The great divide

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?
February 26, 2006

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.

For much of the 20th century, Asian thinkers simply accepted this reality. Instead of carrying out original thinking, many Indian intellectuals indulged in endless discussions about what they could identify in Indian thought that mapped on to western philosophy. Was it darsana (a view), the traditional name given to the different groups of thinkers and texts associated with some common tenets? Or was it anviksiki (another visual metaphor, special seeing), a term used by some thinkers to describe analytic exploration of general questions? Indian philosophy had the acute existential crisis of asking whether it even existed. Chinese thought, too, struggled to reconceive its existence, especially as the madness of Mao threatened to sweep away all memory of Chinese philosophy in its homeland.

It is only in the past decade or two in these countries that there has been any real attempt to "do" eastern philosophy on its own terms and, sometimes, with the purpose of engaging with issues made important in western thought. But if eastern philosophy is philosophy at all, it is not so in any way directly comparable to that discipline in the west. The Greek tradition, recovered in Christian Europe after the rupture of the dark ages, combined with the Judeo-Christian tradition to form the western philosophical inheritance. (Medieval Islamic thought sustained the Greek inheritance, but the turning away from Greek categories to concentrate on the Koran is part of the reason it would now be strange to consider Islamic philosophy part of the western tradition.) Even when, with the proliferation of philosophical thinking in the modern west, mutual incomprehension occurs between different styles and systems—especially across the great 20th-century divide between analytic and continental philosophy—there is still a solid foundation of commonality. Western philosophy of many different stripes focuses on the same canonical texts, from Plato to Kant.

By contrast, there is mutual ignorance between the Indian and Chinese thought-worlds. By "India" I mean that broad region now encompassed by the term "south Asia," with a heartland in the Indo-Gangetic plain, extending east to what is now Bengal and west to Afghanistan. Indian philosophy is the thought of the culture pre-dating and standing outside Indian Islam: the traditions now identified within the religious categories of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. China is a less problematic category, although modern China includes many ethnicities that do not have a common past with the demographically and politically dominant Han people. Chinese philosophy is the heritage of the Han.

The interpreters of Confucius and the Hindu sacred texts, the Upanishads, know as little about each other as they do about Plato. In fact, there is evidence that there might have been historical contact between ancient Indian and Greek thinkers. The many independent similarities between Greek and Indian thought has led some people, especially Sinological scholars, to think that the great distinction is actually between Chinese and Indo-European philosophical cultures. Certainly, the common linguistic inheritance of Greek and Sanskrit suggests the Greek and Indian traditions share a common language in a way that Chinese does not. In any case, the fundamental concerns, conceptual frameworks and goals of the Indian and Chinese traditions are utterly different.

What then is Indian and Chinese philosophy, and what reason is there for studying it? The origins of philosophy in India and China lie in figures who were primarily interested in offering solutions to problems of existence. In India, the Upanishads sought to liberate human consciousness from its limitations and fragility. The Buddha and Mahavira, founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively, diagnosed life as consisting in an intrinsic state of suffering, and offered therapeutic methods for coming to terms with and eventually mastering the root causes of that suffering. But none of these teachings was generally considered to constitute an assurance about an eventual state of religious grace. People had to ponder their meaning and significance—a state of inquiry that is philosophical, in that it seeks to analyse various puzzles about the ultimate nature of the world and offers a narrative to take us through it. In China, the baseline is Confucius, who sought to teach people the norms of civilised conduct through the observance of morally relevant rituals drawn from different cultural sources, at a time when China was still politically fragmented. All subsequent Chinese thinkers accept the need to understand and follow proper conduct, but they vary hugely on what that conduct is: among the Daoists, Laotze sees proper conduct as lying not in social ceremony, but in a life lived in coherence with natural forces and flows, while Zhuangzi suggests that there can be no account of proper conduct, merely lives of spontaneous and equipoised action. The determination of the way (Dao)—the path itself as well as the manner of walking it—orients Chinese philosophy.

The issues in Indian philosophy are much more like those of classical and early modern western thought: they see a world and set out to give persuasive accounts of the entities and processes that underlie its appearance. Indian philosophy is profoundly metaphysical. It follows a framing, teleological narrative that shares features with some thinkers of the western tradition, both Christian and secular. Indian philosophers agree that our ordinary life is defective; our experience is marked by suffering, our understanding is marked by severe limits to knowledge, our conduct falls short of its ethical requirements, and we live in fear of our mortality. We therefore need to inquire into the conditions of existence in order to realise how things really are, and in doing so, our cognitive life is transformed, enabling us eventually to attain some ultimate state of freedom. By contrast, Chinese philosophy is ametaphysical, concerned with the world as it is encountered, and neutral to the relationship between reality and appearance.

Moreover, despite the formal commitment to some ultimate end, there is a good deal of Indian philosophy which is purely technical and given over to intellectual puzzles and challenges, whereas Chinese philosophers almost always appear to be working only for the purpose of improving human behaviour.

In Indian philosophy, as in western philosophy, there are many competing accounts of ontology—the division of the world into its conceptually basic components. There is also a long and sophisticated history of philosophy of language (having its origins in the formalisation of Sanskrit grammar in the 4th century BC) concerning the capacity of linguistic units to convey meaning, the relationship between language and sound and so on. Although logic did not develop a symbolism in Indian philosophy as it did in western thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it had, especially in the Nyaya system, a rigorous and fully developed linguistic formalism by the 15th century—an achievement still waiting to be used effectively in contemporary western philosophy.

Chinese thinkers were capable of using sophisticated logical moves in their arguments, but apart from some elements in the school of Mohism and during a brief period of early Chinese Buddhism, the study of logic itself was thought frivolous. And Chinese theories of language are not about representation but function: how can the proper use of titles relate to how people behave according to them? How, if at all, can terms for ethical and political behaviour be standardised across time? Since the person who was most influential in guiding proper conduct was the king, the understanding and following of his way (Dao) was considered important by many thinkers, giving practical political philosophy a central place in Chinese civilisation. Consider one example of this pragmatism: while western and Indian sceptics express doubt over whether we can ever systematically grasp the way things really are, the Chinese (especially Zhuangzi) ask whether we can ever affirm or discard one way of acting over another. Scepticism is directed at the determination of action rather than the justification of claims.

There are a few areas where Indian philosophy does have more in common with China than with the west. Sharp analysis of the nature and foundations of conduct have characterised the history of western thought. By contrast, Indian ethical philosophy is like Chinese in probing our intuitions through storytelling—whether in small anecdotes or in epic compositions—rather than argument; this is particularly striking given the analytic debates that mark other areas of Indian philosophy.

There is also an interesting divide between western and eastern ideas on the nature of the self. Because the idea of an identifiable yet immaterial soul had such a strong grip on western thought for many centuries, the questioning of it from David Hume onwards resulted in radical notions of the constructed nature of personhood: Hume's "bundle theory" had it that a person (say me, Ram-Prasad) is not some non-physical entity located in the body but the contingent result of birth, psychological traits, environmental influences, social duties and so on. But this idea was accepted by Indian philosophy from very early on. Hindu thinkers never thought that "Ram-Prasad" was essentially a metaphysical being with a physical garb (this is how much of the western tradition would have understood Ram-Prasad—as a soul in a body). Rather, they thought that the core nature was an impersonal consciousness which, while giving life and continuity to this person called Ram-Prasad, was ultimately not that person at all; it could and would have other lives, as other persons (or even non-persons, if animating a cow or other creature). When the Buddha denied the need for an atman (the self), he was saying that there was no need to appeal to the idea of such an impersonal, conscious being in order to explain the apparent unity and continuity of constructed persons. The modern western debate over whether personhood—the integrity of particular individuals—is metaphysically given or constructed through the life-course is therefore beside the point in classical Indian debates. The question of selfhood is enriched by Chinese traditions too. Here, there is no interest in what lies behind the human being. Rather, the concern is how potential humanness is fully realised, leading to a long history of discussion over the role of biography, historical antecedents and narrative authority in the formation of identity—discussions that are at the forefront of some western debates today.

The east/west divide on the self extends to political individualism. In different ways, both the major eastern traditions conceive of the individual in very particular terms. The responsibilities, entitlements and authority of individuals depend on their specific natures: people are not interchangeable in their rights and duties. If asked whether an individual either can or should do something, the classical Chinese or Indian would answer that it depended on that particular person's nature. X might be heard in the royal court on account of his birth, personality and status, while Y, in the same official position, would not be accorded the same power. This particularity of the individual contrasts with that great modern western idea, "generic" individualism. Under this notion, individuals are interchangeable; it does not matter who one is in biographical and psychologically specific terms. It is the general idea of the individual that is important, not the particularities of specific people. The rule of law, the formality of political institutions and the claim to universal rights have flown from this paradoxical idea of generic individualism, in which each person is equally like every other. In both classical Chinese and Indian thought, there is a contrasting "microindividualism": each individual in a sociopolitical collective has specific burdens and freedoms. In China, this led to an organic communitarianism in which each individual, by doing exactly what was specific to themselves, contributed in his or her own special way to a larger entity—the Middle Kingdom. The particularity of each individual was significant to the extent they contributed to the polity as a whole, and therefore each individual was insignificant apart from that whole. In different ways, Confucian and Daoist thinkers subscribed to this idea, and it may help to explain why economic success has not prompted major demands for democracy in modern China. In India, this microindividualism, based on dharma—the nature and duty of each person—was supposed to lead to a social order in which there was clear differentiation of labour and functional expertise. The actual result was an explosion of multiple values evident in Indian democracy today. The implication in Indian and Chinese thought is of an infinite diversity of individualisms, a situation which generates many problems of equality and universality, but also suggests possibilities for political theories on how to live with fundamental difference.

Why has western philosophy—with the partial exception of Schopenhauer—been so uninterested in all this? Partly because the idea of an eastern philosophy lay in the framing of it as the Other of western rationality. But a significant role has been played by Asians themselves, looking for self-expression in a Europeanised world. The leading eastern philosophers of the early to mid-20th century were men like S Radhakrishnan and DT Suzuki who, confronted with the powerful association of western philosophy with colonial dominance, argued that their cultures possessed unique insights absent in the west. In their different ways, Radhakrishnan with the Indian system of Advaita Vedanta and Suzuki with Zen Buddhism, argued that it was the greatness of the Asian philosophies that they went beyond the rationality of western philosophy. Eastern thought was not to be defined by its lack of what western philosophy had, but rather by its transcendence of it. Eastern philosophy was based on experience that mere reason could not capture; its insights came of practices like meditation, and pointed to what lay beyond language and thought. Radhakrishnan, in particular, was quite sophisticated in his knowledge of both Indian and western texts, but as the first Indian to hold a professorship (in eastern religions and ethics) at Oxford, he had to find some way of asserting the importance and originality of Indian philosophy that did not challenge the master narrative of western philosophy. Suzuki had the additional aim of justifying Japanese nationalism in ways that nevertheless took note of the power of the west. In the decades that followed, lesser figures, east and west, tended to recycle this view of the east as the place where philosophy was the west's anti-philosophy. When the 1960s counterculture emphasised this trend—Allen Ginsberg, for example, exhaling "om" and "shiva" in public performance of his poetry—it is small wonder that western philosophers, willing to take only such time as unscholarly books demanded, settled on the conclusion that eastern philosophy was just so much irrational twaddle.

Unfortunately, into this pas de deux of misrepresentation entered a third party: the modernising intellectual elites of China, India and Japan. In their different ways, these elites confronted a break with the past. Their interpretations of significant questions had been culturally broken: in China by the decline of the empire and the subsequent revolution; in India by colonialism and its aftermath (and, some would argue, by the earlier political dominance of Islam); and in Japan by the catastrophic failure of military hypernationalism. In all these cultures, the past became a treacherous place. In China, communism attempted to wipe out all memory of Old China. In India, postcolonial theorists saw in the classical past only patterns of elite hegemony that had been reinterpreted by the British. And in Japan, there was reluctance to return to the thinkers who had been potently invoked so recently by a brutal, expansionist military-imperial regime.

Many Asian scholars emerging on the international scene therefore tended to be wary of applying their intellectual skills to the philosophy of their tradition. This wariness has been compounded by the culturally loaded interpretations offered by new nationalistic ideologues: here Sankara is attached to a hegemonic exercise in the conception of a Hindu nation, there Confucius is named as the originator of a profoundly undemocratic nation state.

Questioning the nature and identity of western philosophy is, of course, part of philosophy—from conceptual challenges by Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein to political ones by students wanting courses not dominated by the canon of Dead White European Males. Such challenges simply get assimilated into a tradition that has had the political benefit of historical continuity. The disquiet of academic elites in Asia about the nature of their philosophical inheritance goes much deeper.

Other challenges remain to the proper redevelopment of Asian philosophies. In India, the Sanskrit-language work of the traditionally trained pandits is dying for lack of prestige and funding. In China, the wild excesses of the cultural revolution destroyed texts and killed thinkers, and the government is still cautious about philosophy. But it should not need arguing that there is value in these traditions, and that they presuppose intellectual rigour in the pursuit of problems they consider to be of such value. In any case, circumstances are changing as China and India find their own cultural spaces for creative yet traditional philosophy. India has had the better time of it politically, as intellectual freedom has allowed new ways of reimagining culture and tradition. But that very freedom has also brought challenges, as polemically extreme formulations from left and right crowd out more rigorous efforts at reinterpreting classical thought. Despite its edgy relationship with free thought, the Chinese state has benefited from the consequences of economic progress; in China and abroad, funds are found to support the unremunerative but time-consuming task of doing original philosophy.

Asian traditions of thought do not form a coherent historical tradition and Asian elites are ambivalent about their nature and worth. But for all the failures of Indians, Chinese and others to take up the study of their own philosophical past, it is perhaps odd that western philosophy, despite its own problems, has rarely sought to renew itself by looking to the east. Aesthetic dimensions of life—art, architecture, music, cinema—seem to flow more readily across cultures than philosophical ones. Once notions of racial and cultural superiority waned, many fusions took place between western and other cultures: consider Hollywood cinema since the early 1990s, English literature since Rushdie, Seth and others, the recent breakthrough of modern Indian art on to western markets. Philosophical thought remains the exception. Why? It may be that there is something in the very nature of such intellectual activity that makes it difficult for cross-cultural communication. Unless there is agreement on what the issues are and that these issues are to be tackled using mutually intelligible methods, perhaps philosophical cultures do not fuse.

It is an inescapable fact that contemporary globalisation took off at a time peculiarly marked by the domination of the place called the west. We cannot wish away that predominance. When the intellectual traditions of India, China or elsewhere come to take their place in an emerging global tradition of thought, they must start with the only global terms of discourse available to them: those of western philosophy. So I have had to use the categories of western philosophy in presenting Indian and Chinese thought; but as with the English language, use does not in itself indicate subordination. It may be that terms from non-western traditions will also become keys of analysis in a future global tradition of thought, but those of western philosophy, their uses conceived in many novel ways, will continue to be used, as they are bequeathed to a global successor. But to give thus, western philosophy must first also receive, even if on its own terms. Parochialism and fear of the unknown on the part of western philosophers, and a loss of nerve on the part of Asian thinkers, stand in the way of that reception.