The lone ranger lost in worldly thoughts

World Philosophies
March 17, 2000

You have got to be something of an optimist to write a book like this. I mean, a book on world philosophies, where by "world" Ninian Smart does not mean "of global influence or import" but "belonging to the world". So this is a book that purports to give an account not only of European philosophies and Indian philosophies and Chinese philosophies, of the philosophies of Korea, Japan, North America, Latin America and Africa, but also of Jewish, Buddhist and Islamic philosophies. A mammoth task.

Further, there is a major debate on, as to whether the intellectual traditions of different parts and periods of the world can all be lumped under the definition philosophy in the first place (or is "philosophy" something properly descriptive only of certain kinds of western intellectual endeavour?). Smart is well aware of this methodological hurdle and jumps clear by arguing for the legitimacy of the book's title on the grounds of the heterogeneity of the world's thought, not least that of the diverse western traditions that have been deemed to merit the blanket designation "philosophy" by the special pleaders for the view that only western thought can be properly "philosophical".

I think Smart is right. In the circumstances there should be nothing, barring intellectual haughtiness or narrow-mindedness, to stop us from calling any more or less self-conscious process of systematic reflection based on rational analysis and the careful assessment of different kinds of evidence a "philosophy", or at least "philosophical". This allows Smart to cast a very wide net indeed, and in a book on "world philosophies" makes his task immeasurably harder.

But there is more to reckon with. This book is intended not for the specialist in particular, but for the general reader.

This means that the author is committed to selecting, condensing and explaining in a clear and presumably interesting and instructive manner material from different cultures, times and languages that in its original form tends to be conceptually demanding if not dense and convoluted. An ambitious and thankless task of reductionism.

And as it turns out, this book is too ambitious and too reductive. It will appease neither the specialist nor the general reader. The reader will be bewildered by the torrent of names and the concertinaed density of the arguments, and overwhelmed by the relentless, if often disjointed, display of philosophical speculation. A countless host of individuals and movements, great and small, march past grimly and impersonally.

Inevitably, not enough has been done to show why this view or how that argument, illumines the whole, or even the part. And in spite of valiant efforts at the end of sections to give an overview, the wood, alas, cannot be seen for the trees. Here, as if oppressed by the massiveness of his task, Smart does not write with a particularly light touch, and the somewhat turgid style is compounded by the small and huddled typeface. As one reads on, there is an increasingly sinking feeling of having to bump and grind along.

There is immense learning here, and one has to admire its tremendous range. But with the rapidly increasing depth and scope of scholarly studies on the philosophies of the world today, perhaps the only way to attempt a project like this is by marshalling a team of experts and then editing their efforts. And perhaps it is time publishers realised this with a greater sense of responsibility. The day of the lone ranger seems to be a thing of the past - now there is a sobering, if somewhat liberating, thought.

Julius Lipner is lecturer in Indian religion and the comparative study of religion, University of Cambridge.

World Philosophies

Author - Ninian Smart
ISBN - 0 415 18466 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00
Pages - 454

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