Whose Philosophy Lost its Way? (Post 3 of 3)

by Anand Jayprakash Vaidya

As controversial as Shaw’s account might be, we might ask: how does it square with the debate between Frodeman & Briggle and Soames? Suppose we grant that overall, philosophy is concerned with the production and evaluation of theoretical beliefs, as well as practical ways of living and being. At least one thing that is interesting is that, within the advertised debate in The Stone, western philosophy in the 19th–20th centuries breaks with the goals of ancient philosophy, on one interpretation, in so far as the former is concerned with the production of theoretical beliefs and the genius contest, while the latter is concerned with practical values and how to live the good life.

By contrast, what is notable about Indian philosophers in the 19th–20th century is that there is, arguably, no similar break that was caused by institutionalization. Instead, what we find is an expansion of the scope of Indian philosophy by Indian philosophers to include discussion of problems of western philosophy from the insights of Indian philosophy while also continuing to discuss practical ways of living. This is how we can see, from the perspective of 19th–20th century Indian philosophy, an appreciation for figures as diverse as Vivekananda, Gandhi, and B. K. Matilal as all being philosophers. Vivekananda focused on both the nature of reality and how to live a good life. Gandhi focused on social reform emphasizing the concept of non-violence. And B. K. Matilal advanced logical, metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical doctrines found within the heart of a variety of Indian schools. By contrast, it is much harder from the perspective of western philosophy to see Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Saul Kripke as philosophers. There is a tendency in western philosophy to accept Kripke and exclude King, while greatly admiring the latter’s accomplishments. No such clean separation can be made of the diverse interests of Indian philosophers in the 20th century. Thus, we might ask in a critical voice, “How much of the myopic strands within institutionalized philosophy might be responsible for the closed-shop attitude out in the public on the importance of critical and cross-cultural thinking, the dialectic of the history of ideas, and contemporary challenges to the status quo?”

What do we learn by this exercise in cross-cultural philosophy? At least one answer is that the various activities in different cultures that are identified as falling within the semantic range of ‘philosophy’ have different trajectories because of what is at the core of their being, and because of how the proponents of the enterprise take it forward while responding to a host of forces, social and political, such as colonialism. While my focus here has been on drawing attention to Indian philosophy, I want to emphasize that there is a lot we can learn by paying attention to other excluded domains, such as Latin American Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Africana Philosophy, Maori Philosophy, Native American Philosophy, and Feminist Philosophy.

The question, “Is philosophy’s proper home either in the academy or outside of it?” should not be engaged without our reflecting on the fact that the question and option-space fails to acknowledge the historical exclusionary attitude that academic philosophy has had toward other traditions (by characterizing them as falling under religious studies or area studies). If an analogy is to be made, perhaps the following is suitable. Asking about philosophy’s proper home without looking to non-western traditions or non-male-dominated philosophy is the equivalent of asking, “What is man’s proper home?” while providing only two options: out in the forest or in an urban city, and then looking only at white men and the trajectory of their lives for the answer, ignoring all along women and other races and the way they live and have lived.

Finally, it is worth noting that some highly prominent philosophers in the early and middle periods of analytic philosophy and up until now have had their feet in many camps in important ways that hit at cross-cultural philosophy. Some notable examples are Peter Strawson, Michael Dummett, Jack Smart, Richard Sorabji, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, Gayatri Spivak, Amartya Sen, John Searle, Evan Thompson, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Tommy Lott, Linda Alcoff, and Vandana Shiva. All these figures at some point in their career engaged in conversation with non-Western counterparts in their own institution, or aligned their projects with different world-philosophies.

In sum, the advertised debate about philosophy’s proper home being either truly in the academy or truly outside the academy is contingent on a certain story about western philosophy. Neither of the authors is at fault for exploring that issue. In fact, it is good that they have, since more discussion of the history and future direction of philosophy is necessary. Perhaps by opening philosophy to the inclusion of other cultural enterprises, we might find a way forward that does not see an oppositional choice between academic philosophy and non-academic philosophy, but rather, as the inclusive reading of ‘or’ allows, a form of philosophy that is truly at home in the academy and outside of it, because it is tied to activities that properly operate both in the academy and outside of it. Philosophy as a public good does not preclude it from being an academic enterprise as well.

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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