Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy, by Shyam Ranganathan, presents a compelling, systematic explication of the moral philosophical content of history of Indian philosophy in contrast to the received wisdom in Indology and comparative philosophy that Indian philosophers were scarcely interested in ethics.
Ranganathan's critical thesis is that the arguments for this received wisdom are based upon an inadequate grasp of the history of moral philosophy in the West, against which the Indian tradition is compared, and an unworkable methodology, which could not even show that Western philosophers were particularly interested in ethics or that "good" is a value term. His novel, positive thesis is that "dharma" in all of its uses in the classical Indian tradition is a thin moral term, which is employed by authors to articulate their particular philosophies on morality or ethics.
Unlike most works on the topic, this book makes a case for the positive place of ethics in the history of Indian philosophy by drawing upon recent work in metamorality and by providing a through analysis of the meaning of moral concepts and PHILOSOPHY itself-in addition to explicating the texts of Indian authors. In Ranganathan's account, Indian philosophy shines with distinct options in ethics that find their likeness in the ethics that find their likeness in the writings of the Ancients in the West, such as Plato and the Neo-Platonists, and not in the anthropocentric or positivistic options that have dominated the recent Western tradition.
Shyam Ranganathan specializes in ethics, the philosophy of language and Indian Philosophy. He holds a BA (Guelph) and an MA (University of Toronto) in Philosophy, an MA in South Asian Studies (University of Toronto) and is completing a PhD dissertation in philosophy (York University). His dissertation, Translating Evaluative Discourse; the Semantics of Thick and Thin Concepts, drawn from research in metaethics, translation studies and the philosophy of language and deals with the general problem of translating philosophy and ethics across languages and cultures. He is the acting area editor for Indian philosophy for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and teaches various philosophy courses, including Asian Philosophy. At the time of this publication, his other writing projects included papers on metaethics, semantics and translation, as well as a manuscript titled The Moral Philosophy of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra: Translation and Commentary.
Shyam Ranganatha's book, Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy, persuasively presents a detailed and comprehensive account of ethical theories in Indian philosophy. It is a significant addition to works on this topic and must be welcomed with enthusiasm and seriousness. Very few works are available on Indian ethics, and this book sumptuously contributes to the progressively dwindling list of recent studies in the area.
The first distinguishing feature of this work lies in the way it situates its task against the received wisdom in Indology and comparative philosophy that has systematically expressed misgivings regarding the very existence of the concept Ethics in Indian philosophy. Stalwarts such as B. K. Motilal have maintained that Indians, except for cursory forays into the subject, have "seldom discussed" moral philosophy. In refuting this claim, Ranganathan refuses to take modern, positivistic Western ethics as canonical and escapes the limitations of trying to locate ethics in Indian philosophy in terms of this loaded comparison. On his account Indian ethics is not reduced to what could, at best, be seen as a derivative discourse. Instead, he rejects the approach of treating modern, positivistic Western ethics as a formidable universal benchmark, and situated the recent Western incursions into the discussion as merely one instance of ethics. Rightly so.
The strength of this volume lies in Ranganathan's efforts at the very outset in identifying the meaning of moral concepts and of "ethics". By asking or a substantively neutral ground of what ethics is, he redresses the limitations posed by extant literature on comparative philosophy and ethics, which often reduces ethics everywhere else to a poor cousin of the Western canon. In identifying the definition of moral philosophy, he rejects the orthodoxy and the prevalent conservatism in Indology that invariably disqualifies anything ethical from the purview of Indian philosophy. Instead, he makes a case for a reformist view, one that allows us to reconsider contemporary practices of interpreting the meaning of "dharma" by depicting it both as a moral phenomenon but also as designating an arena of moral discourse that the use of the concept might envelop. Moreover, discourse that the use of the concept might envelop. Moreover, accepting the reformist view makes it possible that a term like "dharma" stands for one concept with a clear moral meaning.
IN order to establish that "dharma" is a moral term in the language of Indian philosophy, Ranganathan beings by delineating what a moral term means rather than embarking on a specific discussion on dharma. The necessary external reference specific discussion on dharma. The necessary external reference for arriving at this definition is found in the Anger Inclination Thesis, which he claims is inclusive and captures the essential nature of moral statements. After making a case or the Anger Inclination thesis in order to arrive at an accurate definition of a moral statement, according to which morality is always related to an inclination to get angry over the violation of the evaluative import of a statement, he goes on to prove that "dharma" of classical Indian thought qualifies as a moral term. Specifically, he demonstrates that "dharma" possesses a singular meaning and is the equivalent of "ethics" or "morality" in the context of Indian philosophy.
Having discussed the views on dharma of philosophers from the major schools of Indian philosophy, and having convincingly demonstrated that they have a clear and unambiguous idea of the ethical, he concludes that the majority of Indian philosophical schools have, indeed, affirmed the reality of morals as a sphere if values. He also points out that there are many accounts of the subject matter of ethics in the West that have failed to track the historical domain of ethics. This conclusion is premised on the deft philosophical move asking for an independent definition of ethics, or even philosophy, and a plea for not getting ensnared by recent fashions, however important they might seem at the present moment.
The second distinguishing feature of Ranganathan's work becomes clear when we
Recall the already existing, though not always evident, comparative axis in the realm of intellectual activity in India, particularly the philosophical one. In the prevailing comparative mode, popularized by philosophers like Matilal, J. N. Mohanty and others, classical India is invariably compared with contemporary Western philosophy creating an imbalance of time, temporality and category. Ranganathan corrects this imbalance by his brilliant and magisterial use of Western and Indian sources across the relevant continuum of time and geography. The writer's sensitivity to methodology and his provocative thesis go a long way in making this book indispensable to any study of Indian ethics. It also opens new vistas in the arena of ongoing philosophical debates and its salience will not remain limited to the study of Indian ethics alone.
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