Why studying the history of (Indian) philosophy?

Prof. Ramkrishna Bhattacharya addresses a similar issues (why studying Ancient Indian Philosophy) in a recent paper, here. He starts with the constatation that “it is there” (like the Everest’s being there should be enough to make one wish to climb it). He then adds that ancient philosophers like Thales or the Cārvākas were the first natural scientists since they addressed the question of what there is without recurring to myth. In this sense, modern scientists only demonstrated experimentally what these thinkers had already intuited. Moreover, in some significant cases, such as dialectics, a few thinkers only developed the field significantly in a way which is relevant even for today’s philosophy. He then concludes:

This is why ancient philosophy has much to teach us even today, for much of it was grounded in sound theoretical thought.

Do you agree? I, for one, would add that what appears to me as in need of an explanation is rather the fact of not studying the history of philosophy. Would you ever focus on the philosophy written in Polish between 1550 and 1580 only? If not, why would you want to focus on Anglophone philosophy of the last thirty years at best?

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

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14 thoughts on “Why studying the history of (Indian) philosophy?

  1. In my view, to say “ancient philosophers … were the first natural scientists since they addressed the question of what there is without recurring to myth. In this sense, modern scientists only demonstrated experimentally what these thinkers had already intuited.” is close to meaningless. Firstly, the concept of “natural scientist” is untheorized and problematic. It is used here as more of an emotional “plus” word, rather than any really deep idea about what nature might be, or what science might be. The assertion that a scientist might be someone who considers what exists without referring to myth is really inadequate. There is a large, specialist literature on the demarcation between science and metaphysics, led of course by Karl Popper and continued by Newton-Smith, Feyerabend, Polanyi and many, many others. It would be better to be acquainted with some ideas in the philosophy of science before making generalizations about who is and who isn’t a “natural scientist.” Further, the idea of modern science demonstrating the intuitions of the ancients is bogus nonsense. Sorry for speaking so plainly. There are worlds of difference between ancients and moderns in the manners of thought, in methodology, in goals and motivations, in the sociology of intellectual endeavour, and so forth. I agree with Bhattacharya that ancient philosophy is valuable for contemporary thinkers, but not for the vague and inadequate reasons he proposes. If I were trying to justify the study of ancient philosophers I think I might start with arguments based on pleasure (it’s enjoyable and inspiring to read ancient thinkers), and move on to other arguments to do with culture and character-building, and preparation for engagement in daily life.

    • Thank you, Dominik. I did not reply immediately since I was hoping that R. Bhattacharya might want to chime in himself. I see your point, but still I think we can agree about the fact that according to him, ancient philosophy has direct relevance to our contemporary thought for its inquisitive potential (against obscurantism and the like). We might contend that it is only through our post-Descartes reading that ancient philosophy appears as such, but this does not seem to be shared by R.Bh.
      By contrast, you claim that the study of ancient thought has a pedagogical value, since it makes us better people, and a hedonistic value, since it enhances our happiness (which is an important goal in itself, I believe). Am I summarising correctly?

      • Yes, I think the most fruitful and interesting type of arguments for doing (studying) philosophy today would be based on psychological and social utilitarianism and on hedonism. The utilitarian argument may be the only kind of argument likely to be heard in the contemporary world, outside already-committed philosophers. “Philosophy helps us in our personal struggles to understand ourselves and the world around us, and it helps us better to analyse political and social problems in the world.”

        Pierre Hadot is the name most readily associated with philosophy-as-practice, a version of the utilitarian argument. But I find Hadot’s expositions less clear than I would like, actual arguments mixed up with elementary historical observations. Unfortunately, he has some deeply regrettable and benighted views. E.g, he has said in public that he thinks, “it is legitimate to ask whether there exists a “philosophy” outside of the Western tradition.” Well, yes, it is legitimate to ask this question … if you are an bigoted ignoramus.

        I reacted rather strongly to R. Bh.’s points because we get an awful lot of this argument about the history of science in India, i.e., that modern science is foreshadowed in the writings of the ancients, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Forceful critiques of this view have been put forward by Meera Nanda (Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (see Geertz’s well-conceived review), and just earlier this year, Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science) and others.

        So, this whole “today we are rediscovering the science that the ancients knew intuitively” thing is a big issue in the history of science, much discussed, and highly politicised. The current fashion started with Fritjof Capra, whom I heard speak at Imperial College, many years ago. :-)

        • Thanks, Dominik. I agree with the know-yourself argument, but this has a disadvantage, in so far as it is unfocused. If I use it, I cannot argue for Pūrva Mīmāṃsā over the Presocratics and so on (although one can make an important argument about the fact that one needs to focus on something far away than one’s obvious background).
          The content-focused approach, instead, is specific. I agree in disagreeing with arguments such as “Let us read the Bible to learn about the secrets of the most powerful agricultural techniques ever discovered” etc., but I see that an approach like Bhattacharya’s one can make one understand that she has to read exactly Democritus (or Kaṇāda, or the Cārvāka fragments and so on). By the way, I think prof. Bhattacharya was, anyway, focusing on the spirit (they thought “rationally”) of the Presocratics rather on their actual contribution to modern physics. He, for instance, approvingly quotes from Farrington: “There is great danger, in discussing these old thinkers, that one may read into them the meaning of a later age. It must always be remembered that they were ignorant of all the accumulated knowledge of modern science and all the refinement of ideas that centuries of philosophical discussion had produced. In the world of thought, as in the world of nature, everything flows. The very words with which we translate the sayings of Heraclitus are charged with meanings unknown to him. It takes an effort of historical research and of historical imagination to put oneself back into the frame of mind of this great thinker when he supposed himself to have solved the riddle of the universe by saying that there was a tension in things, ‘like the bow and the lyre’.”

          • According to your account (I haven’t read the original), R. Bh. is therefore holding two self-contradictory views.

          • Dominik, R. Bh.’s paper is really short and it is worth reading it in order to avoid misunderstandings. I am not sure why my account is contradictory, but still I would not blame this on R.Bh’s original paper.

  2. I’ve always been amused by the idea that Indian Philosophy (so called) is generally hived off in high prestige institutions to the departments with something like “Oriental Studies” in their name. As such, it’s generally afforded the sort of attention of anthropolgy, social science rather than (“proper?”) “philosophy” which itself now seems to be getting hooked up more and more with disciplines like psychology, politics, economics and religion. It’s an interesting time. As an independent researcher I have no trouble in breaching all these boundaries if needs be, and there *is* a need to illustrate the relevance of Indian Philosophy to many other broad disciplines. For students majoring in philosophy, I don’t believe there is any real commitment or expertise that might allow (say) a second or third year undergraduate in philosophy to study “Indian Philosophy” because it would entail some cross-departmental shenanigins which universtities either don’t or can’t cope with due to decades or perhaps in some cases centuries of prejudice and bias towards the “Western Canon”? I think the problem really is this simple, and also this dificult?

    • At the U. of Alberta, where I work, Prof. Neil Dalal, who specializes in Indian philosophy is appointed in the Department of Philosophy, with a secondary affiliation to Religious Studies. But the situation you describe is probably common. The question of disciplinarity is a hard one. Pre-modern Indian studies can include people who research Indian dance, philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, law, poetry, astrology, medicine, religion, and so on. Do they have more in common with their colleagues in dance, philosophy … religion, or with their colleagues who focus on the cultural history of India, even if in a different field. It’s not really a problem amenable to general solution, I think. There are some interesting comments on this in Pollock’s 2012 Heidelberg lecture (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mesaas/faculty/directory/pollock_pub/What%20is%20South%20Asian%20Knowledge%20Good%20for.pdf). If you put all the South Asianists together in a department it can make for great collegiality, but the problems you mention can arise, with the “orientalists” being ghettoised intellectually and financially etc. If you spread the India profs out across subject departments, each individual can feel a bit of a loner, the one South Asianist amongst a bunch of Europeanists, for example. In the end, flexible institutional structures help a lot, for example easy methods for student- and teacher-credit for cross-departmental teaching.

  3. i was biding time for any other reaction to my essay. Well, I can assure Dominik that I am not altogether unacquainted with Popper, Fayerabend and the like. But, as Irfan Habib, one of the foremost historians of India, once (2002) said, in relation to some recent trends such as ‘New History’ Subalternity, and Postmodernism, these too have ‘passed me by.’ I have learnt more from J.D. Bernal, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Benjamin Farrington, Joseph Needham and like. Dale Riepe’s critique of Popper is what I agree with.
    Now, as the proverb goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
    I have no objection if one studies ancient philosophy for pleasure. I too get much pleasure out of it. But the stronger motive on my part is to study it for profit. Philosophy and science are weaons to me for combating the regressive trends that plague India. Dominik has been barking up the wrong tree when he identified me with the religious fundamentalists, revivalists, and other obscurantists. On the contrary, I have been waging an all-out war against these forces, writing and speaking both in Bangla and English. In the course of this, I have all the while separating the wheat from the chaff, and showing what is living and what is dead in science and philosophy in ancient India (cf. Croce’s book on Hegel and Chattopadhyaya’s work on Indian philosophy). Reconstruction of the materialist tradition in India to me is not an academic exercise; my aim is to salvage ‘durvyaakhyaavishamurchita’ Carvaka/Lokayata and other proto-materialist and materialist thoughts.
    My attitude towards he revivalists can be best seen in my reaction to a recent claim made by a minister that the so-called Pythagorean theorem can be obtained in vedic literature. It is available on the net (Acdemia.edu). Dominik might have also seen my essay on Aryabhata and his detractors. They are all directed against the falsifiers of history, not in defence of them.
    So when I say that something of special value may still be found in ancient philosophy (pace Engels), I definitely mean the scientifically significant kernel, not the dross against which Meera Nanda has been fighting (as Dominik mentions rightly) . I fight in a different way, by going back to the primary sources. I may humbly point out that the thought reformers (not merely social reformers) of modern India like Rammohun Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar too followed the same strategy: fighting shastra with shastra. They were goal-oriented persons and their attempts bore fruit.

    • I would love to have a reference for the claim made by a minister that the so-called Pythagorean theorem can be obtained in vedic literature.

      I generally don’t use academia.edu for a few reasons, but I believe it’s exactly this *direction* of discourse that is “not even wrong”. ( http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Not_even_wrong ).

      It goes like this – 1) Pick an established / influential / popular western theory 2) Look for some form of family resemblance in ancient literature 3) Emphasize the similarities 4) Write something 5) Get paid / claim expenses. NEXT

      I collate examples like this since they illustrate well a particular narrative and may also explain why universities may forego the opportunity to (re-)integrate so called “Indian Philosophy” into “philosophy”. Instances like this interest me because they suggest philosophy is often relied on to deliver intellectual goods – like a political point or a seductive idea in a white paper or plenary speech. Here philosophy appears to behave as functionally as any other discipline might (say) natural science that yields “evidence”, or mathematics with an “equation” – and yet very little seems to change the minds of curriculum and course designers. Most seem to commonly misconceive philosophy, and especially “Indian Philosophy” as… how can I say it? “not as pragmatic” as maybe politics, mathematics or some such? Most of the problems here I believe lie at the INSTITUTIONAL level, “…the main dangers lie in the “unknown knowns” – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values. ” (Žižek)

      • Dear Mat,
        Somehow or other I missed your comment on my ‘Why study ancient philosophy’. Here is the belated response. For the comment of Harsh Bardhan, the minisiter in hange of science and technology in the Indian cabinet, see my paper, Half-truths and Lies: Claiming the Pythagorean Theorem. ‘Frontier,’ 47:32, February 15-21, 2015, pp.10-11(available online).

    • thank you, Prof. Bhattacharya. I definitely agree with you that śāstra is the best weapon against all sorts of ignoramus, including fundamentalists, who usually over-simplify the past, by deleting everything but their own views. That’s why I am also not sure that the fundamentalist revival could ever bring something positive to true scholars (in terms of scholarships for classical languages and the like).

      As for the independent value of ancient knowledge, I am still not sure I get your point. In other words: Are we talking about 1. specific contents (e.g., an atomic theory which could be scientifically relevant to today’s physics) or about 2. the scientific method (curiosity, independent thinking…) or about 3. the historical development of a given school, which would thus show us the impact of history on science, thus making us aware of similar interferences also today (somehow also along the lines of what Mat suggests below)?

      • ,
        Dear Elisa,
        For some reason or other I completely missed your comment as well as Mat’s. Here’s my belated reply to your queries.
        Well, I would not care to make three such compartments concerning the value of ancient philosophy. I would rather say that some of the ancient philosophies can still offer us rich insights into our presentday studies of both nature and man.