AW: [INDOLOGY] Indian philosophy as philosophy

Coseru, Christian coseruc at COFC.EDU
Mon Jun 4 20:02:27 UTC 2012

Having just completed a two week NEH Summer Institute on cross-cultural philosophical approaches to the study of consciousness, which I co-directed with Jay Garfield and Evan Thompson, I'd like to share with members of this list a few thoughts on this complex issue.

It is simply not the case (at least not anymore) that most Western philosophers still concur with Anthony Few's uncharitable remark (that Birgit cites). We had a representative group of analytic philosophers of mind and phenomenologists at our Institute, all of whom were eager to learn what Buddhist philosophy might have to contribute to a whole host of issues in philosophy of mind. 

I would venture to say that by and large the recent generation of Western philosophers moving up through the ranks right now is quite aware that there is a rich tradition of systematic reflection in India (or China); it's just that many of the issues that concern contemporary philosophers are quite removed from those that preoccupy scholars of classical, medieval and early modern philosophers in both India and the West.

In anglophone philosophy, as is well known, there is this rather sharp (some might say unfortunate) distinction between those who do history of philosophy and those who do philosophy proper! Historians work on classical and modern figures in the canon (Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, etc.), and the rest are engaged with current issues (the analytic/synthetic distinction, mental causation, emergentism, personal identity, conceivability arguments, the mind-body problem, naturalism, functionalism, indexicals, etc.). Philosophers working on these issues sometime pay lip service to Descartes, Hume or Kant as the originators of a given problem, but their approach is analytic rather than exegetical.

Much of what goes on in the name of Indian (and Buddhist) philosophy follows the exegetical model, and most debates focus on getting at what Bhartṛhari or Dharmakīrti or Gangeśa might have said about some topic or another. With very few exceptions specialists in Indian philosophy write for other specialists in their field. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with working on Hellenistic philosophy or Thomism. It's just a different sort of endeavor.

So, when an influential contemporary analytic philosopher like David Chalmers asks the Buddhist scholar to provide arguments about, say, the no-self doctrine, the Buddhist scholar's typical response is to say, well, the Nikāys say this, and the Abhidharma traditions say that, and Candrakīrti says this or that, and then there are all these debates between different schools. But wait a minute: this is only true for Indian Buddhism. In Chinese or Tibetan Buddhism things get even more complicated, and so on and so forth. At that point the contemporary philosopher has lost interest. 

And then there is the institutional bias, since most of those trained in Indian philosophy operate outside philosophy department. Until (and unless) more specialists in non-Western philosophy get hired in top philosophy programs around the world, there is little hope things will change for the better. 

If you want to see some recent reactions to this plea for more representation of non-Western philosophy in philosophy departments, please read the comments on the APPS blog:

Best regards,
Christian Coseru

Christian Coseru
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
College of Charleston
66 George Street
Charleston, SC 29424

Phone: 843 953-1935
Facsimile: 843 953-6388
Email: coseruc at

On Jun 4, 2012, at 2:14 PM, Kellner, Birgit wrote:

> I am wondering, though, to what extent the "no real philosophy to the east of the Suez" view is still advocated as a serious argument with real conviction (and thus still needs being addressed). This may vary between Russia and (for instance) Germany, of course. 
> My more recent experiences with philosophers who were reluctant to engage with philosophical ideas from India suggest that fatigue and practical difficulties have become more prevalent - "oh, it's all very nice, it's certainly real systematic philosophy what you are telling us, but I can't be bothered with it because the day only has 24 hours and there is really so much of interest in Western philosophy which I can access without having to learn a language as difficult as Sanskrit". I haven't met any philosopher who seriously believes there is no Indian philosophy in quite some time (or read anything to that effect). Apart from this, I'm also wondering how seriously we still should take such claims, should we encounter them. Shouldn't the burden of knowledge long have been shifted to the other side? Should philosophers not be made to feel embarrassed for having such gaping holes in their general education such as not knowing of one of the great philosophical traditions of the world? 
> Best regards, 
> Birgit Kellner
> ----------
> Prof. Dr. Birgit Kellner
> Chair of Buddhist Studies
> Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context - Shifting Asymmetries in Cultural Flows"
> University of Heidelberg
> Karl Jaspers Centre
> Vossstraße 2, Building 4400
> D-69115 Heidelberg
> Phone: +49(0)6221 - 54 4301
> Fax: +49(0)6221 - 54 4012
> ________________________________________
> Von: Indology [INDOLOGY at] im Auftrag von Viktoria Lyssenko [vglyssenko at YANDEX.RU]
> Gesendet: Montag, 4. Juni 2012 16:39
> Betreff: [INDOLOGY] Indian philosophy as philosophy
> Dear indologists-philosophers,
> While working at the Institute of philosophy I often come across europeocentrism as well as the arrogance of those of my colleagues who believe that philosophy is an exclusively Western phenomenon.  To make them change their mind or, at least, cast a glance beyond their horizon I have developed a number of apologetic arguments for Indian philosophy as a philosophy in its own right. Those who are interested may read the text of my lecture to a non-indological audience which is attached to this letter. I would like to suggest to those who have something to say on this subject to make a special issue of some journal (it is for you to decide which one).
> With best regards,
> Victoria Lysenko
> Head of Oriental Department,
> Institute of Philosophy
> Russian Academy of Sciences
> Moscow

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