Friday, February 9, 2018

Listening to Asian Philosophy: Responses to Pigliucci

Śaṅkara, Maṇḍana, and Ubhāyabhārati engaged in philosophical debate

In an earlier post I mentioned a recent conference presentation of mine that generated a blog post from philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.  In my earlier post I reproduced the original handout from my talk.  Here I'm reproducing (maybe for posterity, maybe for fun) some of my responses to Pigliucci's post, particularly on the topic of "Eastern philosophy."  You can see all of the comments on his original post.

Before diving in, I feel like I should express my genuine thanks to Massimo.  As I said in my first comment,
First of all, I’d like to thank Massimo for this post, and for getting in touch with me to encourage me to participate in the discussion.  It’s always nice to see one’s work taken seriously and to have a chance to discuss it more widely.

The internet tends to promote a savage, with-me-or-against-me vibe, but that's not what I intend here, despite the somewhat critical nature of some of my comments.  There are no hard feelings.  As I said in my talk, one of the purposes of philosophy is to have some fun, which is part of how I hope this will be taken.  In that spirit, here is my second comment.
Massimo says, “Eastern philosophy never spoke to me (too prone to riddles and unclear statements)…” 
I choose not to take Massimo’s comment to be pugilistic (perhaps it is merely Pigliuccic), but as a specialist in classical Indian philosophy I feel that a response is perhaps required.
First, it is worth noting that “Eastern philosophy” does not designate a single tradition.  The South Asian and East Asian traditions developed largely independently of each other in different languages with different canonical texts, with the important exception of the influence of Buddhism from South Asia to East Asia.
Next, to have a bit of that fun I was talking about as a use of philosophy, let’s engage in a thought experiment.  Imagine a person completely unfamiliar with Western philosophy were to read the following quotes out of context.
-- “Immortal mortals, mortal immortals, living the death of others and dying their life.”
-- “He said that he saw souls departing after judgment through one of the openings in the heavens and one in the earth … From the door in the earth souls came up covered with dust and dirt and from the door in the heavens souls came down pure.”
-- “In a man devoted to knowledge, pity seems almost ridiculous, like delicate hands on a Cyclops.”
-- ”The Humean condition is the human condition.”
Imagine this person, after reading these quotes, says, “I just can’t get into this Western stuff.  It’s so full of riddles and unclarity!  That first quote is wooly-headed mysticism or maybe a linguistic riddle or something.  The second is pure religious mythology.  The third is empty literary bombast of questionable morality, and it mentions something called “a Cyclops,” whatever that is.  And the fourth is some sort of riddle about a figure I’ve never heard of, so it can’t be important.”
(Those playing along at home might recognize these as quotes from Heraclitus, Plato, Nietzsche, and Quine respectively)
Of course I am well aware of the vagaries of personal intellectual taste, so please don’t misunderstand my point to be that everybody must study every tradition of philosophy equally.  Rather, my point is that attempting to make pronouncements about something as vast and variegated as “Eastern philosophy” is no easier than pronouncing about something as vast and variegated as “Western philosophy” or “African philosophy” or “Indigenous philosophy.”  One might wonder what sense it makes at all to pronounce much of anything about anything so vast.  As some Austrian mystic and elementary schoolteacher once said, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”  I’m not sure I have what it takes to benefit from the spiritual lessons of that sage of Vienna, so perhaps it’s enough merely to recommend some intellectual modesty in our grand pronouncements.
(Again, for those playing along at home, the Austrian in question is the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein). 
To get to a more constructive point, anyone who reads more than one paragraph about the Nyāya school could hardly mistake its hardcore metaphysical and epistemological realism for obscurantist mysticism or riddle-crusted play time.  Nyāya is serious philosophical business.  Each of the logical and epistemological elements in the quote in my presentation is strenuously defined, defended, and refined over hundreds of years of philosophical activity.  Aristotle (himself hardly the life of the party) would tell these guys to lighten up a little bit.
Likewise, skepticism of any tradition might smack of self-contradiction (what do you mean you know that knowledge is impossible?).  Yet every skeptic I mentioned in my talk presents arguments.  For example, appeals to circularity, infinite regress, or irrational stipulation (what came to be called Agrippa’s Trilemma in the Greek tradition) can be found in Nāgārjuna and Zhuangzi.  The sheer volume of hair-splitting argumentation in Jayarāśi and Śrī Harṣa could exhaust even the most ardent analytic philosopher.
 Again, my point is not to shame people into shedding their interests in favor of my own.  That would be no fun!  Instead, I mean to do a bit of what philosophy everywhere does so well: question some assumptions.

Massimo says that a certain type of philosophy doesn't speak to him.  Fair enough.  Intellectual tastes vary.  My point above was that maybe we need to learn how to listen better to what these traditions are trying to say.  Some readers may find my use of the Wittgenstein quote as a "cheap shot" meant to shut down any non-expert from saying anything about Asian philosophy.  Massimo seems to have had this impression in one of his comments.  Here's my response.
Thanks, Massimo, for your response to my response. First of all, I apologize if my invocation of the Sage of Vienna was perceived as a “cheap shot.” (I did, however, call him a sage just to parrot some of the ways people in general sometimes talk about non-Western philosophers). I certainly didn’t mean it as a shot, cheap or expensive, because I didn’t mean to state or imply that one should shut about things unless one is an expert in them. If I followed that advice, I wouldn’t talk about Plato, Marcus Aurelius, or indeed Wittgenstein! When I said I couldn’t quite follow his advice, I meant to say something like this: "while some people might say non-experts have no right to speak, I can’t agree with that, but nonetheless we should all – expert and non-expert alike – be careful about making grand pronouncements about entire traditions, if indeed, we should bother making such pronouncements at all.” This is why I “cherry picked” the quotes I did, specifically to show that by “cherry picking” one can make a tradition into whatever one believes that tradition to be. The fact that so few contemporary philosophers pay attention to Book 10 of Plato’s Republic says more about contemporary philosophers than it does about Plato. We’re all in the cherry picking game to some extent (or we’d never finish anything!). The question is how to cherry pick.
I would add that to audience members unfamiliar with Stoicism but familiar with Indian philosophy, the opinion about which quotes were clear and which quotes lacked sufficient exegesis would in all likelihood be reversed! In a different sort of talk, something like “Indian philosophy for Stoics”, I would have made more of an effort to do exegesis. Indeed, a valuable lesson in all this for me is that I could do better about figures that are likely (for various reasons) to be unfamiliar to a general audience.
The way I structured this presentation, however, had a specific rationale: I was trying to model the type of cross-cultural philosophy that I would like to see. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and all that (it seems Gandhi didn’t actually say that, but whatever).
By treating the figures on equal footing I’m specifically trying to undermine the old (false) idea that “the East” is “irrational, mystical, otherworldly, etc.” in opposition to “the West” as “rational, scientific, this-worldly, etc.” Aside from leaving out a good chunk of the world, the East-West dichotomy doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny: the West has plenty of mystics, the East plenty of rationalists. It’s all a matter of which cherries you pick. (I’m also trying to avoid the equally annoying opposite idea that “the East” is better, more natural, more intuitive, more holistic, etc. as the New Age crowd would have it).
To avoid another misunderstanding, I am not saying that you (Massimo) or any particular person goes around explicitly thinking the East is all irrational or whatever. But like it or not, something like this view provides the backdrop against which even very well meaning people (of various cultures) look at a lot of Asian philosophy. It partially explains why Chinese and Indian philosophy are often taught in religion departments or area studies departments but much more rarely in philosophy departments. It might explain why the default assumption is sometimes that Asian stuff must be shown to be rational, rather than being given the benefit of the doubt. It also maybe explains why even some well meaning translators and encyclopedia writers often present the material as mysterious or deliberately vague.
Working against all this is hard. But it’s what I’m trying to do. Again, I’m not trying to make any personal attacks here! I’m talking about the discipline and the wider culture.

As I hint at above, and as I've explicitly said before, a kind of Eurocentrism pervades the background of almost everything people say about "Eastern" or "Asian" or really any sort of non-Western philosophical traditions, especially whether those traditions get called "philosophy" at all.  This particular brand of Eurocentrism is sometimes called Orientalism, as popularized in the work of Edward Said.

I'm not so immodest as to suppose that my conference presentation can dismantle a centuries-old philosophical framework.  Rather, I am trying to take some small step toward helping us move to a future in which, as the contemporary Indian philosopher B. K. Matilal put it, we can have a "horizontal relationship" between "East" and "West," in which the "East" is seen neither as sub-human nor super-human.  I, for one, think there is much to learn from a horizontal philosophical dialogue, but we may have to do some work to learn how to listen effectively.

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