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  • The Virtue of Nonviolence
  • Shyam Ranganathan
The Virtue of Nonviolence. By Nicholas F. Gier. SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. Pp. xv + 222 . Hardcover $50.00.

The Virtue of Nonviolence is Nicholas F. Gier's second book in the SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought, edited by the eminent Alfred North Whitehead scholar David Ray Griffin. It is a remarkable exercise in comparative philosophy that attempts to come to terms with M. K. ("Mahatma") Gandhi's moral philosophy in light of the Chinese, European, and Indian traditions.

According to Griffin, writing at the beginning of the present volume, Constructive Postmodernism, like the deconstructive, relativistic, and eliminative versions, takes a critical stand toward the modernist, Galilean-Cartesian-Baconian-Newtonian worldview and the associated ideal of a unitary (technologically supported) conception of human progress. Constructive Postmodernism departs from the alternative versions in its efforts to "overcome the modern worldview not by eliminating the possibility of worldviews (or 'metanarratives') as such, but by constructing a postmodern worldview through a revision of modern premises and traditional concepts in the light of inescapable presuppositions of our various modes of practice" (p. xiii). In the place of phenomenalism and the primary-secondary quality bifurcation of the modern period, constructive postmodernism embraces both non-sensory perception and organicism (p. xii). As a contributor to this series, Gier thus sets himself the project of explicating Gandhi's ethics as a species of Constructive Postmodernism.

Gier opts to elaborate Gandhian, postmodern ethics in terms of early Buddhist thought (p. 3). This provocative option is motivated for Gier by his twin convictions, which he attempts to argue for throughout the book: (1) that a substance conception of self (characteristic of much Hindu and Jain thought) is not capable of explaining the moral cultivation and progress so essential to Gandhi's program (p. 6), and (2) the "Vedāntist philosophy, particularly the Advaita Vedānta with which Gandhi is usually associated, cannot support [an] action-context" ethics that emphasizes the dynamic importance of both theory and the facts on the ground—a program captured by Gandhi's idea of satyagraha (p. 3).

Having stated the parameters of his project in his "Introduction," Gier in his first chapter, "Gandhi as a Postmodern Thinker," argues that "[a]lthough some evidence of a deconstructive postmodernism may be discerned, Gandhi is best allied with the constructive school of postmodernism" (p. 27). Of special interest in evaluating this book is Gier's observation that "if Gandhi is a postmodern thinker, Gandhi stands with Rāmānuja and Whitehead and not with Śaṅkara and Derrida," for Gandhi evokes models of organism absent in the thought of the latter two (p. 25)—an observation I shall return to later.

In the second chapter Gier examines the Jain and "Hindu" view of ahiṁsā. Gier correctly notes the uncompromising, unpragmatic conception of ahiṁsā operative in Jain thought, which finds its highest realization in renunciation and not worldly [End Page 115] action—a position that Gier rightly contrasts with Gandhi's politically charged conception of ahiṁsā. This allows Gier to claim that the influence of Jainism on Gandhi's thought is "not as great as he or others have claimed" (p. 31). In contrast, Gier summarizes what he takes to be the "Hindu" view of ahiṁsā, based mainly on the Upaniṣads and Manu's Dharmaśāstra, which he supplements with an examination of the Bhagavad Gītā. Gier argues that from the Gītā Gandhi derives the "philosophy of active nonattachment" embodied in the doctrine of karma yoga. In the Hindu view, according to Gier, ahiṁsā is "relativized"—that is, its nature and scope are defined relative to social and ritual contexts and self-interest (e.g., ritual slaughter is an occasion when the general prohibition against killing is suspended in the context of "Hindu" ethics). However, Gandhi's conception of ahiṁsā is not relativized. Since it cannot be subsumed under a Jain conception, Gier suggests that we must look elsewhere—specifically to a Buddhist pragmatic ethics that would justify Gandhi's political conception, which allowed for the compromise of ahiṁsā for...


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