Why bother to look at material from South Asia, when there is so much interesting stuff in “our” tradition?

From time to time and never by scholars, I am confronted with some variant of this question: “Why bother to look at material from South Asia, when there is so much interesting stuff in our'' tradition?". As examples for the richness ofour” tradition the Bible, the Ancient Greek and Latin classics, European philosophy etc. are mentioned.

Once again, let me repeat that I never received this question from scholars, who at most would say something like “It would be nice to deal with it, unfortunately I am too busy with my own materials”. Scholars know all too well that research is not and cannot be a priori limited by geographic, historical or cultural boundaries. If one were to a priori limit one’s research to a specific geographic, historical or cultural area, one would run the serious risk to mistake presuppositions typical of the area one researches about with intuitions of general value or even “universal” elements of human understanding. This risk is even higher if one is researching on the same cultural area one belongs to, because in that case no distantiation at all may take place.

For instance, let us consider a linguist who were to do research on their own mother-tongue and decide that number and gender are “basic categories of language”, and perhaps even affirm that there are only two numbers and three genders. Would not one laugh at the linguist’s naivety? Would not one immediately object that they should study further languages and check whether their conclusion are right against the background of such languages?

The same would apply to the case of an ethicist who never researched into ethical systems different than the one they were educated in. Would not one say that they risk to mistake their own ethical values with universal ones?

Long story short, one needs to go outside one’s own house in order to see it in the right perspective. This is also the reason why I strongly recommend to all students to take some classes dealing with topics which are far away from them in history, culture or geography. Even if they want to specialise on, say, art-history or medicine as they know it in their own country, they should reach out to gain a broader perspective. This suggestion of mine becomes even more imperative in the case of philosophy. As a matter of fact, a philosopher should first of all be someone who is not afraid to ask questions and unsettle what they thought to be the case. Therefore, they must also constantly look for stimuli from the outside, which could prompt new questions and new unsettlements.

Thus, if we refrain from engaging with other perspectives, we would do better by calling things by their names and call our departments “Euro-American psychology/architecture/literature…”, as discussed not too long ago by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden (here).

Then, there is our ethical obligation towards our neighbours, which should make us consider it our duty to try to work for mutual understanding instead of refusing any confrontation whatsoever. How can we expect our students and co-citizens to feel welcome if we refute to engage with anything but the well-known?

Now, at this point I feel I should deal also with the objections I would prefer never to hear.

  1. “The Western model is now dominating the world. Why should we bother learning about any other?”

    Well, I will probably not convince you, if the language of domination is the only one you understand. Would you however be ready to draw all the consequences you would need to and, for instance, decide that there is no need to study the ancient Greek culture, or be ready to learn Chinese and give up Adam Smith, if China turns out to be the dominant culture of the 21st c.?

    More seriously, don’t you think we have an ethical obligation to make the world a place where there is not only one dominant model? Don’t you think that, especially when we deal with philosophy and ethics (mentioned separately to put more emphasis on it) it is irresponsible and ethically blameable to try to impose a single model? Would you really want someone else to do it with you? (Don’t be too sure that what you call “ the Western model” includes everything you care for. For instance, does it include a special status for religious belief or rather laicity?)

    Last, suppose you don’t care about ethical issues and only care about profit. Still, the fact that what you call “the Western model” is now allegedly “dominating the world” might at most mean that a few nations within “ the West” developed some successful economic and/or military tools. To claim that “the Western model” should automatically be the best one in every possible domain and that nothing can be gained even from an utilitarian point of view by taking inspiration elsewhere is just a non sequitur. After all, we know that unexpected results came from theoretical research on various topics (for instance, airplanes are now rough and not smooth, because biological researches on the sharks’ skin showed that this helps reducing the amount of fuel needed).

  2. “In India live hundreds of millions of illitterate people, why should we care?”

    (This objection literally made me tremble when I first heard it. Fortunately, it is getting rarer and rarer).

    Well, we should care for all the altruistic and even for the selfish reasons mentioned above. Moreover, even in your own terms, i.e., even considering that illiterate people are not worth engaging with, there are hundred of millions of Indians, not just in South Asia, but all over the world. Many of them are, for instance, A.I. engineers in the Silicon valley and also take advantage of their heritage to develop new tools, e.g., for computational linguistics. Are you sure that we should not engage with them?
    Moreover, following your assumptions, one should also not engage with Chinese and East Asian people, I guess, nor with most people in Africa. Are you really sure we are not missing out on too much? While you are closing doors and windows, other people are engaging in fascinating enterprises.

How do you react when confronted with such questions?

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.

2 thoughts on “Why bother to look at material from South Asia, when there is so much interesting stuff in “our” tradition?

  1. In the English-speaking world, this is a constant issue and has been for centuries. The older idea that the Christian domains were at the pinnacle of God’s plan shifted effortlessly into an idea that no-one was capable of rational, ‘non-superstitious’ thinking except members of a single type of Christianity: that of the nation-based, protestant churches, The colonial era further reinforced the notion of the white Protestant as the perfection of all human history and thought, while it then became an effortless shift to expressing those ideas in terms of a pseudo-Darwinist model rather than the older scriptural-biblical one. By the middle of the twentieth century (as I find in trying to explain cross-cultural exchange in medieval European imagery), it had become quite literally impossible for most Europeans and persons of European descent to conceive of their being culturally and intellectual indebted to any but Romans, (generically-imagined) ‘Arabs’ and classical Greeks. That Europeans didn’t necessarily have authority and control of what came from other regions to affect their own thought and works, or that classical Greece had only the vaguest idea of Europe, and never the slightest influence on i medieval European culture is something, still, that most laymen simply cannot comprehend.

    So, basically, you’re dealing with a problem that has affected Europeans’ thinking pretty much since the 3rdC AD.

  2. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but my entire academic life from college to now I have never personally heard someone try to give an actual justification for their parochialism (while I have certainly read some of them in works published before I started). I have heard things like “there’s already too much out there for me to keep up with my own field, so, unfortunately, I can’t add more to my plate.” I have also seen people say “I’m most familiar with the Western tradition, so I will focus upon it in this paper.” I think that things like this are understandable, if sub-optimal.

    Also, anecdotally, I have found that those people who haven’t been able to read anything about Indian philosophy have expressed (what i think is genuine) interest to learn more through informal conversation.

    To demand more seems a bit strident. Most of us can’t keep up with every development in our own narrow sub-fields let alone all of “Indian philosophy”. I think there are interesting developments in feminist epistemology, but I’m a busy person who is already dropping the ball on many publications in my own field. To demand that I read something external to it on pains of being biased, etc. is a bit much.

    That said, when an individual is attempting some kind of wide ranging study and making claims about epistemology as such, or the problem of mind as such, to just ignore non-Western contributions, feminist contributions, etc., is unacceptable. At minimum (as Garfield and van Norden have already argued), they should be clear that theirs is a rather a study of a very specific tradition of thought and not human thought or philosophical thought as such.

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