The Matilal Strategy

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:

  1. To make the study of classical Indian philosophy more visible within the discipline of philosophy, and,
  2. 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?


Works Cited

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.

20 Replies to “The Matilal Strategy”

  1. I have a vague memory that this was discussed a while back too, but of course, it is always worth pondering, as many of us did recently at the Matilal Memorial conference at Oxford in June; Jonardon specifically outlined his views on Matilal’s philosophy.
    For an early attempt to think through what Matilal was trying to do, when my memories of him were still fresh, and with ideas provoked fruitfully in conversation with Daya Krishna, see:
    Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad 1995 ‘Indian Philosophy, Mysticism and Matilal’, Journal of the Indian Council for Philosophical Research, January-April. 105-124

    • Thank you for the comment and the recommendation. I’m looking forward to reading your paper. It sounds like the recent Matilal Memorial conference was a success.

      This post is part of a paper I’m working on to present at the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy Annual Conference, which will take place in Monterey, California in October ( It’s for a panel called, “The Future of the Study of Indian Philosophy.”

      I may post another part of the paper later in which I consider some possible criticisms of and alternatives to the Matilal Strategy. Also, after the panel has taken place, maybe I’ll write a post here reporting some of the details of our discussion.

  2. This post sounds as if Elisa has written it. I mean, the final questions look to me as her signature 😉

    Apart from joking, thank for this post, it raises interesting and fundamental questions. The suggestion that there are different ‘strategies’ at play can be well adapted to other fields of South Asian studies. I have thinking about the different ‘strategies’ applied to answer the vexata quaestio of a genuingely Indian historiographical tradition.

    • Ha! I always like the way Elisa uses questions at the end of her posts to begin a discussion, so I thought I’d try to do the same.

      My sense is that the Matilal Strategy appeals especially to people in philosophy departments in countries where analytic philosophy predominates, so it would be useful to discuss the methodologies and strategies from scholars in other disciplines (South Asian Studies, Religious Studies, Buddhist Studies, etc.) and in other geographical areas. This was a conversation Elisa started in the post I linked to in my post, so maybe I’m imitating her once again!

  3. Thanks for this great post, Ethan.

    From my perspective, the Matilal strategy is important for the following reason (made blunt for emphasis): who cares about dredging up some tidbits about ancient Indian intellectual history if it isn’t in some way philosophically interesting or important?

    Matilal’s project wasn’t to just curry favor from the powers that be in Western academe; it was to show that something happening in (for some) a little-known corner of the world was philosophically vital and of enduring relevance.

    I deeply respect the work of those who are purely historians. But I do think that such work is made more valuable by seeing that “getting the story right” actually serves the philosophical community by helping accurately bring to the table voices that have something interesting to say; interesting beyond being mere curiosities. Matilal saw this acutely.

    • Thanks, Matthew, those are some great points. As there is still a need for the Matilal Strategy, a lot of people are still using it and expanding it to other areas, such as the work of Christian Coseru and others on consciousness, which has been noticed by a lot of mainstream philosophers.

      Along Matilal’s diagonal, I find myself leaning more toward the historical side these days, but in the sense in which the history of philosophy is philosophy (see Gary Hatfield’s paper, “The History of Philosophy as Philosophy”). Matilal himself also thought of the history of philosophy as philosophy proper and called for the history of philosophy in a global sense.

      As a strategy for increasing visibility of the field, I wonder if we might make more connections with historians of philosophy, who may be a receptive audience. This may also be good for illuminating philosophically interesting aspects of the Indian tradition that aren’t central in the analytic tradition but that were central in historical Western traditions, such as the relevance of philosophy to one’s pursuit of the highest good.

      • I like Ethan’s mention of History of Philosophy (if it is done in a certain way of course) being a branch of Philosophy rather than a branch of History. Here I find Bernard Williams’ distinction between History of Philosophy and ‘History of Ideas’ (which seems to correspond to what these days in America, and increasingly elsewhere, is called ‘Intellectual History’) useful. There’s a footnote in the Seminar article that Elisa put a link to which gives a reference to Williams’ distinction and to a great further elaboration of it in Adrian Moore’s magisterial work, ‘The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics’.

  4. Thanks for the great post, Ethan and thanks to the many readers and contributors for their interesting comments. The philosophical landscape would be very different had there been more Matilals (see my comment on this post concerning Ganeri’s role in this connection), so that one cannot but welcome any effort of this sort. Still, speaking in a purely ideal way (since de facto Matilal was so exceptional that it would be hard to think of any better example) I would once again (see my comment here) point out the risk that this method may make readers think that Classical Indian Philosophy is “almost as good as Analytic Philosophy” —so that it can be nothing more than an interesting curiosity to put in one’s exotic cabinet, like an oil lamp once eletricity becomes widespread.

  5. Ethan, I just found this article by Alex Watson which ends with a similar conclusion (“It is my hope – and there are some signs that it is not an unrealistic one – that Indian philosophy will soon begin a similar trajectory to that taken by Greek philosophy in the middle of the twentieth century, when it moved from being restricted to Classics syllabi to becoming a mandatory part of every philosophy degree”), but starts with a long introduction on the importance of critical editions for the sake of assessing what any Indian author really said.

    The only point I am not in agreement with is where Alex says that

    Contemporary Euro-American philosophers tend to address the issues of selfhood enumerated above in ignorance of the fact that sophisticated South Asian intellectuals have been reflecting on them for many hundreds of years longer than western thinkers.

    In fact, I do not think that “the longer the better” and I am afraid that one could easily prove Alex wrong by mentioning early Western authors working on similar issues. And I would not want to be forced to admit that, should this be the case, then one would be allowed to ignore the Indian material.

    By the way, Alex mentions two more important manuscripts needed to improve the text of the Nyāyamañjarī, but does not elaborate on them. Interested readers may find more information in the many critical editions of portions of the NM by Kei Kataoka (all availble on his blog) and in the articles by Alessandro Graheli (all available from various sublinks on his webpage).

  6. Caf57 said :
    “The suggestion that there are different ‘strategies’ at play can be well adapted to other fields of South Asian studies.”

    The diagonal approach can surely be co-opted to make a case for popular and scholarly engagement with Kavya literature. My enduring anxiety is to find ways to get both non-experts and academicians to engage with premodern literature in Sanskrit and the Deśa-bhāșa-s.

    The Matilal method of straddling the aihika (this-worldly) by using the methods material and ontologies of a past universe to reflect on the realities of the present; and the āmușmika (other-worldly) by using it as a framework to formulate histories of ideas and concepts in a diachronic fashion is a very robust argument for why and how we should engage with Kavya-s.

    Thus, even if one is somewhat comparitivist, it is not out of a need to establish primacy or priority of ideas, but out of a genuine commitment to integrate terms and tropes of thought that we are familiar with and recognise as valid; into a discourse that we share, but which is the product of a different historic-intellectual trajectory.

    The M method also helps us to bring back attention to the importance of recognizing a certain cognitive relation between in the literary and historical material on one hand, and the linguistic and philosophical styles on the other, embodied in a text. This holds the possibilities of a return to a philological approach that can make it possible for these now pigeonholed disciplines to talk to each other.

  7. Hi Elisa, Hi Everyone

    Thanks for mentioning my article Elisa (which was written very quickly for an audience I thought would consist only of people who happened to buy a copy of Seminar magazine from Delhi news stands! – hence I took some liberties).

    The first point you quote, about the position of Greek philosophy in the middle of the 20th century, was something I knew about from Jonardon (the ‘personal communication’ in the footnote refers to an email he sent to contributors to the ‘Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy’ that he’s editing). I was very struck by it, as a reminder that syllabi and canons are never set in stone but change with every generation, and as suggestive of what could potentially happen to Indian Philosophy.

    About the second point you quote:
    “Contemporary Euro-American philosophers tend to address the issues of selfhood enumerated above in ignorance of the fact that sophisticated South Asian intellectuals have been reflecting on them for many hundreds of years longer than western thinkers; many of the issues that arose in Europe in the period between Descartes and Kant had already been debated in India for the previous thousand years – in ways that overlap, but differ in unexpected and revealing ways, for example by making use of different distinctions.”

    I take your point that longer does not necessarily mean better. Nevertheless, if it is indeed true that key issues of selfhood that surfaced in European philosophy for the first time in the 17th and 18th century had already been debated in an intelligent way from the time of Vasubandhu, Dignāga and Kumārila onwards, then it seems worthwhile to point this out. I think it would surprize those who equate philosophy with western philosophy.

    But this becomes irrelevant if you are indeed right that earlier philosophers in Europe debated these issues. Here I am very aware of my own ignorance and would be happy to be proved wrong. Do you have particular earlier philosophers in mind?

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  10. Dayakrishna once said that “there is no such thing as Indian philosophy” and for that matter western philosophy either. how can you categorize philosophical thoughts by geography? it is by philosophical categories only that you can categorize thoughts of different countries and ages. and that is what matilal have done. he have collected all the arguments he thought relevant for the understanding of the topic of his discussion from various sources Iindian and western, past and present. not a single argument is there for the sake of history but only because they were philosophically relevant for the understanding of the subject.
    that is why i think the title of his book “perception:an essay on classical Indian theory of knowledge” is misleading. bankimchandra had used such noncommunal-nongeographical thought categories while making some comments on comparative religion.

  11. This point is well taken, Debjyoti and Elisa.

    That said, and like it or not, these categories exist and are, imho, heuristics that are unavoidable when speaking to nonspecialists if we want to “point” to philosophy in an a certain non-European tradition largely confined to the Subcontinent. As it often happens when educating (or being educated), we start with generalizations that are strictly speaking false, then work down to the details as the learner becomes more conceptually sophisticated.

    We also do this with temporal descriptors like “classical” and at times cultural markers like “Hindu.” Speaking of the former, ultimately it does not refer to a type of thought, or even a time period with clear boundaries. But it says “that way” to help people at least get a sense of temporal orientation.

    • Matthew, I agree that these categories have a sociological and pragmatical existence and that they may be even useful to get an idea of what is being said. However, I also think that one needs to be aware of the risk of substantialising things for which a name is provided. Thus, let us use such words, but with some caution, so that we and our listeners don’t end up believing that, e.g., there is really an “Asian” specificity (unless we believe there is one —but this is not my case).

        • Hi Elisa, Hi Matthew,
          Two different approaches to philosophy must not be confused.”What is Indian philosophy?” is a question that belongs to History (of Ideas). While whether “a philosophical doctrine is true or false?” is a question that belongs to philosophy proper and in determining it information regarding its geographical origin is of no relevance. Before Matilal only those who were interested in Indian religion and spirituality sometimes also showed some interest in indian philosophy. But after Matilal serious students of philosophy (like Elisa)are showing interest in philosophies which incidentally originated in India. A.K. Kummaraswamy once said that “Indian culture is important not because it is indian but because it is culture”. This generation of researchers seems to have developed a similar attitude- for them indian philosophy is important not because it is indian but because it is philosophy. And it is Matilal’s non-geographic non-historic interpretation of indian philosophy that brought about this change in attitude.
          Now to further our cause we need to strongly advocate to apply this Matilal principle in teaching curriculams and methods of teaching in all parts of the world. After all they don’t teach the opinions of German scientists only in science departments of Germany and the opinion of French scientists only in France. Vidyan sarvatra pujyate. Philosophers must come together to stop this shameful provincial stupidity and study philosophy by philosophical categories which will include all philosophies of the world not as a representatives of nations but of philosophy only.

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