Some Memories of My Teacher, J.N. Mohanty

It was only two weeks ago, it was only a day after the fact, that I, along with many others, learned of the death of a giant in modern philosophy.  Equally significant for his illumination of the thought of Edmund Husserl and of debates in the classical Indian tradition, that giant was Jintendranath Mohanty (1928-2023). I, along with several generations of people in these fields, in India and the United States, had the unmatched privilege and good fortune of being his student. I have written and done conference presentations about my learning experience from Mohanty and about his works in other venues, and so the editors of The Indian Philosophy Blog have asked me to write a remembrance of him here.

The conventional, and easy, thing to do in response to this call would be for me to recite the narrative of his development in philosophy and about his major works. I could therefore tread through his boyhood life in Cuttack, Orissa and the many consequential people who were members of his family and circle of relationships. Recounting his college days would follow, finding him debating the relative merits of Gandhi and Marx and barely escaping a tumult of violence surrounding his dorm building in Calcutta in 1947. Then would ensue the impressive story of his MA studies in Calcutta, where he worked in earnest with the traditional Vedānta and Nyāya pandits Yogendranatha Tirtha Vedāntatirtha and Ananta Kumar Tarkatirtha, and then his Ph.D. program in Göttingen where he studied philosophy with Joseph König, mathematics with Carl Siegel and Vedic Sanskrit with C.F.v.Weizäcker. Then would come the amazing tale of his return to India, where, before fully entering academic life, he followed the “Land Gift” (Bhoodān) movement of Vinoba Bhave across the country for a year. His career as a University professor began in Calcutta in 1955, where, between his hire and departure for the University of Oklahoma in 1970, his first three books, Nicolai Hartmann and A.N. Whitehead: A Study in Recent Platonism (1957), Gangeśas Theory of Truth (1966) and Edmund Husserls Theory of Meaning (1969) firmly established his importance in both modern Western philosophy and classical Indian thought. For the coming decades, his journey would take him from Oklahoma to the New School for Social Research, Temple University and Emory University, where he continued to bring forth landmark publications in both areas.  His world-leading authority on Husserl was reinforced through studies such as The Concept of Intentionality in Husserls Phenomenology (1972), Husserl and Frege (1982) and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Analytic Account (1989), and his brilliant distillation of the relevance of debates in Indian thought could be followed in Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought (1992), Essays in Indian Philosophy (1993)and Explorations in Indian Philosophy (2001). He capped his career upon his retirement, even faced with the burden of failing vision, with his monumental Philosophy of Edmund Husserl (2008), where he detailed his lifelong conviction that Husserl’s thought, rather than being marked by a series of transformations, was the unfolding of a fundamental continuity. I do not know of anyone, nor do I know anyone who knows anyone, who has made such a deep and lasting impact in two traditions of philosophy, not to mention who brought them together in his intercultural reflections so thoroughly.

But these facts have already been well-recorded, in Mohanty’s own autobiography Between Two Worlds: East and West and in the beautiful preface by Purushottama Bilimoria that opens Mohanty’s Essays in Indian Philosophy. I knew J.N. Mohanty, primarily and almost exclusively, as a student. My more “personal” interactions with him were quite brief and fleeting, but my experience in his classrooms and of his force as a philosopher in published works and professional venues is one of those things that changes one…forever. In light of this limited personal knowledge but enduringly philosophically transformative encounters I had with Professor Mohanty, I think this brief memorial will be better spent sharing some of my clearest and most cherished memories of him.

I first arrived at Temple University in Philadelphia, where Mohanty had already been teaching for some years, in the summer of 1993. I was then little more than a kid from the plains of North Dakota, barely cognizant of, but fascinated by, the larger world around me. I had however already decided that I wanted to write a dissertation on the degree to which Schopenhauer’s limited acquaintance with Indian thought had influenced his system. Shortly after my arrival, a housemate advised me to introduce myself to Mohanty, which I did when the fall semester started. One of the few people I’d met in the area by then who was shorter than I, but sporting his beige coat, bright eyes and pleasant smile, he greeted me politely, listened to my interests and said: “well, I am thinking about retiring but I’d be interested in your project if I’m still around by the time you finish it.” He would, of course, continue working at Temple and Emory for fifteen years after saying this. I decided during my first semester to take his biannual graduate seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology.

The course was spellbinding. Mohanty would sit in front of the room, with a translation of the text before him but never opened, and he proceeded, for two and a half hours, to give a completely organized, systematically developed and surpassingly brilliant lecture every session. The lectures were mixed with brief moments of humor and pithy revelations of almost shocking lucidity. Once, while talking in the introductory lecture on Hegel’s notion of Geist, Mohanty recalled what his former colleague at the New School, the renowned Hegel scholar Gustav Müller, used to say about it. “In an unabridged German dictionary,” Mohanty paraphrased Müller, “there are ninety-two alternative definitions of Geist…and in Hegel it means all of them.” Following would be incredible insights. “Kant seemed to make of knowledge only a sensuous and severely limited matter. But Hegel shows us that testimony and history too must be fundamental sources of knowledge. If they were not, then reading this book, Hegel’s Phenomenology, would have no cognitive value.” “Kant was the kind of philosopher who greatly respected limits. But, even though in some ways Hegel misses Kant, Hegel points out quite rightly here that even to think a limit is to think beyond it.” To one student who, toward the beginning of the seminar, balked that philosophy tended to reinforce his original convictions, Mohanty gently smiled and retorted: “that’s not good. That kind of reinforcement reduces philosophy from reflection to dogmatics.” In the midst of all this, Mohanty would occasionally subject Hegel to alternately direct and impish criticism, but these were always qualified by deep appreciation. “That Hegel did not know enough about Indian philosophy to take its full significance into account allows us to dismiss his assessments of it. They were just wrong. But does that mean that the Hegelian system itself cannot go on, as long as it takes into account Indian rationality, Chinese rationality, African rationality, and the rationalities of other traditions?” In the middle of recounting the story of Hegel’s composition of the Phenomenology while still teaching at a Gymnasium, Mohanty noted that biographical details of his life suggested that Hegel was basically a good guy, because, at the end of his first year of employment, he refused a raise and suggested the school use the extra money to fix its WCs. And, in my favorite anecdote from the class, during the first week a student looked at the syllabus and asked him why we were reading all of the Phenomenology accept the final chapter, Mohanty grinned and quipped: “we will leave that chapter for someone who has Absolute Knowledge”

This first class that I had with Mohanty was both enormously enriching and deeply intimidating to me. While I took my undergraduate studies and independent reading to have given me a strong grounding in philosophy, which I often carried around with a youthful arrogance that hid the terrible insecurities of what we now call “Imposter Syndrome,” I was not, could not be like that, with him. Listening to Mohanty alerted me simultaneously to what it really meant to be a genius and how incredibly far away I was from even being able to carry a one-on-one conversation with him. Scared of ever being wrong and being exposed for it in the classroom, I tended to keep quiet while taking copious notes. I had no idea what I would write for a seminar paper in the class. He mentioned at some point while reading through the first chapter that Hegel’s position on the universality of indexicals could be fruitfully compared to the views of Frege, Husserl and Russell. That is the paper I wrote, investing weeks on the composition. It was left as an Incomplete for over a year. In the early spring of 1995, during my first year of exchange research in Tübingen, Germany, I happened to see Mohanty walking through the streets of the city’s Altstadt, as he was scheduled to give a talk there. “Ah!” he exclaimed, pointing at me and smiling widely. He asked how I was doing in Germany and we chatted a bit. I nervously brought up the matter of the still Incomplete grade. “Oh, of course,” he replied, “but I don’t have it with me,” and we laughted. In the early fall, I learned he had given me a B+. “As a first effort on a most difficult subject,” he wrote simply on the back, “this is a good attempt.” I did not really know whether to be disappointed about the grade or overjoyed with the comment—or puzzled about the difference between them. But, from that point on, from both participating in his seminars and reading his works, I was quite simply in awe of Mohanty…and I still am. I was usually very slow to speak in his presence, a stance that the other people who know me perhaps wish I would adopt with them more often.

I either took for credit or audited the rest of Mohanty’s two-year cycle of courses, on Kant’s first Critique, on Husserl and Heidegger and on Indian Philosophy. What better guide could one have to the Critique of Pure Reason than a man who, while writing his own dissertation at Göttingen some forty years earlier on all three of Kant’s Critiques, had compiled his own German glossary and index of Kant’s technical terminology? What better instructor could one have on 20th century phenomenology than one of the few owners of his own set of keys to the Husserl Archives? And what better elucidator could one hope for of classical Indian texts than someone who had done his own private translations of the commentary Bhāmati and closely examined, from a phenomenological perspectives, each of Gangeśa’s more than two-dozen candidate conceptions of pramā? Mohanty would light-heartedly joke about the incredible legacy he had already made for himself in both modern Western and classical Indian thought. “My books indirectly reveal Frege’s problem of reference. I find that, in libraries, my books on Western philosophy are listed under the name of ‘J.N. Mohanty.’ But my books on Indian philosophy are listed under the name of “Jitendra Nath Mohanty.’ I am sort of like ‘The Morning Star’ and ‘The Evening Star.’” After that, my housemate at the time and colleague took, just between the two of us, to howlingly but affectionately referring to him as “Professor Evening Star.”   

During his seminar on Indian Philosophy, it came time for me to seek out committee members who would evaluate my preliminary examinations and dissertation proposal in writing and through oral defense, and Professor Mohanty was an obvious choice. It was a foregone conclusion that, should he accept, he would also be a member of my eventual dissertation committee itself. I was almost wracked with nerves when entering his office to ask him for this favor. I had to wait to knock because I heard him on the phone talking to someone in his native language of Oriya. A short consultation followed, and he graciously agreed. But I could tell upon leaving the office that either my project or my nerves unsettled him some, as he let out a long sigh before I could leave the small annex where his office was located. But by the end of the term, my spirits had again lifted, as my paper for the class on Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartani earned a mark of “A” from him. That very paper was to become my first conference presentation as a Ph.D. student at the World Congress of Philosophy, held in Philadelphia, in 1998.

Mohanty’s comments during both my prelim and final dissertation defenses, in 1997 and 1999 respectively, were, as usual, penetrating…and even supportive. In one exchange, when I expressed skepticism in my dissertation defense regarding Schopenhauer’s notion of a “double-knowledge” of self, Mohanty said: “but why not probe it more instead of criticizing it? He is saying that we have, at least in one sense, a non-objective knowledge of our bodies. Is that not right?” When the discussion turned among the committee members to a more general critique of Schopenhauer’s questionable position as a self-appointed “spokesman” for Indian philosophy to his 19th century German audience, pressing me on what I thought were mixed legacies of Schopenhauer’s appropriation of Indian ideas, it was Mohanty who jumped to my defense, and the defense of what was now our shared discipline. “No, I think you are right,” looking first at me and then turning to the room. He insisted, echoing what he had written years before in several essays and in Reason and Tradition: “It’s too easy for skeptics to question someone’s ability to understand another tradition who was not raised in that tradition. But,” he continued, pointing his thumb at his own chest, “what about this philosopher? What about, not just abstract and systematic presumptions, but about the concrete person who works to gain a concrete understanding of other traditions? Should they not be assessed not only as a symptom of a certain historical and interpretive age, but also as an individual case? What have they taken the effort to learn, and how should their views be assessed on that basis?” After the defense was over, it was somewhat customary for committee members to return their hard copies of the manuscript to the Ph.D. candidate so that their marked notes could provide the basis for a final revision by the student. “But,” my advisor informed me, “Professor Mohanty would like to keep his copy. Is that alright with you?”

I did not see Professor Mohanty often after that. A few chance meetings at conferences and a review of his book at a Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy meeting in California in 2008 were only brief opportunties to engage with him as his health worsened and he eventually retired from teaching. The last time I saw him was at an annual national APA meeting in 2006, in a hotel hallway after a forum we both attended. He greeted me and my former roommate, on whose Ph.D. committee Mohanty also served, and caught up briefly. Another acquaintance of his interrupted, and Mohanty introduced us, pointing first to my friend and then to me, saying proudly, “this is my student, and this is my student.” And that moment brings home to me what an incomparable privilege and gift it was to be, then and now, the student of Jitendranath Mohanty. Though we were not “friends” in any real sense, to say that I will miss him is to be incapable of saying enough. And the descriptive powers of reference will always be inadequate to reckon how much my thinking was trained, informed  and nurtured by his thinking.

About Douglas Berger

Douglas Berger is Professor of Global and Comparative Philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is also the former president of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy and the current chief editor of Dimensions of Asian Spirituality, a book series published by University of Hawai'i Press

9 Replies to “Some Memories of My Teacher, J.N. Mohanty”

  1. Dear Doug,
    Thank you for your tribute to Prof. Mohanty. There are so many of us even in ‘Indian Philosophy’ who will have so much to say and remember of his generosity and kindness. I met him through, of course, Prof Matilal, when he was visiting All Souls’ College, Oxford in the mid-80s. As with one or two others of us, he very kindly took on being a referee when Prof Matilal died so tragically early. This meant that Prof Mohanty, although never having taught me, undertook to read my thesis and early publications, in order to support me. If I recall right, my applications for three positions, ending with my current university, all had him as a referee. I last saw him in the late noughties, when I was visiting Philadelphia. I took a train out to visit him, and I will never forget how he drove to pick me up despite having such severe macular degeneration that his spectacles needed a permanent grid on them. Like his dear friend Bimal Matilal, his idea of an ācārya’s duties went very far indeed…

  2. Thank you, Doug, for this warm and informative remembrance. I was not lucky enough to be Prof. Mohanty’s student, but I would guess almost all readers of this blog (and beyond) have learned from his work. Take care.

  3. What a wonderful and touching tribute, Doug. And a helpful reminder to the rest of us – especially the younger scholars among us – that we are not alone in feeling the pangs of impostor syndrome. Thank you.

  4. This is a fine tribute to an extraordinary thinker and teacher. I saw Prof. Mohanty only once, in a conference on ‘The Ethical Turn in Theory’ held at Konark, Odisha, not very far from his ancestral village. He spoke on ‘This and It’ with such lucidity and effortless persuasion that everyone in the hall thought it was our talk. He spoke impishly on his associatiin with Derrida, on how he and Derrida met and how Derrida would sit on the floor (as there was no space) of his small room at the university to listen to him and seek clarifications on Husserl, learn more Sanskrit texts that interested him. In course of time each would bring for the other to very interesting gifts: Derrida would bring the finest wines for Prof. Mohanty, and would receive, in return, fancy cigarettes, pipes and cheroots that Prof. Mohanty would have collected for him in between. This ritual continued for years.

  5. Many thanks, Doug! (And thanks also to Ram for his comment). As Ethan and Amod have already pointed out, the entire field would be different without Mohanty, who (like Matilal and a few others) showed the world the possibility of discussing Sanskrit philosophical texts qua philosophy. He also had the advantage of being an expert on phenomenology which meant that a) our colleagues knew him and trusted him, b) he did not look only at Analytic philosophy.

  6. Dear Douglas Berger,

    Many thanks for a warm and personified tribute. J N Mohanty has been a frontrunner in many debates that surround Contemporary Indian Philosophy. Although, I have never met him in person, my engagement with some of his writings have left an influential mark on my Carrer choices. Quite recently I have employed his work on rationality in Indian philosophy as the basis/foundation of a debate that involves Matilal, Arindham Chakrabarti and Jonardon Ganeri for my upcoming book: India, Habermas and the Normative Structure of Public Sphere.
    His passing away is a huge loss for the already endangered community of philosophers working in Contemporary Indian Philosophy.

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