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Schopenhauer and Indian Philosophy: A Dialogue between India and Germany (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 62, Number 2, April 2012
pp. 292-295 | 10.1353/pew.2012.0034

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Among prominent Western philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer is the figure most readily associated with an active, constructive engagement with Indian forms of thought. In Schopenhauer and Indian Philosophy: A Dialogue between India and Germany, editor Arati Barua builds on the proceedings of a 2005 conference and presents an informative compilation of essays that explores Schopenhauer's reception, reconstruction, and absorption of Hindu and Buddhist concepts. While somewhat uneven in its content and presentation, the volume makes a significant contribution to contemporary efforts within comparative philosophy.

A useful distinction emerges in the excellent essay by Urs App that helps to frame the content of the entire collection: a "historical inquiry" into Schopenhauer's context and influences should be differentiated from a purely conceptual comparison of his ideas with those found within other traditions (see pp. 7-9). The first approach engages in careful historical detective work: just how much was Schopenhauer influenced by Indian sources, which sources were they, when exactly did the contact occur, and how much did Schopenhauer's cultural and intellectual context affect his interpretations? And later on, what was his impact as a mediator of Indian thought within German/European intellectual life? Schopenhauer's work has often spurred broader comparative speculation, however, and as App writes, "[c]omparisons of ideas can, but do not have to be bound by historical considerations" (p. 7). Fruitful comparisons can of course be drawn between Schopenhauer and branches of Hindu or Buddhist thought that he simply could not have known about.

Regarding the historical issues at stake, App's essay, "Schopenhauer's Initial Encounter with Indian Thought," is indeed a highlight. App offers an account of Schopenhauer's early engagement with Indian sources, specifying the influence of the relatively unsung Friedrich Majer with clarity. While acknowledging the significance of the Upaniṣads (or at least Anquetil du Perron's "translation" of them), App opens up the intriguing possibility that the Bhagavadgītā was also formative in Schopenhauer's thinking during the mid-1810s. Were Indian concepts mere ornamentation, added after this great thinker had already hammered out his doctrines? App's careful research makes this a difficult thesis to accept; it seems clear that both the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavadgītā had an impact on the contemplations that led up to World as Will and Representation.

Berger's essay, "A Question of Influence: Schopenhauer, Early Indian Thought and a Critique of Some Proposed Conditions of Influence," supplements this case. Berger argues that we should not naively accept, as Nietzsche and Deussen seemed to do, that Schopenhauer had some magical, privileged access to the "mind of India": many later scholars have shown that his understanding was circumscribed by his context, his sources, and his own rather overwhelming philosophical agenda. But these limitations should not lead us to write off Schopenhauer's engagement with India. Quoting Gadamer (and echoing Wilhelm Halbfass), Berger reminds us that such "prejudices" are in fact " 'conditions whereby . . . what we encounter says something to us' " (p. 109). Becoming clear about these prejudicial structures allows us to transform Schopenhauer's distinctive interpretive position into an occasion for thinking across the boundaries between Western and Indian traditions.

The essays by Cross and Atzert are somewhat less valuable. Cross situates Schopenhauer within the currents of India's reception in Germany around the turn of the nineteenth century, but—and this is of course no fault of his own—the essay has quickly become dated. A newer, more probative generation of scholarship on German Orientalism has appeared over the last few years that pushes well beyond the sources that Cross relies on. Meanwhile, it is telling that Atzert's treatment of Scho-penhauer's influence on Indology jumps directly to Paul Deussen—and with Deussen the essay largely remains. As shown in Suzanne Marchand's recent book, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Schopenhauer had little influence on the inner workings of mid-to late-nineteenth-century academic Indology—but there is probably still some interesting detective work to be done on the issue, and Atzert's effort barely scratches the surface.

The next cluster of essays builds from Schopenhauer's well-known appraisal...

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