Saturday, July 21, 2018

Modernity Expanded: The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450-1700 by Jonardon Ganeri

I thought it might be interesting to post a review on the philosophy side of my interests.  So here you go!

The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450-1700 is a groundbreaking work, even for Jonardon Ganeri's always extremely high standards.  There are at least three ways in which The Lost Age of Reason breaks new ground.

First, in the first two parts of the book Ganeri has compiled evidence about the intellectual and even political contexts of the philosophers in question to a degree that's unthinkable for earlier Indian philosophers.  If you read scholarly work on classical Indian philosophers (before around 1300 CE), you're lucky if you can discover the century in which they lived, much less where they lived, who their patrons were, where they traveled, etc.  Granted, there simply is a lot more historical evidence for the period Ganeri is calling India's early modern period (1450-1700), but he's done some remarkable research to uncover it here.  In particular, his work on the three main centers of development of the "New Reason" (Navya Nyāya) school is fascinating: Vāraṇāsī, Mithilā, and Navadīpa.

Second, Ganeri's treatment of the philosophical issues is, as always, second to none.  Ganeri covers an array of issues in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, and logic.  I particularly enjoyed the sections on how the New Reason philosophers came to grips with the skeptical challenges of one of my favorites of the late classical period and one of the subjects of my forthcoming book, Śrī Harṣa.  I also enjoyed the chapter on Vaiśeṣika philosophy of mathematics.  Maybe this is less groundbreaking for people already familiar with this period, but I learned a lot.

I also enjoyed seeing how Ganeri used his description of these developments to make his case that the commentarial tradition is, far from pedantic re-hashing of old material, a way of putting the past into contact with present concerns in a way that is simultaneously respectful and creative.  If anything, I think this is obviously the case even earlier in the tradition (commentaries were never simply about rehashing or uncritically worshipping the past), although I'm convinced by Ganeri's case that Raghunātha (1477-1547) was embarking upon modernity in his willingness to radically rework and sometimes relinquish old categories.

This leads to the third way the book breaks ground, perhaps the most groundbreaking of all: the idea that Indian philosophers were embarking upon modernity around the same time as their European counterparts.  Ganeri defines modernity as a new way of conceiving of one's relationship with the past.  There are, according to Ganeri, two ways this idea has been explained in European history: either as a radical break with the past as in the (demonstrably inaccurate) self-conception of Bacon and Descartes, or as a new way of appropriating the truths of the past as in the conceptions of philosophers like Gassendi, Spinoza, and Leibniz.  Ganeri argues that the New Reason philosophers in India starting with Raghunātha embodied modernity in the second sense.  These philosophers did not wholly reject the earlier Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika categories, but they did radically rework them, adding and subtracting to them as needed for a largely more purely theoretical philosophical project, all within a cosmopolitain atmosphere of Mughal India (on that note, Ganeri also discusses the cosmopolitain syncretism of the Muslim Dārā Shukoh and the Jain Yaśovijaya).

Aside from overturning the long-held conception of this so-called "medieval" period of Indian philosophy as one with little worthwhile innovation, Ganeri's thesis makes an even more daring suggestion: modernity was not a purely European phenomenon.  Modernity arose in more than one place in the world (I would humbly suggest adding the 17th century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob to the list).

As Ganeri hints a few times, the rise of modernity in India was forever altered by the arrival of British colonialism in the 18th century and its attendant devaluing of local traditions, such that Indians were told that only Western ways could be modern.  Indeed, in India as elsewhere, one wonders what philosophical treasures were lost or never formed while natural resources were stolen and local cultures devalued.  Perhaps work like Ganeri's is a way to both recover some of what was lost and to wonder at what might have been.

See also my Goodreads review.

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