B. K. Matilal (1935-1991) was undoubtedly one of the most influential scholars of Indian philosophy in the late 20th century. His work has greatly influenced many of us who work on Indian philosophy today, especially if we do so in philosophy departments in the Anglophone world (see this post from Elisa Freschi on geographical differences in the field). Consider Matilal’s influence on well-known contemporary scholars such as Jonardon Ganeri, Arindam Chakrabarti, Mark Siderits, Stephen Phillips, and many others.
One could easily write about the Mohanty Strategy or the Karl Potter Strategy. I in no way mean to diminish the contributions of Mohanty, Potter, and others, but Matilal, who brought his considerable talents and traditional Nyāya training to positions at the University of Toronto and Oxford University, probably did more than anyone else to increase the visibility of Indian philosophy on the philosophical scene of the Anglophone world.
One of the clearest articulations of the Matilal Strategy can be found in the introduction of Matilal’s magnum opus, Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge.
“The concern of this book is not purely historical. The writer on classical Indian philosophy today is generally pulled in two different directions – toward the historical reconstruction of some classical views and towards the critical examination of similar modern views. I believe those two ‘forces’ are not diametrically opposed; with their combined impetus we might make some progress if only diagonally. This ‘diagonal’ approach represents a tension which is acknowledged here by the author with apologies.” (Matilal 1986, 2)
In his use of this diagonal approach, Matilal makes frequent comparisons with contemporary analytic philosophy and admits that he has been “strongly influenced by the analytical tradition of Anglo-American philosophers” (Matilal 1986, “Acknowledgements”).
As for why analytic philosophy should be the tradition to which Indian philosophy is compared, Matilal says, “Both contemporary analytical philosophy and the classical Nyāya and Buddhist tradition of India seem to be interested in the problems of knowledge and perception, the varieties of meaning and reference, the theory of inference, and the issue of psychologism” (Matilal 1985, 1). Perhaps we can glean another answer from his comments on his motivations for engaging in such comparisons:
“… this gesture is needed to correct persisting misconceptions, and sometimes to remove ignorance. Too often the ‘soft-mindedness’ and tender nature of Indian ‘philosophy’ or Oriental wisdom have been emphasized. Too often the term ‘Indian philosophy’ is identified with a subject that is presented as mystical and non-argumentative, that is at best poetic and at worst dogmatic. A corrective to this view is long overdue.” (Matilal 1986, 4-5)
More specifically, Matilal meant to call into question what he called the dogmas of Orientalism, according to which India has a tradition that is monolith, atavistic, emotional, spiritual, intuitive, irrationalist, and mystical; such features allegedly contrast with the opposing features of the West (Matilal 2002, Ch. 25). According to Matilal, the problem with these myths, aside from the fact that they are false, is that, “The Oriental man is either subhuman or superhuman, never human. … there cannot be any horizontal relationship between East and West” (Matilal 2002, 373, italics in original). Matilal’s confidence in the benefits of cross-cultural interaction and the existence of some cross-cultural commonalities are also major parts of his pluralist response to relativism (see Matilal 1991).
To summarize, the Matilal Strategy is a strategy of engaging in comparisons between the contemporary analytic and classical Indian philosophical traditions as a means to accomplish the following goals:
- To make the study of classical Indian philosophy more visible within the discipline of philosophy, and,
- To correct harmful misconceptions about classical Indian philosophy in particular and South Asia in general.
What do you think about the Matilal Strategy? Is it still a good way to increase the visibility of our field and to correct misconceptions? Do you think there are alternatives that we ought to consider?
Matilal, Bimal Krishna. 1985. “Analytical Philosophy in Comparative Perspective: An Introduction.” Analytical Philosophy in Comparative Perspective: Exploratory Essays in Current Theories and Classical Indian Theories of Meaning and Reference, edited by Bimal Krishna Matilal and Jaysankar Lal Shaw. Boston: D. Reidel Publishing.
——. 1986. Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
——. 1991. “Pluralism, Relativism, and Interaction Between Cultures.” Culture and Modernity: East-West Philosophic Perspectives, edited by Eliot Deutsch, 141-160. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
——. 2002. Mind, Language, and World: The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal, edited by Jonardon Ganeri. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.