Philosophy in Classical India (The Proper work of Reason)

Philosophy in Classical India (The Proper work of Reason)

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Author: Jonardon Ganeri
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788120833371
Pages: 208
Cover: Paperback
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From the Book

Bringing the analytical approach of modern philosophy to bear upon the literature of ancient and classical India, Jonardon Ganeri here explains and explores the central methods, concepts and devices of a rich and sophisticated philosophical tradition. Original in content and approach, Philosophy in Classical India focuses on the concept of rationality in Indian philosophical theory, the story of reason in a land too often defined as reason’s ‘Other’. Ganeri asks what are the philosophical projects of a number of major Indian philosophers and what are the methods of rational enquiry used in pursuit of those projects. In so doing, he illuminates a network of mutual reference and criticism, influence and response, in which reason is simultaneously used constructively and to call itself into question. This fresh perspective on classical Indian thought unravels new philosophical paradigms and points towards new applications for the concept of reason.

Jonardon Ganeri read mathematics at Cambridge before pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at London and Oxford. He is the author of Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy (1999). Currently he is Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Sussex, U.K.


This is a book about philosophical theory in classical India. It is an attempt to understand the nature of the classical Indian philosophical endeavour, and in so doing to reveal a richness of projects and a diversity of methods, Reason is the instrument of all philosophers, but conceptions of the nature and function of reason vary along with varying ideas about the work for which reason is properly employed. Manu, the lawmaker, said that those whose only guide is reason should be banished from the company of the virtuous. That is the view too of the great narrators of the Indian epics, Reason unchecked was seen as a threat to the stability of Brahminical social order, as the tool of heretics and troublemakers. But the epic horror of pure reason was a disdain not for reason itself, but only for its capricious use, to undermine belief rather than to support it, to criticise and not to defend. Philosophy in India, or so I argue in Chapter l, flourished in the space this distinction affords.

The mortal finger in Michelangelo’s Creation stretches out, but cannot touch the divine hand. Is this an appropriate metaphor for reason itself'? Does the subjectivity that goes along with being situated in the world preclude our attaining through reason an objective conception of it? Is the idea that human reason can find nature intelligible in some fundamental way misguided? This ancient problem is but one of the leitmotivs of philosophical inquiry in classical India, where radical critiques of reason are as plentiful as more moderate applications. Brahman, the still divinity, the Upanisadic symbol for objectivity itself, is that from which ‘before they reach it, words turn back, together with the mind’.' But if there are limits to language and reason, can we by reason come to know what they are and where they lie? Or are the limits of reason themselves beyond reason’s limit? Can it be rational to strive to transcend the boundaries of reason, to attempt what one knows to be impossible? If reason is by its very nature limited, then perhaps the subversion of reason it elf becomes a rational end. That appears to be the conclusion of Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka Buddhism, whose philosophical method I examine in Chapter 2. He reasons that the constructs of reason are as empty as the magician’s hat, and he welcomes the predictable retort that his own reasoning is empty too.

Other paradigms abound in India of the nature of philosophical inquiry and the proper work of reason. Some are familiar, for instance the instrumentalist conception of reason as promoted by Kautilya, a royal minister, strategist and educator. Others, less so. In Chapter 3, I show how the Vaisesika meta- physicians find in reason a tool for the construction of a formal ontology. A hierarchical theory of categories and natural taxonomies, alleged to be the metaphysics encoded in the Sanskrit language itself, is interpreted graphically, giving metaphysics a formal basis. The Yogacara Buddhist, Dinnaga is, by contrast, an ontological reductionist and a nominalist. He is uncompromising in his search for unity and simplicity in philosophical explanation, and he uses the method of rational reconstruction to rebuild our old conceptual superstructures on new, leaner, foundations. His system is my concern in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 concerns the Jaina philosophers, who look to reason as an instrument of harmonisation. The ancient philosophical controversies - so resistant to solution, so intractable to the up-front reasoning of debate, argument and evidence - call, it seems, for a new rationality, one whose function is to subvert the way ordinary language works, making explicit the hidden parameters in assertion, and so enabling the reasoner to harmonise apparently conflicting beliefs, The task of reason is again different in the new epistemology of the later classical writers. The problem now is whether the norms of reason can themselves be rationally justified, and the idea to be defended is that reason sustains a wide reflective equilibrium of beliefs, actions, principles and theories. It is in this way, I argue in Chapter 6, that an attempt is made to diffuse a critique of reason advanced by the formidable Advaita sceptic, Sriharsa - that reason seeks to justify itself only at the peril of a viciously infinite regress.

These are just some of the shifts and turns of the classical Indian concept of reason, some paradigms for a problematic notion. Many others do not get a mention here. In particular one may refer to the Mimamsakas, who see in reason a hermeneutical instrument for the analysis of the Vedas, and to the Vedantins, who wrestle with the relations between reason, authority and faith. My justification for omitting these approaches is only that a great deal has already been written about the place of reason in Indian philosophy of religion, and I want to focus on philosophical agendas overlapping, but not coextensive with the soteriological. Nor do I feel any need to follow the ‘six systems’ approach to the study of Indian philosophy, popularised by Max Muller and later by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, but too simplistic to do justice to a complex web of interconnections, themes, personalities and transformations. The authors I do discuss form a moderately compact network of mutual reference and criticism, influence and response. In their work one finds a broad vein of critical rationality, in which reason is used both constructively and also to put itself in question.

What do we mean when we speak of a culture’s notion of the rational'? Not, of course, that the concept itself is culturally specific, but only that it is embedded, articulated and manifested in culturally specific ways. J. N. Mohanty, a formidable interpreter of India’s past, has observed that the role a concept of rationality has within a culture is a highly stratified one, its criteria and principles operating ‘first of all in the life-world of the community concerned, then in the higher-order decisions of the scientists, law-givers and artists, finally in the theoretical discourse of the philosophers’. There is much truth in this remark. New paradigms of what it is to act and believe rationally come into being as old concepts are criticised, revised and rejected. A particularly fine example of this approach to the analysis of Indian theory is Bimal Matilal’s study of the concept of reason embedded in changing treatments of moral dilemmas in the epic literature and dharmasastras." His idea is that a diachronic study of conceptions about what constitutes an adequate resolution to a moral dilemma illuminates both shifts in the notion of reason itself, and also the mechanics of internal criticism, theory revision and paradigm rejection.

Forms of rationality are, I maintain, interculturally available even if they are not always interculturally instantiated. In an influential and thought-provoking essay, A. K. Ramanujan has advanced a thesis contrary to mine. His claim is that there is a type-difference between Indian and western modes of reason. Drawing his conclusion from a range of linguistic and anthropological evidence, Ramanujan suggests that nouns of reason are conceived as ‘context-sensitive’ in India, whereas in the West they are ‘context-free.’ The distinction is one he derives from linguistics, in which context-free rules, such as that every sentence has a verb, are contrasted with rules that are sensitive to grammatical context, such as the rule governing pluralisation of nouns in English. I have no objection as such to distinctions of this sort, but only to their application. It can at best be only a contingent truth, a historical fact about the exemplification of paradigms, that such `a separation should exist, and if so it is of limited philosophical significance. In fact, my investigations here have convinced me that East—West type-difference hypotheses of such generality are definitely false. Some paradigms for the rational can be found in both cultures, for example, instrumentalism and the epistemic conception of reason. Others, for instance the Jaina notion of a rationality of reconciliation, or the modelling of reason by game-theory, are found in one, but not the other. The point is to discover new forms of rationality and applications of the concept of reason, and so to enrich a common philosophical vocabulary. We become in this way aware of possibilities for reason we had forgotten or had not yet seen.

Might I not be accused of a reconfigured Orientalism in looking for expressions of rationality in Indian philosophy, on the grounds that the West is again setting the standard'? As one critic has said, ‘why is a need felt to describe the "rationality" of the Indian philosophies, to assert that Indian philosophers were “‘as rational" as their western counterparts? Such a general project would not be conceived of with regard to western philosophy, because the West sets the paradigm. We look in our traditions for what is to be found in the West, like the sense-reference distinction. But why should we even look for such a distinction?’ I suggest that the criticism here depends on a failure to distinguish sufficiently carefully between philosophical problems and philosophical explanations. The point is not to comb the Indian literature for the sense—reference distinction, but for their solutions to the problem that distinction was invented to solve, a problem that is as real for Fregeans as for those who reject his distinction, as real for Indian philosophers of language as for their western colleagues. If the objection is simply that ‘rationality’ is a western concept imperiously misapplied, my response would be that it is no more western than perception, thought, language or morality. The mistake here is in thinking of such philosophical concepts as internal to a theory, when in fact they are concepts about which there can be many theories (a distinction particularly well articulated in Canguilhem’s philosophy of science). Indeed, so far from being Orientalist, the project envisaged here is that of rescuing a story suppressed by Orientalism — the story of reason in a land too often defined as reason’s Other.

In analysing the philosophical literature of classical India, then, I adopt an approach neither comparative nor historical. Philosophy is not history, even if both disciplines are relevant to the study of classical India. History studies ideas in their context — it situates an author in an intellectual milieu. Philosophy, on the other hand, tries to free an idea from its context — it separates the idea from what is parochial and contingent in its formulation. The historian of Indian philosophy must be sensitive to the character of a philosophical thesis, but ought not indulge in wanton borrowing from other philosophical literatures. David Seyfort Ruegg offered some timely methodological advice when he said that the historian of Indian thought should ‘beware of anachronistically transposing and unsystematically imposing the concepts of modem semantics and philosophy, which have originated in the course of particular historical developments, on modes of thought that evolved in quite different historical circumstances, and which have therefore to be interpreted in the first place in the context of their own concerns and the ideas they themselves developed’. The historian’s worst crime is anachronism, displacing a concept and resituating it in some new and inappropriate context.

A philosopher has also to be guarded, but for different reasons. The philosopher must take care not to mistake contingent properties in the con- textual formulation of an argument or idea for essential properties of the argument or idea itself. If the historian’s worst crime is anachronism, that of the philosopher is parochialism, failing to separate the idea from its context. The philosopher’s goal is to decontextualise. It is not to recontextualise, to situate old ideas within the context of current philosophical concerns, except in so far as those concerns are themselves context—neutral. The philosopher examining the Indian theories is for this reason justified in using the modem philosophical idiom as a generally shared and convenient vehicle in which to frame his discussion. The concerns of the classical Indians are clearly recog-nisable as philosophical, and in using a contemporary idiom, one’s aim is to bring out the philosophical structure of those concerns, whether or not they coincide with anything in contemporary philosophical theory. My goal then is not the mere comparison of one idea with another, but the unravelling of new philosophical paradigms. It would be rather to miss the point to criticise that venture on the grounds of a difference in the preoccupations, religious beliefs and motivations of the classical philosophers. For discoveries made by the classical Indian investigators into the possibilities of human reason can be of interest and relevance even in different times and other cultures. There are indeed, as David Hume once said, more species of metaphor in this world than any one person can have dreamed." My approach, distinct both from comparative philosophy and from the history of ideas, is instead a critical and analytical evaluation of conceptual paradigms in Indian theory.

To help those who are coming to the subject anew, I have added to each chapter a list of texts as a guide to further reading. I also give, in the list of philosophical texts discussed in this book, as comprehensive an indication as I can of what translations are available at the present time. Many of the important texts have been translated at one time or another, and even if some of the older translations are not to a modem standard, they do at least help open up the subject to non-Sanskritists. Unless otherwise specified, how- ever, the translations in this book are my own.

I would like to express my gratitude to the British Academy, whose award under the Research Leave Scheme in l999 freed me from departmental duties, and so gave me the time to prepare a typescript. Heartfelt thanks too to Gillian Evison, Simon Lawson, Helen Topsfield, Elizabeth Krishna and Kalpana Pant, librarians of the Indian Institute in Oxford, an invaluable research archive wherein I found all the materials I needed for this book. It is a plea- sure to thank Roger Thorp and Hywel Evans at Routledge, who have been meticulous in overseeing the production of the book at every stage, and also to thank the referees for many helpful comments. Thanks too to Piotr Balcerowicz, Arindam Chakrabarti, Brendan Gillon, Stephen Phillips and Richard Sorabji for their sustained encouragement. The experience of trying for a number of years to teach courses on Indian Philosophy at King’s College London and the University of Nottingham has been an important stimulus for the ideas developed in this book, and I have benefited from the keen critical faculties of my students in both institutions. Above all, however, it has been the teachings and writings of my late supervisor, Bimal Krishna Matilal, which have inspired and sustained me, as indeed they have many others, and it is with pleasure and gratitude that I dedicate this book to him.

Back of the Book

Recent years have seen the beginning of a radical reassessment of the philosophical literature of ancient and classical India. The analytical techniques of contemporary philosophy are being deployed towards fresh and original interpretations of the texts. This rational, rather than mystical, approach towards Indian philosophical theory has resulted in a need for a work which explains afresh its central methods, concepts and devices. This book meets that need. Assuming no prior familiarity with the texts, Jonardon Ganeri offers new interpretations which bring out the richness of Indian theory and the sophistication of its methods. Original in both approach and content, philosophy in Classical India contains many new results, analyses and explanations.

“This is a remarkable piece of scholarship and an absolute pleasure to read. What makes this work so outstanding is that the author is both an extremely accomplished philosopher as well as being proficient in the Indian source languages.”

John Peacock, University of Birmingham

“I cannot think of any book in English with such a wide coverage of Indian Philosophy written with so much originality, accessibility and grounding in the texts.”

Arindam Chakrabarti, University of Hawai’s at Manoa.


Introduction 1
1 The motive and method of rational inquiry 7
1.1 Early recognition of a ‘practice of reason’ 7
1.2 Rationality in the Nyayasutra 10
1.3 Rationality and the ends of life 15
1.4 Perception 17
1.5 Mind, attention and the soul 22
1.6 Rationality and extrapolation 25
1.7 Rationality and debate 28
1.8 Reason, scripture and testimony 35
1.9 Reason’s checks and balances 37
Further reading 40
2 Rationality, emptiness and the objective view 42
2.1 Thought and reality 42
2.2 Emptiness and the objective view 43
2.3 Rationality in Madhyamaka 47
2.4 On causation 51
2.5 The impossibility of proof 58
2.6 A new paradox of motion 63
2.7 Self-refutation 66
Further reading 68
3 The rational basis of metaphysics 71
3.1 Order in nature 71
3.2 The categorial hierarchy 72
3.3 The structure of the world 77
3.4 The taxonomy of natural kinds 79
3.5 Absence as a type of entity 82
3.6 Higher-order absence 85
3.7 Navya-Nyaya logic 89
3.8 Number 91
Further reading 95
4 Reduction, exclusion and rational reconstruction 97
4.1 How to practise poverty in metaphysics 97
4.2 A skeletal ontology 98
4.3 Marking and similarity 100
4.4 The role of language in conceptual construction 104
4.5 The exclusion theory of meaning 106
4.6 Sentence meaning 111
4.7 Conditions on rational extrapolation 114
4.8 Reasoning from specifics 118
4.9 Are reason—target relations law-like'? 121
4.10 The problem of grounding 123
Further reading 126
5 Rationality, harmony and perspective 128
5.1 A rationality of reconciliation 128
5.2 The many—sided nature of things 128
5.3 Disagreement defused 130
5.4 The epistemology of perspective 134
5.5 The logic of assertion 137
5.6 Assertion and the unassertible 141
5.7 The mark of a good reason 144
5.8 Integration and complete knowledge 147
Further reading 149
6 Reason in equilibrium 151
6.1 Reason and the management of doubt 151
6.2 The burden of proof 153
6.3 Criteria for rational rejection 155
6.4 Supposition and pretence 158
6.5 A new doxastic ascent 159
6.6 Epistemic equilibrium 162
Further reading 167
Notes 169
Texts 184
Bibliography 192
Index 203
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