East of Königsberg: Expanding Limits through Collaboration

—by Elisa Freschi

The key to expanding the philosophical canon lies in accepting the limits of one’s own expertise and collaborating with others.

The essay introducing the feature pieces of this year’s magazine discusses global philosophy as “philosophy as it should be.” Those of us debating the matter were thinking, perhaps, of Immanuel Kant’s definition of Illuminism, elaborating from there that philosophy needs to strive to leave behind a stage of self-imposed limitations. Which limitations? Both those concerning the set of texts or ideas the discipline typically engages with and the methods applied.

Even if we can reach powerful conclusions while reading only Latin commentaries on Peter Abelard, say, why not read beyond them? Similarly, what attitude causes us to think that nothing valuable has ever been thought east of Königsberg and south of Sicily? To draw on a powerful simile suggested by the contemporary U.S. philosopher Jay L. Garfield, doing philosophy in a non-global way is like only listening to music composed on a Monday. Or, to use a metaphor more apt for harsh Canadian winters, disregarding philosophy’s wider reach is akin to an expert skier deciding to only go down the same slope over and over again. Certainly, if they did, they would definitely continue improving their style and technique. Some of them might even manage to engage so deeply with every inch of the slope that they would discover new aspects of it each time—and we should certainly be grateful to them for their dedication and insights.

Yet for all others, I ask: Why not choose the fascinating path of challenging ourselves with a different terrain—learning its similarities and differences, its revealingly unique features, forcing us to adapt and thereby teaching us novel skills that might prove useful on our more familiar slope as well? To me, doing philosophy within a single tradition likewise creates a self-imposed limitation—when philosophy by definition should want to challenge boundaries and think beyond every one of them.*

But how does one get to this place, this new terrain? The first step is, as so often, the most difficult one, and it involves a scholar’s decision to go beyond the comfort zone of their own knowledge to accept the challenge of the unknown. It is important to realize that this indeed makes for a challenge; only its conscious acknowledgment will leave us prepared to not simply fall back on our old methods and assumptions and apply them to a new text or system as if nothing had happened.

This latter procedure would lead to the opposite of doing philosophy globally, in fact reducing any diversity to a single angle and a single possible approach (which, truth be told, is routinely that of the currently dominant philosophical tradition). To go back to our musical comparison, it would be like interpreting any piece of music in existence anywhere in the world according to the rules of harmony we learned as a child, or, for the winter enthusiasts among us, like skiing on all types of snow using exactly the same technique (which, even if it works, misses the point of challenging ourselves).

What attitude causes us to think that nothing valuable has ever been thought east of Königsberg and south of Sicily?

Thus, once we have taken that first step, we will need to savour the challenge qua challenge. How? Much as we would when learning new music or trying our skills for the first time on a more difficult ski slope: we will need, or at least benefit from, an expert guide. And how do we identify an expert? Many epistemologists of testimony have discussed the topic. I will use here the threefold rule elaborated within the Nyāya school of Sanskrit philosophy, according to which an expert needs to be competent, sincere, and willing to communicate.

A little elaboration: The first requirement is apparent; no one can call themselves an expert in something they barely know. In this connection, let’s remember that competence is domain-specific: an expert in Mozart need not know everything about didjeridoos. Likewise, competence in a certain philosophical tradition does not automatically translate to the others. This is especially worth keeping in mind because, before venturing into a new terrain, we often risk underestimating its vastness. Accordingly, some universities have now opened positions for “non-Western philosophy,” implying that it is a homogenous whole of ridiculously small dimensions (since the openings for Euro-American philosophy are much more precise, e.g., “17th-century philosophy” or “bioethics”) that a single person can master. In contrast, I suggest that, before venturing into, say, Sanskrit discussions of the nature of the mind, we need to identify a guide expert in exactly that question. That guide needs to know what they don’t know and be sincere in what they share. In addition, they must be willing to share generously.

In the ideal case, the guide will soon become a fellow skier on the same slope or a companion musician playing the same tune. In fact, global philosophy invites and encourages collaboration. No one will ever master every branch of philosophy, so we achieve the optimal compromise between openness to challenges and depth (which cannot be acquired in multiple fields in a short time) by working with colleagues. Learning to ski or play music with others takes time, especially at the beginning, but it rewards participants with results difficult to achieve on their own.

I, for one, am extremely grateful to the colleague logicians in the Mīmāṃ sā Logic Project (mimamsa.logic.org) who allowed me to think of deontics within Sanskrit philosophy using ideas and methods I had previously not even been aware of. Conversely, I exposed my colleagues at the TU Wien (Vienna University of Technology) to the challenge of Sanskrit ideas about commands, leading them to rethink the axiom that prescriptions, prohibitions, and permissions are mutually definable. Much like a ski tour or a new melody, these collaborative efforts helped both sides even when we returned to the texts, ideas, and methods we were more familiar with, and which had now taken on a different sheen.

Are you ready to listen to a new tune or ski in fresh snow?

*Again, I fully acknowledge that some people will find fresh boundaries to be crossed even within the same tradition. This short article is directed at all others.

Assistant professor Elisa Freschi works on Sanskrit philosophy, specifically on topics of epistemology of testimony, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language, deontic logic, and on the re-use of texts in the Sanskrit cosmopolis. She is a convinced upholder of reading Sanskrit philosophical texts within their history and understanding them through a philosophical approach. She has worked as an “Assistentin” at the University of Vienna and as research leader of projects on Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and on deontic logic and Mīmāṃ sā at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.