Why should contemporary philosophy care about Indian philosophy?

A frequent question that I'm asked, by philosophers and non-philosophers alike, is, "Why should contemporary Western philosophers care about philosophy done by people in India a thousand years ago?"*

Since I'm asked this so frequently, I thought I'd put a response on my blog. First, though, I thought I'd point out a few assumptions that drive this kind of question. Much of what I take my work to be is challenging preconceived notions people have of the distinction between "Indian philosophy" and "Western philosophy."

(A note. I take it that this question is typically not raised to ask whether the individual asking the question has a burden herself to be a philosopher studying Indian texts, but whether philosophers as a whole ought to consider Indian texts interesting, useful, important, or something else--and that something is generally left implicit by the questioner.)

Excursus on Western Observations of India
In his essay, "Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination," Amartya Sen observes that Western approaches to Indian intellectual traditions have tended to be of three sorts: exoticist, magisterial, and curatatorial.

The exoticist approach considers India to be a strange, wonderful land, full of people and customs that are mystical and magical. Just look at films like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" for an example of this viewpoint. Translated into philosophy, this approach can be found in the Romantic emphasis on India as a mystical antidote to the failures of Western thought. Sen points out some of the earliest forays into Indo-European linguistics were motivated by these ways of thinking.

The magisterial approach, which Sen finds in James Mill's The History of British India, denigrates Indian traditions as barbaric and inferior, as well as ethically lacking. Of course, a look at the intellectual developments in India easily disproves this simplistic view (a model of gravity as early as 476 CE, the origin of the "Arabic" numerals, and the decimal point, and so forth).

The curatatorial approach emphasizes investigation of distinctive thought in India due to curiosity, as in the Arabic scholar Alberuni's Ta'rikh al-hind (The History of India). This way of understanding Indian thought focuses on its elite textual tradition, and involves learning Sanskrit and translating literary, legal, philosophical, and other kinds of intellectual texts.

Sen's conclusions have much to do with how modern India has internalized the viewpoint of the West, valuing the same aspects of Indian culture which Westerners prized (either for exoticist, magisterial, or curatatorial reasons). He also adds that even the curatatorial approach emphasizes what is interesting to the European observer, and may miss substantial aspects of Indian history and culture. This is because what is being "mined", so to speak, are the aspects of Indian thought which are "really different" from European. After all, if we in the West already have our Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and so on, what good does it do to discover that there was an "Indian" Plato, Aristotle, or Kant?

Assumptions about "Comparative Philosophy"
With these models set out, I can now point out some of the assumptions possibly implicit in a question like, "Why should contemporary Western philosophers care about philosophy done by people in India a thousand years ago?"

1. We should care just in case another philosophical tradition gives us a solution to problems we now have. This is somewhat like the curatatorial approach, and is probably the most respectable, and common, view among modern philosophers. There's a sense that anyone working in philosophy outside of the textual traditions traceable through modern analytic philosophy journals and back to the Greeks has a burden to bring back something useful. Now, sometimes philosophers working on Indian philosophy do this. There are plenty of examples in journals like Philosophy East & West. But I think this approach assumes that the contemporary mindset in posing philosophical puzzles is dominant. In very loose terms, we pose the questions, and look for answers in Indian philosophy. However, when things are framed this way, we lose the possibility that Indian philosophers are posing different (and perhaps better) questions than we are.

2. We should care just in case another philosophical tradition is relevantly similar to ours, and Indian philosophy is not. If this is the assumption, then we have a generally exoticist approach, which finds Indian thought to be religious, mystical, and irrational. This is a much less dominant view today, given the work that's been done by Western philosophers in traditions like Navya-Nyāya and Buddhism. Now, most philosophers are aware that Indian philosophy is filled with highly analytic and rational thinkers, many of whom were materialist and agnostic, unlike the stereotyped image of spiritual yogis pursuing unity with Brahman. However, sometimes a philosopher will have an exotic image of Indian philosophy, in which its motivations are highly religious (as if the history of Western philosophy has nothing to do with Christianity!) and thereby suspect. In point of fact, the Indian textual tradition was generally much less constrained by any kind of religious authority which would limit the kinds of investigations they undertook, or conclusions they produced.

Answering the Question
So what is our motivation, if we do want to avoid a curatatorial or exoticist approach? (I like to think that the magisterial approach is fading from prominence, though I'm sure it is still present in some corners.) I think Jonardon Ganeri has a relevant answer in his interview at 3:AM Magazine:
If we conceive of the making of the modern world as involving, ideally, a conversation in which all human points of view are represented then the cultures of reasoning in every part of the world must be involved, for they are what provide participants in this conversation with the intellectual resources they need to participate in the conversation.
First, the difference is between a conversation and a one-sided inquiry. If I go looking through Sanskrit texts to find "the answer" to my questions about distinctions between semantics and pragmatics, let's say, I may not hear the contributions that tradition has to make to broader, more arguably universal questions about human communication. I risk importing analogs of my technical concepts into places where they are not actually present. This is not to say that Indian theories of language have nothing to say about semantics and pragmatics, nor that they do not make some very similar distinctions as contemporary philosophers. They do. However, I must be open to hearing when they are making subtly different distinctions, and make the effort to understand the wider dialectical context in which they are made.

Kathleen Higgins makes a similar point (also in a 3:AM Magazine interview) when she says,
Unfortunately, Western philosophers have not, for the most part, taken a lot of interest in the rest of the world, although this is changing. One reason in the Anglophone world, I think, is the tendency to approach philosophy as a series of problems and puzzles and to conduct their philosophising by means of countering moves that have recently been made in (Western) philosophical journals. This does not allow much room for considering alternative perspectives on what the important problems might be, an interest that would naturally lead to consideration of how other traditions have formulated their philosophical inquiries.
I think of the situation somewhat metaphorically. When having a philosophical conversation, there's a give-and-take between speakers, and a good practice is to try to answer the points raised by your interlocutor. Sometimes, however, a change of subject to something which initially seems a detour can push the conversation ahead better than a tightly constrained back-and-forth. Of course, the situation with textual traditions is more complicated because the Indian traditions are having their own conversations which a good philosopher will need to understand in order to bring the Western and Indian conversations into a global conversation.

Second, even setting aside the global philosophical conversation (which I take to occur across times and places), there is a history-of-philosophy reason for caring. The number of Sanskrit-language texts which have not yet been translated at all, or have not yet been translated into English, is significant. We are still learning about the relationship between people living in what is today called "India" and other countries. We know today that tracing our philosophical tradition back to the Greeks is not a simple straight line. Studying Greek philosophy is typically unchallenged as being an interesting project for contemporary philosophers since there's a presumed heritage. We have what we do today because of Aristotle, and so studying Aristotle is at least interesting, if not informative. But we must add Arabic philosophy into this historical transmission, and the relationship between Arabic and Indian intellectual traditions is complex and fascinating. Further, jump ahead to the 18th and 19th centuries, and we have Indian intellectual traditions influencing Western thought quite directly. So to paint India as an "other" to whom we are in no way indebted to our thought is simplistic. Reading Indian philosophy and understanding that conversation is independently valuable.

And on the other hand, even supposing that the Indian traditions were hermetically sealed off from our own, the fact that there is such a striking convergence in questions and methods would surely be worthy of investigation. Simply from the standpoint of acquiring data about intuitions (an activity that philosophers engage in frequently), we have another rich resource. For philosophers of language, in particular, we have access to a tradition which took seriously questions of reference, indexicality, context, figurative language, epistemology of testimony, etc., and this tradition has a history of   highly precise investigation into its language's grammar and syntax.

All of this is to say that, when asked "Why should we care?", my reply is that we should care because, whether or not contemporary Anglophone philosophy's questions are resolved by research into Indian philosophical texts, these texts are already part of the global heritage of philosophical thought in which we participate, they are a rich tradition which raises questions in their own right that are useful to philosophy as a whole, and their intellectual rigor is such that their intuitions and arguments are worth listening to, even if we are ultimately unconvinced by certain particulars. Further, Indian philosophy may turn out to be instrumentally valuable to contemporary philosophy, given that we've discovered such things as as generative grammar in Pāṇini (before the West had it) and proto-Gricean theories in Mīmāṃsā (before Grice). We have not had a long enough nor open enough conversation with Indian philosophers as of yet that would tell us whether their ideas are or are not valuable to us, so why should we stop now?

*An important point: contemporary philosophers investigating Indian philosophy typically look at the classical/medieval time periods, but Indian philosophy did not abruptly stop. Ganeri's The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India focuses on later thinkers. Further, there is philosophical work going on at the present day in India, and to ignore this fact, and assume that Indian philosophy ended with the British occupation, is not accurate.


  1. Hey Malcolm, to just piggyback on your final remark that Indian philosophy is not merely a study of the ancients, jay Garfield and Nalini Bushana have recently published a collection of Indian philosophy in the 19th-20th centuries.

  2. Thanks for adding this. The book you mention ("Indian Philosophy of English: From Renaissance to Independence") is available on Amazon, and it's on my lengthy "to-read" list. A review is here. The author of that review, Raghuramaraju, also wrote Debates in Indian Philosophy: Classical, Colonial, and Contemporary", which is reviewed on the same NDPR site: here.


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