In my Philosophies of India course, I’m covering two provocative articles from Daya Krishna that have stuck with me since I first read them many years ago: “Three Myths about Indian Philosophy” and “Three Conceptions of Indian Philosophy.”
In the latter article Krishna argues that, despite the fact that many classical Indian texts begin with the pronouncement that reading the text will help one achieve liberation (mokṣa) from the cycle of suffering (saṃsāra), many philosophers are not terribly interested in liberation, but simply want to get on with their philosophical business after paying lip service to this goal. In classical India, liberation was an overriding hyper-value that sits above all other recognized values such as wealth (artha) and pleasure (kāma), so philosophers had to tell some story of how their philosophical activity was related to this value even if such a relation was tenuous or nearly non-existent (note: “hyper-value” is my name for it, not Krishna’s). I have a lot of sympathy for Krishna’s view, but my purpose here isn’t to evaluate his claim. I have another question.
Do we have a similar hyper-value today? (By “we,” I mean those of us in the United States, but I suspect a similar, though perhaps less depressing, story could be told of many other contemporary cultures.)
I think we do have a hyper-value: money. Or as those in the Sanskrit tradition would say: artha.
Think about it. How much anxiety do Americans have about engaging in any activity that doesn’t make money? This applies most obviously to things like studying philosophy or other fields in the humanities, which are constantly lampooned as useless (where “useless” means something like “it’s not immediately obvious how this makes me money”). It may also apply to engaging in hobbies or taking lower paying, but more rewarding work. Sadly, even spending time with family and friends is often thought of as less important than making money.
Who are our heroes? Rich people, plain and simple. Computer billionaires like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are worshipped as inspiring intellects, as are shrewd business people, high-powered lawyers, or well-paid medical doctors. Celebrities, professional athletes, and famous actors are admired authorities on all matters. Why? Because they have lots of money, so they must be better than we, the slovenly masses. (The case of actors is especially confusing to me: why should people who pretend to be other people for a living be given so much attention?)
Our culture’s hyper-value has led many philosophy departments to post reassuring statistics on their websites about how studying philosophy is a path to money and career skills (see, for instance, this site).
To be clear, I wholeheartedly support this practice. Even though no professional philosopher is in it for the money and nobody but the occasional wannabe lawyer would major in philosophy without a genuine love of the subject, I want colleges to continue having philosophy departments. It is simply a pragmatic fact that we have to make a case for our existence that appeals to the hyper-value of our culture if we’re going to appeal to administrators, parents, donors, regents, etc. Perhaps classical Indian philosophers were in exactly the same situation with respect to their culture’s hyper-value of mokṣa.
I wonder what it would take to create a culture in which people could unashamedly study philosophy without pretense. Maybe we need science fiction to imagine such a culture.