Cinema, literature and other aspects of western culture are increasingly open to Asian influence. Not so western philosophy, which remains almost entirely sealed off from eastern traditions. Why?by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Kumarila claims that something that is called an “I” exists, established by the fact that an I is constantly present in thinking. Sankara, however, argues that this only shows that there is subjectivity —the presence of consciousness—not that there is an object named “I.” The apparent existence of an objective self is an illusion, created by the logic of the grammatical use of “I” in language.
Strange names, certainly. Strange thoughts? Anybody who has read philosophy in the west will not think so—provided that Kumarila (7th century) is replaced with Descartes (17th) and Sankara (8th) with Kant (18th). The point is not the polemical one about whether it was Indians or Europeans who had these thoughts first (the ancient Greeks and early Islamic thinkers are also in the running). The point is not that the Indians deserve study because they thought like Europeans. The point is simply that, for many reasons, the Indian thinkers are unknown to contemporary western philosophy, and are likely to remain so. The same is true of Chinese thinkers.
Even a very brief survey of Indian and Chinese thought shows that these traditions address a wide range of issues which, whether or not they overlap with those asked in western philosophy, are of interest to anyone concerned with the large questions of human existence. But the very idea of “eastern philosophy” is beset with problems.
First, eastern philosophy lacks the simple advantage, enjoyed by western philosophy, of having arisen from its own tradition of intellectual practice. Questions about the unity and identity of western philosophy have often been asked, but those who questioned were generally considered to come from within the tradition itself. The unity of the discipline—and its westernness—remains intact in popular introductions and in most university departments, even if some of the most fundamental concerns of the Greek philosophers are utterly different from that of western philosophy of the past 500 years.
Though departments of religious studies, literature, geography, political science and others in the humanities increasingly recognise that the world is not the west, in philosophy the rest of the world does not yet exist. Asian traditions tend to be confined to religious studies or area studies, where philosophy competes with anthropological, political and historical approaches to the study of Asian traditions—and this despite a shift in how philosophy itself is taught, away from canonical writers towards key concepts.