The post which follows is part of the occasional series here at the Indian Philosophy blog in which contemporary philosophers and scholars discuss their work. I had the opportunity to have an informal conversation with Roy Perrett during a trip to Ashoka University at Sonepat, outside of New Delhi. Rather than record our discussion verbatim (whether by podcast or transcription), I’ve written up notes on our conversation, and had Roy check it over for accuracy. Roy Perrett is currently Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Ashoka University and has written a number (over seventy) of articles and books on both Indian and Western Anglophone philosophy.
I first asked Roy what he’s working on currently, and what he’s aiming at with it. As readers familiar with his work will know, he has always pursued a range of topics, and his answer reflected that. He’s writing a set of essays focusing on the metaphysics of self, mind, and moral psychology. In addition to drawing on Indian materials, he’s considering including some Chinese philosophers discussing evil and human nature. As for his goal, he characterized it broadly—it’s to understand things better. While pursuing this goal, he noted that he has a subsidiary aim to show that engaging with Indian and Western thinkers is fruitful, but the primary motivation is philosophical. He wants to answer questions such as, “What is the most plausible account of the nature of mind and self?”, “What is the nature of moral motivation?”
Over dinner the previous evening, he had already shared a longer version of his biographical/academic narrative—which might be one answer to the question of how he came to study Indian philosophy. Roy says of that story simply that it’s the usual narrative anyone has: various things happened and he reacted. In Indian terms, it’s karma. In sociological or historical terms, perhaps, it involved something about the time period in which he found himself, the 1970s. As for how this interest is related to his current position, which is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Ashoka University, he notes that while he’s presently in an institution which wants to incorporate Indian materials into the syllabus, this was not always the case. For half of his professional life, he was focusing on Indian philosophy without it being related to his professional responsibilities. Though there is now a trend towards narrow specialization, he, like other philosophers (and here he cited Putnam, Lewis, and Nozick, for some examples) is interested in a lot of things. Although his colleagues didn’t always understand his interest (wondering if it was an eccentric hobby, or why someone able to do analytic philosophy would spend time on Indian thought), he emphasizes that it’s a philosophical virtue to be familiar with more than just Western analytic thought, for instance. After all, good philosophy will take seriously any argument you can come up with and put forward. Philosophers are not merely scholastics.
Turning to the topic of students who might, like him, find themselves engaged by Indian thinkers, I asked him what advice he would give to students who want to pursue their study. He reiterated a theme which had emerged the evening before, over dinner with undergraduates: one’s professional chances as a philosopher are very slim in today’s job market. He says that it’s not something he encourages students to do unless they genuinely cannot imagine doing anything else. After all, despite having put a tremendous investment into one’s Ph.D., at the end of that time, if you don’t get an academic job, you may have to leave academic philosophy behind. However, for those students who do wish to forge ahead, he sees two major strategies. One can be a specialist in (Classical/Medieval etc.) Indian Philosophy, in the manner that there are specialists in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Or, one can draw on multiple traditions, but be grounded as an expert in Western philosophy, publishing in analytic philosophy journals. In explaining this latter approach, he drew an analogy with the way feminist thinking has penetrated academia, so that rather than keeping it in a silo of Women’s Studies departments, now people are bringing feminist perspectives to bear on thinking in a wide range of disciplines. This is analogous to how he thinks the study of Indian philosophy will (and should) go.
At this point, I asked him about the study of Sanskrit and other Indic languages which are important for reading philosophical texts. Given these two strategies, how should students think of language study, philology, and so on? He said that given human limitations, one again has roughly two paths: you can be a philosopher who is Indologically literate or be an Indologist who is philosophically literate. However, this doesn’t mean that Indology and philosophy do not need one another. Rather, there is a communal task of opening up Indian philosophy, one which will draw on work from all over. The Indological focus in places like Hamburg, Vienna, Tokyo, etc. is as crucial as the more predominantly philosophical approaches elsewhere.
Ultimately, his hope is that philosophers everywhere might eventually feel like they need to know something about Dharmakīrti and other great minds of Indian philosophy, just like they should know something about Aristotle. However, most philosophers don’t read Frege in German unless they are specializing in his thought. Roy compares the experience of reading Indian philosophers in translation and non-specialists knowing something about these texts to reading Russian novels in translation. Maybe those of us who can only read them in translation can’t appreciate fully a poet like Pushkin due to limitations of what can be conveyed in the English medium, but we can still read with appreciation an author like Tolstoy. And many of us consider our lives would be much poorer for not having read him (even if only in translation).
On the topic of books, I asked him about his major intellectual influences, philosophical or otherwise. He notes that his An Introduction to Indian Philosophy has a list of people working in Indian philosophy who have influenced him through conversation and correspondence, not just through their academic writing. But four major works on Indian philosophy that impacted him were Karl Potter’s Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies ; B.K. Matilal’s Perception; J.N. Mohanty’s Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought; M. Hiriyanna’s Indian Conception of Values (Mysore: Kavyalaya, 1975).
As for where he’ll turn next, Roy says that he has a number of projects, including the previously-mentioned one on the self and moral psychology. He’s become more interested in Gandhi’s work and how to understand what he was doing as philosophical. Whether in book form or in conversations with other people, he’s always thinking about the value of life, the role of film and literature in our lives, topics in ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, and so on. He reiterates that this is what he sees himself doing as a philosopher: addressing questions like “What makes a life worth living?” and “What are the candidates for providing value?” These are the questions that motivate him.
Finally, returning to the bigger question of Indian philosophy more broadly, I ask him if he has thoughts on where the field should go next. He resists the question’s presupposition—why should he, or any single person, say where it should go? As he has said above, in the context of the range of skills necessary to do Indian and Western philosophy well, no single person can embody in themselves everything necessary to understand Sanskrit texts, to think philosophically, to draw (appropriate) connections in Western philosophy, and so on. This is a communal project and one which requires individuals reflecting on what they can contribute before engaging in their work. For instance, he and other like-minded philosophers depend on scholars who spend decades reading a single text and the commentaries written on it. However, ultimately, his concern is whether the text is saying something true or not. After all, he concludes, this is his task as a philosopher – to understand things better.