Investigatio semper reformanda

Should we try to periodise Indian philosophy or shall we give up any attempt, since each one will be criticised and is in some respect flawed? Periodisation, as recently highlighted by Julius Lipner, is a form of classification and as such also a form of controlling (Lipner 2013). It is hardly the case that a periodisation is just a neutral act of recording what has happened (Lipner mentions the case of pre- and post-Copernicus astronomy). Much more often, to periodise just means to superimpose what we now deem to be a decisive criterion.
If you studied history in Europe, you probably learnt that the Middle Age “ends” either at the fall of Byzantium, or in 1492 (discovery of America) or with Luther’s theses in 1517. Apart from the Eurocentrism of all three, it is interesting to note how the discovery of America had much less impact on its contemporaries than one could expect. The fact that there were so many human beings who could not have heard of Jesus’ message for more than 1400 years, for instance, did not shake Christian theology from its foundations (for more on this lack of change, see P. Armandi 1982). A similar case is the relative small impact of the Islamic invasions on Indian philosophy, which we discussed already in the comments to this blog post.

Thus, periodisation is a risky enterprise. However, it is hard to avoid it, since one needs some structure while approaching the clumsy mass of uninterpreted historical events.

A similar case is that of the interpretation of the history of a given philosophical school. It is fascinating to look at Kumārila’s and Prabhākara’s main philosophical innovations as replies to Dignāga (as does McCrea 2013), and we as scholars need to have and to provide some interpretative cues unless we want to end up in a Babel’s library, where the critical edition of each 20th c. school’s paper counts as that of a crucial manuscript for the history of Nyāya. However, great theses are also dangerous, insofar as we tend to cling at them and to become blind to other hypotheses (cf. on this point Andrew’s commentary on this post).

Remember that relative who would not listen to your revolutionary ideas and would just say “You think like that because you are young, but you will change your mind in ten years”? Do you remember hating his frame of mind which did not allow for any other possible explanation? I, for one, do not want to exercise the same kind of violence on the texts I read. Nor do I want to read texts only in order to find confirmations of my theory (and to have to disregard blatant counter examples).

Long story short: we need interpretative frames as orienteering tools and because otherwise we would just fall prey of an even more dangerous implicit methodology. But, if you ask me, I think that all such interpretative schemes should be constantly revised. Let us attempt great theories, general periodisations and classifications of authors and ideas, but if and only if we are then not only willing, but also ready to question them. The great interpretative frame is not a goal to be reached once and forever. It is “always to be revised”.

When did the Middle Ages (or Antiquity, or the Modern Age…) “end” according to your school teachers? And according to your grown-up you? And, did you ever radically change your interpretation of something?

On implicit methodologies, see this post. On various hypotheses for a periodisation of Indian philosophy, see this post and its comments, where also Franco 2013 (where the papers by Lipner and by McCrea mentioned above are found) is discussed.

(cross-posted also on the Indian Philosophy Blog).

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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One thought on “Investigatio semper reformanda

  1. I would say that, on a global perspective, 1492 (the date I was actually taught) makes quite sense, although, of course, it would not have been apparent to the contemporary observer, as the starting point of a lot of changes in consolidated patterns (trade routes, for one).
    On another level, however, I am quite in favor of a notion of “extended Middle Ages” until sometime later. In terms of intellectual history, I would casually throw the notion of Newton’s Principia as a watershed, but it’s not exactly an area where I can make a scientific argument.