At the beginning of January, I traveled from Singapore to Kolkata to join a group of scholars from around India as well as the US and New Zealand–this was for a seminar at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture that Jaysankar Lal Shaw organized in his efforts to engage in what he calls “cross-cultural-multidisciplinary philosophy.” For administrative and organizational reasons that I’m not privy to, the seminar was conjoined with a commemoration of Sister Nivedita’s 150th birth anniversary, and so the seminar had two components.
There’s no way I can do justice to all of the talks in a single blog post, and anyway, Anand Vaidya, who also attended and was part of organizing, will be posting–plus there will be a seminar proceedings published at some point. Instead, this post aims to reflect on the variety of methods and topics that fell under the heading of “cross-cultural-multidisciplinary philosophy.”
1. Thoughts on methodology in general
There were a range of different approaches to Indian philosophy at the seminar. Prof. J.L. Shaw’s keynote set out an argument that Indian philosophy, in particular Nyāya, is able to resolve some difficult problems endemic to Western philosophy. For instance, since Nyāya doesn’t postulate such tertiary entities as propositions, their approach to truth, that is, the truth of cognitions, can dissolve some pseudo-problems plaguing philosophy in the West. (This theme is familiar terrain for readers of Shaw’s work.) In a presentation that struck me as a challenge to this approach, Prof. Nirmalya Narayan Chakraborty’s panel presentation, “Cross-Cultural-Multi-Disciplinary-Philosophy” argued that comparative philosophy of the often-called “Matilal strategy” is inappropriately defensive, taking Western problems as a starting-point, and trying to show that Indian thinkers could rise to equality with them.
Most presentations did not touch on methodology explicitly–though Prof. Anand Vaidya’s did, which I will get to in a moment–but the presence of Sister Nivedita (visually and thematically) in the conference proved an interesting place for reflection. There were a few papers, mostly historical in nature, discussing her life and work. Three opening short lectures: Swami Abhiramanandaji, “Why do we adore Sister Nivedita?”, Prof. Radharaman Chakrabarti, “Sister Nivedita–Her Social Philosophy,” Sri Sakti Prasad Mishra, “Sister Nivedita and Indian Nationalism,” and then some academic sessions: Prof. Indrani Sanyal, “Sister Nivedita and Sri Aurobindo,” Prof. Tapan Chakraborty, “Philosophy of Sister Nivedita,” and Prof. V.N. Sheshagiri Rao, “Sister Nivedita’s Humanistic Interpretation of Swami Vivekananda–A Reappraisal.” From these talks emerged a few themes. First, Nivedita (born Margaret Noble) was respected for her willingness to enter into the viewpoint of her new home in India, challenging, for instance, the lack of women’s education on the basis of traditional viewpoints and not Western sensibilities. Second, there was a lot of controversy over her position vis a vis the nationalist movement. Prof. Indrani Sanyal used the term “terrorism,” taken from Sri Aurobindo’s own writings, in the course of reflecting on Aurobindo and Nivedita’s positions regarding violence. This led to a lot of heated discussion about the valence of the term, the propriety of its use, and whether Nivedita constituted a “freedom fighter” or not.
The political implications of philosophical methodology became quite apparent during the course of the seminar–whether in the choice of terms (avoiding or using “terrorism” when it was present in an original text) or topics (avoiding or using “Western” categories in “comparative” thought). On that second topic, I’ll incidentally recommend Alexus McLeod’s article “Methodology in Chinese-Indian Comparative Philosophy,” in the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy Methodologies (Ed. Sor-hoon Tan), 2016, as he points out the implications of avoiding Western categories in favor of doing “East-East” comparative work. In any case, despite not learning much about what Sister Nivedita’s actual arguments were–I suppose for that I’ll need to read her complete works–I found the discussion around her as a historical figure educational.
2. Historical, intra-traditional, and constructive approaches
There are always a number of ways to carve out categories, but this seminar seemed to me to include three main kinds of approaches to Indian philosophy. One is historical, in the sense of using textual (primarily, though it needn’t exclude material) resources to understand the development of Indian thought. My own paper on Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and his engagement with Dignāga in the Tantravārttika is an example of this approach, as was Prof. Samiran Chandra Chakrabarti’s “Evolution of Vedic Rituals,” which traced the development of the paribhāṣa-s in the śrautasūtra-s. Neither paper really attempted to engage comparatively with Western categories–mine mentioned that the problem of non-referring terms is an issue for other thinkers, too, but my thesis was not that Kumārila’s approach is (or is not) a solution to this issue in the West. Instead, my focus was understanding the dialectic between a pūrvapakṣin and Kumārila through identifying the thinkers represented, by doing textual work. Further, neither of these papers presented the authors as being within or without the tradition–although Prof. Chakrabarti’s opening Vedic chants did indicate a difference between his position and mine with regard to the tradition! Still, the arguments therein were not dependent on staking a claim about the tradition’s veracity.
In contrast, there were some talks which were presented as being explicitly within the tradition. For instance, Prof. Rupa Bandyopadhyay explicitly presented her talk, “The Nyāya and the Advaitic theories of erroneous perception” as assuming the Nyāya tradition’s viewpoint, as did Prof. Prabal Kumar Sen’s “Samshaya and Samshayavaada.” Sen was focusing on understanding the different views of the relationship between cognition and doubt, while Bandhyopadhyay the relationship between genuine and erroneous perception. These talks were scholarly in their range of knowledge of the Sanskrit texts–in question and answer, the speakers were able to recite passages from memory to speak to questions. And during question and answer, some audience members brought up connections with other Indian textual traditions as well as Western philosophy.
Other talks engaged in a “constructive” approach–which is not to say that the speaker did not identify themself as being within, or speaking from a particular tradition (for instance, Jay Shaw’s work is Nyāya in its orientation, and Anand Vaidya’s training is analytic). However, these talks aimed to bring Indian philosophy into conversation with other traditions. These included (and here I omit summary for the sake of space) Prof. Anand Vaidya’s “Perception and Panpsychism: Nyāya and Vedānta Philosophy in Conversation with Analytic Philosophy,” Prof. Ramakrishna Bhattacharya’s “Materialism in the East and the West,” Prof. Amita Chatterjee’s “Do Our Epistemic Intuitions Vary Across Cultures?”, Prof. Purushottama Billimoria’s “Aestheticizing Dharma’s Pathos: Mahābhārata to Tagore’s Paintings and Poems,” Br. Ayon Maharaj’s “Hard Theological Determinism and the Illusion of Free Will: Sri Ramakrishna Meets Lord Kames and Saul Smilansky,” and Prof. Laura Guerrero’s “Buddhist Pan-metaphoricalism, Fictionalism, and Meaning” (not on the program, but a replacement for Prof. Kalyan Baghchi’s talk. The methodology in these talks varied–to take just a few examples: Anand Vaidya’s approach (as he’s discussed here before) is to integrate experimental philosophy, comparative philosophy, and analytic philosophy, whereas Ramakrishna Bhattacarya’s talk was more in the classical comparative style, and Amita Chatterjee was interested in a critical take on the methodology of work in experimental philosophy using Śrīharṣa’s method of presenting cases as a corrective from within the Indian tradition.
3. Comparative philosophy is inevitable
Prof. Nirmalya Narayan Chakraborty said in his talk entitled “Cross-Cultural-Multidisciplinary Philosophy” that, for students in India, comparative philosophy is inevitable. (I think about this sometimes when analytic philosophers ask for evidence that other countries like China and India take Western philosophy seriously–as if its study there would be a simple inverse case to the study of Chinese and Indian philosophy in the US.) While the kind of comparative philosophy he’s discussing is a particular sort–that of Indian/European-“Western” comparison, I think I agree with those who would say comparative philosophy, understood in another way, is inevitable anywhere. While there may be more in common historically between, say, Quine and Sellars, than Śrī Harṣa and Zhuangzi (to take two possible points of comparison), still, analytic philosophers working on the former pair, or any other discussion in which more than one philosopher’s work is interpreted and engaged with, are doing comparison. It’s just not always with awareness that they are doing so. Chakraborty’s talk focused on the different ways in which philosophers in India engaged in comparison from the colonial period onwards, and how it ought to be done, further. His talk generated a lot of discussion about how to characterize this history (for instance, he characterizes B.K. Matilal’s work as part of a “defensive” style which tried to show Indian philosophy was on part with Western thought) as well as what lessons to draw from it.
What emerged, for me, at least, out of this wealth of topics and approaches was a simultaneous sense of the potential for work in Indian philosophy along with the difficulty of–and importance of–collaboration among philosophers with these different skills and approaches. Often, question-and-answer sessions were comprised of ground-clearing and confusion-elimination rather than making substantive philosophical progress on a problem, since the motivations for, and implication of, a question from (for instance) an analytically-trained philosopher aren’t always immediately apparent to someone more historically or intra-traditionally grounded, and vice versa. (Although, frankly, ground-clearing and confusion-elimination can be themselves forms of progress.) There are always difficulties with finding common vocabulary, identifying where assumptions overlap, and so on–but this, in my mind, speaks to the importance of more practice at this kind of conversation, and in finding willing participants with the ability and patience for navigating it.
Please note that all images are by Malcolm Keating, 2018.
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