Friday, March 07, 2014

Śaṅkara: Philosopher or Theologian?

At the Indian Philosophy Blog, Jonathan Edelmann argues in his post, “Philosophy and Theology—let’s be clearer,” that we should think of the great Advaita Vedāntin, Śakara, as a theologian, rather than a philosopher (my response follows):
“[I want] to raise an issue that has bothered me since the very first time I read Śakara in a second year undergraduate Sanskrit course at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and about which I wrote an article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
I think Indologists, philosophers and theologians who examine Indian texts, and religious studies scholars could more carefully distinguish philosophy from theology, even if the two are not mutually exclusive and have considerable overlap. This is especially true in a ‘Hindu’ context (I acknowledge the difficulty of that word). The differences between philosophy and theology are generally well known and respected in the larger worlds of Christian theology and Western philosophy, yet such distinctions are less frequently known and respected among those who work on Indian texts.
In brief, philosophy uses anumāna and tarka alone in the course of argumentation, whereas theology engages and interprets śabda-pramāa (conceived of as a revealed source of knowledge) in the course of argumentation.
Philosophers like Udayana, Gageśa or the early Yogasūtra commentator Vyāsa, use anumāna and tarka as the primary methods for establishing their point. Śabda, conceived as an unauthored or a divinely authored śāstra, is quoted only after a position was argued for by means of anumāna or tarka, if at all. Scripture may motivate their reasoning, but it does not form the basis of their reasoning. On the other hand theologians like Śakara, Rāmānuja, Kumārilabhaṭṭa, etc. see their roles as interpreting a revealed śāstra. Anumāna and tarka serve the purpose of illuminating a fault-free śāstra’s meaning, and using śabda to establish an interpretation of śabda is considered reasonable.
Whereas philosophy proceeds rationally, theology does so exegetically. In the West too (for at least 500 years), the word philosopher refers to people who use reason to think about epistemology, metaphysics, etc. and not to people who see their primary roles as that of a scriptural exegete. The words theology and theologian were reserved for that. These two very different approaches to the use of reason are often conflated by scholars work on Indian texts, and at great cost.
A disregard for the difference can mislead. While pursuing a BA in (Western) Philosophy I took Sanskrit as well. Śakara had been discussed as one of the most important Hindu philosophers. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what philosophers did, having taken specialized courses on Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Quine. When I started reading Śakara, however, it clearly was not philosophy and he was clearly not a philosopher. If Śakara was a philosopher, he was unlike every philosopher I had studied. The text we read was, I believe, from his Bhadārayaka Upaniad Bhāya. Śakara was trying to illuminate the meaning of the root text in light of his Advaitavāda. None of the philosophers I read spent any time carefully interpreting Biblical texts. It wasn’t until later when I read that Śakara was a theologian – a scholar who accepts apaurueya-śabda as pramāa – that his project began to make sense.
If we don’t adequately distinguish the philosophers from the theologians we run the risk of confusing newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.”
My response (I tried to post this as a comment at the Indian Philosophy Blog but was unsuccessful):
I don’t think it’s accurate to call Śakara a “theologian,” at least insofar as (nirgua) Brahman is not “God” in the theistic sense of the Abrahamic traditions. And why need our understanding of philosophy remain utterly dependent on the notion of philosophy as it developed in the West? Why cannot we modify our conception to embrace those like Śakara and Rāmānuja, or Confucius, or Daoists (collectively, as represented for instance in the Daodejing, or individuals like Zhuangzi) as religious or spiritual philosophers, much in the manner that Plato might strike one as a spiritual philosopher (at the very least, his ‘metaphysics’ is rather different than the contemporary articulations of same). The significance of the distinction between theology and philosophy follows largely the modern professionalization of these intellectual enterprises and thus is not always essential to figures of Eastern provenance or even in the pre-modern West: is not the “therapy of desire” (after Nussbaum) of the Hellenistic philosophers closer to the soteriological and spiritual (emancipatory, therapeutic, developmental) aims of religious worldviews than the avowed subject matter of most contemporary professional philosophers? When eudaimonistic concerns and questions of human fulfillment provide the primary orientation of ancient Greek philosophers (after John M. Cooper), this strikes one as closer to the motivations of religious philosophers and theologians than what motivates the wide array of specialized topics found in “analytic” and “continental” traditions of philosophy (and to a lesser degree and in a different sense in the latter). In these cases we find ample reason to soften any hard and fast distinctions between “philosophy” and “theology.” The “spiritual exercises” of these philosophers resemble religious ascetic practices and is utterly foreign to contemporary professional philosophy. The relief of suffering, the change of heart, or transformation of one’s overall mental attitude or psyche is closer to religion and spiritual praxis than philosophy proper, yet we christen these remarkable thinkers—from Epictetus to Gaius Musonius Rufus among the Stoics for example—philosophers.
Consider too, Islamic philosophy: it certainly has a religious or spiritual framework or accepts premises pivotal to classical Islamicate culture. Islamic philosophers, with varying degrees of success, endeavored to reconcile Greek philosophy with traditional Islamic sciences. Ibn Rushd (Averroës), for example, distinguished between philosophy and theology (kalam) yet saw these as compatible and different routes to the same truth(s). He viewed philosophy as beyond the reach of the common man and thus the prerogative of an epistemic elite in possession of that rare combination of virtue and wisdom. And then we have Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a theologian who argued against the views of the Islamic philosophers yet defended Aristotelian logic for such purposes. Indeed, and further, Oliver Leaman states that “his arguments against philosophy are themselves philosophical.” While it is true that kalam and falsafa developed, as they did in the West generally, fairly independent of each other, periods of fertile conflict and constructive engagement might find value in looking beyond the distinctions between philosophy and theology. For instance, Mu῾tazilah, the first truly doctrinal school of theology in Islam, is invariably defined as based on reason and rational thought!
In the case of Śakara, and with Ram-Prasad, we could grant the primary role religious motivation plays in his writings while analyzing the sophisticated philosophizing which permits us to see how this monastic philosopher “place[d] Advaita on the map of Indian thought” and how, in fact, “philosophical inquiry plays a role in Advaita from the beginning.” The “urge” or motivation to do philosophy may not be among the sorts found among contemporary professional philosophers, but it is no less philosophy for all that. We may need to be acquainted with the “soteriological imperative of Advaita” in terms, say of cosmogony or metaphysics, so as to make sense of the philosophical arguments, but they’re no less philosophical arguments for being wedded to soteriological or emancipatory ends. I therefore find no compelling reason to label Śakara a “theologian” as opposed to a philosopher: sometimes it helps to understand his preoccupation with spiritual aims, but this need not crowd out or trump our characterization of him (for several purposes) as a philosopher. The fact that you learned Śakara was not a philosopher on the model of your training in Western philosophy speaks rather to the contingent and somewhat arbitrary circumscription of what “counts” as philosophy according to that tradition. An encounter with a wider world might prompt us to widen our criteria for what counts as philosophy, might compel us to embrace a more generous conception of philosophy, one that does justice to the range, depth, and creative contributions to “philosophy” from outside the canonical tradition of the West, a tradition that in any case itself does not always neatly demarcate the lines between philosophy and theology. I think it’s well worth the provisional risk of confusion among “newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.”
A couple of other points: While it is true of course that Śakara accepts apaurueya-śabda, that is only one of six of its accepted pramāas, it’s no less revealing that this religious worldview recognizes the traditional system of validating means of knowing or “knowledge-episodes.” The Advaita view on anirvacanīyakhyāti makes a philosophical argument that the “object-form” in cases of sensory illusion demonstrates a realm of objects neither existent nor non-existent, at least as a consequence of Brahman-awareness (the metaphysical ‘non-realism’ that is distinct from idealism on the one hand, and realism on the other, but appears to partake of epistemic insights from—or makes concessions to—both sides of this philosophical divide, although I agree with Matilal that the theory ‘in fact tends more toward realism than phenomenalism or idealism’). Whatever the aim, we have here a philosophical position that, in the words of Ram Prasad, “may be characterised as being realist from an idealist point of view, idealist from a realist point of view, and skeptical about both points of view.” Philosophically speaking, this is a novel philosophical argument involving both epistemology and metaphysics: what is gained in viewing this simply and solely as a piece of theology? So, while it is true that philosophical arguments are essential to, in the end, the philosophical goal of validating or proving the liberating role of apaurueya-śabda, it is for that very reason that Ram-Prasad can “bracket” what he calls the soteriology, believing Advaita philosophy to be therefore of “intrinsic” philosophical interest. So too with Śakara’s use of the dream-analogy: intriguing philosophical arguments are crafted, albeit in keeping with the legitimacy of apaurueya-śabda with regard to Advaita exegesis of the Upaniṣadic doctrine of liberation.
Let’s approach the claimed importance of the need to keep in mind this philosophy/theology distinction in Indian worldviews from another direction, one outside Indian philosophy. I suspect a close examination of the thought of Kierkegaard (or Pascal for that matter) would provide us with yet another example of why we need not police the borders between philosophy and theology, for in his case in particular it is often hard if not impossible (even if not always intentional on Kierkegaard’s part) to disentangle the two modes of thinking and believing (not to mention the consequences for how one lives one’s life), leaving us with religious insight useful to philosophy and philosophical arguments availing to the defense of (at least a certain kind of) religious life. It might also be helpful to think about these issues in terms of the cognitivity of religion (and one need not assume the primacy of belief in religion to appreciate the following): fideistically inclined views of neo-Wittgensteinians like D.Z. Phillips or Peter Winch extend and develop Wittgenstein’s negative views on the place of evidence in religion (the latter having argued that religious belief in some important sense is neither rational nor irrational): they are philosophers using philosophical arguments in support (if only by implication or indirectly) of their religious views. Strictly speaking, they’re not doing theology, indeed, insofar as theology gives wide berth to rationality as essential to religious belief, their enterprise is wholly at odds with theology, but one might argue that it is no less “religiously” motivated.
Other philosophical approaches emphasize the value of the cognitive or epistemic dimension of religious faith and belief, indeed, stress what is rightly called “religious knowledge.” These philosophers, like Plantinga or Hick (and earlier Aquinas), enlist philosophy on behalf of religion, yet we call them “philosophers of religion,” not theologians. Perhaps we should likewise call Śaṅkara a philosopher of religion! James Kellenberger argues for a third perspective in a manner not unlike that above wherein a way was found beyond realism and idealism (or, say, could be found ‘beyond,’ perhaps by way of Hegelian sublation, rationalism and empiricism): this third perspective places “evidentiary” emphasis on what Kellenberger describes as “realization-discoveries” (‘embodied in the reflections of certain though not all mystics, in the sensibilities of the authors of various devotional works, and pre-eminently in the Psalms’) that are neither irrational or non-rational on the one hand, nor rational along the lines of the “enquiry-model” of rationality found among well-known contemporary philosophers of (usually Christian) religion. Kellenberger proffers the category of “discovery” as a way of looking differently at the issues of religious rationality and evidence. Again, we have a fairly sophisticated philosophical approach (availing itself of analytic philosophical methods) to questions of the discovery of the reality or presence of God or a relationship to the divine that amount (in the end if you will) to a philosophical defense of soteriological aims. Yet we do not insist that this be classified as theology, despite its clear theological-like motivation. The remaining relevant difference with a Śaṅkara or Rāmānuja in this regard appears to me to fall under the heading of a circumstantial ad hominem, invoking in other words, their religious motivations and commitments as sufficient reason to exclude them from the class of philosophers when in fact they not infrequently resort to philosophical methods and make philosophical arguments like the best of philosophers, East and West.
Incidentally, and after S.A. Lloyd’s remarkable studies of Hobbes’s moral and political thought, I’m reminded of how Hobbes spent a considerable amount of effort to “rationalize [Christian] religion” rather than to attack it as fiction or undermine belief in it. In Lloyd’s words, “He speaks throughout Leviathan as if he thought they [i.e., the basic doctrines of Judeo-Christian tradition] were true, and Aubrey provides us with evidence that he was a Christian believer.” Hobbes appeared to appreciate the fact that religion has been and could be a mechanism for social order (in other words, it is not necessarily subversive of order, even if it was in the time of Hobbes). He also knew the prevailing worldview among his reading public, which was overwhelmingly Christian, so he had good rhetorical reasons to rationalize their beliefs in the context of his larger argument. And yet Hobbes proceeds in effect to argue for authoritarianism in religion rather than tolerance, which suggests in the first instance at least a theological rather than philosophical motivation. Hobbes in fact spends the bulk of the second half of Leviathan concerned with the details of Christianity, for he “thought scriptural exegesis [was] crucial to his project” (Lloyd writes that it was ‘necessary’ to Hobbes’s task). In addition,
“Hobbes consistently presents the Laws of Nature, which he equates with ‘the true moral philosophy,’ as articulating those of God’s requirements most certain to all of us who have not enjoyed the benefit of a direct revelation from God Himself. The pronouncements of revealed religion we take on hearsay evidence [one form of testimony] or mere authority from those who claim that God spoke to them immediately; but God’s natural law is discoverable by each of us immediately through a mere exercise of our natural reason, allowing us to assure ourselves of its claim on our obedience. By attempting to claim God’s imprimatur on the conclusions of moral philosophy, Hobbes seeks to consolidate normative support for the principles of social stability uncovered by political philosophy. Political philosophy then completes the task of reconciliation by showing that Scripture, properly interpreted, confirms the conclusions of moral philosophy.”
Indeed, Hobbes writes that the Laws of Nature can be captured by the Golden Rule formulation, “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself.” (This is a ‘negative’ formulation of the Golden Rule, which goes back to Rabbi Hillel in the Judaic tradition, and is sometimes called a ‘Silver Rule’ to contrast it by way of Jesus’ formulation in the Gospels, which is found alongside the ‘double commandment of love’ with regard to God and neighbor.) Much more could be said here (e.g., what Lloyd terms Hobbes’s ‘reciprocity theorem’ does not capture the Golden Rule inasmuch as the latter goes beyond strict reciprocity) but it should suffice to make the point that I can’t recall anyone suggesting that the Leviathan might be considered a work of theology or that we might entertain the thought of Hobbes as a theologian or even both a philosopher and a theologian. 


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home