Some reflections on the relations between Indian and Western philosophy15 min read

One cannot help suspecting that the a priori reasoning by which Western metaphysicians have supported those conclusions (or their own Western version of them) is a kind of facade. It is natural to suggest, for example, that Spinoza at some time or other had a mystical experience which gave him (shall I say ?) a monistic version of the cosmos ; and that his deductive system, more geometrico demonstrata, was just an expository device which he felt bound to make use of to satisfy his own intellectual conscience and the rationalistic intellectual standards of the age in which he lived. You may tell me that there is no record of any such experience in what has come down to us about Spinoza’s biography.

Well then, there is another possibility. Perhaps the mystical experience, or some degree of it, may exist in some people in a sub-conscious though not a conscious way—just below the threshold, as psychologists say. And if it does, it may find an outlet in consciousness in an indirect and distorted fashion, somewhat as desires and memories do in dreams ; and if the person who has this sub-conscious mystical experience happens to be a mathematically-minded philosopher, the conscious expression or manifestation of it might take the form of a deductive metaphysical system. Had he been a poet or a painter, it would have expressed itself in an entirely different way.

I  have suggested that the mystical experience which those Western metaphysicians had was too weak or faint, not intense enough, to make its way into consciousness directly. But there is another and more interesting possibility. It might have been intense, but repressed. The mystical experience may have failed to show itself in consciousness not because it was too weak to get in, but because it was forcibly kept out. And if this were so, it would be all the more likely to manifest itself in indirect and distorted ways ; and the construction of a rationalistic metaphysical system might be one of them.

This possibility is not quite so fantastic as it sounds. If there is anything at all in the discoveries of Freud and Jung, such repression can certainly occur. It occurs when there is something in our minds which is too distasteful or disreputable to be consciously acknowledged.

Now a philosopher of our Western tradition, especially a Western philosopher of the last three or four centuries, has quite strong motives for repressing any mystical experiences he may have had ; at any rate he has strong motives for not allowing it to have any conscious influence on his philosophical thinking. The extravagances of religious enthusiasts in the century which followed the Protestant Reformation had brought ‘ private revelations ’ into disrepute among the educated. You may remember Locke’s classical chapter on Enthusiasm and Hobbes’ remark “ when a man tells me that God spoke to him in a dream, all I know is, he dreamed that God spoke to him.” The document in which Pascal recorded his own mystical experience was kept completely secret, sewn up in the lining of his coat, and was only discovered after his death.

Such being our Western climate of opinion, a Western philosopher has strong motives for repressing any mystical experience he may have had, or at any rate for preventing it from having any direct and conscious influence upon his philosophical thought and writing. If he is to convince others, especially his fellow-philosophers (and that, is his aim), he must restrict himself to what is publicly communicable, and deductive reasoning is in this happy position. It would never do for him to admit among his premises data which are private and incommunicable, as the contents of mystical experience are supposed to be. If he did, he would be taken for a lunatic, or perhaps for a poet ; and no one would pay any serious attention to him as a philosopher.

But for all that, the experience which he will not consciously and officially acknowledge continues to have effects ; all the more so, perhaps, for being consciously repressed. The contents of it appear in a disguised and distorted form as the conclusions of a deductive argument, or even as conclusions reached by a special sort of ‘ dialectical ’ logic invented for the purpose. I suspect that this may be what Bradley meant by his epigram ‘ Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon • instinct.’ Clearly the so-called instinct is not instinct at all, in the literal, biological sense of that word. I think it is a disguised name for experiences which the thinker has repressed, because it would be intellectually disreputable —contrary to the trade-union rules of philosophy—to admit officially and openly that one’s thinking had been influenced by them.

I believe that this attitude to ‘ private revelations ’ is one of the crucial points of difference between Western and Indian philosophy. No Western thinker, even the most Positivistic one, will deny that mystical experiences do sometimes occur. But equally, hardly any Western philosopher (except, perhaps, the Neoplatonists) will admit that such experiences are sources of information about matters of fact. And the reason which Western thinkers would give for this is that the data of mystical experience are purely private, not publicly verifiable. Information which comes from sense-perception can be checked or tested by the sense-perceptions of others.

Information which comes from introspection can be checked at least in some degree by the introspections of other people, and to some degree by behaviouristic tests. Likewise, in reasoning, the claim that such and such consequences follow, with certainty or with probability, from such and such premises, can be checked by other reasoners. But (it could be said) when the mystic makes his claims to knowledge, other people have no way of testing them. Are we just to take his word for it ? Obviously not. There is no room in philosophy for a mere ipse dixit. The untestable statements of individuals cannot be accepted as premises in philosophical enquiry or discussion, any more than they can in Natural Science.

Now the Eastern thinkers, if I follow them at all, entirely reject this Western principle that mystical experiences are private and untestable revelations. They hold, on the contrary, that mystical experience is possible, in principle at least, to any human being. And, therefore, when they use the data of mystical experience as the foundation for their philosophical theories, they would claim that other people, if they take the necessary trouble, can check or test those theories for themselves. It is claimed that other people, if they will, can have mystical experiences too ; and then they will be able to judge for themselves whether the contents of these experiences have been correctly analysed by this or that philosopher. In this very important respect, Plotinus—in spite of Dean Inge and Prof. A. E. Taylor— must be counted as an Eastern rather than a Western thinker, though the conceptual apparatus which he used may have been wholly Greek. You remember his remark “ He who has been there will know what I say.” This is just the claim I spoke of a moment ago : the claim that the data of mystical experience are not just ‘ private revelations,’ but are, in principle, capable of being checked or tested by other people.

The point I am trying to make may be put in another way, as follows. The idea of Yoga, in a large sense of the word, is one of the fundamental ideas of Indian philosophy, and perhaps of all Eastern philosophy ; and we cannot understand what Indian philosophers are trying to do until we see this. It is a basic assumption of Eastern, or at least of Indian, thinkers that there are psychological and psychophysical procedures by which the power of mystical awareness may be developed—or rather, released from inhibitions —in anyone who takes the necessary trouble.

The amount of trouble may be very great indeed. But still, it takes a good deal of trouble to learn to use a microscope, and a long and very elaborate training is needed before one can interpret a stellar photograph ; and unless we are prepared to take the trouble and undergo the training, we shall not be able to test some of the most important things which biologists or astronomers have to tell us. Again, we have to learn to read cuneiform—no easy job, I believe— before we can check for ourselves the data which archaeologists use for reconstructing the civilisation of Ancient Babylon. You will remember, too, that when Galileo , announced the discovery of Jupiter’s satellites, the Aristotelian astronomers of his day would not take the trouble to look though the telescope and see for themselves, because they were certain on a priori grounds that there could be nothing to see.

If these Yogic procedures—however difficult and complicated—really do have the effects they are claimed to have, then the data of mystical experience are not just ‘ private revelations ’, but are capable of public verification. And if so, there is nothing intellectually disreputable in admitting such data among the materials for philosophical reflection and analysis. On the contrary, it would be stupid and myopic to exclude them ; they might make a very great difference to one’s whole conception of the universe. Naturally, there might be dispute about the right way to analyse them (as there has been between Vedantists and Buddhists, for example) but at least there would be genuine data to dispute about.

So far then, it comes to this. The Eastern thinkers can afford to base their philosophy on mystical experience— thereby making it an empirical philosophy—because in their view the data of mystical experience are capable of being checked or tested by anyone who adopts the appropriate procedures for testing them.

In actual fact, the number of people who have’ had mystical experiences may be rather small, and smaller probably in Western countries than in India ; though perhaps there may be more people than we suspect, even in the West, who have had such experiences (or some degree of them) in a sub-conscious form—just below the threshold of consciousness. However that may be, the claim is made that mystical experience is in principle shareable by all normal human beings.

And if this claim is justified, there is no need to repress the data of mystical experience, or to camouflage them, consciously or unconsciously, by presenting them as if they were the conclusions of a process of pure ratiocination which had no such data among its premises. On the contrary, one can just accept the data contents of mystical experience as they stand, and analyse them as they come, with whatever conceptual tools may be available ; (which is what we all do with the data of perceptual experience, or of the moral consciousness). And we shall have no need to pretend that those data are something other than they are—namely conclusions established by ‘ pure thought ’ or a-priori argumentation.

Perhaps I was wrong in saying just now that the Eastern philosophers offer us an ‘ analysis ’ of the empirical data of mystical awareness. It may be that the contents of mystical experiences are not strictly speaking analysable at all. It may be that they have to be spoken about either negatively or analogically : as Christian philosophers say is the case with such knowledge as we can have of God. It may be that no language that we have, or even no conceivable language, will literally describe them.

Nevertheless, some analogies might be better than others, and some negations might be more apposite or illuminating than others. So mystical experience would still be a possible subject for philosophical reflection, even if not for philosophical analysis. (‘ Analysis ’ of course is a very slippery word.) Even if our philosophical reflection took a predominantly negative form, as in Buddhism it does, even if it consisted in systematically refusing to apply any kind of concepts to mystical experience at all, my point is that such a negative philosophy would still be empirical. The negations are insisted on, not for any a priori reason, but because of what the experience itself is found to be. If I have never tasted a pineapple and you have, you might fairly say, in answer to my questions, that this taste cannot . be positively described at all. It is just itself, you might say, and resembles nothing but itself ; and if descriptions of it must be given, they will have to be purely negative. But your reasons for saying this would be perfectly empirical ones, dictated by the experience itself.

So far, I have been assuming for the sake of argument that the adversaries of metaphysics are right, and that metaphysics is what they say it is—an attempt to establish factual propositions by purely a priori reasoning. If we accept this conception of metaphysics, we have to conclude that Indian philosophy is not metaphysical at all, even though its conclusions do often resemble those which Western metaphysicians have arrived at. Rather, we have to say that it is an empirical philosophy of mystical experience.

But, of course, this ‘ de-bunking ’ conception of metaphysics is something of a caricature. It is not wholly wrong, for there have been metaphysicians who have professed to discover important truths about the universe by pure thought, that is, by purely a priori methods. But metaphysics, as we ordinarily use the word, does not wholly consist in this highly questionable procedure. There is another and much more respectable philosophical activity which most metaphysicians have practised ; and some of them (e.g. Spinoza) have practised it even when they professed to be arguing in a purely a priori manner. The best name for this other philosophical activity is ‘ synopsis ’ or ‘ synoptic philosophy ’. It is an attempt to produce a unified ‘ view of the world ’, a systematic conspectus covering all the different departments of fact or of experience which appear at first sight to be unconnected with each other, or even in conflict with each other. (The traditional problems about Determinism and Free Will, or about the relation of Mind and Body, are examples of such apparent conflicts.)

Synoptic philosophy is not ‘ pure thought.’ It does not try to establish factual conclusions by a priori methods, or indeed to establish facts at all. It takes its facts from elsewhere :—from common sense observation, from the physical sciences, from psychology, from history, from moral experience. What it tries to do is to unify them ; to produce a unitary conceptual scheme which will exhibit connections between them. It may be compared to making a map. And as there may be many alternative systems of map-making, all equally legitimate, so likewise there may be many alternative systems of synoptic philosophy or ‘ points of view ’ for viewing the universe.

It is in this respect, considered as essays in synopsis, that the writings of the great metaphysicians deserve our study. And it is for this reason that metaphysical systems have always interested intelligent men and always will, even though in some periods of history (such as the present one) they have not interested professional philosophers.

If we consider metaphysical systems in this light—which I suggest i$ the right way to consider them—we may cheerfully admit that Indian philosophy is metaphysical. All the same, we still notice a striking difference between Western and Indian metaphysics. They differ from each other in regard to the facts or data which a synoptic philosophy ought to take into account. Both parties are trying to produce a unitary ‘ view of the world ’, a conceptual unification. But they differ from each other about the unificanda. Western thinkers, in their synoptic philosophies, have on the whole confined themselves to the facts revealed by what I may call intelligent sense -perception and introspection (Natural Science is only a specially striking case of intelligent sense-perception). But in the synoptic philosophies of the East, and especially of India, another department of fact is taken into account as well, namely the facts revealed in the so-called ‘ higher ’ forms of consciousness, and particularly in mystical experience. And not only are those facts included in the Indian synoptic philosophies, whereas they are excluded from the Western ones.

In the Indian synoptic philosophies (and, I think, in sortie other Eastern ones), they play a central and decisive part. For all the other facts or data are unified by putting them into relation with the facts or data which mystical experience provides. If I may coin a horrid adjective, the Indian synoptic philosophies, however much they differ among themselves, are mystico-centric synopses. Mystical experience not merely has a place in their maps of the universe, whereas it is usually omitted from the Western ones ; it is used to suggest the cartographical principles on which their maps of the universe are constructed. Perhaps this is a better way of formulating the difference between Western and Indian philosophy which I mentioned at the beginning when I said that Western philosophy is ‘ this- worldly ’ and Indian philosophy ‘ other-worldly.’ It is this difference between Western and Eastern synoptic principles—this difference, rather than the resemblances there are between their conclusions—which ought to make Eastern, and particularly Indian, philosophy interesting and instructive to the Western mind. The study of Indian philosophy shows us that a unified ‘ view of the world ’ can be obtained from a point of view which is to us Westerners quite unfamiliar.

In the present period, as I have said, our professional philosophers are not interested in synoptic philosophy at all, not even in their own Western variety. The synoptic impulse is temporarily exhausted. But in a generation or two it will no doubt revive ; and when it does, a study of the synoptic philosophies of the East may help to provide the new inspiration for which we shall then be ready.