Ethan's Reviews > The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies

The Shape of Ancient Thought by Thomas McEvilley
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McEvilley exhibits an amazing breadth of scholarship here (which isn't surprising considering the heft of this volume), but there's not always a corresponding depth. As someone who studies Indian and Buddhist philosophy with an interest in East-West comparative work, I have the greatest sympathy for McEvilley's overall project of trying to make the history of ideas more cross-cultural, but I'm not sure he always succeeds in doing what he sets out to do.

I noted two general procedures in the text. On the one hand, McEvilley proceeds by saying something like, "Such-and-such a Greek idea is like such-and-such an Indian idea, or vice versa. Isn't that interesting?" The second approach is to make arguments of this form: "Such-and-such a Greek idea is like such-and-such an Indian idea, or vice versa. Therefore, there was some kind of direct, historical interaction."

The first approach is sometimes interesting in opening up possible comparative projects, although I think McEvilley is often not careful enough with the particular contexts of ideas he discusses, which makes him a bit too fast and loose with his comparisons. Far too much of the book is like this for my tastes, although I do appreciate the breadth of McEvilley's interests.

The second approach is a little more interesting, at least for people interested in the cross-cultural history of philosophy. I was particularly interested in the chapters on skepticism. But as is typically the case with interesting ideas, they are much harder to support. The sad fact is that we just don't have much evidence concerning the particular details of Indian-Greek philosophical interactions in ancient times, which makes most of McEvilley's claims much more speculative than he wants to admit.

Some of my qualms may be due to my background in philosophy as opposed to McEvilley's in art history. Maybe his procedures are more at home in art history, but I found myself wanting a little more philosophical substance.

Like I said, I have a lot of sympathy for what McEvilley's trying to do. However, I don't think he always pulls it off, especially since the evidence for the particular shape taken by Indian-Greek philosophical interactions is so meager. I am convinced, however, that there probably was some sort of cross-cultural interaction even if we don't know much about the details of that interaction. This in itself is quite intriguing and may help contemporary scholars to reconsider the pervasive ethnocentrism of contemporary philosophy and history of ideas. To the extent that he does that, I suppose McEvilley has accomplished some of his aims.
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Reading Progress

January 31, 2014 – Started Reading
January 31, 2014 – Shelved
May 8, 2014 – Finished Reading

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