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World Philosophies by Ninian Smart

Joseph Sen reviews a new book on the world’s philosophies.

This book has a reason for its existence. As we engage in a more and more global philosophical debate the distinctive contribution each culture has to make needs to be kept in clear view. With this in mind Ninian Smart has sought to remind us of the diverse riches of our reflective heritage – especially as this extends beyond Europe.

Smart attempts to do this by adopting a view of philosophical activity pliable enough to encompass both the making of world views and the questioning of prevailing beliefs and values. These creative and critical functions are compatible since world-views (‘philosophies’) often emerge as the result of questioning (‘philosophising’). Another way Smart endeavours to wrest us out of the ‘straitjacket’ of our own tradition is by beginning his historical account in India with Buddhism. From here we move on to China, Korea and Japan. This itinery provides us with a fresh orientation as we find ourselves, after some 120 pages, arriving at Greece, the traditional starting point for most histories of philosophy. From Greece we are carried into Christian philosophy before reaching Islamic and then Jewish thought. Discussions of medieval and modern Western philosophy follow, culminating with 20th century analysis. Next we move into the modern world of North and Latin America, and from here to recent Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist thought, before closing in Africa.

The course Smart takes effectively contextualises Western thought, enclosing it within a wider thought-world. This made me feel I was going through the motions somewhat when reading the more familiar material found in the sections on Western philosophy. But the procedure also enables Smart to employ insights from other traditions to illuminate Western thinkers. Parmenides (p.128), for example, seems less of an oddball, when we consider that his distinctions between the ways of truth, opinion and ignorance have clear parallels with Hindu and Buddhist ideas. This holds true for most of the Pre-Socratics. By the time Freud is reached we are in a position to liken him to Indian thinkers in his offer of what Smart calls “an existentially meaningful inner psychology” (p.279). Smart is favourable to Indian psychology, arguing for its capacity to feed fresh debate, especially through Buddhism and the Sankhya school. The Sankhya in particular, with its insistence on a separation between mind and consciousness, seems to me to throw down a real gauntlet to Western thought, which has tended to conflate the two.

An author must already hold to certain values to find the prospect of writing a book of this kind worthwhile. In this respect Smart’s universalism is evinced throughout, which leads to some interesting characterisations. Kierkegaard and Barth, for example, are branded as “cultural tribalists” (p.252), nations are accused of “collective egoism” (p.256). There is an assumption that recognition of the tentative quality of every point of view, including our own, facilitates openness to others. Smart is for this reason keen on the Jain theory (p.27) that every philosophical position is conditional and in need of qualification by a ‘maybe’ (syäd). This stance makes Smart unsympathetic to Aristotle in particular for his reliance on ordinary language and perception. But Aristotle’s thought as a whole can be commended as “beautiful”, “attractive” and “inspiring” (pp.139-141), as a consequence of Smart’s focus on world-views rather than on philosophising, where aesthetic epithets are rather taboo.

Still, the sheer amount of ground to be covered often precipitates accounts which are little more than snapshots. There is certainly a skill to honing down a philosophy but this presupposes a system which can be caught within a brief description. Plato, for example, is seen through a distinctly Neoplatonic lens, enabling his thought to be construed as a single world-view. Many contemporary scholars would take issue with this and emphasise a more open-ended if not developmental quality to Plato’s thought. But simplification is perhaps the price to be paid for casting one’s net out so far.

Overall, Smart writes with great ease and clarity, along with a kind of pride in being a member of thinking humanity. Most of us (specialists in particular) are bound to have something to learn given this book’s enormous scope. It is a tribute to Smart’s vision that we find ourselves in this position. But the book needs to be taken more as a port of call than as a final destination, a place from which we can move out into the sources listed in the bibliography. In this way a little knowledge becomes less dangerous a thing by impelling us towards deeper acquaintance.

© Dr J. Sen 1999

Joseph Sen teaches philosophy at The City University.

World Philosophies by Ninian Smart 0-415-18466-5 £25hb 1999 Routledge

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