The Philosophy of Pluralism

I have started reading An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (2012) by Bina Gupta. It seems so far very good. This is the kind of book which in the past I would read a chapter or two, and set aside. But now I am intent on reading the whole book, and others like it.

Reading the Introduction, I could already feel my old instinct to set the book aside. Why? Let’s distinguish three things: Western philosophy, Indian philosophy and philosophy of pluralism. By “philosophy of pluralism” I mean a theoretical framework which raises questions about, and provides a context for, the coming together of different philosophical traditions. In the Introduction, Gupta aims to situate Indian philosophy for a reader who is familiar with Western philosophy. But what is missing is a framework for how any such comparison can happen. It leads to treating things as clear which are anything but clear. It is that lack of clarity, which I experienced in picking up a book like this as I don’t get it or that’s not quite right, which made me put it down.

This is not a criticism of Gupta’s knowledge of philosophy, either Indian or Western (which I am certainly not in a position to question). Nor is it to fault her. It is a catch 22. Before there can be a substantial philosophy of pluralism, there would have to be more awareness of other traditions (as is the aim of this book). And yet before such awareness can arise more substantially, there has to be a philosophy of pluralism.

It is often treated as if in order to contribute to pluralistic philosophy one has to know at least two traditions in depth. In one sense, fair enough. But in another sense, that’s not quite right. For it assumes that contributing to pluralistic philosophy is mainly a matter of setting this tradition next to that tradition. However, any such setting next to each other raises deep questions about that very endeavor, and this is what I call the philosophy of pluralism. One can contribute to pluralistic philosophy by doing the philosophy of pluralism itself. This doesn’t require that one is an expert in more than one tradition, though it does require a genuine openness to learn even the basic features of other traditions.

In a section called “Presuppositions of Indian Philosophy,” Gupta writes there are three concepts which are fundamental to Indian Philosophy: (1) karma and rebirth, (2) moksha, and (3) dharma.

Gupta explains karma as the principle that “no cause goes without producing its effects, and there is no effect that does not have an appropriate cause.” This seems simple enough. Understood like this, karma seems to just mean the idea of cause and effect. In fact, Gupta draws the link explicitly to Kant’s second analogy of experience regarding causality.

But what of this funny little other word that Gupta keeps adding next to karma: rebirth? Here, of course, is where the tension begins for a modern reader. Is the concept of rebirth fundamental to Indian philosophy? If so, does that make Indian philosophy a form of mythology? Gupta doesn’t say. But it evident in this section that this is what Gupta is struggling with in trying to communicate the idea of karma to the modern reader. On the one hand, the explication seems simply enough by saying karma is cause and effect. And yet, in order to capture the full theoretical and cultural work of that concept in Indian philosophy, it seems it cannot be separated from the concept of reincarnation. Or can it? A cloud of confusion hangs on the pages.

One way out is to say, which is no doubt true, that the question of reincarnation is itself a debated issue in Indian philosophy: some materialists and atheists in Indian philosophy denied it. But this cuts against Gupta’s attempt to give something of the ethos of Indian philosophy, where even the deniers of reincarnation were engaged in a debate where the idea was taken seriously. And this is what rings of mythology and superstition: what kind of a backward framework would have reincarnation as one of its grounding concept? The question rings painfully, as if there is no way to bring Indian philosophy on its own terms into modernity; that we would have to ditch something of its own self-understanding if we are engage with it as contemporary philosophy.

This lends a certain defensiveness to Gupta’s explication. Mentioning Heidegger’s idea of background and foreground, she writes: “Though we understand the ideas of “karma” and “rebirth” and in some way wish to accept it, nevertheless our understanding and acceptance never rise to the level of clarity that we expect of our thoughts. … Heidegger’s insight … makes me wonder whether it is possible to achieve clarity in the case of an absolute presupposition.”

And a little later, responding to the idea that karma and rebirth are fictions, she writes: “Where must we position ourselves as critics in order to hold such a view of these ultimate presuppositions? As thinkers, we have no ground to stand upon from which we can pass a judgment.” This might be a valid move in the midst of deep argument, but in the Introduction of an introductory text, this sounds strange. After all, the reader – who is presumably not familiar with Indian philosophy and so isn’t approaching it from within it – is precisely on such a group of critical distance from Indian philosophy. What does it mean to say that in order to engage with Indian philosophy, you have to accept the concepts of karma and rebirth? What is built into that acceptance? It is not clear.

Part of the trouble here is caused by another move which runs through the Introduction (as it does in so many other similar texts). And that is a kind of haphazard, seemingly random, sense for when Indian philosophy is supposedly like Western philosophy, and when it is not.

Even as Gupta suggests that karma is like cause and effect, or that dharma is “the Hindu counterpart of Western ‘moral duty'”, she also writes, for instance:

In the Western epistemologies, e.g. in Kant, there is a continuing tension between the causal question of how cognition comes into being and the logical question of its validity, a tension not found in Indian epistemologies. The pramanas [modes of acquiring knowledge] are both instruments by which cognition arise, as well as the ways of justifying a cognitive claim.

My immediate reaction on reading this sentence: What?! How can Indian philosophy not have the distinction between cause and justification? Of course, I have a sense for what Gupta is trying to say: that in Indian philosophy nature isn’t disenchanted, that there is a kind of perceived harmony, and even identity, between the causal world and the rational world. But what kind of a point is this about Indian philosophy: descriptive or prescriptive?

Or consider this statement:

Whereas in classical Western moral philosophy the task of ethics is to legitimize and ground our moral beliefs on the basis of fundamental principles (e.g. Kant’s principle of universalizability without contradiction, Mill’s principle of utility, etc.), the Hindu ethical philosophies do not give a supreme principle of morality to legitimize all ethical choices, but rather cover a large spectrum of issues compassing within its fold a theory of virtues, a theory of rules, the ideal of doing one’s duty for duty’s sake, actual norms, customs, and social practices that an individual in society cherishes.

The contrast here between a principles and a virtues mode of ethics is clear enough, but why is that contrast put in the form of Western vs Hindu? As no doubt Gupta knows many Western philosophers disagree with Kant and Mill and espouse a virtue theory approach. This kind of random essentializing creates in the reader – at least in this reader – a headache, perhaps akin to what a child might feel when his arguing parents say, “Your mom always does this…”, or “Your dad always does that…”.

What is happening here? Gupta in the Introduction is functioning under the assumption that Western philosophy is over here, and Eastern philosophy is over there, and that since she is writing to a Western audience, she has to work from within this dichotomy. As if she were saying to the Western audience: “Listen, there is this thing on the other side of the planet. You don’t know anything about it, so it’s a blackbox for you. So I will describe it: it is like what you are familiar with in this way, but not in that way.”

What Gupta is struggling with is how to introduce Indian philosophy as something different from Western philosophy without rendering it as something altogether different, as if it was a different kind of thing. This is a difficult problem. One which it is easier to address by being completely upfront about it. Gupta, like so many other authors of similar texts, is trying to hand-wave away a problem, which is in fact a central problem of the philosophy of pluralism. As if once this preliminary hand-waving is done, we get to the real task of discussing Indian philosophy. But if the hand-waving seems confusing in the Introductoin, that confusion doesn’t magically disappear once we get to the core text; it persists throughout the text.

The root problem is that Gupta nowhere in the Introduction mentions the transformative context of the present Global moment which is calling out for, and enabling, a dialogue between Western and Indian philosophy. She begins right away with what is Indian philosophy, and how it relates to Western philosophy, without making clear what about our cultural situation is calling our for this conversation. It’s like Gupta in the Introduction is explaining the rules of the game without really making clear what game we are playing and why.

This is most evident in the fact that nowhere in the Introduction, or in the book for that matter, does Gupta mention any traditions beyond the Indian or European traditions. This suggests that the dialogue of European and Indian philosophy can happen just between the two of them, without even cursory reference to African or Latin American or other Asian philosophies. As if a dialogue between European and Indian philosophy can happen independent of the broader Global philosophical dialogue.

One might call this atomistic pluralism. The idea is that the way a Global philosophical dialogue happens is by starting with two traditions, and first focusing on those two. Then as progress is made on integrating, say, Indian and European philosophy, one can bring in other traditions, one by one. We can contrast this with holistic pluralism. On this view, even the integration of two traditions requires a global philosophical framework, which considers what it would be for not just these two particular traditions to be integrated, but for any two traditions to be integrated. This is the work of a philosophy of pluralism.

Of course, we cannot wait for integrating particular traditions until there is an overarching, holistic theory of what it is for any two traditions to be integrated. Comparative philosophy cannot wait for a fulled formed philosophy of pluralism. The two endeavors must go hand in hand. Still, it is one thing to hand wave away issues of the philosophy of pluralism, and another to demarcate them as issues in the philosophy of pluralism. The confusing aspects of Gupta’s introduction would be much less confusing if she situated her project in the book in relation to the separate project of the philosophy of pluralism.

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