Thursday, 29 July 2010

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

A major exponent of Hinduism was Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), whose Indian Philosophy (2 vols, 1923-27) became a textbook on the subject. Born in South India, he early encountered the writings of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who influenced him strongly in the new mood of Vedantic universalism struggling against rival emphases of Christianity. This was the era of British Raj imperialism, in which Hinduism was the runner-up.

Originating at the town of Tirutani in Andhra Pradesh, Radhakrishnan was born into the brahman caste and reared to Vedantic teaching. In 1904 he entered the Madras Christian College, where he studied Western philosophy, and observed the Christian criticism of Vedanta as having no ethical content. He was subsequently to repudiate the aspersions, and became a professor at Mysore and Calcutta Universities.

His early writings railed at the critics of Hinduism. In 1921, Radhakrishnan gained the prestigious George V chair in philosophy at Calcutta University, where he composed his Indian Philosophy, a mature work not relying on polemic. In 1926 he was invited to Oxford to give the Upton Lectures, and a sequel occurred in the Hibbert Lectures of 1929. These lectures achieved publication as The Hindu View of Life (1927) and An Idealist View of Life (1929). The lastmentioned is regarded as his more developed work.

In 1931 Radhakrishnan was knighted by the British government, whose policies he had not always agreed with. He subsequently became a professor of religion at Oxford University in 1936, the association with Oxford continuing for many years.

Radhakrishnan was closely associated with the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and favoured a modernised version of this outlook, which elevates the atman-Brahman themes of nondualist identity. He defended and elaborated the factor of intuitive experience which is inherent in that teaching.


A frequent criticism has been that Radhakrishnan tended to claim Advaita as a yardstick of assessment for all religions and philosophies. He also tended to ennoble the caste system in some arguments, though recognising the problems in Hindu society.

“In a sense, Radhakrishnan ‘Hinduizes’ all religions,” and in the context of Vedantic interpretation. The same commentary deduces the view of this Indian philosopher as meaning: “Religious claims.... ought not to be taken as authoritative in and of themselves, for only integral intuitions validated by the light of reason are the final authority on religious matters.” Quotations from M. Hawley, “Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan” (2006), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

“Radhakrishnan clearly preferred to be called a philosopher rather than a theologian” (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions, 1995, p. 580). To this remark, I felt obliged to add that “almost in the manner of a theologian, he wrote that the scheme of social classes and ashramas is helpful but not indispensable” (ibid.). The priestly adjuncts of Indian religion are now closely debated by diverse Indian scholars and Indian rationalists.

“Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure.” This assessment of Radhakrishnan comes from Life and Writings, citing the philosopher George P. Conger. Radhakrishnan undeniably achieved a widespread influence. While famous at Oxford, his administrative appointments extended to Benares and Delhi Universities; he was the Indian ambassador to Russia, and in 1952 he became the first Vice-President of India. He was subsequently the President of India during the 1960s.

His informed books caused a wide readership in the West to give some serious consideration to the formerly marginalised Indian philosophy. See also indohistory.


See further Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford, 1939); idem, The Bhagavadgita (London, 1948); id., The Principal Upanishads (1953); id., The Brahmasutra (London, 1961). See also P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan (New York, 1952); R.N. Minor, Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography (Albany, 1987).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 29th 2010

ENTRY no. 27
Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Indian Philosophy

Indian philosophy is a variegated phenomenon. Clarifications are needed in this field. One is faced with several types of Indian philosophy in the historical record. For instance, there is the early Upanishadic phase, and the subsequent growth of Hinduism associated with the “six systems of philosophy.” Those systems are a specialist study in their own right. Moreover, we have the Buddhist and Jainist rivals to the Hindu formats. Again, these are specialist studies in their own field of research.

With regard to religion, there are complex extensions in the medieval period that are not mainline Hinduism at all, but something quite different. I am referring here to the Sant phenomenon and the creation of Sikhism, trends which were strongly opposed to caste practices and concepts.

In addition to these factors, there are latter day manifestations of diverse Hindu and neo-Hindu sects and exegeses. In contrast, there is now the radical development of contemporary Indian Rationalism, to some extent allied with Western concepts in science, and railing against traditional religion and attendant superstitions.

To get a bearing in these diverse channels is not straightforward. Much of this panorama can be brought under the classification of “Indian philosophy,” but the differences in emphasis are substantial. The copious textual studies, plus the sociological documentation, is beyond the reach of most citizen investigators.

My independent research into Indian philosophy eventually gained expression in the book Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (1995), pp. 389-825. I might at least claim some familiarity with the works mentioned in the annotations, though I do not profess to be an expert.

Three diverse figures active in the introduction of Indian philosophy to the West were the university scholars Friedrich Max Muller and Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), and the Vedanta interpreter Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who established a monastic order.

Professor Max Muller (1823-1900) effectively became the founder of comparative religion, in the sense of a scholarly discipline. His major achievement is sometimes considered to have been his editorship of Sacred Books of the East, a fifty volume series encompassing diverse religions and published during the period 1876-1904. That milestone series was published by Oxford University Press, in the country which became the headquarters for studies in Indian religion and philosophy. Those studies became known as Indology.

Max Muller early studied in his native Germany with the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, at whose request he translated passages from the Upanishads. Max Muller became a pioneer in RigVeda studies, and was a linguistic professor at Oxford University from 1851. One of his best known works is The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (1899). See the online biography.

Some critics have complained that classical Indian philosophy generally converges with Indian religion. The historical context becomes important, wherever this can be reconstructed. The approach of the investigator can be relevant in this respect. Indology avoids sectarian affiliations, which have posed a drawback in the popular Western enthusiasm for Hinduism that commenced in the 1960s. Failure to grasp the necessity for critical evaluation has caused many disillusionments.

Indology became a discipline of repute at several major European universities. Hindu scholars came to study Sanskrit in European universities, assimilating the scholarly exegesis developing in the West, and which was quite different to the pundit method of assessment. In America meanwhile, Sanskrit was introduced at Yale University in 1841, and the American Oriental Society became a signpost to Indological researches. There were initially some Christian biases discernible in Sanskritist studies (from which Max Muller was not exempt).

Professors Surendra Nath Dasgupta (1887-1952) and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan are perhaps the two best known Hindu commentators. The former studied and lectured at Cambridge and composed his five-volume History of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge, 1922-55). Radhakrishnan composed his two-volume Indian Philosophy (London, 1923-27), a well known work that became widely cited, and the author becoming celebrated at Oxford.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 22nd 2010

ENTRY no. 26

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

International Angles

International assessments of Western philosophy differ enormously. That is surely an understatement. Diligent readers know that my own perspective is intercultural, and that I have paid deference to philosophy (linking to anthropography in my case) in a broader context than is often found. For instance, on my websites I have incorporated some detailed reference to Zoroastrianism, Islamic Sufism, and Islamic philosophy. Those subjects are not popular with some Western readers. However, when the focus turns to modern Western philosophy, there are some international reactions to the European dimensions of that subject.

My own endeavour to escape the confines of any Eurocentric landscape was formulated in my early work Meaning in Anthropos (1991), composed in 1984. This presentation of citizen anthropography attempted a more global axis than is customarily found in academic philosophy.

I have noticed, with some fascination, that both the Asiatic and the Western responses to philosophy contain marked variations. I should perhaps state my own instance. During my early years of study, I veered strongly away from British entities in philosophy. For many years I resisted coming to terms with David Hume, whom I associated with a “British Empire” mode of thought and a quasi-nihilistic temperament that anticipated Nietzsche. I much preferred Plato, Plotinus, Farabi, Suhrawardi, Spinoza, and the Eastern affinities (though erratic and circumscribed) of Schopenhauer.

The literati in India, China, and Japan have frequently been generous with regard to Western philosophy, acknowledging empiricism, and also the relevance of rationalism and the implicit affinity with scientific objectives. Islamic countries have sometimes resisted Western influences, perhaps not surprisingly, though the literati in those countries are quite capable of recognising the value of intercultural approaches.

The subject of “Western philosophy” basically extends to ancient Greek, Roman, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic dimensions, a phenomenon of cultural linkages and ramifications occurring in distant centuries. However, when one talks of modern philosophy, the orbit is very often European, with Germany and Britain gaining a fairly substantial tally of famous names. Everyone has heard of philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Locke, and Hume, though not everyone has studied those entities in any detail.

The study of philosophy has notably spread to America, Canada, and Australia. Both the academic and popular reception of that subject require some due appraisal. American academics have investigated the subject intensively, though the public climate of American opinion is generally indifferent, and in some quarters tending to categorical dismissal in favour of “new age” alternatives.

At this juncture, it seems appropriate for me, before proceeding any further to describe European figures in the history of modern philosophy, to alight upon some contemporary topics in a spirit of citizen investigation. In view of factors indicated above, I have decided to include on this blog some entries concerning subjects not appearing in conventional philosophy contents.


Kevin R.D. Shepherd
July 14th 2010

ENTRY no. 25

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Meaning of Key Words

The significance of those key terms philosophy and philosopher has been much discussed, with a variety of interpretations. Today, the key word philosopher very often denotes an analytical stance, and nothing more. Philosophy is now largely viewed in the academic realm as a discipline of analysis, relevant to the auspice of “analytical philosophy” which has become paramount in several countries, including Britain and America.

One of the most vocal exponents of analytical philosophy was Bertrand Russell. In his most oft-cited work, dating to the 1940s, he defined philosophy in such terms as:

“Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science.... All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy.... Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite.... The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.” (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge edn 2000, pp. 13-14).

However, Russell’s approach has not satisfied everyone. Philosophers must negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of attacks from empiricism and dogmatism. Russell did recognise that wisdom could not be charted in the laboratory, though the primacy of definite knowledge was nevertheless awarded to that sector. Definite knowledge is here envisaged in terms of something readily quantifiable to mathematicians and physicists, to chemists and biologists. Meanwhile, the No Man’s Land studies questions that might be answered.

Moving back three centuries to Descartes, we find a rather different definition of philosophy. In his well known epistle to the translator of his Principles of Philosophy, Descartes made the following statement:

“The word philosophy means the study of wisdom, and that by wisdom is meant not only prudence in the conduct of affairs, but a perfect knowledge of all that man can know, no less for the conduct of his life than for the preservation of his health and the discovery of all the arts” (F. E. Sutcliffe, trans., Discourse on Method and the Meditations, London: Penguin, 1968, p. 173).

Here we converge with many older perspectives on the subject. The version of Descartes reflects, however approximately, much more ancient concepts of philosophy as a gauge for conduct, health, learning, and creativity.

By the twentieth century, the antique ideal was relegated by academic philosophy to the No Man’s Land, avidly studied and historicised, but very often seen as something rather remote and even nebulous.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 7th 2010


ENTRY no. 24

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Al-Farabi to Spinoza

The preceding treatments of six philosophers encompass acutely different cultural backgrounds (entries 17-22). The first three were Muslim falasifa who related to the Aristotelian tradition in different formats. I am referring to Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The last three quite decisively separated from the Aristotelian conceptual heritage, represented in their time by the Christian Scholastic tradition. I am here referring to Francis Bacon, Descartes, and Spinoza.

There are complexities and significances in these varied transitions that are not always dwelt upon. The Islamic Aristotelian tradition was not the same as the Christian version, which became rooted in the exegesis of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). This prominent theologian is associated with a perception that the Neoplatonist versions of Aristotle were not authentic, being later interpretations. Yet Ibn Rushd had earlier grasped this complexity to a considerable extent, and his relevant explanations are not cancelled out by the sequel.

A well known Cambridge analytical philosopher has asserted: “The De Anima leads much more naturally to the view of Averroes than to that of Aquinas” (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge edn 2000, p. 445).

The Christian Schoolmen imparted their own format to Aristotle, and the question of authenticity tends to evaporate in the face of exegetical innovations imposed by religious beliefs. By the time of Bacon and Descartes, the Late Scholastic tradition existing in the European universities was a barrier to scientific discoveries of the type associated with Copernicus and Galileo.

Francis Bacon took a starkly empiricist attitude to the situation, one which anticipated scientific research institutes of a later time. Rene Descartes demonstrated an output that moved between the empirical and deductive modes, engendering a rationalism which was multi-faceted. Spinoza continued that rationalism in a different way, his “artisan and private scholar” vocation being notable for a “substance monism” that has been variously interpreted, and a political (and scriptural) exegesis that was startling for his time.

The diverse influences on Spinoza, varying from Descartes to Hispanic-Jewish Neoplatonism and Kabbalism, have defied constricting attempts at linear interpretation. Spinoza’s “pantheism” is not at all straightforward for any detailed analysis. For instance, “commentators have debated over the question of whether the immortality intended by Spinoza is personal or not” (O. Koistinen and V. Viljanen, Introduction to Olli Koistinen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 22). Spinoza certainly did state in the Ethics that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal” (Book V, proposition 23, E. Curley trans.).

Ironically perhaps, the Neoplatonist vein in Spinoza is not so far removed from Farabi as some appearances might suggest. Consider the following remarks by a leading specialist in Spinozan studies:

“On the one hand, he [Spinoza] is making the most radical, daring move that had occurred in many a century and, on the other, he is obviously building on great ideas set forth most recently by Descartes and Hobbes and, to some extent, by ancient and medieval thinkers, especially of the Neoplatonic variety.... He had come to grips with Cartesianism and had moved beyond it. He had found Descartes’s dualistic metaphysics incompatible with the monism of a Neoplatonic view of the universe.” (R. H. Popkin, Spinoza, Oxford: Oneworld, 2004, p. 127.)

The Aristotelian sciences had not been lost. They had achieved a further development. Spinoza escaped the academic syllabus, grinding and polishing lenses for use in scientific instruments. Microscopes and telescopes were insignia of the Scientific Revolution. Spinoza was investigated by Christiaan Huygens, the wealthy astronomer and mathematician who achieved fame with the telescope.

In their own day, Spinoza was eclipsed in stature by the empirical Huygens. The latter gained recognition and fame as a scientist, though Spinoza was treated to stigma and misrepresentation by so much of the polite society influenced by standard religious thinking. Since that time however, the underdog has achieved a rather more pervasive status in the academic repertories. In some directions, Huygens is secondary to the deductivist rationalism. Further, there are now more books on Spinoza than his empiricist contemporary. However, the history of science gives a higher rating to Huygens as one of the major figures in the Scientific Revolution. Also, it has been concluded that the role of Huygens was obscured by the fame of Isaac Newton. We should therefore be grateful that both Spinoza and Huygens survived the interim period of relative oblivion.


Kevin R.D. Shepherd
July 1st 2010


ENTRY no. 23

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.