non-western philosophy as NOT philosophy

Coseru, Cristian CoseruC at COFC.EDU
Mon Jun 4 20:09:31 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 3:59 PM, "mkapstei at UCHICAGO.EDU" <mkapstei at UCHICAGO.EDU> wrote:

> David,
> Some examples will be found in my Reason's Traces, intro
> and ch. 1 and the notes thereon.
> Matthew
> Matthew T. Kapstein
> Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies
> The University of Chicago Divinity School
> Directeur d'études
> Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list