Featured Philosopher: Shalini Sinha


Shalini Sinha is a Lecturer in Non-Western Philosophy at the University of Reading, U.K. Her research focuses on topics in Indian philosophy, primarily, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina metaphysics and ethics of the self, and no-self, and aspects of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy of mind and philosophy of action.

Notes on Cross-Cultural Philosophy

Shalini Sinha

I would like to thank Meena for this wonderful blog and for inviting me to participate in it. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about some of the philosophical issues I’ve been concerned with in the last few years. My work has centred on Indic philosophical perspectives and, more broadly, on cross-cultural or ‘global’ philosophy. I am involved in two sorts of philosophical investigation at present: (i) a radical interrogation and reconstruction of some of the core concepts and paradigms of classical and contemporary Indian philosophy; and (ii) a consideration of the ways in which these, in conversation with non-Indic approaches, can enable us to think philosophically about a range of contemporary social and political issues – what we might think of as engaged cross-cultural philosophy.

(i) Some Core Themes in Indian Philosophy

It is striking that for classical and contemporary Indian philosophy, whether Brahmanical/Hindu, Buddhist, or Jaina, philosophy is a practice, a site of rational debate and of mental, moral, and affective cultivation that is the means to freedom (mokṣa, nirvāṇa). Freedom is usually conceived as freedom from suffering, a negative conception that nonetheless comes only with attainment of the highest good (niḥśreyasa, paramārtha) which incorporates cognitive, affective, and ethical dimensions. Philosophy in India is then a practical concern, but one which is broadly underwritten by (a) a metaphysics and ethics of the self (ātman), or in the Buddhist case, of no-self (anātman); and (b) practices of the self, or ‘no-self’.

(a) It is a core feature of a wide section of Indian thought that it assumes a primitive intimacy between the notions of reality or being (sat), truth (satya), and the highest good. The claim here is that reality, ‘the way things are’, is truth, and this has value as the highest good[1] to be achieved by ‘practices of truth’, or ‘right knowledge’, that culminate in liberating insight into the nature of things.   This is evident in the four noble truths/realities (satya) of the Buddhaor the ‘two-truths/realities’ of other Buddhist,[2] Hindu and Jaina schools. In this regard, both Buddhist and Brahmanical perspectives echo ancient Indian (Vedic) conceptions of the world as a dynamic order that is the active realization of truth (ṛta),[3] a truth that must be recognized and realized in human action – initially ritualistic action, but later all action. In classical Indian philosophy, the idea of reality and order as truth is encapsulated in the notion of dharma or ethical law, which underpins the notion common to the Buddhist and Brahmanical schools that natural order is an ethical order.

For the Buddhist, liberating insight, or cognition (jṇāna), is insight into the impermanent and non-substantive/non-self nature of psychophysical phenomena, and the recognition of these as a source of suffering; for the Brahmanical schools, liberating cognition is cognition of the true self, and a discarding of erroneous conceptions of the self. In either case, a core requirement of achieving freedom is analytic deconstruction, by philosophical examination and yogic techniques of mental cultivation, of the ‘seeming’ reality of ordinary psychophysical existence, in particular of our identification of psychophysical objects as a ‘self’, i.e. as ‘me’ or ‘mine’. Philosophical and meditative analysis aims here to deconstruct our ordinary conceptions of ‘reality’ into its foundational constituent(s) in a substance or an event ontology. Alternatively, these modes of analysis aim at recognizing ‘conventional’, everyday objects as devoid of ontological foundations, and ultimately groundless;[4] devoid of any features that lend themselves to self-investment or self-identification.

(b) Whereas the major philosophical debates between the Buddhist and Brahmanical schools centre on the nature and existence of the self, the philosophical practices of each focus on the critique and elimination of what Brahmanical philosophers refer to as ‘I-making’ (ahaṃkāra) – our identification with psychophysical objects as ‘I’ or ‘mine’. This sort of conceptual grasping of mental states and of the body as a ‘self’, or ‘I’, is the acquisition, our philosophers contend, of de se I-content[5] that is constitutive of our egoic sense of self (ahaṃkāra, ahampratyaya). For some Buddhist philosophers, the egoic sense of self is a performative appropriation.[6] Disinvestment in psychophysical selfhood remains the central practical concern of both Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions. It is achieved not only by philosophical examination of the modes and contents of I-appropriation or I-identification, but equally, by practices of attentional or meditative ‘analysis’ and deconstruction of psychophysical selfhood.

Attention, in this view, orients our stance in the world by shaping the intentional structures of conscious experience. The cultivation of attention by way of meditative practices aims to strip away all modes of self-identification with psychophysical objects. It aims to ‘de-self’ consciousness by shedding all self-ascriptions of ownership of mental states and a body by which one grasps oneself as an ‘owner’ of experience and an agent of actions.   Attentional cultivation is then a transformation of the dualistic, subject-object structures of intentional consciousness which is fundamentally appropriative, towards a non-appropriative cognitive, affective, and behavioural stance in the world – with cognitive, phenomenological, and ethical consequences.  This view of attention and intentionality, of course, raises a host of questions.

Regardless of differences in their underlying metaphysical assumptions, both Brahmanical and Buddhist schools consider this sort of ‘non-dual’ awareness, devoid of subject-object structures, to be cognitively receptive to ‘things as they really are’. Experientially, consciousness of this sort is described by philosophers of both traditions in terms of metaphors such as ‘spaciousness’, and as joyous (ānanda). Ethically, this non-dual awareness is considered to be the highest good. It represents a state of not-clinging to psychophysical objects where, our philosophers contend, the sense of personal agency and ownership cease. This again, raises a variety of questions, not least tied to the further thesis that moral valuations cease to apply to such persons. As one Brahmanical philosopher suggests, “all duties cease for him who is no longer conscious of distinctions of time, such as, ‘It is evening now’ [and I must say my evening prayers], and so on, or of castes and conditions, such as ‘I am a Brāhmaṇa’ and so on. And so, it has been declared: ‘How could a man devoid of egotism such as I am a Brāhmaa perform any acts?’ For, such a person who has ceased from performing all activities incurs no non-virtue such as from killing animals.”[7]

  1. ii) Engaged Cross-Cultural Philosophy

Deconstructive theories and practices of self and identity in Indian philosophy are often underpinned, particularly among the Brahmanical schools, by a deeply conservative socio-political stance.   Yet, the deconstructive aspects of these philosophies of the self, and no-self, have potentially radical socio-political implications and can be fruitfully linked with contemporary philosophical theories of self as performativity and/or self as a process – by way of the Buddhist notions of self as a performance and its ‘bundle’ theory of the self.[8]

On a very different note, conceptions of self and the divisions created by self-identification, together with a theory of sacrifice, are closely linked to ancient Indian (Vedic) theories of debt which have led, in contemporary sociological and anthropological literature, to notions of ‘primordial debt’ as a basis for theorizing the nature of debt and money. Underlying conceptions of debt is the overarching notion of ‘sacrifice’ which permeates not only ancient Vedic literature but is tremendously influential in classical and contemporary Indian ethics and philosophy of action, not only for the Buddhists and Jainas but also for Gandhi, evident, for example, in his conception of non-violent political action as ‘self-sacrifice’.[9]

[1] See Shalini Sinha, “The Metaphysics of Self in Praśastapāda’s Differential Naturalism,” in Jonardon Ganeri (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[2] See, for example, Amber Carpenter, Indian Buddhist Philosophy (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014), ch. 1, 4.

[3] See Michael Witzel, “Vedas and Upaniṣads,” in G. Flood (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 68-101.

[4] For the Buddhist view, see Amber Carpenter, Indian Buddhist Philosophy (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014); for the Brahmanical schools, see Jonardon Ganeri, Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), ch. 1.

[5] See F. Recanati, Perspectival Thought: A Plea for Moderate Relativism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 176-7.

[6] See Ganeri, Concealed Art, ch. 7.

[7] Śrīdhara, Shoots of Reason (Nyāyakandalī), ed. and trans., G. Jha, Padārthadharmasaṃgraha of Praśastapāda With the Nyāyakandalī of Śrīdhara (Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia, Reprint 1982) p. 608, revised trans.

[8] See Ganeri, Concealed Art, ch. 6, 7.

[9] See Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (London: Hurst and Company, 2008), ch. 2.

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