Can there be harmless periodisations? On Oetke 2013

(I beg again your pardon for the lack of diacritics)

The fore-last essay (called Classification and Periodization of Indian Philosophical Traditions: Some Conceptual and Theoretical Aspects) in Franco’s Periodization and Historiography of Indian Philosophy, by Claus Oetke, raises very general issues, departing from the problematic definition of “Indian philosophy”, in which both noun and adjective should be better assessed (does not “Indian” philosophy include also authors who were active in Burma or Tibet? —not to speak of Sri Lanka? This problem had already been raised by Michel Hulin in his long introduction to his translation of the Nyayabhasya, whose review you can read on my Academia page, here.)

But the main core of Oetke’s investigation is the problem of why we keep on doing periodisations, although they are so slippery. Perhaps, Oetke insinuates, because “by classifying objects[,] rational beings are better equipped for making predictions” (p. 349). By accident, this sentence is almost the last one on a right side page, so that a reader has a few seconds to ponder about it before turning to the next page. And he or she might even find it tempting, before being brought back, on the next page, to the more rational position that predictions about human events are untenable, since historical developments are not subject to one and the same scheme and, thus, predictions are unwarranted. (It is not, for instance, the case, that a “Golden Age” is necessarily followed by a “decline”.)

An alternative might be a sheer chronological periodisation, which would be far less risky, suggests Oetke. (However, one might argue that already the choice of one or the other —presumably Christian— chronology influences one’s way to look at the material. It cannot be a coincidence that most periodizations dealt with in Franco 2013 agree about a turning point in Indian philosophy “towards the end of the first half of the First Millennium CE”. Is not it the case that their own chronology inclines scholars to settle the turning point around 500 CE instead of, say, 430 or 623?) Oetke’s main objection against such periodisation, anyway, is that they are less risky only at the cost of being less informative.

Moreover, being a philosopher himself, Oetke suggests to focus not only on chronological periodisations, but also on discussions of the philosophical contents dealt with (as done in the third part of von Glasenapp 1958).

Alternatively, at the very end of his essay, Oetke suggests “classifications relating to different ways of performing philosophy and to diverse methods of philosophical reasoning” (p. 355) (one is reminded of the sutra- bhasya- and prakarana periods).

In the same essay, Oetke offers also a further interesting contribution to the Frauwallner-debate (which is one of the leitmotivs of the whole Franco 2013), namely the remark that it is not the “ethnic [i.e., racial, EF] explanation” to be problematic in Frauwallner, but rather the fact that he does not explain why it fits the material he was dealing with. Given that Frauwallner seemingly did explain that non-Aryan religious cults prevailed in the second period, Oetke’s point amounts to saying that Frauwallner was a priori convinced of a given explanation and did not look for the best one among many.

Further posts on Franco 2013 can be found following the tag “Eli Franco 2013” on my personal blog. See, on this blog, also this post and its comments (Andrew’s suggestions seems close to Oetke’s own one).

(cross posted also on my personal Blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

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