Mere specks of dust?

June 26, 1998

RELATIVISM, SUFFERING AND BEYOND. Essays in memory of Bimal K. Matilal. P. Bilimoria and J. N. Mohanty, editors. 381pp. Oxford University Press. Pounds 19.99. - 0 19 563858 1.

COMPANION ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ASIAN PHILOSOPHY. Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam, editors. 1,136pp. Routledge. Pounds 110. - 0 415 03535 X.

In 1991, Bimal Krishna Matilal, then Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford, wrote me a patient letter in response to my request for bibliographical guidance on some topics in Indian philosophy. I was to discover that this letter was written only days before his premature death from cancer at the age of fifty-six. Such bravery and generosity, to judge from tributes paid to him in Relativism, Suffering and Beyond, were the mark of the man. As his distinguished erstwhile colleague J. N. Mohanty points out in the introduction to this memorial volume, however, the book is designed to remember Matilal the philosopher, not the man and friend.

Throughout Matilal's immense corpus of work - as author, editor and translator - there runs the "firm conviction", expressed in his magnum opus, Perception, that "modern philosophical discussion stands to be enriched, and . . . deepened" by the critical study of Indian philosophy. Establishing this claim required, first, abandonment of that one-sided, indeed plain false, picture of Indian philosophy as so much "mysticism" and spiritual "intuition". (As recently as the 1970s, the author of a well-known introduction to philosophy could justify its restriction to Western thought by declaring that "what is labelled Eastern Philosophy" has no concern with "argument".) While not without respect for the more "mystical" reaches of Ved-anta and Buddhism, Matilal's writings on Indian logic, epistemology and philosophy of language massively documented traditions of discussion every bit as "argumentative" and critically alert as anything to be found in the West.

Matilal's "firm conviction" required, second, a demonstration that the questions posed and answers furnished by Indian thinkers were sufficiently close to those of modern philosophical discussion for meaningful comparisons to be made. So, for example, the book on perception involves us in what Mohanty calls a "marvellous conversation" between such Indian philosophers as Dharmakirti and Udayana and contemporary philosophers at Oxford and Harvard, such as P. F. Strawson and W. V. Quine. Above all, however, Matilal endeavoured to show that the Indian traditions could not merely converse with Western thought but could actually enhance "creativity and comprehensiveness in the . . . endeavours of modern professional philosophers".

There is a danger in thus emphasizing the commensurability of Indian and contemporary Western philosophical discussion. Mohanty cites a distinguished American philosopher's query as to why, if the Indians were giving the same answers to the same questions as Western philosophers do, there is any point in reading them. This query displays the sort of sensitivity exhibited by Ronald Reagan's remark, "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all." Part of the answer is that redwoods are, of course, not all the same. The positions occupied by Indian thinkers may have been very like ones found today, in Oxford or Harvard, but there are differences too, and ones from which we might learn. Thus, in Perception, Matilal argued that the "direct realism" of the Nyaya ("Logic") school - according to which, normally, it is actual things and properties in the world we directly experience (not "images" or sense-data) - could not only see off the Buddhist "idealists", but can furnish fresh weapons of attack on "representationist" views of perception which find favour today.

Several of the papers in the memorial volume demonstrate the value in juxtaposing positions sufficiently similar to be compared, yet sufficiently different for comparison to be illuminating. C. Ram-Prasad, for instance, discusses the eleventh-century Vedantin thinker Sri Harsa's account of causal connection in relation to David Hume's. By showing that, for the Indian, denial of knowledge of necessary connections in nature does not entail the "regularity thesis", according to which it is merely "constant conjunctions" of events which occur in nature, Ram-Prasad not only introduces us to an object lesson in distinguishing epistemology from cosmology, but encourages us no longer to subscribe to the conventional reading of Hume himself as committed to the "regularity thesis". Again in his piece on the great second-century Buddhist monk, Nagarjuna, Mark Siderits presents us with a thinker who, in a spirit of complete "epistemic humility", seems coherently to renounce all philosophical doctrine in a style comparable to, but not identical with, the "quietism" advocated by the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations.

Like redwoods, certain philosophical positions may be very similar, but occur in strikingly different settings, and there is fascination and benefit in so viewing them. In Logic, Language and Reality, after 300 pages of technical discussion of "the problems of ontology in the Indian context", Matilal finds himself "inevitably involved in . . . broader issues, such as: what is life? . . . what explanation . . . can be given for our problems of life, sufferings, . . . and evils?" That "context", of course, is the soteriological framework of Indian thought, which dictates that human beings should seek the means for "release" (moksa) from the cycle of suffering and mundane existence (samsara) to which, through the mechanics of karma, they are chained by their "ignorance" (avidya) and "cravings". Soteriology provides the setting, though it remains unobtrusive, for even such seemingly "pure" works of epistemology and logic as the Nyaya-Sutras and the many writings, critical and counter-critical, inspired by those sayings. The interplay between soteriological and epistemological concerns in these writings is the subject of a rewarding, if convoluted, contribution to the Matilal volume by Radhika and Hans Herzberger.

But why should drawing attention to the peculiar setting of Indian philosophical discussions be any answer to those who doubt the point of engaging with them? Are not the soteriological context and the problems of life and suffering mere distractions from proper philosophical treatment of, say, knowledge or causality - ones which Western philosophers, at least since medieval times, have wisely set aside? An informed response to that question would benefit from consulting several of the articles in the Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, edited by Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam.

Had he lived, Bimal Matilal would surely have been high on the editors' list of contributors, alongside such distinguished names as Karl H. Potter, Masao Abe and Lenn E. Goodman. And he would surely have congratulated Carr and Mahalingam both on their aim of providing coverage of the full range of Asian philosophical concerns and on the general quality of this immense undertaking. (An exception, ironically, would be the article on contemporary Indian philosophy, which focuses almost exclusively on figures, like Sri Aurobindo, whose interests reinforce the "mystical" image of Indian thought.) The sections on Indian philosophy, Buddhism and the East Asian reception of Buddhism take up almost half the encyclopaedia, justifiably so given the intellectual wealth of those traditions. ("Asian", incidentally, is broadly construed, so that the volume has sections on Islamic philosophy and even Zoroastrianism - alive and well, according to John Hinnell's piece, in Canada and other outposts of a diaspora.) The encyclopaedia is interestingly structured, with each part containing articles on the origins of some Asian tradition, the most important figures in that tradition, the main areas of discussion (such as "knowledge and reality", or "morals and society"), and the contemporary state of the tradition. This structure makes for a degree of repetition - Nagarjuna, for example, figures not only in the article devoted to him alone, but in at least half a dozen other articles on India, Buddhism, Tibet and China - but the overall cogency of the structure makes this perfectly excusable. There are some unaccountable discrepancies in the lengths of contributions; for example, contemporary Islamic thought gets only one half and one third as many pages as contemporary Zoroastrian and Chinese philosophy respectively. On the whole, however, the volume is an excellent one, providing just the balanced, informed guidance that a true companion should.

The encyclopaedia amply confirms that, for Asian thinkers, even the most "abstract" philosophical issues are, to recall Matilal's words, "inevitably involved . . . in problems of life". In succinct and masterly form, Karl H. Potter's piece on knowledge and reality in Indian philosophy surveys that same interweaving of soteriological and epistemological themes treated by the Herzbergers. Moving further east, the article on Daoism reminds us that the primary concern of Daoist thought was "to accommodate the Way of Humanity to the Way of Nature", while John Maraldo's account of those recent Japanese thinkers, such as Nishida and Ni****ani, who are attracting increasing attention in the West, demonstrates that their central ambition, even when discussing notions like "the logic of place" or "the logic of species", is to reconcile the scientific image with the religious viewpoint.

So the question raised earlier, in rhetorical tone, by those who regard concerns, soteriological or otherwise, with "the problems of life" as a distraction from proper philosophizing, is not confined to the Indian tradition. Indeed, it is the Western tradition which would be the odd man out - were it not for the fact that, here too, until the recent "professionalization" of philosophy, these concerns were manifest. It was Descartes's explicit aim to develop a metaphysics which would establish not only the existence of God but the possibility of an immortal soul, while Kant's thought was inspired by an ambition to relieve the tension between a conception of a human being as a natural animal, "a mere speck in the universe", and a recognition of the "infinite worth" of a being in whom the operation of the "moral law reveals a life independent of all animality".

Such "distracting" aims and ambitions may have been set aside by those of today's professionals who see themselves as emulating the inquiries of natural scientists. But it is hardly obvious that philosophy has gained by excluding the contexts which gave life and vibrancy to the issues it addresses. Indeed, it can be depressing to find issues about the relation between mind and world or the knowability of reality - issues over which, quite literally, men have fought and died - treated as "technical" problems, to be resolved, perhaps, by "decisions" taken on grounds of "theoretical economy" or "ontological parsimony". Nor is it obvious - except to those who have relieved Kant's tension by squarely opting for a "naturalism" which endorses the "speck of dust" conception - that philosophical views need not be answerable to "life"; not obvious, for example, that one should be dismissive of Hilary Putnam's recent defence of a "pragmatism" - reminiscent of the Buddha's - which requires of a good philosophy that it be consonant with a good "form of life". Nor, finally, is it obvious that today's professionals have genuinely set aside the "distractions". Referring to the contemporary predilection for "naturalistic", "materialist" views of mind, the American philosopher Tyler Burge writes that it has much in common with "political or religious ideology" - the ideology, soteriological in its way, of people with a need to view human beings, themselves included, as integral parts of a simple, universal, law-like scheme of things.

Indian or, more broadly, Asian philosophy may, then, have nothing to apologize over for setting its discussions against a context - often unobtrusive - of soteriology and "life". Perhaps it is the switching back and forth between issues of logic and life, of knowledge and the purpose of existence, which has given to philosophical speculation its long and honoured place in human inquiry. The Indian capacity for such switches was illustrated, I like to think, by the one occasion on which I met Bimal Matilal. Arriving to speak at a meeting, he announced that instead of the published topic - desire in the Indian epics, if I recall - he would instead give a lecture on the locative case in Sanskrit grammar. It was testimony to his skill as a lecturer that most of an audience assembled to hear something rather racier stayed right through the questions session.

David Cooper is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Durham. His books include World Philosophies:An historical introduction, 1995.

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