Shyam Ranganathan
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I am a philosopher who specializes in Ethics, Political Philosophy, the Philosophy of Thought, Philosophy of Language (especially translation theory) and Philosophy of Religion, who has a research specialization in a Non-Western tradition of philosophy–namely South Asian philosophy, especially Indian moral philosophy. Why so many areas?   

I got interested in the topic of how we can philosophically engage with people who we do not share a language, cultural or intellectual background with, early on in my career. Pursuing this question requires addressing several seemingly unconnected areas, but which all bear upon the challenge of hearing others out, finding solutions to practical problems, and coming to terms with our differences.

While at first I tried to keep the seemingly theoretical aspects from the seemingly practical aspects of my research, I found, over time, that the two bled into each other. That is because abstract theories have practical consequences, and there is a political history to theory: intellectual traditions differ as to their  theoretical commitments and so while some questions in philosophy seem at first as though they are purely abstract, they are also historical and political because they have practical consequences when endorsed and employed.

What I also started to realize is that one does not see the relationship between theory and practice if one simply assumes that all the possible questions and answers are to be found in a dominant tradition of thought, as is usually assumed. Philosophical trends have to be viewed macroscopically as philosophy is macroscopic, having practical impact at the millennial level. One misses the impact of philosophical theorizing when focusing on specific cultures or traditions at specific times.


My dissertation in philosophy, Translating Evaluative Discourse (York 2007), was in ethics and the philosophy of language and the issues explored were inspired by the widespread view among Orthodox Indologist, which I came to appreciate during an MA in South Asian Studies, that Indian thinkers (despite having extensively discussed practical problems) have no tradition of moral philosophy.  I am translator from the Sanskrit and commentator of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra  (Penguin 2008),  editor and contributor to  the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics (Bloomsbury 2017), author of Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass 2007, 2nd ed. 2017) and Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation (Routledge 2019).

My  research spans moral theory, translation and reason, especially at the intersections of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism. My recent contributions on translation include “Context and Pragmatics” in The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy, Philip Wilson, and J. Piers Rawling eds. (Routledge, in press).

After my dissertation and as I began teaching philosophy, I started putting together various parts of my seemingly separate research interests. Reflecting on the west’s tradition of philosophy, problems in the study of nonwestern traditions, the spread of Western imperialism and colonialism, and the rise of nationalism and new forms of xenophobia that were left in colonized lands post colonization (in places like India)  I found one common element: a bad account of thought, with a European origin. I call this the West.

The West is the intellectual tradition  that assumes that thought is what is linguistically encoded in language and is traceable to the ancient Greek idea of logos (an idea I came to via my research into the history of the philosophy of language and translation). This model creates many problems. First it conflates the cultural contingencies of your language with the content of thought. Second, in this conflation it further collapses the distinction between a thought (what can be true or false) and a belief (our attitude that a thought is true). Explanation by way of belief is   interpretation. But as belief is not the same as thought, but a psychological attitude of assent to a thought, swapping out thought for belief makes dealing with diversity and disagreement impossible for thought is treated as the same as what the believer believes and nothing more. Moreover, and importantly, I show (and I’m surprised it is not widely noted) that interpretation is irrational: it violates a basic constraint of reason. But as this tradition confuses belief with thought,  it ends up using its beliefs in the explanation of everything, and it thereby imposes its world view on others as its method of understanding. This is imperialism. And when it tries to treat aliens as derivative of its tradition, it is colonialism. But as it can only explain what it believes, it results in sceptical views about the reality of moral theorizing in alien traditions or wild claims that they operate with different conceptual schemes. And since the beliefs it operates with are those that are correlative with its historical origins (beliefs about Europe) it is always the non-western that ends up seeming mystical, spiritual, sub-rational, non-philosophical — religious.      

What I think I can and do also show in my work is that nationalism, populism, xenophobia, communitarianism, anthropocentrism, not to mention imperialism and colonialism, are rather straightforward outcomes of the linguistic account of thought in a world of diversity.  (The linguistic account of thought is not unique to Europe. It was not taken seriously at all by Indian thinkers, but we find it endorsed by Confucius in the Chinese tradition but rejected by Taoists–so in the Chinese context, it has a more modest and guarded expression.)  But if this is true, then these politics of imperialism or nationalism  are not really a function of the values one adopts but the model of thought one adopts. If this is so, people in post colonial contexts often adopt nationalistic identity politics as a response to  the west, but in  doing so, simply continue the project of the West.


I’m pretty sure also that my research shows that what we call religion in our world is just what can’t be interpreted by the West. And hence the usual distinction between the secular and the religious is simply an expression of this tradition. A genuine secularism is possible, one founded on philosophical disagreement, but for that possibility, we have to look to an alternative model of thought and understanding.  


On the positive side, my research focuses on a basic method of understanding that is rational: explication. Explication allows us to deflate perspectives into thoughts and concepts we can disagree about. I argue that it is the basic method of philosophical research that shows how philosophers and thinkers from around the world contributed to moral theory. The reason that it is basic is that it renders explicit our philosophical disagreements.   

My research also draws heavily on ideas from the Indian tradition where knowledge was not cashed out in terms of beliefs or shared values, but in terms of an appreciation of objectivity — what we can disagree about. I defend an account of thought that I started to move towards as I was working on solving problems of translation theory, but which is basically the account we find in the Yoga Sūtra.    

Accordingly, thinking is an exercise of a disciplinary practice, that allows us to triangulate on objects of interests from a variety of perspectives. It accounts for research across areas of interest, and the objectivity of knowledge as compatible with wide spread error.

Moral facts and knowledge of them are to be discovered by an exercise of disciplinary research in moral philosophy that draws from a diversity of perspectives, to fill in the contents of ethical disagreement.