“Indian philosophy” vs. “Buddhist ethics”

It is not especially controversial to say that ethics is a branch of philosophy. I’ve occasionally heard people dispute that claim, but mostly on the grounds that ethics extends beyond philosophy per se, to narrative and the like; few would say that ethical reflection is in general not a philosophical activity. Likewise it is not controversial at all to say that Buddhism began in India, or that Buddhism played a central role in the development of Indian philosphy.

So why is there so little overlap between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics”?

The quotation marks are there because there was and is plenty of overlap between what Indian philosophy actually was and is, and what Buddhist ethics were and are. But there is strikingly little overlap between the disciplines, between “the study of Indian philosophy” and “the study of Buddhist ethics” as we now understand the two. This is even though both have grown into large and relatively flourishing fields of inquiry (insofar as any humanities field can said to be flourishing in the age of the career-focused corporate academy).

Most visibly, each of these fields has its own journal, the Journal of Indian Philosophy (JIP) and the Journal of Buddhist Ethics (JBE) – but precious few articles in JBE cite JIP, or vice versa. “Buddhist ethics” reads Pali and Theravāda texts as much as anything Sanskrit or Mahāyāna; “Indian philosophy” focuses almost exclusively on thinkers composing in Sanskrit, most of whom are considered Mahāyāna. (I am not actually sure whether Dignāga and Dharmakīrti – key Buddhist thinkers in “Indian philosophy” – are Mahāyāna thinkers, and that fact may itself tell you something. Identifying a Buddhist thinker as Mahāyāna or not can be of great ethical importance – how much does the thinker foreground altruism? – but with respect to Dignāga and Dharmakīrti I have yet to see the question even asked. Somebody must have written about it, but I haven’t seen it in anything I’ve read on them.) And few seem to have observed just how weird this state of affairs is – that “Buddhist ethics” and “Indian philosophy” proceed more or less in isolation from each other even though a great deal of Buddhist ethics is Indian philosophy, and vice versa.

So how did this all come about? The Journal of Indian Philosophy was founded in 1970 by B.K. Matilal, who proclaimed, in reaction against Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s mystical approach, that “The field of our contributions will be bound by the limits of rational inquiry; we will avoid questions that lie in the fields of theology and mystical experience.” There is nothing in this phrase that should exclude ethics, but it set a tone of aiming for respectability in the analytical tradition, where theoretical questions of epistemology and philosophy of language were always treated as the core of the discipline, especially in 1970 before the arrival of John Rawls. This approach found a comfortable home in European universities, long accustomed to philological inquiries that felt no need to articulate any practical upshot. As a result, the approach has continued to be prominent in the study of Indian philosophy, leading to the dire current situtation where a Dan Arnold can look with deep interest and respect at the epistemological chapters of Candrakīrti’s Catuḥśatakaṭīkā but dismiss the ethical chapters as “more psychological than philosophical” because they are “working on the reader’s affect“. Because we all know none of that girly emotion stuff could have anything to do with philosophy.

Authors in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, on the other hand, have often been motivated by prevalent contemporary concerns, especially political ones. It is their variety of work that has been taken up as a second-order object of study by Christopher Gowans and David Chapman, and led Chapman to make the provocative claims that it is not really Buddhist. “Buddhist ethics” as a field has been most prominent in the USA, the centre for Engaged Buddhism – and so it is no coincidence that “Buddhist ethics” takes a primarily Engaged perspective. So in JBE’s tag cloud we find human rights, economics, war and the environment taking prominent places, but no reference to dukkha/suffering, anger, or karma. These authors are often religionists, and can sometimes wind up doing ethics studies: studying the given norms of particular groups of people without saying anything about the reasons or logic underlying those norms, and portray themselves as doing ethics. As a result I think a lot of work in “Buddhist ethics” doesn’t go very deep into reasons, and especially doesn’t explore metaphysics, in a way that is very much to its detriment. (I’ve noted before how I think it is a neglect of metaphysics that led Damien Keown to throw up his hands in despair and say there was no such thing as Buddhist normative ethics.)

The discrepancy between the two schools is particularly visible in the study of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra. The ninth chapter of this text deals with technical metaphysical questions from a Madhyamaka perspective; the other chapters contain exhortations and arguments about how one should live. The text views itself as a unity – chapter nine begins by saying the rest of the work is there for the sake of the wisdom (prajñā) it addresses. But at least until recently, it has been quite rare to find scholarly works that treat it as such. Rather, one either takes the “Indian philosophy” approach and takes chapter IX in isolation, or takes the “Buddhist ethics” approach and ignores chapter IX entirely. I tried to remedy this gap in my 2015 article, and was very pleasantly surprised to hear from JBE that it was their most viewed article since the journal began collecting statistics. Perhaps I am not the only one who has realized the wall between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics” needs to come down.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

13 thoughts on ““Indian philosophy” vs. “Buddhist ethics”

  1. On classifying Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, most recently, Jan Westerhoff discusses this in his “The Golden Age of Indian Buddhism,” which has some citations of earlier places this question is raised, such as by Georges Dreyfus, Christian Lindtner and Ernst Steinkellner. You might find it interesting.

    • Thanks, Malcolm. Sounds like I should give that a read – it’s sounding like Westerhoff takes on the practical side of later Indian Buddhist debates, which are so often neglected.

  2. Buddhism, Hinduism, or Indian philosophy or any Religions, are not academic subjects for scholarly 1Q debates. If we debate we must do it to realize & actually experience & attain the highest Truth. They have one common goal & purpose, to expand our divisive mindset till it can feel one with the whole creation. Practice of unselfishness & giving up of selfishness by prayers & giving our best in our vocation for good of society is to be taught by all. The rest is quarrel of 6 blind men trying to know the Whole elephant

    • A thousand years’ worth of Buddhist and Hindu scholarly debaters (who predate the term “Hindu”) would disagree with you on this. For them it was of the highest spiritual importance to show how the other side was wrong.

  3. Hi Amod – fascinating post, with a lot to unpack.

    I’m confused a bit by your question about Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. I’ve only ever studied them as Mahāyāna thinkers. Is there reason to doubt this? I tend to follow Jonathan Silk in seeing Mahāyāna as lacking any monothetic definition, so with enough context and tradition putting them in that tradition, I suppose most scholars have been fine with leaving them there.

    As for the lack of overlap between the disciplines, I wonder if there is a way to clarify (perhaps even quantify) this problem that you are pointing at. You say there is “strikingly little” overlap using the citations in the two journals as a case study. If we were to create Venn diagrams of the two disciplines, how much overlap would you want to see (percentage-wise)? I might venture that in the great mass of Indian Philosophy, Buddhists constitute 10-20%. Perhaps that’s even being charitable, as we have 800 years, give or take a bit, (1200-2000 CE) when Buddhism was virtually inactive as a philosophical force.

    Then look at Buddhist ethics: how much of it is going to deeply involve Indian thought (beyond establishing received ideas)? This is harder, for me at least, to attempt to quantify. But if we just look at the history of Buddhism, again we have a huge mass of thought and lived development *outside* of India. So the amount that ‘should’ involve Indian philosophy might only be 10-20% again. Given that, and the sheer amount of material out there, not to mention countless other journals that cater to overlap (e.g. Philosophy East and West, Religion Compass, JAAR), it might not be surprising that articles in the two journals rarely cite one another.

    Other measures of interdisciplinary work here might be looking at people. Do authors writing on Indian ideas in “Indian Philosophy” also publish in the “Journal of Buddhist Ethics”?

    Or we might ask more broadly, do thinkers in one field also write and publish ideas in the other? For many, e.g. Jay Garfield, Maria Heim, Jonardin Ganeri, yourself, Ethan Mills, Ann Heirman, Mark Siderits, Richard Hayes, etc, the answer seems to be yes.

    So perhaps it’s not so much the disciplines or fields being in isolation as these two particular journals having particular areas of interest that only overlap very slightly.

    • Re Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, I’ve never actually seen any evidence that they _are_ Mahāyāna thinkers. As far as I know they never refer to the bodhisattva path or the bodhisattva vow, or even to altruism beyond stuff like the brahmavihāras that would be fine in Buddhaghosa. I mean sure they’re quoted by later Mahāyāna thinkers, but so is the Dhammapāda. I’m no expert on them, so while there may very well be reason to associate them with Mahāyāna, I don’t have any idea what it is.

      Regarding the Venn diagram: while it’s true that most Indian philosophy was done in the period after Buddhism died out in India, that period has generally been studied a lot less. Likewise, later Buddhist philosophy orients itself back to India in a lot of ways; a large part of the work in Buddhist ethics does refer back to Indian texts (like the Pali canon), and I think that is exactly as it should be. It just doesn’t do so in any sort of dialogue with the literature that gets studied as “Indian philosophy”. And perhaps the bigger issue is that, as Matthew points out, the study of non-Buddhist philosophy also does very little with ethics.

  4. Good reflections to take seriously, Amod. Thanks.

    I wouldn’t take Arnold’s dismissal as representing anything other than himself. Certainly, many of the people I think are field-leaders for us would take his glib dismissal to be mistaken. Adding “girly” to his voice suggests a worse element to his motivations than I think is warranted. The blogosphere has enough poisoning the well already. . .Seems to me that The problem is rather a mistake about what constitutes philosophy proper, hinging on the idea that there is a clear and obvious psychology/philosophy distinction (which would likely exclude much of aesthetics from philosophy, incidentally).

    You focus “Buddhist Ethics” but the case is certainly even worse for “Vaidika Ethics” too.

    • Yes, the “girly” comment is probably unkind to Arnold himself. I do think it reflects an attitude that is pretty common in academic philosophy (though it’s never actually *stated*), a macho culture that puts theoretical philosophy first and thinks the emotions are unworthy of philosophical investigation. (That the most prominent female academic philosophers are ethicists, and often explore questions of moral psychology, hardly seems like a coincidence to me.)

      Re the situation being worse in Vaidika ethics: sure, I don’t dispute that. I think the problem is just of a different sort, because “Vaidika ethics” (or even “Hindu ethics’) doesn’t actually name a community of inquirers the way “Buddhist ethics” does (there’s no Journal of Vaidika Ethics).

    • The philosophy/psychology distinction is important, I think, the problem rather arising when it becomes a dichotomy (with impermeable boundaries) of some sort in which the two fields/dimensions have no bearing upon each other, much like the fact/value distinction, which is meaningful and thus has its purposes, but does not rule out the possibility of “fact/value entanglement” as Hilary Putnam puts it, be it in in the natural and social sciences, humanities, or everyday discourse. In epistemology and in some forms of philosophy of mind, “psychologism” is an oft-used and sometimes simplistic critique, that, once again, has its relevance, but any realistic epistemology or philosophy of mind cannot avoid psychological topics (the later Hilary Putnam discusses this), which arise in all sorts of ways, not the least of which are such phenomena as self-deception, states of denial, wishful thinking, willful ignorance, and so forth, as well questions of mental heuristics, cognitive biases…. There are quite a few contemporary philosophers (some no longer with us) who accord fundamental significance to psychological topics in their philosophizing (and not just those sympathetic to Freudian and post-Freudian psychology). Those doing work in virtue ethics, regulative or virtue epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, critical thinking, and personal identity, for example, cannot avoid psychology. I would agree that there remain some recalcitrant or stubborn philosophers who are anxious about contaminating philosophy with psychology, but they seem to be a diminishing breed. And certain areas of philosophy, arguably philosophy of language and political philosophy (political science is not afraid of psychology, but it largely favors its cruder forms: behaviorist, positivist or post-positivist), for example, seem unwilling to entertain in any depth psychological topics, preferring a hard and fast division of intellectual labor to remain in place.

  5. Amod, Do you think there’s any credence to the old claim that in general, Indian philosophy has much more that looks familiar to us in terms of M&E than ethics? Not to say that the latter isn’t there, but that it often (excepting work like yours) requires thinking about how we frame ethics in ways that are less familiar to us?

    My question isn’t motivated to deny your point but consider what causes there may be for it, aside from disciplinary pressures and the climate at the time that the study Indian philosophy started to coalesce under Matilal and co.

  6. Re: “a macho culture that puts theoretical philosophy first and thinks the emotions are unworthy of philosophical investigation.” Hmmm, I wonder about that generalization. Consider, for instance, this list, which I quickly put together and is far from exhaustive, of men (there are women who could be included here, but because we’re discussing ‘macho culture’ I’ve left them out) who have done philosophical work on the emotions: Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, Malcolm Budd, V.K. Chari, John M. Cooper, Antonio Damasio, John Deigh, Jon Elster, Peter Goldie, P.M.S. Hacker, Joel Marks, Jerome Neu, Jesse Prinz, Robert C. Roberts, Robert C. Solomon, Richard Sorabji, Michael Stocker, and Richard Wollheim.

  7. Pingback: “Indian philosophy” vs. “Buddhist ethics” — The Indian Philosophy Blog | Advayavada Buddhism

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