What Is ‘Non-Western’ Philosophy?

Part One

Justin E. H. Smith


Plate-4a I used to get very upset at the suggestion that there might be such a thing as 'non-Western philosophy'. Some years ago a German anthropologist friend told me she had heard, out on Broughton Island in Arctic Canada, Inuit elders using their free time, in the dim light of slowly burning seal blubber, to engage in leisurely dialogue about the nature of space and time. That's different, I insisted, because they were only addressing the issue (I supposed) within the comfortable mythological confines of their culture, rather than asking what space and time look like when you strip away your culture's contingent myths, which are, as Spinoza would say, satisfying only to the imagination, and then see what is left over. I had an even stronger complaint about what had come to be called 'African philosophy', 'Native American philosophy', and so on. These, I thought, were more the product of an unfortunate misunderstanding brought about by the politics of identity, which supposed that every identity group –and often what counts as an identity group, I noted, is only slapped together in hasty response to the classificatory schemes of the West: as if there could have been anything like a unified tradition across the African or North American continent prior to the period of colonial expansion– must come up with its own version of whatever it is that the West is thought to do well. I felt horribly discouraged when, on more than one occasion, while working the 'philosophy table' at my university's open house, I would meet adult Cree and Mohawks thinking of returning to school who, as they explained, might want to study 'your' (i.e., my) philosophy someday, but didn't feel any particular urgency to do so, since “we've got philosophers of our own.”

Are there in fact Cree philosophers, not as in academically trained philosophers who are ethnically Cree, but as in full members of Cree communities who, without 'the West' so much as hearing of it, fulfill a role in their communities that could justly be called the role of a philosopher? I now think this is a very important question, and not to be dismissed. John Dewey thought so as well, it seems, and in the foreword to a curious 1927 work by Paul Radin, entitled Primitive Man as Philosopher, the great pragmatist endorses Radin's view that “philosophic origins are not to be sought for in the cruder and conventionalized forms which religious beliefs assumed among the populace at large, but rather in the interpretations of the small intellectual class, whose ideas may have been crude because of limitations of subject matter at their command, but which at least were bold, independent, and free within these limitations.” Radin goes on to describe a debate he heard among some Dakota elders over the question whether “the rock and the earth are married or not.” Radin says that to us this question may appear 'trivial' (an odd choice of words; I think Radin should have said 'nonsensical'), but nonetheless it is a question “of an entirely speculative nature,” and most importantly for Radin, it is a question that will not be of interest to the ordinary lot of men, who “will simply regard it as a fact.” It is the speculativeness of the question, together with the exclusivity of the group asking it, that qualifies this domain of Dakota discourse as 'primitive philosophy'.

Naturally, the Cree I speak with at the open houses do not want to be credited with their own primitive or proto-philosophy; they mean to say rather that their tradition does something that is entirely equal to, and entirely separate from, what the tradition that supposedly began with Thales does. Whether this is the case or not is to me the interesting question, rather than whether, as Dewey and Radin both seem to suppose, Native Americans in the pre-contact state did something that bore the same relationship to real philosophy as the one we generally suppose branches of ethnoscience like medicine or astronomy bear to modern science.

The possible reasons to think they did not and could not have had a separate-but-equal philosophy are, I think, four. First, the tradition was entirely oral, so that there could be no body of texts on which to build from generation to generation. Second, as Dewey notes, they were limited in the range of subject matter at their command. Third, as I've already mentioned, and as Radin's chosen example shows, the sort of philosophical questioning that motivated the discussions seems to have been devoted to the fine-tuning, rather than to the clearing away, of myths: there was no radical pursuit of the reality masked by conventions, as there clearly was among the Greeks. Finally, there does not seem to have been the sort of sociocultural complexity to give rise to multiple ways of being within the same community (classes, specialized labor, and so on), and as Aristotle himself noted, it is this sort of social complexity that makes possible a niche for philosophers, who in turn reflect back upon the diversity of their society and take an interest in discovering the unity behind it.

My sense is that none of these reasons is alone sufficient for judging a tradition of reflection to be non-philosophy, and moreover that there probably never has been a society characterized by these four features. Only the first and the fourth can now be studied by philological and archaeological means; as for the second and third, it's too late to measure them now, as there really are no pre-contact traditions remaining, but only, so to speak, mirror traditions, which, for example, turn the reflections of scattered Dakota and Cree into 'Native American philosophy', and turn the sundry world-views and practices rooted in the Vedas into 'Hinduism'.


Speaking of the Vedas: many who are not willing to concede that there could be such a thing as Native American philosophy are nonetheless very comfortable calling certain tendencies within the Indian –that is the subcontinental Indian– tradition by that name. At the same time, they see it as a distinct species of philosophy, 'non-Western philosophy', and suppose that any contact it might have with the Western kind can only be of the compare-and-contrast variety. (Many continue to approach Arabic philosophy in the same way, in spite of the seamless continuity between the Greek, Arabic, and Latin phases of the Aristotelian tradition.)

What, now, is really going on in the bracketing of Indian philosophy in this way? It seems to me that 'non-Western' as applied to any tradition of philosophy in fact functions as a sort of euphemism for 'not really philosophy'. And it seems to me that there are two reasons why this euphemism persists. First of all, there is the straightforward chauvinism of European civilization, which takes philosophy as a one-time affair, and as a sort of proper noun, Philosophy, designating an individual thing born in Greece and Greece only. Second, there is the unfortunate, and much more recent, insistence upon the absolute and inviolable otherness of once-colonized subjects, and the corollary denuncation of any interest a European might take in the tradition of those subjects as 'Orientalism'. Thus, unwittingly, the chauvinists and the postcolonialists have a common cause: to prevent us from realizing that Indian and European philosophy have the same ancestry, had significant, direct overlap in antiquity, have consistently remained focused on many of the same problems, which they address with much the same conceptual apparatus and many of the same theoretical presuppositions.

This is a realization, by the way, that was very vividly had at least once in European history– by the Germans. To this day, in Germany Indo-European linguistics goes by the name 'indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft': a vestigial sign of the widespread view in the 19th century that Northern Europeans and Indians –or at least the elite Aryan class of Indians that flooded in from the North in distant antiquity and subjugated the darker Dravidians– are two branches of the same family. This perception had its grim conclusion in the Indophilia of certain Nazis, and in their attempt to restore the unity and purity of the Aryan family in part by exterminating the Semitic element among them. After the end of World War II, we no longer see much allusion to the historical unity of European and Indian civilizations, other than in the technical work of linguists who are not so concerned about civilizational questions. One might regret, however, the fact that the Nazis so thoroughly tainted a discovery that, in its 19th century incarnation in the groundbreaking Indological work of August Wilhelm Schlegel, Otto von Böhtlingk and others, was perfectly benign, and indeed revealed something remarkable about Europe: that it is in fact just a small peninsula of Asia.

Now this is not my area of expertise, but from what I can see the English tradition of Indology has been very different, and this is the tradition that decisively triumphed in the post-war period (there are of course some exceptions, including the work of Georges Dumézil, and even more so the work of Russian Indologists such as Tatyana Elizarenkova, who, perhaps because of their own relatively Eastern situation, do not seem to have stopped thinking of Indo-Aryan civilization as something all that other in relation to their own Slavic world). This tradition is grounded in an intensely chauvinistic sense of English particularity, and in a parallel sense of the utter difference of England's colonial subjects. This colonial attitude is reflected –again, unwittingly– in the work of an Orientalist such as Edwin Arnold, whose 1879 book The Light of Asia is certainly Indophile in character, but seems incapable of saying anything at all about India except by way of contrast. I believe it is this Victorian approach, rather than the scholarly approach of 19th-century Germany, that has won out, and that ironically carries on under the banner of anti-Orientalist 'respect'.


We know with certainty that following upon the Eastern campaigns of Alexander the Great there was significant cultural hybridity between the Hellenic and Indic worlds. The third-century Buddhist emperor of India, Aśokaḥ the Great, sent missionaries to convert Greeks to his own religion (he also sent missionaries in the other direction as far as Sri Lanka and Burma). A generation or so earlier the Greek geographer Megasthenes had written a work called the Indica, which has unfortunately been lost, but which we know from extensive citations in other works identified many points in common between Greek and Indian philosophy. Thus Strabo reports that “concerning generation, and the nature of the soul, and many other subjects, they express views like those maintained by the Greeks. They wrap up their doctrines about immortality and future judgment, and kindred topics, in allegories, after the manner of Plato.” By the early centuries of this era, Alexandrian Platonist philosophers such as Philo and Clement (representing Judaism and Christianity, respectively) would show a casual familiarity with the ways of the 'gymnosophists', i.e., naked world-renouncers from India who were, most likely, representatives of the Jain sect.

But what was perfectly familiar in antiquity would fall entirely off of the radar by the early modern period. An early modern Sinophile such as Leibniz had no interest at all in the traditional cultural forms of the Indian subcontinent. This probably had something to do with the fact that in the 17th century India was dominated by the Moghul Empire, and thus could easily have been presumed to be simply a Muslim land by European outsiders, whatever traditional 'barbarian' practices the villagers may have preserved (until just a century earlier than that, the Baltic lands were known to have preserved a vital pagan tradition as well, but no one thought to study it). The differing perceptions of India in Greek antiquity on the one hand, and early modern Europe, on the other, provides a vivid reminder, I think, that although Europe has always oriented itself towards Greece, Greece did not orient itself towards Europe. Ancient Greece was retroactively incoporated into Europe, but from its own point of view belonged to a world that included India at least as much as it included the regions that would later form the European Union, whose members would in turn insist on fast-tracking Greece into the Union in view of its symbolic importance. Strabo, for his part, was more interested in writing the geography of Libya than of Europa.


So we have the historical fact that, whatever later developments occurred, ancient Greece is no more Western than ancient India, except in the bare geographical sense. Both have reincarnation, humoral medicine, polytheism, ritual animal sacrifice, phallic cults, and so on. Both represent different branches of an original group, probably originating somewhere on the Pontic Steppe, that split apart roughly a millennium before either side started recording its tradition in writing. Between the split and the earliest records we have, they both drifted very far, and mingled with the local traditions of the places they settled, but for all that remained cousins.

But cousins can be very unlike one another, and beyond this historical fact of shared ancestry, we may still ask: did the Greeks begin doing something peculiar at some point, something that other civilizations did not think to do, that would then be communicated to the Romans, and from there to Christianized Europe?

One curious feature of the Indian tradition, which might be invoked to buttress the claim to Greek uniqueness, relates to the first objection earlier on to the claim that the Dakota have their own 'philosophy': although there is a long textual tradition in Sanskrit, writing seems to have been perceived as a sort of crutch rather than as an object of learning in itself. The tradition is in its essence oral, but relies on writing, when necessary, to record what cannot be preserved in individual human brains. The great 5th-century BC grammarian Pāṇini composed his materpiece, the Aṣṭādhyāyī, by having his students memorize different parts of it. In this respect, then, one can really not say of the Indian tradition that il n'y a pas de hors-texte, whereas many have supposed that the Western tradition is fundamentally textual. Vedic commentators in contrast seem to have thought: what good is learning if it's outside of the head? The goal is to know, not to potentially-know through the proximity of a knowledge-containing book. Now whether this really marks out a difference or not is far too large a topic to engage here, as it seems to me to require a thorough interrogation of the nature of writing. I'll just say here that I am persuaded by archaeologists such as Bruce Trigger, and anthropologists such as Frank Salomon, that writing begins as tallying (not so different, then, from early mathematics), and is understood more as an aide-memoire than as an end in itself. From this point of view, the Indian preference for orality and memorization over textuality defies our usual value distinction between literacy and illiteracy, and suggests that an oral culture might actually be more learned than a culture that needs to record its ideas in writing, like so many beads in a bowl representing the number of sheep bought and sold in an ancient city-state.

Now another concern about Indian philosophy has often been that it, like the Dakota meditation upon the marriage of the earth and rocks, remains confined within a mythological tradition, to wit, the religious tradition that would later be dubbed 'Hinduism'. The only appropriate response to this concern is: well, then Thomas Aquinas isn't a philosopher either, since his reflections on the nature of substance, form, matter, and so on, also took place within a mythological framework, and there were plenty of unargued-for presuppositions that he could never even think to question. There is also a perfectly reasonable concern that this is true of any community trying to think its way out of its own contingent situation. Add to these considerations the fact that materialism, atheism, skepticism, and so on have probably been more widespread on the Indian subcontinent than on the European subcontinent over, say, the past 3,500 years, and you'll agree it's very hard to maintain the objection based on a distinction between the merely somewhat reflective but essentially religious tradition, on the one hand, and true philosophy on the other. It may of course be the case that a certain strain of Indian philosophical reflection is initially motivated by a question that could not have been asked outside of the Indian religious context, but that doesn't necessarily determine the direction in which this strain may subsequently move. Moreover –and this is a point that Jonardon Ganeri makes well, echoing Bertrand Russell, in his otherwise far too reconstructionist Philosophy in Classical India— a person is rational when he or she uses rational methods to achieve certain aims, and the exercise of reason has nothing to do with the choice of ends. In this respect, there can perfectly well be rational arguments for the marriage of earth and rocks, or for the superiority of Vishnu to Indra.

Let us briefly consider in the Indian context, finally, the remaining two concerns that arise out of Dewey and Radin's characterization of Dakota reflections as mere 'proto-philosophy', namely, that there was limited subject matter to reflect upon, and that this limitation was a direct result of a relatively low degree of sociocultural complexity. I am myself strongly inclined to think that this sort of complexity is a real condition of the full exercise of what could look to us like philosophy, in the full sense, in another culture. This is of course not to say that the brains of hunter-gatherers are any less subtle or developed than those of city dwellers, but only that their subtlety is expressed in a different way, one that is more ecologically sensitive, and context-dependent. I am inclined to agree with Aristotle that it is social stratification, and the non-intellectual labor of the majority, that makes specialized intellectual labor possible. But if this is correct then prima facie there is all the more reason to expect to find a high level of philosophical activity in India, since it would be hard to conceive of a civilization that has historically been more stratified than the one that traces its tradition back to the Rig Veda.

And as for having what Dewey called “sufficient subject matter,” there is no doubt that up until the early modern period Indian astronomy, medicine, and so on in no way lagged behind what was going on elsewhere in Eurasia. It seems reasonable to suppose that just as grain storage and its consequent social complexification facilitate the emergence of a specialized intellectual class, scientific inquiry carries with it reflection upon the methodology and ultimate aims of that inquiry, i.e., it carries with it what of late has come to be called 'philosophy of science'.


I have barely touched upon any of the actual content of Indian philosophy, in a way that might provide a sense of what is distinctive about it, and so of whether it deserves to be cordoned off in the way that it has by self-appointed representatives of Western philosophy. In the sequel to this essay, I would like to focus on the centrality of grammar in the Indian tradition, and what this reveals about how we might to attempt to characterize the Indian philosophical tradition as a whole. Wendy Doniger has gone so far as to say that grammar is for Indian thought what theology has been for European thought, and indeed it often seems that in the Indian tradition reflection on the character of phonemes, for example, is at once a reflection on divinity. In this very early stage of my own Indian philosophical education, this seems to be the central point of difference between the two traditions, and is one that I would like to explore further. It is also a point of difference that gets no attention whatsoever in the usual dichotomous positioning of India as a place that specializes in 'Eastern thought', in contrast with Europe's 'philosophy'.


Works consulted for this essay:

Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia, London, 1879.

Otto von Böhtlingk, Sanskrit-Wörterbuch in kürzerer Fassung, St. Petersburg, 1878-89.

Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, New York: Penguin, 2009.

Georges Dumézil, Les dieux indo-européens, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1952.

Tatyana Elizarenkova, Grammatika vediiskogo iazyka, Moscow: Nauka, 1982.

Jonardon Ganeri, Philosophy in Classical India, Routledge, 2001.

Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher, with foreword by John Dewey, New York: D. Appleton, 1927.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.