Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason

Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason

Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason

Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason

Synopsis

This original work focuses on the rational principles of Indian philosophical theory, rather than the mysticism more usually associated with it. Ganeri explores the philosophical projects of a number of major Indian philosophers and looks into the methods of rational inquiry deployed within these projects. In so doing, he illuminates a network of mutual reference, criticism, influence and response, in which reason is used to call itself into question. This fresh perspective on classical Indian thought unravels new philosophical paradigms, and points towards new applications for the concept of reason.

Excerpt

This is a book about philosophical theory in classical India. It is an attempt to understand the nature of the classical Indian philosophical endeavour, and in so doing to reveal a richness of projects and a diversity of methods. Reason is the instrument of all philosophers, but conceptions of the nature and function of reason vary along with varying ideas about the work for which reason is properly employed. Manu, the lawmaker, said that those whose only guide is reason should be banished from the company of the virtuous. That is the view too of the great narrators of the Indian epics. Reason unchecked was seen as a threat to the stability of Brahminical social order, as the tool of heretics and troublemakers. But the epic horror of pure reason was a disdain not for reason itself, but only for its capricious use, to undermine belief rather than to support it, to criticise and not to defend. Philosophy in India, or so I argue in Chapter 1, flourished in the space this distinction affords.

The mortal finger in Michelangelo’s Creation stretches out, but cannot touch the divine hand. Is this an appropriate metaphor for reason itself? Does the subjectivity that goes along with being situated in the world preclude our attaining through reason an objective conception of it? Is the idea that human reason can find nature intelligible in some fundamental way misguided? This ancient problem is but one of the leitmotivs of philosophical inquiry in classical India, where radical critiques of reason are as plentiful as more moderate applications. Brahman, the still divinity, the Upanisadic symbol for objectivity itself, is that from which ‘before they reach it, words turn back, together with the mind’. But if there are limits to language and reason, can we by reason come to know what they are and where they lie? Or are the limits of reason themselves beyond reason’s limit? Can it be rational to strive to transcend the boundaries of reason, to attempt what one knows to be impossible? If reason is by its very nature limited, then perhaps the subversion of reason itself becomes a rational end. That appears to be the conclusion of Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka Buddhism, whose philosophical method I examine in Chapter 2. He reasons that the constructs of reason are as empty as the magician’s hat, and he welcomes the predictable retort that his own reasoning is empty too.

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