Monday, November 27, 2023

Pratima Bowes

Off and on, I've been looking into the work of Pratima Bowes. I first came across her name a while back in reading E. W. Trueman Dicken's Loving on Principle (a nice little work on the basics of Christian moral theology, which I recommend for those interested in the subject); Dicken mentions her work, The Concept of Morality, very favorably. Finding any other information on her is remarkably difficult; despite the fact that she worked in the analytic tradition, and her writings cover the gamut of that -- metaphysics, epistemology, ethics -- she seems to have been read almost solely by philosophers of religion, largely because she was an early pioneer of comparative philosophy, looking at the relation between Indian philosophy and Western philosophy (at least, that Western philosophy that was taught in British universities in the twentieth century). The only works in which I've seen her cited are all on Indian philosophy or philosophy of religion, broadly construed. Other than that, it's difficult to find anything that even mentions her. She gives a rough summary of her intellectual life in one of her works on comparative philosophy, Between Cultures:

 I was born in India in its colonial days, and received most of my education there, up to M.A. in Philosophy, after which I did my Ph.D. in England, in the same subject. The curriculum in Indian schools and universities was modelled on that of British institutions (it still is), and having gone through it one knew much more about Western civilization, history and thought, than about the Indian (of which one learns precious little indeed). I read the Bible (the Old Testament) as part of my undergraduate course in English, but nowhere up to M.A. did any Hindu religious text form part of the curriculum, not even in langauge courses such as Bengali and Sanskrit. My major, Philosophy, dealt exclusively with Western philosophical thought at the undergraduate level and only one paper out of eight at the M.A. level concerned itself with Indian philosophy....

...I then came to England as a student, did my Ph.D., settled down by marrying an Englishman, published a book (in England) on philosophy written entirely from within the Western tradition, and then went back to India for a short while after divorce. But I felt very strongly that the West was my intellectual home (I was by then a British citizen through marriage) and I had to come back however much struggle that involved. By then I had published another book in philosophy, this too from within the Western tradition. Eventually I found my way to the University of Sussex as a lecturer in philosophy....

[Pratima Bowes, Between Cultures, Allied Publishers (New Delhi:1986), pp. 15-16.]

She has another, more autobiographical work, The Story of a Female Philosopher, which I have not been able to find any copy of anywhere; from the brief summaries and allusions I've come across of that work, she was apparently born in Bengal in particular, and the move to England was in part because she argued with her family over an arranged marriage, which she refused to go through with; they seem also to have wanted her to become a doctor, a career in which she had no interest. She had a daughter with the Englishman she married, and after teaching at the University of Sussex for a while, she returned to Bengal, where apparently she tried to start up a business and did not have an easy time of it. Such, at least, is what I have been able to gather from fragmentary bits and pieces; perhaps someone out there can fill in the blanks or provide corrections as needed.

One of the nice things that used to be the case with academic blogging was that it was a great place to start a ball rolling; instead of having to focus on topics that were already publishable, you could do some preliminary groundwork, however brief and limited, toward something that might one day be a matter of importance. Some of my early posts on Lady Mary Shepherd were almost the only thing on the internet that treated of her at all; now most of them are somewhat dated, in the sense that they are obviously very preliminary, and things have certainly progressed (although not as far as they could and should) beyond the nearly-bare ground in which those posts were written. In any case, the point is that this first-foothold aspect of blogging is still something immensely valuable, and part of the reason for this post is that I think it's a shame there is so little available on this interesting twentieth-century philosopher. 

Currently four of her works are available at the Internet Archive and can be digitally checked out if you have an account (which is free, and very useful sometimes for research):

Is Metaphysics Possible?  -- a critical examination of logical positivism and similar views; Bowes's answer to the title question is essentially, 'Taking into account some complications, yes.'

Between Cultures -- an attempt to establish a framework for comparative philosophy between Indian and Western philosophy by comparing and contrasting 'architectonic' and 'organic' approaches to various problems and topics.

The Concept of Morality -- an argument that there are moral facts that allow for knowledge about ethical matters that simultaneously serves as an examination of what the purpose of moral philosophy might be. This seems to have been her most widely read and influential work.

Consciousness and Freedom: Three Views -- as the title says, a look at the problems of consciousness and free will, which Bowes thinks are related to each other in important ways; she discusses not only some of the more influential Western arguments of the time, but also a couple of important Indian philosophical perspectives on the two topics.