Artha: India: philosophy
Jonardon Ganeri interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Jonardon Ganeri broods on Indian philosophy and knows early modern philosophy happened there as well as in the West. So the idea that Indian philosophy is always traditional is bogus, he thinks. He also thinks that assumptions about where ideas come from and how ideas move around are often based on historical ignorance. He sees ideas as belonging to everyone. He keeps writing books about all this so people get to know. He is the author of ‘The Concealed Art Of The Soul: Theories of Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology’, ‘ The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450- 1700’, ‘ Artha: Meaning Foundations of Philosophy in India’, ‘Philosophy in Classical India: An Introduction and Analysis,’ ‘Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities’, ‘Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy’, ‘The Self‘ and ‘Indian Logic‘. He’s deep-fried because he knows philosophy is a global preoccupation.
3:AM: How did you become a philosopher? Was it always something that you thought you’d do?
JG: Philosophy has had a pull on me for as long as I remember. I read the existentialists at an early age (didn’t we all?), but there is little scope to study philosophy in British schools, and definitely not at the rather unexceptional state school I went to. I studied mathematics at university and afterwards took a job in a telecom company.
One day I happened across a battered copy of Michael Dummett’s Elements of Intuitionism, which I read with gusto, and I knew that philosophy was what I wanted to do. I actually wrote to Dummett and got a wonderfully warm and encouraging letter back from him, which I still treasure. I somehow managed to persuade King’s College London to let me enroll in their graduate philosophy programme, quit my job, and never looked back.
3:AM: You’re known for questioning the received wisdom of some that philosophy is a western preoccupation. You understand it rather as a global preoccupation don’t you? What was it that sparked this perspective?
JG: Another chance encounter with a book. I’m half-Indian, half-Anglo-Saxon, so have a genetic predisposition to be interested in both eastern and western culture. But my education was an entirely standard English one, and I too had the jaundiced view about philosophy that you mention, until in the library at KCL I noticed a book by Bimal Matilal called Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis. This book was a revelation to me, insofar as I understood for the first time how precise and analytical the Indians were in their philosophy.
I began to study extra-European philosophical traditions more carefully after that, and was lucky enough to be introduced to Matilal when he was attending a workshop at King’s later that year. I think the Indian texts largely speak for themselves, in that anybody who reads them can’t fail to notice that they are dealing with philosophy practiced at a very high level of sophistication. Some people think that philosophy is a subject defined by its history, and that to study philosophy is to study the development of a course of ideas stretching back to the Greeks. They think of philosophy as a subject like “European cinema” or “the Russian novel”.
I rejected that historicist conception of philosophy, in the first place because I thought of philosophy as having a subject matter of problems and issues that concern every human being everywhere, so that it is, as you say, a global preoccupation. I then also began to think that even if we want to tell the history of philosophy we have to appreciate that this is a connected global history. People have started to recognise that one can’t tell a coherent story about the historical development of philosophy from the Greeks and leave out the Arabic and Islamic world.
What I would add is that philosophy did not have a single origin, but many origins around the world, and each of those roots produced outgrowths of philosophy that merged and tangled with each other in the course of human history. There were Buddhists in Alexandria and Rome, and there were sufis and Europeans in India. The old story that as philosophers we are the children of the Greeks had a particular function, largely political, at a particular time, but it doesn’t make much sense in the modern world, and a history of philosophy “without any gaps” (as Peter Adamson nicely puts it) has to be a global history.
Finally, I think that 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.
3:AM. ‘Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers therapy for no human suffering. For just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases, so too there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.’ Do you hold to this Epicurean rationale for philosophy? The book you co-edited, ‘Philosophy as Therapeia,’ explored this conception of philosophy didn’t it? Is this the same kind of therapy that Wittgenstein recommends or is it something else?
JG: I was fascinated to discover the reach of the medicinal model of philosophy. In all ages and, seemingly, in every culture, philosophers have drawn upon this analogy to explain what is distinctive about what they do, and why it is something of value. It runs through the writings of the Hellenistics, of the Indians, and contributors to the book you refer to traced its influence through the middle ages and into the early modern period as well. I’m not saying that it is the only way to provide a rationale for philosophical practice, or even the best one, but it does afford a conception of the value of philosophical activity that is truly global.
It explains the Buddhist idea that philosophy is worth engaging in because there are metaphysical truths whose appreciation can reduce suffering (especially the metaphysical truth that there is no permanent soul), and also the methodological pluralism of the Jainas, one of them saying, in one of my favourite uses of the analogy, that since each philosophical system is a different sort of medicine, it’s best to swallow the lot if one wishes to be cured! It’s also important that one can take a medicine to cure a disease but also to improve one’s quality of life or to sustain one in a state of good health, and I think these ideas are very significant in appreciating the medicinal model.
Wittgenstein took the idea off in rather different direction, arguing that philosophy is itself the disease, insofar as it beguiles and confuses us, and the cure is to use philosophy against itself. But even this view of philosophy as a sort of self-purging emetic has its advocates in earlier times, and his famous metaphor about the ladder is not too dissimilar to the Buddha’s use of a metaphor about a raft.
3:AM: In your work showing how European traditions of philosophy connect with other traditions, you have worked to show how Indian and Tibetan philosophy interfaces in this way. Eric Schwitzgebel finds a bigger gulf between Indian philosophy and Chinese, for instance. Do you think this is right and how do you account for it if you do? (And if you don’t, how do you account for Eric’s thought?)
JG: Eric wants to mine extra-European cultures for shocking and surprising ideas that can feed into creative philosophical projects; he uses science fiction the same way. Some people don’t like that, thinking that it does not treat those cultures with sufficient deference, but I myself don’t see any problem with it. A creative philosopher has the right to seek new ideas and sources of inspiration wherever they want. We have to be careful though to distinguish this from the very different use sometimes made of other philosophical cultures, which is to go to them in order to validate or confirm ideas of one’s own.
This second way of connecting with other cultures is problematic because it normally degenerates at some point into projecting the features one wants to discover onto the other culture, rather than, as with Eric, being open to those cultures in a creative and engaged way.
In his interview for 3am Eric said that he finds philosophy from China more accessible, more familiar, and therefore easier to engage with in this way. There’s something in this, because the way the Indian texts embed themselves in a whole literary and intellectual culture makes it much harder to read them as self-standing works: one generally can’t just pick one up and read it, the way one can the Apology or the Analects. I think though that the way that philosophy is written is just as important as the raw content of the ideas, or rather that form and content are closely inter-related, and this is one of the great attractions of studying other philosophical cultures: it’s not just about new thoughts, but about new ways of thinking. In terms of the ideas themselves, a lot of Indian work in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of language is very recognisable as philosophy, and I don’t see a bigger gulf with Chinese, where the discussions of ethics and of social and political philosophy are fairly easily recognisable as philosophy too.
3:AM. So in your 2007 book ‘The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology’ you were pulling together philosophers who were exploring different conceptions of the self. So what are the salient differences and convergencies between the Indian and Tibetan approaches, on the one hand, and western ones?
JG: While an account of individual identity tries to answer the question “Who am I?”, a conception of self seeks solutions to the puzzle “What am I?”. That’s clearly a universal philosophical question, and every philosophical culture provides its own frames of reference for answering it. In the Latin west, Christian concerns with immortality and resurrection circumscribed the range of available answers and it was only in the eighteenth century that another idea began to be taken seriously, the idea that the self might exist as a relation between moments of consciousness.
Incidentally, Hume, as Alison Gopnik has demonstrated in a recent article, seems to have had access to a swathe of materials about Tibetan and Theravāda Buddhist theory from the documents of the Jesuits Desideri and Dolu. Without the dominance of the Church on intellectual life, Indians were freer to explore a great range of possible answers to the “What am I?” question, and among the non-Buddhist philosophers as well as within the Buddhists themselves a host of rival accounts flourished. Does the word “I” refer at all? Do statements using this word aim at the truth, or at something else? Is the self to be found in the putative fact that conscious states are reflexively aware of themselves, or does it live in the penumbra of conscious experience, or in the mechanisms that sustain consciousness?
The Indian frame of reference for these questions is supplied by the idea that self-deception always involves, at least in part, ignorance about the true nature of the self. In the book you mention I was particularly fascinated by a genre of Indian philosophical writing which I nicknamed “trojan texts”. The ambition of these texts is to lead the reader or listener to a better understanding of the nature of the self through a method more protreptic than analytic: reading the text explodes conceptual mistakes in the reader’s mind. My new book about the self draws rather on more straightforwardly analytical and theoretical works, tapping a very rich vein of naturalism in Indian theory.
There are many convergencies with contemporary philosophy of mind here. For example, I document the rise of emergentism as a view about the nature of conscious properties and show that the Indians operate with an extremely powerful and productive concept of emergence.
3:AM: Last year you published ‘ The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India.’ Certainly for me it was a revelation. The names were new to me and probably were to most philosophers working in the philosophical mainstream. Can you say something about these key figures and why they are significant? So the Bengali Raghunātha Śiromai was the inventor of the ‘new reason’ philosophy and shaped metaphysical enquiry through the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Can you say what this ‘new reason’ philosophy was and why Śiromai was so important?
JG: The names were new to me too before I started laboriously trawling through manuscript catalogues in India and Nepal. I gradually began to notice that something very exciting had been going on in this period, something never mentioned in the standard histories of Indian philosophy which generally try to reinforce a picture of India as an ancient civilization.
What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.
Early modernity, I discovered, was not an exclusively European affair after all, but, rather, different forms and varieties of modernity were emerging concurrently in many places. In trying to give some context to the rise of these new philosophers, I found that they were mostly concentrated in two cities where there was a lot of interaction between Muslim and Sanskrit intellectuals, namely Benares, or Varanasi, and a smaller place in Bengal called Navadvīpa, or Nadia in its latinized form. The new philosophers were engaged in research projects quite as revolutionary as their European counterparts, and in the work of several of them I found ideas that could hold their own among any of the early moderns, a sophisticated theory about the methods of scientific inquiry and debates about what we now call mechanistic understandings of the physical world. They were also deeply interested in the philosophy of language, and produced work that was paralleled in the States and in Europe only in the last fifty years.
The founding figure was, as you say, the remarkable Raghunātha Śiromai, born in part of India that is now Bangladesh. His creative genius consisted in a willingness to put into question even the most established ideas of the past, meticulously identifying their faults before proposing new ideas in their place. He encouraged the next generation of thinkers to address the problems themselves and not only to look for solutions in the texts. To give just one example, he saw that there was a problem with historical and fictional proper names, given that nobody has an acquaintance with their putative bearers, and he invited philosophers to think about the puzzle and to try to solve it.
Among his many philosophical discoveries was a new account of the nature of numbers and a new theory of binary quantification. Added to this is the fact that his new thinking was often buried in commentarial asides or in rather cryptic statements, and that gave the generations of philosophers who came after him plenty of inspiration and work to do, and lots of flexibility. By the end of the seventeenth century they had done enough to inaugurate an entirely new programme in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of language.
3:AM: Śiromai took himself as working out from the past. You take seriously the new scholarship that rejects that Descartes and Bacon, the emblematic figures of the ‘new philosophy’ in Europe, were revolutionaries, creating a modernistic project by rejecting the ancients, in particular Aristotle. Instead, they are being reconceived as renewing and rejuvenating an ancient programme. You argue that something similar was happening in early modern Indian philosophy. Is that right? Can you say something about this?
JG: What has become clear, I think, is that we can’t take the self-depictions of the early moderns at face value. They boldly describe themselves as casting aside all book knowledge and setting out as if for the first time in uncharted terrain. Ironically, as Stephen Menn has shown in a wonderful article, this self-same intellectual autobiography was already being employed by Ibn al-Haitham and Ghazālī much before, and even before them by Galen. So I argue that we have to be more nuanced in our understanding of what the “newness” of the early moderns really consisted in, and I suggest that it consists in a reorientation with respect to the past rather than in a complete rejection of it. They wanted to free themselves from scholasticism and they did this by returning to ancient sources and finding in those sources ideas that had not entered the mainstream of the history of ideas.
This is the general pattern I think we can find in both Europe and India. The way that history of philosophy gets taught even today still seems to me to be a hangover from the nineteenth century, when there was a strong political imperative to tell a story about the seventeenth century that displayed it as exhibiting European exceptionalism, and the self-depictions of Descartes and Bacon were useful ammunition in that, now outdated, enterprise. Unfortunately university curricula have been slow to catch up and what I regard as basically nineteenth century mythology still works to shape the way that history of philosophy is taught in Europe.
3:AM: Given recent contemporary history, it is fascinating to read about the complex Muslim-Hindu interaction of Navadvīpa at this time. Can you say something about this, as well as the additional Buddhist and Jaina influences. Was it possible in this seventeenth century world to elaborate either an ecumenical philosophy, on the one hand, or even secular philosophy, on the other?
JG: Navadvīpa was one of the great powerhouses of philosophy in the seventeenth century, and had been for three or four centuries. Before that, Buddhists had set up monastery-universities in Nalanda and elsewhere, but Navadvīpa was organised around a more traditional South Asian model, and was more like an extended intellectual community. One could get an extremely good education in the techniques of philosophical reasoning there, and students would come from all India for it, whatever their religious background. It seems quite likely that there was even an exchange with the flourishing intellectual culture in Tibet.
One thing which became clear to me is that the philosophers here enjoyed an enormous amount of intellectual liberty, and pursued a whole range of very innovative research programmes into all manner of topics in pure philosophy, especially semantics, epistemology, metaphysics, but also into the philosophy of law, and areas of social and political philosophy. I wondered what explained this unparalleled level of intellectual autonomy. The most evident fact about Navadvīpa was the strong ties it had with the larger world of Persianate and Islamicate scholarship, as a result of an enlightened history of Muslim governance.
I don’t think that it is any coincidence that one of the great religious reformers of the time, Caitanya, came out of Navadvīpa at this time. My primary interest is in the astonishingly modern, and yes basically secular, philosophy that was created, but I do think that Navadvīpa is great example of the tremendously progressive impact that Muslim attitudes towards intellectual inquiry have had on the world. In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam. Scholars like Sajjad Rizvi are also starting to put the record straight, showing how there was a great deal of creative work done by Indian Muslim philosophers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in places like Jawnpur, and in the excellent work of Zvi Ben-Dor Benite the whole story of an Islamic modernity in the early modern world is being uncovered.
3:AM: You regret the historical facts that brought the new reason philosophy to a standstill. This was the collapse of the Mughal power and the new British imposition of fiscal arrangements and educational policies that funded colonial universities and colleges and down-graded the poorer, traditional networks in which the new reason philosophy had thrived. So we Brits were the bad guys here! Can you say something about this?
JG: Yes, Richard, I’m afraid we were. Britain did a lot, at the end of empire, to destroy the evidence, but on 18 April 2012 a large cache of Foreign Office documents whose very existence had been kept secret was forced into the public domain through a legal action taken by the Mau Mau. They paint a picture of atrocity and inhumanity that the British have worked hard to erase from the collective psyche.
George Mombiot puts it very well when he writes that “the myths of empire are so well-established that we appear to blot out countervailing stories even as they are told. As evidence from the manufactured Indian famines of the 1870s and from the treatment of other colonies accumulates, British imperialism emerges as no better and in some cases even worse than the imperialism practised by other nations. Yet the myth of the civilising mission remains untroubled by the evidence” . Famine is not a natural disaster but a man-made one; it is not a shortage of food but an unequal distribution of food. The famine that wiped out Navadvīpa was the result of punitive taxation and grain-stockpiling by East India Company officers. One way to start putting the record straight is by acknowledging the value of some of what was lost.
3:AM: Given the misunderstandings and ignorance about how non-western and western ideas have interacted fruitfully in the past, your work seems both timely and vital. It’s often useful to have singular figures who can be examples of a general theme. So the figure of the French philosopher François Bernier seems to be someone whose biography illustrates how new reason philosophy and western modernity meet up. Can you say something about this guy?
JG: Bernier really was an exceptional figure. As well as a trained physician he was a protégé of Gassendi, and eventually responsible for editing Gassendi’s work. But he also seems to have been inspired by the life of Descartes as well as by Descartes’ intellectual autobiography in the Discourse, and he made a long voyage of intellectual discovery to India, acting as physician in the Mughal court. His travel writings caused a sensation, not least with members of the new Royal Society in London.
Bernier came into contact with one of the most remarkable figures of the time, Dārā Shukoh, who was the great-grandson of Akbar and the heir-apparent to the Mughal throne. Dārā hosted a large consortium of scholars, especially those who knew both Sanskrit and Persian, and set about translating the Upaniṣads and other Hindu texts into Persian, in the belief that they had a great deal to offer Muslim thinkers. Bernier seems to have been an active participant in philosophical discussions, and boasts that he translated the works of Descartes and Gassendi into Persian for their benefit. It’s hard to know how reliable that boast is, but the very possibility that the Discourse on the Method was being read by Indian intellectuals in Benares in the 1660s is enough to unsettle standard views about the localization of philosophical discovery.
One of the Sanskrit philosophers Bernier would almost certainly have met was someone called Jayarāma, and I discovered among his writing a work that could almost be read as an early modern Indian critique of the methodology of the Discourse, whether or not it was written as such. Had Bernier any access to the original thought of Jayarāma he would have recognised a thinker closer in spirit to Gassendi than to Descartes.
3:AM: Your new book, due out this year, ‘Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective’ foregrounds multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-racial characteristics of identity in the contemporary world. You argue that identity is a matter of reasoned choice and draw on a theory retrieved from India. You discuss the role of consensus, of what you call an ‘adaptive model according to which exemplary cases provide local standards of evaluation’, the importance of dissent, historical conceptions of identity and reason from within Indian philosophy and finally how past cultures of reasoning and identity-formation may be used in a contemporary setting. Can you say something about this project?
JG: I want to move away from the notion that there is any one answer to the question of who one is, by which I mean the idea that there are fixed determiners of one’s individual identity, the sort of person one takes oneself to be, the values one endorses, the character that one has. That idea is especially dangerous in a new age of religious intolerance, when, for example, immigration officials engage in racial profiling and make inferences about a person’s values from the clothes they wear.
So I took seriously a thought in the work of Amartya Sen, Akeel Bilgrami, and others that reason goes “all the way down” as it were, meaning that there are always reasoned choices to be made about the weight someone attaches to each of the various sources of value and identity everyone has available to them. Religion is one of the most powerful sources of identity, and I see no difficulty in someone choosing to found their sense of self in their religious faith, as long as they recognise that this is a choice, and that other choices can be equally legitimate.
But I wanted to take this thought a step further, and to ask how, in the ideal conversation envisaged by a deliberative democracy, individuals can call on their various identities in making collective decisions or agreeing on common goods. My idea is that cultural inheritances supply what I called “resources of reason”, normative ways of thinking, and I think that it is important to see that each such such way of thinking provides its own techniques for acknowledging the rights and legitimacies of other ways of thinking.
So someone can come to the table as, for instance, a Jew or a Muslim, and still with a full range of ways of understanding the demands of public reason and of the deliberative practices and values of the other participants in the conversation. Drawing on my own field of expertise, I try to show how this works in the case of Indian intellectual cultures in particular, but I think exactly the same is true for East Asian, African or western sources of significance.
3:AM. So can you explain whether the Indian resources are resources unavailable from other perspectives? And if they are specifically Indian, how do you argue that general principles can be drawn so that they can be applied to non-Indian philosophical perspectives on self identity building?
JG: The normative pluralism I am defending means that I resist the idea that the European Enlightenment has a monopoly on the routes to significance, and to achieve that end I spend time demonstrating the availability of alternatives. So, in particular, I say that Indians in diaspora can look into India’s rich past for new ways of fashioning themselves as participants in the ideal global conversation. Those retrieved resources, though, are not exclusively Indian, any more than resources found through a study of European history are exclusively European, and in keeping with my point about the freedom everyone has in shaping a sense of self, I completely support non-Indians making creative and adaptive use of India’s intellectual resources. The dramatic spread of Buddhism as a creative source of new forms of identity is perhaps the best example of this in practice. In a nutshell, the whole of the world’s intellectual past is available to the whole of the world.
3:AM: Are there dangers in this approach that a secular view of philosophical reason is sacrificed? Are there not differences between, say, Buddhist traditions that seem to accommodate secular modernity (and naturalism) better than Jain, Hindu, Muslim (and Christian and Judaism) theories and that in contemporary India and Pakistan and Tibet respectively this is a key issue for philosophy of identity (as it is in the USA when Christianity seeks to infiltrate philosophy)?
JG: My book isn’t about the discipline of philosophy as such but about the resources of reason available to someone who wants to take part in that ideal conversation between all human points of view which is involved in the cosmopolitan idea of a deliberative democracy. I’m an atheist, and there was a time when I had beliefs similar to those now advocated by the militant atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens.
I came to realize, though, that many people benefit from their membership of a religion, exactly because it provides them with what one might call a “reason compass”, analogous to a “moral compass”. I reached this view in part because I came to have a much broader understanding of what religion itself is, something far more than beliefs with transcendental content, and more a framework of texts and stories that can be the source of moral and intellectual advice when taken seriously.
In India the Mahābhārata is like this, emphasising all the time the moral ambiguity of the characters involved and the difficulties of making sound ethical decisions, as well as providing insight into the procedures by which such decisions can be made. Today the population upon which a policy decision has the potential to impact is indefinite, and if we take seriously the idea that anybody who is affected by a policy decision should potentially have an input to the process of making it, then we also need to recognise that the participants to this conversation come to the table with resources of reason drawn from their religious identities. What I want to encourage is a further idea, that religions should be seen not as fundamentalists see them but rather as open-ended and fluid, and in particular that there are plenty of resources within each religion to enable its followers to engage at the level of public reason with members of other religions as well as to dissent from their own.
So we need to distinguish between the French-style form of secularism, which says (at least officially) that all expressions of religion are banned from public life, including a Sikh man who wears a turban or a muslim woman who wears a hijab, and a neutral secularism, which says that each participant finds in their own faith the resources to respect and engage with the views and opinions of others. My view about the discipline of philosophy is that it consists in the right to ask any question about anything, and I find that right respected by many religionists and rejected only by fundamentalists.
3:AM: You have another book coming out this year, ‘The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness , and the First Person Stance.’ This is part of the research project on the no-self theory of Indian Buddhism I believe. You develop resources from first millennial India to answer the question: ‘What is it to occupy a first-person stance?’ Can you say what this stance is, what the problems are supposed to be with it and how your use of Indian philosophical resources helps you to overcome these problems.
JG: This book is an attempt to give an explanation how the subjectivity of conscious experience, the first-personal, is reconciled with a broadly naturalist stance in the philosophy of mind. I find three influential depictions of our humanity problematic: the picture that we are immaterial souls associated with but separable from our animal bodies; the picture that we are nothing but especially complex networks of neural circuits; and the picture that we are simply causal flows of consciousness. In saying this I mean also to be rejecting Cartesian, Humean and Strawsonian accounts of the conscious subject.
Several philosophers recently (Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Shaun Gallagher for instance) have thought that the Buddhist account of the mind can provide an alternative in a sort of “comparative neurophenomenology” and yet while I think there is a lot to be learnt from Buddhist analysis I don’t find plausible the claim that there is simply nothing corresponding to a self. What Buddhist theories do provide are very good ways to understand the nature of subjectivity, for which they provide rival reflexivist, mental files and quasi-subject accounts. What I think needs adding is a robust notion of the subject as constrained by norms of reason, and I find evidence for such a notion in the work of non-Buddhist Nyāya and Vaiśeika thinkers.
So I argue that there are two strands in the idea of a mental state being one’s own, which I call respectively immersion and participation. The last move I make is to claim that the interrelation between these two strands is constrained by subconscious psychological mechanisms, mechanisms that also have a large part to play in the functioning of the emotions. In this book I am drawing on various parts of Indian theory, but showing how it is possible to factor out extra-philosophical commitments and eventually construct a new account of the self, one which is not the view of any single participant in the Indian discussion.
3:AM: The title of one of your recently co-authored papers is irresistible to me, given my love of paradox. The title is ‘ Can You Seek The Answer To This Question? Meno In India.’ So can you say something about it, and what’s Meno doing in India?
JG: The title alludes, tongue in cheek, to a paradox about the teleology of rational inquiry, that any attempt to inquire into something presumes that one already has knowledge about the object of inquiry, for otherwise what is it that one is asking about? It turns out that this paradox is not something unique to Plato or internal to the methodology of the elenchus, because the Indians too, and without any apparent influence, saw the paradox and tried to figure out how to escape it.
Some of their moves would be more or less familiar to people who have read the recent scholarship on the Meno, but one very brilliant Indian thinker, Śrīhara, breathed new life into Meno’s original puzzle by situating it within an analysis of the dialogic of interrogative discourse. Śrīhara’s eventual view is that it is a mistake to think of rational inquiry as involving anything like a “taking aim”, but instead that those who desire knowledge should cultivate the intellectual virtues of keeping an open mind and seeing what turns up. I’m not sure if the title of the paper gives much insight into what it’s about, but we couldn’t resist it either!
3:AM: You are currently working at Sussex, Monash and Seoul. Have you noticed different receptions to your work in these contexts?
JG: Higher education is under extreme pressure in the UK and the US right now, with central funding especially for the humanities heavily cut and student fees escalating. It’s refreshing to be able to spend time in Korea where the situation feels very different, a lot of funding going into the sector and value still attached to the idea that universities are there to educate rounded individuals. There has been a lot of debate recently about the future of the university, and I wouldn’t be surprised if emerging Asian models play an important part.
As for the reception of my work, I think it must be said that there is a greater appreciation of an international conception of philosophical practice in Asia, an understanding that Asian, European, African and American intellectual traditions and perspectives are on an equal footing, and are equal participants in global conversations. In Britain the peculiar amnesia about empire that I spoke about before creates an entrenched resistance to this way of thinking, despite the presence of large diasporic populations, and progress on curricular reform and development of international research agendas in philosophy is more difficult.
3:AM: The world’s in a mess and it’s partly because people are ignorant of their own histories. During the troubles in Northern Ireland, it was instructive to hear the great critic and Hazlitt expert Tom Paulin explain that the first Protestant Church on the Falls Road Belfast was built by Catholics and that the great Irish Republican hero Wolf Tone was a Protestant. How important to you is it that your work is similarly forging greater understanding of the links between communities that sometimes forget how to work together? I have many current friends who are Muslims and I wonder if there is more that could be done to develop a better understanding of the shared philosophical histories of Muslims and the West as you are doing with Indian and Buddhist traditions?
JG: Intractable conflicts arise when people think themselves into boxes from which they can’t escape. One of the great functions of philosophy has always been to get people to be less dogmatic and categorical in their thinking, and that’s one reason why philosophy is needed now more than ever. It’s an important underlying motivation for my investigations into the place of critical reason in identity and self and my interest in the therapeutic model of philosophical activity.
Paulin is reminding us that religious identities are morphous and pliable, and the connections between one’s religious background and one’s social and political commitments fluid. And he reminds us that history is important too, because it can teach us powerfully that what we take as necessities are in fact contingencies, and our certainties are not only uncertain but frequently false. I hope that my studies of the social and intellectual history of early modern India can have a similar effect. History can also be misused but generally the more one learns about the historical interconnectedness of the world’s intellectual cultures, the less one can take seriously talk about the “clash of civilizations”.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books (other than all of yours, which everyone at 3ammagazine will be immediately ordering) you would recommend to the smart readers at 3ammagazine that you have found illuminating?
JG: I’m not going to suggest that everyone rushes out and reads the Elements of Intuitionism, though I do think that Matilal’s Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar is still a classic. The new Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy has excellent coverage. George Dreyfus’ The Sound of Two Hands Clapping‘ is a fascinating description of a Swissman’s training as a Tibetan monk, Classical Telugu Poetry by David Shulman, who is also an activist in Palestinian-Jewish partnership, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, a supremely human novel, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s disturbing The Unconsoled.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 12th, 2012.