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Challenges and opportunities for Indian Psychology

Challenges and opportunities for Indian Psychology in a rapidly globalizing post-modern world.
by Anand C. Paranjpe

  • Notes for a presentation at the National Conference Yoga and Indian Approaches to Psychology at Pondicherry, India, September 29th, 2002.
  • This presentation made possible by a grant from the Infinity Foundation, Princeton, NJ
  • Special fonts courtesy of John D. Smith, and URW++ Design and Development Incorporated, Hamburg, Germany


Although Indian thought has been exposed to, and challenged by, intellectual traditions from the outside world for centuries, the increasing speed and scope of global interaction offers both challenges and opportunities as never before. The lingering post-colonial mentality and forces of Westernization present a challenge by persistingly treating Indian contributions to psychology as outdated and useless, if not negligible or totally non-existent. There is need to systematically fight this mentality within the country, in universities and colleges, and in our provincial and national associations. On the other hand, outside India, beach heads have already been created by innumerable Yoga centers around the world, where some of the most important contributions of the Indian psychological tradition are known and appreciated. In the academic world around the globe, however, there is a growing hegemony of Western, particularly American, psychology. In this context, post modernist trends of thought, which militate agains the reductionist and scientistc aspects of Western psychology, can be seen as our allies in mitigating certain uncongenial aspects of the Western hegemony at home and abroad. The scope for Indian thought for making inroads into world psychology in the fields of theoretical, cultural, and cross-cultural psychology, and in international associations in these fields is indicated and assessed.

Psychology of Indian tradition has been sidelined & ignored for the past century in academic psychology (although Yoga centres have proliferated)

Conditions have changed, providing opportunities & raising hope

  • There are important changes in:
    • intellectual climate: critiques of science; the “interpretive turn”, postmodernity
    • “Globalization”: plural(ist) societies – increased opportunities for inter-cultural interaction
  • Historical eras are aeonic & changes are slow; they wax and wane, not abruptly start and stop

Foundations of worldviews of every era, modern or postmodern, are deeply embedded in history

  • So, a Foucauldian archaeology of knowledge would help unearth the deeply grounded principles
  • I shall try to identify some foundational principles related to some recent trends and their influential promoters, and suggest Indian counterpoints
  • In this exercise, I wish to use a set of bipolar dimensions as a heuristic device to guide my thinking

Empiricism – Limits to empiricism
Verificationism – Falsificationism
Physicalism – Spiritualism
Atomism – Holism
Reductionism – Constructionism
Natural science – Human science
Perpetual progress – Limits to progress
Modernity – Postmodernism


Unitarianism – Pluralism

  • These dimensions indicate no dichotomies;
    • The labels have rather loose (often multiple) meanings
  • Caveat: Risk of oversimplification

Empiricism – Limits to empiricism

Empiricism: Fundamental epistemic pillar of science
– basically a doctrine that experience is THE source of knowledge, and the only means of its validation

– Articulated by John Locke in his “Essay” (1690)

– Its limits noted by Hume in his “Treatise” (1739)
o Limits of induction: no amounts of data can guarantee universal generalizations
o The self, causes (and, implicitly, links between intention & action) cannot be observed
§ Thus, personal identity, science, & morality all are on shaky grounds if based solely on empiricism

Many critiques of Hume’s devastating position: manily I. Kant
– who distinguished between purely empirical statements (Synthetic : contingent) vs. purely rational ones (Analytic: absolute)
o e.g., “This rose is red” vs. “A rose is a flower”
– tried to provide a firm rational-empirical foundation for science by combining them, (added a second foundational pillar)
o e.g., causality must be accepted as an axiomatic principle, on purely rational grounds, or else science becomes an meaningless enterprise
A recent critique of empiricism: Quine’s Two dogmas of empiricism (commonly neglected by psychologists: except by few, like Hank Stam)

– Quinne’s main argument:
o There is no such thing as pure observation; no theory-neutral knowledge (no pure “fact” without “interpretation”) ”
– Implication: there is no escape from foundational assumptions of theories which colour the results of scientific research
– Quine also denies that any foundational assumptions can be taken to be forever true
o (denying revisability would lead to dogmatism)
– If axiomatic foundations of science (e.g., caulality) are shaky, the results of science must be accepted as forever provisional: revisable both by new data and new rational argument

In my view, Quine’s position is concordant with dominant Indian perspectives:
– E.g., Advaita views all scientific knowledge as only provisional
o More of this below
– But Indian perspectives on knowledge go further:
o Absolute knowledge is said to be beyond reason: attained in transcendental states of experience
o – this raises the issue of the nature of knowledge claims and the bases of their assessment such as:

Verificationism – Falsificationism

Verification: recommended as a sure-shot way for ascertaining/judging the truth of a statement via observation
(note: stress in psychology on replication of experiments)

– Verificationsim: central to neo-positivism of the Vienna Circle
– Criticized by Sir Karl Popper
o finding instances that accord with a proclaimed generalization cannot establish its universal truth value
o falsifying a theory by finding out where and how it does not hold true is more important
– Observation: Falsificationism is not a new epistemic principle absent in Indian thought (as claimed by Harry Triandis)
– In Advaita Vedanta, truth is defined as an unfalsified (or not-yet-falsified) cognition:
o abàdhita viùayàkàra antaþkaraõa pravçttirhi pramà ityucyate

Physicalism – Spiritualism

The Cartesian mind-body dualism:
– a world-knot and Achilles heal of Western thought
o Indian dualisms, e.g., Sàïkhyan, do not fall into a Cartesian-type trap
– Concepts of Soul, Spirit, and even Mind are an anathema to most psychologists
o The religious associations of “soul” make it worse

Long march toward physicalist world view; against mind and spirit
– Hobbes, von Helmholtz, mind-body identity theory
– The frequent association of “soul” with religious dogma (Watson)
– Note Skinner’s derisive use of the term “mentalism”
– buttressing of physicalism since Watson & Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA
– the popularity of computer models

— I do not see any break in this march of physicalist worldview; we face a stiff challenge:

– concepts like Puruùa and âtman will be hard to sell!

Atomism – Holism

The varieties of atomism:
– physical, logical, & psychological

Physical atomism:
– the view that the world is composed of tiny particles
– based on triumphs of physics, chemistry, microbiology
– much advanced since Watson & Cricks’s view of the DNA

Logical atomism:
– the view that propositions are basic units of knowledge
– Truth as property of statements, which are either true or false
– Strongly refuted by Quine in “Two dogmas”
o Theories can remain basically unchanged despite rejection of specific propositions in their statement
o Theories make sense as a whole

Psychological atomism:
– Assumes that mind, like matter, is made of simple, irreducible particles
– John Loke’s “idea” idea:
o All complex ideas (implicitly all knowledge) are composed of simple, irreducible ideas such as “red,” or “hard”
o Implied in Titchener’s (futile) search for the “elements of consciouness,”
o A different but parallel idea in behaviourism (despite its implicit physicalism)
§ that complex behaviours are completely understandable in terms of S-R units

Atomistic thinking is countered strongly in recent days by “holistic” movements in
– ecology, biology, and medicine
o possible soft corner for Ayurveda in “holistic medicine”

Indian psychological thinking is essentially holistic: focused on the person (jãva) as a whole, and his/her well being as a whole: no psychological atomism!

Reductionism – Constructionism

Reductionism may be (roughly) viewed as an idea that:
– a complex whole can be completely understood in terms its smallest elementary units (e.g., body in terms of organs -> cells -> genes -> atoms; AND/OR that,
– an abstract principle can be fully understood in terms of concrete observable entities
o it implies/requires what is called “bottom-up” thinking

– Reductionism ignores the fact that cognition most often requires filling the gaps (as in Gestalt perception):
o We often require going “beyond the information given” as Jerome Bruner put it

The opposite (or better, complement) of reductionism may be called “constructionism”

– Piaget a clear exponent of the idea that our view of reality is “constructed”

o Knowledge involves an element of invention (or worse, “fabrication”)

o This idea is consistent with the recognition in Advaita that saükalpa and vikalpa (cognitive integration and differentiation) are constant elements of the processes of knowing, and the view that the world as we know it is

o “màyà” : partly untrue even as its admittedly partial truth value might be practically adequate: “vyàvahàrika sattà” is “sat-asat-vilakùaõa”

o Recognition of constructionism is implicit in post-modernist “deconstructionism” (Derrida)

o Despite the many differences, something essentially parallel may be noted in contemporary deconstructionism and the emphasis on attaining the state of “nirvikalpa samàdhi” in Advaita

Natural science – Human science

Roots of this distinction are traced to the late medieval distinction between knowing God through his “Words” (Bible) vs. his “Works” (Nature)
– The great success of Newton’s effort to read the “Book of Nature” pushed back the study of Bible, and its successors, exegesis and hermeneutics
(Notice how arts departments are treated in universities compared to the science faculty?)

– Kuhn, in Essential Tension, speaks of his discovery of hermeneutics:
o i.e., the need of “interpretation” even in science, which was supposed to deal exclusively with “facts” (which “speak for themselves” without requiring interpretation)

– Attempts to re-establish the interpretive human sciences by Dilthey in Germany
– And by the legacy of G. H. Mead in sociology and psychology

– The “interpretive turn” in sociology and anthropology (Rabiow & Sullivan, 1979)

– Recognition of hermeneutics in “postpositivist” psychology (Tolman, 1992)

– The importance of mãmàüsà (interpretation of meaning of texts, and one of the six systems so named) in Indian thought

– Advaita is called “uttara mãmàüsà”: It requires critical interpretation of its principles – only to go beyond all interpretation & discourse (Wittgenstein’s metaphor of kicking the ladder after climbing up)

– In principle, Advaita could find concordance with the “interpretive turn” in contemporary social (and even natural) sciences

– A psychology fashioned after interpretive human sciences is likely to be ally of Indian thought more than a psychology fashioned after natural science

Modernity – Postmodernism

Like the “Golden Age” of Greece, and Europe’s “Enlightenment,” Modernity and Postmodernism are considered as distinct epochs of history

They are undefined, or at best loosely defined; unsure about when they started, and when (and whether) the “age” ended

Modernity/postmodernism have been given specific meanings for trends in art and theology, but features of civilization they designate are much less clear

Some (alleged) features of modernity:
– Dominance of the world view of science
o And of technology and industrialization
– World dominance of European empires
– The rise of political ideologies of the right and left
– The idea of (perpetual) progress

Some (alleged) features of postmodernity and the possible ways they might help promote Indian thought

– Fundamental principles of science are questioned (Quine, Kuhn, Popper)
o The grip of scientism may loosen

– Negative effects of technology recognized (pollution; damage to environment)
o There may be better reception of “technologies of the self” (to use Foucault’s words) such as meditation

– The end of European empires (rise of American dominance?)
o Indian thought (may) find more support (resources)
o Opportunity for aligning with non-Western traditions in the postcolonial era (in Asia and Africa)

– The idea of perpetual progress questioned (limited resources on the planet)
o Relevance of the notion cyclical nature of Yugas
o – and of the notion that continued pleasure seeking fuels, rather than quenches, desires

Perpetual progress – Limits to progress

Progress, a crucial theme of modern times (Bury, 1932/1955)
– Perpetual progress thought to be possible with the help of science & technology
– Progress thought to be inevitable; Darwinian evolution as an instance
– Limits to progress recognized recently: recognition of limited resources e.g., fossil fuels; ozone depletion etc.
– Note: Indian themes of cyclical nature of time, and the continual decline of civilization from satya yuga to kali yuga are opposed to the idea of perpetual progress


A fashionable term, but surely the world is shrinking due to increasingly faster communication

Immigration is the norm: most societies are becoming multi-ethnic; some 20m Indians in worldwide diaspora!

Although some countries are attempting to be “melting pots” producing uniform, mish-mash cultures (mostly consumerist), others, like Canada are adopting a multi-culturalist policy (whether out of good will or to woo minority votes)

An implicit issue is pressures toward cultural pluralism.
– what about pluralism in knowledge?

Unitarianism – pluralism

– Unity of science, a neo-postivist vision by Carnap assumed a single unified body of knowledge that would deny alternative visions
– Although neo-positivism, as a movement in philosophy, has been declared dead (by Passmore in 1967), the basic idea of a Unitarian science remains entrenched
– There is not only a striving for a single perspective, but an out-of-hand denial of aternative perspectives
o Note: Staat’s efforts in attaining unity and defeating diversity/division in psychology and within APA
o A vignette: Title of a talk by a Dean of Medicine in Canada “Alternative medicine: Neither alternative, nor medicine”
– Associations of psychologists being “democratic,” they too might adopt pluralism – if “minorities” put enough pressure!

– Pluralist policies are in tune with the Vedic principle: “ekaü sad viprà bahudhà vadanti ”

Concluding comments:
– The trends toward change can be seen as opportunities
– These trends indicate where to find concordant beliefs and values and, possibly, receptive audiences
– Concordant ideas should be seen as not only opportunities to make ourselves head, but also for elements to assimilate within classical Indian perspectives thereby enriching them
– We need to be aware the distinctly political nature of academic as well as wider discourse; political savvy should be an asset