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H Smith Review of Knowledge and the Sacred

H Smith Review of Knowledge and the Sacred

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Huston Smith's review of S.H. Nasr's magnum opus Knowledge and the Sacred.
Huston Smith's review of S.H. Nasr's magnum opus Knowledge and the Sacred.

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Review: [untitled] Author(s): Huston Smith Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp.

111-113 Published by: University of Hawai'i Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1398496 . Accessed: 04/08/2011 11:50
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111

Knowledge and the Sacred. By Seyyed Hossein Nasr. New York: Crossroad, 1981. Pp. iii + 333. Index. $19.50. Let me right off tip my hand and say that I consider Hossein Nasr a phenomenon. He makes mistakes as we all do, and most readers of this journal will know that he has a welldefined perspective from which he sees things. But who else in our time bridges East and West as substantially as he does? Who works as effortlessly in as many languages, is as prolific with writings that also have substance, and combines range of information with genuine metaphysical depth? Many possess one or several of these virtues, but all four is remarkable. I have heard him criticized for sounding dogmatic, but that can be expected of those whose words have the ring of certitude. So, in our relativistic age, add that, too, to the credits I have listed. As for the book at hand, if its author is a phenomenon, this latest book is an event. In the ninety-three years of its history, no lectureship in philosophy and religion has quite rivalled the prestige of The Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University; one thinks immediately of James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, Temple's Nature, Man and God, and Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man as epochal studies that have issued from its press. The 1981 Gifford Lectures are unique in this series in being the first to be delivered by an Oriental. If we are looking for clear signs of a new day, one in which the West is seriously trying to globalize its outlook, here is one that can be pinpointed. Looking back on Knowledgeand the Sacred, intellectual historians may one day rank it with William of Moerbeke's Latin translations of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, Marsiglio Ficino's of Plato in the fifteenth, or D. T. Suzuki's 1927 Essays in Zen Buddhism as a landmark showing that a new stage in cross-cultural understanding has been achieved. This symbolic importance of the book has, moreover, a dramatic side. For two hundred years orientalists have filled librarieswith descriptions of Asia as seen by a West which in this period was, in the main, either missionary-polemical or secular-positivistic. The result, in an analogy Nasr himself uses, has been like presenting music as if it were notations (marks on paper) rather than melodies heard. (There have been notable exceptions; Nasr mentions Massignon, Corbin, and several others.) Those of us who have protested this reductionism will take satisfaction in seeing, in this book, the tables turned. Here, for the first time with a platform as important as the Gifford Lectures, an Oriental has an opportunity to tell the West-"that peninsula on the land mass of Asia," as Nasr refers to the Europe where Western civilization took shape-how it looks from an Asian perspective. Or from the traditional perspective, one should say, for Nasr's position is Asian only in that Asia continues to be more traditional than the West. Traditional has here a meaning which, in chapter two on "What is Tradition?" the author makes precise. "As used in its technical sense in this work," Nasr writes, tradition means truths or principles of a divine origin revealed or unveiled to mankind and, in fact, a whole cosmic sector through various figures envisaged as messengers, prophets, avatars, the Logos or other transmitting agencies, along with all the ramifications and applications of these principles in different realms including law and social structure, art, symbolism, the sciences, and embracing of course Supreme Knowledge along with the means for its attainment. (pp. 67-78)

112 Book Reviews

ThatNasr namesReneGuenon,A. K. Coomaraswamy, FrithjofSchuonas leading and for in senseshowsthatits historical manifestations are spokesmen Tradition thistechnical multipleand equallyvalid. What they have in common is outlined in the perennial namedin the title of chapterfour, "ScientiaSacra,"with the philosophy,alternately GreatChainof Beingconstituting conceptualspine. its As for the book's contents, its opening chapter on "Knowledge and Its Desacralization" announcesits centraltheme.Traditionally knowledgewas considered to be itselfsacred,man'scapacityto effectit beingadducedas evidenceof his theomorphism.Graduallythis sacralqualityof knowinghas been obscureduntil in the West the as regarded no morethan a natural,largelyadaptive, especially act is now generally talent. Even so, a traditionthat views knowledgeas salvifichas persisted(Chapter2, "WhatIs Tradition?"), there is reason to think that it is currently and experiencing of 3, something a revival(Chapter "TheRecoveryof Tradition"). Withinthe contextof thiscentralthesis,the bookdoesthreethings.First,it presents an approachto comparative philosophyand religionwhich,amongotherthings,critiques or that 9, historicist, (Chapter phenomenological, syncretistic approaches arescientistic, the of and Forms").Second,in outlining "Principial Knowledge theMulticiplicity Sacred of it history(again principal stepsin thesecularization knowledge, is a studyin intellectual chapters1 and 2). Third, it is a study in theology as the science of God; chapter4, on this summation. "Scientia whichpresents study,is a masterful Sacra," Chapters man, cosmology,time and eternity,sacredart, and spiritualdisciplinesfeed into these three the whichelaborate book's centralthesisas statedabove. projects, Repeatedlythe readercomes upon discussionsthat are informativeand at times I in argument. arresting themselves, quiteapartfromthe roletheyplayin the developing the foundthatI jottedthirty-four notesto myselfwhilereading book to fileagainsttimes I hope to makeuse of them.An exampleis Nasr'streatment the shift from Platonic of to Aristotelianemphasisin Europe'sepistemology-the way (and degree to which) fromthe sacredwhenThomasand Averroesrejected Augustineand knowingseparated Suhrawardi's in conceptof illumination favorof a knowingthat wastiedmoreto reason for Enthusiasm is ecumenism. thanto intellect. Anotherexample Nasr'scaveatregarding in ratioto confidence the interfaith he dialogue, pointsout, seemsoftento standin inverse no tenetsof the participating faiths.It is as if the participants, findingthemselves longer in ableto believewholeheartedly theirrespective creeds,fall backon what'sleft, namely, faithin the virtueof toleranceand togetherness. In tryingto summarize regardfor this book I thinkof what LafcadioHearnsaid my aboutTolstoy's WhatIs Art?You can, Hearnsaid in so many words,find all sorts of that thingsthatarewrongwiththisessay.Butyou willalso find,if you readit carefully, it true is "a verygreatand noblebook."And, he added,"I also thinkit is fundamentally the Sacred,with the frombeginning end." I would say the same for Knowledge and to difference here that,apartfrompossiblya slightverboseness and there,I didn'tfindeven minordefects. of A shortcoda.Earlyin thisreviewI referred thedramatic to character thebookin the it turnsthe tableson the West.Therewas also dramain the way it cameinto being. way were The notesthe authorhad compiledfor theselectures,alongwith his entirelibrary, lost in the Iranianrevolution.Nasr initiallyassumedthat he wouldhave to cancelthe he but act lectures, in whatmusthaveinvolvedan immense of determination decidedto

113

honor his commitment, and in four months produced the substance of these 333 pages. When I multiply number of words by the quality of the thoughts they embody and try to fit the product into the time Nasr had available for writing, I am astounded by the achievement. HUSTON SMITH Syracuse University

The Structure of the World in Udayana's Realism: A Study of the Laksanavali and the Kiranavai. Studies of Classical India 4. By Musashi Tachikawa. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1981. Pp. xiv + 180. $39.50. The appearance in English of these examples of Udayana's work should be welcome news for specialists and students of Indian Philosophy. Before attempting any evaluation, may I state briefly what Tachikawa has included. He translates in its entirety, with facing edited Sanskrit, Udayana's Laksanavali (pp. 55-87), which is a treatise of definitions (laksana) of Vaisesika terms. There is a wealth of detailed notes (pp. 88-107). And he translates, without including the Sanskrit text, selected chapters of the Kiranavali, namely, on earth, water, and fire (pp. 111-147), with notes (pp. 148-162), itself a commentary on a Vaisesika treatise called Prasastapddabhasya.Tachikawa's introducand tory chapters (pp. 3-51) mainly expose the relation referredto as dharma-dharmin the associated concept of inherence which the Vaisesika-so also Udayana-defended against certain Mahayana Buddhist opponents. He accepts (p. 14) the eleventh-century dating of Udayana (born circa A.D. 1025). Bimal Krishna Matilal has added a small but valuable Foreword (pp. vii-x). The introductory materials emphasize Udayana as a Vai§esika, since the treatises chosen for translation are of this school. For the tradition that Udayana is responsible for synthesizing the Vai§esika and the Nyaya, such that modern writers, for example, Dharmendra Nath Shastri, use the expression "Nyaya-Vais6sika," Tachikawa (p. 16) mentions a differentwork of Udayana's, the Laksanamald. The single paragraph given to the topic certainly does not suffice;perhaps Tachikawa should have developed this theme by drawing information from the Laksanamald. For example, two works that he refers to, S. Bhaduri, Studies in Nyaya- Vaisesika Metaphysics, and Sarvadarsanasamgraha,treat a dispute between these two schools about "cooking" (paka). In the case of a black pot, when oven-firedbeing red inside and out, the Vaisesika said a "cooking" of atoms causes a change of qualities and a different pot; the Nyaya said the "cooking" takes place in the whole body of the pot which stays the same pot. Tachikawa discusses Udayana's "cooking" treatment (pp. 32-34) purely as a Vaisesika matter, without mentioning the disagreement. Thus, we still are not informed whether Udayana "synthesized" the two positions about the pot being fired; whether "synthesis" amounts rather to the surviving Nyaya accepting as much of the Vai§esika as it likes; or whether "synthesis" is something else again. It is noteworthy that the Laksanavali makes its initial division of categories (padirtha) into bhava and abhava, and that Tachikawa (pp. 56-57) renders these "those that exist" (bhava)and "absence" (abhava), discussing this decision in a large note (p. 88), where he

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