What Is 'Non-Western' Philosophy?
|November 10, 2011|
by Justin E. H. Smith
I used to get very upset at the suggestion that there might be such a thing as ‘non-Western philosophy’. Some years ago a German anthropologist friend told me she had heard, out on Broughton Island in Arctic Canada, Inuit elders using their free time, in the dim light of slowly burning seal blubber, to engage in leisurely dialogue about the nature of space and time. That’s different, I insisted, because they were only addressing the issue (I supposed) within the comfortable mythological confines of their culture, rather than asking what space and time look like when you strip away your culture’s contingent myths, which are, as Spinoza would say, satisfying only to the imagination, and then see what is left over. I had an even stronger complaint about what had come to be called ‘African philosophy’, ‘Native American philosophy’, and so on. These, I thought, were more the product of an unfortunate misunderstanding brought about by the politics of identity, which supposed that every identity group –and often what counts as an identity group, I noted, is only slapped together in hasty response to the classificatory schemes of the West: as if there could have been anything like a unified tradition across the African or North American continent prior to the period of colonial expansion– must come up with its own version of whatever it is that the West is thought to do well. I felt horribly discouraged when, on more than one occasion, while working the ‘philosophy table’ at my university’s open house, I would meet adult Cree and Mohawks thinking of returning to school who, as they explained, might want to study ‘your’ (i.e., my) philosophy someday, but didn’t feel any particular urgency to do so, since “we’ve got philosophers of our own.”
Are there in fact Cree philosophers, not as in academically trained philosophers who are ethnically Cree, but as in full members of Cree communities who, without ‘the West’ so much as hearing of it, fulfill a role in their communities that could justly be called the role of a philosopher? I now think this is a very important question, and not to be dismissed. John Dewey thought so as well, it seems, and in the foreword to a curious 1927 work by Paul Radin, entitled Primitive Man as Philosopher, the great pragmatist endorses Radin’s view that “philosophic origins are not to be sought for in the cruder and conventionalized forms which religious beliefs assumed among the populace at large, but rather in the interpretations of the small intellectual class, whose ideas may have been crude because of limitations of subject matter at their command, but which at least were bold, independent, and free within these limitations.” Radin goes on to describe a debate he heard among some Dakota elders over the question whether “the rock and the earth are married or not.” Radin says that to us this question may appear ‘trivial’ (an odd choice of words; I think Radin should have said ‘nonsensical’), but nonetheless it is a question “of an entirely speculative nature,” and most importantly for Radin, it is a question that will not be of interest to the ordinary lot of men, who “will simply regard it as a fact.” It is the speculativeness of the question, together with the exclusivity of the group asking it, that qualifies this domain of Dakota discourse as ‘primitive philosophy’.
Naturally, the Cree I speak with at the open houses do not want to be credited with their own primitive or proto-philosophy; they mean to say rather that their tradition does something that is entirely equal to, and entirely separate from, what the tradition that supposedly began with Thales does. Whether this is the case or not is to me the interesting question, rather than whether, as Dewey and Radin both seem to suppose, Native Americans in the pre-contact state did something that bore the same relationship to real philosophy as the one we generally suppose branches of ethnoscience like medicine or astronomy bear to modern science.
The possible reasons to think they did not and could not have had a separate-but-equal philosophy are, I think, four. First, the tradition was entirely oral, so that there could be no body of texts on which to build from generation to generation. Second, as Dewey notes, they were limited in the range of subject matter at their command. Third, as I’ve already mentioned, and as Radin’s chosen example shows, the sort of philosophical questioning that motivated the discussions seems to have been devoted to the fine-tuning, rather than to the clearing away, of myths: there was no radical pursuit of the reality masked by conventions, as there clearly was among the Greeks. Finally, there does not seem to have been the sort of sociocultural complexity to give rise to multiple ways of being within the same community (classes, specialized labor, and so on), and as Aristotle himself noted, it is this sort of social complexity that makes possible a niche for philosophers, who in turn reflect back upon the diversity of their society and take an interest in discovering the unity behind it.
My sense is that none of these reasons is alone sufficient for judging a tradition of reflection to be non-philosophy, and moreover that there probably never has been a society characterized by these four features. Only the first and the fourth can now be studied by philological and archaeological means; as for the second and third, it’s too late to measure them now, as there really are no pre-contact traditions remaining, but only, so to speak, mirror traditions, which, for example, turn the reflections of scattered Dakota and Cree into ‘Native American philosophy’, and turn the sundry world-views and practices rooted in the Vedas into ‘Hinduism’.
Speaking of the Vedas: many who are not willing to concede that there could be such a thing as Native American philosophy are nonetheless very comfortable calling certain tendencies within the Indian –that is the subcontinental Indian– tradition by that name. At the same time, they see it as a distinct species of philosophy, ‘non-Western philosophy’, and suppose that any contact it might have with the Western kind can only be of the compare-and-contrast variety. (Many continue to approach Arabic philosophy in the same way, in spite of the seamless continuity between the Greek, Arabic, and Latin phases of the Aristotelian tradition.)
What, now, is really going on in the bracketing of Indian philosophy in this way? It seems to me that ‘non-Western’ as applied to any tradition of philosophy in fact functions as a sort of euphemism for ‘not really philosophy’. And it seems to me that there are two reasons why this euphemism persists. First of all, there is the straightforward chauvinism of European civilization, which takes philosophy as a one-time affair, and as a sort of proper noun, Philosophy, designating an individual thing born in Greece and Greece only. Second, there is the unfortunate, and much more recent, insistence upon the absolute and inviolable otherness of once-colonized subjects, and the corollary denuncation of any interest a European might take in the tradition of those subjects as ‘Orientalism’. Thus, unwittingly, the chauvinists and the postcolonialists have a common cause: to prevent us from realizing that Indian and European philosophy have the same ancestry, had significant, direct overlap in antiquity, have consistently remained focused on many of the same problems, which they address with much the same conceptual apparatus and many of the same theoretical presuppositions.
This is a realization, by the way, that was very vividly had at least once in European history– by the Germans. To this day, in Germany Indo-European linguistics goes by the name ‘Indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft’: a vestigial sign of the widespread view in the 19th century that Northern Europeans and Indians –or at least the elite Aryan class of Indians that flooded in from the North in distant antiquity and subjugated the darker Dravidians– are two branches of the same family. This perception had its grim conclusion in the Indophilia of certain Nazis, and in their attempt to restore the unity and purity of the Aryan family in part by exterminating the Semitic element among them. After the end of World War II, we no longer see much allusion to the historical unity of European and Indian civilizations, other than in the technical work of linguists who are not so concerned about civilizational questions. One might regret, however, the fact that the Nazis so thoroughly tainted a discovery that, in its 19th century incarnation in the groundbreaking Indological work of August Wilhelm Schlegel, Otto von Böhtlingk and others, was perfectly benign, and indeed revealed something remarkable about Europe: that it is in fact just a small peninsula of Asia.
Now this is not my area of expertise, but from what I can see the English tradition of Indology has been very different, and this is the tradition that decisively triumphed in the post-war period (there are of course some exceptions, including the work of Georges Dumézil, and even more so the work of Russian Indologists such as Tatyana Elizarenkova, who, perhaps because of their own relatively Eastern situation, do not seem to have stopped thinking of Indo-Aryan civilization as something all that other in relation to their own Slavic world). This tradition is grounded in an intensely chauvinistic sense of English particularity, and in a parallel sense of the utter difference of England’s colonial subjects. This colonial attitude is reflected –again, unwittingly– in the work of an Orientalist such as Edwin Arnold, whose 1879 book The Light of Asia is certainly Indophile in character, but seems incapable of saying anything at all about India except by way of contrast. I believe it is this Victorian approach, rather than the scholarly approach of 19th-century Germany, that has won out, and that ironically carries on under the banner of anti-Orientalist ‘respect’.
We know with certainty that following upon the Eastern campaigns of Alexander the Great there was significant cultural hybridity between the Hellenic and Indic worlds. The third-century Buddhist emperor of India, Aśokaḥ the Great, sent missionaries to convert Greeks to his own religion (he also sent missionaries in the other direction as far as Sri Lanka and Burma). A generation or so earlier the Greek geographer Megasthenes had written a work called the Indica, which has unfortunately been lost, but which we know from extensive citations in other works identified many points in common between Greek and Indian philosophy. Thus Strabo reports that “concerning generation, and the nature of the soul, and many other subjects, they express views like those maintained by the Greeks. They wrap up their doctrines about immortality and future judgment, and kindred topics, in allegories, after the manner of Plato.” By the early centuries of this era, Alexandrian Platonist philosophers such as Philo and Clement (representing Judaism and Christianity, respectively) would show a casual familiarity with the ways of the ‘gymnosophists’, i.e., naked world-renouncers from India who were, most likely, representatives of the Jain sect.
But what was perfectly familiar in antiquity would fall entirely off of the radar by the early modern period. An early modern Sinophile such as Leibniz had no interest at all in the traditional cultural forms of the Indian subcontinent. This probably had something to do with the fact that in the 17th century India was dominated by the Moghul Empire, and thus could easily have been presumed to be simply a Muslim land by European outsiders, whatever traditional ‘barbarian’ practices the villagers may have preserved (until just a century earlier than that, the Baltic lands were known to have preserved a vital pagan tradition as well, but no one thought to study it). The differing perceptions of India in Greek antiquity on the one hand, and early modern Europe, on the other, provides a vivid reminder, I think, that although Europe has always oriented itself towards Greece, Greece did not orient itself towards Europe. Ancient Greece was retroactively incoporated into Europe, but from its own point of view belonged to a world that included India at least as much as it included the regions that would later form the European Union, whose members would in turn insist on fast-tracking Greece into the Union in view of its symbolic importance. Strabo, for his part, was more interested in writing the geography of Libya than of Europa.
So we have the historical fact that, whatever later developments occurred, ancient Greece is no more Western than ancient India, except in the bare geographical sense. Both have reincarnation, humoral medicine, polytheism, ritual animal sacrifice, phallic cults, and so on. Both represent different branches of an original group, probably originating somewhere on the Pontic Steppe, that split apart roughly a millennium before either side started recording its tradition in writing. Between the split and the earliest records we have, they both drifted very far, and mingled with the local traditions of the places they settled, but for all that remained cousins.
But cousins can be very unlike one another, and beyond this historical fact of shared ancestry, we may still ask: did the Greeks begin doing something peculiar at some point, something that other civilizations did not think to do, that would then be communicated to the Romans, and from there to Christianized Europe?
One curious feature of the Indian tradition, which might be invoked to buttress the claim to Greek uniqueness, relates to the first objection earlier on to the claim that the Dakota have their own ‘philosophy’: although there is a long textual tradition in Sanskrit, writing seems to have been perceived as a sort of crutch rather than as an object of learning in itself. The tradition is in its essence oral, but relies on writing, when necessary, to record what cannot be preserved in individual human brains. The great 5th-century BC grammarian Pāṇini composed his materpiece, the Aṣṭādhyāyī, by having his students memorize different parts of it. In this respect, then, one can really not say of the Indian tradition that il n’y a pas de hors-texte, whereas many have supposed that the Western tradition is fundamentally textual. Vedic commentators in contrast seem to have thought: what good is learning if it’s outside of the head? The goal is to know, not to potentially-know through the proximity of a knowledge-containing book. Now whether this really marks out a difference or not is far too large a topic to engage here, as it seems to me to require a thorough interrogation of the nature of writing. I’ll just say here that I am persuaded by archaeologists such as Bruce Trigger, and anthropologists such as Frank Salomon, that writing begins as tallying (not so different, then, from early mathematics), and is understood more as an aide-memoire than as an end in itself. From this point of view, the Indian preference for orality and memorization over textuality defies our usual value distinction between literacy and illiteracy, and suggests that an oral culture might actually be more learned than a culture that needs to record its ideas in writing, like so many beads in a bowl representing the number of sheep bought and sold in an ancient city-state.
Now another concern about Indian philosophy has often been that it, like the Dakota meditation upon the marriage of the earth and rocks, remains confined within a mythological tradition, to wit, the religious tradition that would later be dubbed ‘Hinduism’. The only appropriate response to this concern is: well, then Thomas Aquinas isn’t a philosopher either, since his reflections on the nature of substance, form, matter, and so on, also took place within a mythological framework, and there were plenty of unargued-for presuppositions that he could never even think to question. There is also a perfectly reasonable concern that this is true of any community trying to think its way out of its own contingent situation. Add to these considerations the fact that materialism, atheism, skepticism, and so on have probably been more widespread on the Indian subcontinent than on the European subcontinent over, say, the past 3,500 years, and you’ll agree it’s very hard to maintain the objection based on a distinction between the merely somewhat reflective but essentially religious tradition, on the one hand, and true philosophy on the other. It may of course be the case that a certain strain of Indian philosophical reflection is initially motivated by a question that could not have been asked outside of the Indian religious context, but that doesn’t necessarily determine the direction in which this strain may subsequently move. Moreover –and this is a point that Jonardon Ganeri makes well, echoing Bertrand Russell, in his otherwise far too reconstructionist Philosophy in Classical India– a person is rational when he or she uses rational methods to achieve certain aims, and the exercise of reason has nothing to do with the choice of ends. In this respect, there can perfectly well be rational arguments for the marriage of earth and rocks, or for the superiority of Vishnu to Indra.
Let us briefly consider in the Indian context, finally, the remaining two concerns that arise out of Dewey and Radin’s characterization of Dakota reflections as mere ‘proto-philosophy’, namely, that there was limited subject matter to reflect upon, and that this limitation was a direct result of a relatively low degree of sociocultural complexity. I am myself strongly inclined to think that this sort of complexity is a real condition of the full exercise of what could look to us like philosophy, in the full sense, in another culture. This is of course not to say that the brains of hunter-gatherers are any less subtle or developed than those of city dwellers, but only that their subtlety is expressed in a different way, one that is more ecologically sensitive, and context-dependent. I am inclined to agree with Aristotle that it is social stratification, and the non-intellectual labor of the majority, that makes specialized intellectual labor possible. But if this is correct then prima facie there is all the more reason to expect to find a high level of philosophical activity in India, since it would be hard to conceive of a civilization that has historically been more stratified than the one that traces its tradition back to the Rig Veda.
And as for having what Dewey called “sufficient subject matter,” there is no doubt that up until the early modern period Indian astronomy, medicine, and so on in no way lagged behind what was going on elsewhere in Eurasia. It seems reasonable to suppose that just as grain storage and its consequent social complexification facilitate the emergence of a specialized intellectual class, scientific inquiry carries with it reflection upon the methodology and ultimate aims of that inquiry, i.e., it carries with it what of late has come to be called ‘philosophy of science’.
I have barely touched upon any of the actual content of Indian philosophy, in a way that might provide a sense of what is distinctive about it, and so of whether it deserves to be cordoned off in the way that it has by self-appointed representatives of Western philosophy. In the sequel to this essay, I would like to focus on the centrality of grammar in the Indian tradition, and what this reveals about how we might to attempt to characterize the Indian philosophical tradition as a whole. Wendy Doniger has gone so far as to say that grammar is for Indian thought what theology has been for European thought, and indeed it often seems that in the Indian tradition reflection on the character of phonemes, for example, is at once a reflection on divinity. In this very early stage of my own Indian philosophical education, this seems to be the central point of difference between the two traditions, and is one that I would like to explore further. It is also a point of difference that gets no attention whatsoever in the usual dichotomous positioning of India as a place that specializes in ‘Eastern thought’, in contrast with Europe’s ‘philosophy’.
Non-Western Philosophy, Part 2: the Ladder, the Museum, and the Web
The idea that there is a hierarchy or ladder of world cultures, with European culture at the top (often promoted to the status of ‘civilization’), was a cornerstone of most Enlightenment philosophy. It was rejected in the era by a handful of counter-Enlightenment thinkers such as Herder, but it continued to reign in the burgeoning discipline of anthropology until the early-20th-century innovations of Franz Boas and others. It was only definitively displaced from anthropology in the decade or so after World War II. In philosophy today, by contrast, though everyone officially abjures the ladder model of human cultures, it continues to determine much of our reasoning about what counts as philosophy and what does not.
It is worth pointing out that all societies that have produced anything that we are able to easily recognize as philosophy are ladder societies. We might in fact argue, if not here, that philosophy as a discrete domain of activity in a society is itself a side-effect of inequality. The overwhelming authority of the church in medieval Europe, the caste system in ancient India, the control of intellectual life by the mandarin class in ancient China (meritocratically produced by the Confucian examination system, but still elite) present themselves as three compelling examples of the sort of social nexus that has left us with significant philosophical works. The fact that philosophy always comes from the top rungs of ladder societies could have something to do with the difficulty, in spite of our best intentions, of de-Eurocentrizing the current academic discipline of philosophy: New York, London, and the idyllic campuses that are an easy commute from these metropolises are the true locus of philosophy today, in just the same way that royal courts were in ancient India. It is as hard for us to think of the intellectual activity of, say, some village sage in postcolonial, third-worldified India as ‘philosophy’, as it would have been for a high-caste member of the literate elite to think of the folk beliefs of some forest-dwelling ādivāsī in this way.
When philosophers try to get away from the ladder, as most agree for political reasons it is necessary to do, what they usually end up with is the museum, or perhaps, with apologies to André Malraux, the imaginary museum of philosophical multiculturalism. As the Soviets once did with the traditional costumes of their empire’s ethnic minorities, those who aim to promote non-Western philosophy usually end up putting the Chinese and the Indians, and sometimes a slapped-together group they dub ‘Africans’ as well, in entirely separate, non-overlapping display cases, as if their philosophical traditions were just so many traditional costumes or pieces of pottery.
It is not just that ideas are harder to display in this way than are costumes or pottery, but rather that the display of national traditions in any aspect of life, whether it be material or intellectual culture, in a way that would have the observer or reader believe that this aspect is sui generis and, so to speak, aboriginal with the culture itself, is already a gross caricature of ethnic or national identity. It is a reduction of Herderianism, the proposition that each culture is irreducibly unique, to a sort of kitsch: a display of the different peoples of the world holding hands. Such display is characteristic of ulterior-motive-laden Socialist Bloc iconography of old, as well as of commercials for Coca Cola and McDonald’s, along with only slightly less explicitly commercial pageants such as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I suppose for those purposes we can all find something heart-warming in the stylized image of an Eskimo holding hands with a Masai tribesman and a Swiss milkmaid. But when it comes to scholarship, one wants something more sophisticated.
And yet, nothing more sophisticated is on offer in the way different national or regional intellectual traditions are presented alongside one another. What has taken shape as ‘identity politics’ in North America in the past several decades gives us a version of Herderianism even more vulgar than Soviet ethnography. This is the social force that has largely dismantled disciplines like anthropology and sociology and left us nothing but various ‘studies’ departments in their wake. I know of at least one university that has a ‘Canadian Irish Studies’ department. Now Irish immigration to Canada is a perfectly good thing to, say, write a Ph.D. thesis about. But how can you claim to have received a liberal education if from the outset you specialized in something as narrow as a single ethnic community in a single country? What’s worse, it is not infrequent that the student who specializes in this way is a member of that very community, and the implicit –and sometimes even explicit– purpose such a program serves is simply to reinforce the student’s sense of belonging within that community.
Philosophy departments are increasingly seeking to reproduce at a smaller scale just this sort of zoological park. There is the worthy imperative to increase the representation of minority groups, a goal I entirely support at the level of proactive hiring policies that aim to attract members of historically disadvantaged communities. But where this imperative trails off in a direction I cannot follow is in the confused idea that this representation should also be effected through changes to the curriculum, and moreover that the addition of courses in non-Western philosophy is always a contribution to the recognition of minority groups. I myself was recently lauded for making such a contribution when I proposed to teach a course in ancient Indian philosophy.
But I was doing no such thing. Quite apart from the fact that the authors of the Upanishads were ‘Aryans’, and in the not-so-distant past have been seen as white par excellence, there is also this small hitch, that no one in ancient India cared in the slightest whether they were ‘white’ or not, or whether Europeans were imposing hegemonic discourses or not. There is nothing ‘minority’ about the Upanishads –other than that they were written by members of a privileged high-caste minority within ancient Indian society–, and it is a gross misrepresentation of the tradition these texts represent to pretend that the teaching of them is somehow advancing the representation of minorities in philosophy.
Imagine, for comparison, an archaeologist who has spent a career working on Bronze Age Scandinavia, and then switches to the Mayan or the Indus Valley civilization. Would anyone think to suggest that this scientist is moving from a myopic Eurocentrism to an appreciation for minority cultures and their achievements? Of course not! The archaeologist studies human material culture on the presumption that, within certain parameters, human beings may be found to do more or less the same sorts of thing wherever they reside and whatever phenotype they may have, and moreover that wherever they are found, human cultures have always been linked in complicated, constitutive ways to other cultures, so that in fact the process of ‘globalization’ is coeval with the earliest out-of-Africa migrations.
Certainly, archaeology has not been free of infection from national myth-making, from the desire to cast ancient remains found on this-or-that country’s soil as having something to do with that country’s current identity. And certainly, Eurocentrism in archaeology did for a long time occlude from view what has more recently become indisputable: that for a number of the innovations in symbolic material culture associated with what Colin Renfrew and others have called the ‘Human Revolution’ of roughly 60,000-50,000 years ago, we need to be looking to sub-Saharan Africa. But still, archaeology moved out of its infancy some time ago; it now understands humanity to be a global phenomenon with sundry local inflections. It seems to me that the progress of the study of the history of material culture might serve as a model for the study of the history of intellectual culture, which in certain times and places has been written down and distilled into what we are able to recognize as ‘philosophy’.
And here we come to the third possible model for thinking about non-Western philosophy: beyond the ladder and the museum, there is the web. This is the same web that has always linked the material cultures of at least Eurasia to one another, whatever distinctive regional flavors might also be discerned. The possibility of approaching the history of intellectual culture in the same way seems particularly auspicious right now, given the recent, very promising results of the so-called cognitive turn in the study of material culture, that is, the turn to the study of cultural artifacts as traces of distributed or exosomatic cognition, as material and intentional at once. So material-cultural history already is intellectual history of a sort, even if it is not the kind that interests philosophers: there is a great gap between stone tools and, say, medieval logic treatises, and different skills are required for studying the one than for the other. But both are material traces of human intention, and both emerge out of particular kinds of societies only. To know them fully is to know what kind of societies are able to produce them.
When we accept this final point –surely the most heterodox, from the point of view of most philosophers– we are for the first time in a position to study and to teach Indian, Chinese, European, and Arabic philosophy alongside one another in a serious and adequate way. When we accept, for example, that all of the great Axial Age civilizations, to use Karl Jaspers’s helpful label, are the product of a single suite of broad historical changes that swept the Eurasian continent, and thus that Chinese, Indian, and Greek thought-worlds are not aboriginal in any meaningful sense (neither are Cree or Huron or Inuit, for that matter, but this can be dealt with another time), then all of a sudden it becomes possible to study, say, the Buddha and his followers not as an expression of some absolutely other Eastern ‘wisdom’, but instead as a local expression of global developments, or as a node in a web.
I was recently wondering about the origins of the widespread folk figure of the antlered cuckold. It dawned on me that any scholarship I might find that really explains why men who have been betrayed by their wives are thought to sprout horns would probably be at least sixty years old. In more recent decades, a belief like this one might be mentioned in the course of some ideological critique or other, or it might come up in the description of the local and supposedly wholly particular beliefs of some ethnie or other whose lifeways are being paid tribute under the banner of scholarship. But what one will not find is a systematic treatment of the entire geographical space of a belief like this, a treatment of all its permutations and of the logic underlying these. There are some very notable exceptions, such as Carlo Ginzburg on folk beliefs about night-wandering from Friuli to the Baltic region. But Ginzburg’s work stands out as exceptional in its scope, when, if one pauses to think for a moment, this really just is one of the things scholarship ought regularly to be seeking to do: making out the web behind the nodes.
What makes it so hard to see that this might be the proper approach to the study of the history of philosophy as a global phenomenon is that philosophy is not supposed to work in the same way as folk beliefs. It is supposed to be a pursuit of culture-independent truth. Yet this article of faith has had the awkward and unintended consequence of making the available defenses of the de-Eurocentrization of philosophy –something most in the field hold to be desirable for political reasons– quaint at best and incoherent at worst. If philosophy is independent of culture, then we cannot go, so to speak, underneath the philosophy and examine the broader social dynamics that sustain it. But we need to look at these dynamics in order to see the connections between one tradition and another. There are, so to speak, tunnels in the basement between India and Greece, but we’re afraid to go down there. And so the result is that we are not so much liberating philosophy from culture, as we are making each culture’s philosophy irreducibly and incomparably its own, just as if it were a matter of displaying folk costumes in some Soviet ethnographic museum, or in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. This is unscientific, unrigorous, and unacceptable in any other academic discipline.
Pieces crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s Website
Works consulted for this essay:
Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia, London, 1879.
Otto von Böhtlingk, Sanskrit-Wörterbuch in kürzerer Fassung, St. Petersburg, 1878-89.
Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, New York: Penguin, 2009.
Georges Dumézil, Les dieux indo-européens, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1952.
Tatyana Elizarenkova, Grammatika vediiskogo iazyka, Moscow: Nauka, 1982.
Jonardon Ganeri, Philosophy in Classical India, Routledge, 2001.
Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher, with foreword by John Dewey, New York: D. Appleton, 1927.
Pale Youths in Love
I remember when I was a pre-teen and they moved into a loft across the street from me in Tribeca, where I lived. And an older neighbor friend told me they were living in her building, on the top floor. I saw him at my corner deli, and on the street smoking, but never her. At night, I sometimes looked up at their windows and saw their lights on. He was not very impressive in person. Cute, but no big deal.
What is Work?
Without a written record, we cannot know with certainty how the earliest humans thought about work, but the importance of sharing food and other resources means that prehistoric work embodied at least an element of serving the needs of a community rather than just those of an individual and his or her immediate family.
Genesis: A Supreme Fiction
It occurred to me that Genesis is such a supreme fiction, or perhaps it is the supreme fiction in western culture, which begat many others. For thousands of years this book has been the mirror or lamp that reveals what reality consists of – regarding the nature of human existence, the cosmos and God. Or, to put it differently: the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
You may also like :
In the everyday use of the concept, saying that something is grotesque rarely implies anything other than saying that something is a bit outside of the normal structure of language or meaning – that something is a peculiarity. But in its historical use the concept has often had more far reaching connotations.
It seems there’s no way out of sociology; nevertheless sociology cannot provide us with internal reasons for its ever-rising prestige. Surely we want to be able to say that the sociology of culture is valuable because it’s true or insightful. However, a culture that blithely accepts a sociological account of itself is one that appears to have foundered in the straits that have always bedeviled sociology: the attempt to negotiate the relations between structure and subject, or society and agent.