Whose Philosophy Lost Its Way? (Post 2 of 3)

by Anand Jayprakash Vaidya

So what happens when we look at the debate about philosophy’s proper home, as presented by Frodeman & Briggle and Soames, from the perspective of non-western traditions of philosophy that have interacted with the western tradition? Below I will develop an answer to this question by examining Indian philosophy. The answer derives from the work of the global philosopher Jaysankar L. Shaw, who has spent 40 years in New Zealand, at Victoria University of Wellington, developing a more inclusive approach to philosophy that embraces a variety of traditions. In one of his comparative essays, he discusses philosophy in relation to classical Indian thought, and he draws our attention to a way in which Indian philosophy, and its development, might be thought to be insulated from the kind of debate that we find erupting over and over again with respect to western philosophy, especially in the 20th century. It is worth noting, ahead of the exposition, that Shaw’s account is but one account of the nature of “Indian philosophy,” and though it might be controversial, we should not dismiss it. For we should also note that Frodeman & Briggle and Soames also offer only a single interpretation of the western tradition, where others may differ.

The term “philosophy” is commonly explained as being defined, at its origin, and etymologically, as “the love of wisdom.” There is no term in Sanskrit, Prakrit, or Pali that serves the exact function that “philosophy” does for the western tradition in this etymological sense. However, we don’t want our thinking to move in the following way.

  1. “Philosophy” means the love of wisdom. And what “philosophy” refers to is a specific activity that originated at a specific time and place.
  2. “Philosophy” is not to be found in Sanskrit, Prakrit, or Pali.
  3. So, the referent of “philosophy” is not to be found as an activity in places where Sanskrit, Prakrit, or Pali is the primary language.

That is, we don’t want to confuse the word “philosophy” with its referent. Rather, we want to hang on to the idea that there might be a cluster of activities that relate to what the activity of philosophy was in ancient Greece—and through its development in the 20th century—that may bear an important sufficient similarity relation to an activity (or set of activities) found in other cultures.

In the introduction to his The Collected Writings of Jaysankar Lal Shaw: Indian Analytic and Anglophone Philosophy, Shaw tells us that Indian philosophy is broader than western philosophy.

“ ‘Philosophy’ means the love of wisdom in western culture. In the context of Indian culture, there are three terms: moksa-śāstra, ānvīkṣikī, and darśana.”


Moksa-śāstra means the science of liberation or freedom from all types of suffering, where suffering pertains to human and non-human beings. There are three types of suffering that classical Indian philosophers recognize. The first is suffering due to a mere bodily condition. The second is suffering that is due to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, global warming, and flooding. However, and importantly, suffering due to natural disasters does not exclude human involvement. Finally, the third kind of suffering is due to mental or emotional conditions, such as alienation, abandonment, anxiety, depression, and grief. Thus, within Indian culture, mokśa-śāstra is an engagement with individual, social, and environmental suffering.


Ānvīkṣikī, which derives from the work of Kauṭilya (350-275 B.C.E.), a leading political philosopher of ancient India, has three meanings: (i) the lamp of all the sciences, (ii) a resource of methods for doing actions better, and (iii) a shelter for all virtues. Let’s take each in turn.

Ānvīkṣikī, as the lamp of all sciences, is concerned with the basic questions of all fundamental sciences, such as linguistics, mathematics, or physics. In particular, this area of inquiry can be thought to be similar to the project of finding a foundation and/or understanding of inquiry in general. In particular, a core question debated by all schools of Indian philosophy is: what is the nature of kāraṇa (which is often translated as “causality”)? So, just as Hume and Kant debate causation in metaphysics, we find the Nyāya and the Buddhists debating kāraṇa. Importantly, the debate over causation in the Indian context, especially in these traditions, is deeply tied to questions concerning suffering and morality. We also find debate over the nature of language, and one of the central questions of the philosophy of mathematics: what is the nature of number? For example, the Nyāya account of number differs from the Vedic conception.

Ānvīkṣikī, as a resource of methods for doing actions better, is an attempt to offer a practical guide to living one’s life better through taking account of how certain choices and actions can lead to specific outcomes, and how other choices and actions are known to produce better consequences. Interestingly, in this category one finds the home of critical thinking in Indian culture. It is in this domain that the idea of coming to a conclusion through a proper method is examined in detail, such as in the Tarkasṁgraha of Annaṁbhaṭṭa, which is a primer for critical reasoning—where “critical reasoning” includes discussion of the sources of knowledge, such as perception, testimony, and comparison, as well as reasoning on the basis of the inputs from those sources. Additionally, in this area one would also find discussion of procedural justice and issues of economics, such as in Kauṭilya’s very own Arthashastra.

Ānvīkṣikī, as a shelter of all the virtues, is concerned with the dialectical investigation of what virtue is and how one should lead one’s life. It involves examining specific cases, what prior thinkers have thought about those cases, and what one’s co-examiner thinks. It also involves two tasks: (i) justifying why something is a virtue; and (ii) identifying whether a virtue requires modification, given that a new situation has arisen. A key text in this category is the ever-important Bhagavad-Gītā, in which a great deal of moral inquiry is undertaken dialectically between Krishna and Arjuna. In addition, there is a great deal of discussion on the nature of emotions in classical Indian philosophy that pertains to ethics and morality.


Finally, we come to darśana. The common meaning of darśana is visual perception, such as seeing a table or a medium-sized object. But in the context of inquiry, it means apprehension through the mind or realization of certain truths. The secondary meaning of “darśana” is the indirect realization of the truths about ultimate reality through the study of discourses with a guru in dialectical investigation. So, in contrast to mokśa-sāstra and ānvīkṣikī, darśana aims to provide one with the means for realizing truths in one’s mind so as to operate from them in action. The goal of this area of inquiry is to practice and promote certain values.

It is important to examine one darśana in a little more detail. Yoga, contrary to the popular understanding of it as an exercise involving breathing, is one darśana. Yoga’s aim is a complete holistic science of reality, with a method for realizing truths through the practice of the eight-fold path (Aṣṭaṅga). The path involves yama (ethical practices, such as non-violence), niyama (observances, such as self-inquiry), asana (the practice of steady and comfortable postures while breathing), pranayama (the practice of breath control and the expansion of vital energy), pratyahara (the control of the senses for the retention of vital energy), dharana (the cultivation of concentration and inner perceptual awareness), dhyāna (meditation), and finally samadhi (enlightenment and realization of the ultimate nature of reality). Yoga as a darśana offers a complete system for understanding reality that engages everything from metaphysics to ethics. In the 20th century, it continues to be a philosophic system that engages everything from metaphysics to ethics, and in which there is no separation between knowledge and virtue.

Although there are three different terms and activities, the union of these three activities, under Shaw’s interpretation, is the proper referent of “philosophy.” More importantly, it is true that all the schools of Indian philosophy, such as Advaita Vedānta, Nyāya, Buddhism, Jainism, Cārvāka, and Mīmāṃsā offer both a theory of reality and a practical guide to life. Hence, Indian philosophy does not, cannot, and would not end with theoretical beliefs alone that are divorced from virtue. If it did, it would cease to be what it is. The idea of knowledge divorced from virtue does not happen in Indian philosophy, and in some schools knowledge is for the purpose of liberation, such as in Nyāya and Buddhism. Rather, schools of Indian philosophy typically provide a systematic presentation of how to live one’s life and an account of the ultimate nature of reality, as well as an account of how the two are linked.

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at San Jose University in California. His interests include the epistemology of intuition, perception and modality, the metaphysics of logic, critical thinking, the capabilities approach to justice, the philosophy of economics, and cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary public philosophy.


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