Published: September 30 2005 – Copyright The Financial Times
by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad
Cassell £16.99, 256 pages
In 1935 the eminent German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued that philosophy is a distinctively European activity and that nothing quite like it ever existed in Asia until Asians were exposed to western culture. Husserl acknowledged that there were certain resemblances in the activities of western thinkers and certain Chinese and Indian writers. But he claimed that these similarities were superficial and served to mask profound differences that were far more important. The distinguishing feature of genuine philosophy, he said, is not simply the enterprise of discovering universal truths, living in accordance with them and forming social organisations dedicated to educating future generations. More than anything else, said Husserl, the enterprise of philosophy should be understood as a purely theoretical attitude, an exclusively intellectual practice, whose descendants are pure mathematics and pure theoretical science.
Traditional Asian thinkers, he observed, never got away from the practical issues of serving humanity, ordering human life in the world and making the human as happy and free from disease and distress as possible.
Since Husserl’s time, other European and American intellectuals have cautioned against applying western cultural terminology to what non-western cultures have done. Debates have been waged over whether Confucius, the Buddha and Zhuangzi – admirable and intriguing as they are – should be mentioned in the same breath (or taught in the same courses) as Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes and Husserl.
Partly because these issues, like most that philosophers debate, are unlikely ever to be resolved, and partly because doing justice to the contours of two-and-a-half millennia of European, Indian and Chinese thought is a daunting task, books treating all three philosophical traditions are almost as scarce as unicorns.
It is not only because Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s book has so little competition that it stands out as an achievement in the field of comparative philosophy. The intelligent arrangement of the book, and the clarity and charm of his writing, make Ram-Prasad’s work one that is likely to endure. After apologising to the reader for attempting to write a book that covers two traditions that had little knowledge and even less understanding of one another, the author plunges into the task of showing what questions preoccupied Indian and Chinese thinkers and why.
For the most part he keeps to his promise of discussing the philosophies of these two cultures in their own terms, without constant reference to western philosophy. Yet once one has decided to treat Confucius and the Buddha as philosophers, it would be nearly impossible to avoid using the western philosophical categories of metaphysics, epistemology, psychology and logic, even though there exist no equivalents of those words in Chinese or Sanskrit.
Ram-Prasad has the wisdom not to try to do the impossible. Instead, he offers a tasteful blend of Asian philosophy on its own and on western terms.
Ram-Prasad starts by laying the groundwork on which the the book is built. He observes that Indian thinkers were most concerned with what it means to say of something that it exists – that it is real as opposed to being merely an appearance or an illusion.
Questions of what is real, and how real things interact and cause one another, and what is essential and what is accidental, belong to the domain of philosophy that has come to be called metaphysics. Indian philosophy is metaphysical through and through, says Ram-Prasad, in that these metaphysical questions are the foundation of everything else Indians discussed. All consideration of what is good, practical, ethical or beautiful ultimately take root in the soil of metaphysics.
In China relatively little energy was expended on these metaphysical questions. The ultimate concern in ancient China, and in virtually all subsequent Chinese eras, was how people ought to live, what they must do to achieve inner and social harmony, what wise government is and what it means to be a responsible citizen. If other questions do arise, they relate to these ultimate meta-ethical questions.
Ram-Prasad argues that because these orientations are so different, when Chinese intellectuals were exposed to Indian ways of thinking, mostly through the introduction of Buddhism into China, they were barely able to make sense of what the Indians were saying. As a result, Chinese Buddhism evolved into a system of doctrines and attitudes that Indians would barely have been recognised as Buddhism.
The book then offers an insightful and subtle discussion of ways of looking at the self. Although the main focus is on Indian and Chinese thinking on the self, the treatment also brings in western notions of self, personhood and agency. Ram-Prasad endeavours to explain why some Indian Hindus argued that the basic stuff of the entire universe is one’s true self, whereas Indian Buddhists argued that there is no self except as a convenient social fiction.
While Indians agonised over this problem for centuries, the Chinese barely addressed the issue. While metaphysical Indian Buddhists were busy denying that the socially conditioned self has ultimate being, the metaethical Chinese Buddhists were busy explaining why being selfish makes one socially unfit.
Having discussed the self, Ram-Prasad devotes two chapters to what is good: the “Outward Good” and the “Inward Good”. He discusses how a variety of thinkers, Indian and Chinese, saw how the outward goods of social justice, harmony and stability are related to the personal virtues of wisdom, compassion, humanity and sincerity.
Generally speaking, he argues, Indian philosophers emphasised the cultivation of personal virtue, of which social goods were a fortunate by-product, while Chinese philosophers focused on the importance of social goods, which personal virtues are deemed necessary to achieve.
The final three chapters of the book deal with East Asian (Chinese and Japanese) and Indian views on language, knowledge and logic. In Sino-Japanese and Indian cultures we find fascinating discussions on the nature of language and the benefits to society and the individual of cultivating refined usage.
Not surprisingly, the Indians highlight the relationship between linguistic expression and the structure of reality, while East Asians emphasise how language may be used to foster the kind of personal sincerity that contributes to a well-ordered society.
Because this book is organised around topics and themes, philosophers and schools of philosophy are treated piecemeal, and the reader must be prepared to jump centuries as the author unravels a thematic thread.
If you’re looking for a book that systematically lays out the thought of Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Mozi, or the schools of Indian or Chinese Buddhism, Ram-Prasad’s work is not the one.
But if you want to see the kinds of questions that have arisen on just about every aspect of being human, and are prepared to encounter a thrilling array of possible answers, this book is sure to be stimulating. Ram-Prasad has a gift for laying out philosophical positions so they all seem reasonable and compelling, no matter how much they differ.
And in this he shows himself to be a first-rate writer of philosophy – even by Husserl’s narrow definition.
Richard Hayes is professor of philosophy at the University of New Mexico.
Richard Hayes – The Financial Times
Published: September 30 2005 – Copyright The Financial Times