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.

Mainstreaming Indian Political Philosophy

Meena Krishnamurthy 

A version of this post was originally presented at the Pacific APA, April 15, 2017 as part of the APA Committee Session: The Current State of Asian and Asian American Philosophers. Thanks to Jon Tsou for organizing the panel and to Michelle Pham for thoughtful comments. 

In an earlier post, I argued that analytic political philosophy should be more inclusive of (among other things) Indian political philosophy. I argued, in particular, that analytic political philosophers had ignored Indian political philosophy and that there were many reasons for why we should be worried about this exclusion. I offer a quick summary of these reasons before exploring some of the further questions that are raised by this argument.

Why should we mainstream Indian political philosophy? 

The first reason is epistemological. Exclusion of this work from political philosophy is problematic because it means that political philosophy has not benefitted from the unique and distinct political insights of Indian thinkers on the nature of liberty and equality, among other things.

The second reason is social. On many people’s views, philosophy is in a state of crisis. Academics and public intellectuals outside of professional analytic political philosophy believe that it has become irrelevant to today’s most important moral and political struggles and, in turn, that it is disconnected from the concerns of today’s people. People are left wondering what the purpose of political philosophy is if it cannot be used to challenge today’s structures of inequality and injustice. Relatedly, it has been widely noted that philosophy also lacks diversity among its student body. In part, this may be because of philosophy’s lack of connection to real and lived social injustices. At least some (certainly not all) people of color, who are concerned with contemporary racism, for example, leave philosophy and turn to other disciplines to understand and address issues of racial injustice. Similar things can be said of those who are interested in colonialism and empire. One reason for including a broader range of thinkers is that we might be able to increase the number of racial minorities enrolled in philosophy courses and programs.

The third reason is methodological. Analytic philosophy at its core is the method of critical reflection, the giving of reasons in favour of one’s conclusions, and the consideration of potential objections to the reasons that one gives, and the development of responses to these objections. Thinkers from the Indian tradition of political philosophy often engaged in this method. For example, following a tradition that can be traced to classical Hindu texts such as the Upanishads, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is written as a dialogue. In it, he outlines his arguments in support of Indian home rule and he responds to concerns that are raised by an imagined interlocutor. In doing so, he not only criticizes Western conceptions of civilization – responding to the views of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Jean Jacques Rousseau – but also gives us a positive vision of true civilization and the appropriate means of attaining it. This dialogue is an obvious example of analytic philosophy. There are many others in Indian political thought.

If these arguments are correct, then they suggest that analytic political philosophy should be more inclusive of Indian philosophy. Indian political philosophy should be mainstreamed, so to speak.

“Who” should do the work of mainstreaming Indian political philosophy?

One question that arises is, should this work of bringing Indian philosophy to the mainstream fall to anyone or should it fall primarily to those who are or see themselves as being Indian?

On some views only those who are or who consider themselves to be Indian should engage in this work. The claim is, since they have grown up immersed in Indian philosophy, culture, and identity, Indians are likely in the best position to make this sort of progress in philosophy. This claim might perhaps stem from a version of standpoint epistemology. It might also stem from the thought that extended practice – over the course of one’s life – leads to expertise.*

As a practice, requiring Indians to do the work of Indianizing political philosophy may place a further burden on those who are already burdened. As immigrants and/or people of color, Indians likely already face an uphill battle in philosophy. Since manyt Indians in the profession don’t already work in Indian philosophy, asking them to Indianize political philosophy may add the extra task of taking up a new specialty. For example, while I had preexisting knowledge of Indian Political Philosophy, I didn’t think I knew enough to write or teach about it. Wanting to immerse myself in the project of Indianizing political philosophy has meant that I have had to take up a new specialty. This has taken a number of years (and countless hours and sleepless nights!) to even to begin to do. As Olufemi O. Taiwo, a graduate student at UCLA, stated on Facebook, asking those who are already marginalized “to pick up a whole other specialty seems like it is asking a lot.” Furthermore, and more pragmatically, even if we thought that Indians should do this work, there are very few Indians in philosophy, generally. It simply isn’t feasible right now.

For pragmatic reasons alone, we may need to allow that non-Indians will have to do at least some of the work of Indianizing political philosophy. As a matter of fairness, it might also be good and appropriate for the burden to fall on both Indians and non-Indians. Moreover, there may be epistemic benefits that follow from non-Indians doing this work. As “outsiders,” they may have a unique perspective to offer on Indian political philosophy; they may also benefit in their own thinking and work in other areas from engagement with this body of work.

There is the worry that lacking in previous exposure to and knowledge of Indian philosophy may sometimes lead outsiders toward a tendency to appropriate rather than genuinely engage with Indian philosophy. Because of this lack of exposure, outsiders may be more likely than insiders to engage in caricatures or to perpetuate stereotypes of Indian philosophy, for example. This is an important worry. I myself have already seen examples of outsiders engaging in what might be called “appropriation” of Indian philosophy rather than deep engagement with it. I think this problem can be avoided, however, through a deep commitment to good scholarship and depth of understanding. A sense of humility and openness to taking the critical views of insiders seriously may also work as an important corrective.

In contrast, insiders may have a greater tendency toward genuine engagement with Indian philosophy and may be in a better position to engage deeply with Indian philosophy. As insiders, they are more likely to have spent their lives thinking through and discussing Indian philosophy (especially because Indian philosophy is an integral part of Indian culture). If so, as insiders, they will bring this history and the sense of respect it tends to gives rise to to their work. This may constitute an additional reason for thinking that the work of Indianizing political philosophy should be done by Indians.

Furthermore, if outsiders do the work of Indianizing political philosophy, there is always the worry that this will only work to marginalize the work being done by Indians themselves – some have recently called this “the gentrification of philosophy.” Because of implicit bias, white voices are most likely to be considered authoritative and central to the field. This is true even if the work is on marginalization itself, as much of the work on caste and colonialism in Indian political philosophy is. If this worry is real and genuine, then perhaps we have a further reason for focusing on insiders: it could prevent the gentrification of Indian political philosophy.

Ultimately, if we wish to bring Indian political philosophy to mainstream political philosophy, I think that we not only need more people to work on Indian political philosophy but we also need to diversify those who are doing philosophy. To Indianize philosophy, we need more Indian faculty members. I think this point generalizes to Asian philosophy more generally. We need more Asian and Asian-American philosophers to do the work of diversifying philosophy. And, we need to reward them for the hard and often uncompensated work that they do.


*See the comment below for a slight expansion of this thought.

2 responses

  1. Elsewhere, Alexus McLeod raises an important question about what constitutes an “insider” versus an “outsider”. This is a really important and interesting question. To reiterate, I think there are important epistemic and moral benefits to outsiders doing the sort of work that I have in mind. However, I do think that there is a kind of expertise that insiders develop over the course of their lives. This is something that arises through practice and, in turn, is something that can be acquired by outsiders (assuming they have the right attitudes such as humility). This is to say that “practice” is probably the key factor in identifying “insiders” and outsiders can become insiders through sufficient practice. It is also important to note that being Indian does not guarantee that one is an insider, it merely makes it more likely that one is an insider to Indian philosophy. I hope this helps to clarify things.

  2. Reading the article how to ‘’Indianize’’ philosophy, concerning the methodological reason, my reflection is just a question mark: Why?

    That may raise several questions:

    Why do we need to separate philosophy, such profoundly,as the only space of human knowledge that unifies mankind as intellectual being?

    And then, in the divergence of this intellectual space, how could human ever understand meanings of a universal reality which, as such, is common to the humans’ knowledge corresponding to the morality?

    Can we diverge from basic properties of morality among humans? How then could we avoid inequalities and unfairness? It seems, among human groups, that the discussion to open new divergence in the space of the intellectual aspiration of human is suffered by profound contradiction that cancels the end of philosophy in itself, as profound end of human beings endowed, in some depth, with equal reason of conscience namely common reason.

    I think that the effort of ‘’Indianization’’ of the profound properties of philosophy (instead of the ‘’Universalization’’ of them bringing closer humanity to its physical End derived from common reason, as a species expressing conscience of its own physical state by the end of itself) should provide a sufficient answer, first of all, to the profound question: Why to do this? And, in the name of what thing?.. Is that thing, for example, a universal ‘’thing’’ of freedom? But isn’t this a common thing that we all share by equal property, as beings with developed reason and conscience to grasp values of universality?

    Can we talk about ‘’Indianization’’ of such profound ‘’things’’, like freedom? Then, objectively, that would be no freedom at all, since it would be confined by arbitrary subjectivity without knowledge of its object!.. Wouldn’t it? And that would lead further to uncertainties of values with objective universal validity and to unfairness and inequalities, in a vicious circle of ignorance of such profound ‘’things’’ by their object in the universality (known by the humans as ends of themselves and, therefore, reflecting common reason in the physical state of mankind)..

    Of course, we do not talk about the unavoidable, if not necessary, individualization of the forms of appearance of such universal objects in the sense of humans. But, here, the meaning of the ‘’Indianization’’ of philosophy seems to reconsider profound things of universal validity, by a total subjective manner in their meaning, depriving them of their object in mankind… And, if we talked about political terms, wouldn’t be an open gate to totalitarianism and imperialism, again?..

    Thank you for reading this. Gregory Tzanetos

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