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The West's philosophical time-warp


A timeworn myth says that in the West time is linear, while in India it is cyclic. FORUM met up with professor Anindita Niyogi Balslev at the University of Copenhagen, who has spent a lifetime trying to root out this and similar misconceptions. She has worked with time and consciousness in Indian and Western philsophical traditions.

FORUM/February 2001 Anindita Balslev sees it as a major part of her lifework to show that philosophical thinking is not just a Western tradition: Many other philosophical traditions have existed, of which one of the oldest and most important is the Indian tradition. Hers is no mean undertaking, because there is a widespread belief in the West that religion and philosophy are one and the same in India and therefore have nothing in common with philosophy as it is understood in the West. This is compounded by the fact that teaching in Indian philosophical traditions in the West most often happens at institutes of either religion, language or regional studies and not at departments of philosophy.

Anindita Balslev was born and raised in India, but has lived most of her adult life in the West. She is married to a Dane and has lived in Denmark for about 20 years. She has an international reputation and is a frequent speaker and lecturer abroad. She is currently participating in a research project under the Danish FREJA Programme (Female Researchers in Joint Action) at the Department of Education, Philosophy and Rhetoric at the University of Copenhagen, where she is working on a study of I-consciousness in Indian and Western philosophy.

Philosophy was not an unusual choice for a young, middle class woman in Calcutta in the 1960's and more than half the students of her year were women. Nor was it unusual for a woman of her background to have the same educational opportunities as men. Anindita Balslev, however, has been interested in philosophy for almost as long as she can remember:

- I cannot actually remember any time since my school days that I haven't been interested in philosophy. There were a lot of philosophical discussions going on in my childhood home. My father was a lawyer but deeply interested in philosophical and religious questions. When I was a schoolgirl he would often meet Western people when he was in Delhi for a case and would then invite them to our house. So this sense of a strong, hard boundary between India and the West was not there for me. That made it easy for me to go in between these two cultures, these two worlds and feel quite at home. I came to perceive that the learning process is a two-way thing: People in the West have a lot to learn from India and Indians have a lot to learn from the West.

After obtaining her degree in Calcutta Anindita Balslev went to Paris on a French State Scholarship to undertake her post-graduate studies in phenomenology, existentialism and Indian philosophy. And it was in Paris that her interest in the problem of time in Indian and Western philosophy was kindled.

- There is a lot of discussion of this problem in phenomenology and existentialism. This triggered a curiosity in me concerning Indian philosophical concepts concerning time beyond what I already was familiar with. I soon discovered, however, that there did not exist a thorough body of work on this problem based on original sources. I decided that this was a field I needed to explore when I had completed my doctoral thesis.

- I was fortunate to receive funding from the Danish Research Council for the Humanities to write a book on the concept of time in Indian philosophy (A Study of Time in Indian Philosophy, 1983, reprinted 1999). This turned out to be very rich experience for me, not only because I gained a much deeper understanding of the core of what the Indian philosophical world looks like, but because it led to much more cross cultural interests. These studies have also given me the opportunity to study the widespread belief that in India there is a cyclic conception of time as opposed to the Judeo-Christian linear understanding.

This is a misconception with great ramifications, because it is also taken to signify that there is a completely different and peculiar world-view in India, which is entirely different in character to that of the West.

- My study showed that there is no basis for this understanding because the concept of cyclic time does not occur in any Indian philosophical text. It is, however, still a very widespread and dominant cliché. Whenever you try to put all the major conceptual experiences of time together in a global context the most typical way of making a difference, a cultural opposition so to speak is by saying that the Indo-Hellenic group of people has a cyclic view and the Judeo-Christian a linear view.

- I found that these metaphors were confused not only pertaining to the understanding of time but also to the notion that a cyclic understanding time excludes any sense of history: There cannot be any conception of progress because everything goes round and round and ends at the same point from where you started etc. Where of course both history and progress are present within the other "culture".

- By virtue of the fact that I have shared my life with people who came from India as well as from the West, and because I have my family in Denmark, I have felt an almost a moral obligation to dig deeper and deeper into that question and see whether I could amend this situation.

Does this mean to say that Indian philosophy also is multi-facetted?

- One has to bear in mind, that no major philosophical tradition has a unanimous view of time. In Western philosophy there are ideas of time as process, absolute time, relative time, etc. Similarly in Indian philosophical traditions there are many schools and sub-schools, which each have their distinct understandings of what time is all about.

- As far as the metaphors cyclic and linear are concerned, we must keep in mind they are major metaphors in everyday language as well as in the sciences as psychology, physics and cosmology. There is no problem as long as the metaphors cyclic and linear only point to processes that involve recurrence or irreversibility. The problem is when we believe that these metaphors represent different cultural experiences of time – then we are playing traditions against each other. And this is where we go wrong.

- This is also a widespread notion in the West that Indian philosophy is the same as religion. This is because a conflict between philosophy and religion has never existed in the history of India; such as it has in the West.

What can different concepts of time tell us about ourselves?

- In general all of our daily experiences are intertwined with time. When you are hoping, when you are regretting, when you are perceiving, all these processes of awareness have an aspect of time to them. There could be no question of hoping if there had been no feeling for the future, no regret if there was not a sense of pastness, of having done something. No matter whether we are thinking on the nature of nature, or on the nature of self we cannot avoid thinking about the nature of time.

Even though Anindita Balslev currently is involved in a project based on both Indian and Western philosophical traditions, Indian philosophy is still not an integral part of the curriculum at Departments of Philosophy in Denmark. This is a great shortcoming according to her:

- What we need today is a participation in each others traditions. And I must say that Eastern philosophical traditions have not received even up till today the right sort of representation or even any sort of representation in the regular departments of philosophy in the West with very few exceptions. This is very unfortunate because this gives rise to the idea that philosophy as a project of thinking only exists in the West, while the East is perceived of as mysterious and irrational.

- I think that the whole dialogue between East and West is inflicted with a lot of asymmetries. And on of these asymmetries is this: There is no proper exchange of ideas on the level of philosophical discussion. The FREJA-group recently organised a conference on Borders and Boundaries at the University of Copenhagen and brought up the question of how we erase these hard boundaries – between disciplines, between people, between cultures. Why do we think that no communication is possible between different conceptual worlds? This is in itself an artificial construct. We have to work to soften these hard boundaries.

- We have to break away from old practices, which raised these hard boundaries and maintain and preserve them. We have to work in a manner so that more and more communication is possible. I do not believe that slogans such as new world order will do the job. We have to make use of education - only through education we will be able to soften and cross these hard boundaries.

You have written a book on "cultural otherness" - what do you mean by this expression?

- Cultural Otherness (1992, 1999) is the title of a book consisting of an exchange of letters I had with professor Richard Rorty of Stanford University in California in which we discussed these very issues. What bothers me is this: Some of the major Western philosophers like Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger have all contributed to the notion - not out of mischievousness but from a lack of knowledge - that the project of philosophy is a monopoly of the Western cultural sphere. There are many Westerners who have participated in the Indian traditions and undertaken a lot of important translation work. They have also been very much involved in developing a project called comparative philosophy. In spite of all that, however, mainstream philosophy departments still need to open up to this knowledge.

In Denmark and other European countries, culture has come to be wedge that driven in between people. We no longer use the expression racist, but rather the argument that "their culture is so different from ours, that we will never be able to understand each other". How do you view this development?

- If you go back in time a couple of hundred years you find that stories of distant cultures were part of our travellers tales. At that time there was no philosophical or political worry about diversity of cultures. Time and the growth of technology have opened up for communication and travel, and distant cultures are not so distant anymore. This has given rise to philosophical speculations on what do we do in the face of this diversity.

- At the end of last century a one world ideology of sorts arose, which was about how this heterogeneity, this diversity would melt and we would become one homogenous whole. Very soon, however, it became apparent, that this ideology did not work. Not least because it implied the imposition of one dominant model - we are not interested in this vision of one world because it is liable to this very imperialistic interpretation. Instead, we want to preserve diversity.

- And this diversity has given rise to politics of identity, politics of difference, etc. And if by difference you try to project a world view where "the other" is seen as so utterly, radically different than me, where differences in intellectual history mean different conceptual worlds among which no communication is possible -that is a slippery slope. This is something I do not accept at all.

- In the real world communication is going on all the time, give and take is going on. I do believe that it is in our interest to maintain diversity to some extent. On the other hand to maintain diversity does not mean that we cannot create a sense of global community that is multicultural to its core. We like to have different ways of making food, different ways of addressing ourselves, different ways of thinking – this only enriches us. This is nothing to be terrified of.

- I believe it is a question of how we develop a sense of solidarity in diversity – we don't want to destroy each other and those differences which we perceive as constitutive of our own identity. For many people their nationalities, their customs, their religious traditions, their racial identity, their gender identity are all extremely important. We want to imagine a world where we grant these identities the place they deserve and yet create a public space where we meaningfully can talk about of having a political world view which supports solidarity in diversity.

Anindita Balslev has also worked with issues concerning women's rights and is particularly interested in the question of the legal rights of women.

- I recently participated in a world congress in New York on social philosophy and the philosophy of law and I was invited to speak on the question of women's rights and cultural norms. How my understanding of philosophical interpretations of cultural norms relates to the actual policy-making in relation to women's rights - especially where there is a plurality of ethnicity and religious traditions - is a very challenging one. The diversity of traditions India is a fabulous example of this.

- We are all members of multiple groups. You and I belong to the same gender group for example, but when it comes to nationality, when it comes to religious traditions we belong to different groups. This is precisely why the more we understand the over-lapping characters of our group identities, the more important it is for us to develop a notion solidarity and develop a political and legal expression of that understanding. I believe that the more people talk together, the more they will find out how to transcend these hard boundaries.

- The more courageous you are in exposing yourself to the otherness of the other, the more easily you will see that bridges can be built where they are nonexistent today. The worst thing is when you are not on speaking terms. As long as you can make people talk, something will come out of it.

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