An interview with Roy Perrett

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.

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

7 thoughts on “An interview with Roy Perrett

  1. Thank you, Malcolm, for this excellent and inspiring interview with Roy Perret. I especially appreciated the fact that, while noting that, “The Indological focus in places like Hamburg, Vienna, Tokyo, etc. is as crucial as the more predominantly philosophical approaches elsewhere,” Perret’s “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?””

    For my part, I seem to keep running into people who do not understand this motivation: who see the primary, or even the sole, function of scholarship to be to describe and analyze the great ideas of others, rather than to develop one’s own answers to philosophical questions. I gave a presentation roughly twenty years ago on my (nascent) work to develop a model of religious pluralism drawing upon Jain philosophy. One person in attendance, upon grasping the point of my presentation, suddenly exclaimed, “This isn’t about Jain philosophy! This is just your opinion!” I remained calm and said, “This is my philosophical model, trying to address the question of truth and religious diversity, which draws upon Jain philosophy, but which is neither identical to nor constrained by it.” This person was, at that time, a graduate student (as I was). But in my subsequent career, I have had numerous exchanges of this kind, often with people who should know better. Efforts to develop original perspectives while drawing upon Indian philosophies are often met with bafflement, or mistaken for confused or misleading historical assertions (as if historical assertions are the only ones that can be made about these traditions). I sometimes find I need to attach a prolegomenon to every one of my articles or presentations, clarifying what philosophy is, how I intend to go about it, and why.

    I do not think I am making any kind of profound statement here, and I do not know if others have also had this experience. I simply found it encouraging to see the philosophical impulse so clearly and elegantly expressed. So, thank you once again!

    • Jeffrey, I am glad you enjoyed the interview. I haven’t run into the issue you describe, though I have encountered the other, somewhat–a disinterest in history of ideas, or lack of interest in the historical grounding for one’s own extrapolation from Indian philosophy. Perhaps some of this does have to do with, as Matt points out, the circles we find ourselves in. It seems as if, for many analytic philosophers, the preferable thing to do is to present an argument independent of historical context, perhaps with a footnote here or there tying it to a certain thinker.

      While I might take some issue with a sharp distinction (at least as put in this interview) between what a text says and evaluating whether it’s true (I think interpretation involves philosophical evaluation, as does fixing what manuscript variants are the best readings) there needs to be room to distinguish between different projects and methodologies, and evaluate them accordingly. I think Roy said something like “let a thousand flowers bloom” either during that conversation or over the course of my visit to Ashoka. That seems right to me.

      In fact, part of the motivation for this interview series is to see how different scholars of Indian philosophy are approaching their work. And my hope is that wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum of approaches (or some other metaphor, less binary!) we can find encouragement from others pursuing similar projects.

      (An aside: I wonder what your interlocutor would have thought about pre-modern Indian philosophers themselves drawing from previous thinkers, appropriating their terms and concepts to develop “their own opinions”!)

    • Many thanks to Roy Perrett for the interview, to Malcolm for presenting it and to Jeffery for joining the discussion. In my opinion, the main point about objections like the ones mentioned in Jeffery’s answer, is to make quite clear what one is doing. Ram-Prasad, for instance, has an article on pluralism in Jainism which is divided into two and where he explicitly says that after that point he is no longer interpreting, but creatively broadening the perspective, in a way which might be inspired or consistent with the Jaina material (but does not need to). I guess that your colleagues’ negative reactions are due to a clash among expectations (they expected a text about the history of philosophy and got something only loosely connected to it). I remember reacting negatively (though not openly) when I heard a paper which was entitled as “Reconstructing the thought of X” and was in fact creatively engaging with it. Would not clarity help?

      • I think that “reconstructing” tends to be a vague term (sometimes it’s meant in a creative way, sometimes not) so I’m not entirely surprised at your reported experience. However, to your larger point, I recall Parimal recently using the term “truth in advertising” when I was in Boston discussing some of my work. He was emphasizing the importance of clarity in setting up expectations for the readers. I am not sure that will solve all of these issues (people can have negative reactions to your advertised methodology!) but certainly if you publish a book and write an introduction explaining that you are not just (for instance) exegeting Mīmāṃsā philosophy of language, but also drawing on it for philosophical inspiration to solve other issues, then criticisms (of the constructed view) should take that into account.

        If they do not, then I suppose either one has not been clear enough, one’s readers have not read carefully, or something in between.

  2. Jeffery, my experience so far has not been that bad, though I understand what you are talking about. I think my experience is consistent with the other members of my cohort (speaking broadly) in philosophy. As long as one is clear when she is doing creative work and when she is trying understand get the original thinkers on their own terms, it’s pretty much welcome (and encouraged).

    Recently, one figure in our field distinguished just doing philosophy, in dialogue with historical figures (what you are talking about) from doing “intellectual history” where the point is to understand the original texts on their own terms, who influenced whom, etc. (I talk about it here: http://indianphilosophyblog.org/2014/12/19/why-call-it-history-of-philosophy-anyway/)

    Is it possible that some of the resistance you’ve faced has to do with disciplinary presuppositions? I always thought of Religious Studies as a big tent, but is it harder to fit in that tent when you are avowedly looking for truth, and articulating a view of what you take to be true, in dialogue with the thinkers you study (as opposed to say, merely doing theory, intellectual history, or phenomenology)?

  3. BTW, looking back at that post and the great conversation that followed, I notice that Amod Lele anticipated my question (in a forceful way): “Like you I think the distinction is generally handled poorly, but I think there is a very important distinction to be made between what is true and what other people thought was true, and we shouldn’t elide it. I am sensitive to this distinction coming from a formation in religious studies, where only the latter is taken of interest and people react with some embarrassment to any mention that the former even exists.”

  4. Dear Matthew, Malcolm, and Elisa,
    Thank you for your thoughtful responses to my posting, which have largely coalesced around the importance of clarity regarding one’s aims and methods in doing philosophy that draws upon Indian intellectual traditions. My location, most of the time, in the academy of religion probably does have a bearing on my experiences, because of the importance of the emic-etic divide in most religious studies methodology, where the scholar is more often “thinking about” these traditions as objects of study rather than “thinking with” their representatives as fellow subjects. If one is clear about one’s aims and methods, then even if one’s interlocutors disagree with these, it is not a disagreement based on confusion, but on genuine difference. Matthew, thank you especially for the link to the earlier conversation, which I found quite illuminating.

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