How is Thai Philosophy Possible?

Soraj Hongladarom[*]

Why Ask the Question?

The relationship between the disciplines of philosophy and area studies seems to be tenuous. For one thing philosophy is a normative discipline par excellence, while area studies is an empirical investigation aiming at gaining a detailed understanding of the area in question through observation and theory making. This does not mean, however, that philosophy has absolutely no role to play, for area studies, being interdisciplinary in nature, has a tendency to include disciplines which can shed light on the main problems of the field. Its role, nonetheless, is usually limited to a kind of expository or explanatory investigation of the systems of thought or ways of thinking of the people in the area. That is not the same as philosophy, for if it were so philosophy would be no different from intellectual history or cultural anthropology. And if philosophy cannot be distinguished from these disciplines then that would present a very strong case against keeping philosophy as a viable discipline in this day and age. It seems that if philosophy cannot show anything worthwhile rather than simply describing ways of thinking of various people, then it would really be redundant.

In this paper I shall present a rather brief argument against such tendency. More specifically, I would like to show that philosophy is still viable and autonomous, and in order to do that I shall try to demonstrate how Thai philosophy is possible. That is, I would like to suggest a foundational path for Thai philosophy the same way Kant did in his laying of foundation for metaphysics. To answer questions of the type how X is possible is to demonstrate how X comes to be, what the limits are that proscribe the boundary beyond which X is not possible. That is, to show how X is possible is to show its condition of possibility, to use the Kantian way of talking.[1] Hence, the condition of possibility of Thai philosophy, as will be shown in more detail below, is that Thai thinkers and philosophers begin to search for the optimal way of living, the best direction the community as a whole should take, while acknowledging that there can be the final answer to the questions. This is different from the usual sort of investigation in the other disciplines in that there is no assumption of finality. Philosophy consists of a process, an unending one, but one necessarily for the health of the community, as I will try to clarify below.

The reason why it needs to be shown how Thai philosophy is possible is, firstly, that philosophical study in Thailand is still mostly limited to teaching the ideas and arguments of past or contemporary philosophers, both Western and Eastern. While this kind of study is very important, indeed indispensable, it is not a substitute for the kind of philosophical activity that should take place along its side, which is an exercise in problem solving ability where each party presents his or her own ideas regarding the issue in question and try to convince one another through the use of reason and argument. The lack of such activity can be seen in there being only a very few number of Thai philosophers who are active in proposing their own ideas to solve the philosophical problems.[2] Another reason is related to the first, and might help explain it. Thai culture is so imbued with the Theravada Buddhist thought that Thai people in general do not see any need to look for solutions elsewhere, for it seems to them that Buddhism provides solution to every possible philosophical problem; one only has to look back at the tradition to find them out. Or if Buddhist really has nothing to say in case of a particular problem, then they tend to conclude that the problem itself is not worth investigating, a pointless waste of time.

However, the present situation in Thailand and elsewhere demands that this complacency in thinking needs to be revamped. If Thai culture is to surge forward and remain responsive to the changes brought about by world conditions, then it has to become adaptive. This does not merely mean that Thai culture has to change and embrace elements from foreign cultures; Thai culture is always doing that at the moment. But what needs to change is the feeling of complacency in regarding Buddhism as providing solution to every possible philosophical problem there is. To be complacent in thinking means one is stuck in ones own attitudes and ideas and cannot see beyond them. If one believes that Buddhism provides every answer, then one does not need to think for oneself. If one believes that the authority that can provide justification for philosophical believes comes from Buddhism alone, then it seems that one is not as responsive to the external circumstances as one should. For philosophy does not limit itself only to the primary concerns of Buddhism, it is much broader, and concerns itself more with the complexities of the mundane world than the religion does. Thus, for some vexing philosophical problems having a strong bearing on the lives of people such as the problem of just distribution of limited resources, there does not seem to be a clear cut answer. To depend wholly on Buddhism, believing that it can provide a real solution, then, would only mask the tendency to stop thinking and finding answers for oneself and for ones own society. The present circumstances in the world, with their interconnections of every part and their strongly dynamic activities, demand that members of each society be alert, active and responsive to change. Philosophy, in my conception at least, has a role in creating such an atmosphere.

Two senses of `cultural philosophy'

Before we have a close look at the demonstration, however, a rather important point needs to be clarified. In order to find out how Thai philosophy is possible, one has to be clear in what sense one uses the term `Thai philosophy.' One is reminded of terms like `Chinese philosophy,' `Indian philosophy,' or `Greek philosophy,' which mean of course the philosophies of the respective traditions, each one having a long history. What these philosophies share in common is that the philosophy is an integral part of the cultural tradition in which each takes place. Thus I chose to call them collectively `cultural philosophy.' This is simply a catchword to call all instances of `Y philosophy,' where `Y' denotes a cultural or national entity. The philosophy constitutes what could be called the philosophical tradition, defined through shared canonical texts and sets of problems and methods. Examples are Plato's and Aristotle's writings in case of Greek philosophy, Confucius' and Lao Tze's in Chinese philosophy, and the Vedas in Indian philosophy. These texts partly define what it means to do philosophy in their respective traditions; they set out the problems and methods of philosophizing. What is significant is that anyone can become members of these traditions, not by privilege of birth, but by subscribing to the same set of shared problems and methods constitutive of the respective traditions.

That is the first meaning of `cultural philosophy'--a way of doing philosophy consisting of a shared set of problems and methods such as Plato's or Confucius'. However, there is another meaning which does not rely exclusively on the shared set of texts. According to this meaning, derived from Hegel's idea concerning the organicity of the social,[3] the culture or national identity of the philosophers is the criterion of cultural philosophy rather than the shared texts and methods. Thus a Chinese philosopher working on a problem in analytic philosophy, intended for Chinese (possibly scholarly) audience, would be doing Chinese philosophy in this sense, for what matters now is neither the problems nor the shared methods, but the nationality or cultural identity of the philosopher who does the work. A Thai philosopher working on an interpretation of Confucius is not doing Chinese philosophy either. If he intends his work to be a service to the Thai people, and puts his own cultural identity into his interpretive work, then he is actually doing Thai philosophy in this sense.

So a cultural philosophy can be construed in both ways. Indian philosophy thus becomes either the philosophy defined mostly by the Vedic tradition, or any kind of philosophical activity done by Indians for Indians. The second meaning might not seem at first glance to be a serious one. For what is so important about the nationalities of philosophers involved in a project? Perhaps this sense could be made clearer if one understood it to be an expression of a cultural or national entity in terms of philosophy. Thus Thai philosophy in this sense is an expression, a manifestation, of the whole culture when it is engaging itself in philosophical activity. This does not sound as grandiose as it appears because the manifestation here is only what members of the cultural or national entity talk about, engaging themselves in a problem they find valuable and interesting. Here the focus point is on the cultural entity, not the canon-based tradition. Thus, to say that a cultural philosophy is such a manifestation is only to say that it is the activity of talking, discussing, arguing by members of the entity in question on a common topic. What makes the talk philosophical is that it is based on rational persuasion and the topics concern general matters about what is really valuable or whether the direction the society as a whole is taking is really a good one. This topic on the nature of philosophy will be discussed in the next section. The philosophical topic members of a cultural or national entity talk about is here less important than the activity of talking and discussing itself. Hence, since such an activity generally occurs within the limit or terrain of a cultural or national entity, it then defines a philosophy of that culture.

Consequently, the example of the Thai engaging in interpreting Confucius can be seen a part of the concrete manifestation of the Thai culture in its reflexive activity of extending beyond itself in order to adapt itself so as to be responsive to changes. There is a caveat, though. The Thai who undertakes to interpret Confucius must do so in the context of Thai culture. That is, merely possessing Thai nationality or ethnicity is not a sufficient criterion to qualify one to be doing Thai philosophy. One has to "live within" the culture in question. This sense of living within is rather difficult to define, but one aspect of it is that one has to be a full member of the culture. For example, the Thai interpreting Confucius has to be Thai culturally. It will not do if the Thai grows up abroad and has little or no cultural ties with the homeland. In a word, living within a culture includes the sense of belonging to that culture, a willingness to identify oneself as a member of that culture. Otherwise the Thai here would really be doing Chinese philosophy had he grown up and imbibed aspects of Chinese culture so that he just became another Chinese. Another aspect of living within is that the philosophers intended audience has to be members of the culture he or she belongs to. This point is not difficult to grasp because if a Thai philosopher transmits his or her own philosophical viewpoints, not to members of his or her own cultural entity, but to those of another culture, then it could hardly be said that he or she is doing Thai philosophy.

Which sense is the correct one, then? Maybe the answer depends on our decision, and therefore the question is not an interesting one. What we really need, on the other hand, is I think a way to know how to achieve something valuable for us (read Thais) through the activities of talking, discussing, arguing. One has to realize that the authority of the self which serves as basis for epistemological certainty is a thing of the past. At least that is my philosophical position, which of course cannot be argued for in full detail here.[4] Certainty does not lie within oneself, neither can it be found in an individuals relation to a reality outside. This does not mean that reality has no role, but that the relation to reality is always mediated by aspects of ones own cultural identity, webs of beliefs constituted not by an individual alone, but by the community in which he or she is a part. If this position is really a tenable one, then the activities of talking, discussing, etc. are crucial for gaining at least an insight on whether the direction the society or community as a whole is heading is the right one, or the most appropriate one considering the circumstances at hand. These activities are what philosophers have always done. Not only philosophers, to be sure, but it seems that, by nature of their discipline, philosophers are particularly apt for the job. And since these activities occur within the confines of a culture, or a community, then we can see the general picture of how such a cultural philosophy as the Thai one is to be possible.

Philosophy as a reason based activity in search of value

The two senses of cultural philosophy described above share a common trait in that they are both activities of talking, discussing and arguing among interested parties. In the former sense, the interaction and arguments center around the core of sacred texts or accepted practices and the interpretations and viewpoints offered are operative within this framework. In the second sense, the activities are more loosely based. They are not necessarily tied to a particular set of texts or practices. But since one cannot walk away from ones own cultural identity, the two senses of cultural philosophy here are conjoined at this juncture. On the one hand, merely sticking to the canonical texts and following canonical interpretations is hardly a way to remain responsive in the modern world; on the other hand, without such ties to the tradition, it appears that members of the cultural community are cut loose and have no one to hold on to except oneself. If that were so, then there was really no sense in which an activity could be termed Thai philosophy.

Hence, there is a sense in which both is correct; they are equally correct as instances of what philosophy is, or should be, in my conception. The aim of the discussions and arguments is ideally to arrive at consensus on whatever topic participating parties in the activities are interested in. But actually the ideal is not necessary, for it is the activity itself which is important. Philosophy in this conception is not a state where one is at one with Reality, nor a movement toward that Reality, but a contested, conflicting condition where parties agree on some very basic condition needed for arguments to get going, such as the use and rules of logic, but disagree on almost everything else. Richard Rorty has argued that philosophy is actually a conversation among whomever interested and has enough leisure to participate, with the purpose of just continuing the conversation.[5] However, if that is only the purpose there is for philosophy, then it is impossible to see how the conversation should be allowed to go on. If it is really the case that knowledge consists in individuals in a community depending on one another for challenge, revision and support, then the activities of conversing and arguing become an important tool for the community to revitalize itself, to turn back upon itself so that it would not become redundant amidst the rapidly changing world. Philosophy in my conception consists of just such activity of arguing, discussing, talking, etc., in other words activity whereby participants join in when they want to enter the debate, when they have something to say to the whole, when they either agree or disagree with any of the viewpoints offered to the members.[6] All occur under the umbrella notion that knowledge is to be found in such an activity. Since `knowledge' is a value term, in that to say of a proposition believed that it is a piece of knowledge is to commend it highly, then philosophy in this conception has a strong affinity with value.

I have argued elsewhere for this conception of philosophy as a rationally based activity consisting of debates, discussions, refutations, justifications, etc. on topics of general nature that concern what the rest of the community finds valuable.[7] From the viewpoint of the community--a Hegelian perspective--the activities of the philosophers are manifestations of the community in its role as reflective thinkers and skeptical doubters. Philosophy for the community here is not a state whereby the community can claim that it has got in touch with Reality, whatever that may be. Philosophy explicitly attempts to dissociate itself from such finality. When theres finality, there is really no philosophy. Philosophy is a process, an activity.

Therefore, the possibility of Thai philosophy is then straightforward. Thai philosophy is the activity of discussing, arguing, debating, refuting, affirming, etc., all through the use of logical reasoning, to arrive at some kind of value which the community finds appealing. If such an activity happens in Thailand, that is Thai philosophy.

Thai philosophy as a reflective activity by and for Thais

As mentioned before, Thai studies aims at understanding various aspects of Thai society and thus is an empirical investigation. Philosophy, being a normative discipline, thus seems to have a tenuous relationship with it. However, a Thai conducting an investigation in Thai studies is an instance of the Thai community reflecting on oneself, and this is as it should be. And if the reflection eventually consists in rational debates (for it is hardly conceivable that when the community reflects on itself it would involve only one individual) on the question of values or some broad questions a methodology for which has not been settled, the activity of philosophizing results. That is the way Thai philosophy is possible. Consequently, philosophy and Thai studies seem to be in much closer relationship than previously appears. A normative and an empirical, descriptive discipline seems to be much intertwined.

Since we are Thai (after all I intend to address this paper to Thais), it is never possible that we stand back and try to look at our culture and way of life as if we were a foreigner. A distance afforded to the foreigner never materializes for us. This is the same for other people reflecting on their own culture as well. Note that this is not the same as saying that it is not possible for foreigner to understand Thai society, or to have a detailed knowledge of it, for that would commit one to the fallacy of basing authority of knowledge on one's individual self, a philosophical theory which I am trying to dismiss. It is entirely possible that foreigners can have as thorough knowledge of Thai society as the best Thai scholars. However, since a Thai's perception of her own society is always clouded by her own cultural identity, while a foreigner's is not, what happens is that the foreigner can see something that Thais perhaps fail to see since it lies too close to take notice. Thus sometimes we need to read what foreigners have to say about our own culture and society in order to get ourselves in their shoes and see things through their eyes. We gain fresh perspectives this way which may help us break from the ties of culture and habit. Thai studies by a Thai is, then, in principle different from what foreigners do to study our society. The former is an instance of self reflection, while the other is not. Neither is superior nor inferior than the other; they are just different.[8]

An implication of this on Thai philosophy is that, since Thai studies by a Thai is an expression of the community's reflecting on itself, the discipline has a strong affinity to philosophy, despite the obvious differences. Thus philosophy can indeed be a part of the collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of Thais to understand themselves, as well as that of members of the world community to understand Thais. What sets it apart is that philosophy is by nature reflective and skeptical, not, as usually understood, a mere set of doctrines to be described and catalogued. In this sense Thai philosophy, let me emphasize, is not just such set of doctrines, but activities of Thai people when they enter in rational argumentation in order to understand deep questions that other disciplines find too intractable to study.


So Thai philosophy is possible through its consisting of the arguing, discussing activities. Continuity with the past is also important, and plays a strongly formative role. It is what sets the activities occurring in Thailand apart from those of the same type occurring in other cultures. Whatever is distinctive of Thai culture is formative in the sense that it provides a scheme by which talks, debates, concerning deep values take place. However, since the activities themselves are by nature not limited within these horizons, the tradition thus affords only a starting point, a frame of reference which can be adapted or modified by the very members of that tradition themselves. This is just a fancy way of talking that the tradition is alive and responsive to outside developments. In this way, there is no need to be concerned that Thai philosophy in this conception is a break with the tradition or the past. It is merely the tradition itself, but in its active, dynamic role. Thai studies thus become in part an activity of Thais to understand themselves. There is no need to boast that this is the only way to understand Thai culture; in fact foreigners may have a better perspective than we do, since they are not hampered by biases or prejudices that shadow us. But without Thai community reflecting upon itself, trying to see its role in the scheme of things as well as the overall meaning of what there is and what it means to be Thai, then such a community would remain locked within its self-imposed prison of tradition. Thai culture would thus become none better than a show piece in a museum.