Sometimes, people ask me questions about “Eastern philosophy.” There are a number of situations that prompt these questions. Sometimes they come up when someone finds out that I’m a philosopher who also practices yoga. Those situations I’m more tolerant of. But sometimes “Eastern philosophy” is brought up in an attempt to argue against a particular conceptual thesis. For example, a couple of days ago I was explaining to someone Spinoza’s distinction between time and duration, and mentioned along the way that I take it for granted that time only goes in one direction. “Not according to Eastern philosophy!” came the self-satisfied response. “In Eastern philosophy, time is a circle!”
I’ve found myself in similar conversations more than once. The problem is that even where the person I’m speaking to is relying on anything more than hearsay, the texts and traditions they’re referring to generally aren’t philosophical: they’re either esoteric or flat-out religious.
Let me say this as simply as I can: citing the Bhagavad Gita to counter a thesis of Spinoza’s is about as intellectually rigorous as citing the Bible to argue against Darwinian evolution. Which is to say, not very intellectually rigorous at all, and if you’re an actual academic, downright stupid.
Both in India and in China, and probably in other cultures I know absolutely nothing about, there is an ancient, elaborate, and exciting tradition of philosophical inquiry. As I’ve noted many times, I follow Deleuze & Guattari in defining philosophy as “the creation, analysis, and modification of concepts.” Philosophy, in other words, is marked by conceptual analysis and conceptual rigor. It is not marked by hermetic pronouncements about union with God. And “Eastern” philosophy, if you bother to study it, is ultimately engaged with more or less the same questions “Western” philosophy is engaged with: questions about being, about the nature of understanding and comprehension, about realism vs. nominalism, about the affections of the body and the substance of the mind. Sure, there are Chinese thinkers who were obsessed with attaining spiritual union with squirrels, but there are people like that in Tompkins Square Park, too.
This isn’t to say that there’s a clear-cut line between religion and philosophy; “Eastern” philosophy, like “Western” philosophy, is marked by what Heidegger called “onto-theology,” the subordination of conceptual rigor to religious ideology. And as in the West, various South and East Asian thinkers have at various points in time attempted with greater or lesser energy to resist this subordination and emphasize conceptual thinking. As in the West, we can identify three primary intellectual traditions: mainstream religious practice, heterodox or esoteric mystical or semi-religious practice, and conceptual practice, each marked by various degrees of onto-theological subordination. In other words, there are thinkers who are more or less religious. There are thinkers who are more or less mystical. There are thinkers who are more or less conceptually rigorous. Thinkers gonna think; priests gonna preach; mystics gonna mystify. This has nothing to do with racial or ethnic predisposition. It has to do with a given individual’s approach to thought.
In short, there are two annoying tendencies I’m arguing against here. The first is the frankly racist - not to mention boring - idea that “Westerners” think a certain way and “Easterners” think a certain way. Just because someone meditates and gives vague, aphoristic answers to complex questions doesn’t mean they’re practicing “Eastern philosophy.” Some Indian philosophers are vague and mystical and obscure; some are crystal clear and rigorous and analytic. The same is true if you compare Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysus on the one hand to Aristotle and Spinoza on the other. The second annoying tendency is the habit of conflating religious or mystical texts with philosophical practice. Again, the line isn’t clear-cut: just as you’d have a hard time following Peter Abelard’s logically rigorous analysis if you didn’t know the Biblical examples he was using to illustrate his arguments, you’d have a hard time understanding the importance of the distinction between āstika and nāstika schools of thought if you’d never heard of the Vedas.
The bottom line is this: if you want to compare “Western” and “Eastern” philosophy, let’s go. Let’s see how the Jaina conception of anekāntavāda compares with Nietzschean perspectivism. Let’s see whether Zhu Xi’s conception of “principle” as the organizational basis of the universe corresponds with Hume’s conception of “principle” as the organizational basis of the universe. Let’s see if Lokāyata skepticism correlates with Pyrrhonian skepticism. But when you bring in a quote from an Upanishad to argue against a rigorously generated philosophical concept, the only thing you’re demonstrating is your own ignorance.