Non-Western Philosophies in Reception: The Case of India

—by Owen Ware

Examining the intricacies of past reception, one scholar finds a path into philosophy’s future.

If you look at my list of publications, you’ll see that I’ve spent a lot of time studying modern European philosophy, especially Kant and post-Kantian thought. But the truth is, my interest in South Asian schools of philosophy is much older, going back to the late 1990s when I began to read Indian and Buddhist texts with great excitement.

At the time what I found compelling about these texts was the way they presented philosophy as a way of life. It wasn’t just an intellectual exercise, or a way of sharpening one’s critical thinking, but something much larger, from cultivating character to engaging in actual practices like meditation. While I didn’t have the opportunity to take classes in South Asian philosophy as a student—because none were offered—these teachings remained an important part of my life over the years.

My new research marks a fusion of these two areas: modern European philosophy and classical Indian systems of thought. I’m trying to tackle a set of questions that has only recently become a matter of debate within the discipline:

(1) Why did the canon of Western thought take a form that excluded Indian systems of philosophy? And (2) how can we understand those systems today in ways that open up global dialogues within the discipline of philosophy itself?

What I’m working on now constitutes a critical reception history: one that shows how the first translated texts of classical Indian philosophy were interpreted and evaluated by European intellectuals over the modern period. One thing that struck me as I began this new direction of research was the sudden interest in India that captured some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals of the period, especially those working in Germany, such as Johann Gottlieb Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, F. W. J. Schelling, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and G. W. F. Hegel. As I dove into unpacking their engagements with Sanskrit texts—such as the Bhagavadgītā, the Sāṃ khya-Karikas, and the Yoga-Sūtras—I discovered how existing controversies at the time largely distorted the image of classical Indian philosophy.

For example, almost overnight these texts became caught in the crossfire of a debate concerning the rise of pantheism, as a doctrine that identifies the divine “in all things.” Those sympathetic to this doctrine, at the time associated with the work of Spinoza, were excited by the kind of metaphysics they found in books like the Gītā. But for others, pantheism made for a dangerous doctrine that ultimately reduced to “nihilism”—a rejection of individual things, a denial of moral distinctions, and the like—and they imported those same fears onto Indian systems as well.

My work helped me understand this narrowing of the discipline at the expense of non-Western—and especially Indian—systems.

What provoked me as I worked further on this project was an unfortunate fact about the shape philosophy has taken as a discipline: that of a largely European- (and later Anglo-American) dominant field. My work helped me understand this narrowing of the discipline at the expense of non-Western—and especially Indian—systems as partially the result of these highly charged debates that unfolded early in the nineteenth century. Hegel, for example, spent years arguing that there was no such thing as “Indian philosophy,” and he maintained that ancient India was strictly speaking a “pre-historical” stage of human development.

Without a doubt Hegel’s indictment against Indian philosophy reveals a dark moment in the reception history I’m trying to uncover; but hopeful moments exist too. I discovered in the course of my research that there was anything but a uniform set of attitudes toward India at the time. Writers such as Herder, Humboldt and, to a lesser extent, Schelling expressed enthusiasm about the prospect of what we now call “global philosophy.” We can learn from these exceptions, I believe, as they speak to a question that more and more scholars are asking today: How can we do philosophy in ways more inclusive and open to non-Western traditions?

This constitutes, in my view, an urgent task for the continued flourishing of philosophy as an academic discipline. I say this because the reality of living in multicultural centres of life is only growing, making the demands to learn other languages (as well as other modes of thinking) one of the great challenges facing the humanities. Of course, this is easier said than done. One of the obstacles facing global philosophy is simply that it puts a heavier workload on your shoulders: more languages to learn, more traditions to study, more books to read. But it’s worth it. And we always have the resource of collaboration to draw on, as Elisa Freschi so powerfully demonstrates in her contribution to this magazine.

In this respect I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a member of the Philosophy Department at the University of Toronto, given its international reputation for scholarship in South Asian history, language, philosophy, and culture. With newly recruited specialists in these fields, such as Professors Jonardon Ganeri, Christopher Fraser, Elisa Freschi, and Nilanjan Das, I look forward to starting new conversations and collaborations as my research unfolds. Now is the time, I believe, for starting dialogues about how non-Western philosophies have been received in the Western world.

In saying this, I am reminded of something Edward W. Said wrote in Orientalism (1978):

“Perhaps the most important task of all would be to undertake studies in contemporary alternatives to Orientalism, to ask how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective. But then one would have to rethink the whole complex problem of knowledge and power. These are all tasks left embarrassingly incomplete in this study.”

Said composed those words more than 40 years ago, and the task remains for the most part unfulfilled. It’s certainly too vast for any single person to achieve; but I hope to take a few small, hopefully fruitful, steps in that direction.

After receiving his PhD in Philosophy at U of T, Owen Ware held positions at Temple and Simon Fraser Universities before returning to the department in 2017. Now an associate professor, his areas of specialization include Kant, German idealism, and 19th-century philosophy. He is the author of two books, Kant’s Justification of Ethics and Fichte’s Moral Philosophy, both with Oxford University Press, and is a co-editor of Fichte’s System of Ethics: A Critical Guide, with Cambridge University Press. He also has research interests in contemporary ethics, social and political philosophy, continental philosophy, and South Asian philosophy.