“Is there Philosophy in India?” and what this question tells us, an essay by Ankur Barua

After many years, I am sort of fed up with having to answer the question above, and this is also why I had not read the essay by Barua (bearing the title Is there ‘Philosophy’ in India? An Exercise in Meta-Philosophy and available here) until he recommended it to me. In fact, the article tells more about what it means to ask the question, than about the answer (which is a straightforward “yes”).

First, the question bears on the distinction between faith and reason and theology and philosophy (and the consequent dismissal of Indian philosophy as a quest for liberation, mystical etc.):

[There is an] often-heard criticism that classical Indian thought cannot be characterised as an intellctually acceptable branch of ‘academic philosophy’ becayse it is entangled with ‘religion’ (p. 14).

And already on the first page, Barua speaks of the parallel condemnation of the medieval Scholasticism and of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas:

The Schoolmen are not ‘philosophers’ because they are Churchmen whose point of departure is a specific Christian world-view, and hence thier learned treatises are to be cognised, as David Hume famously put it, to the withering flames of logical analysis.


Anglophone philosophy’s rejection of its internal other, medieval Scholasticism, is paralleled by its suspicion of its external other, Indian darśana —both are supposed to be fatally implicated in Metaphysics, Authority and Tradition (pp. 14–15).

This conclusion supports the more general point that “philosophy is not a natural kind” (p. 6) and that, thus,

Any definition is controversial and already embodies a philosophic attitude (Russell 1975:7, quoted at p. 7).

In this sense, the question at the title of this post opens an exercise in meta-philosophy (“What do we expect ‘philosophy’ to mean?”). As for the possiblity of detecting “philosophy” in India,

as it often happens with the translation of terms which are richly woven into one specific cultural universe into those of another cultural universe, we may argue that terms such as darśana and ānvīkṣikī are ‘not the same, and yet not another’ from philosophia (p. 27).

But this by no means means that one should refrain from using the word “philosophy” while speaking of Indian schools and discussions. On the one hand, as shown by Barua, the soteriological commitment of several Indian schools does not mean that they did not engage in philosophical arguments about the issues deriving from such a commitment (e.g., the nature of reality and of the self). On the other (at last, in the present writer opinion),

As for western philosophers themselves, in the wake of Kuhn and other thinkers who have developed various froms of social epistemology, they have become less shy of speaking of authoritative testimony (pp. 27–28).

As for the sociality of the scientific enterprise, this article focusing on the Western scenario by Dominik Wujastyk is also worth mentioning.

Beside the above, Barua’s essay also deals with several instances of debates both in India and in the West. Barua refers to J. Ganeri’s point that we have to “rescu[e] a story suppressed by Orientalism — the story of reason in a land too often defined as reason’s Other” (Ganeri 2001: 4, quoted at p. 26). Nonetheless, whereas Ganeri and Matilal dealt with the accusation that Indian thought is just mysticism by showing its rigour, Barua recurs to Hadot and shows that also in the West philosophy does not need to be disinterested and pure theoresis. Section “C” is in fact a long discussion of Augustine’s conception of time and of how his philosophical reflections are not “an exercise in idle speculation but are closely related to his exegetical struggles with the Biblical text” (p. 12).

A further, personal comment: Some time ago, a friend has been interviewed for a leader position in an institute for Asian thought. She said she would like the institute to have a “philosophical focus” and one of the people in the committee (who does not work on philosophy) rebutted that using the word “philosophy” could be suspected of a “colonialist attitude”, since “philosophy” is a Western concept. I am sure this objection was well-meant, but I am suspicious of its consequences, namely the implicit statement that only Westerners are able to think philosophically. While thinking we are fair and diversity-aware, we are in fact delegitimizing centuries of philosophical elaborations by refusing to call them “philosophy” just because they happened to take place East of Suez.

CAVEAT LECTOR: These are only my personal reflections on this topic and my reading of Barua’s article. Don’t read in the article anything but what is explicitly said in it.

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

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10 thoughts on ““Is there Philosophy in India?” and what this question tells us, an essay by Ankur Barua

  1. Interesting. It is worth noting that the very Greek philosophy that is oft cited as foundational to the “Western” rationality and as a historically unparalleled display of purely rational inquiry was deeply concerned with soteriology, at least in the largest part of its mainstream (Socratic) tradition. Which part of Hadot’s point I think (I have not read him yet).

    • Exactly! We have re-framed Greek thought as if it implied nothing but pure theoresis, which often means missing many other interesting aspects, because at a certain point of our history we have decided that theoresis was the purest way to engage our intellect and that all applied ways of thinking were inferior. And yes, this is the point in Hadot’s engagement with the pre-socratic philosophy. Chiara Neri has also used Hadot’s argument in order to discuss whether the Pāli Canon is “philosophy”.

      • “theoresis was the purest way to engage our intellect”.
        Aristotle and Plato thought that, but that very notion was soteriological in their view, at least as far as I can understand them.

        • Good point. By the way, Barua discusses a similar attitude of some Buddhist thinkers claiming that our wrong desires are derived from our wrong assumptions about the world and that in this sense correct understanding has a fundamental soteriological value.

  2. Thanks for alerting us to this paper which I spent some hours reading this morning. His case for a yes answer is established beyond question from both perspectives of Western philosophy, ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’. I hold that bifurcation with a long tongs and I fear that anglo-american teachers will be under its sway in the sense that they need to justify the study of the four feet of Nandi ie. dharma, artha, kama, moksha. Someone that I know who studied Philosophy in Dublin 40 years ago read the Bhagavadgita as a course book in first year. Looking at the course notes I see A: Depth Grammar in the Symbolization of Order, Participation, Lasting and Passing, Attunement, the Analogy of Symbols – Society as Microcosmos and as Macroanthropos, the constancy of human nature through the various symbolizations.

    “What Arjuna seems to be suffering from is equivalent to what medievals called acedia or sloth, and Kierkegaard diagnosed as the sickness unto death. It’s a mood overtaking a person aware of a tension within to go beyond himself, yet not sufficiently willing to grow to the point where that self-transcendence might occur – like the characters in Chekov’s plays or Henry James’ stories, afflicted by their own impotence of will. They suffer from their diminishment yet prefer that to undertaking a painful struggle.”

    This course was taught by a Jesuit priest and points up the modern day timidity of the fear of pollution by the ‘irrational’.

      • Elisa,
        Yes that would be correct and the worst of it is the impugning of the history of philosophy. If its study is regarded as having little point sturdy little philosophers are bred to philistinism. When I read their blogs and writings generally I am shocked, shocked, shocked at their cultural level. It is allied with technical competence of course but as has been remarked they are like craftsmen who keep their tools in perfect order but do nothing with them.

        It goes without saying that if you disregard your own history and have little regard for forms of thought that are non-technical then the alien will not be considered.

        • Michael, I do find a lot of interesting thoughts in the blogs (and papers) of scholars of the so-called “Analytic” philosophy (I am thinking, for instnace, of P. Strawson and M. Dummett) and I cannot but admire the work of Analytically influenced thinkers like A. Chakrabarti or B.K. Matilal and J. Ganeri. But I agree with your idea that history is of key importance and that its neglect generates at best useless naïvety (papers such as “A new argument on Free Will” which in fact reproduce a less powerful version of Kant’s one and so on).

  3. But what would you say to those who claim that the nature of “final reality” (a recurring theme) is non-verbal and therefore inaccessible to philosophy ?

    • Hi Nishkam and thanks for the question. I would tell them that —if true— this applies to both Indian and Western philosophy and not just to the former. Then, the problem would be to ascertain what is the use of philosophy and we would start discussing about its role of “making clarity” or “training the intellect” or “pushing the intellect to the awareness of its limitations” and so on. What would you say?