At the Indian Philosophy Blog, Jonathan Edelmann argues in his post, “Philosophy and Theology—let’s be clearer,” that we should think of the great Advaita Vedāntin, Śaṅkara, as a theologian, rather than a philosopher (my response follows):
“[I want] to raise an issue that has bothered me since the very first time I read Śaṅkara in a second year undergraduate Sanskrit course at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and about which I wrote an article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
I think Indologists, philosophers and theologians who examine Indian texts, and religious studies scholars could more carefully distinguish philosophy from theology, even if the two are not mutually exclusive and have considerable overlap. This is especially true in a ‘Hindu’ context (I acknowledge the difficulty of that word). The differences between philosophy and theology are generally well known and respected in the larger worlds of Christian theology and Western philosophy, yet such distinctions are less frequently known and respected among those who work on Indian texts.
In brief, philosophy uses anumāna and tarka alone in the course of argumentation, whereas theology engages and interprets śabda-pramāṇa (conceived of as a revealed source of knowledge) in the course of argumentation.
Philosophers like Udayana, Gaṅgeśa or the early Yogasūtra commentator Vyāsa, use anumāna and tarka as the primary methods for establishing their point. Śabda, conceived as an unauthored or a divinely authored śāstra, is quoted only after a position was argued for by means of anumāna or tarka, if at all. Scripture may motivate their reasoning, but it does not form the basis of their reasoning. On the other hand theologians like Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Kumārilabhaṭṭa, etc. see their roles as interpreting a revealed śāstra. Anumāna and tarka serve the purpose of illuminating a fault-free śāstra’s meaning, and using śabda to establish an interpretation of śabda is considered reasonable.
Whereas philosophy proceeds rationally, theology does so exegetically. In the West too (for at least 500 years), the word philosopher refers to people who use reason to think about epistemology, metaphysics, etc. and not to people who see their primary roles as that of a scriptural exegete. The words theology and theologian were reserved for that. These two very different approaches to the use of reason are often conflated by scholars work on Indian texts, and at great cost.
A disregard for the difference can mislead. While pursuing a BA in (Western) Philosophy I took Sanskrit as well. Śaṅkara had been discussed as one of the most important Hindu philosophers. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what philosophers did, having taken specialized courses on Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Quine. When I started reading Śaṅkara, however, it clearly was not philosophy and he was clearly not a philosopher. If Śaṅkara was a philosopher, he was unlike every philosopher I had studied. The text we read was, I believe, from his Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya. Śaṅkara was trying to illuminate the meaning of the root text in light of his Advaitavāda. None of the philosophers I read spent any time carefully interpreting Biblical texts. It wasn’t until later when I read that Śaṅkara was a theologian – a scholar who accepts apauruṣeya-śabda as pramāṇa – that his project began to make sense.
If we don’t adequately distinguish the philosophers from the theologians we run the risk of confusing newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.”
My response (I tried to post this as a comment at the Indian Philosophy Blog but was unsuccessful):
I don’t think it’s accurate to call Śaṅkara a “theologian,” at least insofar as (nirguṇa) Brahman is not “God” in the theistic sense of the Abrahamic traditions. And why need our understanding of philosophy remain utterly dependent on the notion of philosophy as it developed in the West? Why cannot we modify our conception to embrace those like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, or Confucius, or Daoists (collectively, as represented for instance in the Daodejing, or individuals like Zhuangzi) as religious or spiritual philosophers, much in the manner that Plato might strike one as a spiritual philosopher (at the very least, his ‘metaphysics’ is rather different than the contemporary articulations of same). The significance of the distinction between theology and philosophy follows largely the modern professionalization of these intellectual enterprises and thus is not always essential to figures of Eastern provenance or even in the pre-modern West: is not the “therapy of desire” (after Nussbaum) of the Hellenistic philosophers closer to the soteriological and spiritual (emancipatory, therapeutic, developmental) aims of religious worldviews than the avowed subject matter of most contemporary professional philosophers? When eudaimonistic concerns and questions of human fulfillment provide the primary orientation of ancient Greek philosophers (after John M. Cooper), this strikes one as closer to the motivations of religious philosophers and theologians than what motivates the wide array of specialized topics found in “analytic” and “continental” traditions of philosophy (and to a lesser degree and in a different sense in the latter). In these cases we find ample reason to soften any hard and fast distinctions between “philosophy” and “theology.” The “spiritual exercises” of these philosophers resemble religious ascetic practices and is utterly foreign to contemporary professional philosophy. The relief of suffering, the change of heart, or transformation of one’s overall mental attitude or psyche is closer to religion and spiritual praxis than philosophy proper, yet we christen these remarkable thinkers—from Epictetus to Gaius Musonius Rufus among the Stoics for example—philosophers.
Consider too, Islamic philosophy: it certainly has a religious or spiritual framework or accepts premises pivotal to classical Islamicate culture. Islamic philosophers, with varying degrees of success, endeavored to reconcile Greek philosophy with traditional Islamic sciences. Ibn Rushd (Averroës), for example, distinguished between philosophy and theology (kalam) yet saw these as compatible and different routes to the same truth(s). He viewed philosophy as beyond the reach of the common man and thus the prerogative of an epistemic elite in possession of that rare combination of virtue and wisdom. And then we have Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a theologian who argued against the views of the Islamic philosophers yet defended Aristotelian logic for such purposes. Indeed, and further, Oliver Leaman states that “his arguments against philosophy are themselves philosophical.” While it is true that kalam and falsafa developed, as they did in the West generally, fairly independent of each other, periods of fertile conflict and constructive engagement might find value in looking beyond the distinctions between philosophy and theology. For instance, Mu῾tazilah, the first truly doctrinal school of theology in Islam, is invariably defined as based on reason and rational thought!
In the case of Śaṅkara, and with Ram-Prasad, we could grant the primary role religious motivation plays in his writings while analyzing the sophisticated philosophizing which permits us to see how this monastic philosopher “place[d] Advaita on the map of Indian thought” and how, in fact, “philosophical inquiry plays a role in Advaita from the beginning.” The “urge” or motivation to do philosophy may not be among the sorts found among contemporary professional philosophers, but it is no less philosophy for all that. We may need to be acquainted with the “soteriological imperative of Advaita” in terms, say of cosmogony or metaphysics, so as to make sense of the philosophical arguments, but they’re no less philosophical arguments for being wedded to soteriological or emancipatory ends. I therefore find no compelling reason to label Śaṅkara a “theologian” as opposed to a philosopher: sometimes it helps to understand his preoccupation with spiritual aims, but this need not crowd out or trump our characterization of him (for several purposes) as a philosopher. The fact that you learned Śaṅkara was not a philosopher on the model of your training in Western philosophy speaks rather to the contingent and somewhat arbitrary circumscription of what “counts” as philosophy according to that tradition. An encounter with a wider world might prompt us to widen our criteria for what counts as philosophy, might compel us to embrace a more generous conception of philosophy, one that does justice to the range, depth, and creative contributions to “philosophy” from outside the canonical tradition of the West, a tradition that in any case itself does not always neatly demarcate the lines between philosophy and theology. I think it’s well worth the provisional risk of confusion among “newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.”
A couple of other points: While it is true of course that Śaṅkara accepts apauruṣeya-śabda, that is only one of six of its accepted pramāṇas, it’s no less revealing that this religious worldview recognizes the traditional system of validating means of knowing or “knowledge-episodes.” The Advaita view on anirvacanīyakhyāti makes a philosophical argument that the “object-form” in cases of sensory illusion demonstrates a realm of objects neither existent nor non-existent, at least as a consequence of Brahman-awareness (the metaphysical ‘non-realism’ that is distinct from idealism on the one hand, and realism on the other, but appears to partake of epistemic insights from—or makes concessions to—both sides of this philosophical divide, although I agree with Matilal that the theory ‘in fact tends more toward realism than phenomenalism or idealism’). Whatever the aim, we have here a philosophical position that, in the words of Ram Prasad, “may be characterised as being realist from an idealist point of view, idealist from a realist point of view, and skeptical about both points of view.” Philosophically speaking, this is a novel philosophical argument involving both epistemology and metaphysics: what is gained in viewing this simply and solely as a piece of theology? So, while it is true that philosophical arguments are essential to, in the end, the philosophical goal of validating or proving the liberating role of apauruṣeya-śabda, it is for that very reason that Ram-Prasad can “bracket” what he calls the soteriology, believing Advaita philosophy to be therefore of “intrinsic” philosophical interest. So too with Śaṅkara’s use of the dream-analogy: intriguing philosophical arguments are crafted, albeit in keeping with the legitimacy of apauruṣeya-śabda with regard to Advaita exegesis of the Upaniṣadic doctrine of liberation.