Clerestory

Surendranath Dasgupta

November 24, 2021

Part 14 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

I’ve previously mentioned Bryan W Van Norden’s brilliant piece and provocative piece “Western philosophy is racist.” Citing Peter K J Park, Van Norden argues that it was not until the late 18th Century that philosophy began to exclude “non-Western” philosophy. Before that, “the only options taken seriously by most scholars in the 18th century were that philosophy began in India, that philosophy began in Africa, or that both India and Africa gave philosophy to Greece.”

Around the turn of the 19th Century, Kantians “consciously rewrote the history of philosophy to make it appear that his critical idealism was the culmination toward which all earlier philosophy was groping, more or less successfully.” I think “rewriting history” and “making the present the telos of the past” are both practices common to “the West” today, and especially of Germany, as I discussed here.

Van Norden goes on to describes how Heidegger and Derrida (both “Continental” European philosophers) denied that any “thought” outside the Greek tradition can be called “philosophy” at all.

Here’s Heidegger, for example:

The often-heard expression ‘Western-European philosophy’ is, in truth, a tautology. Why? Because philosophy is Greek in its nature; … the nature of philosophy is of such a kind that it first appropriated the Greek world, and only it, in order to unfold.

But this summary dismissal of “Eastern” thought, though only a few centuries old, is not limited to Continental philosophy (the German/French branch of 20th Century “Western” philosophy). Analytic philosophy (the Anglo-American branch) has also gotten onboard.

Van Norden provides this scene, in which G. E. Moore (1873–1958) mocked Surendranath Dasgupta (1887–1952):

It is not only philosophers in the so-called Continental tradition who are dismissive of philosophy outside the Anglo-European canon. The British philosopher G E Moore (1873-1958) was one of the founders of analytic philosophy, the tradition that has become dominant in the English-speaking world. When the Indian philosopher Surendra Nath Dasgupta read a paper on the epistemology of Vedanta to a session of the Aristotelian Society in London, Moore’s only comment was: ‘I have nothing to offer myself. But I am sure that whatever Dasgupta says is absolutely false.’ The audience of British philosophers in attendance roared with laughter at the devastating ‘argument’ Moore had levelled against this Indian philosophical system.

I became curious about Dasgupta. This led me his wikipedia page, where I found a few fascinating things.

One was that Mircea Eliade studied Sanskrit, Pali, and Bengali under him in Calcutta — and that Eliade fell in love with Dasgupta’s daughter, Maitreyi Devi. When this was discovered in 1930, he was told to leave and never to contact her again, which he did — though he was evidently not above fictionalising the romance in a 1930 novel, which he called Maitreyi (also called Bengal Nights). This was made into a film with Hugh Grant in 1988.

When Devi read Eliade’s novel, some forty years after its publication, she wrote a novel of her own, called It Does Not Die (1974). Though they were republished in 1994 as companion volumes by the University of Chicago Press, her novel was intended to stand alone.

I found it even more interesting that Dasgupta attempted the first fully comprehensive history of Indian thought from the original sources in Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit — though a more limited and less ambitious attempt had been made in the 14th Century.

Dasgupta originally intended to complete the whole project in a single volume. Instead, the first volume came out in 1921, and the effort was to occupy him for the next thirty years, even at the expense of his own philosophical work:

He had also planned to write out his own system of philosophy in two volumes. His friends and students requested him several times to complete the writing of his own first. Yet he looked upon his work on Indian philosophy as the sacred mission of his life, and thought himself to be committed to that purpose.

Despite his worsening health, Dasgupta continued working on what became his five volume History of Indian Philosophy literally until the day he died:

With strong determination and unwavering devotion he brought his life’s mission very near its completion. Until the end of his life he was working for this, and completed one full section just a few hours before his passing away, on 18 December 1952. Even on this last day of his life, he worked in the morning and afternoon on the last chapter of the section of Southern Śaivism.

The first volume of this incredible life’s work is available on Project Gutenberg, so I’ve taken a brief look at it. Tomorrow I’ll describe what I’ve found so far, and contrast it to what I’ve found in the West.


Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.