Why take the Indian Philosophy Paper?

This casual article is intended as a quick, informal, not-department endorsed resource for those considering balloting for the Indian philosophy paper for their final year in FHS Philosophy. I comment on why you might prioritize taking this topic as a paper here (in contrast to studying it independently or pursuing a more standard option) and try to provide some insight to what you might expect from the paper. Since Indian philosophy is less widely discussed and practiced in Euro-American university philosophy departments & associations, students are less likely than for many paper topics to find resources about what to expect from among the student and faculty philosophers at Oxford or to know where to start research during a rushed term online to make an informed decision on this front.

Logistics and Politics

Let’s be clear: the decision to ballot for the paper is influential to supporting a more critical, global, reflective, and decolonised philosophical practice in Euro-America. Even if you opt for the paper ignorant of the historical situatedness of the newness of such a paper to our department, such a choice contributes to meeting the minimum number of students required for the paper to be continued. Balloting might seem intimidating or you might wonder if the method is employed because the course is in high demand. Regardless of the reasoning belying the method, be assured that the paper was previously undersubscribed (last year, the first year offered) and the faculty was kind enough to run the paper anyway. Your choice to take the paper matters, so why should you?

(Tip for using this article as a resource: key words are bolded as potentially useful for further research when making a decision.)

Considering the paper itself:

Getting a grasp at the notion of Indian philosophy:

The label ‘Indian philosophy’ represents a wide variety of thought, and one might consider the label somewhat artificial given the changes of geographical boundaries over time and the expansion of these traditions we might trace to India [set markers] across perceived national and cultural boundaries. However, we can identify a range of ‘schools of thought’ practicing what philosophers in the Euro-American tradition would easily recognise as philosophy (just take a read of a few pages by Bhartṛhari, Nagarjuna, or Vasubandhu as prominent and more readily available examples). We might encounter philosophy being performed in classical Indian discourse by Jaina, Hindu, Buddhist, and Charvaka thinkers, for a not-nearly exhaustive selection, or over time. Today we might find philosophers from around the world participating in philosophy that covers a range of time periods in India, conversing with the philosophies that we identify as rooted in this region though taught through a range of lenses –– sometimes the doxographical tradition as our main source of teaching or the textual sources we reference about work written in India remain only in translations found outside the prescribed region. For example, the well-known Svatantrika-Prasangika distinction within Madhyamaka Buddhism is part of Tibetan doxography. There are different ways to approach the organization and teaching of Indian philosophy. It is helpful to be aware of this and to explore different methods, including some new innovations. Question all critically. I will not prescribe one or another. Some resources for consideration include: An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (Roy Perrett) & two oxford public philosophy talks – one by Prof Parimal Patil where he sketches his new vision for teaching about South Asian philosophy & one by Prof Veena Das where she talks about the influence of language order on our understanding of South Asian philosophies. These can provide much more insight than I could to get you going on your own exploration and to gain an initial grasp of the complexity. I discuss what you might encounter in a paper here further below.

How might the paper help you with your more ‘Western’ papers here? How might the paper benefit your philosophical reflection more generally?

Engaging with any more evidently socio-culturally distant or marginalised tradition provides material to reflect on your own assumptions, practices, and methodology. Such an opportunity could be a welcome aid for philosophers who seek robust arguments and the space of logical possibility, who seek to understand how philosophy relates to the world, and even those who seek to do well on their final exams. While many philosophies might help with such goals, let us here consider specifically the Indian philosophy paper.

The amazing teachers and breadth of clear and wide-ranging content present the curious student (likely open to expanding their horizons by taking the paper) with a series of topics that arise in a range of other papers at Oxford. The contents and its perspicacious exposition can make more evident and help push the importance the practice of articulating meta-assumptions to arguments from the beginning. The background of Indian philosophy more generally makes more consciously available our own preconceptions that limit our arguments. Often these preconceptions are standard or broadly presumed, sometimes leading to confusion within arguments (when perhaps disagreement lies outside the argument in starting presuppositions or a different understand of terms involved) or a cultural focus that cuts us off from other logically possible realms of discourse. The commentarial tradition in Indian philosophy valued making presuppositions clear as a starting point for debate. The Buddhist concept of skilful means, or upāya, helps students consider the role of context in communication, which can offer refuge and space for reflection when writing philosophy essays suited to their audience. We can look to Indian philosophy for examples in alternative approaches for engaging in debate and forming arguments as well as for bringing into focus an array of presumptions that often go unarticulated in our own tradition. Some examples might help demonstrate this point.

The paper itself will cover familiar topics such as consciousness, personal identity, aesthetics, ontology, and foundationalism while throwing into starker relief the contours of divisions such as Realism and Idealism and providing alternative ways to understand similar notions based on differently developed frameworks. This is unsurprising as some might trace the Euro-American discourse of the latter distinction through Aristotle, Locke, and Berkeley, whereas some Indian traditions might make fine-grained distinctions within Idealism with different reference points. The notion of ‘Mind-only’ or Chittamatra of the Mahayana school of Buddhist philosophy differs from Berkeleian Idealism requiring careful engagement with the background presumptions of both. This can lead to a nuanced understanding of realist ontology and leads to some arguments that argue for the abandonment or revision of metaphysics with ontology that doesn’t uphold the notion of essence or intrinsic nature (alt: substance, instrinsic being). Not only have I found these specific arguments convincing and robust, but also think they provide rich material for arguments in social epistemology within the contemporary analytic tradition today. We find several benefits of such engagement: outlining our presumptions, nuancing our understanding of central topics in philosophical discourse, a transformation of our understanding of the possibilities of philosophy, and a relation to philosophy’s role in the world with social (ethical) effects (relating to logic!). The specific practices and clarity of early Indian philosophers promises to sharpen your argumentative skills, and the comparison of traditions with the example of critical debate with the aided focus of adept teachers Dr Frazier and Dr Westerhoff sets a trajectory for navigating between different frameworks to make arguments with skill and dexterity.

By taking the Indian philosophy paper you have a rare chance to not only broaden your horizons but to find concrete examples of alternative frameworks and skills that can enhance your current critical abilities. I have explained this can lead to ethical reflection bound up with our deep assumptions about the world as well as how this can help you gain skills to help with finals and insights to topics in other undergraduate papers and beyond.

What else might be helpful to know about how Indian philosophy has been and can be approached by a student versed in philosophy as taught at Oxford?

Taking the paper only begins to broaden horizons and to sharpen critical skills in philosophy and the world. This start provided by excellent teachers allows you to think about how to practice global(ly-rooted and concerned) philosophy as philosophy, rather than as intellectual histories, for example, while also encouraging you to explore historical, philological, sociological, and literary contexts for the chance to understand philosophers ‘on their own terms’ with respect. This can make more evident the importance of all these elements when considering any philosophical argument or theory. This multi-disciplinary approach to philosophy can create a more attentive and expansive (without dominating) open and critical philosophy, transforming our understanding of philosophy and potentially decolonising our institutions (let’s talk about what this could mean!) without putting marginalised discourses in categories like intellectual history. I have here found myself submerged in discourse that questions central questions that arise in philosophy like meaning in philosophy of language, contradictions and truth-values in logic, and ‘meta-philosophical’ assumptions that go on to affect the details of our arguments with ethical consequences.

To do this work, it might be helpful to be aware of potential heuristic devices that help you engage with Indian philosophy without claiming to speak for an argument’s original agent(s) – to continue the train of thought of seeing these tools and practices as ways to begin to think through Indian thought in a process of transformative understanding. The following represent some dynamics at play that I would have found useful to be alerted to, but I am by no means an expert on any. Please see them as launching points for inquiry and heads up for dynamics that might take up time untangling before getting to the material of focus:

  • Much Indian philosophy is part of a broader practice often related to soteriological goals. The practices give rise to specific understandings of terminology that might translate to words we commonly use in Euro-American practice. Though this is necessary and experts make these decisions as they consider useful, further exploration with the methodological texts belying the terms’ contexts elucidate more concrete evocations of terms within practice and so can explain why they are used in certain ways. ‘Consciousness’ sometimes seems like an open question we strive to understand in ‘Knowledge and Reality’; it might often be interchangeable with ‘mentality’. Yet there might be widely acknowledged distinctions between mentality and consciousness in Buddhist philosophy of practical importance to meditation and philosophical insight. Being aware of this will affect how you understand the Buddhist texts as well as how you navigate discourse between traditions. For an initial glimpse at this you might research ‘alaya-vijnana’ or ‘store-house consciousness’ or pick up the Dalai Lama’s Stages of Meditation. This prompts the following two points:
  • The classical Indian tradition is long and complex with much intertextuality covering topics and words. The users were often well-versed in theories and debates that they could reference with subtle allusions many of which the initial student might not be aware and even experts might not know given how many texts remain untranslated. Longer-term a student might need to engage in philological work to understand how words and texts relate between thinkers rather than between ‘schools’
  • Although there is some consensus over how to communicate ‘schools of thought’ of Indian philosophy this is currently challenged, and we can see this is taught differently over time. Therefore it is vital to cite your sources and attempt to understand their motivations and locations. I like the advice also to work with specific texts and thinkers for some grounding, though, as mentioned, the context of the text is itself important.
  • Philosophers today do different things with Indian philosophical work and approach the field in different ways, including in debating how to teach new students. Although it is useful to understand chronology and religious context, as already touched upon, this is perhaps general good practice for understanding the context of your philosophizing. Many now favour a thematic approach, which this paper takes. There are of course different ways to go about this also. This paper touches upon themes common to our other Oxford papers. Other divisions are available. The Perrett book discusses this further and provides a ‘paradigmatic’ example through the topic breakdown of: value, knowledge, reasoning, word, world, self, and ultimates. Within this broader classification scheme philosophers might understand their ability or purposes of engaging with texts differently: from attempting to convey authorial intent (a philosophical debate in itself!) to providing heuristic devices for initial learning (such as through using contemporary analytic or other Euro-American terms, referencing Pyrrhonian, Kantian, Humean, and Wittgensteinian terminology for example), or through philosophical reconstruction that develops new ideas at the intersection of new and old tools (such as Graham Priest’s work on developing logical structures of various Buddhist conceptions of emptiness with the tools of modern logic in his The Fifth Corner of Four: An Essay on Buddhist Metaphysics – an alternative approach can be found in in Jan Westerhoff’s article ‘Nagarjuna’s Catuṣkoṭi’).

Dr. Jessica Frazier explains this paper’s approach:

“The main thing is that students don’t need to have any prior knowledge of Indian thought or history (although reading up on the ideas in advance never hurts – Christopher Bartley’s Introduction to Indian Philosophy is a good starting point). All you need is an interest in metaphysics and an eager mind. The course is aimed at getting to grips with specific Indian ideas that are full of potential insight, assessing their arguments, analysing their implications, and working constructively from there. Students are already starting to gain new angles on old problems, such as the nature of mind, arguments for monism, idealism, or ontological nihilism, the importance of emergence in accounts of selfhood, the relation of altruism to egoism, and how radically we can deconstruct conventional notions of identity before the structure of reality itself is lost! The method is generally analytical and constructive, rather than purely historical. But along the way, students will gain a sense of India’s distinctive conversation about metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language and logic, ethics, etc. One of the most valuable outcomes of the course is that way that it offers new perspectives on unresolved problems that Western Philosophy has long struggled with.”

I find exposing myself to and critically engaging with this entire range of work not only informative but rather invaluable for transforming our relations to philosophy and what its consequent techniques can and could do in the world. I hope the above discussion sheds light on why supporting and taking the Indian philosophy paper is not only vital as a step to decolonizing and creating a more critical philosophy at Oxford, but can also benefit your own philosophical practice at Oxford and beyond. If you would like a more caring, attentive, diverse, and radically open philosophy engaged with the world, you must first start to explore and practice the opportunities available to you. This paper promises such elucidating possibility led by two laudable teachers as exemplary models of scholars covering a range of traditions and methodologies, facilitating responsible, creative, and critical academic practice among students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s