Rediscovering Philosophy

Ivo Coelho sdb

Some years ago Savio Silveira and Anaclete D’Mello had casually said to me that Divyadaan should organise some sort of summer updating courses in philosophy, so that confreres could keep up with the latest happenings in philosophy. I had thought it a good idea at the time, but was sceptical whether there would be any takers. But Savio can be persistent, and has approached me once again with this idea, this time to write about it, so here I am.

The first area for updating would certainly be postmodernism, a word that has become quite fashionable already, like hermeneutics was a few years ago. We use it, we read it everywhere, but what exactly might it mean? It might be helpful to get a grip on this. We could begin by dropping names: Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida in France, Richard Rorty and John Caputo in North America, Gianni Vattimo in Italy – each of these worthies has left / is leaving a body of work that is making an impact not only in philosophical academia, but also in theology. But the roots of postmodernism go back at least to Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. One way of describing postmodernism is to say that it challenges the hidden assumptions of modernity. Modernity had exalted individual subjectivity; postmodernity is reminding us that the ‘I’ is not as independent and as primordial as Descartes had thought it to be. Remember Heidegger saying awful things like ‘The world worlds’ and ‘Language speaks’? If you still find that awful, perhaps you should attend an updating course on postmodernism. Language is, in many ways, prior to the individual who speaks a language. But postmodernism also challenges the powerful in favour of those on the margins; pokes fun at the idea of the supremacy and invincibility of pure reason (there is, in fact, no such thing!); exalts ‘superficiality’ over profundity; and has a profound mistrust of the ‘large stories’ (which it calls metanarratives), in favour of the little stories and the piecemeal picture. Among the leading experts in postmodernism here in India we have our very own Stanislaus Swamikannu, SDB, at present provincial of Chennai: Stanislaus has a doctorate on Derrida from Belgium, and he says he was attracted to postmodernism because he feels it is the (only) way to philosophize in favour of the marginalized, the Dalits, the subalterns. I am not quite sure myself of the ‘only’; but postmodernism as the contemporary effort to overcome the shortcomings of modernity is certainly something that needs paying attention to.

Then there is virtue ethics. This is an extremely interesting development in the field of ethics. The ethics that I learnt, that most of us have learnt, was largely a morality of individual actions. It centred on asking questions like, Is abortion wrong? Is contraception wrong? Is premarital sex wrong? Virtue ethics reinserts the human act within its context, and that context is the habits or virtues of the person, her character, her education, upbringing, friendships, social and cultural context, history, tradition, and, ultimately, religion. Such a way of reconceptualising ethics is quite the rage just now, and, interestingly, the movement seems to have begun outside Catholic circles. One of the great names associated with virtue ethics is Alasdair MacIntyre, who, though born Catholic, drifted into agnosticism, discovered Aristotle, and then Aquinas, and eventually the Catholic faith. MacIntyre is considered by some at least, interestingly, a postmodern, and people like Rorty have great respect for him. Several major Protestant thinkers have also espoused the cause of virtue ethics, people like Stanley Hauerwas, for example. The wave seems to have reached Catholic circles rather late, if I am not mistaken; but there is a major Catholic figure who also happens to be a Salesian, Giuseppe Abbà of the UPS, Rome. Here in India we have several experts on the matter, including our very own Fr Ashley Miranda, and perhaps two or three others. But by and large, virtue ethics has still to penetrate Indian ecclesiastical circles and seminaries, while the secular philosophers in India have probably not even heard of the term. But I think the movement is wonderful: a rediscovery of Aquinas, from outside traditional Catholic circles, as really having taught a virtue ethics, a holistic ethics rather than an ethics of the isolated act.

I would add also the whole topic of the revision of Indian Philosophy. Given the current climate in India, I think it is important to realize the cultural underpinnings of the type of Indian philosophy that has been taught in Catholic seminaries in India in the last 40 years or so. The curriculum of Indian Philosophy in Divyadaan, for example, is largely what we have inherited from Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, which means that it is largely Brahminical, even though the nastika darsanas such as the Carvakas, Jainism and Buddhism are not absent. It is only in Contemporary Indian Philosophy that people like Kabir, Tukaram, Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar find a place. This state of affairs can and must be revised. The whole historical, cultural, social and economic context, for example, needs to be introduced. This will certainly bring in the question – now so controverted thanks to the efforts of revisionist historians – about the Aryans and the Dravidians, whether the Aryans were really invaders, or whether, as the Hindutvavadis are trying their best to show, they were as original to India as the Dravidians. It also means that the exclusive emphasis on Indian ‘philosophy’ will have to be balanced through an introduction of important elements in Indian culture such as Chanakya Kautilya's Arthasastra and his politics; the vastly influential Laws of Manu; the whole area of Indian aesthetics; the non-written subaltern elements; the contributions of the Muslims to Indian culture; the interesting dialectic between Muslim, Hindu and European elements that Dalrymple has just begun to unearth in his White Mughals and The Last Mughal; and of course the whole area of the strictly religious, which tends to be left out of Indian ‘philosophy.’ And by 'strictly religious' we should not assume 'Hindu' – keeping in mind the cauldron of religiosity that India used to be, with the Nandas and Guptas being Jains, Asoka clearly Buddhist, and so on. It is sufficient to remember that Jain and Buddhist monuments dot the length and breadth of the country – with the Pandavlene and Chambarlene in Nashik, Karla and Bhaja in Lonavla, the Kanheri caves in Borivli and the still visible stupas in the marshes off Nala Sopara, and of course Ajanta and Ellora, just to mention Maharahstra alone. The whole of South India was Buddhist at some point of time: Buddhism was exported into Burma from off what is now the coast of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and there is even a group of people in Burma called the Telangs.

As for Lonergan, he is not really popular, and seems to evoke extreme reactions – extreme admiration or extreme rejection. But there is a growing group of Lonergan scholars, both in North America and in Europe, especially now that some 15 volumes of the Collected Works have been published. Not many might know that Lonergan is philosopher, theologian and economist; two of the Collected Works volumes are, in fact, on economics. The theology is mostly Latin notes that he composed for students, in Christology and Trinity; these are being translated, and, despite the archaic pre-Vatican format, contain gems and promising developments for the future of Christian theology. But Lonergan’s most important contribution lies in the area of method. All his life he was trying to meet the challenge of incorporating history into Catholic theology, or, more familiarly, the problem of how to integrate the vast mass of exegetical and scholarly studies into traditional dogmatic and systematic theology. His answer was his theological method; but he himself realized that the method was relevant not only for theology but for the whole of knowledge. Basically Lonergan recognizes that no one can today pretend to completely master any single discipline, and that therefore teamwork is essential. His contribution lies in proposing that the collaboration be organized not by dividing the field of data, but by subdividing the process from data to results. The specializations of the future, he proposed, should be functional specializations rather than field specializations or subject specializations. But Lonergan scholars are still at the phase of coming to grips with the method; efforts to apply the method are still few and far between, though there is the redoubtable Philip McShane who is spearheading the application. The forthcoming issue of Divyadaan will feature one such effort: functionally specialized efforts in the field of economics. Hopefully, also, Divyadaan will be hosting a conference on economics in September 2010.

Speaking of economics, Amartya Sen would certainly be someone to be studied. Strangely, once again the name that comes to mind here is Fr John Alexander, SDB, of the province of Chennai, who has a doctorate on Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

But hermeneutics itself, with its vast impact on contemporary theology, would be an area to be explored, with its roots going back of course to classical Western antiquity, but with the peculiar turn given to it by Heidegger and Gadamer who made it a way of philosophizing rather than merely a method for the interpretation of texts.

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