Home: Scrying: Global Philosophy

Global Philosophy

February 01, 2006

I ran across an interesting article this morning, from the magazine Prospect, titled “The great divide.” The author suggests that Eastern philosophy has been greatly ignored in the West, a trend which has discouraged the growth of philosophy in the East. Has philosophy in the East had oppourtunity to influence philosophy in the West?

The piece is well-written, and includes some intriguing existential perspectives from early Eastern philosophers. The author, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, also draws many comparisons although I was not able to agree with all of them. For instance, he suggests that Western philosophy has had a more cohesive definition from the beginning, since questions were formed within the field. (Indeed, the West had a specific field for philosophy, where Asia did not.) But he says:

Asian traditions tend to be confined to religious studies or area studies, where philosophy competes with anthropological, political and historical approaches to the study of Asian traditions—and this despite a shift in how philosophy itself is taught, away from canonical writers towards key concepts.

Ok… did he somehow get the impression that people listened to Western philosophy more than religion or politics? If the discipline is downtrodden there, it isn’t much better here. The author also points out that some Eastern philosophers are not as well known as some Western philosophers. That is simply poor logic; there are great numbers of unknown Western philosophers, throughout history as well. Besides, it isn’t as if there aren’t truly well known Asian philosophers.

Kids may know more about Confucius than Plato--unless you're talking about play-doh.If you were to ask some kids if they knew who Confucius was, they would probably nod, and repeat some butchered bit of wisdom involving the bathroom (“Confucius say, small man who sits on toilet is high on pot”) …but at least they would know Confucius was a man who said wise things. Ask the same kids who Plato was, and most would probably think of Play-doh.

Humor aside, Ram-Prasad shares some beautiful insights from Eastern thought, comparing different opinions, which are easily compared with different aspects of post-modern thought:

Indian philosophers agree that our ordinary life is defective; our experience is marked by suffering, our understanding is marked by severe limits to knowledge, our conduct falls short of its ethical requirements, and we live in fear of our mortality. We therefore need to inquire into the conditions of existence in order to realise how things really are, and in doing so, our cognitive life is transformed, enabling us eventually to attain some ultimate state of freedom. By contrast, Chinese philosophy is a metaphysical, concerned with the world as it is encountered, and neutral to the relationship between reality and appearance.

But does Ram-Prasad think that Western thinkers have been blind to their ideas? He suggests we picked up on Eastern thought only in the 1960s, when it was associated with LSD and communal living, eventually giving it a bad name:
When the 1960s counterculture emphasised this trend—Allen Ginsberg, for example, exhaling “om” and “shiva” in public performance of his poetry—it is small wonder that western philosophers, willing to take only such time as unscholarly books demanded, settled on the conclusion that eastern philosophy was just so much irrational twaddle.

Apparently he wasn’t big on beatnik poetry. (I think it’s an acquired taste; easier to swallow when you live 15 minutes from Boulder, CO.) But seriously, is that the first time we were influenced by Asian thought?

How about the Quakers, who inspired by new wisdom coming from the East, devised a new political philosophy that led to the liberties we enjoy today? Ram-Prasad gives this no mention, but nearly says the opposite:

It is an inescapable fact that contemporary globalisation took off at a time peculiarly marked by the domination of the place called the west. We cannot wish away that predominance. When the intellectual traditions of India, China or elsewhere come to take their place in an emerging global tradition of thought, they must start with the only global terms of discourse available to them: those of western philosophy.

It wasn’t a one way street—the West was infused by Eastern wisdom during that time, as much as Western culture spread in the East. You can bet that Thomas Jefferson was contemplating Eastern thought long before John Lennon.

I have always wondered, as well, how much philosophy travelled along the silk road. Sometimes, there are too many similarities between some Greek wisdom and some Chinese wisdom. Either it is a strong case for convergent philosophical evolution, or there was some communication or mutual inspiration happening there.

Even if he neglects some important aspects of Western history, I found Ram-Prasad’s piece to be quite informative and thought-provoking. I will certainly be adding Kumarila and Sankara to my reading list.

Images: Play-doh Plato via Flow and Confucius via Nicherien pratiquant du Sutra du Lotus. As for the scroll, I’ve had it for so long, I’ve lost track of its origin. My apologies to the archive that stores it.