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Dialogs and Solidarity Among the Sages: Bimal Krishna Matilal and Henry Odera Oruka’s Advocacy for the Philosophical Rationality of Non-Western Cultures

  • David Peter LawrenceEmail author
  • Eddah Mbula Mutua
Original Article

Abstract

Our paper builds on earlier research to show how Bimal Krishna Matilal and Henry Odera Oruka challenge dominant narratives of the West-centered progress of philosophical and other forms of critical rationality. On the basis of persisting “enlightenment” and colonialist prejudices, a majority of Western philosophers have ignored philosophical inquiry in non-Western cultures. Both philosophical decolonizers had much of their upbringing and education while their countries were British colonies, earned their Ph.D.s in the West, and became renowned philosophers at Oxford and the University of Nairobi. Oruka advocated mainly oral but increasingly written philosophical reflections in various ethnic traditions of Kenya and East Africa, though his ideas have also been applied to other cultures of the continent. Matilal focused on South Asian, Sanskrit philosophical traditions, which though comprising a large written literature are also often oral in their origins and ongoing pedagogical and hermeneutic culture. Beyond just demonstrating that Africans, Indians, and others can think for themselves, the two thinkers have laid the groundwork for, and initiated a number of more substantive philosophical engagements. The perhaps initially slow but exponentially increasing exchanges among non-Western peoples are well exemplified by the dialogs being organized in the present issue, as well as other efforts throughout the global academy.

Keywords

Colonialism Neocolonialism (a common description of what we are describing and addressing) Anticolonialism (the subject of the issue) Postcolonialism (a more popular word that can be a synonym for anticolonialism) Philosophical rationality Non-Western cultures Solidarity 

Introduction

Our paper builds on earlier research to show how Bimal Krishna Matilal and Henry Odera Oruka challenge dominant narratives of the West-centered progress of philosophical and other forms of critical rationality1. On the basis of persisting “enlightenment” and colonialist prejudices, a majority of Western philosophers have ignored philosophical inquiry in non-Western cultures. Peter K. J. Park has recently shown that it was racist attitudes that to a large extent formed the basis of the exclusion of Africa and Asia from Western histories. Whereas earlier Western scholars thought that philosophical wisdom was found in Asia, Egypt, and elsewhere, the eighteenth century philosopher, Christoph Meiners’ racist arguments against African and Asian thought were a formative influence on subsequent Western histories of philosophy, including those followed by Kant and Hegel (Park 2013). The study of such thought has fallen primarily to—again Euro-centric—humanistic and social scientific research, often reductively interpreting intellectual expressions as “constructions” of quasi-scientific, socio-cultural factors, whether these are philological, historical, folkloric, economical, sociological, anthropological, linguistic, semiotic, structural, narratives, paradigms, or what not.

Both philosophical decolonizers had much of their upbringing and education while their countries were British colonies, earned their Ph.D.s in the West, and became renowned philosophers at Oxford and the University of Nairobi. Oruka advocated mainly oral but increasingly written philosophical reflections in various ethnic traditions of Kenya and East Africa, though his ideas have also been applied to other cultures of the continent. Matilal focused on South Asian, Sanskrit philosophical traditions, which though comprising a large written literature are also often oral in their origins and ongoing pedagogical and hermeneutic culture. Both Oruka and Matilal died early, in the 1990s, while at the peak of their academic careers.

Bimal Krishna Matilal

Matilal was probably the most important pioneer in advancing the study of Indian philosophy in the twentieth century. Raised in colonial India, Matilal received both a largely traditional education including work with renowned traditional pandits, studied at the Sanskrit College associated with the University of Calcutta, and earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University. Having worked closely with Western Sanskrit scholars such as Daniel Ingalls and analytic philosophers such as American W.V.O. Quine and British P.F. Strawson, Matilal was the third Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University and the founding editor of the leading Journal of Indian Philosophy (for illuminating accounts of his life, see Bilimoria (Bilimoria 2005, forthcoming 2020; Mohanty 2003). Matilal greatly influenced later intercultural philosophical studies of Hindu, Buddhist, and other non-Western philosophies and was also a teacher of one of the authors of this article.

Matilal’s research and that of many others inspired by him follow certain characteristic agendas. Sensitive to historicity as well as to the exigencies of global dialog (Matilal 1986, p. 2; see also Matilal 1988), a central goal of such research has been to demonstrate just the sophistication of Indian philosophies and their relevance to contemporary Western-dominated philosophy. In his inaugural address on assuming the Spalding Chair, “The Logical Illumination of Indian Mysticism,” Matilal thus endeavored to refute characterizations of Indian thought as irrational “mysticism.” He showed that even philosophies such as Śrīharṣa’s Advaita Vedānta and Mādhyamika Buddhism, which were “mystical” in the sense of advocating a realization transcending logical discourse, used rigorously rationalistic arguments to lead students toward that realization (1977).

Matilal also repudiates the broader tendencies of Western-dominated philology or Indology, including that of numerous Indian scholars, to represent Indian philosophies when not merely as irrational mysticism, as constituting no more than lists of metaphysical doctrines. These approaches—broadly in the mindset Nigerian musician Fela Kuti described as a “colonial mentality”—are what Oruka called ostensibly “historicist” and Amartya Sen labeled “exoticist” and “curatorial” (Sen 2005).2

To counteract such characterizations, Matilal’s writings typically organize their presentations of Sanskritic thought around topics of current interest in Western philosophy, especially Anglo-American treatments of logic, language, epistemology, and ontology. Most of his books, as well as many though not all subsequent ones in the genre, survey a variety of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain works to demonstrate the insights they can bring to the Western discussions (Matilal 1971, 1985, 1986, 1990, 2007; Matilal and Evans 1986) and discussion of Matilal’s analytical disposition (in Bilimoria 2005, 2007). Although the topics and claims made vary, these studies, in line with the originary interests of analytic philosophy, also usually give some deference to secular, scientific knowledge and mathematical rationality.3 Matilal’s special interest was to demonstrate the value of the Hindu Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika tradition for defending “direct” or “naive” realism in the face of contemporary Western conundra about skepticism versus realism.4 In effect, he uses Indian philosophy to defend the Western objectivist roots of modernity and thereby postmodernity or postcoloniality (for examples, see 1971, 1986).

Though by most accounts Matilal was highly successful in initiating a substantive and nuanced engagement between Indian and Western thought in these areas, he also often betrays the limitations of his context in abstracting Sanskrit philosophical theories away from their associations with religious and practical matters (see Matilal 1986, pp. 16–18, 31–35, 69–73).5 In intercultural philosophical studies after Matilal, the controversy persists about whether Indian philosophy is more practical or theoretical in orientation.6

It should be acknowledged that Matilal did in fact occasionally, and increasingly, address issues of Hindu philosophy of religion and ethics. Besides his inaugural address on the logical study of mysticism, he also treated topics such as the existence of God, ineffability, and theodicy (1982). Intercultural philosophers and theologians are again continuing to advance his initiatives in these areas.7 Matilal also became interested in ethical philosophy as articulated in classic Sanskrit narratives and treatises on dharma, “duty” (some of his work on this subject is collected in Matilal, 2002, 2014, 2015). He reportedly planned a book with Gayatri Spivak entitled Ethics and Epics (Gayatri Spivak, personal communication; also announced as forthcoming in Gayatri Spivak (1999), 45n.; on Matilal and Spivak, also see Bilimoria 2002), part of which was later released posthumously (Matilal 2002). Purushottama Bilimoria has suggested that Matilal is perhaps a bit too heavy-handed in extracting an analytical-style propositional ethics from the epics (Bilimoria 2007, “Introduction,” p. 33–57; cf. Matilal 2007).8 Anyway, Matilal’s works in this area pioneered the way toward recent interest in Hindu reflections on ethics in various narrative and public genres.9

We also mention that Matilal did original work in interpreting the Jaina philosophy of the multisidedness of reality (anekāntavāda, syādvāda) as a philosophical sort of “pluralism,” articulating that tradition’s central value of nonviolence (ahiṃsā) (1981).

Henry Odera Oruka

Oruka, deeply learned in Luo traditions of Kenya, attended college and graduate school at Wayne State and Uppsala Universities and founded the first separate Philosophy Department at the University of Nairobi. The challenges Oruka confronted were distinct from but also remarkably analogous to those faced by Matilal. There have been debates about whether there is philosophy at all in Africa, and if there is, whether it should be defined in some alternative way. Some—which Oruka described as ostensibly “rationalist”—have argued that philosophy in Africa can only be imported from the West. Others following what Oruka described as a “hermeneutic or philosophical-anthropological approach” argue that a non-philosophical African culture must be provided a Western-derived philosophical hermeneutics. This was illustrated by Barry Hallen and J. Olubi Sodipo’s, Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy (1997) and is followed by a number of prominent African philosophers, sometimes including Kwami Anthony Appiah. Some recent thinkers such as Appiah articulate in their West-centered professional philosophical interpretations earlier decolonizing, nationalistic, and Pan-Africanist agendas.

While trying to work between the extremes, Oruka is most concerned with refuting efforts to typify precolonized forms of African thought as only “ethno-philosophy” rather than the ostensibly critical self-reflexive discourse of the global academy. As Indian historian, Vinay Lal, has said to me, everything non-Western is labeled as “ethno” (personal conversation)! Thus, we have ethnobotany, ethnoscience, ethnomusicology, and so on. Essentialistic characterizations of African ethno-philosophies—whether in colonial, neocolonial, romantic, or nationalistic varieties—strongly resemble the Indological lists of metaphysical doctrines about which Matilal complained. With backgrounds in theories such as Lucian Levy-Bruhl’s characterization of “primitive” people’s “participation mystique”—this approach was pioneered in Belgian missionary, Placide Tempel’s studies of the Bantus (Oruka 1990a). Representations of communal and unreflexive African cultures may be understood as largely generated in a circular manner by the very ethnographic methods employed. “Qualitative” ethnographic and historicist descriptions do not search for philosophical arguments but rather items of consent within groups.

Oruka and his students avoid the question-begging of such consensualist theories by focusing on individuals rather than whole societies (although they are not advocating “individualism”). They consider what views are special to each person and why they hold those views. Scholars following this approach focus on people judged in their own societies to have a reputation for wisdom, regarding such topics as God or other spiritual realities, metaphysical facts, and human relations. The approach describes such people as “sages” and their characteristic wisdom “sagacity.”

There are two types of sages or sagacity. Folk sages are those revered for their preservation and mastery of traditional understandings and practical values. Philosophical sages critically question broader traditions and endeavor to arrive at and formulate beliefs and practical values—whether in conformity with or dissent from the traditions—on the basis of critical reasoning about facts and rational entailments. Some of the male and female sages are literate, but most are not. Oruka and his students have documented interesting arguments by them about the philosophy of religion, including the propitious wisdom of customary laws and proverbs; religious pluralism10; the philosophy of language, ethics, ethnic and gender relations; and politics (see Oruka 1990a, p. 107–162). We mention that contra the romantically stereotype of The Gods Must be Crazy Luhya sage, Okemba Simiya Chaungo explains realistically that a soda bottle is just what it is, a bottle (Oruka 1990a, 111), and gives as his final advice to humanity, “Do not fight. Find peace and live in it. Peace. Peace is good soil for man to grow” (Oruka 1990a, 111; see Oruka's defense and elaboration of his position in Oruka 1997 and the appreciation by a respected colleague in Wiredu 1997).

Some of Oruka’s critics, including even some of my former students in Asia, have argued that particular examples of sages mentioned in the literature are not clearly in the category of philosophical as opposed to folk sages. However, this misunderstands Oruka’s position, which is that philosophical sagacity is a matter of degree. Some sages span both categories, and there are gray areas. His disciples have observed and compared a similar emergence of critical sagacity in the foundational Western pre-Socratic philosophers (summarized in Graness and Kresse 1997).

Oruka and his followers have endeavored to bring the insights of the philosophical sages into their own efforts to systematize and mediate traditional African folk knowledge with the global academy. As Dismas A. Masolo explains:

The idea of sage philosophy suggests that professional philosophers ought to take sufficiently into account the problems posed by the sages in the course of their conversations, not just once, but always (Graness and Kresse 1997, p. 237).

Thereby, “subaltern” African voices may enter into a more equitable dialog, not only within the global philosophical academy per se, but with the non-philosophical, social scientific, and quasi-scientific humanistic methods that objectify all culture, but especially that of non-Western societies.

In his substantive work, Oruka is notable for defending Luo traditions supporting the environmental movement and opposing corrupt and tyrannical practices of various governments. He also advocated African views, as well as intercultural dialog on environmental ethics (Oruka 1996, including a contribution centered on South Asia by Bilimoria 1996, and many other articles by non-Africanist scholars). Oruka scholar Kai Kresse epitomizes this thinker’s substantive agendas by combining some of his own words:

The “three obstacles” to philosophy that Odera Oruka sees (“socio-economic deprivation, cultural-racial mythology, and the illusion of appearance”) are foremost of a practical nature, as well as the “three vehicles” to philosophy which are, additionally linked to the concept of individual thinkers: freedom, inspiration and destiny. These determine the creative efforts of thought we call philosophy (Graness and Kresse 1997, p. 17, summarizing Oruka 1990b).

Conclusion

A criticism that might be raised against Matilal, Oruka, and others working along similar lines is that they perpetuate a hegemonic, colonial mentality in treating modern Western philosophy as the standard by which non-Western philosophies should be evaluated. The British colonialists early on promoted cross-cultural dialog with the purpose of demonstrating the superiority of Western culture.11 We are likewise reminded of James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” on how protest itself can reinforce categories of subordination. This happens when oppressor and oppressed “accept the same criteria” (1984, p. 21).12 While this criticism might itself apply somewhat to Matilal and Oruka’s defenses of their cultures, it does not seem to capture all the issues. Though such scholarship, inevitably, has limitations, it may be contended that one must address prejudices in order to overcome them.

Beyond just demonstrating that Africans, Indians and others can think for themselves, the two thinkers have laid the groundwork for, and initiated a number of more substantive philosophical engagements. Moreover, beyond correcting the “illegitimate” Western challenge as systematic distortions derived from power, Western modes of thought do sometimes present legitimate intellectual challenges to non-Western ones, just as the reverse is true. Oruka thus did not believe that all specialized professional philosophy, such as that in the Western-dominated academy, has the strong ethical commitment of the African philosophical sages (see Ochieng’-Odhiambo 2006)!

Oruka’s analyses of the vibrant self-reflexivity of oral traditions also illuminate the living contexts within which philosophical discourse takes place (see Presbey 1996). We are reminded of Jean-Pierre Vernant’s account of how the development of a sphere of public democratic debate in ancient Greece was decisive to the origination of Western pre-Socratic philosophical speculations (1982). Plato is well known for arguing in Phaedrus that philosophy is primarily spoken dialog and attempting to mimic such dialog in writing, using ironies and aporias to draw readers into a dialogical engagement. South Asian philosophies and theologies also often developed in oral traditions, and academic pursuits in those fields are centered on dialogs between students and teachers.

As the philosophical academy becomes more equitable and open-minded about intellectual options, scholars of non-Western philosophies may be expected increasingly to engage in dialog with each other, and not only with those in the West. Communications around the Indian Ocean have increased over the millennia—before, about, and beyond the effects of Western colonialism—and are now growing through business and education. New power relationships among ethnic, religious, economic, and political groups have of course also developed, and these present new issues for negotiation. Oruka was one of the founding members and Chairperson of the Afro-Asian Philosophical Association (see Abousenna 1995), and according to Purushottama Bilimoria, he and Oruka immediately preceding here with Matilal were actually in conversation (personal communication)! (Oruka also spoke on Gandhi and Africa in New Delhi. Graness and Kresse 1997, p. 133–138). The perhaps initially slow but exponentially increasing exchanges among non-Western peoples are well exemplified by the dialogs being organized in the present issue, as well as other efforts throughout the global academy.13 We can further invite each other into collaborations, publications, and conferences.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    See the earlier discussion in Lawrence and Mutua 2019

  2. 2.

    Matilal explains:

    It is undeniable that some modern Indian philosophers have produced very good expositions and creative reformulations of some of the speculative metaphysical doctrines of classical Indian origin. These are well appreciated by those (mainly Indians) who are, at least partly, acquainted with the traditional style of philosophizing in India…. There exists unfortunately a certain opaqueness in these writings, which modern Western philosophers find hard to penetrate. Part of the reason for this opaqueness is the fact that these metaphysical doctrines are presented out of context. The very sophisticated philosophical methodology which we find in the classical sources of these doctrines is passed over as inessential detail, and this is a blunder. To use Indian terminology, if the pramāṇa method [critical epistemology and logic] is ignored, the prameyas [ontological-metaphysical realia] would be hardly intelligible, for they would only reveal the skeleton without the flesh and blood. The metaphysical doctrines of classical India developed in the background of intense intellectual activity in philosophy (1986, p. 7–8).

    On the biases and promises inherent to Indology, also see Adluri and Bagchee 2014.

  3. 3.

    For examples of the works of Matilal’s contemporaries and successors carrying on many similar interests and approaches, see Bilimoria 1988; Chakrabarti 1997; Chakrabarti 2010; Ganeri 2001; Phillips 1995; and Ram-Prasad 2002. On the origin of analytic philosophy, see Urmson 1978.

  4. 4.

    While surveying the positions of many schools, Matilal (1986) defends a revisionist version of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika direct realism.

  5. 5.

    Another influential scholar, Daya Krishna, is notorious for his minimization or outright denial of the religious aspects of Indian philosophy. Krishna (1996)

  6. 6.

    However, there is no uniform position among scholars about whether practicality would be a problem or a virtue, perhaps because philosophical pragmatism has become more generally respectable as an option. While acknowledging that all theories are intertwined with practical interests, Mohanty contends that Indian philosophy is nevertheless “purely theoretical.” See Mohanty, Theory and Practice in Indian Philosophy (2001), p. 24. Ganeri, The Motive and Method of Rational Inquiry (2001), p. 7–41, as we understand him, argues that in Indian philosophy there is both instrumental rationality and rationality about goals, which we would call substantive rationality. This debate is carried over into discussions of the nature of inferential necessity in Indian philosophy, and particularly whether there is in it any form of “transcendental argument.” Scholars such as Mohanty (1992), Lawrence (1999, forthcoming) Ram-Prasad (2002) have described some South Asian philosophical arguments as “transcendental,” sometimes in the recovery of the pre-Kantian sense of the term. Recently, Arnold (2008) has suggested that Sanskritic varieties of transcendental argumentation do not chiefly pertain to strict deductions of theoretical reason, but rather the performative coherence of practical reason. Cf. the argument for the character of the discourse of the Pratyabhijñā system of monistic Kashmiri Śaiva philosophy as simultaneously a publicly assessable “inference for the sake of others” (parārthānumāna) and a gnoseologically internalized tantric ritual that recapitulates the myth of Śiva-Śakti, in Lawrence (1996). It is interesting that debates about theory versus action are also common in research on Chinese philosophy. See the work of Antonio Cua, Roger Ames and Chad Hansen.

  7. 7.

    In the philosophy of religion, new works are being published on topics such as philosophical discourse as a means of interreligious understanding, Hindu-Buddhist arguments for and against the existence of God or a Self, and the epistemology of revelation. Early examples include Arnold (2005), Clooney (2010), Lawrence (1999), Patil (2009), Rambachan (2006), Ram-Prasad (2007), and Sharma (1995).

  8. 8.

    It must be acknowledge that Indian Sanskrit philosophy is largely focused on language, logic, metaphysics and soteriology. Morality is treated quite reflexively in some narrative texts but not in systematic philosophy per se. With his own proclivities, Matilal was aware of the conundrum. See Bilimoria 2007.

  9. 9.

    Mohanty argues that “Today, Indian philosophy needs to be a critique of dharma, without which the practicality that is claimed on its behalf by modern exponents would be nothing but pretence. Such a critique would be epistemological, hermeneutic, moral and political....” Mohanty, “Theory and Practice in Indian Philosophy,” 2001, 30. For such projects, see Bilimoria et al. 2007; Rukmani 2005; Rukmani 2008; Gier 2004; Ram-Prasad 2007. Some scholars are also working on Hindu approaches to the pressing subject of environmental ethics. See Chapple and Tucker 2000.

  10. 10.

    Paul Mbuya Akoko, believed in both traditional Luo religion and Christianity, and makes a sort of pluralistic argument for the unity of religion actually common to other religions and philosophies, such as Hindu, which have been labeled as “polytheistic” by Europeans:

    It was the coming of the European missionaries which introduced the element of fragmentation into religion. Notwithstanding, the European concept of God and our own concept is basically the same for there is only one God if there is God and there is God. Although, the Luo recognized one Nyasaye, they were wrong to think that “their” God (Nyasaye) is different from the God of the Europeans. Thus, we had, as a result of this incoherent thinking among the Luo, a situation in which other tribes thought they too had their “own” God. This is totally mistaken. I can demonstrate this quite simply by pointing at the rather pedestrian fact that nature is uniform. The existence of many gods would have resulted in “pulling” the universe in different directions: this takes care of any possibility of there existing a pantheon of gods (Oruka 1990a, p. 137).

  11. 11.

    See the interesting discussion of the motivations for the sponsoring of Sanskrit scholarship and the creation of Banaras Sanskrit College, in Dodson (2010).

  12. 12.

    To quote Baldwin’s explanations more fully:

    It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are born together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality (1984, 21).

    For Bigger’s [the central character in Richard Wright’s Native Son] tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at birth (1984, 22–23).

  13. 13.

    Criticism of the hegemony of Western thought as the standard of interpretation is also found in Mohanty (2003). See Anke Graness, “Epilogue,” to Graness and Kresse (1997), on the importance of Oruka’s project for South-South dialogs in intercultural philosophy. We mention that analogous efforts were made in the early twentieth century to promote dialog between Indian and Chinese cultures by Rabindranath Tagore and Tan Yun-Shen. More recently, scholars such as Ram-Prasad (2005) have endeavored to promote philosophical engagements between Indian and other expressions of Asian thought. Ram-Prasad is also one of the founders of the Seminar on Religions in Chinese and Indian Cultures at the American Academy of Religions Annual Conference. Cf. the more political project of Spivak 2008.

Notes

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of North DakotaGrand ForksUSA
  2. 2.St. Cloud State UniversitySt. CloudUSA

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