Western Philosophy and Eastern Thought

Keith Ward on Materialism, 2     1

I will, then, comment on the concluding chapter (pp. 130-47) of Keith Ward’s short book The God Conclusion: God and the Western Philosophical Tradition. Ward begins the chapter with the following part of the first sentence: “I have been considering the work of some of the classical philosophers of the European tradition”. This raises the question of the nature of philosophy, classical philosophy, and philosophy as a European tradition. It will remind the reader of what I have said about this in the introduction to this case for idealism and personalism by means of commentary, as well as of what I have often said about it elsewhere. For those who have read the book, it also recalls what Ward himself said about this in the Introduction (pp. 2-3):

”I intend to treat matters historically, moving from the ancient Greeks, by way of late medieval Christendom and the Enlightenment, to recent emphasis on problems of consciousness and artificial intelligence. It may seem an unduly European or ’Western’ history. But it is in Europe that philosophy, understood as the pursuit of ciritical and independent thinking, has flourished. It may only be part of a rich and much more varied global heritage of thought. But the problems it has dealt with, and the way it has dealt with them, remain characteristic of a specific tradition of thought that was born in Greece and flourished conspicuously in Europe after the Enlightenment. So it may be seen as one important tradition of human thought.”

As a comparative theologian and philosopher, Ward is of course eminently aware of this. What we will deal with here is the case for idealism and personalism in terms of the specifically Western, more or less institutionalized discipline of philosophy, and as understood within that tradition. This limited project is clearly indicated in Ward’s subtitle, as also, for instance, in the title of his main polemical book against Richard Dawkins, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins (2008).

We will keep to this particular discipline of Western philosophy here because this is expected by Western readers, but also because it is helpful, useful, and valuable in itself. It must never imply, however, that thought is limited to this discipline and tradition, even thought on idealism and personalism, although, as such philosophical isms and in the form of such isms, are products specifically of that tradition. Parallel to making the case in terms of Western philosophy, we must also continue to assimilate the comparative perspectives and explore the potential of new developments, deepening, and syntheses in these fields.

For other traditions within the broader global heritage of human thought, as Ward calls it, are clearly also of importance for thinking about idealism and personalism, and primarily the Eastern traditions, the Vedic, the Buddhist, the Taoist and the Confucian. The Western discipline of philosophy should simultaneously be preserved and opened up to such comparative perspectives and the dialogue that this inspires.

This is what Ward has done in the main body of his work. It is also what idealists and personalists have often been pioneers in doing, ever since the nineteenth century: it can often be seen as characteristic of their thinking, and not seldom to distinguish them favourably from the dominant strands of modern or modernist thought which are much more limited in their general outlook.

It is also characteristic of the thinkers that primarily inspired value-centered historicism, namely the New Humanists, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Babbitt studied Sanskrit and Pali and translated the Dhammapada, and was also a keen student of Confucianism and much appreciated in China, where his wife had lived. The early More studied Sanskrit  and contributed to the ongoing introduction in the West of the wisdom of the Upanishads.

Finally, it is fundamental in the work of the strict traditionalist school first established by René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy and represented in Sweden primarily by Tage Lindbom, a school whose broadly, esoterically “idealist” positions I argue must be selectively affirmed within the framework of the broad conception of idealism despite its objection to the term idealism as signifying exclusively one limited speculative school among many with perspectives constitutively limited by the distinctive rational framework and presuppositions of the, in Guénon’s sense, non-traditional Western philosophy as such (Coomaraswamy was more open to the important fact that traditionalist elements were incorporated in philosophy ever since Plato, and that, more generally, philosophy in antiquity, ever since Socrates, had wholly other dimensions than the ones it shared with emergent science, dimensions of the personal cultivation of wisdom, insight, and character through what Pierre Hadot called “exercises spirituels”).

One reason why this consideration of Eastern thought and not just Western philosophy is important, and the most relevant reason in this connection, is that it speaks strongly in favour of idealism broadly conceived, and thus also in favour of personalism, primarily to the extent that the latter is part of and presupposes idealism in general but also inasmuch as there are distinctive counterparts of aspects of  personalism in some Eastern ”schools” of thought (”schools” is another term which from the beginning assumed some distinctive meanings characteristic of the specificity of Western philosophy, and which, as Guénon pointed out, can therefore easily be misleading as applied to the East in comparative studies).

Materialism, and also other non- and anti-idealist/personalist positions that in this comparative perspective have been disproportionately dominant in the West, are seen to be even more exceptional than when we regard them exclusively in the perspective of the European tradition of classical philosophy. And this is in itself an argument, a part of the case.

Thus the Eastern traditions must in a certain sense be brought within the purview of the discipline of Western philosophy and juxtaposed with its “classical philosophers” in the way Ward himself does it in other works and for which he indicates the need also in this one. I will have to return briefly to this kind of comparative thought and its import in the course of this case for idealism, in order to explain further the relation of the case for idealism and personalism to the other themes of my writing. But this is not the main concern either of this case as such, as a case in terms precisely of Western philosophy, or of Ward’s similarly delimited chapter and book.

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi