the review.

  3. I used Perrett’s book in my Classical Indian Philosophy of Language course this semester at Yale-NUS College. Since there is no undergraduate-level introductory reader or textbook for this topic (that I’m aware of!), I was very happy to use portions of this text for my class. In particular, I used the chapter on Word (of course) and Knowledge (in relationship to testimony and anumāna), as well as the introduction. It worked very well, since students were then able to approach the primary texts with a general overview in place. The book was also helpful for negotiating some of the secondary literature (which can be as forbidding to undergrads as the primary texts in translation!).

    I would say that I had to do a bit more historical context-setting for my students to understand the concerns of the traditions and their interrelationships. As well, while I realize that for most undergrads in a philosophy major the comparison with Western philosophy is helpful, it wasn’t necessarily for my students. Not all of them had acquaintance with Frege, Russell, et al, and this course very intentionally took on Indian philosophy on its own, without comparison to Anglophone categories–or at least tried to privilege those categories when the inevitable comparisons came up in secondary reading. In some ways, I wish these remarks were set apart in a section by themselves, rather than part of the explication of the theories–but that’s an idiosyncrasy of how I was teaching this course. In future courses, this approach would probably be very helpful.

    Oh, one other comment is that I’ve recommended this text to colleagues interested in Indian philosophy–in teaching our common curriculum, which includes Indian thought, a lot of my peers have trouble finding appropriately scholarly but succinct treatments of major topics.

    • Thanks for sharing, Malcolm! I will be using this book for my Indian philosophy survey course in the spring, so I’m happy to hear about how it worked for you. I’m going to try to merge the schools and topics approach to some extent, probably with an overview of the schools followed by a more in depth treatment of issues with reference to the schools as I go along. I’m worried I’ll end up just not doing a good job on either approach, but your advice about historical context-setting might help. Thanks!

  4. My thanks to Matthew for his generously appreciative review of my latest book. I am grateful that he was kind enough to focus on what he perceived to be its merits rather than its errors, since anybody who has also had the hubris to attempt an introductory book will know how hard it is to balance the twin desiderata of accessibility and accuracy. I would, however, like to respond briefly to his concluding suggestion that the book would be benefited from paying more attention to a “schools” approach than it does.
    I freely concede, of course, that students of Indian philosophy should be aware of the doctrinal representations of the darśana-style doxographies, and hence I briefly introduce them in my Introduction. Moreover, in the past I have myself sometimes taught courses on Indian philosophy using this approach, or a mixed “schools and topics” approach. But I remain unconvinced that my book would have been improved as an introduction to Indian philosophy by more reference to the “schools”.
    Firstly, and least importantly, there are already in existence several good introductory texts on Indian philosophy that follow the late medieval darśana doxography mode of presentation (my own personal favourite in this genre is Hiriyanna’s Outlines of Indian Philosophy, which I recommend warmly to students). But it was my ambition – and, of course, CUP’s too when commissioning me – to offer a different kind of introduction to Indian philosophy, one that placed at centre stage the argumentative interplay of the Indian philosophers.
    Secondly, in writing my own book I was particularly motivated by an experience that likely will be familiar to others on this blog. Since I teach and publish in both Indian and Western philosophy, over the years I have often been asked by Western philosophers or philosophy students to recommend a single book to read on Indian philosophy. My own experience has been that, though there is no shortage of books on Indian philosophy that I admire, I find none of them quite suitable for the task of engaging Western philosophers or philosophy students with Indian philosophy qua philosophy. Certainly, the darśana doxographies, with their scant attention to the detailed technical argumentation that provides the bulk of so much Indian philosophical literature, won’t do the job. (Nor, I might add, will they serve to introduce contemporary Indian students – many of whom are nowadays more familiar with Western than Indian philosophy – to the diverse philosophical riches of their own cultural tradition.) This caused me to ask myself just what it is that I personally have found philosophically engaging about Indian philosophy and what I think is to be gained from its study. My book is an attempt at a kind of answer to that question, and I didn’t find that sustained attention to the structure of the darśanas had any significant place in my answer.
    Finally, I don’t think that this is just a matter of philosophical taste. My own sense that the darśanas have little relevance to Indian philosophy qua philosophy can also be defended on historical grounds (I take the arguments of Daya Krishna, Halbfass, Nicholson, et al. to support my claim here). The darśana-style doxographies are a late medieval invention in India, particularly associated with Jaina and Vedāntin authors, and they tendentiously promulgate hierarchies of tenet schools, each progressively closer to the final truth espoused by the author. (Much the same can be said of the Tibetan grub mtha’ literature’s doxographic representation of the “schools” of Indian Buddhism.) We know that the historical situation in India was much more complex than this. At best, then, darśana doxographies give us some sense of what some Indian (or Tibetan, in the case of the analogous grub mtha’ literature) authors took to be the (partial) logical space of the theories. (Accordingly, I take someone like David Zilberman, who took an essentially holistic view of the darśanas, to be in the grip of an anachronistic exoticism about the nature of Indian philosophy.)
    It will be obvious by now that (pace Amod) I certainly don’t take the darśanas to be “overall worldviews” in any obvious sense of that description. And though I’d like to think that I’m open to corrective argument, presently I’m still unconvinced that sustained attention to the notion of a darśana is of any pressing relevance to understanding much of Indian philosophy – as opposed to understanding some late representations of Indian philosophy.
    Of course, I’m not denying the presence in Indian philosophy of what Daya Krishna called “styles of thought … developed by successive thinkers, and not fully exemplified by any” (an excellent description of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika in my opinion). But I take Matthew to be urging the importance of acknowledging more than that when he laments the “danger that students will not grasp the individual schools as coherent, robust entities”. It should be clear by now that I’m unpersuaded this would be a dangerous outcome, whether or not my book would promote it. Moreover, while I certainly share Matthew’s hope that students will retain more than “a nebulous mental list of positions taken by these different traditions on significant issues, or … lists of names and short definitions for each school”, I’m not convinced that more attention to “schools” would significantly increase the probability of that hope being realized.

    • Roy, thank you so much for stepping in to the discussion. This is exactly what we hope the blog reviews will facilitate, in ways that print media cannot.

      I think we are largely in agreement on the limitations of the schools approach, and esp. the way that it creates a false image of Indian philosophical antiquity. That said, it is–to me at least–an undeniable fact, experienced by reading our thinkers, who largely function in a commentarial mode of presentation, that they tend to focus on defending the siddhantas of the traditions in which they are embedded. (For someone who praised clear writing, let me apologize for that sentence.) I’ve spend the most time myself in old Nyaya, and I have consistently found that many things that I thought were innovations with a specific thinker are really developments of seeds directly planted by their predecessors and even the sutras themselves.

      While the notion of the schools in the doxographies may be misleading, for many of our thinkers, defending and elaborating on school-bound siddhantas (pratitantrasiddhanta) seems central, and as such, for introductory teaching, it seems like we can speak of “Nyaya’s view on the self.” or “Bhatta Mimamsa’s view of cognition,” etc. If so, we can then also see why the views they take cohere with other positions they have on other, sometimes unrelated issues. Whatever we call this (“the schools approach” or just trying to make sense of the school-bound motivations), I think we agree that it is important not to neglect it, right?

      I think you give a great example of this on p. 61, discussing Advaita Vedanta’s view of perception. “Once again, a background metaphysics is helping to shape the discussion here. According to the Advaitin in terpretation of Upanisadic scripture. . .”

      I’m not trying to refute your point but rather stressing that we need not subscribe to the “Schools” approach to take seriously the inner cohesion of each tradition and making it manifest to students.

      Thank you again.

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