Getting Started in Indian Philosophy: Part 2

Elisa Freschi has linked to an unfortunate set of notes on Indian philosophy that have been making the rounds on The author (whose name I’ll omit to avoid it coming up in searches) wrote a paper as an attempt to learn about Indian philosophy. However, the result was an odd mishmash of unrepresentative views and mischaracterizations–and it is now getting bookmarked as if it were a useful resource.

I’d like to reflect on how things could have gone better for this person, since his heart was in the right place, even if the results were poor. We all start somewhere, and for those of us who are drawn to Indian philosophy from within the Western philosophical tradition, we may not have a good idea of how to address our misperceptions (or even to identify that we have them!). This post is meant to be read in conjunction with the post “Getting Started in Indian Philosophy,” which lists some useful texts. In it, I note some methodological points for philosophers looking to expand their understanding.

So you want to learn more about Indian Philosophy? Where should you start? What pitfalls should you watch out for?

1. Don’t just pick up any survey book or reader. Start with an annotated bibliography, course syllabus, or encyclopedia article.

Both the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are good places to start. You can find more sources by browsing Karl Potter’s Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies as well as Oxford Bibliographies Online. Once you have an idea of a topic you’re interested in and some of the major secondary sources available, try searching to see if any living philosophers have syllabi online you can use. For example, say you are interested in Madhyamaka. You can look at syllabi written by Dan ArnoldJay Garfield, and so on.

2. As you read, be cautious about drawing analogies. On the one hand, it’s helpful for learning to be able to put new ideas into existing frameworks. So as you learn about Buddhist theories of the self, you will naturally think about varieties of reductionism found in contemporary philosophy and which Buddhist views “map” onto which. However, be careful to look out for differences. Are arguments being put to the same dialectical purposes? Are there tacit assumptions that are substantially different? Chances are that the mapping you think is so obvious is contentious, so look to see if this is an area of research for philosophers working in the area.

3. Hesitate whenever you start a sentence that reads, “Indian philosophers think that…” or “Buddhists think that…” This is not to say that there are no worthwhile generalizations, but that often they are misleading or even pernicious. For instance, you may commonly hear that Indian philosophy is concerned with soteriology in a way that Western philosophy is not, and thus Indian philosophy is religiously motivated. This does not do justice to the complex relationship between religion and Indian philosophy and it draws too sharp a distinction between Indian and Western thought.

4 Be aware of philological issues. If you are engaging with thinkers writing in a language you cannot read, you need to at minimum, (1) read their texts in translation and cite them in your work, (2) read the texts in more than one translation where possible, (3) take extra care with spelling, diacritics, and remarks about meanings. Be wary of overstepping your abilities (for instance, claiming that a word has no equivalent in your native tongue). If you want to engage Indian thinkers philosophically, you can do so without being an expert in Pāli, Sanskrit, or other languages, but don’t think you can do it well without reading a few primary sources in translation.

5. Make sure you are not de-contextualizing unfairly. If you are engaging with thinkers who are separated by a temporal and cultural distance, you need to take extra care that you are attentive to the original context so as to get the arguments correct, even if your primary concern is not historical. For instance, again supposing your interest is in Indian Buddhist philosophy, the claim “There is no self” has a positive interpretation that will differ depending on the thinker whose work you are reading.

6. Reflect on what your purpose is in reading Indian philosophy. Is your goal to be able to teach an introduction to philosophy course that is not limited to Western materials? Is your goal to include Indian philosophy in a project you are working on? Is your goal to satisfy your intellectual curiosity? (These are not exclusive nor exhaustive categories.) These distinctions are importance since one can teach an intro course without extensive mastery of all of Indian philosophy (which I daresay is a goal not many of us can reach, anyway). But if you want to incorporate Indian philosophy into your project, you will need to have a higher standard.

Further, while I do not want to dissuade anyone from doing work in Indian philosophy, I think that those of us who do who are presenting Buddhism and other Indian philosophies to a Western-educated audience have the responsibility to do so faithfully. Contemporary culture is full of highly mystical, “Eastern kitchen sink” versions of Indian intellectual traditions and it is against this background that we are working. So we have a responsibility to ensure we are not employing an oversimplified version just to give “flavor” to our philosophical project or marshall some kind of evidence that our view is found elsewhere. This will require doing some reflection on your methodology, whether by reading about comparative philosophy or just being very attentive to how the contemporary philosophers you’re reading engage with these texts.

7. Find other people to talk to! There are blogs online like the Indian philosophy blog where you can engage with scholars working in these areas. Your philosophy department may have someone working in one of these areas who you can talk to, or perhaps you could email someone whose work you’ve been reading for pointers for research. This may seem like obvious advice, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a teacher to guide you through the literature when you’re starting out. And while I can’t speak for others, I know I am excited to hear when other philosophers are interested in non-Western philosophy, and I’m happy to give advice where I can.

Any other methodological suggestions for philosophers looking to start out in Indian philosophy?

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

4 Replies to “Getting Started in Indian Philosophy: Part 2”

  1. These are great, Malcolm. I’d also say to be patient with yourself. It takes a few years of acclimation before you really feel comfortable with the lay of the land. To expect more than that in the beginning will lead to problems.

  2. I would hesitate about hesitating (#3 specifically). Yes, it’s always more complex than any generalization one can make. But I think that sometimes to start we need not only simplifications but oversimplifications, just to give us something to latch onto. Probably the same with comparisons. Start with a working hypothesis, even – perhaps especially – if it’s going to be falsified later, just so you have some point of reference. If you try to dive into all the complexity straight away, I think you’re just going to be left bewildered and not come away with anything at all.

    • Yes. Children (and adults) learn by starting with general ideas that they can nuance as they become more sophisticated in the subject matter. One way to take the spirit of 3, though, is to at least be careful of cheap generalizations. This may be all that Malcolm means anyway.

      • Yes, that’s what I was trying to say. It’s why I said “hesitate” not “never make generalizations.” I think there’s an important dialectic that goes on between making an oversimplicification, learning some complexities, then going back to a generalization with new insight. However, I see people stopping at the first step, perhaps because they don’t realize how varied Indian philosophies can be.

        That’s all I was trying to get at.

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