- A Lucid Journey through Varieties of Asian Philosophy
This magnificent book will be of great benefit to all those interested in Asian culture. It will help instructors who are seeking a convenient text that clearly summarizes the major motifs of Eastern philosophy. It will also be a boon to all students who need lucid expositions of the nuanced positions of the various schools of philosophy and religion that spread westward from the Himalayas to the Pacific regions of Asia. Its greatest virtue lies in its comprehensiveness and the elegance of the author's prose. I have not previously encountered such a beautifully written compendium of Asian thought and culture.
There is a kind of brilliance that blinds the mind's eye and renders subsequent thoughts mere sycophantic reactions. Then there is a brilliance that illumines the field of inquiry and encourages others to develop their own perspective. It is the latter brilliance that is exhibited in this small but supremely lucid book. One sign of its exceptional quality is the fact that—unlike other attempts at anthologizing Asian philosophy—this book refuses the easy road of a mere compilation of celebrated texts. Rather the author puts his own reputation on the line and provides limpid explanations and clear arguments covering the major themes, methodologies, and subject matter of Asian philosophy.
Thus, we are provided seven chapters: "Ultimate Questions and Answers," "The Self," "The Outward Good," "The Inward Good," "Language," "Knowledge," and "Logic." A careful reading of each chapter offers an expertly presented view of Asian philosophy's most important conclusions. While it is impossible to comment on each chapter in an exhaustive manner, it may be helpful to note the author's most significant reflections on important matters. The structure of the book is itself an important clue to the way in which Asian thought and culture work. By this I mean that there is an insistence on beginning with the most ultimate questions and working from there in a downward fashion to other more particular issues. This demonstrates the Asian commitment to systematic inquiry. In contrast to most forms of contemporary Western philosophy, with its (as one wag put it) "spaghetti style" of thinking, Asia's insight into the fundamental connectedness of all things demands orderly methodological approaches. One cannot but be impressed by the majestic architectonic of Asia's cultural achievement. This steady reliance on a concept of internal [End Page 260] relations between modes of being and modes of thought is well expressed by the author's way of building up his vision of reflective Asian experience. Asia does not see order as the inevitable enemy of truth or freedom, and that is an attitude that forms of postmodern philosophy might well contemplate.
Beginning with ultimate realities allows the author to take on the big questions first, and this helps to erect a backdrop against which his other themes can be best understood. Ram-Prashad is not afraid of metaphysics, and in this day and age that is a decided plus. I must, however, begin with a caution. I find his position that "Chinese philosophy simply does not concern itself with an ultimate reality" very hard to justify in the light of so many texts to the contrary. And his proposal to view Chinese thought as "ametaphysical" due its complete commitment to a metaethical view of reality does not satisfy those, like myself, who would view metaphysics as itself a normative discipline. This aside, Ram-Prasad then takes us on a journey through most of the intricacies of Indian metaphysics in its various schools and branches. The way in which he organizes this acrobatic array of subtleties is most admirable, and he helps the novice to appreciate both the demands and the rewards of thinking systematically from varying perspectives. Thus, we encounter Sāṃkhya, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣka, and Mīmāmsā metaphysics, and we are also given a clear and accurate picture of Buddhist metaphysics in its various schools. His discussion of the multidimensional nuances of Mādhymaka, especially as explored by Nāgārjuna...