“Why Philosophy?” Amod Sandhya Lele


Amod Sandhya Lele is interviewed by Céline Leboeuf.

Why Philosophy?
Amod Sandhya Lele
interviewed by Celine Leboeuf

What is philosophy to you?

Philosophy is the love of wisdom—or more specifically, the disciplined search for wisdom that comes out of that love. It’s a quest, a search for deep answers that isn’t satisfied with the easy answers offered by others around you. Like all of our knowledge, philosophy is grounded in the traditions of those who came before us—including traditions of scientific inquiry, of political commitment, and of what is often called “religion”. But philosophy seeks to take the next step, to ask the next question that others who share your tradition aren’t asking—and that can deepen your commitment to the tradition, or take you in a completely different direction. Being philosophical means crossing boundaries—refusing to let your inquiry be contained by the bounds set by a discipline. You’re looking for truth wherever it is to be found.

How were you first introduced to philosophy?

I was lucky to get taught some philosophy in high school, through a course offered there and an enrichment mini-course taught through Queen’s University. It happened that at the same time, I was exposed to my first real political debates, in online forums that predated the internet. Those debates led me to look deeper and think about the presuppositions underlying my own positions—which those philosophy classes helped me do. And I’ve never stopped that deeper looking. A friend in a great books program kept pushing the hard questions further during undergrad, and then Buddhism changed my life in Thailand. The big question in my mind was how the Buddhist ideas I’d learned could make sense alongside the very different Western ideas I’d learned before, and that question has driven my philosophical work ever since.

How do you practice philosophy today?

I am driven to think philosophically in writing; I don’t think I could stop that if I wanted to. Above all, I write biweekly philosophical essays on Love of All Wisdom, my philosophical Substack and blog; I’ve been doing the blog for nearly fifteen years now. I also write on and maintain the Indian Philosophy Blog. I also have more scholarly philosophical writing projects, including a book (tentatively entitled Serenely on Fire: The Philosophical Case for Mindful Serenity) that I’m looking to publish. For a living, I facilitate others’ practice of philosophy at Northeastern University’s Ethics Institute, especially by finding money to help them do applied philosophical research and bring philosophers together in workshops.

What is a philosophical issue that is important to you?

I’m an ethicist at heart, but I am less focused on unusual or hypothetical situations (like the trolley problem) and more on the challenges of everyday life and how to live it well. I consider myself a virtue ethicist. My deepest concern is with how human beings should live—which includes not just what we should do, but also what we should feel. Buddhism is all about the proper conduct of the mind and heart. I think it’s particularly important to be less angry and to be more concerned with our mental states and less with our external situations.

What books, podcasts, or other media would you recommend to anyone interested in philosophy?

My biggest recommendations are for books that have stood the test of time while still being approachable for someone who hasn’t read them before. I am especially fond of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra—also called the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. One chapter of it is really tough going, but the rest of it is a beautiful, powerful, and relatively clear statement of how we should live our inner lives. The major Confucian and Daoist classics—the Analects, Mencius, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi—are also full of wisdom. On the Western side, there are Plato’s more accessible dialogues (like the ApologyCrito, and to some extent the Republic) and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; Plato and Nietzsche will each change your way of looking at things, but in very different ways. Finally, Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire is great at explaining the relevance of ancient wisdom for us today.


This interview of Amod Sandhya Lele was first published at Why Philosophy?

Amod Sandhya Lele is a gender-fluid philosopher who goes by Amod when masculine and Sandhya when feminine. (He more commonly, though not exclusively, presents masculine in philosophy spaces.) He writes on cross-cultural philosophy at Love of All Wisdom and co-manages the Indian Philosophy Blog. He finished his PhD on Buddhist ethics at Harvard University in 2007 –through the Committee on the Study of Religion because at that time one generally couldn’t study non-Western thinkers in a philosophy department. He has taught in the religion departments at Colorado College and Stonehill College and in the philosophy department at Boston University. He has published in journals and magazines including the Journal of Buddhist EthicsPhilosophy East & West, and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

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Sara
Sara
1 month ago

Which Western ethical perspective do you think most closely aligns with Buddhist ethics?

Amod Lele
Reply to  Sara
1 month ago

Epicureanism, followed by Stoicism and Skepticism. Aristotelian virtue ethics would be next down the list but much further.

Amod Lele
Reply to  Sara
1 month ago
Confused Junior
Confused Junior
1 month ago

My comment is unrelated to this particular interview but broadly related to the question “why philosophy?”

I would like to hear from philosophers, both junior scholars and tenured professors, about whether they actually enjoy doing philosophy and, if so, to what extent. I enjoy reading and talking about philosophy, but writing it often feels about like sitting around pulling my own teeth out with any pain medication. In addition, I regularly wonder if I have ruined my life by deciding to pursue philosophy professionally instead of getting a “normal” job, and I genuinely question whether I enjoy the activity enough to put up with the stress and comparatively awful pay long-term. In my darkest moments, I also question the value of philosophy and wonder whether it is a worthwhile pursuit at all. (Perhaps Callicles was right about the value of philosophy!) While it seems taboo for someone fortunate enough to have landed a job in the field to express these thoughts, my sense is that they are actually pretty common. But I do not know this for sure. I would appreciate hearing others’ perspectives.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Confused Junior
1 month ago

If you enjoy teaching it, and you sought/attained a teaching-focused position, then yeah, this seems normal. But if you sought/attained a research-focused position, then no, it seems unusual (although perhaps it’s still common).

Maybe this is also taboo, because it sounds unsympathetic, but frankly I don’t understand why someone would pursue a career in philosophy unless—given the nature and current state of the field—they’re pretty much freakishly obsessed with it. That’s not to say anything about you (at this point my comment is less of a response and more of a general observation). But I have heard from some people who almost seem to treat it like one of many career paths they happened to pursue because they didn’t know what to do after undergrad and sort of found philosophy interesting, and that’s just wild to me. Props to them though for making it work!

(P.S. I don’t think that being freakishly obsessed with philosophy has much to do with being a good philosopher, or living a good life, for whatever that is worth.)