Was There an 'Early Modern' Period in Indian Philosophy?


Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa meeting Hanumān at Rishyamukha. early 19th Century

by Justin E. H. Smith

If philosophy questions everything, surely it must also question the periodization of its own history. Professional historians themselves tend to agree that the imposition of periods on the past –premodern, Renaissance, early modern, and so on– is always to some degree arbitrary, even if it is also impossible to imagine how we could describe the past without any periodization at all. The bounding off of temporal regions in this way is made all the more problematic if we wish to consider the past from a global perspective, rather than simply focusing on a single region, since the rationale for periodization in one place might not apply in another. However artificial the notion of the ‘medieval’ period is, we may nonetheless say with certainty that this notion is more usefully applied to Europe than to, say, South America: there is nothing ‘medieval’ about the 10th century in Peru (nor, strictly speaking, is there any meaningful sense in which Peruvians can be said to have experienced the 10th century). There is also nothing medieval about what we often call ‘medieval Islamic philosophy’. Whether or not we may see the period between the 8th and the 12th centuries as a ‘Golden Age’, a term that implies a subsequent decline, it is in any case a mistake to see the period of flourishing of ibn Rushd in Iberia, or of ibn Sina in Central Asia, as a relative void between antiquity and modernity. It was certainly not experienced by the people who lived it as ‘between two ages’, and nor, within the context of Islamic history, is there any interesting sense in which this period was a transitional one.

At this point it will be useful to distinguish between harmless forms of periodization, on the one hand, and distorting ones, on the other. There is nothing distorting about calling, e.g, Leibniz an ‘early modern’ philosopher. He would not have used this term himself—it would have been particularly strange for him, or for anyone living in any period, to describe himself as an ‘early’ representative of anything, since this would imply some kind of familiarity with things yet to come. But Leibniz did use near synonyms of ‘modern’ to describe the period he was living in and the style of thinking characteristic of it, and as it turns out there was more of it to come in the future. The distorting periodizations, by contrast, seem to arise particularly when they involve the extension of one region’s harmless periodizations to a region for which they were not initially developed. Yet we must also not be so cautious to avoid such extensions that we become blinded to broader, transregional patterns in intellectual history.

A good example of such a pattern, possibly, is the case of early modern India. Recently, in his excellent book The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India, 1450-1700, Jonardon Ganeri has forcefully argued that, just as in Europe, so in South Asia we may identify a cluster of developments that may justly be described as the emergence of a distinctly modern style of thinking. There is no radical break with the past, but part of Ganeri’s argument is that recent revisionist scholarship on the early modern period in Europe itself may help us to gain a more subtle understanding of the complicated blend of continuity and innovation in India in the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period, Sanskrit thinkers remain in many respects faithful to the earlier authorities in the traditions in which they are writing, and for this reason from the outside it has long been difficult to detect any ruptures of the sort we associate with modernity. In Europe in contrast we find many early modern thinkers boldly, or indeed haughtily, proclaiming their independence from all authority of the past, announcing their status as modern, individual thinkers.

But recent scholarship shows that much of this was bluster: in many respects early modern philosophy might better be understood as a complicated reckoning with certain legacies of the ancient tradition, and not as a radical break from this tradition. Few early modern European philosophers truly believed they could ‘go it alone’, and even the ones who proclaimed that this is what they were doing continued to display, in their actual work, an ongoing debt to ancient thinkers. Thus for example the early modern philosopher who perhaps declared his independence from the past most loudly, Descartes, can be shown to have had a significant debt to Augustine, and this even in the work, the Meditations, in which he declares that it is his intention to proceed having forgotten everything he has learned up until this time.

In India, there is no such comparable expression of radical individualism. But Ganeri has compellingly shown that there is nonetheless a complex interplay between innovation and authority that mirrors the conciliatory syntheses going on simultaneously in Europe, even if the rhetoric of innovation is rather more subdued. In the Indian expression of this interplay there was, Ganeri emphasizes, no ‘quarrel of the ancients and the moderns’, that is, no radical rejection of the authority of tradition, nor any bold claim of the superiority of the present age. What there is, however, is a marked decline in deference to the ancients, and a parallel rise in calls to readers to think through philosophical problems themselves. Thus Ganeri cites the 16th century Nyāya philosopher Raghunātha Śiromaṇi, who insists that “these matters spoken of should not be cast aside without reflection just because they are contrary to accepted opinion” (4; Inquiry 1915: 79, 1-80, 3; trans. Potter 1957: 89-90).

One reason why the sort of call for independent thought that Raghunātha expresses here has generally been overlooked, or has not won for Indian philosophy in this period the appellation ‘modern’, is that most philosophers continued to write works of commentary. We tend to associate this genre of writing with scholasticism, with the names of figures such as Thomas Aquinas or Francisco Suarez who represent, precisely, a contrast class to the modern thinkers: commentaries are held in the European tradition to express almost by definition a passive acceptance of the general authority of the earlier text being commented upon. But this is a facile supposition, and in fact in both Europe and India commentaries admit of wide degrees of variation with respect to the critical distance or even opposition they express vis-à-vis the original, commented text. As Ganeri explains, while early modern Indian philosophers “still… write commentaries, and still use concepts and categories that might, if looked at from a distance, seem archaic,” nonetheless “the mere activity of writing a commentary… does not by itself tell one very much about the author’s attitude to the text being commented on.” Fundamentally, he stresses, the role of a commentary “was to mediate a conversation between the past and the present” (6). There is no ‘quarrel’ of the ancients and the moderns, but rather a ‘dialogue’. In any case, though, there is a distinct sense, among Indian philosophers as among Europeans, that tradition has entered a new period, with new standards and a new style. A lesson here is that the relationship to tradition is always complex: a radical, go-it-alone thinker such as Descartes is exaggerating when he claims to have ‘forgotten everything he learned’. Correlatively, an Indian commentator such as Raghunātha, while positioning himself in relation to his predecessors, is not necessarily for that reason subordinating himself to his predecessors.

One very significant difference between European and Indian modern philosophy, also emphasized by Ganeri, is the fact that in the former case the shape that philosophy took, indeed the self-consciousness of philosophy as modern, was largely, or nearly entirely, a consequence of the emergence of modern science. There simply is no sense in thinking about modern European philosophy in general without thinking about the way it is shaped by such developments as the decline of geocentrism, the invention of the microscope, the development of key elements of what would later be called the ‘scientific method’, and so on. In India, by contrast, early modern philosophy continued to engage principally with questions of what we would call ‘epistemology’ and ‘philosophy of language’.

In this sense, Ganeri even goes so far as to claim that the rise of early modern Indian philosophy might in certain respects be more suitably compared to the rise of analytic philosophy in the West some centuries later. Ganeri perhaps fails to mention that Western analytic philosophy, unlike early modern Indian philosophy, turns to the analysis of language and the methodology of science as a response to the meteoric success of natural science over the previous centuries, whereas the fact that Indian philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries is preoccupied with language, meaning, and knowledge is itself a reflection of tremendous continuity: in an important sense the very oldest Indian philosophy is philosophy of language, or what is often called ‘grammatical philosophy’, which has its mature, if cryptic expression already in Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī of the 4th century BCE. This continuity shows up the remarkable degree to which philosophy in early modern India remained impervious to natural science. As Ganeri points out, in astronomy, mathematics, and other fields, Indian learning in the same period was highly influenced by Persian and Arabic traditions. But the study of the ‘core’ questions of philosophy (indeed, here Sanskrit philosophers and Western analytic philosophers are in close agreement as to what constitutes the core) remained sharply bounded off from Islamic influence, closed off within a sort of Sanskritic bubble, in which there was innovation, certainly, but not as a result of pressure from outside traditions.

It is interesting in this connection to consider the possibility of a relationship, precisely, between the sharp perception of philosophy as having a core, on the one hand, and, on the other imperviousness to external traditions. That is, where philosophy is more or less entirely contained within a single linguistic community with a uniform, shared set of canonical references, it will tend to have a sharper sense of what distinguishes it from other varieties of inquiry, particularly the natural sciences: it will, whether in Sanskrit or in English, have a sharper sense of its own purity. In this connection early modern European philosophy provides a marked contrast, especially when we consider it as having taken shape in large part as a result of the gradual incorporation of experimental traditions and of varieties of natural-scientific inquiry that may be traced back to a cross-Mediterranean cultural and linguistic translation of Islamic traditions of inquiry. A good case in point is the history of what is sometimes called ‘chemical philosophy’, which recent scholars have shown to have been fundamental in the formation of early modern corpuscularianism and the views of paradigmatically modern philosophers such as Robert Boyle, and which may by a few simple steps be traced back through Iberia and Italy to Arabic texts. In this respect, one might conjecture that what marks early modern European philosophy is precisely its openness to influence from the Islamic world, in contrast to Sanskrit philosophy’s closedness.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.