Beyond Borders

BEYOND BORDERS: Conceptual Biodiversity in Cosmopolitan Philosophy

by Jonardon Ganeri

What does it mean to explode borders in philosophy, from classical South Asian thought to Fernando Pessoa?

If one’s ambition is to discover fundamental philosophical theory true of the human being as such, global philosophy claims, it is methodologically essential to consider theories from a plurality of cultural locations. Why? Because theories developed exclusively within individual scholarly communities will inevitably tend toward narrowness and provincialism, freighted with vested interests. This outlook differs from comparative philosophy, the ambition of which is to demonstrate affinities and differences between theories that have arisen in different cultures, perhaps to extract the highest common factor among them or to appraise or model one in terms of the other. In the perspective of global philosophy, cultures are repositories of a conceptual biodiversity whose various stored riches we must access if inquiry is not to be inbred, since diverse populations of ideas prove more resilient than homogenous ones because they better manage to fit variable intellectual environments.

Theories developed exclusively within individual scholarly communities will inevitably tend toward narrowness and provincialism.

A philosopher who sees an issue from plural cultural perspectives can discern features of the issue invisible from any one perspective, just as in binocular vision one can see depth and not only shape. A familiar philosophical trope says thinking is in the grip of a largely unacknowledged dogma or myth that shapes and distorts reflection and experience. (Two dogmas of European empiricism and various myths about the mind existed in the Cartesian tradition, from the ghost in the machine to the myth of the given and the myth of mediation.) A singularly effective method for bringing the grip of such myths to the surface is to examine philosophies where those myths are not operative, and this constitutes a second reason for introducing cross-cultural methodologies into philosophy. The reflective distance scholars obtain by involving themselves in alternative claims enables them to assume a more self-aware stance.

One form that global philosophy can take, the form that I myself prefer, is cosmopolitan. There are two strands intertwined in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One strand, as Anthony Appiah puts it in his 2006 Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, is the idea that “we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kin.” In the case of cosmopolitan philosophy, this is an intellectual obligation to reach for theories that do not exclude segments of thinking humanity. The other strand is, with Appiah again, “that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.” As applied to the idea of a cosmopolitan philosophy, this second strand consists in an intellectual duty to take seriously the thought of others who are not in our own intellectual circle, to be prepared that their concepts and vocabularies are ones we shall need to learn. The ideal of cosmopolitanism, Ulf Hannerz says in “Cosmopolitanisms and Locals in World Cultures” (1990), is “an orientation, a willingness to engage with the Other … an intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness toward divergent cultural experiences.”

In the postscript to Comparative Philosophy without Borders (2015), Arindam Chakrabarti has aptly said that philosophy should be borderless: “Once we have climbed up to the level playing field of global combative cooperative critical creative philosophy from the fetid wells of centuries of unacknowledged epistemic inequalities, we can, it is hoped, throw away the ladder of comparison [ … and … ] instead of preserving, quoting, and juxtaposing [one’s sources], one picks up a concept, a line of reasoning or some, however minor, point arising out of years of imaginative rearrangement and cross-fertilization of the ideas retrieved from different cultures, periods, texts, and disciplines.”

In my own philosophical work I have tried to put these thoughts into practice. In philosophy of mind, I advance the view, in my book The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance (Oxford University Press, 2012), that our concept of self is constitutively grounded in the fact that subjects are beings who own their ideas, emotions, wishes, and feelings. Drawing as much on classical Indian Nyāya, Buddhist, and Cārvāka thought as on contemporary work in analytical philosophy, I argue that the self is a unity of three strands of ownedness: normative (being responsible for one’s own beliefs), phenomenological (feeling one’s emotions as one’s own), and subpersonal (the integration of all one’s mental states into a unified whole). In another book, Attention, Not Self (Oxford University Press, 2018), I argue that when early Buddhists deny that there is a self, what they are rejecting is the conception of self as the willing agent, an inner origin of willed directives. For early Buddhists like Buddhaghosa, the real nature of mental activity is in the ways we pay attention. This book clears the ground for the sort of conception of self defended in The Self. My earlier book, The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2007), explores thinking about selfhood in a range of Upaniṣadic, Vedāntic, Yogācāra, and Mādhyamika philosophers, under the rubric of the idea that the self is something that conceals itself from itself.

In the history of philosophy, I argue that modernity is not a uniquely European achievement. In The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India, 1450–1700 (Oxford University Press, 2011), I show how there emerges in 17th-century India a distinctive version of modernity in the work of the “new reason” (Navya-nyāya) philosophers of Bengal, Mithilā, and Benares. These thinkers confronted the past and thought of themselves as doing something very new, as intellectual innovators. The innovativeness of this group of philosophers is also the subject of my earlier book, Semantic Powers: Meaning and the Means of Knowing in Classical Indian Philosophy (Clarendon, 1999), revised and restructured for the second edition titled Artha: Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2011), which aims to demonstrate that they made discoveries in linguistics and the philosophy of language not seen in Europe until the late 20th century. These include discoveries about the meaning of proper names, pronominal anaphora, testimony, and the relationship between epistemology and meaning theory.

I have also been writing about the philosophy of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa (1888–1935) lived what was in many ways an astonishingly modern, transcultural, and translingual life. He was born in Lisbon, the point of departure for Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, as commemorated by Pessoa’s forebear, the poet Luís de Camões. He grew up in Anglophone Durban in what is now South Africa, acquiring a life-long love for English poetry and language. My book, Virtual Subjects, Fugitive Selves: Fernando Pessoa and His Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2021), is the first English-language monograph about Pessoa’s philosophy written by a philosopher. I argue that Pessoa’s notion of the heteronym (another I who is “myself”) can be used to solve some of the trickiest puzzles in the global history of the philosophy of self, including, for example, the “floating man” of Avicenna and the “dream of the butterfly” in Zhuangzi. Indeed, precursors of the notion of the heteronym can be found within Indian philosophy, and I am currently writing a second monograph about Pessoa, one in which I recontextualize some of his ideas within the tradition of classical Indian aesthetics and the philosophy of art.

Jonardon Ganeri, Bimal K. Matilal Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, in his work draws on a variety of philosophical traditions to construct new positions in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and epistemology. He has published nine research monographs and more than eighty research papers. He joined the Fellowship of the British Academy in 2015, and won the Infosys Prize in the Humanities the same year, the only philosopher to do so.