Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Interpreting an Alien Philosophy: What Works for Me


[Dear readers: I am happy to present the following invited guest post from Dr. Elisa Freschi of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Freschi (BA +MA in Indology and Tibetology, BA in Philosophy, PhD in South Asian Studies) has worked on topics of Classical Indian Philosophy and more in general on comparative philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language and on the re-use of texts in Indian philosophy (about which she has just finished editing a volume). She is a convinced upholder of reading Sanskrit philosophical texts within their history and understanding them through a philosophical approach. She has worked at the Austrian Academy of Sciences since September 1, 2012, with a Lise Meitner project on Epistemology of Sacred Texts in Vedāntadeśika’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā. For more information about her work see here.]

No matter whether one focuses on Classical Chinese philosophy (as probably most readers of this blog) or on Classical Indian philosophy (like myself), one works on something which is different than oneself. I will contend that this feeling is useful also if one focuses on contemporary Chinese, or Indian (or Tibetan and so on) philosophy, or on Classical, Medieval, Modern Western philosophy, since it alerts one to a key factor, namely the difference between oneself and one’s object of study.

One should be aware of all too rapid identifications and remember to allow the texts to claim something different than the categories one would instinctively like them to represent. For instance, if you have just found out that X’s philosophy of language is “identical” to Grice’s, pause and reflect. You are most probably missing something distinctive and run the risk of overlooking the specificities of both. Moreover, you are missing the chance to be challenged by X’s philosophy, since you are interpreting it through the lens of something familiar, thus domesticating its extraneousness.

Taken to its extremes, this move is what will eventually lead one to think that “There is no Chinese logic” or “Indian philosophy was not aware of history”. Oversimplifying and being blind to differences makes the history of philosophy and thereby also philosophy itself far less interesting and challenging.

I assume that the audience of this blog is too philosophically engaged to need to be warned against the opposite risk so that I will just mention it: By contrast, I also try to avoid the risk of thinking of the texts I work on as completely alien. They were written by authors who, like myself, wanted to communicate something. If they seem to be communicating something senseless, before condemning the “lack of rationality” of the text, I programmatically assume that I am wrong.

A consequence of the first point, i.e., the emphasis on difference, is the need to study not just philosophy, but also the history of philosophy. I am convinced that, at least in my case, the awareness of a historical perspective has greatly deepened my understanding of each single issue. I can see clearly that there are trends and that “idealism” has not always meant the same thing and I am, therefore, much less prone to fashions, such as cleansing Vasubandhu of idealism  (Vasubandhu was a 5th c. Buddhist philosopher who was long thought to be an “idealist” and then interpreted differently after a certain point because idealism was out of fashion in contemporary Anglophone philosophy and one unconsciously wanted to “rescue” Vasubandhu from what one deemed to be a mistake).

A further consequence of the emphasis on difference is that one often needs to consider the fact that an alien philosophy not only has different answers to offer, but often asks different questions. An easy example is that of the controversy about what there is, which in Western thought often – and in modern and contemporary thought automatically – assumes the form of a quest for the origin of the world. A symptom of this attitude can be seen in the questions posed to Stephen Hawkins at his public lectures. They mostly regard Hawkins’ theory of time, asking “What was there before the Big Bang”, and they so much resemble each other that Prof. Hawkins could prepare automatic answers for them. The automatic translation of one problem (the explanation of what is given) into another (the temporal origin of what is given out of a cause different than itself) is avoided in the case of other philosophical traditions, from classical Greece to India and China. The same applies to the controversy about free will, the specific elements of which are linked with the history of Western thought, from the Greek tragedy to St. Augustine and so on.

Turning back to the main point, this ability of different philosophical histories to unsettle our commonsensical questions is annoying for the editors of volumes about, e.g., “Theodicy in world philosophies”, who think they cannot find the answers they are looking for. Nonetheless, if one regards philosophy not as the professional business of editors and publishing houses, but as an ongoing enterprise, then there is nothing a philosopher needs more than the encounter with a thinker or a thought that unsettles her and allows her to perceive how much is nonreflective in what she considered to be her original ideas. Thus, let us all study Chinese, Indian, African, ancient Greek philosophies, or any other philosophy which is far enough from our common sense, be it temporally, geographically or through other conditions.*

This being said, interpreting an alien philosophy is not an episteme. It is at most a techne. What works for you?


*I am thinking here of critical feminist philosophy, critical philosophy of race, critical philosophy of disability and so on.


Hannah Pang detail



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