[This is an invited guest post by Mohan Matthen, who went from Delhi to Stanford University for his doctoral studies; he is currently Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Perception at the University of Toronto.*--ES]
Recently, Joel Katzav has been writing about the inclusion of Indian philosophers in what he takes to be the top three journals in Anglo-American philosophy [recall here, here, and here--ES]. Sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, “modern Indian philosophy” stopped being published in their pages. Why?
I grew up in India, and was educated at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University. Having taken a degree in Physics in 1968, I switched to Philosophy. I can’t say I know a great deal about the academic zeitgeist in India in those days; my knowledge didn’t spread beyond Delhi University, and students rarely know very much about their teachers anyway. And of course memory is unreliable. Still, I know a little bit about academic life in India around 1970, when I got my MA.
There are two stories here.
The first has to do with the buoyancy felt in academic philosophy in the UK, North America, Australia, and Scandinavia. There are, as everybody knows, two threads of this narrative: there was ordinary language philosophy, which was influenced by Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Austin. (I remember Keith Thomas telling me the feeling of the new in Oxford around 1960—“finally something new in philosophy!) And there was analytic philosophy, descended from Russell and the Vienna Circle, which by 1950 had been reincarnated at Harvard, UCLA, and other prominent schools in the US. Both of these movements believed that they were changing everything. The “top three” journals were as much caught up in this fervour as any other organization.
The second, more depressing, story has to do with Indian academic life. Mid-century India suffered, first of all, from the colonial malaise of timidity and deep insecurity. (I remember feeling the same about Canada when I first arrived in 1976.) The English had made us feel that we couldn’t, and for the most part we didn’t. Secondly, this was a period during which Indians were not allowed to buy foreign currency and for this reason they could not travel abroad. This had a tremendously isolating effect on every part of society, and very acutely felt in academia. Thirdly, Universities were not research institutions. Research was carried out at dedicated establishments such as the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, and Indian Statistical Institute (established as late as 1959). These establishments were devoted to scientific research; there was no equivalent for the humanities. Finally, the libraries were not adequate for research. In those days, we relied on print, of course, and Delhi University might have subscribed to a dozen philosophy journals. St. Stephen’s subscribed to four, as I recall.
Katzav writes: “Modern Indian philosophers once had a substantial presence in two of the most prominent English-language philosophy journals of the 20th century,” and laments its disappearance. He attributes this development to a decline of pluralism in these top journals, and a sinister “use of marginalization as a way of gaining advantage over other approaches to philosophy.” This presumptive narrative has, to me anyway, very little plausibility.
If you glance at my two sketches above, I think it will be evident that there is room for another kind of story. Indians didn’t generally feel intellectually equal to white people, and they didn’t have the resources to compete. Some isolated figures had the confidence and courage to produce work that could be internationally published. But they and their successors did not have the connections to the mid-century ferment to enable them to continue to sneak into these venues. They didn’t know anybody; they didn’t receive the journals; they had no way of learning logic or the other tools of the new philosophy. They didn’t even have other Indians to talk to; for the most part, they were alone. People like Daya Krishnan, P. T. Raju, and Margaret Chaterjee (an Englishwoman who married an Indian civil servant and became Head of Department in Delhi) sat in positions of authority, but no collegiality. Could these individuals make a sustained contribution to research as it was being conducted in Oxbridge and London, Cambridge MA and California? How?
The “top three” journals for their part were publishing what they took to be contributions to the advancing edge of philosophical research. Very few Indians working in India contributed. Tell me where the mystery lies.
I want to leave it there. I am not a scholar of these developments, and I don’t want to sketch a narrative I cannot rigorously support. But let me say this. My suggestions would be refuted by a “substantial presence” of Indian philosophers in the early part of the 20th century, but I see little evidence of this. Katzav cites 18 papers published in Mind and Philosophical Review between 1894 and 1947. But there was nothing like sustained research output from a connected network of scholars. At no time in the 20th century was there a professional philosophical research community in India.
I had two teachers, Mrinal Miri (PhD, Cambridge, 1970) and Ramachandran Gandhi (DPhil, Oxford, 1968), who tried to change this. These men brimmed with a new Indian confidence. There were others. I believe that the efforts of these and other pioneers have borne some fruit in recent years. But if you ask: Why did the work of mid-century Indians not find its way into the “top three” journals? . . . Well if you were there, you wouldn’t find it surprising.
[*Full disclosure: Mohan and I used to blog at NewAPPS.]