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Joerg Tuske

Anja Steinbauer talks to a philosophy professor in the West who studies classical Indian philosophy.

Joerg Tuske is Professor of Philosophy at Salisbury University in Maryland. Originally from Hamburg, Tuske completed his undergraduate studies and MA in Philosophy at King’s College London, before studying Sanskrit at the University of Pune in India. Afterwards he took his MPhil and PhD at Cambridge. His main research interests are in Classical Indian Philosophy and in Philosophy of Mind. He edited Indian Epistemology and Metaphysics, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Joerg Tuske

How and why did you first get interested in Indian philosophy?

I became interested in Indian philosophy when I was an MA student in the Philosophy Department at King’s College London. Jonardon Ganeri had just finished his PhD in Oxford under the supervision of Bimal Matilal and he had been appointed as a teaching fellow at King’s. I attended his lectures on Nyāya and Buddhist logic and epistemology and became fascinated with the subject. I ended up taking one of my MA papers on the topic. I had not been exposed to Indian philosophy in my undergraduate studies and had picked up the prejudice that Indian philosophy was mystical and religious and not governed by rational thinking. Jonardon’s lectures demonstrated that there was also a very sophisticated rational tradition that could be brought into dialogue with analytical philosophy, which is what I had been trained in until then.

What is the most exciting area of research in Indian philosophy at the moment?

It’s impossible for me to pick out an individual area in Indian philosophy and claim that it is more exciting than another. What I am excited about is the change in attitude towards Indian philosophy and the resulting effect of this on research within the field. When I was first introduced to the subject it seemed that you had to justify the pursuit of Indian philosophy by showing how it can fit into ‘mainstream’, i.e. Western, philosophy. While I think that it is important to point out that Indian thinkers (and of course many others) have been engaged in questions that we can recognize as philosophical, I am excited by the fact that the study of Indian philosophy is becoming more accepted for itself within Western universities. This has led to a shift in the field away from trying to show its usefulness to Western philosophers and towards studying Indian texts on their own terms as contributions to their own traditions and debates.

What can Western philosophy learn from Indian philosophy?

I don’t think it is helpful to think in terms of any specific philosophical points that one tradition can learn from another. The problem with this type of thinking is that it leads to situations where a culturally dominant tradition instrumentalises another tradition, which is what I think happened in the study of Indian philosophy, and other non-Western traditions too. However, there is a general point that Western philosophy (as well as any other tradition) can learn, namely that there are other interesting and fruitful ways of thinking about a problem which require questioning assumptions. Socrates famously described himself as like a gadfly, stinging the lazy horse of Athenian democracy with his questions so that it didn’t fall asleep. Western philosophy is built on this Socratic ideal of the philosopher making people question their most fundamentally held beliefs. Within the history of Western philosophy we see that this can be difficult to live up to. Studying traditions other than our own can help us to see this. However, this requires us to study these other traditions for their own sakes.

Is a meaningful dialogue between philosophical traditions as different and complex as those of India and the West possible?

When we talk about Indian philosophy, we usually mean the history of Indian philosophy. Parimal Patil, who teaches Indian philosophy at Harvard, once remarked that the study of the history of philosophy is really a way of engaging with some of the smartest minds that have ever lived and that by studying the history of Indian philosophy (or other traditions) you are increasing the number of smart minds you can engage with! I think that this is a nice way of thinking about the dialogue between traditions. With the study of different traditions also comes the possibility of developing new ideas and theories that are equally grounded in these traditions. To me that is a very exciting prospect!

What is your own most recent area of research into Indian philosophy?

I am working on the concepts of free will and agency in a number of Indian traditions. There has been a lot of work done recently on the notion of freedom in Buddhist philosophy, because of the Buddhist idea of no-self. I am particularly interested in those traditions, e.g. the Nyāya school, that argue for the existence of a self and whether or not they have a concept of freedom that we could call free will.

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