An interview with Matt Dasti

Matt Dasti is Associate Professor at Bridgewater State University in the Philosophy Department and one of the bloggers here at the IPB. Matt works mainly in Nyāya–he has a forthcoming translation with Stephen Phillips of portions of the Nyāya-sūtras and early commentaries. He completed his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010 (he and I were classmates for a few years).

1. What are you working on right now, and what do you hope to achieve by it?
I’m working (with Stephen Phillips) on a select, annotated translation of the Nyāya-sūtra with early commentaries, mainly Vātsyāyana, Uddyotakara, and Vācaspatimiśra. I started this book project because I am convinced that wider appreciation of Indian philosophy will not occur until we have accessible primary texts that we can hand people. Right now, there is a much out there in terms of quality scholarly articles and monographs and a number of translations that can serve those of us who are specialists and can reverse engineer clunky translations back into Sanskrit. But we are lacking a wide range of accessible, well-written translations of quality texts that an interested non-specialist could read without undue fatigue. Hopefully, this book will help people better access the richness of early Nyāya. It will be published by Hackett, and the translations they publish of both Greek and Chinese philosophy are a model of what we hope to achieve. Besides this, there are few things I enjoy more than reading śāstra. It’s a pleasure.

2. How did you come to study Indian philosophy, and how is it related to your current position?
As young man, around 15 or so, my little band of friends and I thought we were the only people in America (or New Jersey at least!) who saw through the big lies and searched for genuine wisdom. We scoured used bookstores for philosophical texts. For me, one of them included a translation of the Bhagavad-gītā. I was smitten, and somehow made my way to India after I graduated high school, and found myself frequenting ashrams and the like when I returned. When I resumed my formal education, my mentors at Rutgers encouraged my interests in history of philosophy and gave me the confidence that I was fit for graduate school and the academic world. One in particular suggested The University of Texas at Austin as a place I could pursue both of my core interests in Greek and Indian thought. At Texas, the Indian focus far outstripped the focus upon Greece. At Rutgers, Matt Matsuda, Edwin Bryant, and Rob and Martha Bolton were particularly kind and helpful in my early development.

3. What advice would you give to students wishing to pursue the study of Indian philosophy?
I’m assuming you mean in an academic context. Given this, first, I’d tell them to start learning the languages they need as early as they can. Generally, it gets harder as you get older and it takes a few years before you can read competently. And to stick with it. All you need is time and discipline. Second, I’d suggest they only enroll in a PhD program if they love the subject so much that they would be content to learn a lot but not find a job. It’s not a good market. Finally, reach out and find a way to connect with people who do it and are further down the line from you. Share your work with them and ask for their advice.

4. What have your major intellectual influences been, philosophical or otherwise?
Leaving out many important people, first, the “historical” thinkers: Plato made me fall in love with Philosophy. John Henry Newman made me think about belief formation and tradition in new ways. The early Naiyāyikas drew out and nourished my incipient concern to defend what may be called a pluralist realism. Rāmānuja and his followers obliterated my early fascination with Advaita and provided a beautiful vision of a unifying Vedāntic worldview, which still delights in and affirms the particular. Nietzsche helped me appreciate that without the latter, much of the celebrated Indian spirituality runs the risk of being a very loud “NO.” Confucius and Xunzi helped me rediscover ritual and learn to value it. Epictetus, Zhaungzi, Rāmānuja and other karmayoga theorists have taught me that I won’t be happy if I base my joy on the luck of the roll (I’m still working on this one). Various philosophers who are not scholars of India have helped me rethink various aspects of Indian thought. Among contemporary philosophers, Bill Alston reinforced my concern with realism and McDowell’s work helped me think about Nyāya’s view of cognition in fresh ways. Of course, much of what I’ve done is inspired by a mode of scholarship epitomized by B.K. Matilal and Gregory Vlastos, which sees no sharp divide between doing history of philosophy and just doing philosophy. Ganeri, Ram-Prasad and others are pushing this ahead in inspiring ways.

5. What do you think you’ll do next?
I’m really enjoying this work on the sūtras. There is so much more to be done. I plan to continue. Besides this, I want to go further into the question of whether you can have an otherworldly sensibility, which is so prevalent as a motivation for our thinkers, without devaluing this world; a “third way” which is open to classical sorts of mysticism without denying the value of our current lives and relationships. In some ways, this is part of the promise of tantra and bhakti, but it often seems stunted in our classical thinkers, undercut by an understandable hostility toward the temporal.

6. Where do you think the field should go next, in terms of priorities and projects?
I think there are so many smart people doing interesting work. I don’t feel comfortable saying where the field should go. I will only repeat that if we want Indian philosophy to become integrated into the broader philosophical world and curricula, this will be best facilitated if some people condescend to make quality bridge work for non-specialists and undergraduate students. It seems to me that accessible, affordable(!), well-written translations will be more effective and are more needed than introductory-style works of scholarship. Of course, this effort has many fronts. Some are doing the highest quality scholarly work that bridges and transcends boundaries and speaks to other professional philosophers. I guess I’m enough of a Kuhnian to figure that to change broad attitudes you usually have to catch people early on and give their generation time to take over the discipline.

7. Finally, what books do you recommend to help our readers be taken further into your philosophical world?
It may be easiest for me to say what books I’m exited to get into now that I’m done teaching. In this sense, it is the “world I wish to inhabit.” I have to admit that, in the last few weeks, I’ve been most invested in finishing the Dark Tower series. If spoilers weren’t a problem, it would be fun to draw Ethan Mills and others into a conversation on it below. Some interesting stuff for philosophers in there. Besides this, the books that I gave a place of privilege at the top of my summer catch-up reading list are Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life, Jonardon Ganeri’s The Self, Chris Framarin’s Hinduism and Environmental Ethics, and Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism.

Previous interviews in this occasional series:
Shalini Sinha

About Malcolm Keating

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

3 Replies to “An interview with Matt Dasti”

  1. Great interview!

    Matthew was gracious enough to send me a draft of part of the Nyāya-sūtra translation he mentions here. I’m really looking forward to the finished product, and I encourage blog readers to look for it when it’s published.

    I read first the first two books the Dark Tower series a long time ago. I’ll probably have to re-read them and then the others, but someday I’d love to have a conversation about that!

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