“But is Indian thought really philosophy?”

We can answer the question “What is it?” for a religion or worldview by proceeding either sociologically or doctrinally. […] In philosophy, for example, the question “But is it philosophy?” can be not so much a question about the boundaries of the discipline taken doctrinally as it is a rejection of any approach not already favored by the elite in power, In that case, the genus within which the question “But is it philosophy?” falls is not philosophy but rather politics, or maybe even just bullying. (Eleanore Stump 2013, pp. 46, 48).

What to do, then? Doctrinally, one can try to explain that it is indeed philosophy (use of syllogistic arguments, argumentative style, dialogues, interest in logic…). This will probably not be enough, so that one might want to go for the sociological approach:

In that case, the right response to the challenge “But is it philosophy?” is this: “well, I’m a philosopher, and this is what I believe and do as a philosopher.” (p. 47)

In this sense, public figures like Ganeri are probably very influential through their sociological impact (“he appears to be a philosopher, so what he does must be philosophy”) beside through their written work.
As for this blog’s mission, should we focus on acquiring the sociological status of “philosophers”, beside continuing to focus on understanding Indian philosophy and trying to convey how interesting it is?

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

15 thoughts on ““But is Indian thought really philosophy?”

  1. Dear Elisa
    You are right to call attention to the sociological perception of Indian philosophy. But I’d rephrase your point about Jonardan or others who have a role as public intellectuals, to mitigate the sense of tension that may inadvertently have appeared in your phrasing: more than with hegemonic fields (like European history or American politics), you can seem like an Indian philosopher only through writing as one; so the content of writing has to be present, even if its technicality is within the reach of a narrow range of reviewers (and therefore there have to be more accessible versions, e.g., ‘philosophy without gaps’, etc.). Of course you don’t mean that content doesn’t matter. But the relationship you are talking about presumably goes from having the content to asking how the act of creating that content is an integral part of the larger project of opening up philosophy.

    • Dear Ram, yes, thanks for pointing it out: by no means did I mean to say that the content is not important. I was just surprised to see clearly stated the reason why decades of excellent content produced by people like you have not yet been enough to convince many of our colleagues.

      • Thank you. Well, we are all tempted to think of the old adage that you can lead the horse to the water but cannot make it drink…
        Your ‘sociological turn’ in the perennial question of Indian philosophy within uninflected philosophy, leads us away from the subject as such, I suppose, to a consideration of the cultural manifestations of historical institutions of knowledge, and practices of identity. That is, we have to find something more helpful than finding a certain sort of limiting prejudice masquerading as intellectual judgement in the resistance to Indian thought in the western global academy and public. Is it something quite general about how hegemonies of discourse and self-representation take much longer to wane than open expressions of contempt or denial? We seem to move away here from what we do to looking at the cultural world in which we live. What sort of intellectual programme can we undertake here?

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  3. The sociological approach would not work for me. As a North American whose degrees are not from philosophy departments and whose approach is not primarily analytic, I already have a hard enough time getting accepted as a genuine philosopher; people outside my subfields regard me with suspicion. Their response to “this is what I believe and do” would often not be “ah, then this is philosophy” but “ah, then you’re not a philosopher”.

    The continental European context may be very different. I hope it is.

  4. Ram, Amod: Stump helped me in identifying the ambiguity of the question, so that next time I will start by asking whether the question is sociological or doctrinal. If one manages to make people aware that it is sociological, then it is perhaps easier to deconstruct it.
    Moreover, and more pragmatically, one can think of suggesting to all (present and) future colleagues to invest some time in trying to publish on mainstream philosophical journals, go to mainstream philosophical conferences, etc., just in order to be recognised as members of the profession.

  5. I think this question will be moot if we just wait. . . .

    Current undergraduates have more access to courses in non-western philosophy, and minimally, political sensitivity leads people to start labeling what they do “Western” philosophy when they make sweeping pronouncements that ignore traditions in Asia, Africa, etc.

    The combination of ignorance and cultural ethnocentricism that leads people not to recognize non-western philosophy as such will largely die out with the old guard. Let’s just keep on doing what we do (however we define ourselves), producing material that will be available for both scholars and students when there are opportunities for them to reach out to learn more about Indian thought.

    (Related: in her Dewey lecture in the most recent Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, Linda Zagzebski notes that her first serious philosophy class was on Chinese philosophy; she also notes that the classical Non-western philosophical traditions have much to say in terms of philosophy’s current contributions to the world.)

    • I am interested to see how that plays out. The thing about analytic philosophers – including younger ones – is so often they don’t even recognize French or German thought as philosophy, let alone anything Asian. I don’t think that mindset is going down without a fight.

      • What was expressed in your second sentence wasn’t my experience in a largely analytic world at Rutgers and then Texas, Amod. Not to say there wasn’t disciplinary pride (and most of us have some of that, probably), but not the unwillingness to call it philosophy. I guess it depends who you meet.

        • I’m glad to hear about Rutgers. I don’t think Texas is a typical department, though (neither is Boston U). We’ll see, I guess. I agree with you that overall there are good reasons to be optimistic.

  6. I think this is a very important question to raise. I also think that I have an explanation for why we are still talking about it, which I try to make clear in my introduction to The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics. There is a disciplinary disconnect between the study of Indian philosophy and the discipline of philosophy such that the best practices for reading and studying philosophy are not usually applied to the study of Indian philosophy. So whereas philosophers learn to explicate from their philosophy-mentors, and teach this to their students, what we find instead in Indology is rampant interpretation, which is what we try to discourage in our philosophy classes, when the content is Western. And this disconnect further reflects a tension in the Western tradition: whereas the discipline of philosophy requires explication, the dominant account of thought in the Western tradition going back to the ancient Greeks entails interpretation. This sets up a history of tension in the Western tradition between the dominant ideology and philosophy such that philosophical diversity and openness is discouraged from the start with the murder of Socrates and a tradition of punishing public intellectuals. One of the outcomes of the rampant interpretation of Indian philosophy in Indology is that the content of Indian philosophy seems non-rigorous, mysterious and traditional explicitly at the moments that moral issues arise. At this point, interpretation leads to the depiction of Indian thought as religious, and then it seems that we ought to have scholars of religious studies and social scientists (philologists, Sanskritists), not historians of philosophy, to decide what philosophers and their texts say. If disciplinary practice matters to research (such that one can’t study physics for instance without engaging in the discipline of physics) then the failure to treat philosophy as the primary disciplinary avenue of research into Indian philosophy is to blame for the common perception. What we have in our world is a lot of arm chair philosophy, and the study of Indian philosophy is a primary victim. One thing we could all do to further the study of Indian philosophy is to abandon interpretation and take up explication, but this would involve criticizing assumptions about what thought is that underwrite many of the popular theories of the Western tradition that are assumed as a backdrop for the study of Indian thought.

    • Dear Shyam,

      thanks for this interesting comment. I am sure to count among the first readers of your Indian Ethics Handbook —which I also used in my current class and which has so much interesting to offer. However, your distinction between interpreting and explaining looks to me somewhat naive. Is it really possible to explain the text without becoming part of its interpretive history? Perhaps we could discuss this in a separate post, if you like…

      • Dear Elisa,
        Thanks for the reply to the reply! So the distinction that I draw is between interpretation and explication. I spend the first four chapters (most of the introduction of the Handbook) talking about the difference and the historical foundations for these approaches—so there is a lot to say about it and it involves critically evaluating the dominant theory of thought in the Western tradition that is assumed in Indology. But I’d be happy to start a separate post on it!

        • I had basically the same question as Elisa. I teach my students that textual interpretation is inseparable from doing philosophy. After all, even before one takes a final position on what is being said in a text, one has to form a view on what is said. And this requires interpreting against assumptions about what counts as thinking well, what claims are plausible, and so on.

          I would be interested in what you mean by “explicate” (which I take to be different from “explain” as it connotes developing implications, sometimes critical analysis). Perhaps a post summarizing a bit of what you say in the Handbook and pointing readers to it would be apt?

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