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Reviewed by:
  • Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy
  • Sundar Sarukkai
Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy. By Shyam Ranganathan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2007. Pp. 402.

The engagement of the West with Indian thought is marked by constant challenges to claims that Indian traditions were concerned with themes and disciplines that are [End Page 410] and were a part of the Western intellectual world. Most radical is the view that there is nothing called Indian philosophy, a view in various disguises that was held by many leading philosophers ranging from Locke to Heidegger.

These opinions about the significance of Indian philosophy continue even today in the academic world. Thus, most attempts at comparative philosophy in one way or another engage with this and related problems. In spite of seminal works over the last few decades, there is still a lot more that needs to be done to respond to the constant challenge from the mainstream West regarding this "absence" that apparently marks Indian thought.

In the case of logic, this trend has been well documented. Early responses to Indian logic were about how it was not logic in the way that the Greeks and later Western traditions understood it. The point was not that it was a different kind of logic but that it was not logic at all, particularly since it seemed to conflate categories such as deduction and induction, logic and epistemology, the formal and the empirical, and so on. While there has been sustained defense of Indian logic as logic by some philosophers, the real validation of this logic comes, ironically, from developments in contemporary logic that query the artificial distinction between the formal and the empirical or the logical and the epistemological.

There are many ways of responding to these challenges. One could begin, for instance, by critically evaluating the claims of the Western traditions especially with reference to the ideas they find problematical in other traditions. For example, the argument against Indian logic has two important elements: the relation between the empirical and the logical (thus conflating logic and epistemology) and the relation between cognition and logic (thus conflating psychology and logic). One response to these observations is to illustrate how concepts that characterize Indian logic were also an integral part of the history of Western logic. Another way is to find a new vocabulary to explain the conceptual world of Indian logic. In so doing, the emphasis is on finding points of difference with the Western traditions instead of trying to reiterate points of similarity.

Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan is a book that is essentially a response to the challenge posed to Indian philosophy, this time in the context of ethics. As Ranganathan rightly notes, there is a long line of thinkers who take the position that there is no ethics in Indian thought. Even Matilal, who championed Indian logic, claims that philosophers in India did not discuss "what we call 'moral philosophy' today" (p. 4). Such a blanket statement sounds, at the first instance, unreasonable. For, after all, all cultures and civilizations must have had a strong notion of ethics, and to say that a comparatively advanced civilization had no ethics seems problematical. However, to say that there was no ethics is not to say that ethical concerns were not debated but that particular formulations of ethics were not developed.

By definition, the statement that Indian philosophy did not develop moral philosophy makes sense only if we have an idea of what constitutes ethics—its vocabulary, themes, central concepts, argumentative and discursive strategies, and so on. Matilal seems to suggest that while the Indians had texts like the Dharmaśāstra, which [End Page 411] engaged with matters of ethics, there was no discussion of "morality." The problem that these philosophers find is the lack of a theoretical/philosophical engagement with the notions of morality and ethics, although in both philosophy and literature the discussion of ethical issues abounds. Deutsch clarifies the problem thus: "If by 'ethics' one means a rigorous, independent inquiry into problems of, and questions concerning, the meaning of value, the justification of judgements, and the analysis of moral concepts and concrete existential modes...


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