- The Subject Is Freedom
1. Does the Question of "Free-Will" Arise in Indian Philosophy?
As the first comprehensive collection of essays in English on the perennial problem of free will and agency in Indian philosophies, Free Will, Agency, and Selfhood in Indian Philosophy, edited by Matthew R. Dasti and Edwin F. Bryant, richly deserves to be read widely and critically by philosophers, Asianists, and global historians of ideas. It is an excellent endeavor in comparative philosophy. So, like every exercise in comparative philosophy, it must face a frustrating double bind. Let me start this review essay by illustrating this double bind with an anecdote. Many years back, in a large freshmen's Introduction to Logic class at Montana State University, as a zealous young visiting professor from India, I was asked to give a single lecture on Indian logic. On the first day, I gave a super-abbreviated accessible account of the original Nyāya/Buddhist argument-paradigm and the features of a good and bad argument introducing a handful of peculiarly Indian technical terms for the subject of the inference, the target property to be inferred, the reason property, and the ways of establishing or questioning the universal concomitance between the reason and the target property. The senior American professor who was co-teaching the Elementary Logic course with me commented that this was fascinating but it did not sound like "Logic" as we understand it in the West. He requested that I reformulate the basic insights in recognizably Western logical terms and give a second lecture. When I did that, on another occasion, his comment was "But this logic we already have in the West, between Aristotle and Frege-Russell; what is so Indian or different about it?"
This double bind would always plague comparative philosophers as long as they use English (or any Western language) to make philosophy originally written in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, or Chinese available to a Western or even Asian philosophical audience (and increasingly now, philosophy teachers and students in Asia speak and understand nothing but a Western idiom of philosophy). Should you emphasize the uncommon ("exotic") issues and techniques that are foreign to Western thinking, you [End Page 277] would have a hard time convincing your audience that it is really "philosophy" (e.g., the discussion at the heart of Mīmāṃsā, concerning the exact meaning of a verb-ending in an imperative sentence that enjoins an action-to-be-done to its comprehending hearer, which chapter 6 by Elisa Freschi so clearly lays out in the volume under review). Should you emphasize, instead, the common issues that are also known to and focused on in Western philosophy, you will either be suspected of superimposing a Western conceptual scheme on Classical Indian philosophy or, worse, you will be ignored as presenting a boring old hat. It is simply exhilarating to see how several essays in the volume under discussion here manage to escape both horns of this comparativist's dilemma while discussing one of the most hackneyed topics of traditional and contemporary Western philosophy: Given that our actions, including our acts of willing and choosing are events happening according to natural causal laws, how can they be free?
The problem of free will and agency as it is discussed, even if tangentially, in Sāṃkhya, Buddhist, Nyāya, Jain, Kashmir Shaiva, Mīmāṃsā, Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, and Dvaita Vedānta texts is recognizable to be that problem by a Western lens as you go through this book, and yet the discourse around the problem, surely but unnoticeably, changes so radically that not only new solutions but new problem terrains are created. Effortlessly, comparative philosophy turns creative. For all its Indological and philological context-setting, the reader takes home from this anthology a fresh set of insights and puzzlements that are simply philosophical without any prefix: "Western" or "Indian," "classical" or "modern," or even "comparative." Good comparative philosophy should be just that: good philosophy. With this book, Indian...