Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Adamson, Greek-Responding Philosophy, and the Indian Subcontinent [1]

Meena Krishnamurthy

Peter Adamson writes:

I have a provocative proposal of my own: intellectually speaking, the more valid distinction is not between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’ philosophy, but between philosophical cultures that respond to Greek thought (however indirectly), and those that do not. Philosophers of the Islamic world—Jews, Muslims, and Christians writing in Arabic or Syriac—belong to the former category, as do Latin American thinkers. Philosophers of pre-modern Asia—India, China Korea, Japan, etc—as well as thinkers of the pre-colonial Americas and Africa, belong to the latter. Of course some believe that there may have been an exchange of ideas between the Greeks and India, but if so the influence was not determinative as it was in the case of the Islamic world, and in any case the influence is more usually thought to have traveled from India to the Mediterranean rather than the other way around.

Adamson writes this in response to a piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden. Garfield and Van Norden proposed renaming philosophy departments that fail to cover “non-Western” philosophical work and traditions as “Departments of European and American Philosophy.” As Justin Weinberg says, “this led Adamson to wonder just what ‘European Philosophy’ is.”

I applaud Adamson for his attempt not only to clarify the debate about how to delineate philosophy but also for his attempt to recategorize philosophy in a way that is more inclusive and true to the history of philosophy.[2] That said, it is, in part, the history of philosophy that suggests that Adamson’s own comment leads to some improper characterizations.

Adamson’s general point is that philosophy can be divided into two categories: Greek-responding and non-Greek responding. He then suggests that pre-modern Asian thought was not Greek-responding.

This move is too quick when we consider the Indian subcontinent. It is one thing to say, for example, that there was a school of pre-modern philosophical thought in India that pre-dated the Greeks. This is accurate. It is, however, another thing to say that there wasn’t a tradition of philosophical thought in India that was written in response to the Greeks. This is not accurate.

Adamson wrongly subscribes to a one-way direction of influence. On his view, Indian philosophical thought influenced the Greeks, not the other way around. It would seem, however, that the Greeks did influence Indian thought through their influence on Islamic thought. There was a strong tradition of pre-modern Islamic thought in the Indian subcontinent. For example, as Andrew March pointed out to me on Facebook, Persian scholar, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi wrote a work of ethics called the “Nasirean Ethics” (Akhlaq-i Nasiri). This work can be understood as a culmination of the Islamic reception and transformation of Aristotle. As March noted, the tradition of reproducing manuscripts of the Nasirean Ethics, and commentaries on it, as well as much else from the Persian literary tradition, was very vibrant in Moghul lands in the subcontinent.[3] It would seem then that there was a school of pre-modern Indian philosophical thought that was written in response to the Greeks.

I discuss this matter not only for philosophical reasons, but for political ones too. In the face of Hindu Nationalism, there is a growing tendency to identify Indian philosophical thought solely with Hindu philosophical thought. In ignoring the presence of Greek-responding Islamic philosophical thought in the Indian subcontinent, Adamson inadvertently gives support to the Hindu Nationalist project. It would be a mistake to feed into this project and thereby support Hindu Nationalism with inappropriate characterizations of the history of philosophy on the Indian subcontinent.

In any case, I thank Adamson for proposing a different way of categorizing philosophy. With some small changes – namely, having a more accurate view of the direction of influence – the notion of Greek-responding and non-Greek responding philosophy may prove to be a useful, even if not definitive, addition to the philosophical lexicon.[4]


[1] Many thanks to Eric Schliesser, Andrew March, and Chike Jeffers for the insightful conversations that led to my writing this post.

[2] Adamson is the creator and producer of the wonderful “History of Philosophy with No Gaps” podcast.

[3] For a discussion of further examples of the influence of Islamic thought on philosophical thought in the Indian subcontinent, see S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[4] While I do find the distinction useful, I would also prefer to have a notion of philosophy that is less centered around a particular group of people such as the Greeks.


5 responses

  1. Pingback: "European Philosophy" Is No Good - Daily Nous

  2. Just to clarify – in my original post “pre-modern” was meant precisely to exclude the Mughals (and also things like Indian philosophy influencing Schopenhauer). I am using “modern” in the way we do in history of philosophy, where “modern” starts just after the European Renaissance. So, we totally agree here I think: I am not just happy to admit, but totally committed to, the idea that Mughal thought is as much a part of Indian philosophy as part of Islamic philosophy. Indeed this is another illustration of a point made in my blog post: just as “Islamic philosophy” overlapped with European philosophy in the case of Andalusia, so it overlapped with Indian philosophy in the case of the Mughals.

    A good figure to illustrate Meena’s point that Indian and Islamic philosophy are not exclusive is Dara Shikoh, who was trying precisely to show the “confluence” of texts like the Upanisads with Islamic ideas, especially in Sufism.

    • Thank you, Peter. This is a very helpful clarification. Though, after more thought, I think we might still be in disagreement. I’ll try to write with more thoughts soon.

    • Peter – Thanks again for your clarification. Narrowing the discussion to “pre-modern philosophy,” where that means something like pre-14 C philosophy, does not necessarily mean that there wasn’t Islamic influence on Indian philosophical thought. As Eric Schliesser wrote on Facebook,

      “’India’ itself is part of the problem. Quite a few Islamic scholars I am thinking of Al-Burini (I think of him as a philosopher–certainly his exchange with Avicenna is a big deal), in particular, ended up in Ghazni in modern-day Afghanistan (and associated with the Ghaznavid dynasty). He wrote about India. Now Afghanistan is not India in lots of senses, but it’s also clear that chunks of India were very much part of the intellectual orbit of Ghazni. (I mention him because he is earlier than the dates that Peter mentions.”

      Schliesser is right. Parts of Afghanistan were considered part of the Indian domain from around 350 B.C. until Nader Shah’s army beat the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah in 1739. After this point, Afghanistan became a separate domain. We might quibble over whether Bīrūnī had “determinate” influence over Indian thought, but in some sense that’s beside the point. Bīrūnī is just one example of how Islamic philosophical thought might have influenced Indian thought before the 14th century. There were likely other pre-modern Islamic philosophical thinkers writing in the broader Indian subcontinent. If this is right, then, in both a geographical and ethnocultural sense, the work of Islamic thinkers such as Bīrūnī was very much part of the “Indian” sphere of philosophical thought.

  3. I’m sure you know that the Marxist tradition has a different feel to it. To name a few: there is the South American tradition, the Chinese Marxist tradition, the Muslim-Socialist tradition in the Middle-East, the Frankfurt school in Europe, and the existentialist Marxist tradition (e.g. Fanon, Sartre, de beauvoir, etc.). Some of these are more on the margins than others, but surely it’s not as bad as how it’s been in the analytic (= liberal) parts of academia.

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