About Andrew Nicholson

I am an Associate Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of two books, Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Intellectual History and Lord Śiva's Song: The Īśvara Gītā.

27 Replies to “Hindu Philosophy in the NY Times!”

  1. This is indeed good.
    In the UK, as far as the ‘mainstream’ goes, the most widely listened to intellectual programme, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, with Lord Melvyn Bragg, now has regular coverage of Hindu philosophy and thought – the Upanisads, the Gita, The Kama Sutra, Hindu theories of creation.
    E.g., http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zt235


  2. I never know what to make of these things in terms of signifying mainstream acceptance. . .

    I did notice that the Gutting’s questions are mainly about religion, which isn’t even JG’s specialty (though he is good on anything). It’s an unfortunate outcome if this sort of approach helps to perpetuate the presumption that Indian philosophy must be understood in religious categories. I would have enjoyed seeing how he could share some insights of his findings in books like *The Concealed Art of the Soul* or *The Lost Age of Reason* to a mass audience. Still, those gripes aside, any occasion to let someone as talented as Ganeri speak for our discipline to a mass audience is a great thing.

  3. I appreciate his clarity in getting these concepts across. On balance, I think the interview’s focus on applied, practical and normative topics (including the ethical and political as well as “the divine”) is very helpful. I would be worried that someone like Ganeri, who’s very much in the Matilal school of Indian philosophy, would fall into the trap of treating Indian philosophy as so technical and scholastic that there’s nothing ordinary people can really learn from it. He absolutely does not do that here, which is fantastic.

    I am particularly fond of this beautiful passage: “Knowledge can liberate because epistemic error is the primary source of anguish, and knowledge is an antidote to error. I might err, for example, if I believe that I only need to satisfy my current desires in order to be happy. The antidote is the knowledge that the satisfaction of one desire serves only to generate another.” If there’s anything I’ve really learned from Indian philosophy, it’s this very piece of knowledge. I got it from reading Buddhist texts in Thailand in my early twenties, and I love the way he then brings in Vatsyāyana to theorize that process.

  4. It is rather unfortunate that the take home message from these two interviews (with Jay Garfield and Jonardon Ganeri) is that talk of philosophy in the South Asian context is really just talk of Buddhism and Hinduism (as the comments section makes amply obvious). We would have been much better served if Garfield and Ganeri were allowed to write their own opinion pieces along the lines of what Justin Smith did for the Stone a couple of years ago:

    There was also this long discussion at the New APPs prompted by a call from Chalmers to make philosophy a little less provincial:

    I guess I’m in the Matilal camp on this one: keep talk of Indian philosophy firmly within the bounds of reason and rational inquiry and leave religious concerns to the religious studies folks.

    • I remain boggled that anyone can try to take this approach. Far as I can tell, if you remove anything that can be described as “religious concerns” from Indian philosophy, there’s nothing of importance left. Sure, there are some technical debates on epistemology, but first you do interpretive violence to them, and second, it’s hard to see why anyone would care.

      Though there are moments when I’m tempted to argue the same about Western philosophy. Once people get hostile to “religion”, hostility to philosophy is usually not far behind.

      • IMHO, one could easily split the middle between these approaches. One can do justice to the religious motivations/concerns of the original thinkers by calling attention to it, but if it is not one’s research concern, then make it clear that one’s own research is devoted to this or that philosophical/cognitive dialectic or account, leaving the more “religious” concerns to others. We all have to perform the delicate dance of interpretation, reconstruction, creative extrapolation, and original contribution when working on the Indian thinkers.

        For example, its hard to understand the motivation for Mimamsa notions of authoress testimony without paying attention to its religious role. But if one isn’t interested in the religious issues, but rather in the purely philosophical ones, she can briefly call attention to its religious origins, then move on. We can study the parable of the cave without a deep exploration of Greek mystery religions, though it does help to minimally call attention to them for context. This is to agree with the spirit of Christian’s point.

        At the same time, I do find it hard to draw strict lines between the religious and the philosophical, and I do worry when people try to do it too strictly. Anyone who reads Ramanjua’s intro to the Sri-bhashya, which is a remarkably tight attack on Advaita-vedanta can see the rich and profound philosophical work being done, albeit in a deeply religious context. To dismiss this all as “religious” would be to lose much that is philosophically important. (Incidentally, JG’s own brother Martin is an expert on Ramanuja.) This is to agree with the spirit of Amod’s point.

        As an aside, and thinking about Ramanuja, it seems to me that JG tended to downplay the rich parallels between Vedantic theism and Christian theism, perhaps because he was being asked to look at differences.

        Finally, thanks for that great notice from Chalmers, Christian. I hadn’t seen it, and it is gratifying to see.

        • I’m not sure the “Greek mystery religions” comparison is apt. There is much that gets called “religion” within the more mainstream concerns of the major Greek thinkers, without having to look back to that background; once again, we get befuddled by the term “religion”. Aristotle was a metaphysical thinker who started a community of practitioners. If he’d been Indian, we might as a result now be calling the Peripatetics “a religion”, and therefore trying to exclude them (and even him!) from philosophical discussions.

          IMO, separating philosophy from “religion” is indeed difficult, and is so because the latter term is usually so meaningless. I would rather dispense with it.

        • Regarding Mīmāṃsā, it’s always seemed to me that the key takeaway is the role of śabda and authority in knowledge. People like Dasgupta ignored that takeaway because they thought it had to do with “religious” presuppositions we don’t share. We now realize that it’s important with respect to any tradition, including even natural science itself (as I’ve argued at http://loveofallwisdom.com/blog/2009/12/following-science-as-a-layperson/ ). And I think we are blinded to that continuity when we wall off “religious” from “non-religious” forms of tradition.

          • No one disagrees that there is great philosophical argumentation in Ramanuja or Śrī Harṣa any more than people debate whether Anselm’s Proslogium and Aquinas’ Summa have any philosophical merit (or else we would not have these different waves of Neo-Thomism and Neo-Vedanta). But that’s argumentation in the service of defending various doctrinal positions–perfectly fine if one seeks to justify a set of religiously-held beliefs, but less so if the goal is an open-ended process of asking questions and pursuing knowledge.

            And, yes, historians of religion are still debating whatever it is that their discipline is about given the many meanings and phenomena subsumed under ‘religion,’ but that is precisely my point: let them have those conversations while we pursue ours.

            I, for one, am just as baffled by this notion that the the best and perhaps only way to do Indian philosophy is to do exegesis of antique positions in that bhāṣya, vṛtti, vārttika, and ṭīkā vein. Or, worse, use the same antiquated vocabulary and stylistic devices of the original thinkers with more than just a hint of nostalgia for the good old ways before the (ill-fated) advent of modernity.

            We’re not doing Indian philosophy to promote Hinduism (or Buddhism) but to pursue knowledge and understanding. Or are we? Last time I checked Jay Garfield is not Bob Thurman, and Jonardon Ganeri is not T. M. P. Mahadevan.

    • Christian, I had a look at the Justin Smith and Chalmers pieces you mention, and they brought a further issue to my mind.

      I can’t agree that we would have been better served by pieces like theirs, not at all. Smith and Chalmers merely make the claim that philosophy as a field should have contributions from nonwestern philosophy. What they don’t do, is say what those contributions would actually be. Garfield and Ganeri actually do that, and they do it well. I think the questions Gutting asks – questions of relevance to any Westerners who are not hardcore Dawkinsian atheists – are an excellent starting point for their doing so.

      (I should add that they are both fine pieces in their own right, and I agree with their results. I just don’t think they get us nearly as far as the Ganeri and Garfield interviews do.)

  5. Ganeri may be a granary of knowledge but he errs on giving an academic, artificial, or abstract representation of being a Hindu. What he enumerates are regrettably absent in the ground level practices and their justifications. I may be frowned upon again, but Sri Aurobindo is the only authority as a philosopher to bust the myths of Hinduism and disagree with the so called six Darshanas. He differs with the tradition and sides with Evolution; transcending the past categories is a must to partake of his vision. [TNM55]

  6. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, and while there are of course analytical and practical distinctions and differences to be made, there simply are no hard and fast boundaries between religion and philosophy in the East or West, in particular when both domains pursue questions on or related to the art of living, (existential) meaning, and personal identity, for example, or are concerned (as in practical or ‘therapeutic’ philosophy) with what are termed “spiritual exercises,” or virtue (or care) ethics. Recent developments in “virtue” or regulative epistemology also soften these boundaries. There are of course technical questions and topics in professional philosophy that may have nothing whatsoever to do with religious worldviews, as well as some methodological differences related to disciplinary training. Philosophical arguments in professional philosophy are often at bottom based on metaphysical presuppositions and assumptions and thus at times serve identical or analogous functions to religious modes of “justification” (although that may be implicit or difficult to discern). As Nicholas Rescher has said, “philosophy cannot provide a rational explanation for everything, rationalizing all of its claims ‘all the way down.’ Sooner or later the process of rationalization and explanation must—to all appearances—come to a halt in the acceptance of unexplained explainers.” [a reliance on unavoidable presuppositions]. The inferential, “discursive” or the demonstrative mode of argumentation is found in religious worldviews as well as philosophy, although it’s central to the latter in an important manner in which it is not to the former. And the “rhetorical” or evocative mode of philosophizing, that is, that kind of philosophy which “bristles with adjectives of approbation or derogation—‘evident,’ ‘sensible,’ ‘untenable,’ ‘absurd,’ ‘inappropriate,’ ‘unscientific,’ and comparable adverbs like ‘evidently,’ ‘obviously,’ ‘foolishly,’ etc.,” is not much different from that found in religious worldviews (although the specific adjectives and literary modes may differ), at least insofar as both fields can be seen making “appeal[s] to values and appraisals—and above all by fittingness and consonance with an overall scheme of things.”

    It can and does so occasionally happen in philosophy that questions and topics pursued in an open-ended process aimed at knowledge and truth end up (as an indirect or unintended side-effect) altering a person’s value orientations, enhance their self-knowledge and self-awareness, even, in some sense, “convert” them to a particular worldview (be it conventionally philosophical or religious). In such cases philosophy and religion are not that far apart. So, doing Indian philosophy may, inadvertently, lead one to becoming, say, a Buddhist, just as a professional philosopher specializing in Chinese worldviews may become, say, a neo-Confucian. Of course that is not the (professional) reason for taking up the disciplinary practice of philosophy. But the fact that such things are possible is further evidence that philosophy and religion have permeable if not overlapping boundaries (and not always for the wrong reasons).

    I addressed some of these topics in a cursory fashion here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2012/06/the-therapeutic-model-of-philosophy-philosophy-as-applied-philosophy.html

  7. The thread got too long above, so I’m replying to Christian here:

    Once one has arrived at a position, presumably one wishes to defend it, whatever position that is. If one does believe that a Buddhist position is the truest one, then one would be intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise; to acknowledge one’s belief in such a case is surely not to relinquish one’s title as philosopher. It is pretty clear to me that Daniel Dennett and John Rawls have clearly staked out doctrinal positions that they wish to defend. Are we therefore not to call them philosophers?

    And, “let them [religionists] have their conversations” about the definition of religion? I’d be happy to. I try my hardest to avoid bringing the R-word into any conversation when I can help it. I was not the one who brought it up here. But the moment one says “leave religious concerns to the religious studies folks”, one is already required to take a position on the definition of religion whether one wants to or not. Because one cannot exclude something from a conversation if one doesn’t know what it is. If we do not want to enter the interminable discussion about what “religious concerns” might be, we cannot then use “religious concerns” as a term that limits the scope of our inquiry.

    As for “to do exegesis of antique positions in that bhāṣya, vṛtti, vārttika, and ṭīkā vein. Or, worse, use the same antiquated vocabulary and stylistic devices of the original thinkers with more than just a hint of nostalgia for the good old ways before the (ill-fated) advent of modernity.” … who said anything about any of this? Is that what you think Ganeri is doing in the Times article?

  8. I hope this is not inappropriate for this blog post: (it’s something I have been meaning to ask here but hadn’t found an occasion before) can someone point me to the relevant literature on the history of the term ‘sanatana dharma’? A quick google ngram shows no incidence before the 1850s.

    • This is an interesting and complicated issue. It is used dozens of times in the Mahābhārata, for instance, but, of course, it does not mean there what it means for 19th and 20th century religious reformers in India. “dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ” also appears at Laws of Manu 4.138 and 9.64.

      Robert Goldman has written about the meaning of the term in the Mbh:

      Goldman, Robert P. 1997. “Eṣa dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ: Shifting moral values and the Indian epics.” Edited by P. Bilimoria and J. N. Mohanty, Relativism, suffering and beyond: Essays in memory of Bimal K. Matilal. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

      On the modern usage of the term, couple of references to get you started:

      “Sanatana Dharma as the Twentieth Century Began: Two Textbooks, Two Worlds,” in Ishita Banerjee-Dube and Saurabh Dube, eds., Ancient to Modern: Religion, Power, and Community in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 312-336.

      Sharpe, Eric J. 1985. The Universal Gita. LaSalle: Open Court. [on sanatana dharma, see pp. 79-102]

  9. It would be anachronistic to apply the contemporary disciplinary boundaries between philosophy and religious studies in a classical Indian context (assuming we know what those boundaries are), but I do want to impress upon my colleagues in philosophy that classical Indian philosophy really is philosophy, as opposed to “mere” religion or mysticism. Perhaps one way to do this would be to borrow Pierre Hadot’s idea of Hellenistic philosophy as a way of life. It would be silly, for instance, to deny that the ancient Stoics thought deeply about issues in metaphysics and epistemology, but it would also be silly to deny that they thought there was some connection between doing so and living a better, happier life. It would also be silly to say that being a Stoic is like being a Baptist in contemporary America. Hadot’s idea is more apt to the classical Indian context than applying post-Enlightenment Western conceptions of religion and the opposition of faith and reason; it would also be much better public relations for those of us trying to make the field respectable in a discipline ambivalent about or hostile to “religion.” I also think the study of Indian philosophy can get us (i.e., modern, Western types) to challenge our ideas of “religion” and the received wisdom that Indian philosophy falls under this category: consider Buddhist and Mīmāṃsā arguments for atheism, Vaiśeṣika naturalism, Cārvāka materialism, etc.

    • Does the Veda fall under ancient Indian Philosophy? Since it’s considered older than the Vedanta and source of many other texts, locating its exact position between religion and philosophy should be a priority. [TNM55]

  10. I am responding below to both Patrick and Amod below (after a brief absence).

    Patrick: I doubt most philosophers would agree with your statement that “there simply are no hard and fast boundaries between religion and philosophy in the East or West.” In fact, most theologians and religious studies scholars would probably not agree either. Now, of course, you may argue that they are all wrong, or that philosophy’s turn away from religion since, say, Descartes, has been a terrible thing, but the burden would be on you to argue why that might be the case.

    Historical and social circumstances have at one time or another brought these two theoretical endeavors closer (growth of mystery religions in the Hellenistic world, spread of Christianity and other Oriental cults in the Roman Empire, the Reformation, counter-Reformation, new forms of religiosity in America, etc.), but for the most part philosophy in the West is a dialectical enterprise concerned with argument. In India, likewise, philosophy grows out of those early attempts to codify the patterns (and rules) of debate (vāda) in works such as the Kathāvatthu, and the sources of knowledge (pramāṇa) by the Naiyāyikas, the Buddhists, and others. There too the religious element is present, primarily in orthodox circles strongly affiliated with various forms of Shaivism and Vaishnavism, but that is not where the ‘philosophical action’, so to speak, actually is.

    As for the notion that entertaining the plausibility of a particular conception of truth, value or the real counts as a “conversion” (in the religious sense of the term), that is just plain wrong in this post-Wittgenstein world of ours. Unless, of course, you mean it metaphorically. Something similar could be said about doing philosophy in India after Dignāga, or closer to our time, doing ‘Indian philosophy’ after Matilal.

    Amod: How one arrives at a position is a complicated matter, and yes, as philosophers we try as best to defend our views and/or argue for their plausibility. I just don’t think the same is the case with matters of religious concern given how much one has to take for granted or be committed to before one can reason it through, so to speak. Furthermore, it seems to me that the conception of what counts as philosophical inquiry has become, at least in the past century, more narrow and focused. At the same time, the the conception of what counts as religion has gone in the opposite direction, to the point that just about every kind of activity is being subsumed under it. No doubt, for the latter, this is just the result of attempts to resist the encroachment of the secular worldview.

    • Thank you for this, Christian; I think it helps move the discussion further ahead.

      It seems to me that what one “has to take for granted or be committed to” is a whole worldview. There is indeed a wide range of taken-for-granted assumptions that separates us from classical Indian thinkers, but I think that that separates us from all Indian thinkers. There is a great deal of hermeneutical distance between us and, say, Praśastapāda; I don’t see an a priori case why our distance from Śaṅkara or Rāmānuja is any greater. Indeed, given the way in which a number of twentieth-century Westerners have embraced Śaṅkara but few if any have embraced Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika ideas, I might argue our distance from Praśastapāda is further. (We should not assume that our Western “us” is “secular” either; Francis X. Clooney is one of the best scholars of Indian philosophy I know, and it’s clear that he sees less distance between himself and Rāmānuja than he does from many other Indian thinkers.) What is important is that Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja argue for their positions – down to the root – in a way that, say, the author of the Kāma Sūtra does not. Even though his lifestyle likely looks closer to ours than Śaṅkara’s does, Śaṅkara has a much greater claim to being called philosopher. (I don’t think one can reasonably claim that Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja are not engaged in “a dialectical enterprise concerned with argument.”)

      It is true that “the conception of what counts as philosophical inquiry has become, at least in the past century, more narrow and focused” – but there are at least two problems with this. First, it has generally become more narrow and focused by excluding the sciences (and for that matter the social sciences), which not long ago had been regarded as within its purview. Many philosophy professors would like nothing better than to see “religion” excluded from philosophy as well, but somehow those annoying cheeky Plantingas and Alstons manage to keep throwing up arguments that meet their criteria for precision and rigour. And second, that narrowing of focus has been primarily observable among analytic departments, which are, not coincidentally, typically the most hostile to non-Western philosophy in general. They usually feel themselves entitled to ignore most of the history of Western philosophy; why would the history of anything else be relevant?

      I will add again that if you are going to continue to separate “matters of religious concern” from something else (what exactly?), you are going to need to define it. (Likewise if you are going to speak of “conversion in the religious sense” to assert, citing the śabda of Wittgenstein, that whatever happens when one’s philosophical worldview changes is not that.) You are right that “just about every kind of activity is being subsumed under” the category of “religion”, which to my mind is a key reason why we should be entirely done with it. I wouldn’t even agree that “philosophy has turned away from religion since Descartes” (as you say to Patrick), since the category of “religion”, as it is currently used, postdates Descartes. (See Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Timothy Fitzgerald. Yes, they’re religionists, and yes, if you’re going to keep talking about excluding “religion” you can’t avoid talking about people like them.)

  11. Christian,

    Re: As for the notion that entertaining the plausibility of a particular conception of truth, value or the real counts as a “conversion” (in the religious sense of the term), that is just plain wrong in this post-Wittgenstein world of ours.

    Please re-read–with care this time–what I said and you should discover that I made no such claim.

    My problems with contemporary philosophy (such as they are, and probably of little or no interest to anyone) do not revolve around a “turn away from religion since…Descartes,” a turn that, in any case, has been exaggerated: see, for example, in S.A. Lloyd’s two books on Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy and Jeremy Waldon’s book, God, Locke and Equality (2002). I share rather, and in the main, Stephen Toulmin’s diagnosis in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990).

    My link and several statements in the comment are the beginnings of (or gestures toward, hints of) possible arguments, none of which I am willing to make in a comment thread (I gave examples of topics in which this made plain).

    To say there are no “hard and fast boundaries” between religion and philosophy does not entail there are no boundaries, which the tone if not substance of your reply insinuates. Nor does it mean I believe we should eliminate same. Philosophy of religion is practiced in both Philosophy and Religious Studies departments. I have a library chock full of books that are testament to the fact that these boundaries are porous and not “hard and fast.” I confess that my views are shaped by those who taught me: people of philosophical background and training who studied religions (Ninian Smart and Herbert Fingarette, for instance), as well as philosophers who illustrate the proposition at hand in their work: Joel Kupperman, Jonardon Ganeri, John Cottingham, Michael McGhee, John Haldane, Roger Scruton, as well as several individuals mentioned in the thread above.

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