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Cultural Lobotomy: The Failure of Philosophy

Cultural Lobotomy: The Failure of Philosophy
by Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD


Danto’s problem, in his book Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and Moral Philosophy, is the general problem we all have to face when interpreting other cultures; and it is, therefore, the same problem that those of us engaged in Oriental cultures and philosophies face and have been so far unable to resolve: to show their radical (from the roots) rationality; but not as it measures against our own rationality, for our rationality needs other rationalities in order to remain rational. (One form of rationality alone can never know itself as rational, though it may demand from others to accept it as such.)

It is for these reasons that Danto’s book is philosophically interesting, for it forces us to face, on the one hand, a radical philosophical failure in Oriental studies, and, on the other, it forces us to do philosophy through what Danto has done if our own failure is not to be continued.

Let me start this critical review with some general cautionary notes derived from Danto’s own general remarks before going into any specifics. What Danto calls Oriental thought are dealt with in five brief chapters about statements from Indian (four chapters) and Chinese texts (one chapter) that can be labeled either mystical or moral according to the semantic rules and criteria derived from Danto’s own philosophical methodology. In chapter one of Mysticism and Morality, he establishes a distinction between factual beliefs and moral rules. In chapter two, he applies these moral rules and factual beliefs to the concepts of karman, caste, knowledge, liberation, and reincarnation, and to some orthodox and heterodox schools of Indian thought. In chapter three, he repeats the same surgery on the concepts of Brahman, Boredom (as the theory of eternal return, of infinite repetition) and Release (moksa). In chapter four, Danto deals with therapy and theology in Buddhist thought. In chapter five, he handles the discipline of action in the Bhagavad Gita. Finally in chapter six, he deals with Chinese philosophy as conforming to the Way, Taoism, the Tao Te Chingwu wei, Lao Tzu, and Confucius.

The reader should be prepared to know that according to Danto we are witnessing in all these philosophies “the failure to establish a system of ethics that is universally valid” (p. 34).

We must point out also that from a philosophical perspective the title of the book itself, Mysticism and Morality, is already evasive when dealing with Oriental thought; for mystical statements, it is believed, do not require the philosopher to discover the ground of their meaning, and therefore, he can be satisfied with either ignoring them or simply labeling them meaningless, notwithstanding the fact that it is the philosopher himself who called them mystic in the first place. Something similar happens with morality. It is nonsense for a Western philosopher of the analytic or any other school of philosophy to presuppose that the only ground on which moral statements are to be grounded is the set of semantic rules and criteria derived from a particular Western school of philosophy. He simply avoids the difficult philosophical task of figuring out the original context within which those so-called moral statements gain meaning. Danto implicitly accepts this criticism when he writes, “It does, however, (his book) entail a kind of censure of the philosophies of Lao Tzu and the others we have discussed, Confucius being an exception, because in enjoining the collapse of the conditions that made morality possible, they fall under a moral violation by our criterion. And so they merit blame of a kind” (p. 120). I have italicized “by our criterion,” for I am very much disturbed and surprised at the way Danto through the book uses the emphatic we, us, and our, with which he generalizes his conclusions: “The fantastic architectures of Oriental thought, which it is also an aim of this book to sketch philosophically, are open to our study and certainly our admiration, but they are not for us to inhabit,” (p. vii) “facts as we see them,” (p. x)”…our representation of the world,” (p. x) “the logic of belief requires us to hold as true. So our reality must be regarded by us as reality tout court. We can appreciate and understand, of course, forms of thought that it is closed to us to live” (p. xi). And if these quotes are not sufficient, one may read this jewel from the jacket, “Failure to understand their perspective (Eastern peoples) would mean a failure to understand the people of half the world. Mysticism and Morality makes this understanding possible, but it also shows why the philosophical perspective of the East, no matter how well understood, can never be our own.”

With these notes in mind, it is time now to be more specific in my criticism of Danto’s book. This I will do in two parts. First, I will examine Danto’s own philosophical presuppositions – what constitutes his philosophy; and second, for brevity’s sake, I will concentrate on Danto’s understanding or misunderstanding of the Gita as he applies his philosophy to it, implying that this type of criticism applies also to the other sections of his work. I will try to show that what Danto does in his book, that is, the philosophical activity of grounding his statements on a general interpretation of men in the world, is the kind of activity that every man in every culture had to do, and, in fact, did in the cultures he examines. It is at this radical (from the roots) and original level that reason becomes history and knowledge. To avoid this confrontation of reason with reason will only produce a method opposed to cultural plurality which systematically lobotomizes the cultures of man for the sake of uniformity and control.

Interpretation is ultimately grounded on some philosophical presuppositions: what the philosopher counts on in order to make meaningful statements. The freedom of the interpreter lies ultimately in being able to seize these presuppositions, know them, so that he can get rid of them and not be determined by them in his own interpretations of others. Since interpreters of other cultures, as with Danto, are the product of Western academic methods, our current task is to seize the philosophical tradition on which these methods are grounded. For what Danto says as a philosopher is made possible by a community of other philosophers with which he shares not only a common language but communal beliefs and presuppositions; and this is the main fact which allows Danto to ground the meaning of his sentences. This main fact: common language, communal beliefs, communal presuppositions, is the root of all meanings, the condition for any meaning, the radical ground of all meanings derived from Danto’s statements and presuppositions. Now the meaning of these sentences, like the community of philosophers with whom he shares his presuppositions as to what philosophy can do, is not a universal meaning nor a universal community. It is, however, a public domain, and as such it falls under the self-critical activity of philosophy: an activity which constitutes itself as philosophy by uncovering the source of meaning which makes statements not only possible but meaningful.

Danto’s philosophical enterprise is a wholly theoretical, ethically neutral activity conducted at a higher level of abstraction than moral judgement itself. This is not surprising, for Danto, as we shall soon see, does his philosophy from the heart of positivism and the leveling universal criterion of the Verifiability Principle. Moral discourse from any culture can be subject to total revisionism. But this can only be accomplished by taking from the positivists the doctrine that the logical category of fact is totally distinct from that of value, and that no knowledge of value can be derived from knowledge of fact. It is taken for granted that “what is” is wholly distinct from “what ought to be,” and that statements about “what ought to be” can be neither true nor false. Ethics is thus banished from the realm of knowledge and metaethics is born. Metaethics is concerned not with the study of the good and the right but with the study of statements about the good and the right.

Danto gives us his own version of the above generalizations when in his preface (pp. ix, x), he writes:

… The question then is what weaker connection than those exemplified by definition and entailment are available for binding moral language to that which by common consent does serve the purpose of recording the facts as we see them.

Briefly, my view is that without pretending to analyze moral terms or propositions into morally neutral discourse, moral terms apply to things and actions only on conditions that descriptive ones do as well, and that moral propositions presuppose factual ones. And in especially the latter case, if these presuppositions are false, the moral ones are inapplicable whether it is appropriate to speak of them also as false or not. And this perhaps is as much of a connection as we require, at least for certain purposes, between factual and valuative discourse.

At least it is all that I require for purposes of the present essay. The civilizations of the East are defined through sets of factual and moral propositions pragmatically connected in the midst of their members since it is with reference to certain factual beliefs that those members would judge and act as moralists. The factual beliefs they take for granted are, I believe, too alien to our representation of the world to be grafted onto it, and in consequence their moral systems are unavailable to us. I say ‘our’ representation of the world, though of course I imply no deep relativity of realities by this, since any beliefs we have are ones that the logic of belief requires us to hold as true. [Italics mine.]

Danto concludes stating his position by telling us exactly what he proposes to do with his book:

Thus, I hope, by, fulfilling one aim of this book, which is to describe certain ways of reading the world, to be able to fulfill the other, which is to show that we cannot live a form of life that presupposes that reading. No one can save us but ourselves (p. xi).

This paragraph, though it may read astonishingly promising, turns out to be contradictory of its own aim. For Danto does in no way describe any Eastern way of reading the world, and it is precisely Danto’s own presupposed way of reading any form of life that makes it impossible for him to live any other than his own.

Since Danto’s reading of any form of life is based on his distinction of factual and moral beliefs, let us see how he understands them:

We all make some distinction, however rough, between the factual and the moral beliefs of a community, and between factual and moral beliefs as such … And one criterion, which is often invoked when the question of marking the distinction is raised, is semantical: factual beliefs are either true or false while moral beliefs are neither (p. 3).

The semantical criterion, however, becomes a few paragraphs later not just one criterion for the preceding distinction, but the semantical criterion for any distinction.

Even so, I think that we all adhere in practice to one or another form of the semantical criterion (p. 4).

and a bit further down,

We do not exempt an individual from the scope of a moral proposition merely because he happens not to satisfy it. If anything, the moral proposition has a special application precisely to those who fail to satisfy it. [Italics mine.]

What are for Danto factual and moral beliefs?

Factual beliefs are those that have to do with the world, and so are rendered true or false depending upon how the world is. But moral beliefs are those that concern how we ought to be or how we ought to act (pp. 7 and 8).

The connection between the two is established by Danto in the following form:

It is through their factual content and presuppositions that moral terms and propositions may have some purchase on the world, and to understand a moral term or proposition is to understand at least the conditions under which it may be applied … At times there figures amongst the application conditions for a moral proposition a cognitive condition: a rule is binding upon a man only if he knows the rule. And if, as seems reasonable to assume, knowledge implies understanding, then a rule is binding upon a man only if he understands the terms under which it might apply. This means that the factual content of the relevant moral proposition must be accessible to him. I suppose it would follow that only those moral beliefs whose factual bases would be available everywhere and always to men could be regarded as universal. Such propositions would include those whose application conditions take into account certain traits of men that have always been understood, regardless of place, cultural circumstance, or historical period (pp. 11, 12).

This is subtle argument in Danto’s hands, for men may be excused from acting morally if the factual information about the world is not available to them, but for the same reason moral beliefs may be inapplicable (as he claims), if the paradigm of actual beliefs is only the set of facts and information provided by scientific knowledge as we know it. Thus, while there may be variables in peoples’ acting, there is, according to Danto, a permanent and factual world which, if people only knew, would make acting morally uniform. This presupposition makes it philosophically obsolete to inquire into any form of knowledge that is not scientific, even when this kind of knowledge has never remained constant.

It is easier then to understand what Danto means by a “form of life”:

A ‘form of life,’ as I understand it, is partially defined by a set of moral rules that participants in that form hold as binding upon each other and by a set of factual beliefs, some of which constitute application conditions for the former (p. 13).

And further on,

… a system of moral beliefs, like a theoretical system in science, is the imposition of a certain structure upon the world. These structures are only negatively controlled by the facts. If our factual beliefs are false, if our observational sentences are false, then our moral beliefs and our factual theories have, respectively, no application (pp. 15 and 16).

In case we have missed the point, Danto says again:

Knowledge cannot tell us what we ought to do or what we theoretically ought to believe. It only tells that when certain factual beliefs have proven false we cannot consistently and sincerely act upon and believe in them…

Now, it is against the controlling background of their factual beliefs that I should like to discuss some of the moral beliefs of the Oriental peoples (p. 16).

With these notes in mind, intelligent readers should be able, by themselves, to discover what Danto does as a philosopher in Mysticism and Morality. I will, however, summarize here the main critical conclusions before proceeding to the second part of this article.

It is obvious that what Danto has done, or in the chronology of this essay is about to do, with Eastern thought is to universalize the conditions for meaning which he has taken from his own backyard, regardless of the fact that no one in the East, at least not in the texts he deals with in the book, shared in any way his presuppositions. For it is only through such presuppositions that facts appear as facts in the first place. But this is precisely the whole problem of philosophy and its ability to make reason come alive when reason is systematically denied its plural forms – cultural and individual – for the sake of one form of reason that tries to submerge all others into itself. It is not an oversight on Danto’s part to leave the concept of “factual belief” so vague. The same with “world” and with “logic.” Which facts? Which worlds? Which logic?

In view of these remarks, one may question the validity of Danto’s whole enterprise and show the impotence of his method in dealing with Eastern thought. For if Danto takes moral and factual proposition on the view that the language of facts is the picture of reality which divides into the atomic components of a logical grammar of which logic is its own ground, then Danto, of course, is not reading anything different from Indian thought that he could not as easily read from a dialogue between cabbages or between angels. No moral and factual judgments are involved within such a reading. If, on the other hand, Danto mentions forms of life, does he ground these forms of life on their own semantic rules and criteria of identification, on their own factual and moral judgments, or does he presuppose a universal and fixed grammar to which all forms of life are linguistically reducible? In either case, what Danto is really doing is demanding that the doing of philosophy be reduced to the function of shielding philosophy from its own self-reflection about the conditions and meaning of the knowledge thereby achieved. Knowledge is thus identified with the form of knowledge his method of doing philosophy produces, remaining philosophical only in the sense that it is used for the single purpose of the necessity to exorcize philosophical self-reflection from the body of philosophy. For after all, Danto posits without reservation the normative validity of a distinct and particular category of knowledge and demands that it be the only true one and universally applicable. But the decision to do so remains itself outside the possibility of its own critique. For the sake of a form of knowledge (scientific and positivistic, defined mostlv through its own closed criteria), a normative value is imposed on philosophy alien to scientific knowledge, oblivious of the fact that this is a historical mediation of how philosophical activity is thus, in this case through Danto, presently constituted. It is precisely this historical mediation of how philosophy constitutes itself in different historical domains that allows philosophy to remake itself through the others, through Danto or Eastern thought, by surrendering its rationality to other peoples’ rationality. The second part of this critique might help us understand this statement better.


What philosophers do, as we have seen in Danto’s case, is as constitutive of philosophy as theory and communication. A critical self-reflection on this doing is therefore also necessary for philosophy’s rationality to emerge. Further, this activity of interpreting man in any of his multiple worlds is the only historically justifiable activity and therefore necessarily universal in every human domain.

Through the Bhagavad Gita, an Indian text, and one chosen by Danto, we can work out further the justification of the preceding statements. It is ironic that Danto chose this text and misread it so thoroughly, for moral theory as Danto understands it, has no room in the Gita. Even the “moral” talk of chapter I of the Gita is made possible only insofar as Arjuna is not able to ground human acting in a form of knowledge which could emancipate him from the dilemmas of a universal and conflicting morality which takes for granted a universalized identity grounded on a universal form of knowledge. It is precisely Arjuna’s identification with the atomic entities of his speech (the ahamkara or “ego-sense”) that accounts for the “moral” talk of the Gita. But this is what the Gita tries to overcome, not institutionalize. Ironically, this is where Danto ends and the Gita and Arjuna begin. What happens, on Danto’s terms, to the remaining seventeen chapters of the Gita? I shall try to develop these points systematically. It is obvious that I would need many more pages than I am able to write now to do justice to the Gita. Only Danto can dispose of the whole of Oriental thought in 120 pages! I refer the reader to the criticisms by Frits Staal in relation to chapters 3, 4, and 6 of Danto’s book (Fritz Staal, Journal of Philosophy 71, no. 6 (March 28, 1974): 174-181). I fully agree with Staal’s criticism of Danto when he points out Danto’s lack of historic sensibility and his readiness to juggle historic periods and generalities in a way that even my own undergraduate students would be able to detect. I will concentrate here exclusively on chapter 5 of Mysticism and Morality, on the Bhagavad Gita. First, because in Danto’s own terms, the Gita is a “philosophical masterpiece,” and second, because in the Gita’s own terms all the philosophy is presupposed or barely hinted at and almost never stated. It is obviously a challenge to the philosopher, especially if he has to give meaning to the whole text and not just some isolated verses without the cop out of mysticism and morality.

Despite the fact that Danto places the Gita within the intentionality of the Mahabharata, because “It furnishes paradigms for moral guidance, much as the Greek epics did, and played a corresponding role in moral education,” (pp. 84, 85) he soon seems to reverse his course with the following promissory note on the Gita:

The symbolism of the lord-chariot driver is striking and profound, and the poetic body of the Gita does not fall beneath the level of imagination the symbolism establishes. It is a literary and philosophical masterpiece, a permanently self-renewing work of the highest order, and a contribution to the spiritual consciousness of mankind (p. 85).

This promissory note we are never, of course, able to cash. Arjuna and Krsna, karma and dharmapurusa and prakrtiatman and Brahman, manas and buddhiahamkara and anahamvadi, in a word the whole complexity of the worlds of the Gita are literally reduced by Danto to the following thesis:

a) There is only one kind of self; namely, the linguistic self; (p. 87)
b) to believe that this self never dies is contrary to our factual beliefs; (p. 88) c) self and role are identical in the Gita; (p. 818)
d) role equals dharma and karma, (pp. 88 and 89) which equals nature; (p. 89)
e) since karma, however, acts causally, that is, determines future lives, the road of salvation lies in acting impersonally; (p. 93) which for Danto, “verges on not being quite human” (pp. 94 and 95).
f) this whole thesis ultimately rests, according to Danto,

in the Oriental notion of man’s nature, which we are given and with which we ought not to interfere. Salvation lies in attainning congruity without nature in the sense of not obscuring or obstructing it … Arjuna can ‘not-fight,’ but it is contrary to his nature. At this point it occurs to one that karma accrues primarily through acting unnaturally, or contrary to nature, since what happens naturally is something that follows from our nature and is not ours. It is a striking thought that we are responsible only for natural behavior…

Needless to say, yoga in the Gita becomes for Danto a path to the kind of inhumanity he has in mind (p. 90), while:

One’s body is always an anomaly in Eastern thinking. One is stuck with the body, or with a body, and has to act with it, even if it essentially does not belong to one’s self. And the problem of finding the right attitude toward this alien crass object always arises (p. 94).

This is in sum what Danto claims to be knowledge of the Gita.

It is obvious that the knowledge of other cultures; that is, to know them as they knew themselves, and simultaneously in such a way that they are recognizable by us, becoming thus our own possibilities, lands us in the heart of the problem of contemporary philosophy and contemporary man. Now, since Danto, by a slight of the hand, claims that the East is knowable, only not good enought for us, let me take as a sufficient and concrete example, his manipulation of the Gita to show (a) that what Danto is talking about has nothing to do with what the Gita is talking about; (b) that the Gita is knowable in its own terms; (c) that if this is the case, then there is not one single factual belief which cannot be held reasonably today; (d) that the Gita is neither a manual of rules of conduct, morality; nor a manual of avoiding rules of conduct: mysticism. Rather it is a systematic philosophical discipline which must of necessity accompany every action for this action to be human and efficient. It is the affirmation of cultural man against natural man every step of the way.

What the Gita does not do, contrary to Danto’s claim, is theorize in general about the duties of a warrior, the causality of karma, and the innocence of nature. What the Gita really does, and Danto has obviously missed, is to place a warrior, a prince, Arjuna in a concrete situation: a battlefield where he has no choice but to fight or be killed. Arjuna has to act; even inaction is action in such a concrete situation. It is just because Arjuna is in this controlled situation, a warrior determined by the situation to fight or be killed – and not because of the abstract role he happens also to perform in his society as a warrior – that the Gita can explore, and does explore, the philosophical grounds of morality. It is also able to explore the concrete determination between action – karma – and the context of that action – dharma, ksetra – and in general the whole range of the problem of human knowledge and human acting through purusa and prakrti, Krsna and Arjuna, the body-perspective-field and their cultural orientation. Needless to say, the concepts “action,” “duty,” and “nature,” Danto borrows from the translators of the Gita, which had no other concepts to use for purusa, prakrti, dharma, etc., than those handed down to them in the West by the idealist and romantic traditions of philosophy. Sanskrit is hardly a hundred years old in Western knowledge, and the concepts used to translate it were those then available to the first German, French, and English translators who handled these translations. Asian studies have now come more of age, and we are able to be more sophisticated and recognize the controls they were submitted to and continue to be submitted to in their presentation to the West even at the hands of Eastern scholars.

Let us start with the problem of morality. What are, according to the Gita, the conditions for morality? Arjuna’s crisis as described in Chapter 1 of the Gita is apparently a crisis about Arjuna’s decision to fight or not to fight: apparently a moral decision. But Arjuna in the field of the Kurus, in the field of dharma, has no choice. He has to fight, act. The word karman is a noun deriving from the root kr, “doing,” “acting,” “performing.” The significant point of the Gita, however, is not so much to stress this obvious fact of man having to act, but rather the fact, as in Arjuna’s case, that karmic action enslaves, if karmic acting brings along karmic thinking and its point of view on the world. Karmic thinking in this case consists in Arjuna or anyone reducing all action to the identification possibilities of the linguistic agent; that is, he deludes himself into thinking linearly by causally uniting action after action and ontologically linking them with the self that is linguistically identifiable. In this view action, self, and body are unified ontologically; fear, anxiety, despair, agitation, inaction, follow. The agent, the body, and the knowledge that links them have all been reduced to the linguistic “I,” the ahamkara, literally, the “I-maker.” From this perspective, and ironically from Danto’s perspective (p. 88), nothing really dies except biography. For linguistic-biographical criteria are the only criteria given for both life and death. (And there are many ways to read biography.)

Regardless of the merits of war and peace, Arjuna’s crisis is grounded on two basic presuppositions: (a) there is a body and only one body belonging to Arjuna to whom moral attributes can be ascribed; this body, moreover, remains constant; and (b) it is this belief or presupposition that “decides,” in fact, for Arjuna his course of action or inaction together with his despair or crisis. These two presuppositions, together with the host of others they bring along, may not make us even blink. Most of us would accept them with Arjuna and agree that they are the backbone of our social relations – some would even include the divine ones. From a civilizational perspective, however, presuppositions (a) and (b) in Arjuna’s crisis are totally out of place, or at the most a temporary lapse of memory. Arjuna should have known better. Early Hindu tradition, as the Gita shows, is grounded on a complete absence of substances, things, bodies, ontologies, and ontic situations from which properties may be derived or to which properties may be “pinned to.” Or to put the problem in wider terms, how can moral properties be possible in a tradition without any body to pin them to? In more positive and radical terms, we may pose the problem differently by asking, how does the Gita understand the body so that the primary problem Arjuna faces is epistemological and ontological rather than moral? If this question is not resolved, any talk about moral propositions is meaningless. Arjuna, as a Hindu warrior, should know not only to act – fight – without regard to the consequences of his action according to his condition (XVIII. 45) but he should also know how to act without any doubt (TV. 40; VI. 39; VIII. 7) and with an unshakeable judgment. (XVIII. 49). But Arjuna collapses in the battlefield seized by the belief in the natural condition of man, a natural body ontologically united to his speech tokens, which naturally and blindly is forced toward the reproduction of social action Arjuna’s liberating decision will be his ability to recover the cultural condition of man: man having to cope with a multiplicity of predetermined worlds (karmic laws) of which he cannot only sketch the profile (dharma, horizon, context), but make his body coincide with its directions and demarcations.

But in order to follow, philosophically and systematically, this emancipatory journey of the Gita, we have to perform first a radical surgery on our own presuppositions about identity, the mind-body split, language, memory, space and time, the world, seeing and hearing, movement, and so forth, so that the text of the Gita may surrender to us the radical orientation through which these terms gain their meaning. This surgery, needless to say, Danto was unwilling or unable to perform. Here are some examples.

Fundamental to the understanding of the Gita is the understanding of movement as understood, explicitly and implicitly, by the movement of the Gita. The Gita states not only that man is active, that he cannot abstain from action, that the whole world is mounted on a wheel, but for the Gita, movement itself becomes the main clue, the radical presupposition, upon which the Gita itself is mounted. For one thing, there is sound: the whole “body” of the Gitastretches as far as its sound can be heard. Notice the beginning of the Gita amidst noise and a chaos of sound and how from a distance Samjaya the narrator is able to “pick out” the dialogue between Krsna and Arjuna. Notice also how Arjuna concludes by following out Krsna’s “word,” a word which has been moving amongst confused sounding noises, yet remains always culturally clear throughout. Notice also that the cultural ground from which Arjuna and Krsna emerge is a world of sounding silence, the original rhythmic impulse, which keeps sending beings and worlds without ever being exhausted.

Movement in the Gita does not belong either to the objective or subjective sides of the experiences of Arjuna or Krsna, but rather it constitutes the womb underlying the conditions of all experience in the Gita. It is the possibility to create and recreate a fully embodied experience. Movement, in sum, being radical to every kind of experience, needs to be focused upon radically in order to determine the kind of movement which defines and delimits the structure of experience, the structure of space and time, which is specific to the particular text, cultural period, or individual interpreted.

Movement, to the Western eye, is one of the characteristics or properties of a living body, or of a physical object. From a Western point of view, that is, insofar as I am able to perceive my body movements in space through my flesh and muscles, the kinesthetic sense is just one more sense among the other senses – sight, touch, smell, hearing. For one thing, such a view already presupposes an existing continuous body in space and time before properties are ascribed to it. For another, this view of movement only reconfirms an already existing theory of the body which does not change itself in spite of movement. The reason for the last standstill is, we presume, the fact that movement, to the Western eye, is capturable or seeable on the same fixed “visual” model on which a perspectival, three-dimensional space and linear time is already presumed to rest. But this assumption is, of course, an optical illusion. Movement cannot be seen by the eye, or rather the ‘eye’ does not embody movement. What the ‘eye’ sees is the geometrical forms it has already theoretically accepted as movement. The eye sees only what it recognizes. And what it recognizes is already a movement reduced to some particular form; it is, in a way, still movement.

The kinesthetic body-perspective, however, underlies not only the different “fields” of perception – vision or audio – and the different emphasis on perceptions that cultures have projected on those “fields,” but it is more radically the underlying structure of every experience and of their conditions of possibility: space and time. It is only with a kinaesthetic body-perspective, as such a structure of experience in mind, that past and future, as embodied memories, can be made present in the total body-presence of the present. Every movement is the whole, the whole is in every movement. The kinsthetic body-perspective is the total presence of a total body-system of embodied possibilities realizable in every body movement.

When we translate these generalizations into the concrete text of the Gita, we find some surprising orientations. Perception turns out to be less than the innocent and neutral game it is generally taken to be. Arjuna’s body, for example, is not just a kind of body, better or worse because of his deficient theory of perception. The truth of the matter is that Arjuna’s theory of perception – that is, the way Arjuna relates and orients himself toward his objects of sensation and toward the feelings generated by those objects in his body – is a systematic habitualization of his body as it embodies his theory of perception. It is an embodiment in his body of his body’s dependence on exterior stimuli such that his whole body becomes sensitized habitually to feet itself and act – move – as such a body. It makes no difference to Arjuna that objects are transient, that feelings are transient, that the same object – so to speak – cannot produce the same kind of sensation when systematically applied to the sense craving for such gratification, or that gratification of the sense cannot be habitually achieved without in a sense destroying the object or perverting the sense. The radical point, however, as far as Arjuna is concerned, is that all must change, even while in his crisis, except the way he has habitualized his body to feel the world and its dependence on the world. Arjuna implicitly claims full innocence and immunity regarding the whole situation. He uses his memory as the instrument to reinforce the same body-perception, the gratifications of the past, the fear of the future, and the present crisis. The world stands still.

To understand Krsna’s moves in the Gita, on the other hand, we must be able to focus on movement on the basis of its kinesthetic orientation: as the embodied manifestation of space-time which through its revealed movement constitutes at every step an oriented context – an ontological field – within which each action gains meaning, and through which each action embodies the expressive form habitualized by those sharing the context. Thus, every action will belong to a system – a body – constituted in terms of its actual and possible moves in relation to its orienting context. Thus a man’s bodies may possibly be many: as many as embodied kinesthetic orientations he is capable of embodying. If we now substitute kinesthetic orientation for chapters I to X of the Gita, we may be able to focus on Krsna’s moves as he creates these multiple bodies; we may then focus on chapter XI and see how Krsna a tries to “fetch back” all these worlds of the previous chapters into the original womb of their origin; and from chapter XII through XVIII on how the total movement of the total dance of the Gita is present on every action – ontic situation – of man.

This radical dynamic movement is, of course, embodied in the language of the Gita: Sanskrit. The dynamism of the verb and verbal roots is at the heart of all Sanskrit morphology and of the intentionality of the culture. One should be aware of the way the Sanskrit language functions in order to make sense of the fact that the greatest linguistic sin in the Gita is the ahamkara, literally the I-maker, while the most favored modality of seeing oneself in the world is the anahamvadi, literally, not the “I” of speech. The way the Sanskrit grammar makes room for the agent’s decision about his concern with the result of an action is through the use of case endings. Thus, for example, the instrumental and dative cases are used in the Gita in the specific way of attached or detached action, that is, as an action which takes place through an agent or for an agent. This may be read from the Sanskrit text of the Gita in XVIII. 23, 24, 25, in relation to the gunas of prakrti, manas, and buddhi. It is also significant in this context that the Bhagavad Gita identifies the desire born of the narrow view grounded on linguistic identification as kamatmanah(desire for one’s own gratification) (I. 43 and so on), while the desire which is born of nonidentification and creatively recreates new worlds is called iccha yathe’ cchasi tatha kuru: do as you desire (XVIII. 63): the original willful and educated desire recovered from the original intentionality which set the culture moving in the first place.

We may turn now to the moves of the text of the Gita as it moves along. The first line of the Gita gives us the clue: “dharmaksetre kuruksetre,” in the field of dharma, in the field of the Kurus. The significant critical point we want to make is that this first line sets for us the limits of the whole situation: action, karmadharma, Arjuna, Krsna, the whole world turned to crisis because of Arjuna’s apparent moralistic standpoint. The philosopher must first beware of the limits of his discourse, which in this concrete case rest in the relation between karman and dharma. Arjuna, of course, is completely lost as to the meaning of both (II. 7) And he is lost because for him dharma is as much an object of appropriation and identification with himself as is the battle, his friends, relatives, and the outcome of the battle (I. 25-30). Simultaneously Arjuna talks of another kind of knowledge which does not identify itself with the field, the objects of the field, wealth, and victory (I. 32; II. 5, 8). But as Krsna points out, Arjuna is talking through his head about this other kind of knowledge, for talk is not sufficient while he is still grieving for things and selves which are such things and selves, and grief because Arjuna appropriates them to himself through self-identification (II. 10-11).

Arjuna shares with his enemies the same theory of knowledge that he blames them for. But to clarify this position we have first to understand the relation between karma and dharma. Action or karma never appears in the Gita by itself but is always the concrete karma which a particular dharma unfolds. It is important that we remember this relationship and dependence of karma on dharma, as it is important to remember that in order to know any karma one must first know the dharma that determines it. To appropriate karma and its results to one’s self is a decision which is neither included in the karma nor the dharma. On the contrary, this the kind of decision which a man decides to impose on himself, and acts thus as the absolute dharma or radical interpretation of one’s whole life. In this sense, it is the stream of samsara, the cycle of rebirth, and death. Insofar as one realizes that decision-making about karma or dharma are part of neither, one may then begin to took around toward the discovery of new spaces for unfolding man’s life. M40 is now looking or listening for the dharmas within which actions are determined so that the coercion of this determination becomes no longer a coercion but a springboard for emancipation. The Sanskrit roots of the words dharma and yoga confirm these insights. The term dharma comes from the verb dharati, meaning to hold, carry, bear in mind, endure, and last. The root dhr means the act of holding or supporting; namely, holding together or supporting those action, that is, karma, from kr– do, act, which it supports or holds together. In this sense, whatever is or acts is lodged in a dharma, and ultimately dharma is the ontological basis for any action. Similarly, the word yoga as used in the Gita introducing every chapter is not the restricted technical yoga of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.1 ; the cessation of mental states (citta-vrtti-nirodha). There are three meanings which the root yuj may have: it may mean to join or share in; it may also mean onepointedness in the sense of the cessation of mental states; and also it may mean control, dedication, discipline. The multiple uses of the word yoga in the Gita are primarily derived from the first and last meanings; that is, a joining or sharing in, and also controlling both the sustained effort or that which is joined in and controlling that this sustained effort is not deviated from what it intends by restricting the intrusion of anything to which it is not joined. Thus we have phala-tyaga as the dedicated effort to renounce the fruits of action or identification with them; buddhi-yoga as the dedicated control of one’s effort in the direction of one’s decision to associate oneself with a particular type of wisdom or point of view. The same may be said of karma-yoga, meaning a sharing in a point of view which looks for emancipation through action, or yoga-yajna, emancipation through sacrifice. Thus the relationship we establish between karma and dharma will also hold between Karma and any of the yogas we go through with Arjuna and Krsna in our philosophical journey through the Gita, and with which the Gita introduces every chapter.

One more important philosophical clue must be brought out and it is that, in the Gita, Arjuna and Krsna, prakrti and purusa, appear simultaneously – the text of the Gita would not be possible if one of them was missing – in every dharma and yoga, in every space of the culture, from I to XVIII. The simultaneity of presences of both Krsna and Arjuna in every situation of the Gita implies not only their mutual dependence but also their common origin.

Their functions and directions are identical with the original orientation of the culture (XII) and the functions of prakrti and purusa. Insofar as Krsna is purusa, perspective and vision, Arjuna is prakrti and the gunas, the body and its moods. Insofar as Arjuna is the past, Krsna is the future, but both are held together in the present anywhere they meet (XI). Recovering this meeting point is the task of philosophy as radical orientation in every situation. Ontological and ontic detachment is the only philosophical criterion that can make this journey possible.

But this lands us into the heart of the problem of knowledge in the Gita. The initial questions of Arjuna about the knowledge he needed to know in order to act freely are given to him in chapter XIII. Knowledge, like devotion, is not one but multiple. As the gods determine devotion, so the fields of man’s actions determine knowledge. In the first line of the Gita, “dharmaksetre kuruksetre,” in the field of dharma, in the field of the Kurus, the problem was identified for us. Chapter XIII answers by saying that to know is to know the field, and that those who know are the knowers of the field (ksetram, ksetrajna) or ksetrejnanin (XIII. 1). Krsna as the embodiment of this prototype of knowledge is “the knower of the field in all fields,” and this “he holds to be real knowledge” (XIII. 2). Krsna proclaims this to be the knowledge of the tradition (XIII. 4) and gives a brief account of the field and its modifications in verses 5 and 6. The important point, however, is not so much the description of the field, but the fact that, together with the field, the pluralities of fields and knowledge, Krsna inserts also the intentionality of each one of those discreet fields and knowledges: “Thus the field, knowledge and what is to be known has been briefly stated. Devoted to me, having understood this, one becomes this my state (madbhavaya) (XIll. 18).

From a practical standpoint to know the field is to know purusaprakrti, and the gunas. “He who sees that actions are everywhere done by prakrti and who likewise sees his self not to be the doer, he sees indeed” (XIII. 29).

In opposition to the simplistic demand of the Arjuna of the first chapter that the self and the world be both identifiable and knowable as one, the answer of chapter XIII is overwhelming. There are as many selves as fields, and they and the worlds multiply constantly. It is only when one sees that these multiplicities have the One as ground and that they refract out from it (XIII. 30) without affecting, modifying or defiling it (XIII. 32), that one truly knows. It is only thus that a man finds himself at home in every field and “as the one sun illumines this entire world, so does the field-knower illume the entire field” (XIII. 34).

They attain the Supreme, who with the eye of knowledge,
Know in this way the difference of the field and the knower of the field,
And the liberation of beings from prakrti (XIII. 34).

Thus it is only through each field that man can play out, through the mediation of the knowledge of the field, his option to recover his radical orientation and be free. Or he may decide to substitute this radical orientation for some absolutized form of prakrti or any one exclusive field of knowledge and be bound.

In what, then, does emancipation consist for Arjuna and Krsna? The whole Gita is a radical affirmation of the body. Krsna, perspectives and visions are dead if some body does not hold them. Arjuna, the body, has to train himself to body-lift himself up to the perspective of every situation. But the body is slow to learn and the Gita takes the last seven chapters to retrain Arjuna, to give the body time to make itself ready to act according to the situation he is in, the situation which surrounds him every time without any choice to act, for all actions are determined by the situation: the field of the Kurus, the field of dharma. But if this is the case, then the body must learn to leave the fields behind as it moves from one to the other so that in every situation it faces life whole and unattached to the past or the future. All that is is the present.

This being the general condition of man, as understood by the Gita, man’s programmatic journey of emancipation can only have meaning according to the text if it is possible for all men (IV. 37-41), if it is a goal to be achieved in this very life (III. 4, 20; VI. 43; VIII. 3; VII. 15, etc.), if it is for the welfare of all creatures, and if the path of emancipation is possible with the same kind of knowledge which binds man: “Therefore having cut out with your self’s own sword of knowledge this doubt in your heart which is born of ignorance, get into yoga and raise yourself up, O Bharata” (V. 25; XII. 4). Yet whatever is known in this way is always only a fraction of many worlds, many possibilities of manifestation (X. 42).

As may be read from chapter XVII of the Gita, it would be most out of place to read in the text what we might call ethical actions or ethical theories. The Gita takes into account the multiple actions that a man must perform in every situation according to the gunas, the moods the body is in, from the dramatic actions of war to the social and domestic actions of offering to the gods, eating leftovers and rotten food. Chapter XIV is even more radical in showing us the futility of substituting ethical theory for the philosophical activity man must perform in order to be fully human. The gunas are here to stay, and man, if he really and truly knows, cannot desire for them to pass, or one rather than the other, for one situation is as efficient as another, and anyway there is not much one can do once he is in the situation. Ethical theory is only possible on the presupposition of a unique subject acting and remaining unique and unchanged (identity-wise) through all of a biological (?) lifetime. The Gita proposes a more radical way of being human by offering instead of this karmic way of thinking the dharmic way: the knowledge of the dharmathat holds the determinations and controls together, seeing “to no less than the holding together of the world” (III. 20).


It is astonishing that philosophers and orientalists of the twentieth century would still be doing philosophy in the theoretical and disembodied manner of the nineteenth century. We are still trapped in nineteenth-century scholarship for twentieth-century needs. Yet it is even more regrettable to presuppose as Danto does that Eastern thought is out there away from us and for him not to have realized that it is a great part of our own tradition and contemporary life. Plato, for one, understood philosophy in much the same way we have presupposed and done it here. He is the key to earlier cultures. He is the last Western philosopher to have taken the model of music with its “aural” and “context-dependency” as the model and ground of rationality. He is also the first to have shown the kind of ontological reduction, which the Gita exemplifies, by creating regional ontologies of the different areas of the culture and then cancelling them out either with myth, other areas, or fields, or even, as in the Symposium, “by letting the band of musicians in and spoil the order of the banquet.” What is essential to this understanding of rationality on the model of music is that knowledge, if theoretically defined, can never be exact. On the model of music this is easily understandable, for the string is divisible, in the ancient world, by any rational number whatever but no musical interval is ever divisible into equal parts. The obsession for exactness has led us to great humanization of the world but great dehumanization of man. We still lack the paradigms of man as he has understood himself in history. Through this realization people may change and reproduce their cultural and historical condition in such a way that they may always be their own contemporaries. I think it is time for all of us to stop serving and rationalizing the ‘knowledge’ in power – mostly within academic circles – and started serving human needs. In this sense there are no more urgent studies today than intercultural studies, if we are capable of the philosophical activity which might bring people alive and us with them in this reconstruction. Orientalists have a great responsibility in this respect, the result of the great store of human possibilities that hides in their fields of studies.

As for Danto, I am not sure at this point if I should thank him for the opportunity he has given me to make these points through him, or in view of all of the above, offer him the unkind advice the prostitute in Venice offered Rousseau: “Lasci la donna; studi matematica,” or both, or neither.

We will have to wait and listen, for after all maybe we need a Danto to awake us all from our academic slumber.

Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty- seven books, including Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St. John of the Cross.

A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most recently, in his own poetry.

His books of poetry: Remembering the God to ComeThe Sea Tug ElegiesOf Angels and WomenMostly, and Moksha Smith: Agni’s Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following insights:

from, Choice: “…these poems could not have been produced by a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a skill, a mission…unlike the critico-prosaic American norm…”

from The Baltimore Sun: “Steeped as they are in mythology and philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet. He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives…his poems …show us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless”

from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: ” This is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra.”

Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research Institute, located in Florida.

Published in Philosophy East and West 27, no. 1, January 1977 by The University Press of Hawaii

Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and Moral Philosophy. By Arthur C. Danto, New York: Basic Books, 1972.