Eliot Deutsch (1931-2020)

Professor Eliot Deutsch, distinguished scholar of Indian philosophy, comparative philosophy, and aesthetics, has died.

From an obituary by Roger Ames posted on the University of Hawai’i Department of Philosophy website.

The life of Eliot Deutsch lies at the center of the comparative philosophy movement over the past two generations. In many ways, his biography is deeply embedded in a story he, in important measure, helped to write within the corridors of the Philosophy Department at the University of Hawai’i. …

Inheriting the mantel from [Charles] Moore in 1967, Eliot carried the project of promoting Western literacy on non-Western philosophical traditions into the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. And on his watch, the earlier rather romantic vision of a distilled world philosophy gradually gave way to a rather different project. As a counterweight to the many sins of an unstoppable process of globalization, the search for a unifying sameness was transformed into a celebration of philosophical and cultural differences, differences that once activated could be resourced for evolutionary and hybridic growth. ….

It was the professional eyes and acumen of the young Deutsch that established Philosophy East and West as the voice of comparative philosophy within the Western academy. … It was around Philosophy East and West that this community was institutionalized to become the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (SACP). In 1967 with the assistance of Karl Potter, Richard Robinson, and Hans van Buitenen, Eliot and sixty-eight founding members gathered together to undertake the organizing of SACP. …  

In 1989 with the convening of this Sixth East-West Philosophers’ Conference, 130 scholars came to the Islands from some thirty-three countries, including for the first time the USSR, Africa, and Latin America. …

And so this conference series continues, with its twelfth iteration being scheduled for May 2021. Scholars of good-will proceed with civility and critical intelligence to contribute what insights they can bring to bear on the pressing issues of our changing times. And Philosophy East and West continues, with 2020 marking its seventieth year.

Another chapter in this story has been Eliot’s own philosophical career as a motive force in the comparative philosophy movement. The narrative divides into two rather distinct and yet overlapping phases. In his first incarnation, he was a student of Indian philosophy and culture, publishing translations of the classics and interpretive studies on the high philosophies of South Asia. His translation of the Bhagavad Gītā (1968), his Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction (1969), and his Source Book on Advaita Vedanta (with J.A.B. van Buitenen) (1971), belong to this earlier formative period.

Although never really abandoned, this more historical beginning gave way to a sustained creative reflection through which Eliot entered the realm of philosophy proper as a philosopher in his own right. Where these two phases intersect is that the philosopher Eliot Deutsch was a world philosopher drawing heavily upon the broadest range of the human experience: the canons of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Buddhist, and of course, Western philosophy. In this creative phase, Eliot published book-length comparative studies on metaphysics, aesthetics, truth, freedom, the construction of person, and philosophy of religion.

As a defining signature of his work, Eliot moved away from the familiar centrality of metaphysics and epistemology to consistently take aesthetics as the starting point of his philosophical enterprise. Creativity and personal freedom have been the key values in his vision of the project of becoming consummately human. There is a real sense in which the philosophy of Eliot Deutsch, in a way analogous to several of the Asian traditions from which he has drawn his inspiration, can fairly described as a philosophical aestheticism.

from “Remembering Eliot Deutsch (1931-2020)” by Roger Ames

If I may be permitted a few memories of my own, let me say that I initially met Prof. Deutsch on my first day as an MA student at the University of Hawai’i. I was nervous to meet him as I had read his Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction as an undergrad. Back then (and still a bit today!) meeting authors of famous philosophy books made me feel like I was meeting a movie star. But Prof. Deutsch immediately put me at ease, and we had a nice, welcoming conversation.

A year or so later I was a student in Prof. Deutsch’s Comparative Philosophy seminar. One day he casually remarked that students could, if they chose, write their final papers as epic poems or dialogues. He may have been joking, but I turned in a strange philosophical dialogue as my final paper. He seemed a bit baffled by it, but I think he was mostly amused.

Another memory that I share with most of Prof. Deutsch’s graduate students: He always liked to invite graduate students to his home at the end of the semester. He had a beautiful Japanese-style house in one of those neighborhoods in Honolulu that are improbably built on the sides of mountains. And as one would expect from a scholar of aesthetics, his personal art collection was impressive.

While I left Hawai’i to pursue my PhD in New Mexico, I did see Prof. Deutsch at conferences over the years, including the SACP Conferences and East-West Philosophers’ Conferences that he did so much to cultivate.

I can’t claim to have known Prof. Deutsch as well as many others, but I can say that he was an excellent scholar, teacher, and human being whose impact on the field will continue for a long time.

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